Ludger Berges, Owner of Hopfen & Malz

Last Call by | Feb 2016 | Issue #109

When Ludger Berges opened his boutique bottle shop in Berlin four years ago, the city’s craft brewing scene was just starting to take shape. Hopfen & Malz was one of the few places Berliners could find beers from all over Germany, plus a few American imports. Since then, Berlin’s craft beer market has exploded, marked by local start-ups, international beer styles and recently, the opening of Stone Brewing’s first European location, which Berges calls “a big surprise.”

What are your customers typically looking for?
The locals want a chat and an after-work beer; the Berliners look for good stuff that is not available in supermarkets; expats and tourists look for special beer styles like Berliner Weisse, Gose and Rauchbier and they ask for IPA made in Germany.

How has the beer scene in Berlin changed in the past few years?
When I opened the shop, Berlin had 15 breweries: a major one and 14 classic brewpubs. Today there are 30 breweries, and most of the new ones are dedicated to “modern” styles. The number of craft beer bars went up from zero to 20 within less than three years.

A lot of factors contribute to that development: One, [a single] brewery dominates the city’s beer market, and people like variety. Two, Berlin has an excellent school for brewing (VLB). Three, the city is open to anything new. Four, lots of young people [have] tried craft beer around the world. And, five, more than 12 million tourists [visit] every year.

What obstacles stand in the way of beer’s growth in Berlin?
The most difficult thing, brewers tell me, is to find the right place to set up a brewery. … A second important thing is the quality of your beer. You must always keep in mind that a German beer drinker has some fallback options, and that is different from [the] US, where, some time ago, Bud Light was no fallback option.

How has Stone been received by Berlin brewers and residents?
Stone has been received with the greatest respect. All brewers were at the opening party because they were curious. The majority of the local brewers see Stone as a rival—they know the local market better than Stone. But some money will help to find out. As I see it: Stone is coming to develop the European market. Berlin is not the focus of their activities. The local tabloid B.Z. featured Greg Koch as “the beer messiah.” But that was one year ago, and is quickly forgotten. Some marketing has to be done to attract the residents to the brewery and beer garden in the southern outskirts.

What kind of impact do you expect Stone to have in the future?
The impact on the German market is totally overestimated. Major markets for Stone and American craft beer in general are Sweden and the UK. These two countries stand for 50 percent of the export to Europe, despite the fact that Germany has eight times the population of Sweden. If Stone is successful, some other American breweries will follow.

The Berlin beer community will look carefully at how Stone is doing business with shops and bars, how they organize their distribution in Germany, and if Stone beer will show up in local supermarkets. For the start, they focus on bringing kegged beer to local craft beer bars.