Marcel Krüger profiles Wedding’s crowd-sourced craft brewery…
m , -en, -en , f Vagabundin
vagabond, tramp, gentleman of the road
– Collins English/German dictionary
There are many bars and pubs in Wedding. Some sell Sternenburger Pilsener or ‘Sterni’, the cheap mass-produced beer of workers and alcoholics; others sell locally produced craft beer. But only one of them has a vagabond’s bundle—dangling from the end of a stick—hanging over the entrance.
Vagabund (the German word for vagabond) is a new neighbourhood brewery. Launched by three American home brewers, the venue opened a small taproom in July 2013 after a successful crowdfunding campaign (which made them Europe’s first crowd-funded brewery) that served craft beer, classic Belgian ales and lager from family breweries from the south of Germany. And, of course, their own brews.
The location, on Antwerpener Strasse in Wedding, is interesting. Two years ago, a man ran amok here armed with two knives and an axe and was shot by the police. The neighbouring commercial establishments are a strange mix of shisha bars—from where I imagine Turkish men in leather jackets staring at me as I walk past—Eckneipen (corner pubs) with Sternenburger posters in dirty windows, and bookmakers with bright neon signs whose reflections decorate the street’s cobblestones on wet winter nights.
But that does not mean that Vagabund is in a bad area for beer, for Wedding has a long and proud tradition of brewing that is slowly being rejuvenated. On nearby Müllerstrasse is Eschenbräu, one of Berlin’s first craft breweries that opened in 2001; and also close by is the best small beer speciality store in Berlin, Hopfen & Malz.
On top of all this activity, there’s the VLB Berlin (Versuch- u. Lehranstalt für Brauerei in Berlin), which provides research, training, education and service for the brewing industry. Founded in 1883, it moved to its current location on Seestrasse in 1898, and until 1981 it even operated the “Hochschul Brauerei” (University Brewery), where students could test and try brewing different types of beer which were then sold to the public.
Yet it’s Vagabund Brewery that has become a primary poster child for the local craft beer scene. Together with operators like Heidenpeters and Schoppe Bräu, they have featured in articles in the New Yorker, Forbes travel, Der Spiegel and a plethora of German newspapers feting the craft beer trend. But is it really a trend?
“So often people ask us about this ‘trend’ of locally brewed craft beer,” says one of Vagabund’s founders, Matt Walthall. “David (Spengler) and I studied history, and that is part of what draws us to brewing: there’s so much history involved. In the 17- and 1800s every Berlin neighbourhood had its own brewery, so for us the whole appeal is not being trendsetters who use the internet, but we clearly see ourselves as part of a tradition.”
Matt, a jovial, brown-haired thirty-something runs the brewery together with David and the third co-founder Tom Crozier. Matt and I are standing in their brew room, an airy, bright space with gleaming white tiles and three stainless steel brew kettles, a sink, and a large fermentation tank. It looks less like the chaotic workshop of a group of beer enthusiasts than an immaculate laboratory. It’s also noticeably quiet compared to the convivial hubbub of the taproom next door.
“It was not our plan to come to Wedding specifically,” says Matt. “We looked all over Berlin for a year and a half, but we couldn’t find the right combination of brew room, taproom and a big enough basement. I was actually the one who was the most sceptical of Wedding; I thought of Bernauer Strasse, Plattenbauten and so on. And then I moved here and now I’m the biggest promoter…”
He pauses to take a sip from his beer—a Belgian lager. “We are gentrifiers, that’s for sure. But Wedding still has this strong community feel to it, and there are no areas here where whole blocks have been bought by developers, like in Neukölln. And it’s one of the few areas in Berlin where the classic population structures have not been pushed out. The majority of our neighbours have been here for 20 or 30 years.
“In the beginning I was quite nervous about whether the neighbours would accept us,” he admits. “There was this elderly woman walking past the shop every day when we were renovating, and she was always giving us this look and I thought ‘she probably hates us’, and then one day I was outside cleaning the windows she came up to me and told me ‘Oh I’m so glad that you kids are here now!’ Afterwards we learned that the previous tenants were the Hell’s Angels.”
Looking around, I notice the abundance of power outlets for such a relatively small brew room. Matt laughs: “The Hell’s Angels used to run this is a club house and put all their gambling machines in here, which they used to launder money with. Just putting coins in day and night. We had to completely redo the entrance doors: both were more or less ruined as the SEK (Sondereinsatzkommando or special response units of the German state police forces) had to break open the door to the bar twice with a ram when they raided the club house.”
The adjacent tap room is a simple affair with a few wooden tables and benches, a bar, a fridge and beer-related posters on white walls. The names of crowd-funding backers are decorating the doorframe leading to the brewing room, and there are actual and made-up beer quotes adorning the walls: ‘Give me a woman who loves beer and I will conquer the world – Kaiser Wilhelm II’, says one.
Right above is the bedroom of a Vagabund supporter and member of the brewery, who Matt says was helping them out before they even started the crowdfunding campaign, helping them carry equipment and materials in and so forth. The Vagabund crowd is predominantly young, but there is a strong neighbourhood feel to the place, with as many German voices as international. “We really like it here,” says Matt. “Even if we would open a bigger brewery, we would still keep this place, as it gives us the chance to try things out. We’re still learning by doing, and a small system like this give us freedom.”
Vagabund does not only serve its own products. During my visit, I try a 7% Imperial Russian Stout named ‘Crimea River’ and there are also weekly guest beers on tap. Some weeks they don’t even serve any of their own brews at all. Visitors will always find a nice variety of Berlin craft and draft beers though, as well as brews from further afield.
“Here in Berlin, us craft brewers are completely interwoven,” explains Matt. “We buy cleaning supplies together, and if we can’t brew enough beer here, we brew on the system of Thorsten [Schoppe]. We’re constantly talking to each other, also to avoid brewing the same beer at the same time. There is no competition among Berlin brewers at all. It really feels like some kind of DIY/grassroots scene.”
As for future plans, there’s more—figuratively and literally speaking—in the pipeline, such as the current basement renovation in order to create lambic and sour beers. After our chat, I sit down at the bar and order a beer. I ask the woman next to me, a US-expat and schoolteacher who lives around the corner with her wife Simone and comes by regularly, why she likes it here.
“I just like the atmosphere here,” she says. ”Everyone’s super-friendly and they even let us bring our dog in. That their beer is one of the best in Berlin certainly helps to make this an attractive place.” There can’t be a bigger compliment for a neighbourhood brewery, that it makes people of all stripes feel welcome: expats, students, workers and vagabonds alike.
To read more about Berlin’s craft beer scene, click here.
Antwerpener Str. 3
Open: Wed-Sat 19:00 – open end