May 1945. Berlin was a city of ghosts and ruins. Allied bombing had laid waste to vast swathes of the city centre, decimating the German capital’s infrastructure. Industry was crippled. Large-scale brewing operations had been torn apart by the high explosives that rained from the skies.
In the years that immediately followed World War Two, though, two breweries would rise from the rubble and become powerhouses in the period when Berlin was divided: Berliner Pilsner and Berliner Kindl.
They would come to define two divergent Cold War cultures in East and West.
Berliner Kindl would become the poster child of the Wirtschaftwunder, a microcosmic example of West Germany’s economic recovery. The name was all over West Berlin – the shop front window for Western values behind the Iron Curtain – as Marshall Plan money poured into the city.
The war and its immediate aftermath had been nothing short of disastrous for Kindl. Their brewing facilities in Potsdam and Weissensee became part of the GDR. The company, based in what was now West Berlin, lost two of its three main manufacturing facilities. The third, in Rixdorf (now Neukölln), badly damaged by bombing, had its functional remains stripped down and taken by the Soviets as part of reparation agreements. The 1950s, however, would see an upswing in Kindl’s fortunes. They purchased the Schöneberger Schlossbrauerei in 1954. Then, in 1955, they borrowed big from German banks and, crucially, received American reconstruction aid. The mammoth Oetker Group also acquired a majority share in the company. By 1972, the company’s 100 year anniversary, Kindl was back to brewing one million hectolitres of beer per annum – a record they previously set in the pre-war years.
Similarly, on the other side of the Wall and on the other end of the ideological spectrum, Berliner Pilsner would come to be a symbol of the GDR. What had started in 1902 as a small Hausbrauerei with an adjoining beer garden was nationalised in 1969 and incorporated into the Ost-Berliner Getränkekombinates. Berliner Pilsner was now brewed by the state, and with the socialist machine behind it, it became the leading beer brand in East Berlin. Beer brewed by the workers’ state for the workers. It was even exported to the UK and US, capitalist strongholds of the Cold War, helping to bring in western currency to buoy the East German economy.
Even after reunification, when Berliner Pilsner was divested and again run independently, it managed to retain its market share and its popularity. So much so that it was able to resist the fate of many former state-owned companies in the GDR, which were bought up and stripped down by Western corporations. Factories would be closed, employees put out of work, and orders would be filled from more technologically advanced factories in the West. The Berliner brand was strong enough, though, to survive and thrive.
After the ‘Fall of the Berlin Wall’Berliner Kindl became even more of a juggernaut post-German reunification - reintegrating the Potsdam and Weissensee breweries into their operations and increasing their brewing capacity threefold. Then, in the new millennium, they consolidated their brewing operations at a now modernised and expanded plant in Weissensee, closing the Potsdam and Neukölln breweries.
More recently, Berliner Kindl and Berliner Pilsner (along with another staple Berlin beer: Schultheiß) were merged into the Berliner-Kindl-Schultheiß-Brauerei by Kindl’s parent company: the Radeberger Gruppe – the largest brewery group in Germany, and a division of Oetker.
The two brands, under the same umbrella, continue to try and define the city’s image. Berliner Kindl is an official city sponsor, while Berliner Pilsner’s advertising campaigns – Berlin, du bist so wunderbar! – show dishevelled and attractive youngsters in sunglasses languishing on the banks of the river Spree in abandoned areas that look impossibly sanitary.
If you go to a bar, a club, or a festival in the city, chances are you’ll be drinking one of the two beers. They’re on billboards and their adverts play before Youtube videos. Berliner Kindl and Berliner Pilsner are, quite simply, everywhere.
The Taste Test
So what of the beers themselves, then? Does the quality stand up to the percentage of the market share they control?
On Ratebeer.com, online repository of beer nerdage, Kindl and Berliner Pilsner are generally maligned. Both rate one star out of five, suggesting that both beers are bad. This is unfair. They are perfectly palatable but unremarkable. They also taste quite similar, which is not unusual with regard to German beers.
Beer is sacred here. When Germans first started to be mentioned in the written histories of the Romans, it was remarked that they drank impressive quantities of Barley liquor. What was essentially rudimentary beer. During the 1848/1849 revolutions, where German nationalists were attempting to create a national culture to bind all Germans together, beer was trumpeted as a longstanding German tradition. A quintessential facet of the German national character.
German Nationalism & the Purity Decree
The Reinheitsgebot (Bavarian Beer Purity Decree), signed in 1516, sanctioned that beer could only be made using water, hops and malt. The decree was elevated to mythical status by the German nationalists – interpreted as a law whose sole purpose was to protect the tradition and integrity of the national drink. Despite compelling evidence that the law was originally created to better manage agricultural produce (with crops like wheat and rye being more useful for making bread) and that it was later widely instituted across much of German Europe to combat the famine conditions caused by the 30 years war, most people today still interpret the Reinheitsgebot in the same way the 19th century nationalists did.
The Purity Decree has been the guiding principle of German brewing for generations and remains a powerful influence. In the 1990s, for example, after reunification, a ten-year court battle was waged across Germany – the ‘Brandenburg Beer War’ – over a dark beer brewed in the former GDR that contained sugar, something forbidden by the Reinheitsgebot.
Yes, the Purity Decree ensures that the quality of beer in Germany, in general, is high, but it also shackles creativity. Experimentation is only allowed within certain parameters. The weight of tradition means that German beer lacks in diversity.
And therein lies the problem with Berliner Kindl and Berliner Pilsner: homogeneity.
The Berlin Craft Beer Revolution
Berlin has long been a city of contrasts: of east and west; of stoicism and hedonism; simultaneously the epicentre of the administration and experimentation. No amount of cash splurged on advertising that celebrates how edgy and alt Berlin they are can disguise the fact that Berliner Kindl and Berliner Pilsner are not really Berlin anymore. They’re boring, they’re corporate and their ubiquity over such a long period of time led the Berlin beer scene into stagnation.
They are to Berlin what Budweiser, Coors and Miller are to brewing in the United States. In the US, independent brewers reacted against the drudgery of Bud Lite to create the most diverse and vibrant craft beer scene in the world (taking a decent chunk of the market share with them in the process). The same is happening in Berlin.
The past five years or so have seen the craft beer scene in the German capital explode. The market is ripe for it. Berlin has a young and trendy population, and craft beer is in vogue worldwide. There are a lot of expats here – especially from the US – who are thirsty for the exciting tastes of home, and younger Germans are hankering for something different. What’s more, because independent brewers do not have to compete with the big brewers here as much, there is more opportunity to offer an alternative product.
Where once the Pilsner ruled, the IPA and Pale Ale are now kings.
Sampling The New Scene
Perhaps the most telling sign of this shift was the arrival of Stone Brewing in Berlin, in March 2016. The American craft beer giant chose Berlin as its centre of production and distribution for the whole of Europe. They poured millions of euros into refitting an old gasworks, situated at the city’s south pole in Mariendorf, to create what is probably the most visually striking bar/brewery in the city. You can bet that they aren’t bowing to the restrictions of the Reinheitsgebot either. Their Tangerine Express IPA is made using fresh mandarin and pineapple puree. As the name and the ingredients would suggest the flavour is rich with tropical citrus notes. As is usually the case with Stone beers it’s very much hop forward, so has a bitter edge, and it’s strong at 6.7% ABV – much stronger than most regular German brews.
Much further to the north of the city and much more indicative of the small-scale, low-fi Berlin vibe is Vagabund Brauerei. The place is tiny, but their following is large. So small is their space that they can only brew around 300 litres per batch – hence the bags of malt and empty kegs stacked up in the taproom. Also run by Americans (three of them – Tom, Dave and Matt – usually present on site and always up for a beer-related chat), the menu tends to be Pale Ale focused, but there’s always a Haus Helles on tap and there’s often a bit of Belgian influence there too. Their American Pale Ale is always on the menu. Using mainly cascade hops it’s strong in citrus flavour, plenty aromatic on the nose and has a crisp bitter finish.
Some of the brews above might be considered by some Germans as too aggressive. Enter Brauhaus Lemke, a Berlin craft beer stalwart, open since 1999, who brew several non-German beer styles that are accessible to the German palate. Their 030 Pale Ale (named after Berlin’s dialling code) is vibrant, zesty and super light, with a less pronounced bitterness than a lot of American style Pale Ales. Their IPA, too, is excellent and was created initially as a beer to take abroad to competitions (it won a gold medal at the New York International Beer Competition). It’s got a rich malty base and is dry-hopped with a blend of Amarillo, Simcoe and Cascade hops that give the beer subtle tropical notes, particularly of passion fruit.
To suggest that the independent brewing landscape in Berlin is utterly dominated by IPAs and Pale Ales, however, would be a disservice to the diversity of the scene. Safe Germanic beers are being experimented with (Berliner Berg’s Helles is a great example), and styles that had long fallen out of fashion are being lovingly rehabilitated.
The Berliner Weisse is a prime example. Similar to Belgium’s lambic beers, this light wheat beer is naturally fermented. Along with yeast fermentation, Lactobacillus bacteria convert fermentable sugars into lactic acid, giving the beer an intense sour flavour. Berliner Weisse, when done right, is light, tart and citrusy – more akin to a dry cider or sparkling white wine in flavour. In the early 20th century there would have been hundreds of breweries making it. After German reunification, there were only a handful. Berliner Kindl and their bastardised version of the Weisse (pre-mixed with either raspberry or woodruff syrup, more soda-pop than beer) was pretty much the only one widely available.
Now, thanks to independent craft brewers, the Berliner Weisse is back and better than ever. Both Brauhaus Lemke and the Meierei’s Weisses are excellent nods to the original. Brlo’s take on the Weisse is more modern and is served with one of a range of homemade syrups – such as blood orange. In a recent collaboration with Polish brewery Browar Stu Mostów, they also brewed up a strawberry Berliner Weisse.
Beers Change, Change With The Beers
Now, this kind of thing wouldn’t fly in most of Germany. A recent survey showed that 85% of German consumers still believe the Reinheitsgebot should continue to be upheld. Ask any German, though, and they’ll tell you that Berlin orbits on a different course from the rest of the country. If any city was going to break the brewing mould in Germany it was going to be the black sheep capital. The spirit of non-conformity and experimentation is strong here.
Why not come and see for yourself. It’s only going to get more interesting from here on out.- Editor’s Picks Featured Breweries:
- Stone Brewing: Im Marienpark 23, 12107 Berlin | Ubhf Alt-Mariendorf (U6)
- Vagabund: Antwerpener Str. 3, 13353 Berlin | Ubhf Seestraße (U6)
- Brauhaus Lemke: Dircksenstraße 143, 10178 Berlin | Sbhf Hackescher Markt (S3, S5, S7, S75, S9)
- Berliner Berg: Kopfstraße 59, 12053 Berlin | Ubhf Leinestraße (U8)
- The Meierei: Im Neuen Garten 10, 14469 Potsdam | Sbhf Potsdam Hauptbahnhof (S1, S7)
- BRLO: Schöneberger Str. 16, 10963 Berlin | Ubhf Gleisdreieck (U1, U2)
- Eschenbräu: Triftstraße 67, 13353 Berlin | Ubhf Wedding (U6)
- Hops and Barley: Wühlischstraße 22/23, 10245 Berlin | Ubhf Frankfurter Tor (U5), Warschauer Straße (U1)
- Heidenpeters: Eisenbahnstraße 42-43, 10997 Berlin | Ubhf Görlitzer Bahnhof (U1)
- Two Fellas: 30 Mühlenstraße, 13187 Berlin | Ubhf Pankow (U2)
- Hopfenreich: Sorauer Str. 31, 10997 Berlin | Ubhf Görlitzer Bahnhof (U1)
- Lager Lager: Pflügerstraße 68, 12047 Berlin | Ubhf Schönleinstraße (U8)
- The Muted Horn: Flughafenstraße 49, 12053 Berlin | Ubhf Boddinstraße (U8)