Germany often considers itself the be-all and end-all of beer. But boozers in Berlin are discovering that the spectrum of suds extends far beyond light, dark and wheat. DW's Jefferson Chase goes out for a pint.
From the moment Dirk Hoplitschek enters my apartment, I know we're going to hit it off. The co-founder of Berlin Beer Index website has even brought along a rucksack full of samples.
"You can't talk about beer without trying some," says Hoplitschek, a 20-something native of eastern Berlin. So we set about sipping and comparing impressions of two small-batch wheats, a pale ale and curious concoction of beer and yerba mate.
The Beer Index is both a rating platform and a social media network for the craft beer scene in Germany. Hoplitschek and co-founders Robert Pazurek and Florian Sternke also offer something they call "crowd beering," in which beer enthusiasts pledge to buy a package of foreign beers. Once a critical mass has been reached to make shipping economically feasible, the beer is ordered.
But if Germany has some of the best stuff in the world, why the passion for imports?
"We call it boredom at a high level," Hoplitschek replies. "If you compare standard German and American products, like Anheuser-Busch beers, American ones are certainly worse. But there's not a whole lot variety or innovation in Germany. What we're trying to do is open up people's eyes and tell them that there so much exciting stuff out there. Beer can be so much more than just this uniform crap."
When pressed to name the one beer he'd take to a desert island, Hoplitschek picks Firestone Pale Ale 31, a version of a traditional British specialty brewed in California using four types of hops typical of the American Northwest. These are the sorts of beers that are slowly but surely attracting a young fan base in Berlin, and that's a fact which should be giving Germany's brewing industry pause for thought.
Arrogance without knowledge?
Per capita beer consumption in Germany has been declining for years, and until now there's been no German equivalent of the explosion in small breweries in the US or the Real Ale Campaign in Britain. In terms of craft brewing, Germany has even lagged behind traditional wine countries like Spain or Italy.
There may be 1,300 breweries in Germany, but most are owned by a handful of big beverage corporations that hew very closely to the perceived mainstream. You only need walk around Berlin and note the number of disused brewery buildings to realize that a lot of craftsmanship and tradition have gone lost.
Germans may consider beer their national drink, but they're not particularly interested in it.
"Most people in Germany don't even know about beer," Hoplitschek sighs. "They're arrogant without having any knowledge, and that's bad."
In Berlin that's changing. As the city becomes more and more international, nothing short of a minor revolution is taking place in people's eating and drinking habits. The Berlin Beer Shop in the district of Moabit, for instance, holds regular tasting events to introduce both Germans and non-Germans to various styles of beers.
Hoplitschek sees his Beer Index as another forum that's trying to educate people and get them talking about what they drink.
One reason for this trend is that the influx of foreigners to Berlin is expanding the range of beer that can be profitably sold here. To check out this phenomenon, Hoplitschek and I head off to a bar devoted to specialties from the country with the highest per capita number of breweries and thus the best claim to being the world's true beer capital - Belgium.
Fewer rules, better beer
There isn't much that's cutting-edge about the district of Prenzlauer Berg these days, but for Bart Neirynck, a 30-something immigrant from Belgian Flanders, the high numbers of foreigners made it the perfect place to open Berlin's first watering hole devoted almost exclusively to Belgian beer.
"We've been here for four months now, and at the beginning it was strictly international," Neirynck tells us. "I didn't hear one German voice in here. We had Canadians, Americans, Belgians, Dutch, French, Italians - the Germans only started coming here three or four weeks later. Mostly they were young people. And by now it's about fifty-fifty."
Neirynck himself has traveled around a fair bit, having lived in San Francisco and Rome, and came to Berlin because his girlfriend is German. His establishment is named after his German teacher: Herman.
Backlit on the wall behind the taps are 100 of Belgium's finest Trappist ales, lambics and seasonals. The emphasis is on Flanders' specialties like the mouthwateringly brilliant Duchesse de Bourgogne or Rodenbach Grand Cru.
Belgian beers are brewed to the same hygienic standards as German ones, but the more flexible approach to ingredients means far greater variety with flavors, which range from near-port-wine treacle to champagne-like tartness.
"Thanks to the Beer Purity Law of 1516, Germans make good pilsners and wheat beers, but it doesn't open the door to a lot of variety," Neirynck explains. "So I thought why shouldn't a Belgian come in and offer all the things they don't consider beer. We Belgians know we brew good stuff, even though we don't have all the rules and regulations. And it seems to me that younger Germans aren't as strict about the Purity Law as older ones."
"Yeah, when we Germans get obsessed about purity, it's not always such a great thing," quips a young patron at the bar. Laughing, Hoplitschek and I grab a seat and start ordering beers we've never tasted before, even though we know one night isn't going to be sufficient to try them all. Herman is one of those bars that demands repeat visits.
A few hours later, and as far as I can tell, not one person has ordered a Beck's. My taste buds are buzzing, as is my head, and although I don't really want to go, the journalistic call of duty beckons in the morning. So I leave Hoplitschek and Neirynck to talk shop.
There's an awful lot of pious blather these days about how multicultural Berlin is - if I see another traditional corner bar close to make way for an American-style muffin bakery, I may voluntarily forfeit my US passport. But when it comes to beer, foreign influences are increasing genuine diversity. And that's something to savor.
Jefferson Chase was introduced to the amazing variety of the world's beers by the late, great drinks writer Michael Jackson, who's hopefully up in heaven enjoying a Duchesse du Bourgogne.