All across Europe, the winds of change are blowing. And in West Berlin, where they are among the strongest, the winds of change carry a new fragrance -- that of brewing beer.
In the past couple of years, several small "brewpubs" have opened in West Berlin. Following the trend begun in Britain and North America, these "craft" breweries make a small amount of brew intended only for consumption on premises.
Most experts agree: Beer is not a good world traveler. It is best consumed locally. In fact, the closer to the fermenters the better -- and therein lies half the secret of a brewpub. The other half is the joy of peering through glass walls to the vats where next week's refreshment burps and gurgles, watching the apron-clad brew master strut around, and inhaling the rich grainy smell of barley steeping in hot water.
When I went looking for brewpubs in Berlin, I had no German at my tongue's command, only a fearsome thirst. A helpful passenger on the plane from Frankfurt had circled the location of the Rixdorfer Brewery on my map, and it was with this uncertain circle that I began my quest.
In a quiet, residential section called Neukolln near the Allied Tempelhof air base I wandered up Glasowerstrasse and found it. It's housed in a turn-of-the-century mansion spared destruction during the war, adjacent to a factory. The factory owner lived in the house until 1984; in 1987, the brewpub idea was hatched. Rixdorfer opened last summer.
You still feel as if you're in a mansion. A gleaming wooden staircase in the center entranceway winds to an upstairs dining room. On the main floor, tall windows adjoin the manicured grounds, which are surrounded by a stone wall (in the summer, the garden can seat 1,000 people). Ornate chandeliers hang from the high ceilings. The bar counter is sheathed in copper, and copper pipes run to the taps. There is rich mahogany trim throughout.
The Rixdorfer Brewery makes a Pilsener year-round, and a refreshing, dry wheat beer in the summer. In the winter, it brews a nut-brown bock beer -- rich, creamy and strong. (In my opinion it's served too cold, especially for the winter months.)
The wheat beer variety may be Berlin's best-known beer. It is low in alcohol and may be served with a wedge of lemon or even some fruit syrup. The latter is known as Berliner Weisse; it is the reason some people are holding vessels of alarming-looking red or green liquid to their lips.
Wheat is the one exception allowed to the Reinheitsgebot, the Bavarian purity law that limits beer ingredients to water, yeast, barley and hops. Adjunct grains like corn and rice, and other additives that make up much of the mass-produced American beer, are not permitted.
Unlike the wheat beer, with its dry edge, the Pils made in Berlin is a round, full, malty beer. Berlin's big breweries are Schultheiss and Kindl, and they make a fine Pils themselves. But at Rixdorfer, a tangy hop bouquet comes through more than with those other varieties.
Behind an iron gate in the back of the restaurant, the mood suddenly changes from elegant mansion to ultra-high-tech brewery. Here stainless steel brewing kettles and fermenting vats are put to use making about 13 barrels of beer a day. An electronic board controls the vital signs of each batch.
In the basement, the beer is fermented and aged (or lagered) for three to four weeks. Considering that more than 1,000 patrons may be consuming beer at any one time, and that a batch of beer takes close to a month to brew, Rixdorfer needs a good deal of inventory space, which it has in the basement. All together, the tanks hold upwards of 250 barrels.
A few miles away from the Rixdorfer, I found the Luisen Brewery, at two years old the granddaddy of Berlin micro-breweries. What it lacks in history, the Luisen Brewery makes up for in convenience: It is across the street from the Charlottenburg Palace, the Egyptian Museum and the Museum of Greek and Roman Antiquities, all major tourist attractions.
Unlike the Rixdorfer, Luisen normally serves only one beer, a Pilsener (in the spring and fall it also makes a strong bock). But like the Rixdorfer's, this is a superior, fresh beer, with a spicy bouquet of hops. It is served in one-fifth-liter glasses; the bar also sells ornate glass jugs with ceramic tops and steel handles (about $22 filled with beer, $7 for a refill).
Back behind the bar, visible through glass walls, are five Jacuzzi-sized, open-topped vats of fermenting beer. Brown and white-flecked foam, the byproduct of yeast devouring the fermentable barley sugars, sits on top like surf foam on a beach. The brewery turns out about 170 barrels a month.
The restaurant's rooms are cavernous and separated by pillars. The Luisen does not have a beer garden like the Rixdorfer, but it's impressive nonetheless, as its front windows look out over the Charlottenburg Palace grounds. At one end of the restaurant is the brew kettle and mash tun (where the barley steeps in hot water); at the other end are the lagering tanks.
I visited the Luisen Brewery on a Saturday afternoon, enjoying my beer along with many jolly-faced, brew-swigging Berliners. Those who consider beer foam a nuisance, by the way, should note that German barkeeps don't pour off foam, they let it settle. One must be patient ordering a beer: It takes time for the foam to subside so that more beer may be poured into the glass.
Both Jurgen Solkowski, brew master at Luisen, and Matthias Muller, brew master at Rixdorfer, happened to be at Luisen that day. They clearly have enormous enthusiasm for their work and enjoy explaining the intricacies to visitors. We sat for a while, talking over Pilseners.
Once upon a time, they told me, many pubs in Germany brewed their own beer. "It's an old tradition in Germany," Solkowski said, although the practice died as larger companies took over. Now, not just in Germany but in many other countries, small pubs are beginning to brew their own beer once again. And this is good news for beer lovers the world over. Mark Aspinwall is a Washington writer. WAYS & MEANS
Among West Berlin's brewpubs:
Rixdorfer Brewery, 27 Glasowerstrasse. From the Zoo Garten station at the Europa Center, take the S-Bahn elevated train two the Charlottenburg stop and change to the number 7 U-Bahn underground train southbound toward Rudow. Get off at the Grenzalle stop.
Luisen Brewery, 1 Luisenplatz. From the Zoo Garten station at the Europa Center, take the S-Bahn elevated train to the Charlottenburg stop and take the number 7 U-Bahn north toward Rathaus Spandau. Get off at the Richard Wagner Platz station. The brewpub is a quarter-mile or so up Otto Suhr Allee, across from Charlottenburg Palace.
Aschinger Brewery, 26 Kurfurstendamm. Just a few blocks west of the Europa Center, this brand-new brewpub is centrally located and has room for 600 patrons. It brews an export style Pils, similar to those found in West Germany, with plans for a special May bock this spring. INFORMATION: For more information on Berlin, contact the city's main tourist office, Verkehrsamt Berlin Europa Center D-1000, Berlin 30; or, in the United States, German Tourist Information Office, 747 Third Ave., New York, N.Y. 10017, (212) 308-3300. -- Mark Aspinwall