Aperol, Futschi or Berliner Weisse? Whatever your drink of choice, Berlin has a history with it. We’ve traced that history here, from the imperial age to the fall of the Wall, because no matter what was happening through Berlin’s tumultuous past, people always had a drink in hand. Prost!
Grand Beer halls of the 19th century
Before the 19th century, beer was usually drunk by the lower classes in local taverns and pubs. That was until breweries in big cities like Munich and Berlin started establishing veritable beer palaces. These magnificent establishments offered space for hundreds of guests and gave a whole new name to the enjoyment of beer. Many of these grand beer halls, like Woschnik in Charlottenburg or the Einsiedler at Hackescher Markt, remained as popular establishments in Berlin into the early 20th century.
When depicting the lives of working-class Berliners, painter, caricaturist and photographer Heinrich Zille (1858-1929) would use the term ‘Milljöh’. Many of the artist’s sketches didn’t shy away from the nitty-gritty of Berlin’s drinking culture at the turn of the 20th century. In the illustration above entitled “In the Distillery”, a placard on the wall behind the figures reads: “Glücklich ist, wer verfrisst, was nicht zu versaufen ist”. Maybe a sly word of advice, this roughly translates to “Happy is he who eats what cannot be drunk”.
Très chic at the Kempinski
For the upper crust of early-20th century Berlin, the city’s poshest bars and hote ls were the only place to be seen. There, fine champagne, mature whiskey, cognac and extravagantly-priced wines flowed freely. This commemorative postcard from a grand Kempinski hotel bar was a popular takehome for its wealthy patrons. Already successful in the wine trade from 1862, the Kempinksi family quickly extended its reach to Berlin. A collection of upscale bars and restaurants under the Kempinski name soon sprang up across the city. Those with money drank at Kempinski’s establishments, whose restaurants and wine shops were already among the chicest addresses in the city 100 years ago.
Beer delivery, brewers, innkeepers and more
In the early 20th century, Germany’s drinking culture had established itself as an industrial powerhouse for the nation. In the 1930s, countless Berliners made their living directly or indirectly from alcohol, as innkeepers, waiters, beer drivers, brewers and many more. The Berliner Bierkutscher, or Berlin Beer Coachman, (pictured here) was an institution in its own right. Up until the Second World War, these coachmen would compete in riding and driving tournaments, while toting barrels of local beer.
The Berlin corner pub
After the Second World War the city lay in ruins. As Berlin was rebuilt through the 1950s, humble “Kneipen” (or corner pubs) started returning. At some West Berlin intersections, you could find one on literally every corner. Residents who frequented the Kneipen almost always knew each other. They chatted, fought and recovered from the stress of everyday life. Today, the classic Kneipe is disappearing from the cityscape as gentrification and the transformation of the city take their toll.
A drink with the West Berlin bohemians
The 1960s saw the birth of the ‘Kiezboheme’ (or bohemian neighbourhoods) in Kreuzberg. Artists moved into the run-down working-class district to paint, write poetry and create. Since these artists also had to drink somewhere, they found pubs that were well-disposed towards them, which were henceforth called Künstlerkneipe, or “artists’ pubs”.
Drinking protest culture in the GDR
As youth in the GDR rebelled, they listened to western pop music, punk or jazz. They let their beards and hair grow, discussed the class enemy beyond the state order, imagined socialism with a different face, or just got drunk and made out.
West Berlin in the 1980s produced its very own subculture. The alternative punk-noise scene provoked the public with subversive strategies that still shape the city today. Groups like ‘Die Tödliche Doris’, ‘Einstürzende Neubauten’ and the composer Frieder Butzmann broke new sonic ground in the party scene.
This photo from 1983 shows (from left to right) co-founder of ‘Die Tödliche Doris’ Wolfgang Müller, dancer Valerie Caris Ruhnke and journalist Jörg Hoppe sharing drinks in a houseboat on the Spree.
Unification under the influence
As the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, residents from both the East and West celebrated in the streets with beers and sekt in hand. The unprecedented events of the reunification period offered plenty of occasions for a merry drink. In this photo taken on 12 November 1989, you can see some happy people in a champagne mood standing in front of Bolle
Everything changed after 9 November 1989. The GDR was at an end, the Wall was open, East and West were in each other’s arms and soon there would be no cold war and a reunited Germany. Everything different? Almost. People continued to drink, of course, and the joyous events of the reunification period offered plenty of occasions for a merry drink. In this photo taken on 12 November 1989, some carefree locals enjoy some sparkling wine in front of Bolle Markt.
More alcohol and more city history
Keen to read more about drinking (and everything that goes along with it) in Berlin? Here are the best dance bars in Berlin and an eco-conscious guide to wine. Or if you’d prefer to go in an entirely different direction, here are some perspectives on sober dining and dancing and Berlin’s first booze-free spati.