Destroyed and rebuilt, divided and united, insular but cosmopolitan, Berlin is nothing if not eclectic. The beer scene here works the same way. On the hunt for beer⏤be it locally brewed or just plain excellent⏤you will find everything from cozy, polished brown pubs with nooks for natter to ratty punk bars of dangling bulbs and exposed concrete. You’ll find brewpubs old, modern and posh, and breweries whose specialties range from utterly traditional to what-the-hell-is-that? And in a sign of the scene’s maturity, you can find decent beer in places as diverse as Chinese restaurants, castles and—the last frontier—dance clubs.
True story: At 4 a.m. in a popular club surrounded by the drugged and the drunk and the disrobed, parched and sweaty from dancing, you might find something as pleasant as the Dolden Sud IPA from Riedenburger. It happened to Tiffany Herrington. “I don’t know where else in the world one can sip a somewhat local IPA and watch people dressed in S&M gear whip each other to the backdrop of techno,” says Herrington, a former Seattle brewer turned expat who coorganizes the fast-growing Berlin Beer Week.
Germany’s capital is long removed from the days when all you could find were pils, pils, pils and weisse—usually decent, never varying. It has now evolved into that sort of rare beer city that can be whatever you need it to be. To get there, it has had to overcome some entrenched ideas about what beer ought to be.
“That’s not beer,” is a common response from locals the first time they smell and taste a fruity IPA, according to Stefan Krueger, a native Berliner who organizes the Beer Week with Herrington. He openly mocks his countrymen as closed-minded, at least when it comes to beer: “‘We’ve been doing this for hundreds of years and it’s good. Why should we do it different?’”
Krueger credits foreigners for helping unusual beers gain their footholds in Berlin. European entrepreneurs, immigrants and transitory expats—including North Americans—all have helped shape the city’s current vibe. “Go to the outskirts of Berlin and they may still have not heard of this pal-eh al-eh, eepah thing,” he says, pronouncing pale ale and IPA the way locals sometimes do.
“This would not happen,” Krueger explains, “if there were not so many people from outside Germany. They’re coming from Spain, from Italy, from Scandinavia. … They all know this stuff already.”
So the city where David Bowie and Iggy Pop once shared an apartment still attracts a cosmopolitan mix of expats. Broadly speaking, these are people adventurous enough to live and work abroad but still practical enough to choose Berlin. They bring creative energy.
Krueger estimates that at least half the people who frequent beer events like tap takeovers and tastings are foreigners. They see beer not just as something to drink, but as something to go out and do. It’s an activity in its own right, rather than a means to an end.
They’re also attracted to Berlin’s own, indigenous lack of inhibition. “Berlin is a place where people do whatever they want to do,” Krueger says, “And they don’t give a shit.”
Real Berliner weisse, please stand up
If you taste many Berliner-style weisse beers made by American breweries⏤or you read many homebrew recipes or style guidelines⏤you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a simple style and there is pretty much only one way to make it. The applied history of Berliner weisse says otherwise.
For starters, it wasn’t always a wheat beer⏤weisse, by the way, means “white,” not wheat. Some⏤including the version made today by Kindl- Schultheiss brewery⏤used pilsner malt primarily, sometimes exclusively. On the other hand, at least one 19th-century source suggests that it used to be five parts malted wheat to one part malted barley. The only thing we can conclude is that its recipes changed with the times and varied from brewery to brewery.
Meanwhile, many American and international brewers have taken to “kettle souring” or “quick souring” their beers with relatively simple strains of lactic bacteria. At worst, these practices can produce off flavors⏤a bit vomity⏤but even the best ones tend to result in a humdrum sour beer. These can be refreshing and provide a forgiving canvas for adding all sorts of fruits, but they also lack depth.
Lately, though, some brewers and historians have gotten a bit noisier in their insistence that real Berlin-brewed Berliner weisse used to be more complex, more interesting. The reason for that, in all likelihood, was the presence of Brettanomyces. Proponents of this view include Berlin brewers Andreas Bogk and Ulrik Genz, respectively of Bogk-Bier and Schneeeule. They’re among the revivalists conditioning beers with Brettanomyces to add aromas that can vary from pineapple to barnyard.
“That’s such good news,” says blogger and beer historian Ron Pattinson, who remembers drinking older versions when he visited Berlin during the Cold War. “And the fact that people want to brew an authentic Berliner weisse, and not just copy what they call Berliner weisse in the U.S., which would be really sad.”
It helps if you can compare different examples of the style for yourself. The city’s last surviving industrial version, Berliner Kindl Weisse Original, is plainly lemony-sour with a hint of yogurt; dryish, lively and quenching but without much else to say. New revivalist versions⏤like a Bogk-Schneeeule collaboration made for a recent Berliner-Weisse Summit in northeast Berlin⏤offer a big bouquet of pineapple and elderflower notes from the Brett, with tangy but mild acidity that makes it easier to drink more than one.
Stage Set for Berlin’s own weissbier revival
Last year, breweries worldwide released more than 1,000 beers that could be classified as Berliner weisse, according to data from the website Ratebeer.com. It’s popular particularly in the United States, and especially in summer.
So Berliner weisse is hot⏤just not in Berlin. Not yet, anyway.
However, a handful of the city’s smaller independent brewers are in the early stages of what appears to be a revival. Whether the locals will take to it with any great interest remains to be seen, but these days it’s reasonable to expect international demand for authentic Berliner weisse made in Berlin. Until recently, you only needed a couple of fingers to count the number of existing brands brewed in Berlin. Suddenly you need a couple of hands.
This might sound odd, but Berliner weisse is not especially popular in Berlin. The last major brand leftover from the heyday⏤Berliner Kindl Weisse⏤survives as a novelty. Guidebooks mention the style for tourists, who often try one. Bartenders might spike it with sweet syrups, a dubious if longstanding practice gradually being replaced by heinous pre-mixing at the plant. Local fans dabble when it’s hot outside but rarely drink more than one.
A few old pubs, like Zum Nussbaum in the Nikolaiviertel, still drop shots of liquor into them. The classic version is mit Strippe, dosed with caraway flavored schnapps. It’s better than it sounds: The caraway evokes rye bread while the alcohol, helpfully obscured by the beer’s acidity, warms the belly.
For the most part, Berliner weisse in Berlin is a funny cult drink well outside the mainstream. We’re long removed from the time, around the end of the 19th century, when the city counted about 50 weissbier breweries. But these days, a growing number of drinkers worldwide seem to have a bottomless thirst for variety, and funny cult drinks are more commercially viable than they once were. Plus, the surging numbers of people drinking Berliner-style weisse are bound to wonder: What’s a proper one from Berlin taste like?
Brewbaker Berliner Weisse (2.5%) is the longest-running brand besides Kindl⏤the brewery started in 2005. This sharp, lemony beer is only available in a handful of places in Berlin, but it is one of the few exported to the States. If you come to Berlin, the best place to drink it might be the Arminiusstrasse market hall, home to several great food counters and a beer bar affiliated with Brewbaker.
Bogk-Bier has been known among local weiss fans for a few years now, even if the beers have been scarce. Bogk’s small kit is now operational at the former Willner brewery in Pankow in northeast Berlin, on the same site as punkish, post-industrial Emil’s Biergarten. That will be the place to drink this throwback beer, fermented with a mixed heritage yeast blend that includes Brettanomyces.
BRLO is a beer brand⏤not a brewery yet, but it plans to open one in Berlin eventually⏤that includes a Berliner-style weisse in its stable. The gently tart BRLO Weisse (4%) is contract-brewed at a brewery in Saxony-Anhalt for now.
Berliner Burg is a brewery in Berlin’s Neukölln area, expected to launch by fall 2016. American brewmaster Richie Hodges, formerly of Crew Republic, expects his bottle-conditioned Berliner weisse to be a flagship. Like Bogk, Hodges goes for a more traditional approach by including Brettanomyces in the yeast blend.
Schneeeule is the work of brewer Ulrike Genz, who borrows Bogk’s kit at the old Willner brewery to make the newly launched Schneeeule Marlene (3%) to her own specifications. She also uses a mixed strain with Brett.
Vagabund is a draft-only brewpub in the Wedding area of northwest Berlin, run by three Americans. Their Berliner weisse is not a regular fixture⏤more like an occasional plaything⏤but watch for their Yogi Broyhan (4.1%), a type of tart brown North German wheat beer whose roots go back nearly 500 years.
Finally, Stone will soon open its large Berlin plant south of the center. There are no known plans for a Berliner weisse, but we wouldn’t put anything past them.
Five breweries to visit
At the time of this writing, I count 25 legal breweries in Berlin, running the gamut from industrial plant to kitchen pots. Of those, only four were open before 2000, and more than half have appeared in just the past six years. Inevitably, more are on the way.
Below I mention Lemke beers at Tiergartenquelle and Bogk-Bier at Emil’s. Here are five more that are among the city’s most entertaining places to drink⏤brewery or otherwise⏤although this is far from exhaustive.
Berliner Berg will soon add Berliner weisse to its already impressive Pale Ale and Lager beers, all available in its unreconstructed, candlelit taproom in Neukölln. The brewery is in back behind a courtyard.
Heidenpeters is tucked into the corner of Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg, and the attractive food-oriented setting is part of the appeal. The brewhouse is in the cellar.
Hops & Barley is quietly one of the city’s best breweries, with its pub located in trendy Friedrichshain. Rotating seasonals tend to be showcases of bold malt and hops with Czech influence. Highly recommended.
Pfefferbräu is a shiny brewpub in Prenzlauer Berg, run by local brewing “godfather” Thorsten Schoppe. The pub’s house beers are excellent⏤especially the crisp, bitter Helles and citrus-hopped Weizen⏤but the brewer’s more adventurous Schoppe Bräu line is available here, too.
Vagabund in Wedding is a brewpub, technically, but it’s also one of the city’s most popular bars. The house beers are always changing and there is a wide-ranging bottle list that includes local brews, good stuff from Bamberg and weirder things from farther abroad.
München in Berlin
Augustiner, Hofbräu, Paulaner, Spaten and Weihenstephaner all have their own pubs or beer halls in Berlin, all popular with tourists and Bavarian expats. The best of this lot might be Augustiner am Gendarmenmarkt, which taps a barrel of Augustiner Edelstoff daily at 6 p.m. and pours it via gravity. But don’t discount touristy Hofbräu Berlin and its blowout Sunday brunch buffet, complete with live oompah music.
10 Top places to drink
It’s one thing to tell you that Berlin’s beer scene is eclectic. But it’s better to show you.
This large pub in north Berlin with growing interest in beers of all sorts, slightly shabby like a college bar, has 34 taps and 150-plus bottles of mainly craft and local stuff. It’s next to the Holiday Inn at Gesundbrunnen station, with lots of shopping nearby.
Berlin is no Munich, but it has several beer gardens and all of them are prettier than this one. Sip revivalist Berliner weirs from Bogk and Schneeeule, now brewed on the premises, while the old graffiti-coated Willner brewery in the backdrop screams punk-rock chic.
Foersters Feine Biere
In Steglitz, southwest Berlin, is the city’s only specialist bar devoted to traditional German beers from altbier to zwickel⏤although they also dabble in new-wave, hoppy stuff. It’s popular with neighbors of all ages and is well off the tourist path.
In Prenzlauer Berg, this is one of the best examples of Berlin broadening its horizons. This minimalist bar specializes in 100 of Belgium’s better beers, including authentic lambics, punchy hops and stranger stuff. No food, but the frites from next door are welcome.
This popular bar in hip Kreuzberg has 22 taps, featuring mostly edgy stuff with splashes of the traditional from Berlin, wider Europe and the U.S. It also serves great homemade pickles and organizes craft beer tours of the city with advance notice.
Forget subtlety and give the kids what they want: The divey IPA Bar might annoy traditionalists, but it’s disarmingly honest in its approach, stocking 100 bottled IPAs from Germany, the U.S. and beyond, plus a few rotating taps. It is exactly what it says it is.
Berlin is a nocturnal town, and most of its better bars are only starting to think about opening by about 6 p.m. Kaschk, however, opens at 8 a.m. on weekdays. Very useful. Other strengths include 12 draft beers, shuffleboard and good coffee.
In tourist thick Mitte, this restaurant is one of the few places to offer a wide range of beers from Germany and abroad. Prices can be steep, but the smell of artisanal sausages grilling over open fire helps assuage any misgivings. Bottles are available for takeaway, too, and at lower prices.
Run by Aussie Adrian Sampson, an enthusiast of rock in all its forms, Monterey might have the city’s widest range of international craft. Its 10 taps and 150 bottles invariably include gleeful surprises for the geeky set. As an added bonus, the front barroom recently became smoke-free.
The Lemke brewery has two brewpubs in Berlin, but a few years ago it bought a well-preserved Berliner kneipe that beats them both for atmosphere. Under the railway arches and deeply stained with character, Tiergartenquelle offers the full range of Lemke beers, plus meaty, traditional fare.
Plus five more from the fringes
Black Lodge is a “Twin Peaks”- themed bar with a back room re-creation of its namesake⏤zigzag tiles, red curtains and all⏤and “Twin Peaks” episodes on a big screen. It also has special interest in cocktails and Belgian and Dutch craft beer.
Da Jia Le is an unpretentious restaurant specializing in Dongbei cuisine from northeast China, authentic and freshly prepared. The surprise fortune is a fridge of 30 beers ranging from Berlin-brewed IPA to traditional bock from Bamberg. It’s a gem. Please don’t tell anyone.
The Pier is popular with the nostalgic beards-and-tats set, emulating a Coney Island theme. There are 15 taps and at least as many bottles, heavy on Ratsherrn from Hamburg. Try the “Dorito pie,” a bag of chips with chili and cheese scooped into it.
Zitadellen Schänke is an atmospheric brick tavern inside the Spandau Citadel whose earliest remains go back to 1050. The castle grew over the years and still served as a fortress in World War II. The Schänke carries the medieval theme as far as it can, while beers from nearby Bauhaus Spandau are also available here.
Zum Starken August is a burlesque bar with a sideline on unusual beers. It might also feature music, scantily clad performers and giant inflatable penises⏤all fairly tame by Berlin standards.