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Beer aperitivo in Rome, smoked beets in Berlin

Local culture tends to put its stamp on things, even craft beer.
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BRLO Brwhouse. Photo by Joe Stange.

BRLO Brwhouse | Photo by Joe Stange

Beer-preoccupied Americans who visit Europe probably don’t do it to hang out in faux-Brooklyn bars that specialize in American-hopped ales and cheeseburgers. Thankfully there are plenty of alternatives, and they don’t all take the form of stodgy traditional geezer pubs (even if those happen to be my favorite).

Previously here I’ve mentioned something I call the “craft monoculture.” It’s a critique; the idea is that the ever-growing international popularity of variety beer will, ironically, lead all of us to less variety. We overlook traditional pubs and styles while flocking to new, similar-looking taphouses with exposed brick, light bulbs on wires, and lots of samey IPAs. You get the idea.

The thing about this critique is … it’s only a critique. It’s a political cartoon, not a photograph; it is not a description of reality on the ground. While I do fear—in North America and in Europe—that we have too many similar breweries making similar beers for similar bars (yet at prices that suggest they are something special), this is not the same as saying that these things are identical, or that they will be ever be identical. They won’t be.

Market forces are strong—especially when we keep throwing money at new unknowns—but local culture is resilient. Often it percolates in unexpected ways, even if it takes a while.

Over the past weekend I was fortunate enough to be in Rome researching an article for DRAFT. Outside of Europe’s traditional brewing countries, Italy was one of the first to really start embracing what it calls birra artigianale—about 15 years ago, depending on who you ask. People have been predicting that Italy will be the next great beer country for at least that long; many of us would say that it already is, and it has been for a while.

One might imagine that Italy is simply copying what others have done: make American IPA like the Americans or make Belgian ale like the Belgians, then sell them in faux-Brooklyn bars that specialize in burgers. And to be fair, there is some of that, like in any country where beer gets trendy.

But to focus on the facsimiles would ignore the other things that Italian beer does with great distinction. For example, there is a passionate reverence for traditional brewing; Italians treat other people’s beer heritage the way they would like us to treat their food. British-style handpumps for cask ale are a frequent sight in Roman beer bars, as are bottled Belgian gueuzes and Franconian lagers. New-fashioned beers get the same deference: Even an Italian-brewed West Coast-style IPA is likely to punch you in the nose with fruity aroma, because somewhere there is an Italian brewer fussy about making that beer the way it is supposed to be made, and there is a pub owner fussy about getting it to drinkers quickly.

Meanwhile it should not surprise you that many Roman pubs are particular about their cooking; this is the country that gave the world Slow Food, after all. So we find, for example, one pub specializing in pork raised on its own farm, and another that slings freshly prepared pizza pockets stuffed with goodies like tongue in pesto. And a great number of the beer bars participate in the tradition of aperitivo—offering snacks like cold meats, cheese, bread and olives for free or for a pittance in the after-work hours … as long as you’re there to drink.

There is a synthesis that goes on whenever a culture borrows ideas from elsewhere. The result is, eventually, something new.

Lemke am Alex. Photo by Joe Stange.

Lemke am Alex | Photo by Joe Stange

Here in cosmopolitan Berlin, far less married to traditional beer than Bavaria, it can be harder to spot where local culture rears up and leaves its paw print on the beer scene. Certainly there is a rough-and-ready punk rock edge rooted in the Cold War years, a versatile reaction to Western capitalism, Communist oppression, stuffy Prussian conservatism … or whoever happens to be in charge these days. But that’s only one part of a complex picture.

A couple of recent brewery openings have fed a hypothesis: What if Berlin’s thing is shameless, unabashed eclecticism? (We suggest as much in last year’s feature on the city, here.)

Wolpertinger, at Lemke am Alex. Photo by Joe Stange.

Wolpertinger, at Lemke am Alex | Photo by Joe Stange

The theory makes sense as a product of Berlin’s history; it fits the city’s architecture, arts and restaurant scene just as well as it fits the beer. Just about the only thing it doesn’t fit is the tourist’s stereotype about what German beer is supposed to be like (hint: it’s supposed to be Bavarian, and arrive in one-liter krugs for men wearing lederhosen).

Brauhaus Lemke in 1999 was one of the first modern brewpubs in Berlin; now there are three Lemke breweries in the capital. The newest is by far the largest: the Lemke am Alex brewpub opened in November in the shadow of the TV Tower, near Alexanderplatz—a high-traffic area for tourists. When high season rolls around it will be interesting to see how many patrons populate the sprawling brewpub’s many different rooms, upstairs and down, each with a different theme or function. One corner with sofas is set aside for tasting barrel-aged beers (like the imperial stout); one room has a long, high shelf lined with krugs, meant to feel like a locals’ pub (for an Original lager, perhaps); another dining room has a fireplace, some impressive antlers, and—surely this is a good omen—a Wolpertinger (bock beer?). There is even a kids’ play area, to cover all the bases. In all the place can seat 600 guests.

If grasping at straws we might criticize the design for trying to be all things to all people … But then, why fault it for doing what the city itself does, in miniature?

BRLO Brwhouse | Photo by Joe Stange

BRLO Brwhouse | Photo by Joe Stange

The other new arrival in Berlin is the BRLO Brwhouse (not a typo), an impressively blocky structure on what was once one of the country’s busiest railway hubs. These days Gleisdreieck is a popular urban park, and the BRLO building fits as neatly with the area’s history as it does with the low-rent punk vibe: It’s a blocky thing built from 38 used shipping containers, hollowed out and welded together. Inside is the brewery, bar, and enough tables to seat 130 people. “Industrial chic” we might say; but this is not just some tables haphazardly thrown into a brewhouse to make it a taproom. Keen eyes for design turned it into something unique, with a dark blue palette and class that belies the industrial exterior.

Ten of its draft beers are their own (they currently brew about 30 percent of their beer in-house, personally overseeing the rest in Landsberg, 90 miles south). The other 10 beers are guests from Berlin or farther abroad. So far they make an effort at diversity of styles, encompassing everything from clean, flavorful lagers and Berliner weisse to thickly clouded New England-style pale ales and maple-smoked wheat bocks. It’s difficult to sum up the (excellent) food in a few words; I’ll go with “mix-and-match smoked veggies and meats.” There is a sort of chart involved, and choosing one item from each column, but you might end up with — for example — smoked beets with roast potatoes, mixed pickles, and a slab of brisket. (It takes a few minutes of study to get one’s head around it, but the word “barbecue” would give the wrong impression.)

There are about 30 breweries in Berlin these days, an increasingly mixed crowd that still includes a range of characterful neighborhood brewpubs quietly doing their own thing. If you go and want to find them, along with too many bars worth a visit, peruse our article, and find a clever map like this one maintained by Rory Lawton at his Berlin Craft Beer blog.

I think you’ll find that some of these places look familiar. But all of them are different, in their own ways.

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