By Harley Zipori. The words above are not mine although I would certainly enthusiastically echo them. However for completely different reasons. (“Let them come to Berlin”) Berlin has a long and dramatic history. For American Jews growing up in the shadow of the Holocaust, the period of World War II tends to overshadow any other period. However the post war period was very dramatic as Berlin became a focal point of the cold war.
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After WWII, Berlin was occupied by the four allied forces (The U.S., Britain, France and the USSR) after being captured by Soviet troops. Berlin was deep inside the Soviet occupied part of Germany that became East Germany (or more accurately the German Democratic Republic, DDR in German).
Berlin became a divided city as two Germanies were created by the victorious forces with East Berlin belonging to the DDR and and West Berlin part of West Germany.
The city was connected by air to West Germany by highways through the DDR.
In 1961 the Soviets, responding to large numbers of East German citizens crossing the border to the western part of Berlin, built the Berlin Wall, a network of concrete walls , barbed wire barriers and a no-man’s land, to prevent “defections”.
In 1963 U.S. President John F. Kennedytravelled to Berlin to show political and moral support to the people of West Berlin. In adramatic speech Kennedy made his historic declaration “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). He said it twice actually.
He also wanted to show West Berlin as a lesson in the differences between the democratic countries and the communist bloc: “There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin.”
Today, nearly 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, you can see a line of stones embedded in the street in many places to remind people where the Wall once was. There are some differences between the two parts of the city but they are more in style and architecture. And the sidewalks I am told.
If people want to see how a city nearly completely destroyed 60 years ago, divided for 45 years and reunited again can become a dynamic thriving metropolis with no seeming borders, let them come to Berlin.
I visited Berlin a second time at the end of February, spending nearly an entire week there. My first day was spent in the company of the brother of a friend of mine who recently visited me in Israel who I will call Carl. Carl is an American who has lived in Berlin for a number of years, speaks German and is as familiar with Berlin as I am with Israel. We spent a day together looking at Berlin from the perspective of the people who live there. We visited iconic tourist sites as well as up and coming neighborhoods. Carl was quite willing to join me on my quest for local craft brews, even though he wasn’t partaking in any beer himself.
We were using the list from the New York Times article“Good Beer in Berlin? Finally, Yes” from last October. Carl, being a Berliner, had his own list of beer destinations worth exploring.
Unfortunately it was a Sunday and many of the places we did locate were closed. We had a couple beer destinations in the Kreuzberg neighborhood including a brewpub which had apparently closed up and a beer store in a market that was closed for Sunday.
Carl did know about a brewpub that was open. The Lemke Brauhaus is actually in two locations. The one we visited was in the Hackescher Markt, a square not far from the Alexanderplatz, the main square of what was East Berlin. The brew house was large and airy, made even more so by unseasonably warm and sunny weather. They had four different kinds of beer advertised on their menu posted prominently on the wall, including a seasonal beer, a Pils and their Original. I chose to taste the Original classic lager (which is advertised as a Viennese lager) and their Weizen (a classic German wheat beer or Hefeweizen). The lager was fairly dark, about the color of a Goldstar, but rich and hoppy. The Hefeweizen was tasty and refreshing with the expected flavors. None of this was a surprise. The beers are brewed along the lines of classic European beers. Nothing new and nothing daring but the execution was excellent, the atmosphere friendly and they also had a complete food menu of which we didn’t sample.
Yes there is good beer in Berlin that is locally brewed and of high standards. True craft beers.
To finish off what had been a great day, Carl tried to find us another brewpub inWedding, a suburb of Berlin that is pronounced just as you would pronounce the English “wedding” (i.e. marriage ceremony) with a very stereotyped German accent. We did not find the brewpub but we did go to a small neighborhood pub that served Jever Pils fresh from the keg. I am told that this is not very common and it is far better from the keg than the bottle. Jever is not pronounced like it is spelt and sounds completely different in German. I do not remember clearly the way Carl pronounced it but Wikipedia does give phonetic spellings of German names and places and a link to a phonetic alphabet for those readers who wish to try. It’s kind of like using that secret decoder ring that mythically existed in breakfast cereal boxes when we were kids back in the 1960’s.
The beer itself is a fairly common Pilsner style beer brewed in Germany. The glass I had from the keg was crisp with marked bitterness like a good Pilsner should have. The pub, called the Klein Zaches, was a traditional German neighborhood hangout and was small and intimate. No pretenses and a small selection of beer but if I lived nearby, I’m sure I would be a regular.
Then there was the Kolsch.
Carl steered me to a pub specializing in Kolsch beer, a specialty brew from the German city of Cologne (Köln) far to the west of Berlin near the border of the Netherlands and Belgium. Kolsch is actually an ale. It is golden colored like a Pilsner but is quite mildly hopped. It is a perfect session beer and is traditionally served in 200 ml glasses which you are supposed to keep refilling. Carl had steered me to the Ständige Vertretung pub/restaurant which specialized in Gaffel Kolsch. Gaffel was one of the main Cologne breweries producing Kolsch beer. For early evening on a Monday night I thought the pub was packed. I was lucky to find a place at the bar. I was quite happy with my 200 ml glasses of Kolsch and bowl of potato soup. This was a truly local watering hole with hardly anyone who didn’t look like they lived there.
More on Kolsch later.
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One of the recommendations from the New York Times article was for Meisterstück. a pub and restaurant off the beautiful Hausvogteiplatz. The article describes it as a pub but it was large and spacious and specialized in sausages and craft beers. The extensive beer menu included microbrewery beers from as far away as California and as close as Berlin. I managed to taste 4 beers, all of which were excellent. One beer didn’t get recorded properly and it was just a sip anyway. I had a taste of something called Schonramer Bavarian Imperial Stout that was one of the best heavy stouts I can remember tasting. I also had a Hopfenstopfer Seasonal special ale that was supposed to be quad hopped (I assume that means 4 times the normal quantity of hops) and was certainly hoppy enough with generous portions of American style hops giving it a distinctly fruity flavor. I also tried the Schoppe Brau XPA brewed in the Kreuzberg neighborhood of Berlin, leading me to believe that this was the brewery that Carl had been looking for on Sunday. This was a nice American style pale ale that actually reminded me a bit of Alexander Green.
All the beers I tasted at Meisterstück were from German microbrewers and clearly demonstrated that there are brewers in Germany that were pulling away from their lager/weizen roots and taking beer in different directions. Let’s not forget the hundreds of years of German brewing tradition behind them so they are starting from a position of knowledge and a deeply ingrained beer culture.
On the other hand there is this tremendous inertia on the part of Germans when it comes to beer. Lots of Germans drink beer, often lots of beer. And the beer is generally good. I’m sure the mass produced beers of the 21’st century, manufactured by breweries that have been bought up by the big international brewing conglomerates, are not that same as they once were. But they are still pretty good. In my opinion, it will be harder to get a 30 year old German beer drinker who is particular and knowledgeable about the beer he drinks to be enamored with a California style pale ale than it will be to get an 30 year old Israeli casual beer drinker raised on Goldstar and Carlsberg to fall in love with any of the top quality Israeli boutique brews. My opinion of course.
My visit happened to fall on the week of theCologne carnival. Now Cologne is hundreds of kilometers from Berlin and under normal circumstances I would have blissfully spent the week in Berlin chasing craft brews, completely ignorant of any carnival at all. But circumstances have a way of taking on a life of their own. One of the people involved in my work activities that week was Andreas, who was born and raised, and still lives in Cologne. He said that we should join him for Kolsch beer and a good time at the Gaffel Haus restaurant in the center of Berlin. This is a chain of restaurants apparently connected with the Gaffel brewery, making the very same Gaffel Kolsch I had enjoyed a couple nights previous.
Andreas dragged another colleague and myself right into the middle of carnival madness. I figured the Germans are a pretty controlled bunch of people. I mean how rowdy can they get.
But this was carnival. The Gaffel Haus was cleared of tables and packed with people. All of them (except for us) in costume. I mean these were elaborate costumes. One guy was so convincingly dressed as the Mad Hatter from Alice in Wonderland that I wanted to follow him down a rabbit hole. Ages ranged from early 20’s to 70’s and everybody was dancing and singing along to the German folk songs. The Gaffel Kolsch was being passed out in 200 ml glasses in exchange for a chit purchased at a central cashier and the waitresses were carryingtrays of glassesabove their heads in a truly frightening fashion.
After a few glasses of Kolsch I began to feel like a fish out of water and my non-German colleague and myself took off.
My last night in Berlin I was on my own. It was time to catch up on a couple places I had missed from my list. Carl sent the details of the brewpub in Wedding that we had looked for and it turned out to be one of those from the Times article. It was easy to find once you knew where is was and it was not visible from any road so no surprised we missed it just wandering around.
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TheHausbrauerei Eschenbräu is in the basement of what looks to be an apartment block in Wedding. It is spacious with lots of tables, a small bar and a friendly, knowledgeable staff. In addition to their regular beers they have a house special which changes every few weeks and are all listed for the coming year in their brochure and website. There are some 19 beers to be changed out between January and the end of November. For my visit they were serving the Weddinator, a double malt double hops Bock. Basically a classic double bock. A bock beer being a stronger, darker and richer lager. Only this was double hopped so it was a double bock on hops steroids (metaphorically speaking of course). This was a truly excellent beer to my taste. Rich and malty with a very noticeable hops aroma and bitterness. The young woman at the bar also mentioned a single hop beer made with a “special” hops. I ordered a glass and received a very pale and slightly cloudy brew reminiscent of wheat beer. It had a distinct hops flavor that I could not place and I guessed that it was a European hops variety that perhaps I was unfamiliar with. Single hops beers are not common but allow one to experience the essence of the hops variety used. When I asked which hops it was, she happily told me is was Cascade. Well at least according to my memory. Cascade is an American hop variety used a lot in American Pale Ales and is known for its citrus overtones, which she even mentioned. I had missed it and made the mistake of asking only after I finished the beer. Still it was a good education in my own ability to discern flavors and left me wanting more.
However there was still one destination I needed to find before leaving Berlin and I set out to conquer my last brewing frontier before leaving.
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The Pfefferbrau is a microbrewery opened in the premises of a long closed brewery of the same name. They make a variety of beers and when I visited, they had four beers that were served in as small as 100 ml glasses, allowing a single person to have a decent taste of each of the beers without overdoing it. They had a golden lager, a wheat beer, a dark lager and a double bock. Or so I remember. I didn’t have my note taking kit with me. It was all good beer though with a large open and uncrowded space, friendly staff and what looked like a very comfortable crowd of all ages. I had seen the brewpub on Sunday but it had been closed. Now it was open and full of people, life and good beer.
It was an excellent way to finish off my Berlin visit. I have found the craft beer destinations I had searched for. They were split fairly unevenly between classic German beer styles and some more experimental beer varieties. Some people say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” and I believe that the young German craft brewers take this to heart. They keep true to the German tradition of pure ingredients as they are required to by a 500 year old law and most of the beers are based on their interpretation of the classic beer styles. But they are not afraid to experiment and when they do it’s not a variation of the theme, which would sort of mean trying to fix something not broken. Instead they go off in different directions (think American hops flavors), using their skills and cultural beer sensibilities to see where they can take this much loved hoppy brew.
As usual you can reach me with comments, criticism, corrections or suggestions at email@example.com.
Harley Zipori beer blog