I am in Cologne today on business. The Germans call it Köln, but the locals call it Kölle. Like most German towns it was bombed heavily during the war, but they left the famous cathedral wih its impressive twin spires. It is said that the Allies left it standing because it was an excellent navigation aid. Turn left to bomb the industrial Ruhr valley, turn right to bomb the bridges and ports further down the Rhine.
Today Cologne is known as being a very open, friendly and cheerful city. I always liked the place. It has a charming old town, it’s own special kind of beer (Kölsch) and some strange traditions. Let me start with the most important one first – the beer.
Kölsch is a not-too-gassy lager beer which, to be honest, doesn’t taste that different to other beers (but don’t tell anyone from Cologne I said that). It is always served in small (less than half a pint) straight glasses. If you go to a traditional “Kölsch Bar” the waiters don’t have trays to carry the drinks. They have a “Kranz”. This is a circular tray with individual slots for usually 13 beer glasses and a handle in the middle. And even though Cologne is famous for being friendly, these particular beer waiters (Köbes) are famously grumpy and short-tempered. They expect you to know what you want and to order quickly. If you start drinking Kölsch, they will keep bringing you fresh drinks as soon as your glass is empty – you don’t need to order. They keep tabs by putting a pen-mark on the edge of your beermat. When you’ve had enough you put your beermat on top of your glass to stop the flow. Once you know the rules, it’s fine but for a first time visitor the grumpy Köbes can be a bit of a shock. But it really is a tradition because originally these people weren’t waiters, but brewers and ferrying drinks to the table was considered beneath them – but somebody had to do it.
Of course, once the beer mats are on the glasses and a table wants to pay, then the Köbes can turn on the smile and the charm. It’s paying and tipping time. In Germany the usual way to tip is to tell the waiter to which amount he can round up. People nearly always tip here but usually by quite a modest amount. And rather than leaving your change on the table, you always tell the waiter how much you are tipping him before you get your change. If you are paying for a couple of drinks and they come to, say € 6,20 you would give the watier a 10 Euro note and say “sieben” (seven). Or if you had exactly 7 Euros you would give them that and say “stimmt so” (that’s right). This is sometimes confusing for foreign visitors who, as in England or the US, are used to leaving their tip on the table when they leave. Waiters and waitresses generally carry large wallets and will sometimes spend a very long time searching for change. This is not because they can’t count. It is a signal for you, dear customer, to tell them how much the tip is going to be.
I have often been out in Cologne with English or American visitors, and they are always surprised by these tiny beer glasses. “Can’t we order a proper glass?” is the usual reaction. But because the beer keeps coming, always cool and always fresh, it is deceptive. Before you know it the mood has turned from a slightly dismissive silence to a raucous, cheerful “we-love-Cologne” boozy hug-in. I visited Cologne during the football World Cup in 2006 to watch England play Sweden. Before, and after the game, the square in front of the cathedral was full of football fans. It was a hot summer evening and both sides could live with a draw. It seemed like the whole city was out on the streets, a little bit tipsy but good-natured and peaceful all the same. As I said, I like Cologne.
One thing you should, however, never do is order a Kölsch in Düsseldorf. That’s a bit like walking into Anfield Road and saying you are an Everton fan. Düsseldorf is just 20 miles up the Rhine from Cologne but the two cities have a strong rivalry – stretching back hundreds of years. In Düsseldorf they have their own beer – “Alt”, which you would of course never try and order in Cologne. The rivalry is fairly good-natured these days and I have enjoyed evenings out in both cities. I can also confirm that both types of beer can give you exactly the same type of awful hangover on the next day if you try hard enough.