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BrewDogging #44: Berlin

I, I will be the omelette, and you, you will be the baked eggs (photo by The BBG)[Previously: Bristol, Camden, Newcastle, Birmingham, Shoreditch, Aberdeen, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Kungsholmen, Leeds, Shepherd's Bush, Nottingham, Sheffield, Dog Tap, Tate Modern, Clapham Junction, Roppongi, Liverpool, Dundee, Bologna, Florence, Brighton, DED Angel, Brussels, Soho, Cardiff, Barcelona, Clerkenwell, DogHouse Glasgow, Rome, Castlegate, Leicester, Oslo, Gothenburg, Södermalm, Turku, Helsinki, Gray's Inn Road†, Stirling, Norwich, Southampton, Homerton]

As I walk into BrewDog Berlin for the very first time, David Bowie's Heroes is playing over the PA. I, I can remember, standing, by the Wall...

Really, BrewDog Berlin? You're going to play it like that? Well all right, then.

This was just before Christmas 2016, so inevitably you're finally getting to hear about it in March 2017. (In terms of delays to Christmas-related articles, we've had worse.) Anyway, it's my first time visiting the city - though it's The Belated Birthday Girl's second - and we're travelling there by train, as is our wont. Eurostar from London to Brussels, then a knife-edge ten minute change onto a Deutsche Bahn service to Cologne, and then one more DB train to get us into Berlin. It's all Germanic efficiency up to the point where our third train breaks down, in the ominously-titled station of West Hamm. We have to do yet another change to get a working train which finally pulls into the city around 10pm, about fifty minutes late.

From there, we take a couple of local services to Rosenthalerplatz and our base for the next four nights, the Circus Hotel. It's not to be confused with the Circus Hostel, a lower-budget affair from the same owners located very close by - though the Hostel does have the terrific Katz and Maus Cafe attached, which will serve you breakfast from a small but carefully selected buffet for a measly five euro. The Hotel is a bit more upmarket (although having some construction work done at the time, which is why we have to go to Katz and Maus for breakfast), its staff are delightfully friendly, and our room is sufficiently high up to stop the noise from the main road below leaking through the windows. And if you're looking for any other reasons to stay there, BrewDog Berlin is less than ten minutes walk away.

The Berlin bar is a new addition to the portfolio, opening in November 2016 - at the time we booked this trip, they were still waiting for the local authority signoff, so it's a relief to do that ten minute walk once we've dropped off our bags and find an actual operating bar at the other end. First impression - apart from that disorienting burst of Bowie as we enter - is that it's a pretty big room, but the long communal tables and comparatively cosy booths are carefully arranged to keep things intimate no matter where you're sitting, and it's buzzing in just the way that you'd want a bar to buzz on a Saturday night. Observing those booths as we hit our first pints, we notice an odd local tradition that we confirm with the guidebooks later on: if you're drinking in a group, the default payment method is that each person gets a separate tab that they settle at the end. We're happy to stick to a more traditional round system, and between us guzzle some 5am Saint, a Berliner Weisse from local brewers Brewbaker, and (from the excellent set of fridges at one end of the bar) a bottle of Buxton/Omnipollo pecan ice cream porter as the nightcap.

Disturbingly, less than twelve hours after we leave the bar to head for bed, we're back there again. Actually, it's not quite as disturbing as it sounds - we're just taking advantage of the neat coincidence that on the weekend of our arrival, BrewDog Berlin has launched a brunch menu. To be honest, though, they've not done all that much to promote it - really, the only reason that we know about it is that it's been mentioned in passing on the shareholder discussion boards that aren't open to the public. So when we roll up shortly after 11am, we're initially the only people there who aren't staff. Still, they're doing some decent egg dishes: The BBG ends up with baked eggs with spinach, wild mushroom, rosemary, toasted pine nuts and courgette (which isn't the veggie option she actually asked for, but apparently it's still nice), while I have a baked omelette with stilton, spinach, walnuts and wild mushrooms. In the three months it's taken me to write this thing, the concept of brunch has been rolled out to several of the UK bars too, although it has to be said that our menu isn't as classy as the one in Berlin.

We end up doing two more late nights at the bar - one for the traditional Cocoa Psycho closer, and another where we catch the tail end of a tap takeover from Manchester's own Cloudwater brewery, pigging out on a couple of their luxurious Imperial Stouts. For all these visits, the bar remains a joy to sit in throughout, and could almost be considered the only source of food and drink you'd need in Berlin. But, inevitably, it isn't.

Stone Brewing. (The tanks and other brewing equipment were behind me as I took the picture. Expect plenty of photos of that sort of thing in the Brewery Tap Projick post coming soon.)If you think this post is late, you should see the one that's coming next month (hopefully...). Around the tail end of 2015, as the 2016 edition of her diary was being published, The BBG announced her Projick for the upcoming year - to visit at least twelve brewery tap bars, and document them in the space she'd left near the back of Living For The Weekend 2016. Some day soon, there'll be a detailed post telling you how that went: for now, let me spoil that post by revealing that we managed to achieve the task just fine, and the final brewery we visited was Stone Brewing in Berlin.

Like BrewDog, Stone's presence here is a comparatively recent development. They're an American brewery whose products have been shipped over here from their home base in San Diego for some time now, and there was always the suspicion that the long journey time across the Atlantic was having a negative effect on their beer quality. But in the summer of 2016, while visiting the Stirling bar, we got our first taste of beers imported from Stone's just-opened European brewery in Berlin. You could literally taste how much fresher the  beer was than any other Stone we'd drunk before then. It was around this time that we realised our planned pilgrimage to the as-yet-still-not-really-built-never-mind-approved-by-the-council BrewDog Berlin would need to include a side trip.

It's a bit of a schlep out from the centre of the city to the industrial estate where Stone have built their new brewery: but we've spent a year exploring industrial estates and railway arches out in the suburbs of London, so it's not like we're doing anything new. Having said that, Stone Berlin is a hell of a lot bigger than any of the microbreweries we've visited in 2016, occupying a couple of large buildings. We've booked in on one of their English language brewery tours, and it's a little unnerving to discover that we're the only two people on it (a later German language tour is much better attended). But our American guide stays enthusiastic throughout, and cheerfully leads us around all the tanks and whatnot. For me, the best part is watching him and The BBG discussing Stone's beer Arrogant Bastard while maintaining their own separate pronunciations of the second word throughout - he goes for what I think of as the Northern English short 'a' variant, she doesn't. We get to taste several of their beers at the end of the tour, and are given a pair of tasting glasses to keep afterwards, discovering later to our astonishment that the same glasses are on sale in the shop for more than the €3 that the tour cost to attend. We stay on in the brewery's restaurant for an excellent lunch (tempeh chili and a tempeh burger) with even more beer, only slightly let down by the bizarre selection of elevator music playing in the background. All year we've been joking about how most UK breweries are soundtracked by the same playlist of indie rock and nostalgic punk, but this isn't an improvement in the slightest.

Stone and BrewDog are two of the biggest indicators of a growing craft beer scene in Berlin: to get a better handle on it from a more local perspective, we follow the advice of a poster we see in the Circus Hotel and book ourselves on a craft beer walking tour, led by Andrew from Brewer's Berlin Tours. For €35 (plus the price of a one-day travel pass, because it's too big a tour to actually walk around), the six of us attending get to visit three of Berlin's craft bars, each one very different, and drink at least one beer in each. Vagabund is very much a hipster hangout with a fiddle band playing incongruously in the corner: even more incongruously, one of the beers they brew around the back is an English style ESB. The Castle Pub is a dingy bar with a dedicated craft section in the corner, offering a wide variety of beers from multiple breweries: this is where the 'one drink per bar' plan starts to break down, happily. We finish up in Kaschk, which is more like a craft bar in the BrewDog style, but with much cleaner design because it's run by Norwegians. Andrew buys the beers throughout, and talks about everything from the history of brewing in Berlin (basically, it was lousy until craft happened) to the history of Berlin's best booze food, currywurst (which evolved from curry powder and ketchup which had been left behind by the Allies after the war). Once the tour's over, The BBG and I carry on buying our own beers (including a dangerous 15% Christmas beer from To Ol), and are not terribly surprised to discover that we're the last to leave.

We have meals as well too, honestly! A few of our best ones in Berlin are in very traditional dining rooms: weiner schnitzel and pike perch with pumpkin at the Einstein Cafe, casareccia pasta with more pumpkin at Hackescher Hof, kasespatzle and schweinebraten at Joseph Roth Diele. All of these places look like their decor hasn't been touched in the last five decades, with The BBG expressing a particular fondness for the last one: "a charming wood-panelled restaurant, decorated with pictures of and quotes from the writer whose name it bears. I'm sure it would be even better for someone aware of his writing, but it was delightful even to someone with no knowledge of him at all." For more casual dining, you could do a lot worse than Taka Fish House, which sells huge Turkish grilled fish sarnies for ridiculously small amounts of money. And if you're just looking for a coffee, you can make the trek out to Five Elephant, whose name we know because we keep going to other establishments who serve the stuff they roast - Stone and BrewDog, for example.

"In sorrow and sympathy for the victims and all concerned"As mentioned earlier, this trip took place the week before Christmas, so I have to mention that we were in the city on the night of the attack on the Christmas market in Breitscheidplatz. Berlin being the size it is, it takes us a while to hear the news: at the time, we're up in the TV Tower near Alexanderplatz getting a nighttime view over the city, and only vaguely aware of an American tourist asking staff about how she can get back to her hotel following what she cryptically refers to as The Incident. It isn't until we're back on ground level and connected to the wi-fi at BrewDog that we discover what's happened: curiously, there was no mention of it anywhere on our U-Bahn journey from the Tower. It doesn't really hit home how big a deal it is until we get back to the Circus Hotel, where the staff on reception make a point of ticking our names off the residents' list to confirm we've got back safely.

The next morning, the same reception staff are being asked by more American tourists if it's safe to go outside, and all they can really do is offer a vaguely positive shrug. Out on the streets, there are small signs of disruption - all the Christmas markets are closed for the day as a mark of respect, and all the U-Bahn advertising screens are replaced by a message of sympathy on a black background - but for the most part people go on doing what they normally do, because that's what you do. We don't spend much time in the traditional markets ourselves, apart from a cheeky glass of hot wine at the one in Alexanderplatz. But we do pay a visit to a slightly less traditional one, the artisanal design market Weih Nachts Rodeo located inside the glorious Postbahnhof building.

There are plenty of museums and galleries vying for your attention: if you don't fancy paying entrance fees, you can always limit yourself to the East Side Gallery, a mile-long restored section of the Wall which includes restored versions of the graffiti art that covered it around the time of the fall. If you're interested in design, there's a neat double bill of museums to visit, starting with the Bauhaus Archive: a fascinating look at a specific period of German design, most notable for the playfulness of its experimentation. From there it's a shortish walk (passing Taka Fish House on the way) to the splendidly titled Museum Of Things. Our Rough Guide is surprisingly snotty about the generic nature of its title, but in fact it's much more than a simple collection of random stuff. At around the same time as the Bauhaus were doing their thing, the Deutscher Werkbund were taking a similarly analytical approach to design, but being much more proscriptive about it. To that end, they assembled a huge collection of items that represented what was both good and bad about German design, and this collection is what the museum draws upon for its displays. As a result, it's an excellent counterpoint to the comparatively relaxed approach of the Bauhaus.

The highlight of Berlin for us, though, is the Deutsche Kinematek - the film museum. Its permanent exhibit is a detailed history of German cinema, with some lovely set models showing scenes from some of the classics being filmed. Its approach to the 100 year timeline of its history is a little unbalanced, however. On the one hand, it doesn't shy away from the impact of the Nazis, and dedicates a large amount of space to the films made around the time of the Second World War. On the other hand, post-war German cinema is bundled into a pair of tightly-packed rooms right at the end, with a small display cabinet for each key film of the period. Still, there's lots of fascinating memorabilia and clips, with good design throughout (the impact of the opening hall of mirrors is jaw-dropping).

But that's not all: until April 23rd 2017 (phew, it's still going) there's a separate temporary exhibit of equal size in the same building, an overview of science fiction films called Things To Come. Again, it's a smartly-arranged collection of sci-fi clips from all periods of history, pointing out some astonishing facts along the way, like the idea of a rocket launch countdown coming entirely out of Fritz Lang's imagination before anyone had ever launched anything into space. Design highlights include one exhibition exit that's overprojected with the corridor scenes from a dozen movies, and a bench for you to lie down to see a ceiling-mounted screen showing terrible things happening to people lying down, from Alien onwards. All in all we spend over three hours in the Deutsche Kinematek, and it would have been so easy to have spent even more time there if we hadn't got hungry at that point.

We came to Berlin for the BrewDog bar, and were encouraged to hang around there a bit longer for Stone Brewing: but, inevitably, there's loads of non-beer stuff to enjoy in the city as well. If anything, we feel we've barely scraped the surface after three full days there, and have vague plans to make a return visit at some point in the future. Not right now, though, as we have more definite plans to head out of Germany and into Poland. Hmmm. There's really no way to say that tastefully, is there?

[to be continued in BrewDogging #45]


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