Sunday, August 19, 2012

2000 Beers on the Streets of Berlin

It was a cold and rainy Friday morning in Berlin. Reminiscent of an average day in Portland, Oregon, temperatures were in the low 50s, the skies were dark and gray, and a gentle sprinkle was falling from the sky. By noon it hadn't really cleared up, but it was of no matter: I grabbed my umbrella and coat and headed for the U-Bahn. It was time for the Berlin Beer Festival.

The Sixteenth Internationales Berliner Bierfestival was held during the first weekend of August. They boast being the largest beer garden in the world, and with over 2000 beers stretching 2.6 km through the heart of downtown Berlin, I would wager this isn't a ludicrous claim.

Unlike an American beer festival, the BBF is a pay-as-you-go event. Free to enter, participants are encouraged to buy the Festival Bierstein which reduces the price of each beer €1 – €1,50 (depending upon the brewery). Considering I ended up attending thirteen hours of the festival and drank ... well, a lot of different beers, it turned out to be a pretty solid purchase. It wasn't long before it was filled with a Störtebecker Schwarzbier, and I was sipping some great German beer.

Like many beer enthusiasts, one of my primary goals of attending a beer festival is to taste as many different beers as possible. It's a matter of pacing and moderation: one can't drink too much or too fast, or one quickly looses not only their sobriety, but also all ability to discern any real differences between the various beers. This is aided by the fact that an American beer festival is only allowed – by law – to pour the attendee one or two ounces (approx 0.06 litres) of beer at a time. This moderation proved to be an immense challenge at BBF: a pour wasn't two ounces, but rather two hundred millitres (6.75 oz). And with 2000 beers at the festival? It was simple math: I was going to have to be very selective.

I was able to eliminate about 33% of the beers right off the bat as dozens upon dozens of macrobreweries were present. Thus I avoided Hoegaarden, Heineken, Red Stripe, Tsingtao, Stiegel, Palm, Rosen, Spaten, Paulaner, Krombacher, Berliner Kindl... the list goes on and on.

Instead, I focussed on those breweries that I may never have the opportunity to try again, for example Radniční Pivovar Jihlava, Zwiesel Dampfbier, Merkendorfer Hummel-Bräu, and Hofbräuhaus Traunstein. Finding these breweries, however: this proved to be an immense challenge. Though a map – which divided the festival into regions – was published online, this in no way corresponded to the actual physical placement of the brewery. To add to the confusion, upon buying my Festival Stein, I was given a second – and contradictory – "map" which displayed numbers ranging from 53 to 143 (I'm still not clear what exactly these numbers represented) and provided a massive list of breweries, all the while neglecting to show their whereabouts. In this regard, the BBF could certainly stand for improvement!
Weiherer Kellerbier: Wonderful lemon/hop aroma, clean
and clear, excellend flavors of caramel and hay.

Schönram Pils: Crisp & dry, nutty with
tropical fruits, and a hint of minerals.
As for the beer itself: the absolute standout was Camba Bavaria's Pale Ale, a beer I will be discussing further in a future post. I tasted two wonderful Pilseners, one from Schönram (pictured right), the other from Störtebecker. Also fantastic were the Weiherer Kellerbier and the Kreuzenberger Klosterbier.

But as good as these beers were, one of the most surprising aspects of the festival were the beers missing: despite being held in Berlin, Berlin's only craft brewer – Brewbaker – was absent. So was Braufaktum, arguably the most important craft brewer in Germany. The festival was definitely geared towards larger breweries with a massive output, leaving out smaller brewers like Brau Kunst Keller, Freigeist Bierkultur, and Fritz.

And therein was the primary difference between the Berlin Beer Festival and just about any American beer festival. The American Beer Festival tends to be a tasting event for beer enthusiasts: usually held inside a convention center, it has a $50 admittance, lasts three hours, limits the pour size, serves sub-par food, and has a strict policy against drunkenness. And among its most important aspects is the opportunity for a small micro- or nanobrewery to advertise their product in an environment of potential customers.

By contrast, the Berlin Beer Festival is a family oriented event that celebrates a good time and uses beer as an excuse to come together and party or relax. This was an event for all ages: you don't want a beer? No problem! Have a soda, or a juice, or an ice cream. Hungry? Have a bratwurst, a cookie, or candy. Honestly, it reminded me much more of a county fair, complete with sixteen music-stages featuring local musical talent. People came and went as they chose, and everyone seemed to be having a pretty good time. The small microbrewer? There probably isn't any way they could have brewed enough beer to serve the sheer quantity of thirsty participants.

At the end of the festival, I was left pondering just how different these two festival styles are. In many ways, I envy the German mentality towards beer. I wish the cities of the United States were allowed to put on events like this: this was a social event and I had a blast from start to finish. I met amazing people, had great conversation, and can think of few better ways to spend a weekend (especially once the sun started to shine).

But I really don't think I would ever be willing to sacrifice the American beer festival experience. Though I tasted some wonderful beer at BBF, in contrast, at the last American festival I attended, I tasted some beer that simply blew my mind away. While there, I met brilliant brewers who were true artists, but I doubt that a single brewer bothered to show up at BBF.

Would I trade one for the other? Never. Is one experience better than the other? Not at all. If anything, this festival made me appreciate the immense diversity of cultures surrounding the enjoyment of beer, and it reminded me how lucky I am to have experienced so many of them.



CORRECTION: It appears not all American beer festivals are the same, and though those I have attended limit the hours and the consumption, it would seem that all do not. The Oregon Brewers Festival was brought to my attention as a primary counter example, and upon reviewing the website, it is clear that it shares several similar characteristics to the Berlin Beer Festival: free admission, hours from noon to midnight, and pours ranging from three to fourteen ounces.

I also want to clarify my comment that "an American beer festival is only allowed – by law – to pour the attendee one to two ounces of beer." There is no national law dictating such measures, but it is rather determined by the individual states. Hence, in Massachusetts, state law limits the pour size for all public tastings to 2 oz. Oregon, in contrast, has no such law.

I apologize for the misinformation, and I thank my readers for the correction.


  1. Bit of a quibble. AFAIK, the sale of alcohol in the US is regulated on a state by state basis, so there is no "American law" governing sample sizes at beer fests. At the Oregon Brewers Fest, for example, people choose between 4 and 8 oz servings. (This Oregonian would never consider visiting a beer festival where beer is served by the ounce.)

    I've also never been to an American beer fest that was limited to a few hours or something. But then, I think the only American beer fests I've been to were in OR and Chicago.

    You're right about the difference between German and American beer festivals: they are simply two different things. The American one is as you say, all about sampling different beers. The German one is about DRINKING beer and enjoying the time.

    You can legally drink and even be drunk in public in Germany. Foreign concept to much of the US.

    1. Thanks for the commend, Erlangernick! You are right, of course: the alcohol regulation is on a state-by-state basis. It is Massachusetts state law that a public tasting event has no more than a 2 oz pour, and I believe some other New England state (I am blanking on which at the moment) has the 1 oz. law. I honestly didn't realize that Oregon allowed up to an 8 oz. pour: thank you for the correction!

      I thank you also for pointing out that the festivals you have attended do not have an hours limit. I will be sure to correct that in the blog.

    2. Well, no need to take it so seriously! Just wanted to avoid non-Americans reading this thinking that there are such uniform regulations in the US.