When I am not drinking beer or writing about beer pilgrimages, I have a technical job where I interact with engineers from all over the world. Putting it bluntly, the biggest pains in the butt are the Germans. There is no negative connotation there. It is entirely spoken with profound respect. Nobody pays attention to the details and nobody methodically picks apart and questions every minute characteristic of a function or algorithm like the Germans. At the same time, I have a personal motto which comes from plenty of experience interacting with them.
Never go drinking with the Germans.
I didn’t plan to start this post out with a reference to my 9-to-5 life, but as I was researching my collection of classic travel writing for any anecdotes on Berlin, I came across one published in 1900 which clearly indicates that the German mentality that I deal with on a regular basis has somewhat of a tradition behind it.
G.W. Steevens was an Oxford-educated British journalist and war correspondant. Part III of his Glimpses of Three Nations (1869-1900) is titled “Berlin: Impressions of Germany and the Germans”. Steevens lays it out quite clearly, that when you arrive in Germany…
You are in a new atmosphere — an atmosphere of order, of discipline, of system, rigidly applied to the smallest detail.G.W. Steevens “Glimpses of Three Nations (1869-1900)”
Reading that felt so eeriely familiar.
The best anecdote to describe the German of the late 19th century is this one regarding how a German of the day proceeds with the simple act of shipping a package.
…I suppose a German who wants to send a parcel to England first buys a book of rules, then gives the matter a week of looking up and thinking out and talking over, then reconnoitres the post office, then solemnly buys oil-skin and sealing-wax and blue-label, calls his wife and children to bear a hand in the preparation of the packet, and finally leads them in the triumphant procession, with a note of the weight in his pocket and the exact fee wrapped up in paper, to the right door, the right counter, the right pigeon-hole, and then triumphantly posts it. Then he goes out to meet his friends over a glass of beer….G.W. Steevens “Glimpses of Three Nations (1869-1900)”
Yep, insert an engineering-related topic and that pretty much describes the Germans I know. Particularly the last sentence.
Furthermore, he makes some comparisons to Brits and Americans:
The joy of the Englishman, still more of the American, is to do something out of the way; the German finds his warmest glow in finding out the regulation way, and triumphantly walking in itG.W. Steevens “Glimpses of Three Nations (1869-1900)”
“All right” is the national cry of the Englishman all the world over; the German for it is “Alles in Ordnung” — “Everything in order.” But “All right” usually means that things will do as they are; “Alles in Ordnung” means that they are as somebody up above has ordained that they should be.G.W. Steevens “Glimpses of Three Nations (1869-1900)”
Steevens understandably received a lot of backlash even in a less politically correct day for these stereotyped observations, to which Steevens unapologetically attributed to feedback from German people themselves. While I am definitely cherry-picking things I find humorous and referring them to in-jokes I have with my beloved German colleagues, I always enjoy referring to these classic travel writings trying to get an impression of the place that I am visiting from over a century ago.
Impression of Berlin
People who have kindly frequented this blog know I spend a fair share of time in Germany. Between Oktoberfest, Franconian beer hikes, Romantic Rhine, Christmas Markets, and others, Germany does not lack in Dionysian adventures. Over the years, thru some subconsciously operating poll, I get the impression that Berlin is the average traveler’s favorite city destination in all of Germany.
There is no doubt about it, Berlin is grandiose. It has all of the hallmarks of a capital city, which it has been since 1871. Big cathedrals, big classical façades, big boulevards. However, what it lacks is that characteristic Old World Germanic charm. Being the most bombed city in history probably had something to do with that, as does the Berlin Wall years. G.W. Steevens had this to say about Berlin in comparison to other German cities of the late 19th century:
Munich lays itself out more for art, Hanover is healthier, Frankfurt is the heart of a more romantic country, Hamburg is gemmed with lagoons, Cologne has a fairer building and a fairer river, Nürnberg offers the piquancy of trolley-cars gliding between fourteenth-century gables and frescoes. Berlin is a rather tasteless, rather unhealthy city, standing in the middle of a rather featureless plain, on a decidedly dull and insignificant river, and presenting no architectural or historical features of more than ordinary interest. And yet Berlin is emphatically and unmistakenably one of the great cities of the world.G.W. Steevens “Glimpses of Three Nations (1869-1900)”
Keep in mind the above was written sometime before 1900 and iconic symbols of Berlin such as the glass dome of the Reichstag and the Berlin Cathedral (1905) did not exist. The Brandenburg Gate existed but of course it has become more of a famous cultural symbol since the Reunification. There had been no World Wars, no Checkpoint Charlie, no Holocaust Memorial, no Berlin Wall, no TV Tower.
But in a way, I agree with the sentiment. Berlin does not have a direct appeal to me, which I get from the aforementioned Old World charm. Yet, when I am in Berlin, I cannot deny having a feeling of awe. There is no doubt that history buffs will find a delicious array of time periods to explore, from the years of Frederick the Great to the founding of the German empire, to the Nazi years, to the Berlin Wall years, reunification, and today’s eclectic mixture of neighborhoods including the infamous squatter houses. During a weekend earlier this year, I set out to discover a part of Berlin more suited to this blog, Berlin’s beer culture. Where does Berlin rank among Germany’s great beer destinations?
Beer Drinking in 19th Century Berlin
Of all of the classic travel writer’s that I have read and used as references for this blog, Steeven’s work is the first that has ever mentioned beer. Here a reference to the diet of a typical working class family in Berlin at the time:
Rice-milk and black bread in the morning, soup of smoked beef or coarse two-year old pork and vegetables at midday, bread and butter and a glass of Schnapps in the field for tea, fried dumpling, onions, and potatoes in the evening. Thereto as much home-brewed beer as they can drink — considering that it gives the general impression of weak paste turned sour, they can drink a surprising deal of it. It is a hard life…G.W. Steevens “Glimpses of Three Nations (1869-1900)”
Regarding Germans in general:
All classes have an intense love of pleasure. They do not generally get the credit of this among those who have not watched them; but though they take their pleasures more quietly than the French or Italians, or even the Austrians, they take them with full enjoyment. Beer-drinking, smoking, talking, and listening to the band…G.W. Steevens “Glimpses of Three Nations (1869-1900)”
So there is some method (and experience) to my madness when I say never go drinking with the Germans. They have culturally built up a tolerance that not even my 8-plus years of training on stronger Belgian beers can help me compete with them.
The plan for Berlin was to visit as many breweries and craft beer bars as I could manage in one day (I rented a bike). I am sure I left out many places, particularly touristy beer halls which feature Munich beers.
All of the places discussed in this post are highlighted in the following Google Map.
Key to the map:
- Black Mug: Visited Breweries
- Yellow Mug: Visited Beer Bars
- Grey Mug: Places of interest not visited but mentioned in this post
The main beers associated with the city are Berliner Pilsner and Berliner-Kindl, both part of the conglomerate brewery of Berliner-Kindl-Schultheiss Brauerei, which can be visited on the outskirts of the city. I did not venture that far during my stay. Berliner Pilsner (1902) and Berliner Kindl (1872) originally came from different breweries. Berliner Kindl was brewed in the town of Rixdorf and the Kindl range of beers was modelled after the Munich-style beers to bring the Bavarian beer tradition to Berlin. Only after the reunification were the breweries combined with another Berlin brewery, Schultheiss, to form the brewery of today.
BRLO is a modern Berlin craft beer brewery located in the southwest part of the city near the U Gleisdreieck U-Bahn station. This is also a good place to eat if you prefer to have something a little different than the standard German fare. They have around 20 craft beers on tap and additional in bottle. Website
Brauhaus Georgbrau is in the one part of Berlin which retains the Old World charm I love, Alt Berlin (Old Berlin). Georgbrau is where you go to have typical German-style food and house-made beer. This is the type of place I am a sucker for.
Brauhaus Lemke am Alex
A craft beer bar and restaurant just off of Alexanderplatz. I am never particularly thrilled with craft beer that stays within the confines of the pilsner, pale ale, and Hefeweizen families, but along with BRLO, these two places provide nice Dionysian bookends to a beautiful city.
Berliner Marcus Brau
Marcus Brau was probably my favorite stop in my beer tour of Berlin. Maybe because it is a non-flashy, small micro brewery with a traditional family-style touch. This is a place catering to the locals. Blink and you might miss the entrance along the street. When you enter, the beer tanks are right behind the cash register.
Berlin Beer Bars
Biererei Bar & Vintage Cellar
This has my vote as the best craft beer bar in Berlin. Yes I know Mikkeller is prestigious and has amazing beers, but Mikkeller is Danish and is becoming a franchise popping up in major cities around the world which takes away from the Berlin-ness of it. I prefer local craft beer bars.
Danish Mikkeller is one of the best craft beer breweries in the world, and I always personally judge a craft brewery by the quality and complexity of its stouts. Mikkeller is a pioneer of experimental stouts. I had Mikkeller’s Bean Geeks Session Porter and a guest tap Smoldering Holes by WarPigs.
Brewdog Berlin Mitte
Brewdog is a Scottish craft brewery whose brewpubs, like Mikkeller, are popping up around the world in major cities.
Unfulfilled Beer Pilgrimages
Small craft brewery which also offers a brewing course. It is unclear if it is possible to drink their beer on-site, but their website indicates locations where the beer can be purchased.
Birra – Italian Craft Beer
A place advertised as a craft beer bar for Italian beers (Italy has a thriving craft beer industry). It was closed during my visit. Opening hours start at 6pm every day.
I have no picture of this, but probably the most authentic place to try this craft beer is the Schankhalle Pfefferberg Braugasthaus which is affiliated with the brewery. It was not open when I passed by, but definitely looks worth a visit. Schoppe Bräu Schankhalle Pfefferberg
Berlin is a place where you can experience the German culture and history on many levels. However, it is not a torch bearer of the rich German beer culture. Beer is much more of an integral part of the experience in places such as Dusseldorf, Dortmund, Bamberg, and Munich than in Berlin. But I don’t think even a hardcore beer lover like myself would notice if I wasn’t specifically seeking out the best beer pilgrimages. Beer in Berlin feels more like an afterthought, a place where foriegners like Mikkeller and Brewdog can gain a strong foothold and rank as some of the best beer drinking spots. However, in Germany, I prefer the more traditional beer halls and biergartens.
When Steevens wrote the anecdotes which I have included in this post, there was growing enmity between Germany and England, yet still hope that “We need not suppose this means war.” He was astute enough to foresee that trouble was brewing (forgive the pun) more than 20 years before World War I. The Berlin of his day had yet to experience the calamities and humiliations of the 20th century, and thus I found his observations help me to appreciate the Berlin of today much more. Berlin doesn’t give me that Alles in Ordnung impression that it gave Steevens in the late 19th century. It feels like a city that now embraces openness and diversity, that doesn’t feel like it needs to put on a particular face to attract visitors. It feels like a place that is happy to let each visitor decide for themselves what side of Berlin they wish to see. As with any great empire from any nation, it’s history is full of darkness, but the Berlin of today shines and sets things in order by not hiding any of that past, and despite not being a great beer city on par with other German cities, it has an unrivaled majesty.