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Scene in Berlin

Lillian McDowall, Berlin
March 20, 2014

In the heart of hipster Berlin, a few pockets of old-school comfort remain, where Berliners and visitors alike can mingle, beer or whisky in hand. Typical for Berlin, even these oases are eclectic and multicultural.

Whisky on ice, Copyright: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online
Image: picture-alliance/Bildagentur-online

I'm heading to a bar in the heart of what hear is considered the "it place" in Berlin: the Neukölln district. It's not that I don't believe it's cool or gentrifying; it's just that as I get older I'm not so bothered by what is trendy or is not.

The thing that interests me in a bar is a) is the beer good? b) if not, is there a nice white wine? and c) it doesn't happen so much these days, but if I've had a late night, does it have any Irn-Bru (a Scottish fizzy drink that's too sweet for most Germans and outsells even Coca-Cola in its native land)? And a chilled yet friendly atmosphere definitely helps.

Ten years ago, Prenzlauer Berg fever was taking over Berlin, so much so that when I tried to get my first room in the city, you were lucky if you even got a reply when you inquired about places to rent in the Berg. And if you did, it was invariably a no. But back in 2004 Neukölln was described in Lonely Planet as a neighborhood that "has traditionally been a stronghold of the proletariat and continues to be dominated by poor and immigrant folk."

How things change. No mention of trendy bars there then but zip forward a decade and Time Out describes the area as "the latest Berlin borough to be hailed as the center of all things hip."

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Cosy cultural collision

A few years ago, a secretary at a Berlin newspaper I was working at said she feared the increasing popularity of Neukölln since she soon wouldn't be able to afford her rent. This is a theme echoed by many in the area today, as an article in Tip-Berlin this week reveals this fear within the Turkish community of Neukölln. The signs of gentrification are all there - it seems as if everyone I know is either here or moving here, and all the new places to go are south of downtown.

After leaving Karl-Marx Strasse, walking past a smattering of trendy hangouts along Weichselstrasse you can see the signs of gentrification, of the hip young crowd who always know where the next cool place to be seen is. These are the kind of fairy-light lit places, which people only know about by word of mouth and by the time you get there, they'll have had at least two name changes. It's the kind of place you only get in Berlin. As I walk past these, I find Das Gift (literally, "the poison" in German), a corner pub in this rapidly-evolving borough.

The welcoming sounds of The Pixies are playing on the jukebox as I enter Das Gift. It's a mixed crowd, and then there's the smoking room too, the place that marks it out as being all Berlin. A tree stands in the middle of the main bar and there is a separate art space which hosts exhibitions by artists.

Das Gift pub in Berlin, Copyright: Selina Kearney
Das Gift is a mishmash of cultures and stylesImage: Selina Kearney

Overall it seems cosily familiar, both in its effortless coolness typical of Berlin, artsy but also with a Scotch whisky selection behind the bar and a plastic stand holding the selection of Walker's crisps to the right of the bar - a snack sold in most pubs in Britain. It has a Glaswegian feel, without any of the kitsch I normally associate with Scottish pubs abroad - but you also never fail to know you are in Berlin. In short, it's taken the best parts of the two cities I've lived in and made a bar.

Music meets art meets whiskey

Das Gift was the brainchild of the guitarist for the cult Glaswegian band Mogwai, Barry Burns, and his wife Rachel. But as Barry explains, the location for Das Gift was not selected for its trendy, up-and-coming spot but it came rather by chance. "It was really stumbled upon by my wife, Rachel. She was looking at places for an art studio and the agent mentioned a bar in the same street. We looked at it and thought we could maybe so something with it."

Das Gift regular and Berlin resident Sean Williams, 28, explained that he goes for the atmosphere and the crowd more than anything else: "I usually go for the pub quiz on a Monday night. There's a rally good ex-pat crowd who hang out in the bar. It's on the cusp of Kreuzberg and the start of Neukölln, so it's still a pretty rough area and hasn't been completely gentrified yet. They play excellent music - there's a great punk selection on the jukebox."

Band Mogwai, Copyright: Mogwai
The Scottish band Mogwai is behind the Berlin pub Das GiftImage: Mogwai

The American barman recommending whisky to a young couple reminds me of a young Gene Wilder, while the Scottish girl behind the bar recommends I try the Hochdörfer Reisling. The bar's German-Scottish fusion seems to bring together the best of both cultures - good German wines and beers, an extensive whisky menu, plus PG Tips tea.

Burns describes the customers this heady fusion of culinary cultures attracts as a mixed crowd. "It's usually very nice people of all ages and shapes who just like coming there for the nice drinks and company," he says. "And some of the worst graffiti artists in the world it seems. I've yet to see a decent bit of graffiti in there. People write their names in biro on the tables, so half-arsed. But apart from that, it's a great wee place."

Along with the German beers on offer - Zirndorfner and the Gift Pilsner - come the Scottish beers - Williams Bros and Brew Dog, a relatively new Scottish brand which last month brewed a beer named Hello, My Name Is Vladimir in protest of Russia's anti-gay laws. They even sent a case to the Kremlin.

After a few hours chilling to good music, it's clear Das Gift ticks all my boxes of what I look for in a bar. So maybe I'll follow the crowds heading south after all.

People gathered on a rooftop in Neukölln, Berlin, Copyright: Svea Pöstges
It seems like everyone is racing to Neukölln these daysImage: Svea Pöstges
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