Welcome to Beer-lin: Germany’s capital is experiencing a brew boom, with a rising number of breweries, bars, and projects. While brewing newbies have had a big role in this frothy burst, some of Germany’s 1,300 traditional brewers have also drawn encouragement from drinkers’ new thirsts and rolled up their sleeves to experiment.
Although it continues to be dominated by light-colored pilsners and lagers, the diversifying German beer scene is piquing the interest of gourmets, gourmands, and plain-old humble beer lovers. No new eatery in Berlin can afford to ignore the increasing range of local craft beers. There’s one for every occasion and palate.
Berlin’s internationalism can take much of the credit for this. Brewers in the city see opportunity in the many foreigners that are making Berlin their home – drinkers already familiar with, say, the India pale ales, sour beers, and imperial stouts found on tap in North America. Stone Brewing, one of the most successful US craft-beer makers, even set up a brewery in the German capital, a first for any US brewer.
“Berlin can become one of the big craft brewing locations of the world.”
Stone Brewing opened shop in Berlin in 2016, just as the craft beer movement in Germany was gaining momentum. More and more Americans have been drawn to experimental beer flavors since 1980, a trend driven by needs unfamiliar to Germans. “The industrially produced German beer is too good,” explained Garret Oliver, the master brewer at the Brooklyn Brewery in New York. “In contrast to the USA, there was never any urgent need here [in Germany] to change anything in beer making.”
It wasn’t until about 2010 that the country dedicated to pilsners started seeing brews for sale that defied the German beer-purity law. The so-called Reinheitsgebot, which celebrated its 500th birthday last year, dictated beer could only be sold in Germany if made of water, barley, and hops. While the rule was overturned by the European Court of Justice in 1987, it still stands in a modified form: Any beer containing anything but water, malted barley, yeast and hops cannot be called “bier.” But German-based craft brewers happily circumvent this injunction by labeling wares in English, or other.
In Wedding, a working-class neighborhood, three pioneers of the Berlin craft-beer scene run the Vagabund Brauerei. The Americans David Spengler, Matt Walthall and Tom Crozier founded what translates as the Vagabond Brewery out of desperation. “A population of 3.5 million and not an (India Pale Ale) anywhere?” one of them remembers the trio musing when it first met in 2006. “Can’t be true.” By 2013, the three men had amassed crowd-funding to open their own – very popular – brewpub.
Greg Koch, manager and co-founder of Stone Brewing, moved from California to gain a foothold in the German market. He’s invested $25 million to create a brewery, beer garden, and restaurant in the southern Berlin district of Mariendorf. Craft beer flows from the bar’s 60 taps. “We’re only a small part of this worldwide movement and now we’re the first American craft brewer to open a brewery in Germany,” Mr. Koch said, adding: “Berlin can become one of the big craft brewing locations of the world.”
And it’s not just attracting Americans. BrewDog, a fast-growing Scottish brew-pub chain, has found a home for a bar with 30 taps in Berlin’s Mitte district. And diners at Birra in Prenzlauer Berg can choose from 18 Italian-style specialty brews to accompany their antipasti platters. Host Manuele Colonna says Berlin is the perfect place for his restaurant. “The combination of traditional and innovative brewing is phenomenal. We want to take up the challenge and offer Italian special brews here.”
“The combination of traditional and innovative brewing is phenomenal. ”
There’s Scandinavian beer in the German capital, too. At Kaschk, the Norwegian owners serve coffee during the day and plenty of beer in the evening, always featuring beers from their homeland. Around the corner is the Mikkeller Bar Berlin, which is named after Mikkel Borg Bjergsø, a traveling brewer who makes guest appearances at breweries and takes over their tanks to produce his award-winning beers. He’s famous for his experimental, hoppy brews as well as his Belgian-style sour beers.
All these foreign brewers – even Russians have a seat at the bar with Protokoll Berlin – should not distract from the fact that German brewers won’t let the country’s historic reputation as the center of beer excellence slip to other nations without a fight.
At the BRLO Brwhouse, guests can enjoy lagers, pale ales, and signature Baltic Porter. In and around shipping containers repurposed into a beer garden, head chef Ben Pommer creates menus focused on seasonal produce, which he likes to serve smoked – alongside beer. His creativity recently won him a restaurant-prize nomination.
Even established brewing masters are getting swept up in the craze. Oliver Lemke has had a restaurant in the popular Hackescher Markt since 1999. He recently added a second location at Alexanderplatz, which can seat 600 guests and another 400 in the beer garden, where they can drink his Bohemian pilsner or a hoppy India pale ale.
Recently, Mr. Lemke turned his focus to beers that were once associated with Berlin. He’s brewing a traditional Berliner Weisse, a cloudy, sour beer that is often served with fruit-flavored syrups. After more than 100 test runs, his team of brewers finally got the beer’s flavor just right and started serving their new brew in July. Berliner Weisse all but died out under the Reinheitsgebot and the flood of industrial pilsner; now it’s fermenting new hope for other forgotten German beer recipes.
Peter Eichhorn writes for the Tagesspiegel, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. Sabine Devins is an editor for Handelsblatt Global based in Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.