Oct 31, 2014
Ich Bin Ein Brooklyner: Beer in Berlin vs. Beer in Brooklyn
While I was planning a recent whirlwind, beer-soaked trip to Berlin, almost everyone I spoke to said the same thing: “Oh, you’ll love staying in Kreuzberg—it’s the Brooklyn of Berlin.” Kreuzberg is a well known West Berlin immigrant hub, with busy, winding streets full of beautiful old apartment buildings, Turkish falafel and Doner Kebab, young hipsters and ex-pat artists who seem completely immune to the Capitalist grind and many, many fantastic-looking bars—the place to be when it comes to Berlin’s slowly emerging craft beer scene. As soon as I deplaned and stretched my legs along X-berg’s (as it’s known to the locals) intersecting canals, I understood where these folks were coming from; for all the reasons mentioned and more, it did feel a bit like Brooklyn.
But, I thought, no one can beat Brooklyn’s beer bars, especially not some gentrifying ‘hood on the Spree river in a city known more for EDM clubs and ketchup-smothered hot dogs than artisanal products and discerning palates. Germany’s brewing history was born in the country’s southern region and, due to strict mandates like the German Purity Law, the Reinheitsgebot, which limited brewers to three ingredients (they hadn’t quite figured out yeast yet…) as well as the dominance of a few centuries-old brewing families, the German craft market has been relatively slow to cultivate. It’s not that the German people aren’t thirsty—it’s that they’re almost over-saturated with well made, traditionally brewed Pilsners, Dunkels and Hefeweizens from the same breweries that pioneered the styles. Compared to the states, there just hasn’t been as much of an impetus to innovate.
So, Brooklyn? Maybe not, but I was game to find out. To make things interesting — and to pass off a pub crawl as pertinent research — I decided to compare Berlin’s craft culture head-to-head with our fair borough’s, pitting the best brew-focused Berlin bars I could find against similarly-styled Brooklyn’s outposts in a tap-to-tap showdown. May the best pint pusher win.
Hopfenreich (Berlin) v. The Owl Farm (Brooklyn)
Hopfenreich, located only a few blocks from my host’s Kreuzberg apartment, was literally the first place I went after sleeping off my red-eye flight hangover, and thusly served as my first experience with Berlin craft culture. This newish beer bar looms heavy on a broad corner, with a large entryway and a few standing tables set up outside for smokers (it was one of the only bars I visited that prohibited indoor smoking). Inside, the warm, dimly lit space welcomes drinkers with a giant beer-themed print stretched over an interior wall. In the back, the small, high bar is lined with interesting-looking gadgets that somehow pour beer, factory tools repurposed from the district’s warehouse days. The 14 constantly rotating taps and ample bottle selection showcase the best in German craft like Freigeist Munchausen Alt Sour, neighboring European brews like Mikkeller 20’ IPA, American imports from California phenom FiftyFifty Brewing and New Hampshire’s stalwart Smuttynose. The beers were fresh, perfectly poured and beautifully served in three different sizes. They were also comparatively cheap, with most coming in around 4 Euro for a hefty serving. The list was nicely managed, if a bit on the high ABV — a selling point for consumers used to the region’s low alcohol lagers, but somewhat of a hindrance to somebody like me — especially as Hopfenreich doesn’t serve any food. Sitting at the bar, I was chatted up by a nice Irish fellow who identified me as industry straight away — I was, of course, drinking by myself while taking notes. He had been working for The Brewers of Europe, the area’s massive guild, for a number of years, and assured me that Hopfenreich was hands down the best beer bar in all of Berlin. And after drinking more beer that weekend than I had in the previous month, I’m inclined to agree with him.
In my opinion, the “hands down best beer bar” in Brooklyn is Park Slope’s Owl Farm, a formidable competitor for Hopfenreich. Run by the venerable Wiley brothers (Bar Great Harry, Mission Dolores, Glorietta Baldy), this 9th street drinking den features one of the most well-curated draft lists in the city. The vibe is warm and open, with a long bar, plenty of seating and the Wileys’ signature pinball machines brightening up the back. No food, but ordering in is easy, and the lack of snacks eases the entry for dogs — one of the bar’s best and most unique attributes. The tap list is longer and much more diverse than Hopfenreich’s, with detailed descriptions written for each selection. The prices are decent for what you’re getting, and they offer multiple sizes, mirroring Hopfenreich’s convenient system.
Winner: It’s a tough call, but I think The Owl Farm takes this one, based on list diversity, attention to detail and sheer size. Oh, and dog-friendliness.
Heidenpeters at Markthalle Neun (Berlin) v. Berg’n (Brooklyn)
Markthalle Neun was a great find. Tucked away off a small square in Kreuzberg, this enclosed, airplane hangar-like stone building held a variety of artisan shops and food vendors, offering both prepared dishes and farmer’s market-style groceries. It, of course, immediately reminded me of Brooklyn’s Smogasburg and its many proliferatoins, yet the food options at Markthalle Neun seemed to be more sophisticated, with rich local cheeses, European wines and delicate tapas dominating the bunch. And, best of all, a tiny brewery stood in the back corner under an adorable, handpainted “Bierwerkstatt” sign. The corner revealed a small bar serving up a few rotating selections of ultra-fresh American-inspired (read: hoppy) beer. Heidenpeters’ 3 Euro Pale Ale was bright and grassy, with a beautiful citrus aroma and a lingering bitterness that kept me coming back for more — three more, in fact, keeping me well satiated as I wandered around the oh-so-charming shops.
The Flea/Smorg fellas’ latest venture, Berg’n, is a natural match for Markthalle Neun. The shiny new Crown Heights beer hall boasts an impressive tap list which usually counts a few IPAs, a lager or two and at least one sour amongst their lineup. The price varies, but most pints set you back about six or seven big ones. The food is trendy (ramen burgers…) but Pizza Moto invariably kills it with their perfectly toasted slices. While Markthalle Neun’s atmosphere was more mixed — families with small children, tourists, young couples and old folks alike — Berg’n’s vibe errs on the side of Brooklyn bro-dom, with eager, newly bearded hipsters saddling up to the bar in droves.
The Winner: Heidenpeters at Markthalle Neun, no contest. Sorry Fleas, but Germany pretty much invented the indoor market, and they’re still on top all these years later.
Bier Kombinat Kreuzberg (Berlin) v. The Black Swan (Brooklyn)
Bier Kombinat Kreuzberg, better known as BKK, is the one of the neighborhood’s most celebrated Fußball bars. There are tons of soccer bars, of course, but what makes this testosterone-fueled joint different is its signature house beer. Served in enormous quantities for a few Euro at most, these bad boys are made special for BKK by the nearby Schoppe Bräu brewery. The belle of the drunk ball is the XPA, a high-gravity Imperial IPA that attracts curious Germans from all over the city, more for its ABV than for its taste, which is fine but not outstanding. The other malt-based beverage options are slim, and most stick to beer or move to more potent whiskey concoctions. Unlike the other beer bars I visited in Berlin, BKK seemed to have very little tourist traffic, which gave the bar a rowdier feel — though, that could have been the sports hooliganry. It’s smoky, for sure, with no food to offset the powerful brews, but it’s definitely an authentic European experience, albeit with American-inspired beer.
As far as soccer bars go, Brooklyn offers a few options, but it seems that Bed-Stuy’s Black Swan has both the best craft beer selection as well as a few house beers brewed by Butternuts in Upstate, New York. The list isn’t too pricey — most beers level out at $6 — and the food menu is awesome, ranging from traditional UK favorites like fish & chips to hot and tangy Buffalo wings. Sports are everywhere, of course (but not just soccer, because America) The atmosphere is relatively calm and is friendly to the sports-averse, especially during brunch hours when sleepy locals feast on giant, salad-like Bloody Marys. The house beers aren’t anything to write home about — usually a basic lager and a seasonal — and nothing on the list has the pull of BKK’s XPA, yet Black Swan’s tap diversity trumps BKK’s limited lineup.
Winner: The Black Swan, by a hair. Though BKK is a trip worth making, it’s not one I’d repeat on a regular basis. Germany might have won the World Cup, but Black Swan’s wider selection and top notch eats make it a better soccer bar.
The Average Corner Store (Berlin) v. The Average Bodega (Brooklyn)
While I understand that a corner store is not a beer bar, per say, it seemed silly not to include Berlin’s most popular beer purchasing method. Every single convenience store, deli, grocery store, candy shop and newspaper stand has at least one cooler overflowing with appealing green and brown bottles. Most showcase entire walls of beer, all sold by the bottle (I didn’t see a single six-pack) in varying volumes. The bottles hail from all over Europe, with Czech and German brewed options dominating the selection. Though I gambled and lost once (avoid the Berliner Kindl Weiss — despite the name, it’s not a sour, it’s an alcopop!), most of the beers I bought from these purveyors were fresh, well carbonated and only set me back 1-2 Euros. And, the most compelling part of the whole transaction? The cashier automatically pops open your brew and hands it back, inviting you to drink it wherever you goddamn please, from a stroll up and down the canal to a romantic, linden tree-lined platz to right there in the store. Prost!
I think we Brooklynites can all agree that our bodegas are hit or miss when it comes to craft beer. While the selection is often plentiful and the prices relatively low, the quality isn’t always there, with expired IPAs and skunked lagers being sold on the regular. Bottle shops are beginning to cater to this neglected to-go market, but those fancy bottles are generally going to cost you much, much more than picking up a cold one on the corner.
Winner: Berlin takes this one. It’s frankly impossible to best a country where corner stores overtly encourage open containers, and drinking on the street at all hours of the day is the norm.
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