It may be the capital of a renowned brewing nation but Berlin is no beer mecca, but there are promising signs that homegrown beer production is starting to improve.
German Capital is no Beer Capital
As Germany is one of the most celebrated beer nations on earth one might expect that its capital city would prove a fitting ambassador for Deutsch brewing prowess. Unfortunately, modern Berlin is no beer capital.
Aside from one undervalued traditional local brew, a modest availability of decent regional Schwarzbier (dark lager) and a burgeoning brewpub culture, Berlin doesn’t offer the beer connoisseur a great deal to get excited about.
Instead the city typifies a more worrying trend in German beer culture whereby oppressive beer purity laws and a mania for cheap mass-produced pilsner has led to stylistic conservatism and a lack of diversity. The lager that dominates Berlin bars may seem greatly superior to that available across the UK but that doesn’t make it superior beer.
The city’s one remaining native beer style is a cloudy, sour, sedimented, top-fermenting wheat beer that dates back to the 16th century and was famously referred to by Napoleon’s troops in 1809 as “the Champagne of the north”. Although it was the most popular alcoholic drink in Berlin during the 19th century and produced by a great many breweries, its dominance has dwindled massively and the single brand of ‘Berliner Kindl Weisse’ is only remaining type produced on any degree of scale.
As an uncompromisingly sour beverage, Berliner Weisse is usually served with flavoured syrups (“Mit Schuss”) such as raspberry (Himbeersirup) or woodruff (Waldmeistersirup). Unfortunately, it is very difficult to sample without the syrup – especially as exported bottles come with the syrup ready mixed – something that hasn’t helped its current undervalued status as a garish novelty drink.
Berlin’s brewing decline can be traced back to the fall the Wall, since when the local brewing industry has been rationalised and consolidated significantly. Between 1994 and 2002 alone, brewing hectolitres fell from 6.5 million to 2.7 million and now only the breweries of Schultheiss and Berliner Bürgerbräu remain.
The latter is an independent brewery situated on the banks of the Muggelsee lake in the eastern district of Friedrichshagen and the only one still producing beers of any note, with the Rotkehlchen and Bernauer Schwarzbier being the most celebrated. Unfortunately, as is typical with Berlin, these are not even widely available in their home city.
Much like in that other brewing hub, the Czech Republic, the devotion to golden lager over the last century and a half has come at the expense of variety, character and flavour. Unlike in the Czech Republic, however, there has not been a microbrewery revolution in Germany and little effort in rediscovering old lost styles.
Burgeoning Brewpub Culture
The biggest hope for beer lovers in Berlin has come in the form of brewpubs, which have offered succour across the world for increasingly homogenised and industrial scale beer cultures in recent years, notably in the Czech Republic and the UK, and they are also having a positive impact in the German capital.
The best option for visitors rather disappointed by the lack of quality local beer is the numerous brewpubs – or ‘Hausbrauerei’ in German (literally ‘house brewery’) – that have sprung up around the city in recent years. These include Hops and Barley in Friedrichshain, Hausbrauerei Eschenbräu in Wedding, Brewbaker in Moabit, Brauhaus in Rixdorf, and the institutions of Brauhaus Lemke – in both Charlottenburg and Mitte – and Marcus-Bräu in Mitte.
By and large these brewpubs offer familiar pale and dark lagers that only differentiate from the beers of larger breweries by being unfiltered. Nevertheless aside from the familiar types there are an increasing number of variations to be sampled. Specialities of other German regions, such as Bavarian Weissbier, Bamberger Rauchbier and various Bocks can be found as well as international beers like IPA, Stout and Bitter Ale.
Perhaps most exciting is the appearance of beers that reject the terms of the Reinheitsgebot. Seasonal specialities, such as potato stout and pumpkin ale can be found as well as honey and cherry beers.