Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Bopping Around Friedrichshain. Or, Berlin-Style Surrealism.

I could write thousands of words trying to give you a feel for Berlin's indie beer scene today. Maybe a few photos (and a few words) would do just as well for now.

I found this sticker on the wall of a restroom in trendy Friedrichshain. This is a lively neighborhood colonized by a cosmopolitan mix of twentysomethings with enough time and money for things like locally roasted coffee, interesting beer, and street food. I try to avoid the H-word or any labels that marginalize. In my late thirties I live a quieter life on the quieter and decidedly less cool side of town, shuttling kids to soccer or preschool and not always choosing to splurge on sitters so I can go explore pubs out in the eastern districts (although I do, sometimes). So I am a bit jealous and I hold nothing against friendly people living exactly where I often wish I'd been living in that time of my life.

So this particular sticker was in a café called Szimpla. It features good coffee, belly-warming Hungarian snacks and lunches, some sofas, layers of concert posters, a kicker table, attractive people, and sometime in the past year it added nine taps and the subtitle "Craft Beer Bar." Often the beers are from small Berlin outfits; when we visited last month there were several from Poland. I drank a Polish stout and a tasty German lager... but I lack notes since we were engrossed in conversation after a visit to the nearby Stasi Museum. Fascinating place. But I'm pretty sure that dry, hop-forward lager was Pilsz from the Spent Brewers Collective -- a beer firm that hires its brews from various places. There are several of those in Berlin.

That sticker comes from Berlin's Bierfabrik (not to be confused with Amsterdam's Bierfabriek). This was until recently another beer firm, hiring various breweries to make its Wedding Pale Ale and other varieties. Now Bierfabrik is an actual brewery in Friedrichsfelde, about six kilometers east of Szimpla. So you can be pretty sure, now -- if you care about such things -- that a Bierfabrik beer is a Berlin-brewed beer.

Trying to drink local beer in Berlin is a shell game. There are firms with offices in Berlin, and they market their hired products as Berliner, but a bit of research often finds that they are brewed in Bavaria or Lower Saxony or Denmark. If you know me then you know that this annoys the piss out of me, on your behalf. I often know where the breweries are, but I also get the idea that when people pay to drink something local they actually want to drink something local. You are paying extra for specialty beer, and its origin story -- is it a true one? -- might well be part of why you pay. (Whether that's a good reason to pay more for beer is another discussion.) The firms are often honest about this if asked directly, but to regular drinkers the information is typically missing from tap lists and beer labels, occasionally confined to fine print on the website. If it is there at all.

Oh, I've digressed.

If you like park bench drinking -- who doesn't? -- or if you're staying in this neighborhood, or maybe you're just thirsty and want to walk around sucking from an open bottle, which is perfectly OK here by the way, then I should tell you about the shop across the street from Szimpla. It's called Boxi Kiosk. It looks like a typical corner convenience shop until you walk in and see two walls of refrigerated beer -- some novelties and imports, but also plenty of good traditional German beers in half-liter bottles too. There are other beer shops and bigger selections and better selections, but rarely do you see so much refrigerated beer in Germany. And this one is open until 5 a.m. Anyway, who needs summer beer gardens when you have Boxhagener Platz?

Oh and there is a brewery a couple of blocks away. Hops and Barley is a smallish brewpub and underrated, depending on who is doing the rating. I think a generation of samey '90 era German brewpubs trained us to overlook them as nothing special. This one is different though. Yeah, OK, there is a pils, a dunkel and a wheat beer -- I know it sounds boring but they're pretty good -- plus meanwhile there is a rotating choice of seasonal that tends to be boldly hopped. I drank a strong, brown lager smelling and smacking of fruity hops, bitter but stopping well short of resinous. They called it Bohemian, but if I described it as an Indian Brown Lager, would you get the gist? Nice people too. No secret where the beer comes from. The kit is right there. Cozy corner dive atmosphere.

Back to the sticker. I like to think the irony -- "Don't believe the craft beer hype" -- is intentional. I want to believe this is the "ceci n'est pas une pipe" of Berlin beer. But marketing is marketing. Ultimately we'll judge it by what's in the container anyway. And whether that liquid can compete for a place in our short, busy lives, and in our limited budgets. Sitters cost money, you know.

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