Berlin’s (Non Hipster) Craft Beer Scene

Marcel Krueger reports on Berlin’s (non-hipster) craft brewing scene…

“It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the amount of money that goes out of the country as a consequence. Everybody is using coffee; this must be prevented. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were both his ancestors and officers. Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer, and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be relied upon to endure hardships in case of another war.” – Frederick the Great, 1777


Image courtesy of Eschenbraeu

When I moved to Berlin, I had high hopes for finding and drinking local craft beer. After all, this is the capital of the country that is most associated with beer worldwide, and the city itself has a long tradition of brewing (and drinking, of course).

Friedrich the Great, the Prussian King, insisted in the above-quoted decree that his soldiers drink home-brew rather than coffee, and during their heyday in the early 19th century, areas like Prenzlauer Berg used to house between 40 and 50 local breweries.

This was the age in which many of today’s best-known Berlin beers made their debut. Berliner Kindl Pilsener, for example, was introduced in 1872, leading to industrial scale brewing across Berlin; at its peak, Kindl was the 17th biggest German brewery (quite an achievement in this country).

Kindl’s competitor, Schultheiss, was established in today’s Kulturbrauerei. After the Iron Curtain fell, there were breweries operating under the Schultheiss and Kindl names in both East and West Berlin (though of course those in the East were state-owned). In fact, it wasn’t until reunification that Berlin started to lose its last local breweries. Schultheiss and Kindl were bought by the Radeberger group – a subsidiary of food company Dr. Oetker – and other smaller breweries rapidly relocated out of the city.

But thankfully, the microbreweries trend is finally emerging in Germany too and, as with many other ‘slow’ trends, Berlin is spearheading the craft beer renaissance. The total number of microbreweries in Germany has jumped from 300 to around 900 in the last ten years, with Berlin adding around twenty local breweries – and counting. More and more people in the city are eager to produce great new beers in the tradition of the district breweries of old.

One of the longest-running craft breweries in Berlin is Wedding’s Eschenbräu. Operating since 2001, its owner Martin Eschenbrenner has so far produced three main beers on tap – a pils/lager, a dark beer and Panke Gold, an export lager named after the local river – as well as monthly guest beers and ciders. Eschenbräu operates its own small brewery in the space above the taproom, with three 700-litre brew kettles; it also produces fresh apple juice with supplies from local farmers and a variety of spirits in the site’s very own distillery.

The main taproom is in the yard of a 1980s housing estate near Müllerstrasse, and with its metal door, tiled floors and white-washed walls, it resembles a large rumpus room in a youth centre more than a cosy pub; but that doesn’t stop locals and beer lovers from all across Berlin crowding in every night. The room also offers beer-friendly snacks like Flammkuchen or Pretzels, and in summer, the area in front serves as a small beer garden.

Leibhaftig by Marcel Krueger.
Leibhaftig. Image by Marcel Krueger.

Over in Prenzlauer Berg, master brewer Marcus Wanke does not have his own brewery – yet. The main man of Leibhaftig, a small Schankhaus – a pub tied to a brewery – on Metzer Strasse (which once boasted nearly 30 small breweries), Wanke currently produces two beers. Wanke pils/lager and Wanke wheat beer are brewed on commission by a brewery in the Spreewald and transported to Berlin on a bi-weekly basis.

“At the moment we can only handle two types, size-wise,” states Marcus. “But they are the two the customers love best. I experimented with a dark beer and a bock beer, but for the moment, we’ve settled for the two types.” The small and cozy pub-restaurant run by Marcus and his wife also serves ‘Bavarian tapas’, small portions of hearty southern German fare like Leberkäse (a meat loaf with liver) and Rostbratwurst.

“We had initially planned to open up a proper Kneipe, only selling beer and homemade bread with a few different spreads, but then we decided to try a few things. We lived in Bavaria for fifteen years, and that’s where the idea came from.” The beer and food combination proved to be very popular with locals and visitors, and Leibhaftig now employs two cooks so Marcus and his wife can focus on the hospitality part of their business. “Some people are just coming for the food now and drinking wine and non-alcoholic drinks,” Marcus says.

The beer is brewed following the Reinheitsgebot, the former German purity law that states that the only ingredients that could be used in the production of beer are water, barley and hops. Although the Gebot is no longer law in Germany due to EU regulations, it’s still a requirement for brewers if they want to call their product ‘beer’ in Germany.

“If I had more taps, I’d love to try out more things in the future though,” says Marcus. Nevertheless, his unfiltered pils is delectable–hoppy, strong and with a distinctive aftertaste that perfectly fits the Bavarian treats on offer. You can even get a ‘beer to go’, as Marcus calls his take-out service in one- and three-liter deposit bottles.

Hops & Barley. Image by Marcel Krueger

At Hops & Barley in Friedrichshain’s Wühlischstrasse, the brewery is part of the taproom. The massive copper brew kettles are the dominating element in this small bar, which otherwise resembles a traditional Berlin Kneipe, with tiled walls and floors. Three beers (pils, dark, wheat beer) and a cider are produced regularly, and there are also monthly special beers available.

Despite the central (touristy) location, Hops & Barley — named after a song by British punk rock band Leatherface – draws committed regulars from all over Berlin with the delicious beer and snacks like brewer’s grain bread (made from by-products of the brewing process) and Bockwurst.

They even offer holiday apartments for rent above the bar, like a proper inn of old, though the main attraction remains the crowded, smelly taproom, which fills and warms up quickly, making the slightly sweet and malty dark beer (made with four different types of malts) go down quickly.

Across the river in Kreuzberg, there are no less than three craft breweries. Brauhaus Südstern near Hermannplatz, is a large space with a beer garden that backs onto the Hasenheide Park, which serves its own brews as well as those of Thorsten Schoppe.

Schoppe Bräu‘s strong but delectable ales and stouts can also be tasted at the Bierkombinat Kreuzberg on Manteuffelstrasse. I had the honour of serving his skull-crushing Black Flag Stout at my wedding, and I can attest to its delicious taste and mind-blowing 9%. If you’re thinking of drinking it in its pint format, consider yourself warned.

Heidenpeters has set up shop in another classic Berlin location, the Markthalle 9, where they brew and sell their ales and stouts alongside guest beers from other German and European craft brewers, from Tuesday to Saturday.

Returning to Wedding, Vagabund (the German word for vagabond), is a neighbourhood brewery launched by three American home brewers. They opened a small taproom on Antwerpener Strasse in July 2013 after a successful crowdfunding campaign (which made them Europe’s first crowd-funded brewery) that serves craft beer, classic Belgian ales and lager from family breweries from the south of Germany. And, of course, their own brews.

Wedding is also home to one of the best speciality beer shops of the capital: Hopfen & Malz (hops & malt). This small and friendly speciality shop in the Sprengelkiez eschews the boutique interior concept in favour of a strictly “all beer and nothing else” approach. The shop offers a wide range of German beers, primarily focusing on beer from small family breweries in Bavaria and Franconia; plus ales, IPAs, stouts and Trappist and lambic beers from the British Isles, the US and Belgium. Hopfen and Malz also have the largest selection of UK and Irish cider in Berlin; and, last but not least, you can buy beer from every single Berlin craft brewery here.

Prost, as they say, to that.

If you want to discover more of Berlin’s craft beer scene, Berlin Craft Beer have created this useful map of the city’s best breweries and craft brew bars.