How American Brewers Helped to Fuel Berlin's Craft Beer Renaissance

November 26, 2018

By Robert Kidd, November 26, 2018

More than 500 years ago, the Duke of the German region Bavaria was worried about beer.

Duke Wilhelm IV needed to save wheat for making bread and at the same time stop brewers adding dubious ingredients to beer. He issued the Reinheitsgebot, or “German beer purity law,” naming barley, hops, and water as the only ingredients permitted for making beer. Though the law has undergone amendments (yeast was later added), any beverage today not abiding by Reinheitsgebot is, officially at least, not beer.

Germany is proud of its brewing history and Germans enjoy their beer, drinking 104 liters per person annually. Oktoberfest, the world’s largest beer festival, conjures the stereotypical image. Patrons sit at long tables in giant halls guzzling steins of bland beer made more or less the same way for generations.

But in Berlin, a beer revolution is brewing.

“Germany has a very traditional beer culture. I had given up drinking beer because I was sick of drinking the same thing over and over,” Cliff Kinchen, who runs Berlin Craft Beer Experience tours, tells October.

“Berlin’s recent history has made a really unique situation for craft beer to develop.”

Kinchen says the city’s journey to the “epicenter of craft beer in Germany” started with the Berlin Wall. The former West German government waived compulsory military service for men who moved to Berlin, attracting artists and others drawn to alternative lifestyles. This helped create a “very open-minded, welcoming-of-new-ideas” culture that, in the past decade, has seen independent brewers taking on the beer status quo.  

“It is still not as easy as in other countries. The opportunities are not very big but there are more now for smaller brewers,” Kinchen says.

A report from Zenith Advisory found the number of craft breweries in Germany has more than doubled in the last five years, but remains small. Figures from the German Brewers’ Association found 82 new breweries opened last year, the same as the previous eight years combined.

Still, there remains a lack of diversity, with most bars and restaurants offering a choice of light, dark, or wheat beer. Pilsner has a market share of about 50 percent.

Vagabund's taproom. Photo by Dave Yates.

The city’s independent “grandfather breweries” helped kick off the mini beer boom, Kinchen says. He credits the likes of Hops & Barley and Schoppe Bräu for introducing Berliners to different flavors. Tucked away in a corner of indoor food market Markthalle Neun, Heidenpeters, another pioneer, offers IPAs and stouts brewed in the basement.

Vagabund Brewery, which opened its brewery and taproom in July 2013, is one of Berlin’s most celebrated craft brewers. Founded by American expats David Spengler, from New York, and Tom Crozier and Matt Walthall, from Maryland, Vagabund faced obstacles establishing itself in a country with stubborn beer traditions.

“We had discussions about hiding the fact we are American because we thought it was detrimental,” Walthall says.

“Even to this day people say, ‘We don't need you.’ A lot of Germans say, ‘We have a large variety of beer.’ But what they're talking about is they have a large variety of breweries brewing the same beers and you can't taste the difference between them.”

For the trio, who met playing in a band, local flavors weren’t quenching their thirst. On days off from their jobs as kindergarten teachers, they started homebrewing.

When the recipes were right, they went full-time and embraced a challenge even tougher than wrangling a room of children: convincing locals in the land of beer to try something new.

“Once people started trying the beers and liking them, that's when the bug really bit us,” Spengler says. 

“We were thinking Berlin was pretty ripe for another brick-and-mortar brewery. At that time there were only five or six breweries in a city of 3.5 million people.”

The brewery turned to crowdfunding for the final €21,000 ($23,700) needed to open its doors. Expecting most support to come from fellow expats, the founders were “pleasantly surprised” to find more than 80 percent of donors were Germans.

It's not necessarily the law that has held back craft beer here—it's the belief system around it.”

On a recent Wednesday evening, Vagabund has a friendly, laid-back vibe where every other person—Germans, expats, and tourists—seems to be a regular. Old barrels stand alongside stacked briefcases and, on an arch leading to the brewing system, the names of the roughly 180 donors are painted.

“At the beginning the three of us were tending the bar and working full-time jobs and building everything. It was like working two jobs,” Spengler says. 

“There are a lot of breweries out there and you have no idea who’s behind them. But here you walk in, and here we are.” 

That night’s beers, displayed on a chalkboard, include the regular American pale ale, a haus heller golden ale, an ESB named for a barman (“Don’t be bitter, Oscar”), and a highly drinkable, 7.5% double IPA.

The popularity of its beers indicates that Vagabund is expanding. The brewery is exploring exporting and building a 30-hectolitre system—15 times bigger than their current operation.

The Vagabund team don’t follow the Reinheitsgebot in their brewing and believe a lack of clarity around its rules and enforcement has impacted the growth of craft beer.

“It's not necessarily the law that has held back craft beer here—it's the belief system around it,” Walthall says.

With more brewers keen to experiment and drinkers embracing new flavors, Kinchen thinks the medieval food safety standard has passed its expiry date.

“Brewing is an artform first and foremost,” he says.

“If breweries were painters, it would be like only allowing them to use black and white. You can do a lot of nice things in black and white, but some people like to use the whole palette.”  

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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