A reflective personal visit through the city’s brewing past and present
Part 3 - Thursday 9th October 2014
Today I met up with the visiting members of the brewery History Society outside the gates of the large Berliner-Kindl-Schultheiss Brauerei. Virtually every major Berlin brand of beer is brewed within its walls and it is one the largest breweries in the world.
The early histories of its component parts are quite simple to relate. However, post-unification it all became quite complex in a very short time. I will try to unravel the strands as I go along.
I’ll deal with Schultheiss and Berliner Kindl breweries in West Berlin separately as we visited them the following day.
Our location today started life as a biergarten brewery. It was the Brauerei Gabriel & Richter and it opened in 1902.
Over the years its distribution expanded and in 1920 it was taken over by the Kindl brewery and was known as their Weissensee brewery. It was visited by the Brewery History Society in 1990.
At that time total production of the East Berlin breweries was 2.7 hectolitres, of which this brewery produced 1.2 hl. 1.0 hl of this was in bottle, the rest on draught.
It expanded in a big way and became Kindl’s biggest brewery in Berlin before the Second World War. Following the end of the conflict it mostly supplied the occupying Soviet troops. By then of course it was nationalised as VEB Berliner Kindl, yet it wasn’t until 1969 did it become the headquarters of the VEB-Berlin Brauereien, which incorporated all five of the then existing East Berlin breweries.
From 1963 the iconic Berliner Pilsner was brewed here. This was an export beer that was shipped to the UK and USA as well as countries in the Eastern Bloc.
It was one of the beers from this brewery that I imbibed on visits to the DDR. I also remember the Berliner Kindl Deutscher Pilsner and Hell; the latter nearly always found on draught. So great pleasure at touring a brewery that brewed beers that I had enjoyed once in the day.
We were taken on a good tour which covered a lot of detail. Most of the buildings we looked into were built from 1929 by architects Hans Claus and Richard Schepke who designed the Rixdorfer Kindl brewery at Rollbergstrasse in what later became West Berlin. These days the brewery produces around 1.5 million hl of beer per annum.
I can find out very little more of the specifications of this huge brewery. Some information was forthcoming on the tour and I wish I had taken notes. What I do know is the there are four separate brewing runs and it operates twenty-four hours a day.
One interesting moment occurred when we were shown a container of hop essence. We weren’t allowed to go anywhere near it and were told that it represented over one million Euros in value.
Apart from the three breweries named in the title the plant produces beer from other erstwhile companies. One was Bürgerbräu which had a brewery on the Müggelsee, a lake south east of the city centre.
It was a popular place to visit in summer as it had a large biergarten. I went there a few times. When it was closed in 2010 it was the oldest brewery in the city. The BHS also visited it in 1990 and they found a very old plant indeed that was entirely operated by steam power produced by burning brown coal.
Another brand from the Berliner-Kindl-Schultheiss brewery is Engelhardt. This brewery was established in 1884 as a brewer of Berliner Weisse, the local wheat beer style.
In 1886 it became the Kaiser-Brauerei which itself was absorbed by the Brauerei Ernst Engelhardt in 1910. It then progressed to be a very important brewery in the Berlin beer scene. A new brew house was built in 1977. Schultheiss took it over in 1983, yet closed it in 1998. It was located in the Charlottenburg district in West Berlin and was famous for Charlottenburg Pilsner. That was definitely a beer I had drank in the past.
Märkischer Landmann, a dark beer and Rex Pils were both produced at the Kindl brewery in Potsdam until it closed in 1995, please see part 2 of these articles. The two beers have been kept alive and these days also come from this brewery in Lichtenberg. If you add in the bottled beers they make for supermarkets it all adds up to an impressive array.
Well, now was the time to taste some of them as we were escorted to Gambrinius (above two photographs, plus right and below left) their on-site tasting room). Six draught beers were offered.
The quartet of pilsners: Kindl, Schultheiss, Bürgerbräu and Berliner. In addition there were Märkischer Landmann and Schöfferhofer Hefeweizen from the Binding brewery of Frankfurt (am Main), which is also a member of the same Radeberger group.
We were served an excellent meal and got down to the tasting process. I don’t know if four well known Pilsners can be drank in one place anywhere else; possibly, but I don’t know where. So, this was the chance to compare. My verdict was that the Bürgerbräu was the best but only just. It seemed to have more bitterness than the others.
The tasting room is very pleasant, having lots of varnished wood, stained glass windows, wall paintings and cabinets containing bottles of their many beers. We then made our way across town to the district of Wedding, to the north of the city centre in the former western sector of the city.
We were visiting the campus of the VLB (Versuchs-und Lehranstalt für Brauerei in Berlin), the Research and Training Institute for Brewing in Berlin. Here we were greeted by Michaela Knoer, the Librarian of the University.
We had met her earlier in the microbrewery of Lemke Hackeschen Markt on the evening prior to the tour and also in May of the previous year during the BHS tour of Bamberg’s breweries. It was she that had so competently arranged most of the complicated visits we had made in Berlin.
The VLB provides research, training, education and services to the brewing industry and is funded by it. It was founded in 1883, relocating to its present site in 1898.
The library is an awe-inspiring place for those have an interest in breweries ancient and modern (photograph, above right). Two floors of shelves provide a source for many students at the faculty, also for outsiders. The contents of the library were taken away by Soviet troops in 1945, never to be seen again. However it has been completely restocked since.
Many students enrol in the six month full time brew-masters course which can be taken in German, English and Russian. A notable feature of the institute over the years was the Brauerei Hochschul (University Brewery) which was opened in 1891 (see photograph, right).
This was a full sized commercial brewery that supplied pubs, restaurants and shops. The output of the brewery was 5,700 hl when it opened and had risen to 12,000 by 1905.
In 1908 it underwent a large expansion with a new brew-house, boiler house with chimney and bottling plant. There was also new maltings and provision was made for the brewing of top-fermenting beers, such as Berliner Weisse. By 1928 the annual production had reached a maximum of 45,000 hl. On the night of 3rd / 4th September 1943 around 85% of the VLB was destroyed in an air raid. The various functions of the university were dispersed to breweries on a temporary basis.
Following the war the patched-up brewery supplied French troops as it was now in their sector of Berlin. Although the brewery was working in 1948 it was beset by problems. The bottom-fermentation part of it failed so only top fermented beers could be brewed. Then supplies of coal ceased because of the Berlin blockade by the Soviets. Thereafter Hochschul beers were brewed by Schultheiss-Brauerei. After major reconstruction works the brewery began brewing in 1955 with theoretically full capacity, the first time for twelve years.
1956 their maltings came back on stream. However, there followed a slow decline through the sixties and seventies. The maltings closed in 1972 and they used malt that was bought in. Money was promised to rehabilitate the brewery but despite this it closed in 1981. On reflection I cannot specifically remember drinking Hochschul beers. Maybe I had their Berliner Weise in a bottle, but nothing draught.
After looking at the venerable brewery and the more modern maltings building we made our way to the Studienbrauerei, or study brewery. This is a pilot brewery that is used for research and development using new or different combinations of malt and hops, see photo above left and above right. It was established in 1958 and has been modernised several times since then. We were greeted by Kurt Marshall who is in charge of the plant. He comes from the USA and proved to be an amiable and knowledgeable host.
Kurt told us a lot about the function of the brewery and we were served an excellent pilsner-style lager. The brewing room was equipped with a state of the art refrigerated dispense system and in true German style the beer was served in branded glasses which we placed on the VLB’s own beermats, now there’s detail! Kurt showed us some of his collection of old bottles of beer including Berliner Weisse from Hochschul. I have noticed that the pilot brewery in more recent times brewed a version of this named Berliner Weisse 1977 (please see above two photographs, plus left).
Our final call at the VLB was to the guildhall of the Berlin Brewers’ Guild. It has a Gastätte which normally implies a restaurant but in this case it was more like a bar.
It is a metal-framed brick building, photo right, in the grounds in a pleasant setting with many trees around.
Entering we could see that there was a bar on the left and most of the rest of the room was taken up with seating and there was a stage at the far end.
We were met by Burghard Meyer, a larger than life character whose job at the VLB is the head of brewing courses for foreign students. He is also the Obermeister der Berliner Brauerzunft, which translates as Chief Master of the Berlin Brewer’s Guild. What’s more we were about to sit in to one of their meetings, see photo left and below right. Once it represented many large breweries in the city, but these days there is only one of these. However this is more than compensated by the many micro-brewers and brew-pubs that now exist.
Burghard in his distinctive black Fedora, black waistcoat and breeches conducted a part of the proceedings in English, which was appreciated by the BHS members present.
I stood at the back, propping up the bar, drinking Edelstein Alt, a beer brewed at the VLB in the style of Düsseldorfer Alt. It was a very enjoyable interlude. Soon we had to leave to get to our next visit, also in Wedding, a short tram ride away.
Brauerei Vagabund was about a five minute walk from the tram stop. This is one of the many “new-wave” brew-pubs that have opened in Berlin during the last few years. It was founded by three exiles from the USA, Matt Walthall, David Spengler and Tom Crozier. Matt commenced home brewing at his apartment in 2009 and along with the other two and some crowd-funding opened Vagabund in 2013.
What they call a nano-brewery followed shortly afterwards. It has a production capacity of just 200 litres per brew. The bar room is quite small with the counter to the right of the entrance door. There is a laid back vibe about the place. Naturally, it attracts a fair number of hipster types, but that didn’t put me off. There was only one beer from the home side, so I had it. See photo, left, of menu for the rest.
Our exploration of Berlin’s breweries past and present continues in part Four.
Part 3 of 4