Thursday, 27 March 2014

Enjoying Beer in Berlin

It’s been a fortnight since my son and I returned from Berlin, and during that time things have been rather hectic, to say the least, on both the home and the work front. Consequently I’ve only just found the time to sit down and write about our experiences of the local beer and pub scene there.

Beer wise the brewing scene in Berlin is dominated by the large BKS Group (Berliner Kindl Schultheiss), who are part of the Radeberger Gruppe (formerly Dr Oetker). BKS brew the following brands: Berliner; Berliner Bürgerbräu; Berliner Kindl; Potsdamer and Schultheiss.

The city also boasts around 17 brew-pubs, although some of these belong to the same owner, even though they may brew on multiple sites. Like much of northern Germany, Pilsner-style beers dominate, although that old East German favourite Schwarzbier (Black Beer) is also fairly common, on both draught and in bottle. In addition, beers from other parts of Germany, such as Baden-Württemburg, Bavaria, Lower Saxony, North Rhine-Westphalia and Thuringia, are quite widely available. Visitors used to the normally quite localised nature of the German beer market, will therefore be surprises, as we were, to be able to drink Altbier from Düsseldorf, or Kölsch from Cologne, alongside some of the more local Pilsners.

So what about the places to drink all these beers? As stated in my previous post about Berlin the city certainly has some superb pubs and bars and with the aid of a guidebook called “Around Berlin in 80 Beers”, written by Peter Sutcliffe, we found some great places to both drink and eat in. Here’s my summary of the ones we enjoyed the most, divided up into various categories.

Historic Pubs
 There are two contenders here for Berlin’s oldest and hence, most historic pub: zur Letzten Instanz and zum Nußbaum.

zur Letzten Instanz dates from 1621, and qualifies as the oldest pub in Berlin, by virtue of zum Nußbaum being a reconstruction. Although the latter was actually older, the original pub was destroyed in 1943, during an air raid, and was originally situated in the Alt Coln area of the city, across the River Spree, from the current one.

Both are excellent pubs though in their own right. Tucked away, opposite a church, in a quiet area of the city, zur Letzten Instanz was practically empty when we called in mid-afternoon.  The pub is an attractive white-painted building with green-painted shutters either side of the doors and windows. Internally there are three inter-connected, wood-panelled rooms leading away from the bar; each on a slightly lower level than the preceding one. The last room has a cast-iron spiral staircase leading up to what appears to be staff accommodation above. There were lots of “Reserviert” signs on the tables, indicating the staff were expecting a good crowd in later on. Pubs being packed during the evening, and finding it difficult to get a table, seemed to be a recurring feature of Berlin. Schultheiss  Pils was the beer of choice here.

We visited zum Nußbaum on our last morning in Berlin (well we had to didn’t we?). It’s a lovely cosy, low-ceilinged little pub, with lots of dark wooden panelling, and it’s difficult to believe this reconstruction only dates from 1986. There are three tiny inter-connected rooms, and like zur Letzten Instanz, there were only a handful of other people in the pub when we called in for a glass of Berliner Jubiläums Pils and a Bratwurst. Situated in the restored Nikolaiviertel of former East Berlin, just a short hop from the hustle and bustle of Alexanderplatz, it’s hard to believe you are in the same city!

Pubs in Railway Arches
Again two contenders and both are contrasting. One all shiny and new Alkopole Bierbar is a bustling stand-up-to-drink boozer’s bar underneath Alexanderplatz station. The other, Tiergartenquelle is on the edge of the sprawling Tiergarten; Berlin’s answer to London’s Hyde Park.

Alkopole Bierbar is all pine and polished pine, and caters primarily for punters popping in for a quick drink before catching their train home, whereas Tiergartenquelle has a much older feel about it, and attracts an obviously more fixed, and less transient clientele. Given its situation on the edge of parkland, the pub has a much more relaxed feel about it, and inside there are lots of faded posters, alcoves and a slightly Bohemian clientele. The beer range here is supplied by Lemke, who operate a large brew-pub at the Hackescher Markt in the city centre. I sampled the saison, an almost orange-coloured Kupfer bier, whilst Matthew enjoyed the Brauhaus Lemke Pils.

With Alkopole Bierbar, I particularly liked the “walk up to the bar, order, and pay as soon as you are served” approach. This was much more like an English pub, with none of this table service, waiting for the waiter to appear with the bill, which is characteristic of most German pubs. We had a Radeburger Pilsner each here, our last beer in Berlin before catching the train to the airport.

Modern Bars
There was just one contender here, the sprawling, ultra-modern Mommseneck am Potsdamer Platz, (Haus der 100 Bierre), at Potsdamer Platz. I’ve been in a similar themed establishment in Cologne before, but that was considerably smaller than this huge sprawling modern, glass-fronted pub. Most of the 100 or so beers are in bottled form only, but Mommseneck still offers 10 on draught. I enjoyed an excellent draught Köstritzer Schwarbier; Matthew was rather more conservative in opting for a Warsteiner Pils.

Esoteric/Off-Beat Pubs
The incomparable and hugely popular Dicke Wirtin, a short bus ride away from our hotel, fits the bill here. There was no room at the inn when we first called in on the Tuesday and on our last night in Berlin things seemed to be going the same way. However, there were a couple of vacant tables outside and as they were beneath a canopy and it was relatively mild evening, we grabbed one of them. We were glad we did as the food was excellent; as was the beer. Pilsner for Matthew and Mönschof Kellerbier from Kulmbach for me, served in an earthenware mug.

Inside, there were a number of inter-connected rooms, with live jazz music playing in one. The walls were covered with all sorts of brewery advertisements; mirrors, enamelled plaques, just the sort of thing to get a breweriana enthusiast hot under the collar. Dicke Wirtin is a real West Berlin institution which has always been popular with students and which proudly proclaims it has always welcomed artists, authors, actors and other like-minded people.

Brew Pubs
There are around 17 of these; all relatively recent in origin, with several located under railway arches or at railway stations. We visited four, the largest of which was sprawling and modern Brauhaus Mitte opposite Alexanderplatz station, and a train-spotters’ paradise being level with the tracks (Pilsner here).The smallest, and the best, was the tiny Marcus Bräu on the other side of the tracks and close to the city’s  Hackescher Markt. The lemony, citrus-tasting beer in this tiny brewpub was excellent, and the décor and general layout were also very good. This was a pub we would have liked to return to, had we the time.

Also worthy of a mention is Lindenbräu, which occupies part of the futuristic Sony Centre, at Potsdamer Platz. We sat outside here towards the end of our first afternoon in Berlin, enjoying a beer whilst watching the world go by. My unfiltered Naturtrüb Bier was excellent, whilst Matthew enjoyed his slightly more conventional, filtered Pils.

Bavarian-Style Beerhalls
We visited two of these; one run by Augustiner of Munich, and the other by Weihenstephan of Freising. Both are slightly upmarket, with Augustiner the larger of the two. Both are situated in former East Berlin and both are fairly recent and welcome additions to the city's drinking scene.

We visited Augustiner am Gendemenmarkt on our first night in Berlin (Saturday), and such is its popularity we were lucky to get a seat. We arrived shortly before 6pm, and after taking our seats were surprised to hear a bell being run, followed by people clapping. This turned out to be the nightly tapping of the Holzfass (wooden cask), containing Augustiner’s excellent Edelstoff. We ended up having several glasses to wash down our roast pork and potato dumpling; pure Munich in the heart of Berlin! The Gendemenmarkt from which the pub takes its name, is an attractive area of the city, and was somewhere we mean to return and explore further during daylight hours. As is often the case, the best laid plans tend to go astray, and we never got the chance to re-visit.

Weihenstephaner is to the north of its Bavarian counterpart, in the Hackescher Markt area of the city. It is smaller and more intimate than Augustiner’s outlet, although it does have a separate cellar bar. The latter was hosting what appeared to be a work’s function on the evening when we called in, but we managed to find a table upstairs without any problem. I tried the brewery’s Dunkel as well as their Pilsner; both were good but I resisted the temptation to try their Korbinian; a strong (7.4%) dark Doppelbock beer, available in bottled form only. The food was also very good, consisting of Bavarian dishes, such as Schnitzels, Schweinhaxe and other such hearty delights.

Best Pub for Beer, Food & Ambience
Sophie’n Eck, is a real gem of a pub, in former East Berlin. Triangular shaped, but with a Tardis-like interior; just as well given its popularity. Fortunately we arrived fairly early in the evening, and managed to get a table without too much trouble, but later on the staff were struggling to find space for people.

Sophie’n Eck underwent an extensive renovation in 1986, towards the end of the DDR regime, and is now a tasteful, if slightly up-market interpretation of a traditional Berlin Kneipe. Situated in a rapidly gentrifying area just behind the Hackeschermarkt, the pub is unusual in offering Sion Kölsch, from Cologne alongside Schlösser Alt from nearby Düsseldorf. Neither is served in the small, but correct, 20cl cylindrical glasses normally associated with these beers, but by the half litre! Good food as well, just a shame about the group of noisy American students! Still, you can’t have everything.

Finally, special mention should be made of Gasthaus Lentz, almost opposite Charlottenburg S-Bahn Station, and the closest pub to our hotel. A real friendly place, where, despite being heaving, the waitress went out of her way to find us a space and help us with the menu.  Kloster Andechs Spezial  Helles hit the spot beer wise and went well with our grilled pork steaks. Top marks for this excellent local’s pub-cum-restaurant; a real find in an unexpected location.

This completes my round-up of the best of Berlin’s pubs and bars which, whilst seemingly extensive, probably only scratches the surface of the city’s rich beer drinking heritage. Still, the chance to explore this heritage further offers a good excuse to re-visit the German capital.

For an overview of Berlin's must-see sights, and other non-beery attractions, visit my other blog - Paul' Beer Travels.

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