Mit seinem Cristall will Paul Nolte alte Kölner Biertraditionen wieder aufleben lassen. Foto: Olaf Janson
Paul Nolte is looking to revive old Cologne brewing traditions with his Cristall beer. Photo: Olaf Janson

Family tradition in a bottle: Paul Nolte’s mission to revolutionise Cologne’s beer landscape

The only beer in Cologne is kölsch? Not true! Paul Nolte is on a mission to show the world what else Cologne's beer landscape is brewing up.

Paul Nolte, owner of Cologne’s Nolte Bier, has the beer business in his blood – his grandfather used to own the local Sester brewery. Paul’s brewery firm is looking to revive the old family tradition and rediscover a forgotten style of Cologne beer-brewing with his Cristall beer.

Now 35, Nolte wanted to be a brewer from an early age, having been inspired by trips to his grandfather’s brewery. In 2020, the business administration graduate and master brewer started his own business and he’s been selling his beer from opposite the family’s old brewery in the heart of Cologne’s Ehrenfeld neighbourhood ever since. He talked to us about his plans to revolutionise the city’s beer landscape and how his family are involved.

Interview with Paul Nolte of Nolte Bier

Where does your passion for beer come from and what does your family have to do with it?

My grandfather used to own the Sester brewery in Cologne, which my family sadly sold in 1996. I spent a great deal of time there as a child. I got to know the brewery and the employees and I felt at home there. I’d say my passion for beer is partly genetic too. The smell of a brewery puts me in a happy place.

Breweries also really put their stamp on a city. I wouldn’t want to say it gives you celebrity status necessarily but there is a bit of that. The brewery was always part of our family’s identity – right until the end.

Breweries really put their stamp on a city.

Paul Nolte

How does your passion draw on Cologne’s beer, or rather kölsch, culture?

From the 1970s onward, my grandfather only brewed Kölsch. Kölsch is a fantastic marketing tool – a brewing style that bears the city’s name. But we shouldn’t forget that there used to be a much wider range and they used to brew all sorts of things. That’s what I want to draw on. Old, traditional brewing styles, which found themselves ousted from the market back then, are back in again! Our Cristall beer is a cross between a pale beer and a Pils. That’s the brewing method where we’re seeing most growth at the moment.

So it was a conscious decision not to brew a kölsch beer?

Definitely. I can’t say what I’ll be doing in the future but I think Cologne’s brewery landscape should show more of what it’s capable of. A century ago, there were more than 100 breweries and they used to make all sorts of things. At some point, the innovations stopped flowing and they just kept on producing kölsch. I want to shake things up and shift the focus back to our regional brewing culture.

Your Cristall beer is based on an old family recipe. What do you do differently to your grandfather?

Many of the people who used to work at my grandfather’s brewery can still remember his Cristall. They can’t say whether they can taste the difference. I never tried the original because they stopped making it in the 1970s. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it was very close to Grandad’s version. I use the original recipe from back then, of course, but I’ve adapted it to today’s ingredients and processes with the help of the Doemens Academy in Munich.

So your grandfather is still an inspiration for you today. Does he play a major role in your business? 

Yes, definitely. The Sester brand has been around since 1805. After the war, my grandfather bought up a number of breweries and merged them into one big one. I’m really proud of the success he achieved under difficult circumstances. I felt it was important to honour him with my own beer, which is why there’s a portrait of him on the bottle tops.

Did you always know you wanted to follow in his footsteps?

Yes and that was both a blessing and a curse. I always knew I wanted to work in the beer industry. The children in our family had to do a work experience placement every summer once we’d turned 12. Naturally, I always did mine in a brewery. It was in my interest anyway and it enabled me to develop an understanding of the business. But my father thought I should do something else first when I finished school. So I studied business administration in Maastricht and Aarhus. I stayed true to myself though and trained in brewing afterwards, going on to qualify as a master brewer. In my opinion, if you want to sell a consumer good like beer, you have to understand the processes involved and know how it’s produced.

If you want to sell a consumer good like beer, you have to understand the processes involved and know how it’s produced.

Paul Nolte

And what made you decide it was time to do your own thing?

It was tough. I started working at AB InBev, the world’s largest brewery group, and the plan was to go self-employed after a year. But it ended up taking three and a half years. At some point, I just knew the time was right so I plucked up all my courage and went for it.

You run the business with your family. It can’t always be easy mixing the two.

That’s quite right. My wife does our marketing and social media. She’s actually a trained actress and currently works at Cologne’s opera house, Oper Köln. But everyone has to help out – even our 2-year-old son and his grandparents. Hopefully, he’ll be the sixth generation of our family to run a brewery business. There are always differences of opinion. But the advantage is that ours aren’t about money. So the work often feels like we’re doing it for pleasure even if I do have a lot of responsibility. I’m at an age where I still want to try lots of things out. It’s not good to take everything far too seriously.

So what sort of things would you like to try out in the future?

We’re currently in the process of taking on a restaurant, which is obviously a huge step. In the long term, the aim is to have our own brewery. I think one of the most important things is that the beer should come from our own city. But Cologne’s beer industry is a bit unique. They brew top-fermented beers, which tend not to be mixed with bottom-fermenting yeasts like Cristall. But having your own brewery is also an incredible risk. The economic situation doesn’t help at the moment either. The beer market is stagnating and things are rough. There’s no pretending otherwise. Sometimes I think I’d make more money selling toilet paper. 

You haven’t actually opened your restaurant yet so where is your beer available to buy at the moment?

We operate in the Rhineland region – so Cologne, Bonn and Düsseldorf. We launched during the pandemic so we did pretty well at the beginning. People had time on their hands and wanted to try new things. But lots of them starting dining out again as soon as the Covid rules were relaxed. That was difficult for us because we’d focused more on retail than on restaurants. Today, though, more and more restaurants have Cristall on tap.

You advertise your Cristall beer as being steeped in Ehrenfeld tradition. What makes Ehrenfeld a traditional district?

Ehrenfeld is a very old part of Cologne and has only really become popular over the past 20 years. Before that, it was a working-class neighbourhood and a red-light area. Even though it attracts a hip crowd nowadays, there are still plenty of older people of a more traditional ilk. That makes the whole thing interesting. Our slogan is “Auf eine neue Tradition” (“To a new tradition”) – our aim is to embody both the new and the traditional. That’s why Ehrenfeld is a great fit and I’d never want to leave.

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