How a city divided became one of Europe’s great craft beer capitals

Vibrant, dynamic, cosmopolitan, always surprising and often downright weird – today’s Berlin is a product not only of the geopolitical forces that shaped the 20th century, but also of the diverse people and cultures who have found home in this truly unique city. 

Berlin’s modern history is infamous enough for us to skate past all but the relevant details. The brutality of cleaving into east and west a capital city still reeling from world war – severing communities, friends, lovers, families – created ripples which are still felt keenly today. With Allied-occupied West Berlin in the 1960s effectively cut off the surrounding East Germany (and under the constant threat of US/Russian tensions spilling over into fresh war) many chose to move to other parts of the country, leaving the military administration presiding over a city in ruin, and lacking the civilian workforce needed to rebuild.

Its solution was two-fold. First, it invited migrants from Turkey to settle in the city and help with reconstruction. The third or fourth generation of these migrant families are now an integral part of Berlin’s culture, influencing everything from music and art to food. 

The second measure was to abolish compulsory military service (which was then two years, and only abolished nationwide in 2012) for anyone moving to Berlin. While this may not seem like a big deal, its importance in shaping the culture and character of modern Berlin cannot be overstated. The city suddenly became a haven for young people, students, artists, musicians, pacifists and anyone who didn’t fancy spending two years learning how to kill people.

This cemented the view of West Berlin as being somehow different from the rest of Germany, giving it a counter-cultural bent that would spread throughout the city following the fall of the Berlin wall in 1985.

Reunification was, of course, one of the most significant world events of the 20th century, marking what many saw as a cultural victory in what could easily have become a nuclear conflict. But nowhere was this cultural shift felt more keenly than in Berlin. It was a mass ‘blind date’ moment, when the residents of a divided city met over the literal rubble of the cold war, embraced, then tried to work out how to be together.

In practice, many former East Berliners moved west, keen to enjoy the perceived benefits offered by capitalism and modernity. Once again, the city was thrown into a state of flux, as property prices tanked in the east, to the extent that many buildings were simply abandoned. This once again attracted a bohemian crowd, creating a fertile counter-cultural soup as squats, communities and makeshift (illegal) nightclubs sprung up, eventually becoming institutions in their own right. Entire genres of music have been born and died on the banks of the east Berlin Spree.

Today, things are changing again, as a push to make full use of city-centre real estate (or gentrification, depending on your point of view) grinds against an ‘alternative’ Berlin (or the real Berlin, again depending where you sit) which is still very much alive and kicking. 

Even as the glorious nightclub shacks of the Spree are ripped up to make room for glistening corporate headquarters and Mercedes Benz showrooms, it’s still perfectly possible to accidentally find yourself doing shots of mezcal in an anarcho-punk bar at three in the morning because you got chatting to someone on the U-Bahn. Even as you enjoy its museums, fine dining restaurants and excellent shopping, you’re still surrounded by the powerful legacy of its street art, kept alive by crews like 1Up and Berlin Kidz. 

So, what does all this have to do with your beer? 

Berlin’s beer culture is entirely different to anywhere else in Germany. You wouldn’t, for example, go to Berlin for a traditional beer hall experience. What Berlin does have is a strong sense of community, and a character that suits experimentation and craft.

This is just as well, because being a small brewer trying to do something different in Germany is tricky. Thanks to the country’s amazing beer heritage, there is a well-established path to becoming a ‘certified’ brewer – it’s a four-year course, three of which must be spent in a brewery, making beer. At one time, this practical element would all be done in Germany, whereas today a growing number of baby brewers are choosing to cut their teeth elsewhere in the world.

Of course, as soon as they enter a brewery unencumbered by Reinheitsgebot – the ‘purity’ law that has governed the production of German beer for around 500 years – these trainee brewers are able to work with a much broader palette of ingredients and techniques. We’re not going get into the pros and cons of Reinheitsgebot here (though it will come up frequently in the coming pages, so remember the name) but there’s little doubt it can hamper the ambitions of anyone hoping to brew outside the German style.

On a purely practical level, it makes it nearly impossible to get a start-up loan for a new brewery, as lenders run a mile from anything which looks experimental. In Berlin, however, there exists a bridge between the fertile homebrew community and the world of commercial brewing: A handful of privately owned breweries around the city actively seek out promising brewers, giving them time on the kit and occasionally even loaning them the ingredients to get started.

Having only really got started a few years ago, Berlin’s craft scene is now entering something of a golden period, where these ‘nomad’ or ‘guest’ brewers have made enough money to set up on their own – notable examples include BRLO (featured on page 34) and Vagabund. Their success has already raised the profile of craft beer in the city, and there is broad recognition that a rising tide lifts all ships.

Because of this mutually beneficial ecosystem of brewers and breweries – each of whom is doing something different, yet is working to a common broad goal – Berlin has become a magnet for craft brewers across the country, particularly those returning from the training placements overseas. 

Berlin’s craft beer scene has grown out of the city’s wider history and culture, and one can be understood through the other – this comes through very clearly in every conversation we have during our visit. Freedom and proscription, high culture and low, mainstream and alternative, creation and destruction. These aren’t contradictions; this is Berlin, and duality is in its DNA.

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