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Berlin’s new brew

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German innovation cruises into Berlin’s brewpubs.

By Sabrina Small

For as entrenched as beer is in German culture, Berlin’s never been Bavaria: For decades, there’s been little to no local beer production. But a new, punk-inspired beer revolution is bubbling up, and unlike bucolic Bavarian beer, Berlin’s micros reflect the city’s lean, contemporary and slightly bitter quality.

While U.S. microbreweries work tirelessly to move their bottles on supermarket shelves, Berlin’s top priority for micro-beer production is getting the beer from the tank to your lips in the fewest steps possible.

“We don’t plan to bottle,” says brewmaster Martin Eschenbrenner of Brauerei Eschenbräu, a small brewing site and pub in the industrial neighborhood of Wedding. With his bald head, Popeye arms and workman’s coverall, Eschenbrenner looks like the guy on the Mr. Clean bottles, or as he is referred to in Germany, Mr. Proper—fitting, given Eschenbrenner’s obsession with proper delivery. “It’s a completely fresh product,” he asserts. “I put the beer directly into kegs and drive it to the bars myself. It’s cold from start to finish.”

Eschenbrenner’s second concern is introducing skeptical Berliners to unfamiliar styles. His beer names reflect his read on the local beer scene, such as his latest creation, an IPA he named Alter Schwede (“old Swede”), a Berlinisch term meaning “pleasant surprise.” No one in Berlin has ever attempted an IPA, and Eschenbrenner himself was unfamiliar with the term until he sampled a Stone IPA on a recent tour of California breweries.

“I want Berlin to be as crowded with breweries as Northern California,” Eschenbrenner beams. “Berlin used to have over 200 breweries. Now, it is stripped down to one big one. And that’s horrible.” Eschenbrenner, whose smiling cartoon visage has appeared on every growler and glass since he opened up shop seven years ago, doesn’t let the fact that Berlin is a black hole for microbrewing culture hinder his creativity. His beers are both playful and impressive in their exactitude. Eschenbräu Rauchbier, for example, went through eight trials before he felt it was just right. “I wanted it to be something more subtle than bacon in a bottle. You can smell the bacon for sure, but it’s almost like an entire breakfast…there’s coffee, toast and a slice of bacon.”

While Eschenbrenner upholds the German stereotype of putting precision before fun, newcomer Wilko Bereit disproves that theory entirely. Born and raised in West Berlin, the hard-partying, chain-smoking 38-year-old has produced his Rollberg beer at the old Berliner Kindl brewing site for little more than a year, but he already feels confident that his efforts exceed the big Berlin beer companies.

“It’s very easy to produce beers that are better than the big industrial brewers…too easy,” Bereit says. He backs his swagger with beer that emphasizes dank hop flavor rather than sweet malt, reflecting the bitter style of his Berlin heritage. Berliners, who prefer bitter beers like Jever and Flensburger, joke that despite all German hops being grown in Bavaria, they should try using some of them. The rivalry between the northern and southern brewing styles can get heated: As Bereit says, “Never put a north German brewer and a Bavarian brewer at the same table. They will fight to the bitter end.”

Bereit insists bitter beers are superior to malty Bavarian styles because they are easier to drink in great quantities and minimize headaches. If his attitude seems unsophisticated, Bereit doesn’t mind.

“I’m a punk,” Bereit says proudly, and for emphasis he points to his hoodie, emblazoned with a big anarchist “A.” “I make simple, unfiltered, unpasteurized beer that tastes good and is good to get drunk on.” His bar and brewing site, strewn with AC/DC and Queens of the Stone Age posters, reflects his style. So do his promotional videos, which feature Darth Vader short-circuiting his mask while attempting to drink a Rollberg Winterbock.

Bereit isn’t the only punk-inspired beer maker in Berlin’s brewing scene. Phillipp Brokamp, who runs the Hops & Barley Hausbrauerei, chose the seemingly innocuous name because of a song of the same name by punk band Leatherface. “And also because I wanted people to know that there is actually beer in my beer.”

Brokamp began his training in the Hallertau region of Bavaria, famous for its eponymous hops and its conservative population. “I didn’t always get along with the Bavarians, but they were thorough and they were good teachers,” he says. Brokamp moved to Berlin for his brewing education, the only city where his punk sensibilities and traditional training could co-exist.

For the past three years, Hops & Barley has occupied a defunct butcher shop in Berlin’s trendy Friedrichshain neighborhood. The bar is packed every night with an eclectic mix of old-school Berliners, international tourists and students, all clamoring for another pour at the bar. The menu changes according to Brokamp’s whim, but a pilsner, some version of a dark beer and a hefeweizen are staples. Crowds are also drawn by Brokamp’s wilder selections; stuff you can’t find anywhere else in the city.

“I like to make really experimental beers. I am working on a lactic acid beer right now in partnership with the Berlin Historical Society,” he says. “It’s a Berliner weisse, a sour wheat beer style dating back to the 16th century that has almost completely disappeared.”

Sour or otherwise, Berlin’s new wave of craft beer is hard to miss. “It’s like turning up the volume on an Exploited album and watching the bar explode into life,” says Rollberg’s Bereit. “The beer I make is too loud to ignore.”

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Your Berlin Itinerary:

EAT: Situated on the Graeferstrasse, one of the city’s best shopping streets, Mo’s Kleiner Imbiss (030.74073666), a.k.a. the King of Falafel, is just a counter and a tiny kitchen with no more than two tables in front, but the falafel keeps lines going out the door. The secret? Homemade nut-paste that costs 50 cents extra, raising the falafel’s price to a whopping 3 Euros. For more Nordic German fare, head to Rogacki, the temple of smoked fish, situated in the heart of West Berlin just a stone’s throw from the Deutsche Oper. Foodies have stopped by the deli for tall glasses of kristallweizen and smoked herring sandwiches since 1928.

DRINK: The Frankenbier Connection is precisely the sort of neighborhood beer shop-cum-bar that typifies Berlin. Situated on the quiet Reuterkiez in Neukolln, the little storefront houses more than 300 beers from Germany’s Franconian region; after work hours, the shop fills with beerophiles who sit contentedly on a vintage sofa, sipping rauchbier while snacking on fresh caraway bread and house-made weisswurst with sweet mustard. (If the weather is nice, take a bottle to the nearby Reuterplatz park.) Beered out? Head to Weinstein in Prenzlauerberg, Berlin’s best wine bar with more than 500 hand-picked bottles in house. The average bottle costs less than 20 Euros, and the unpretentious staff is eager for you to sample anything that happens to be open. The menu reflects a modern take on traditional German fare, like spätzle with grilled cauliflower and speck, or East Frisian tea-smoked duck breast.

STAY: Across the street from the bustling Warschauer Strasse U-Bahn and S-Bahn sits the Michelberger Hotel. The perks: floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the river Spree and the Oberbaum Bridge, and a 24-hour spa and a cool bar that even hipsters show their faces in. The Casa Camper Hotel Berlin—the brainchild of the shoe company—lets you keep the signature Camper slippers standard in each guest room. On the first floor, grab Asian tapas at Dos Palillos, created by former El Bulli chef Albert Raurich.

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