I wasn’t prepared for the snow that blanketed Berlin the night before I arrived. Getting off the train, into the shock of the cold, trying to drag a suitcase while slipping over in my Converse every few steps, was an unexpected introduction to what was already going to be an unknown beer stop.
Where Munich has its big old beer halls and Cologne has its little glasses of kolsch, Berlin doesn’t have a beer-thing other than the touristy syrup-and-straw glasses of Berliner Weisse. As a bigger, broader, more progressive and modern city than others in Germany I had no idea what it’d be like as a beer destination, so it was brilliantly exciting to find some of the best brewpubs I’ve drunk in.
Hops & Barley is a simple glass-fronted space surrounded by bars, shops and houses. It’s warm inside with the small brewkit to the right of the central bar – it has the feel of a late-night cafe with a cool crowd. Five brews are available so I ordered a 0.1l taster of each. The unfiltered pilsner was creamy and smooth, lemony and bitter with a pithy aroma; the weizen was bubblegum and spice; somewhere between a dunkel and schwarzbier, the dark lager was smooth with a hint of chocolate and a background char-like roastiness; there’s a cider which was deliciously tart and dry yet still sweet and tasted like crunching into a fresh apple; and there’s always a seasonal beer which was a Bohemian pilsner when I was there, though it was chubby compared to the house pilsner, which was so good I couldn’t leave without drinking a pint.
Out of Hops & Barley and Schalander is about a 15 minute walk. A bold and bright corner bar, the 150l kit sits in the middle of the modern space. They brew a pils, dunkel and weiss plus specials, usually classic German styles. The unfiltered pils was smooth with a hint of apple-like sweetness before a long, dry bitterness which demanded you drank more. The dunkel was full of floral aromas backed with a charred savouriness, which was kind-of odd in an interesting way – I preferred the pils. To go with the beer, they serve delicious flammkuchen.
Eschenbrau is on the opposite side of the city but a direct train from Schalander made it an easy journey. Less easy is finding the brewery when you arrive... Near the station, a couple of left turns and then you enter what looks like some green space between a block of student flats and from there it’s on your left. The copper brewkit is upstairs and glows bright while downstairs it’s cosy and friendly with a young student crowd and bright illustrations on the walls. The unfiltered pilsner is really excellent: creamy, smooth and fruity, then a big bite of bitterness that’s like chewing on lemon pith. The dunkel is equally good: toasty caramel, roasted stone fruit but very little dark malt flavour making it smooth and gulpable. This is a cool place to sit and drink a few fresh beers.
Not far from Eschenbrau is BrewBaker which isn’t quite a brewpub, but it’s close – the beer is brewed in the same space as a beer bar, though brewery and bar have different owners... In a covered market area, the brewery is soon to shift a couple of stalls over but the beers will still be available at the bar where you can expect a modern mix of beers including an IPA, stout, red lager, bocks, a ginger beer, Berliner weisse, specials and a pilsner. This is the craft side of Berlin brewing where you’re just as likely to find a double IPA as a dunkel.
Back in the centre of the city, Marcus Brau is a tiny brewpub with its little kit neatly placed behind the bar. They make a pilsner and a dunkel and both are excellent. The pils is very pale with a waving hint of sweetness cut by the lasting dry bitterness. The dunkel is smooth and creamy with subtle chocolate biscuit notes. Inconspicuous from the outside, you’ll be really glad you stopped for a beer.
There are others: Mitte and Lemke have the same owners and are minutes from each other (Marcus Brau is about two-minutes from both, also), though the spaces they are in are very different: one dominates a shopping centre while the other is cosy in a railway arch. I didn’t love any of their beers, though Lemke’s seasonal Marzen was pretty good. And there are ones which I didn’t get to visit, like Heiden Peters and Sudstern, as both were closed while I was there.
As the last stop on a week-long trip around Germany, I’d already drunk a lot of very good beer. Without the traditions of other places, Berlin is where you can find some classic beers brewed in a modern way by some excellent small breweries. I already want to return.