There Will Be No Mixed Getränke: Berlin’s Slowly Changing Beer Culture

Feature by | Nov 2013 | Issue #82

Braufest Berlin | Photo by Bálint Meggyesi

On the first day of the first-ever Braufest Berlin, Andre Schleypen, co-founder of Beer4Wedding, laughed as he called for more paper towels to sop up the German-hopped Amber Ale rapidly escaping his barrel. Danish brewer Kristian Strunge, from Stronzo Brewing Co., had just arrived from Denmark with a keg of the collaboration beer they’d brewed two weeks ago, and Schleypen was trying to fit it with the German attachment, with messy results.

It was early September, and a light drizzle was falling on the RAW-Gelände, an open-air complex of old warehouses now used for arts and culture events. Broken glass crunched under our feet as we drifted from booth to booth. Traffic was thin in the first few hours of the fest, which would run until 11pm, and the owners of the five local breweries there were mostly hanging out at each other’s booths. Johannes Heidenpeter, of Heidenpeters, had just run out to help Vagabund’s Matt Walthall pick up more of Vagabund’s Imperial IPA. Hops & Barley’s Philipp Brokamp was enjoying a pint with the team at Schoppe Bräu, which contract-brews for Beer4Wedding and Vagabund.

It might be one of Berlin’s first craft beer fests, but don’t tell these brewers they’re making history; even though small-batch beer holds only about 1 percent by volume of today’s German beer market, the legacy of handmade beer has endured years of macrobrewery consolidation and is finally coming out on the other side.

Small breweries still pepper the landscape (Germany is a little smaller than the state of Montana). The Franconia and Bamberg regions are home to hundreds of local operations that brew almost exclusively traditional German styles. Berlin is historically a brewing city, too—it once boasted over 200 breweries, and was famous for Berliner Weisse, a sour beer brewed with Brettanomyces that’s extremely rare in the city today. But the merging of large beer companies over the years, combined with the lack of a three-tier system (the beer companies own most beer shops and stock them with their own brands), has created a beer scene that resembles America’s in the early 1980s.

In Berlin, the massive brewery-conglomerate Radeberger monopolizes the taps with styles appealing to the Reinheitsgebot mentality (the German Purity Law of 1516 that restricted beer ingredients to water, hops, barley and, after it was discovered in the 1800s, yeast). The law was repealed in 1988, but the pride Germans took in their “pure beer” made with natural ingredients persisted, chilling the market for beer that wasn’t a simple Pilsner, Dunkel or Hefeweizen.

The first strike against the conservative beer culture was in 1995, when three braumeisters disillusioned with industrial brewing attempted to break tradition. Steffan Wendt, Frank Seifert and Asbjörn Gerlach formed the Bier-Company. “When we started in 1995, there was absolutely no German beer which wasn’t brewed according to the ‘Reinheitsgebot,’” Wendt says.

Bier-Company brewed traditional styles to pay the bills, but on the side, made one-offs like a Pumpkin Amber and a Blueberry Stout; they brewed beers with aloe vera, chile peppers and Morning Glory seeds. They taught brewing classes, and sold homebrew equipment and ingredients. “The German brewing association was jumping all over us when they found out we were brewing offensively different beers, especially not to that ancient purity law,” Wendt recalls.

The company was struggling financially when a hemp farmer visited them. He’d heard about their “funny beers,” and wanted them to make a hemp brew. The result was “turn.,” a beer that garnered so much interest from importers that they had to form a separate company to handle its business. Then the rug was pulled out: Britain declared that turn. was glorifying drugs; their British importer was caught for not declaring goods; their lease was terminated, and their contract brewer doubled his prices.

Meanwhile, international brewers were encroaching on the German market, which had painted itself into a corner by clinging to the defunct purity law … until the marketing industry found a way around the Reinheitsgebot culture: It invented the term “Bier-Mischgetränke” (“beer mixed drinks”), which opened the market to adjuncts without compromising the idea of “pure beer.” Cans of Radler—a century-old recipe of lemon soda and beer—became the next big thing. “New, creative brewers like us were simply kicked out of the market,” says Wendt. Bier-Company fell into financial ruin, and Wendt was left to pick up the pieces. “I still believe that our little company threw the first stone in the development for creativity in brewing.”

Several Bier-Company employees struck off on their own—two in Berlin: In 2001, Thorsten Schoppe, a former student-apprentice with Bier-Company, helmed Brauhaus Südstern (a site originally purchased by the Bier-Company, before their collapse), and in 2005, Michael Schwab launched Brewbaker.

At the Bier-Company, Schoppe says, “I fell in love with small-scale beers.” He made the requisite German styles for the Südstern pub, but eventually began brewing beers, like an XPA and a Double IPA, under the label Schoppe Bräu. In 2009, he broke the world record for brewing the highest-ABV beer (27.6 percent) still in accordance with the Reinheitsgebot. “It must be three years ago, it became more and more obvious that people are open for more new, fresh beer styles,” Schoppe explains, standing in the middle of the construction site of what will be his third brewery, Pfefferbräu.

Biergarten menu at the Pfefferberg restaurant.

Biergarten menu at the Pfefferberg restaurant.

Schoppe works six days a week (Sundays are for his family). He still makes the standbys for Südstern, but gets his kicks brewing the Schoppe Bräu beers, which are tapped at bars, like Bierkombinat Kreuzberg (which he co-owns), and sold in bottles at specialty stores, like Rainer Wallisser’s Berlin Bier Shop (a hub of the craft community). Schoppe also just contracted a brewery to make 60-hectoliter batches of his XPA; the first batch was sold before it was brewed.

Schwab, also a braumeister and the one-man operation at Brewbaker, churns out seven to eight year-rounders and 13 seasonals—beers like his Pumpkin Lager, Espresso Stout and of course, his ambitious resurrection of Berliner Weisse. He recently expanded into a brand-new brewhouse, increasing his capacity tenfold. “Germans are proud of the tradition, but no one can say what it is,” Schwab says, pointing out that in the 1950s, it was “filters or infusion mashing, or new barley varietals” that brewers were squabbling over. Even today, some German brewers still won’t use Cascade hops, he says. “The tradition is not fading, just changing.”

While Schoppe and Schwab can sell small amounts of their Double IPAs to a handful of bars and shops, the demand for easier-drinking styles still rules in Berlin’s brewpubs. “The Germans think, ‘This is a brauhaus.’ You get your traditional German food and maybe the three kinds of traditional German beer,” says Philipp Brokamp of most of the city’s brewpubs. But Brokamp is reinventing that template.

After earning his braumeister diploma, Brokamp moved to Berlin to be closer to his girlfriend. But Berlin had zero job options for brewmasters. So in 2008, he flipped an old butcher shop into a brewpub and named it Hops & Barley, after a song by the British punk band Leatherface. He knew he wanted to brew modern styles, but “started with the traditional ones: Pilsner, Dark, Wheat.” An expansion in 2009 gave him the space to try brewing a German-hopped Brown Ale; now, alongside traditional styles are rotating specials like New Zealand and Australian single-hop beers, a Cascade Amber Ale, and a 7-percent IPA brewed with Chinook and Cascade.

“When we show the soccer games, we have many people who never drink anything else but Pilsner, so many people haven’t tried [new styles] yet,” Brokamp says. Many try one and go back to their Pils, but most people—from the “beer-interested grandpas” to “the alternative punks”—just want more.

Over in the Wedding neighborhood, braumeister Martin Eschenbrenner has been taking a similarly tempered approach to merging international flavors since opening Eschenbräu in 2001. Most of his beers hover around 5 and 6 percent, and there’s almost always a house-made Dunkel and Pils on tap. But rotating specials include a hoppy Schwarzbier, a 5.7-percent, German-hopped IPA, and a Brown Ale made with English Stout yeast, American hops and German rye malt.

Brokamp and Eschenbrenner aren’t the only Germans reaching for American hops—in 2012, Germans imported more US hops than US brewers imported German hops, according to the Hop Growers of America. But in a sign that the German beer industry is acquiescing to the world’s brewing trends, four new hop German varietals were also introduced in 2012—Polaris, Hallertau Blanc, Mandarina Bavaria and Hüll Melon—all of which boast fruity characters “not necessarily associated with typical hop flavors,” announces the Hopsteiner newsletter. As Schoppe puts it, “German hop growers woke up.”

So yes, Berlin’s brewers are slowly integrating American beer styles into the mainstream beer culture. But as David Spengler, co-founder of Vagabund Brauerei, points out, it was Western Europeans who laid the foundation. “The beer scene that those immigrants took to the States has become a different thing, while here it just stayed stagnant,” says Spengler, who’s from Buffalo, N.Y.

In July, Spengler, along with fellow American expats Matt Walthall and Tom Crozier, opened Vagabund, a nanobrewery and craft beer bar in Wedding. “Us coming back to Europe, to Germany, to one of the founding places of beer culture, and shining that light on modern-day brewing … it’s kind of like coming full circle,” Crozier says.

As Spengler puts it, “the stars are aligning” for Berlin’s beer scene. Walthall first realized it back in 2009. In his old stomping ground of Washington DC, the second DC Beer Week had just been a hit, and DC Brau was getting ready to open. But at band practice with his friends in Berlin, they were still throwing back Pils after Pils. Walking to the kindergarten where he works, “something sparked” for Walthall. They wouldn’t have to teach English forever, he half-jokes. The three friends threw themselves into homebrewing, and after five years of recipe-tweaking, Vagabund opened its doors.

Tom Crozier and David Spengler of Vagabund Brauerei.

Tom Crozier and David Spengler of Vagabund Brauerei.

On tap at the bar is their only beer so far, an 8-percent Imperial IPA. Until they expand, the other three taps feature beers from Hops & Barley, farther-flung German craft breweries—even kegs that customers bring back from Poland and Denmark. “Every night, I get people that we are introducing to the spectrum of beer,” Walthall says. “They’re amazed. They thought that beer was Pils till they walked through our door.”

Now and then, the ’90s rears its head. When one customer tried to order a Radler, Walthall says, “I was insulted, and I didn’t know how to tell him, I don’t want to make this for you … and, what the fuck.” When Walthall told Stone Brewing’s Greg Koch the story, Koch said, “‘You were weak in that moment,’” Walthall laughs. “‘There will be no mixed getränke.’”

Andre Schleypen (the brewer who was trying to fix the leaking keg at the Braufest) hadn’t actually tried an IPA before he homebrewed one with his friends Sebastian Mergel and Julian Schmidt. “It was rather a coincidence, because we planned to create a really bitter Pilsner, and we only had an ale yeast. So we just adopted the recipe to a really bitter ale,” Schleypen explains. All three were brewing students, studying the precision of brewing a perfect Pilsner; but they loved the hops in their accidental IPA, so they kept at it. For a year now, their Beer4Wedding Pale Ale has been on shelves and a few taps around town, contract-brewed by Thorsten Schoppe, and with the help of some investors, they’re on track to open a brick-and-mortar brewery in early 2014.

All in their late 20s, they’ve pushed their brewing studies to the side to focus on their business—so they’re not “learned brewers,” as Mergel puts it. That’s a departure from the traditional emphasis on formal education, the path taken by almost all of Berlin’s brewers. But then again, those braumeisters aren’t making the styles they were trained to make, either.

That’s what the Bier-Company’s founders wanted all along. On one hand, Wendt says, he’s glad to see that “our first goal, to break down the Reinheitsgebot, which was even mentioned in our employees’ contracts, is nearly finished.” He harbored some anger for a while (“The Bier-Company’s founders spent all our … money and energy to make this happen. Everybody loves what came out of it, but no one said thank you at least”). But “I’m not angry anymore today,” he says, thanks to the friends he’s made and the promising future of the craft beer movement. (You can still find turn. in stores and bars, and Wendt continues to work on expanding the brand.)

“At the moment, it’s mostly German brewers are looking over to the States,” says Schoppe. “‘What do they do?’ Then you know what the next wave of beers is going to be in Germany.”

Lately, there’s been a few new regulars in Berlin’s craft beer scene. “For example, Greg Koch from Stone Brewing, you meet him at each and every corner,” laughs Schoppe. “This year, I met him five times without leaving Germany.”

“Yes, we’ve had the opportunity to visit Berlin on the search and have looked at a few possible locations in that great city,” Koch says when asked about the rumor that Stone might open a branch in Berlin. “We don’t have any spot nailed down yet however, and until we do, we’ll continue to look all over Europe for just the right place.”

Stone is one of a few American breweries that already export to Germany; so do Brooklyn Brewery, Rogue and Firestone Walker, among others. Brooklyn’s Garrett Oliver was also just in town. “Berlin is just one of several potential cities we are looking at around the world,” says Eric Ottaway, Brooklyn Brewery’s general manager. “Berlin is, not surprisingly, the center of the nascent craft beer movement in Germany. Many of our best accounts in Germany are located there, so we visit often to support our importer.”

Oliver is known for his sour concoctions; Berliners used to be. But today, despite the excitement over new styles, the Berliner Weisse remains rare in its hometown; in addition to Schwab, brewer Andreas Bogk offers one under the label Bogk-Bier. Berliner Kindl’s version has almost nothing in common with the traditional style. (Another harbinger of changing times: Independent brewer Wilko Bereit makes his Rollberg-brand beers in the former Berliner Kindl brewery.)

“For sure, sour beers are a much more different market than IPAs,” says Schoppe, who adds that he’d welcome the arrival of American brewers. “Maybe you can teach people to like sour beers, but I [think] they would rather love IPAs.”

Maybe when the American influence is coming from across the street rather than from across the world, Berliners will rediscover their taste for Berliner Weisse; or even better, Berlin’s brewers will show the world something entirely new.