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Germany may have a worldwide reputation for excellent beers, but that is no thanks to the capital city, Berlin. The city’s major labels – the bland Berliner Kindl and Schultheiss – are both part of the Radeberger group, which does not mean great things for the drink’s diversity. And the rest of Berlin’s brewing identity is wrapped up in the Berliner Weisse, a wheat beer with a sour taste that is often sweetened with green-coloured woodruff syrup or red raspberry syrup.
“If my beer gets spoiled, I could sell it as Berliner Weisse,” said Thorsten Schoppe, the brewer at Brauhaus Südstern, a brewery, beer garden and restaurant in the Kreuzberg district, and a leader in the emerging microbrew scene that hopes to change the city’s poor reputation for beer. “There were always bad beers here, though. It’s a city where people from other parts of Germany settle and drink beers from their own [region].”
The large, country pub-esque Brauhaus Südstern is Schoppe’s base, but he also sells beer to bars across Berlin, including the rough and ready Bierkombinat Kreuzberg in Kreuzberg, which he co-owns. He started his career by making traditional light, dark and wheat beers, but has since branched out into more experimental brewing. This includes a beer made with mate – a South American tea-like drink – and an American-style IPA. The selection of beers available at each bar – and sometimes even the names of the individual brews – change regularly.
“[IPAs] have a good shelf life – and that inspired me to build a bottling plant,” Schoppe said. “Strong beers interest me generally, and the next one I make will be Belgian-style.”
The experiments continue at Brewbaker in the Moabit district. In the unlikely confines of Arminius Halle, a market hall in a largely residential area, a basic-looking bar serves up the works of Michael Schwab. Again, the old German stalwarts are being supplemented with new ideas from overseas. The Brewbaker beers include a particularly sharp IPA that still has yeast and protein sediment in the bottom, and a bock (a German lager) made with elderblossom. The fruity, flowery tones complement a strong body, and work well with the hops. But it is a beer to drink for the complex flavours rather than how easily it goes down – and this is typical of the shift in thinking among Berlin’s microbrewers.
Martin Eschenbrenner started Eschenbräu in the basement of a student dormitory while he was still at university. The operation has now expanded into a restaurant and beer garden in the district of Wedding, where he regularly rotates special brews, which include the banana-flavoured Weizenbock and an exceptionally bitter Weddinator double bock. The Amber Rocket stout is made with British hops, and the honey-sweet PankeGold has more intense American hops.
Like Schoppe at Brauhaus Südstern, Eschenbrenner is not afraid to tackle one of German brewing’s sacred cows. The Reinheitsgebot – or German Beer Purity Law – is the oldest food regulation in the world, dating back to 1516. It states that the only ingredients that can be used in the production of beer are water, hops and barley. Most German brewers proudly stick to this as a sign of quality and purity – but it limits what can be done with a beer in terms of flavourings.
“I don’t feel I have to go by the law,” Eschenbrenner said. “If I want to use other ingredients, I just don’t label it as beer.”
He does not want Eschenbräu to become too big, either. “I don’t want to lose contact with the brewing process,” he said. “I want to have dirty fingers from working with the product, not handling the money.”
The passion for what they do is a common trait among Berlin’s microbrewers.
“It was my biggest dream to run my own brewery,” said Wilko Bereit, who blasts punk and metal music while he is brewing at Rollberger in the Neukölln district. “Nobody tells you what or when to do something. I work when it is necessary and I love my job, even though it’s 70 to 80% cleaning.”
His methods may be unconventional -- but they work. The hip Kreuzberg tapas bar Raval is one of an increasing number of joints to stock Rollberger beer, which is hoppy and highly distinctive, with a pale ale taste but a pilsner-like look and feisty undercut. If there is one glass that marries the best of German beer tradition and the new ideas that Berlin’s microbrewers are bringing in, this is it.