Berlin: Bottoms up

Germany's beer laws mean that most pints have been brewed the same way for around 500 years, but there are a few microbrewers experimenting with new flavours.

By David Whitley
Published 12 Sept 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 11:06 BST

Brauhaus Lemke Restaurant, Berlin, Germany.

Photograph by Superstock

Down below The Circus Hostel is the tiniest of microbreweries. "He can basically only brew one beer at a time," says Dave Hardman, the guide for Brewer's Berlin Craft Beer & Breweries Tour. "And, he's a very traditional brewer."

When it comes to beer, Germany is a country obsessed with tradition. It all stems from 1516, when the Reinheitsgebot (the German beer purity law) was passed in Bavaria. This stated that the only ingredients allowed in beer were water, yeast, barley and hops.

The reasoning behind this was fairly sound; many unscrupulous brewers were putting rather, erm, interesting ingredients in their beers at the time. Beer drinkers were falling ill and, in some cases, dying. So, the Reinheitsgebot was an early piece of necessary nanny statery.

However, it became so embedded in Bavarian culture that when Germany unified, in 1871, the Bavarians insisted any other potential beer ingredients were so heavily taxed as to be unaffordable so Reinheitsgebot effectively became the law of the entire country.

It was only in the 1980s, when French brewers got fed up of not being able to call their product 'beer' when it was exported for the German market, that the cracks began to appear. The French brewers won their case in the European Court of Justice.

But, beneath the Circus, things are still done the old way, even if the bar has a modern, semi-industrial look. The pale ale, for example, is much lighter and fruitier than most American interpretations.

The traditionalists are finally beginning to lose their dominance, though, and it's happening in a city that's not exactly renowned for its beer. The three main brands — Berliner Kindl, Berliner Pilsner and Schultheiss — are all brewed by the same company, which is owned by frozen pizza-maker Dr. Oetker. Suffice to say, the beers are, at best, mediocre.

However, Berlin's strong international influence — you're as likely to hear English as a lingua franca here as much as German — is also playing a major part. Nowhere is this truer than the tour's second stop, Kaschk. A coffee shop by day, come evening time it morphs into a craft beer emporium, serving wildly experimental beers mostly from the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Among them is a monster Belgian-style Tripel with Thai green curry spices added, as well as a 9.3% IPA where the strength is barely noticed due to the strong guava flavour.

It's a wild diversion from the norm in a country where people tend to pick a favourite beer, then stick to it for life. But in Berlin, at least, experimentation is beginning to have a place. Dave says it wasn't until 2011 that the first viable, successful craft beer bar opened in the city. Now there are 22 craft breweries in the city, and in Germany, Berlin's scene is acting as a trailblazer.

The last stop on the tour is where it all began. Berlin's first craft brewery, Lemke, was born in 1999, then ploughing a brave lone furrow. Its offerings are mildly unusual — particularly the IPA-meets-wheat beer Hopfenweisse, while the standard wheat beer has an unashamedly strong banana taste — but they symbolise a willingness to change the way things have been done for the last 500 or so years.

Published in National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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