Good Beer in Berlin? Finally, Yes
Gordon Welters for The New York Times
By EVAN RAIL
Published: October 17, 2013
Gendarmenmarkt, lined with imposing buildings like the French Cathedral and the Konzerthaus, may be Berlin’s most beautiful square. But just a block away, the setting looked like the rest of the central German capital: a mix of cranes, construction sites and creative parking.
Gordon Welters for The New York Times
Gordon Welters for The New York Times
Stepping in from a smaller square, the Hausvogteiplatz, I entered a pub that appeared to honor the greatest of German traditions, at least at first glance. In contrast to the modern architecture outside, the room had well-worn, old-fashioned furniture like Alpine chairs with hearts carved into the backs. A collection of cuckoo clocks quietly beat time on the walls. From large platters arose the hearty scents of bockwurst, while the in-house bakery sent out the doughy scent of freshly baked schrippen, Berlin’s crunchy-crusted bread roll.
Once I took a seat, however, the pub, called Meisterstück, began to reveal unexpected angles. I had certainly never tasted better sausages than Meisterstück’s juicy Coburger bratwurst, though I also couldn’t remember any other links that had been accompanied by a side of wasabi-spiced sauerkraut. Even more surprising were the portraits on the wall, featuring not locals, but some of the best-known faces of international craft brewing. In the back: wasn’t that a picture of Matt Brynildson, brew master at Firestone Walker in California?
And why, in a city long known as a good-beer desert, did the pub’s beer list include not only bottles of Mr. Brynildson’s excellent Pale 31, but also an array of stars like Boon Gueuze from Belgium and the Xyauyù barley wine from Italy’s cult favorite Le Baladin, as well as rare German microbrews?
“You can feel that there’s something coming,” said Johannes Heidenpeter, who opened one of Berlin’s newest craft breweries, Heidenpeters, in the gritty-but-hip central neighborhood of Kreuzberg last December. “I think the time is good to change the taste of beer.”
Mr. Heidenpeter may represent the most iconoclastic and cosmopolitan take on Berlin’s newly developing beer culture: instead of traditional German lager yeast, he praises the aromas from the Belgian and English ale yeasts, and he eschews his own country’s favorite pale lager style of pilsner, or pils. Instead, as he explained when we met up the next day, his brewery offers an American-style pale ale as its standard pint, which uses non-German hops such as Cascade and Amarillo.
“I don’t have a pils and I don’t want to brew a pils,” he said.
Sipping his brewery’s excellent amber ale, Thirsty Lady, I didn’t think anyone who loved good brews would complain, a marked contrast to the longstanding charges that Berlin’s beer culture is lackluster. This is, after all, a place where it has long been more difficult to find a decent version of the city’s own beer style, Berliner Weisse, than in at least a half-dozen American towns, and where the ubiquitous Berliner Pilsner has a dismal ranking in the bottom third of all beers in its category on RateBeer. While it might be Europe’s hipster Hauptstadt, the home of famous writers, musicians and other creative characters, those of us who lived elsewhere could at least console ourselves with the fact that Berlin’s beer was terrible.
But not anymore. In the last few years, a slew of new microbreweries, beer bars and bottle shops has opened in Berlin, and the city’s first craft beer festival, Braufest, took place in September. After hearing about the new developments, I spent a few days visiting friends and trying to figure out how much Berlin’s beer scene had changed, starting out at the 18-month-old Meisterstück, said to be the city’s first craft beer bar. After sampling the brews, sausages and sauerkraut, I went from there to the central Moabit neighborhood, north of Tiergarten park.
I first stopped to check in on the city’s favorite source for great bottles, the Berlin Bier Shop, whose owner, Rainer Wallisser, had helped kick-start the local interest in beer when he began selling Belgian imports like Cantillon and 3 Fonteinen in his wine shop about four years earlier. After looking over the new arrivals and sharing tips with a pack of young beer lovers visiting from Norway, I wandered a few blocks north and west through the Kleiner Tiergarten park until I found Arminiusstrasse and its Markthalle, a sprawling market hall filled with Vietnamese noodle stands, butcher shops and plenty of stuff in between, including BrewBaker, one of the city’s first brewers to make interesting beers. When I arrived, the owner, Michael Schwab, was just finishing up the day’s brew, a relatively unusual amber style known as Vienna lager. He had been making beer since 2006, he told me, but he had only moved to this location in 2011, and had brewed some 120 different recipes since then, including traditional German styles and new arrivals (in local terms) like stouts and ales. In Berlin, he said: “people are more and more interested in different types of beers, not just German beers. Now in Berlin, nearly every brewery has something like an IPA.”
As with much of creative brewing, that “something” seemed open to interpretation. Meeting my friends at the five-year-old Hops & Barley, a brewpub in a former butcher shop in Friedrichshain, we discovered that the house oddball was actually a traditional pils-style pale lager, but one which had been transformed by the addition of Centennial hops, a broad-shouldered American hop cultivar that added a crisp, citrusy aroma. It was a clear favorite for the crowd of friendly locals who had packed into the tiny front barroom.
Not far away, we joined old-school punk rockers and punks a generation or two younger watching the German national soccer team beat up on Kazakhstan in the dark, smoky dive bar known as Bierkombinat Kreuzberg, or BKK. Here, the flavor bomb was an IPA by the neighborhood’s Schoppe Bräu brewery: a pale ale with light caramel and toffee flavors from the malt with grapefruit and a touch of bubble gum from New World hops.
The next day, I bumped into that beer’s creator, Thorsten Schoppe, at the Südstern brewpub in Kreuzberg, where he makes his own Schoppe beers and those for Südstern, including an excellent rye ale. This summer he opened a new brewpub, called Pfefferbräu, in the old Pfefferberg building in Prenzlauer Berg.
But not everything is taking place in such cool neighborhoods. As I discovered later that day, the unlikely northwestern inner-city district of Wedding now serves some of the city’s best beer, thanks largely to a brewpub called Eschenbräu. Set in the basement of what seems to be a student dormitory, the place had its own hop-inflected special brew, a very bitter Schwarzbier called Black Mamba. Eschenbräu’s pils, as well, seemed more fragrant and bitter than most versions I could remember encountering anywhere in Germany.
After Eschenbräu, I stepped down the same street to a year-and-a-half-old specialty beer shop, Hopfen & Malz, where I explained my interest in local beer to the owner, Ludger Berges. After ringing up his last customers, he disappeared into the back, returning with a rarity: a bottle of Bogk-Bier Berliner Weisse, a new, small-batch version of the city’s traditional beer style. Financed by a crowd-funding campaign, it had been oversubscribed by more than 700 percent, perhaps reflecting the dissatisfaction many fans of Berliner Weisse felt toward the lone industrial version still produced in Berlin. It had not yet been released (at that point, it didn’t yet have a single rating on RateBeer), but Mr. Berges said he hoped to have it in stock soon, and asked if I wanted to join him in trying it. Tasting it in the shop, I was floored by the brew’s character: a cloudy pale yellow with almost no head, it had the lemony sourness of a good Berliner Weisse, but was tempered with light fruity malt flavors and a wild, almost animal-like aroma from the use of the local Brettanomyces yeast, a type of wild fungus that had been chased out of industrial Berliner Weisse production many years ago. I was already planning my next trip back to Berlin to pick up a few cases when Mr. Berges asked if I had heard about the young Americans who were opening a brewpub just around the corner. Armed with instructions, I crossed the street, passing through a hochschule campus and wandering through the small square called Zeppelinplatz. On the other side, I entered a neighborhood called the Brüsseler Kiez, whose streets were mostly named after Belgian cities. A few minutes later I came upon yet another Berlin construction site.
At that point the place had not yet opened, and I found two of the three owners, Matt Walthall and Tom Crozier, installing equipment in the high-ceilinged ground floor of an old Berlin apartment building. They had been friends growing up in Maryland, they said, reuniting when Tom joined Matt in the city in 2009.
After realizing that they had run through all of the good beer destinations in the city, they decided to start home brewing. Soon they discovered a community of like-minded beer fans, with whom they shared recipes and brewing advice. After a few years, the group made the decision to found its own brewery, Vagabund Brauerei. “I read some article about how craft beer had never happened in Berlin,” Mr. Walthall said. “And I said, ‘If no one else is going to do it, then we will.’ ” Looking around, it was clear how much work they had put into the place, from the restored plasterwork ceilings to the new wooden floor. Even empty, it made for a beautiful scene, and I could easily imagine how nice Vagabund will look when filled with a crowd of the city’s new generation of beer lovers.
In a way, this came as a disappointment. Sure, Berlin has one of Europe’s most vibrant cultural scenes, but a lack of good beer had always been something I could give my friends there a hard time about. Now that was gone.
“Just like Berlin is a great town for artists and writers,” Mr. Crozier said, “it now seems like a good place for small brewers to do their thing.”
BREWPUBBING IN BERLIN
The outstanding sausages and rock-star foreign beers outrank the local craft bottles at Das Meisterstück (Hausvogteiplatz 3-4; 49-30-5587-2562; dasmeisterstueck.de).
One of the city’s first craft beer destinations, Hops & Barley Hausbrauerei, serves great small-production lagers in Friedrichshain (Wühlischstrasse 22-23; 49-30-2936-7534; hopsandbarley.eu).
A favorite of beer cognoscenti, Wedding’s Eschenbräu serves new specialty brews about twice a month (Triftstrasse 67; 49-30-462-6837; eschenbraeu.de).
Traditional fare like roast ham hocks and modern beers like rye ales bring fans to Brauhaus Südstern (Hasenheide 69; 49-30-6900-1624; brauhaus-suedstern.de). You would need to follow fire trucks in order to find a smokier pub than Bierkombinat Kreuzberg (Manteuffelstrasse 53; 49-179-142-6670; bier-kombinat.de). The brews, produced by Südstern’s Thorsten Schoppe, are excellent. BrewBaker served one of the city’s first IPAs, but its best seller is the excellent Bellevue Pils, available at various places around town. It is moving to a new location in Moabit (brewbaker.de).
A visual artist, Johannes Heidenpeter, also creates beautiful beers, selling them on weekends inside Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg (Eisenbahnstrasse 42-43; heidenpeters.de). Vagabund Brauerei serves American-style craft beers produced by expatriate Americans (Antwerpenerstrasse 3; vagabundbrauerei.com).
The Pfefferberg building in Prenzlauer Berg is home to a theater, restaurants and, as of this summer, the new Pfefferbräu brewpub (Schönhauser Allee 175; pfefferbraeu.de).
For great bottles — both local and imported — and the latest news on the city’s beer scene, drop by the Berlin Bier Shop in Moabit (Kirchstrasse 23; 49-30-3910-0730; berlinbiershop.com). Specializing in German rarities, the year-old Hopfen & Malz bottle shop is just a block from Eschenbräu in Wedding (Triftstrasse 57; hopfenmalz.de).