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Craft Beer Week: Day 1

Put down that Sterni! Just in time for Braufest (Sep 12-14 at RAW), we're giving you a week-long rundown of the 10 best microbreweries in the city. First up: craft beer godfathers Schoppe Bräu and Brewbaker, plus the sad history of Bier in Berlin.

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Photo by Rasa Urnieziute.

Man cannot live on Kindl alone. A new generation of microbreweries launched by passionate Berliners has put Germany’s capital back on the Bier map. Rachel Glassberg scopes out the best of Berlin’s burgeoning craft beer scene in a week-long series leading up to Berliner Braufest, happening September 12-14 at RAW Tempel.

Let’s face it: Berlin is hardly a beer drinker’s paradise. Lured in by centuries of Prost-heavy PR, newcomers quickly find themselves adrift in an ocean of mediocre, if ridiculously cheap, pilsner.

Elsewhere, thousands of traditional breweries in Bavaria continue to churn out the complex ales and malty lagers that gave German beer a good name in the first place, but give or take a specialty store or two, only pasteurised specimens from the region’s more commercial brands make it up here.

It’s gotten to the point where even Americans – who until about 20 years ago drank beer resembling, as Rollberger Brauerei’s Wilko Bereit puts it, “sex in a canoe: fucking close to water!” – arrogantly claim superiority as they pine for the micro-brewed IPAs and imperial stouts of home.

The sad history of Berlin beer

How did it come to this? The most obvious scapegoat is the Reinheitsgebot, a 497-year-old purity law that limits the ingredients permitted in beer to four: hops, malted grain, yeast and water. Originally only enforced in Bavaria, the ruling spread to all of Germany in the late 1800s, effectively decimating regional beer traditions. Around the same time, the invention of refrigeration technology allowed non-Bavarian brewers to begin producing pilsner (which requires cold temperatures and was previously only stored or “lagered” in Alpine caves). The crisp, easy-to-drink lager quickly overtook sour hometown styles like Berliner Weiße.

Later, WWII and Cold War division devastated Berlin’s beer producers. The two major breweries left standing, Kindl and Schultheiß, proceeded to be swallowed up by larger and larger companies until their consolidation under the Radeberger Group (which also owns Jever and Sternburg) in 2006. In 2010, the beverage giant also absorbed Berliner Bürgerbräu, the city’s last large-scale independent brewery.

Thanks to this mass industrialisation – and a 1968 addendum to the Reinheitsgebot permitting hop extracts and powders – so-called Fernsehbier (TV beer) costs even less than its ingredients. And it’s the price factor that microbrewers say has most stunted the development of a true craft beer scene here: why pay €2.50 for a bottle of Schoppe Bräu when you can get three Sternis or Oettingers?

Yet as Berlin has internationalised and its residents’ pockets deepened, so has its beer scene diversified. The past five years have seen passionate and experimental brewers taking up residence in restaurants, market halls, cellars and, yes, even old breweries. IPA, a bitter hop-filled ale popularised in the US a decade or so ago, is the trendy drink of choice, with Belgian styles and more obscure German varieties also making inroads. Of course, you’ll still find plenty of (fresh, unfiltered) pilsner on tap.

And that infamous purity law? Sebastian Mergel of new startup Beer4Wedding speaks for everyone when he says, “We don’t want to fight the Reinheitsgebot. We just ignore it.”

The hop-heads

I’m not some kind of beer Jesus.

Berlin’s current craft beer wave can be traced back to the short-lived Berlin Bier Company, a homebrew supply store and experimental brewery opened by Asbjörn Gerlach and Stefan Wendt in 1996. Despite garnering publicity for its wackiest creation, Turn – brewed with hemp blossoms in flagrant defiance of the Reinheitsgebot – the little Kreuzberg shop was far too ahead of its time and shut down in 2000. While Gerlach departed for Chile (where he now runs Kross Brewery) and Wendt left the beer game entirely, two of their cohorts stayed behind…

Thorsten Schoppe, then a student at VLB, went on to become brewmaster at Kreuzberg’s Brauhaus Südstern. In addition to making the brewpub’s requisite pilsner, dunkel and wheat beer, the Braunschweiger has been bottling and selling his personal favourites as Schoppe Bräu since 2010. Relentlessly bitter from buckets of hops and containing up to 10 percent alcohol (the label on Holy Shit Ale doesn’t lie) these beers are a conscious effort to buck German tradition. Yet Schoppe has no problem with Kindl drinkers: “I’m not some kind of beer Jesus – I don’t want to convert everyone, but to show them what a beer can be.” Given free reign over the equipment as long as he keeps the pils flowing, Schoppe also brews and bottles on contract for Beer4Wedding, Vagabund and soft drink makers Kreuzbär. Later this summer he’ll start working at the resurrected Pfefferberg brewery and biergarten in Prenzlauer Berg.

Beer to try: Roggen Roll, a hybrid IPA/German-style Roggenbier or “rye-PA”.

Fellow Company man Matthias Schwab, a graduate of the Technical University’s (TU) intensive brewing science programme, went north to Moabit, where he founded Brewbaker in the Bellevue S-Bahn station in 2005. Five years later, he moved to his current location in the Arminius Markthalle, also in Moabit. Like Schoppe, Schwab enjoys pushing boundaries; thus his six-beer “Berlin series”, a showcase for what he calls “my freak stuff ”. He admits all his beers contain more hops than average, but doesn’t want to lean too hard on bitterness: “If everyone is making IPA, it’s as boring as everyone making pils.” Whatever he’s doing, it’s working: his little market stand is doing more business than it can handle and a new brewery, 10 times as large as his current one, is in the works.

Beer to try: Berliner Weihnacht, a heavy ale brewed with fresh ginger.

Originally published in Issue #118, July/August 2013. Updated September 2013.