Words & Photos - Matthew Curtis
*Crack* *hiss*... I'm sat on a train somewhere between London and Gatwick Airport and the carriage is filled with the sound of bottle tops popping and cans cracking, it's 6am. One of my best friends, Leo is due to be married and so seventeen of us are travelling to Berlin to ensure that some of his last days as a Batchelor are not to be forgotten.
It's pleasing for me to see that the beers being opened are decent. Beavertown Neck Oils and Freedom Pilsners are the beverages of choice while I, knowing that I'll be chin deep in lager and hefeweizen in just a couple of hours, opt for a Beavertown Holy Cowbell stout. It's rich with notes of black treacle and raspingly bitter, it provides an ideal foil to my breakfast croissant. This wasn't just a spot of early morning drinking though, this was a statement of intent.
As the train trundles ever closer to the airport we present the Stag with his first gift, a pair of lederhosen. Being a good sport he immediately disappears into the nearest toilet and emerges a few minutes later, clad in his uniform for the weekend. It's pointed out that we're going to be nowhere near Bavaria but in the spirit of the occasion the more pedantic among us allow this to slide.
A delayed train robs us of our second beer as we concentrate our efforts on making the flight rather than securing another drink. There'll be plenty of time for that on the other side, after all. Even at this early hour there isn't an empty table at the terminals branch of Wetherspoon's, with revellers already tucking into the second or third pint of the day. I'm almost disappointed I didn't get to join them, almost. The beer options on the flight itself are not so appealing, so Bloody Mary's are next on the menu. The short but enjoyable flight feels like it's over in minutes and after a quick headcount we make a beeline straight to Mehringdamm where we've scheduled a lunch date with a currywurst.
There's something beautiful in the simplicity of currywurst. A large bratwurst, served with a big dollop of ketchup and a generous sprinkling of the lowest common denominator brand of curry power. Pair it with a load of chips smothered in mayonnaise before washing it down with a cool, crisp pilsner and you're in heaven. I was a little dismayed to see some of the group plump for big green bottles of cosy, familiar Beck's but they'd come out of their comfort zones as the weekend progressed. The selection of beers at Curry 36 was limited but we were here for sausage first and beer second. I was certainly happy with the snappy, crisp charm of a Radeberger Pilsner with its moreish, herbal bitterness. It's a beer I drank a lot of over the next few days.
"Matt, the pub next door sells Schneider Weisse!" The Stag had come marching up to me and indicated where he would like to take his next drink. I'd given Leo a taste for Weissebier on a trip to Cherry Red's cafe in Birmingham, before he took me to see his beloved Aston Villa beat Manchester City, three goals to two. This unscheduled stop was a relatively small, dark and yet strangely comforting space just off the bustling Mehringdamm. Vogt's Bier Express was exactly the kind of bar, or to use the correct term eine kneipe, that I had been hoping to stumble across.
The walls were littered, seemingly quite randomly with old road signs and study oak tables were surrounded by snug seating. An old man sat smoking in the corner reading his paper while our server, who had a matron like air about her that suggested this might be her establishment, came and took our order, resolutely refusing to speak to us in English. The majority of our party plumps for the average, pedestrian Berliner Kindl Pilsner while Leo, myself and a couple of others order a Schneider Weisse Original. I draw immense satisfaction from the rich, banana and clove flavours in this wheat beer, it's one of the worlds best. I pass it around the table and there are some smiles, while others are not so sure about the phenolic flavours they've just experienced.
The second round comprises of quite a few more Weissebiers and some of the group plump for the slightly sweet, Dusseldorf style Altbier, Duckstein which, although is not the best example of its style is a vast improvement to the Kindl Pils. I on the other hand, and with some smugness, order myself a Berliner Kindl Weisse mit schuß knowing that I'm about to be presented with a chalice of bright green beer. What I didn't realise is that I would also be served the beer with a giant, comedy straw. I enjoyed the look on my friends faces when the beer was brought over, a mix of curiosity and mild disgust. The aroma of yoghurt that's a couple of days passed its sell-by-date is far from appealing and the flavour is much the same, albeit with the addition of the sickly sweet syrup. I can't help but think that this beer would be much more enjoyable without the addition of woodruff syrup but I was satisfied that I had finally experienced the beer served in this manner in Berlin, as all beer enthusiasts should, if just once.
White Trash is the kind of burger bar you'd expect to find in Hackney, only this is Kreuzberg so the building is ten times the size and has its own in-house tattoo studio. Earlier we'd settled in at the hotel and lubricated ourselves with a few more Pilsners before making our way to Berlin's hippest district. The majority of us found the relaxed attitude to street drinking a little strange, but being able to buy a bottle of beer such as Jever or Augustiner for a little over one Euro and drink it on public transport was a real bonus.
Before arriving for our meal we stopped at a tiny Craft Beer bar called Bierkombinat, which is almost anonymously tucked away on Berlin's neat streets, with only the striking street art acting as an obvious landmark. Bierkombinat acts as a tap room for Schoppe Bräu and our group, which seemed larger as we became gradually more animated, dived in to pints of its Helles and Extra Pale Ale. The barman was gruff, he was not keen that we had quadrupled the volume of custom in his bar, despite perhaps testing its level of civility. I quickly noticed that, unusually for German beer, the pints were cloudy. A local informs me that all of Schoppe's beers are unfiltered and unfined. "I'll be fine" I tell them, "I'm visiting from London and I love Craft Beer, I'm used to it." They laugh and wish us well, knowing that we're onto a good thing and our gruff barkeep seems to relax a little. I sample the pale ale, it has all the snappy, refreshing qualities I expect from German beer with distinctive notes of lemon and peach juice creeping onto the palate. Its bitterness made it incredibly drinkable and impossible not to order a second, I was completely unaware that it was 7% ABV.
Eventually we tear ourselves away and make it to White Trash for our booking. This isn't what I'd call a beer destination but it sits in an area full of them and, if you like quality burgers and barbecue, the food here is for you. The octopus burger was quite remarkable, a literal slab of deep fried tentacle sandwiched between two glistening slices of a brioche bun. We work our way through the extensive list of cocktails before our waiter remarks that he can carry seventeen maß at the same time, that's seventeen litre glasses full of beer. Sure enough in a few minutes time he presents us each with a huge mug of König Ludwig Hell, a beer that drinks incredibly well, even after a meal as large as we've just consumed.
"This was my kind of place, low music, the right kind of lighting, a mish-mash of mismatched furniture and a nod to the buildings crumbling heritage, while still being thoroughly modern."
Someone then has the bright idea we hit the techno club by the canal that's just opposite the restaurant. Sure enough we march over before I see the security staff shake their heads and turn us away. Large groups of men are not well thought of by the city's doormen. If you want to go clubbing, find a bar to use as a base camp and head inside in groups of one or two. It may sound like a little bit of a hassle but it's worth the effort if you want to drink and dance until the early morning. Fortunately, White Trash was more than happy to let us back inside and serve us more cocktails. It was remarkable how busy it stayed considering the size of the place, should you ever decide to visit yourself booking is essential.
It was unsurprising that we all felt a little frail in the morning. After a near-death experience in the cab ride back to the hotel, the driver of which seeming to think he was starring in a remake of The Fast and The Furious we felt the need to take advantage of the hotels twenty four hour bar. After a breakfast of strong, black coffee and a platter of various meats and cheeses we were ready for the day ahead. Leo's brother and best man, Jack had booked our group onto a beer bike tour. You've probably seen these things before, lengthy, pedal powered vehicles that seat about ten and have a bar in the middle. Due to the size of our party we split into two groups for a self-powered tour that would take a couple of hours.
Kegs of Veltins Pilsner are loaded onto the bikes and we're each given a breathalyser test to ensure we were safe to share control of a vehicle. I'm not too sure of the reasons behind this, as a driver comes as part of the package, but later we discovered that the council weren't keen on their business model and so we had to ensure we behaved to prevent the risk of them getting shut down. It turns out that we had nothing to fear, our eccentric host steered us around the city, including along the length of the Berlin Wall, while we pedalled with everything we had left, hastily pouring ourselves more beer whenever we stopped at a red light. It might not be part of a definitive Berlin beer experience but if there's a group of you its a really fun, if a little exhausting way to see the city.
For lunch we headed back to Kreuzberg and visited a fantastic little place called Angry Chicken. Like many of the smaller places we visited it wasn't quite equipped to handle seventeen hungry stags descend on it at once but they handled the situation admirably. Angry Chicken serves fried chicken cooked in the Korean style. Think dry and crispy panko breadcrumbs with a pile of kimchi on the side, which if you've not had it before is a little like a chunkier, spicier sauerkraut. After lunch a few of our group decide that they want to get their heads down, while those that remained accompanied me to one of Berlin's best beer bars, Hopfenreich.
Typically, when we arrived outside Hopfenreich they weren't open for another half an hour, as like many of the cities bars they open around 4pm. Thankfully a bar over the road called The Bull was open and so we headed inside for a swift one. I liked it in here, it was the kind of dingy dive bar that played loud rock music I would have loved in my early twenties. Even the Kreuzberger Pils, which was recommended to us by the bar staff was half decent. I had no idea who brews it, I wasn't even sure if I cared by this point, the relaxed pace of Berlin was starting to rub off on me. As I sipped my Pilsner I observed the regulars, who didn't even bat an eyelid at our presence, just continuing to drink and smoke and not letting anybody ruin their plans to continue doing more of the same.
Despite already being half cut, I felt a wave of excitement pass through me as I entered Hopfenreich. This was my kind of place, low music, the right kind of lighting, a mish-mash of mismatched furniture and a nod to the buildings crumbling heritage, while still being thoroughly modern. There was a sign outside that indicated this was a self service bar, simply meaning that you had to go and order your own drinks rather than sit at a table and wait to be served. Leo excitedly pointed at the Schneider 'Meine Hopfen-Weisse' while I ordered a Schönramer IPA. This was all out, American style, grapefruit led bitterness paired with a beautifully clean finish that could only be described as quintessentially German. It's the kind of beer I could drink a lot of, so that's exactly what I did.
We were only meant to drop into Hopfenreich for a couple of beers but the relaxed vibe gave us no reason to leave and so we stayed for as long as we could. We tried a few more beers and when they discovered we were a stag party the bar staff brought us Tequilas on the house but I kept going back to the Schönramer and several of us kept sinking Hopfen-Weisse. I'd forgotten that it was a Doppelbock, an 8% monster that hides its strength behind waves of grassy bitterness and comforting phenols. Eventually we bring ourselves to leave and stagger into the nearest grocer to purchase more beers for the journey home, Leo beaming with joy at his bottles of Weissebier. The next thing I remember is waking up in my hotel bed and my phone ringing in my hand. It was Jack, apparently we were meant to leave for dinner an hour ago.
I threw on the clothes that were nearest to me, quickly sprayed myself with something I hoped was deodorant and grabbed the half finished bottle of Tegernseer Hell on my bedside table, as I made my way downstairs to join the rest of the group. We had no fixed plans this evening, we just headed out into town to see what Berlin had to offer us. In retrospect this was a bad idea, especially with a group as large as ours, but then I'm not one for spontaneity. We grab food from the first kiosk we find, which is my case is another plateful of currywurst, before beginning the arduous task of finding a bar that would let seventeen grown men the wrong side of sober through its doors.
Salvation was found at the entrance of the Hofbräuhaus, a gargantuan Munich style beer hall run by the well known bavarian brewery of the same name. I was worried that we'd be far too inebriated for the staff to take us seriously but when we were let inside and observed the combination of madness and chaos before us, we instantly felt right at home. Our server kept bringing us maß after maß of Hofbräu Original, a palatable Helles that we were perfectly content with until some bright spark had the indecency to utter the word 'schnapps'. Ok I'll admit it, it was me, and I regret each and every shot of sickly sweet rhubarb liqueur I forced down myself, at least the ones I remember. When we left the bar we carried on into the night before eventually propping up the hotel bar until eventually I decided to snatch the tiny window of sleep I saw available.
The next morning was a grey one indeed. It felt as though in the night something had trapped itself on the inside of my skull and was desperately attempting to claw its way out. All I could stomach at breakfast was black coffee, which barely stayed down. The seventeen of us followed Sam, who along with Jack had been instrumental in organising much of the weekends events. He had booked us in for lunch at a traditional German restaurant, but sadly through the haze I can no longer see the sign that hung above it's door. I remember gingerly sipping at another Kindl Pils and spending the best part of an hour pushing a gargantuan grilled pork knuckle around my plate.
"Berlin is one of those rare cities that's brimming with an energy that makes it hard to stop and relax."
After we'd eaten we joined a busy train full of football fans and headed to the infamous and very beautiful Olympia Stadion. We had tickets to watch Hertha Berlin Sporting Club host FC Köln in what was to become one of the best nil-nil draws I have ever witnessed. In all honesty the match was terrible, with both clubs stranded mid-table at the end of the season there was very little to play for. What was fascinating was the incredible culture, as well as the sheer volume of beer drinking that enveloped both the inside and outside of the stadium. It was very different to an experience at a British football match. Thousands of fans stood outside the stadium before the match began, happily swigging away at bottles of Pilsner while police officers stood by, barely batting an eyelid. Inside the ground the only beer available was from sponsor Warsteiner but a paltry seven Euro got you a plastic maß, good value even if this beer isn't that great. It didn't matter that the beer was disappointing, especially as unlike in the UK you could take it with you to your seat. The atmosphere created by the hoard of Ultras, Hertha BSC's die hard fans, was electric. You could practically taste it in the air and in every sip of your beer. Even if you don't enjoy your sport I'd put a trip to the Olympia Stadion on your Berlin must-do list.
After the game we were left to our own devices before we headed out for one final hurrah. I spent some time wandering aimlessly around the city centre with a bottle of pilsner in hand before treating myself to yet another currywurst. It felt like this mornings hangover was finally beginning to subside, which was a good thing as we had a big night ahead of us. The group had finally become as relaxed as Berliner's themselves about street drinking and before we fittingly made our way back to a nightclub we had been recommended on Mehringdamm we loaded up with bottles of beer and shoved miniatures of Jägermeister into our back pockets.
That night we drank and danced until the sun came up, it was a fitting send off for our Stag. The next morning brought with it a panic and anxiety fuelled rush to the airport, which was made all the more difficult when we realised planned maintenance had closed many of the train lines we had hoped to use. Still, we made it in good time and unlike our outward journey we still had time enough for a beer, although unsurprisingly not one of the seventeen of us fancied it. We eventually made it back home, shells of our former selves but deep down we all knew it was worth it. Leo had been given the kind of weekend he truly deserved.
Berlin is one of those rare cities that's brimming with an energy that makes it hard to stop and relax. You don't need an excuse like a stag party to pay it a visit but it's always a plus to have an excuse. It was evident to me that beneath the surface of traditional German brewing, Berlin is harbouring a Craft Beer scene that is about to explode and it's one the rest of the world will want to experience. With Stone Brewing Co about to open a huge production centre just outside the city and Brewdog about to open a bar in the city's Mitte district, Berlin is surely on the cusp of becoming one of Craft Beers most important cities.
A month later, on Saturday the 22nd of May I watched two of my very best friends get hitched before enjoying one of the best damn parties I have ever had the pleasure of attending. Congratulations to Kate and Leo and here's wishing you both many happy years together. Thanks for allowing me to be there to enjoy the day with you.