Disclaimer: Visit Berlin supported this trip with lodging and the WelcomeCard covering public transportation within the city for 78 hours. As always, all opinions are my own.
Berlin is a city that manages to blend hipster culture with romanticism. We know Berlin as the modern epicenter of free-range artistic expression where an artist can still get by without fully sacrificing their creative ambition by working a soulless day job just to get by (for now). Much of Berlin flies in the face of traditional Germany where Ordnung Muß sein (there must be order). When the wall fell, artists were encouraged (and still are) to leave their mark whether it’s an impressive mural with deep political meaning or a childish Bart Simpson-style tag. That sentiment can still be seen throughout the sprawling German capital.
With that in mind, Berlin is not surprisingly the best place to be for drinking German craft beer. In the spirit of traditional Germany, there’s the Rheinheitsgebot better known in the English-speaking world as the beer purity law. This law, in the books since 1516, regulates how certain styles of beer are made. You’ll see bottles of German beer, imported or otherwise, proudly stamp a label that says, “gebraut nach dem Deutschen Rheinheitsgebot” promising consumers that they’re drinking a beer that was brewed following the rules.
There’s no denying that this has resulted in some reliably fantastic German beers whether it’s an Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier Märzen from Bamberg, a Paulaner Hefeweizen from Munich, or my hometown Altbier favorite from Füchsen in Düsseldorf. But there’s also no denying that a law like the Rheinheitsgebot has stifled German creativity when it comes to brewing, putting the brewing powerhouse behind its European neighbors when it comes to brewing craft beer. That said, over the past decade, Germany has done an admirable job of catching up with a sudden influx of craft brewers as if it were a decade ago in the U.S. While most cities still lack the proliferation of beer bars where you can drink a variety beers, craft or otherwise, from around the country, Berlin feels like its own city-state where expectations of German homogeny are thrown out the window. To prove my case, I’ll share a bit about my recent visit to Berlin for the explicit purpose of drinking craft beer.
Craft Beer Berlin
First, I set a caloric base by returning to Maria Bonita Mexican Bistro in Prenzlauer Berg – an all-around charming neighborhood I explicitly wanted to base myself in for the public transit connectivity (less than 20 minutes to the main train station) and for its walkable access to several craft beer bars. I then followed a fellow beer drinker’s tip to start at Mikkeller on Torstraße on the edge of Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg. Mikkeller is the brainchild of Copenhagen-based brewers Mikkel Borg Bjergsø and Kristian Klarup Keller. They don’t operate an official brewery, but instead produce experimental, one-off beers and collaborate with local brewers.
Mikkeller has the distinct ambiance of a neighborhood craft beer bar. Minimalistic décor, an obligatory, modestly-sized TV tossed up in the corner, and the beer is front and center as soon as you walk through the entrance. On a sunny Saturday afternoon (with the third-place World Cup match underway), it was an especially pleasant, if not buzzy, way to spend a couple of hours with my new friends – the Berlinreberg Pale Ale, Mitte Brown Mikkeller, and War Pigs Mikkeller.
We followed this stop by heading down to Berliner Marcus Bräu just north of Alexanderplatz. A black lettering on white background “CRAFT BEER” sign looked as if it were stapled next to the logo, not entirely unlike a “GARAGE SALE” posting on a telephone pole. My sense was that Marcus is actually a traditional German brewery, plain and simple, hoping to trick some passersby in with the craft beer sign.
Because who would be pretentious enough to drink beer only if it had the word “craft” ahead of it?
And so we headed in.
Keeping it at one beer this time, I opted for the Rotbier (red beer). Indeed, this lacked the complexity and strong flavor I’d expect out of a red ale with that “craft beer” label on it, but it was nevertheless a reliably crisp brew that matched well with the hot afternoon sitting on the increasingly simmering sidewalk patio.
Onward, we stumbled across BraufactuM just around the corner. Braufactum is a Frankfurt-based brewery, so I was surprised to see a full-fledged brewpub in Berlin complete with a buzzing patio and industrial-chic interior that’s the aesthetic of so many North American-based craft brewpubs. Having already made dinner plans over at the Stone Brewing Tap Room, we popped in to grab a couple of Wegbiers (beers on the go).
My Braufactum IPA swirling around in my liver, I was ready to eat, providing another caloric coating for the incoming Stone brews. With the setting summer sun over Prenzlauer Berg, sitting out on the busy patio, I was firmly in my happy place.
Our last stop for the evening took us to Birra, a brewpub celebrating Italian craft beer. Italy is not a country you’d imagine when thinking about craft beer. Maybe a Peroni sounds good when it’s blazing hot outside, but it’s otherwise firmly a wine country. You think that unless you’ve had the pleasure of stumbling upon Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà in Rome’s Trastévere neighborhood like I had.
Settling in at Birra after placing our orders, I spotted a familiar sign on the wall – Ma Che Siete Venuti A Fà. As it happens, the owners of both establishments are one in the same, the bartender tells me. And so it was with this rather serendipitous knowledge that my eyes began to grow heavy and my vision struggled to correct under the weight of having one more glass than I probably should’ve; a problem that’s easily solved with sleep and a hotel breakfast.
A Modern Beer Garden
Having sufficiently gotten our fix of craft beer in Berlin, we scheduled only one additional stop for the Sunday afternoon over at BRLO. BRLO is a Berlin-based craft brewery with a setting that might be more familiar to craft beer drinkers who hail from industrial cities in the United States. They’re based right outside the Gleisdreieck station. The scene is quiet and unremarkable until you turn the corner past the black chainlink fence, following the signs pointing to BRLO with its shipping container box design that screams, “WE ARE A CRAFT BREWERY!”
With its non-central location, BRLO has the benefit of space to offer up an impressively-sized beer garden that feels like a modernized take on the German classic. Crowds had already filled up the joint by the time we arrived to watch the World Cup final on the big screen. Fortunately, we managed to snag enough bench seats for our small group underneath the netting cover to enjoy our last day with a variety of BRLO’s tap offerings; a soothing blend of a familiar setting with that of a cultural classic to send us home with tired smiles – but of course not before satisfying our beer stomachs with one more Maria Bonita burrito and a Berlinerberg Pale Ale.
Note: With the exception of BRLO, this is all just a small section of Berlin. This news should excite you if you’re a beer drinker who wants an excuse to explore different neighborhoods in what remains one of my favorite cities in the world. You could just as easily stay in Kreuzberg and find a number of bars serving craft beer specialties alongside the classics all within a short walk and without having to intensely search Google Maps and flipping through reviews in however many different languages.
Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, German language tips, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany and finding my roots — There Must Be Order.