Saturday 01 September 2018
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Perhaps reflecting the cosmopolitan city from which it takes its name, Berliner Berg is a rich soup of influences, its co-founders having individually discovered craft beer in the US, Australia, Canada and France before returning to their native Germany. The result is a brewery with a keen interest in regional authenticity, yet which brings a craft sensibility to everything it does.
The three co-founders (plus managing director Michele Hengst) all met in a previous job, a Berlin-based startup company which – as these things often do – folded after 18 months. Having bonded over their shared loves of beer and brewing though, their sudden abundance of free time gave them the nudge they needed
“Individually, we’d all experienced this great variety of beers abroad which really left a huge impression,” says Michele. “You grow up in Germany and you have a pils, then another pils and then another. We began to talk about how amazing it would be to apply some of what we’d seen in other countries to traditional German styles. When this other company ended, there was really no excuse for the boys not to start something of their own, because they had the time and a good idea.”
The decision of where to base their new project was apparently unanimous, and so they began looking for premises in the Berlin district of Neukölln.
Around the 1900s, Neukölln was one of the Berlin hotspots for breweries, because it’s a little hilly. Most of Berlin is very flat. This was a district where there were once 70 or 80 very small breweries, and then after the war there were not enough workers and the economy was ruined, so all these breweries began to join up and that diversity disappeared overnight. The biggest of these was the Kindl brewery, which sold out to Radeberger brewery, which is owned by Dr Oetker. So, when the brewery was sold and moved to another district, it led to the loss of many jobs from this area.
“Today it’s one of the most diverse areas in Berlin. It has a very strong Turkish community, which is still here but the area is definitely becoming hipper. Every week new bars and restaurants are opening, and there’s art shows, music…”
The building they found dates back almost 200 years, and had originally been a grease factory, before the front rooms were sold off and turned into a “pretty rough” pub. Although a fundamentally beautiful building, the interior was in a bad state, and the team had to put their own sweat into transforming it.
“Of course, you do it all yourself right?” says Michele, laughing. “Rubbing down the floors after hours and making the old wooden panels beautiful and shiny. Rob’s brother is a carpenter and built the bar. We did as much as we could ourselves, but obviously in the brewery for some work you need specialists. So, if I did the tiles then everything would be uneven and you’d end up with pools of standing water filling a quarter of the room!
“But there was, and still is, a lot of hard manual work from us. That’s maybe why things have taken a little be longer to grow, but at least we know its all down to us.”
We have an amazing brew team. When the boys started the company, they met quite by chance the brewmaster Richie Hodges, who had just left Crew Republic at the time, and was in the process of moving to Berlin. He decided to join us, so we had a fantastic, experienced brewmaster right from day one. The beer that you’re going to have in the Beer52 box was his creation. After a few years, Richie decided it was time for him to move on again – he wanted to focus on his own smaller projects – but we’re still friends and all hang in the taproom together.
“So we needed a new brewmaster, and were lucky enough to find Thorsen Torsten Vullriede. He’s from northern Germany and studied brewing tech at university. Very dry humor, not the most chatty person, very calm, very kind and most importantly a great brewmaster. We then added two to the brew team, who are such a great asset. One is a girl from Australia - not a classic brewer, she’s a biologist. The other dude Nikki is from Greece, where he was a gypsy brewer and he studied chemistry. So we have a classic brewer, a fermentation expert and chemist who bring that in-depth knowledge. The microscope I sometimes think is the most important tool here,” says Michele.
Berliner Berg’s next big step was to set up a speciality brewery just for sour beers, which – as well as being a passion of the whole team – are due for a big domestic revival, believes Michele.
“We created a place where we can brew a Berliner Weisse in the way it was in the past, with wild yeast instead of lactobacillus from a packet. Most breweries just do it the easy way; the Berliner Kinder is the one that every tourist knows, served with red and green syrup. It’s not the traditional way, producing a regular beer and then putting lacto in it.
“There’s no such thing as the original Berliner Weisse of course. It was like going to a bakery – you’d go along with your mug and get your beer and everyone did it slightly differently. But we scoured the archives and tried different methods. Now we use the natural bacteria on the malts to have a first fermentation already in the mash. And then after that, it gets another fermentation from the yeast.”
Bringing a wealth of experiences from their travels and their studies, it feels like Berliner Berg really embodies much of the spirit of the modern craft movement, which it applies with respect and care to German brewing tradition. The results are every bit as delicious as you might hope.
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