If you’ve ever been to Berlin, it’s likely your ass was perched for a generous amount of hours on a splintered bench in a beer garden. You might have danced all hours at the best clubs in the world. You probably met curious creatures of all kinds. If you haven't been, go and do these things.
It’s a special breed of capital, the sort that assembles and encourages hedonism and indulgence rather than curb it. A past of regime, control, and severity has left its scars on Berlin. Now it is a free playground of self-expression and gratification.
Berlin's beauty lies in this marriage of old and new, though. Tradition, in so far as untouched architecture and repurposed spaces, works to the modern citygoer’s advantage. Nothing has been forgotten, and the structures and environments are reflected in that all-important produce: sustenance. Nourishment in the form of hops and barley and excellent salty meat is done well, and has been for a long time.
Great tankards of pilsner, complimented by side orders of sausages, soften the blow of any bench, no matter how prickly, and can also soothe those famous Berlin bender hangovers. It’s this sort of no-fuss, affordable fare – much like you might find in that great German tradition of Oktoberfest, but emulated all over the country, all year round. It’s a special place.
Whilst the capital has the requisite German fairy-lit gartens in summer and candlelit halles come winter, there is plenty more on the menu in Berlin, as the city’s ancient craft brewing scene embraces some newer entrants. Gloriously, there are plenty of ambient kneipes (traditional, no-frills pubs often lit only by cigarettes, tealights, and an ageing, flashing jukebox) to water yourself to infinity in. Just don’t think you’ll ever escape talking about the purity order.
The Rheinheitsgebot is a compilation of those ancient rules concerning the purity of beer ingrendients, codified into law into 1516 in Bavaria, and praised and bent in equal measure by brewers throughout Berlin in 2017. The dedicated zeal of Germanic tribes shared domestic brews across the continent perhaps as early as 300 BC, though.
In Berlin, you’ll understand this tribal code of drinking never went away. People drink cheap bottles on the street, on the uBahn, outside spätis (late night newsagent/off-licences) and anywhere in between. The empties are left outside bins for money-return collection.
It’s almost weirder to see a person empty handed than it is to see them with a Berliner Pilsner, marked with the city’s emblem of a bear, or a Kindl, a Rothaus Pils Tannenzäpfle whose Black Forest dirndl-wearing lady logo has existed since its genesis in the 50s. Students or the low-on-cash (most Berliners, then) favor a severe-looking, industrial-tasting red-and-white labelled Sternburg which dates back to 1278, whilst the upmarket public swigger might be clutching a delectable stout and curvaceous gold-label (but still dirt cheap) Astra from shiny Hamburg.
There’s usually a great selection of beers at most of the hipper new bars throughout Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, & Neukolln.”
You’ll find endless drafts of bitters, sipped between whiskies by the old card-playing men propping up the kneipe booths and dodgy disco bars that are open 24 hours. My favorite kneipe is at Moritzplatz, but I refuse to learn its name – it’s just the place above the uBahn I stumble into at an unholy dawn-lit hour for a nightcap and a thousand smokes.
Another true wonder is Bierhaus on Urbanstrasse – great after a wintry walk through Hasenheide and indeed, a trusty jukebox with a killer lineup.
There’s usually a great selection of beers at most of the hipper new bars throughout Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Neukolln. Aim for the surrounding smaller streets around Weserstraße Neukolln in general, and for bars like Zum Starken August and Monterey in Prenzlauer Berg specifically.
Avoid Mitte, it can be kind of a hot mess – unless you’re going to the first of these three recommended spots to try when you’re a brewery aficionado in town looking only for the best beer in Berlin.
On a blustery, cold afternoon, when you find yourself touristed out in central Berlin, take refuge at Berlin’s oldest craft brewery. It was founded in the 1990s by buccaneer turned businessman Oli Lemke, fresh off of time spent building breweries in Venezuela and traveling around Japan. His avant-garde ideas, crafted for a handbuilt brewery under an S-Bahn archway, were too wayward back then: German palettes were not yet ready for purity order evading beer concoctions paired with Asian food inspired by his globetrotting.
Now, the establishment is booming, and has two halls and restaurants onsite at the Hackescher Markt brewer. Its a hella touristy pocket of the city but still has its charm of bustling, of-the-moment eateries, great galleries and even dusty absinthe bars. The brewery indeed hosts small tours, and has another outlet where you can dine, chill and drink Lemke on tap in the historic Tiergartenquelle in Charlottenburg, also worth a pitstop if you happen to (and you should) foray west.
Brauhaus Lemke is led by a team as eclectic as the big boss, who also traversed the unlikely beer-hungry lands of Tenerife and Mongolia in the name of research and an undying pining for exotica. Chief brewer and yeast lab scientist of sorts, Andy, showed off his windowless nonetheless kind of impressive yeast lab, stacked with test tube beerbabies and soundtracked by the whooshes of old radiators and the hum of one big ‘n’ busy refrigerator.
It’s then that the journey that brings traditional and contemporary brewing methods together makes the most sense. Andy tells of his sixteen years of industry, which took him from mammoth industrial breweries to tiny micros before a stint at a fascinating brewhouse on a ship – the first of its kind. “My ship was the first onboard brauhaus and now they have five. They cruise all over the world and they can use seawater.”
Lemke’s strengths really do lie in the binding of old and new ways: The friendly and diverse staff, the coziness of its main wood-panelled hall, and the contrasting slickness of the newer space a hundred meters down the road.
The house pilsner is delectable: sweet, with caramel, herbs, and delicately stuffed Saaz hops. Wash down your knuckle of pork with a few pils, followed by a small glass of their chocolate imperial stout that unravels with notes of black pepper, black cherries, and fig.
“The Christmas Bock is big, and sour beers are growing,” Andy predicts for the festive season and new year ahead.
Hops and Barley
Friedrichshain is hell’s ground in Berlin, home to the famous techno meccas and all its pumped-up vampires. But there’s relief to be found in snug, authentic, unpretentious spots like Hops and Barley, a compact brewery and bar that’s somewhere between a chic natural wine lounge and a buzzing sports bar. Its aim from the beginning some nine years ago was this: to toy, within reason, with the purity law; and to offer a place where everyone is really welcome.
“I don't want to offer only special beers for 10 € and have to discuss 100 kinds of aromas,” says owner Philipp, a Bavarian with a penchant for dry-hopping. “For me drinking beer can be just to drink beer, too. Maybe watching a game and relaxing.”
That doesn't mean to say these guys got lazy on the creativity front. Besides their standard Pilsner, Dunkel and Weizen, they have a new fresh Hallertau crop hop beer that’s going to be “interesting and planty.”
Another recent hit, facilitated by the establishment's Norwegian brewer Silje, was a yeasty number called Kveik, using old yeast from Norway’s farms. A dark IPA is also pumping right now at Hops and Barley, with an effervescent Christmas bock in the mix to replace all that mulled wine that pure nightmares are made of.
Within the space of twelve short months, the blueprints and table model became a steel body of shipping containers, and BRLO Brewery was born. The industrial mini-structure that makes up its welded-together facade opened in 2016, and the place has blossomed ever since.
BRLO is the definitive hip brewery hangout, with a huge restaurant featuring wooden tables and gentle lighting, and an even bigger summer garden. The inner recesses of bronze mashers and tanks – plus an open kitchen which serves insanely good food, which I’ll get to – are on show through glass windows surrounding the interior dining room. These are the guts which create the oh-so-young but oh-so-nailing-it craft brews the haus prides itself on.
With the food pairings, expect an absolute surprise as each tiny morsel is selected with care to compliment each haus beer. Follow the bites up with a main dish. The focus here is a vegetable main with optional meat ‘sides’ – an unusual approach and one not to be dismissed when the cauliflower with pale ale glaze, miso and sorrel-baked carrots, and burrata and peas are around. The side with the potato puree with smoked black garlic is a perfect partner to the imperial sour blackberry stout or maple-smoked weizenbock. I personally cried with joy at the sight and taste of the Brazilian Blowout, their unreservedly brave red chilli ale, and my photographer died a happy death with one sip of the earl grey infused Lady Grey.
If all this gives the impression of sickly tipples coming at you from every direction, fear not. The notes are subtle, clever, and anything but overpowering.
“We dry hop the shit out of some crops here,” smiles our encyclopedic and charming guide Devin, who tells us admittedly that some batches go awry. “Kind of like when a witch’s spell goes wrong in the cauldron?” I ask, and he nods going on to explain how volatile flavors are conditioned out, and aromatic essential oils are left to give some pretty special beer; ever so slightly tingling and delicious.
Admirably, BRLO’s motto is about sustainability. The very skeleton of the building is on a short lease and could be flatpacked up. They use ecological malt, and their water is filtered through a Leogant system which “treats and energises it holistically.” As Devin tells me, they’re about “adding value to the supply chain, waste not want not, working with artisans, gypsy brewers, and utilizing leftover grains.”
It may look all shiny and expensive, but the heart of this place is pure Berlin: its brews transient but authentic, its staff international and full of spirit.