Berlin is big. You notice that on the way from the airport and when walking around. It is ever changing and still, 22 years after the wall fell, a city of contrasts and still 67 years after the last shell and bomb landed, undergoing repairs and renovations. In short, in the centre at least, it is a large building site, with former buildings reappearing phoenix like from the sandy soil, or large U Bahn extensions causing diversions as you pick your way through it. It is a marvellous place, though frustratingly difficult to remember precisely, even though I've been there quite a few times.
Mitte is the centre of the old East and that's where we stayed in the excellent Novotel. Great for breakfasts - and handy for more or less everything - trust me on that one. Our short first night was spent trying to find the quaint Nicolaiveirtel, a small part of the former East German capital, renovated by the DDR in its dog days - mostly in concrete - but you can hardly tell. The building works didn't help either, nor did a sign that pointed to its direction the wrong way. They are wags these Berliners. The huge former Palace of the DDR, riddled with asbestos, is now a giant hole in the ground which seemed to block our every way, but eventually we stumbled on a neat little pub with excellent food and a very snooty attitude. We'd been there before with others a few years ago and it was the same then, but the Radeburger- the drink of the DDR politburo - didn't touch the sides and the portions were mighty, even if the craic wasn't. The next day, when the pouring rain eased, we found our goal a mere five minutes walk away. It's easy when you know how.
Determined to do better we headed for Brauhaus Mitte. Now I knew where that was and felt confident. It is more or less opposite the Fernsehturm, the huge former DDR TV tower which dominates Berlin. Well we found the tower OK - you could hardly miss it - and after only a little swearing and cursing, found Brauhaus Mitte. We sat outside, just as it started to rain again and enjoyed a flight of samplers. Nothing that special, but competent enough. A recurring theme. We took our bearings and planned our day. It was a simple plan, therefore one I felt capable of executing. We were going to the Berlin Beer Festival. That's simple. And so it proved. A quick shimmy round the Fernsehturm, along Alexanderstrasse and we were there. Karl-Marx Allee. Now just a touch more history here for you. Karl-Marx Allee started out as Stalin Allee, though of course in an even earlier incarnation, it was Grosse Frankfurter Strasse. It arose from the rubble of the Second World War bombing and was perhaps the DDR's most ambitious building project. It is grandly stupendous in an insane sort of way. Actually it is rather handsome. And why go there? It is where they hold Berlin Beer Festival.
Most of the 2km stretch of Karl-Marx Allee is used for the festival. Not in the middle of the road, but on one side. There is plenty of room, as the whole thing is nearly 90 metres wide. Stand after stand for the whole stretch is filled with individual breweries beer offerings. Any brewery who is noteworthy seems to be there and you simply start at the beginning - either end will do - and work your way along. Almost all the beer is German as you'd expect, though there was a bit of British, Czech and Belgian. There was even some Russian stuff and other oddities. I'll tell you later about that in part 2.
To finish part one though, I'll tell you how it all works. You can buy a festival glass for a few euros and wander around and have that filled, or just get a brewery glass from whatever stand you fancy and pay a deposit on that glass. You have to take the glass back to the stand you got it from to get your money back - or you can keep it. And despite the thousands of people, it is real glass. No plastic here. Most stands have a few benches where you can watch the world go by as you oil your neck. Of course this being Germany, you won't go short of vittals. Every few metres there is a bratwurst stall, a pizza stall, various chunky meat stalls, roast chickens, hamburgers, fried potatoes and more. You will be entertained by Bavarian Oompah bands, singers, heavy metal and rock, Beatles song singers (lots of that) and cheery German equivalents of Val Doonican, while all the while, elderly couples and old ladies dance away to Deutsche Blasmusik.
Another slight oddity is pricing. This is set by the stallholders and varies a lot. Many sold 0.4l, that odd, slightly cheaty, North German favourite, at a very reasonable €3, while some sold 0.25l for the same price or more. It was notable that those with the biggest prices were emptiest, including Zum Uerige who sold their beer "vom holzfass" that is straight from the barrel by gravity. At the height of the festivities, the AB InBev stand was pretty empty. Who wants to pay top dollar for their stuff? Hardly anyone it seemed. By contrast, Baltika of Russia was bashing out their wares, including some pretty strong stuff, for €3 a half litre. It was bursting with thirsty bargain hunters.
Customers ranged from young to very old. Most were German, but there was, astonishingly quite a few British stag parties, looking completely incongruous and out of place, dressed in Joe 90 costumes, chicken costumes, silly wigs and the like. Not the place for that really, but the atmosphere is one that encourages conformance and there was little by way of bad behaviour, though there was by the end a lot of completely pissed people, again almost all German, but rather well behaved pissed, though a tad noisy. Drinking makes you a bit deaf it seems. There was one Scotsman in a kilt that was delighting the young frauleins, by showing what he didn't wear under his kilt. I didn't see this myself thankfully, though I did see him, but E confirmed it was the case. Seems they all found it funny, though I'd have had him locked up. Funnily enough the GBBF habit of wearing silly hats was noticeable too. Why does a beer festival make some people want to wear daft headgear? A mystery to me. Everyone who could had looked out a brewery T shirt too.
Lastly, a word about toilets and policing. Portaloos were plentiful and free, though some were a grim experience. E opted for the paying version, where for 50 cents, you got toilet paper, guaranteed running water and hand washing facilities. As the night wore on and things got more hectic, the signs for male and female were simply ignored and people dashed into the first loo available, often after a bladder stretching wait. By closing time, the abundant bushes were freely and all too openly pressed into service.
All the while the place was patrolled by quite casual looking special police and various security guards. I didn't see either of them doing anything at all in particular.Apart from public pissing, which was studiously ignored, there seemed no need.
The photo at the top show Leipziger Strasse and was the view from our hotel room. East German practicality and function.
A bit of a CV. Tandleman is a veteran beer lover, local CAMRA Chairman and activist, beer writer, beer reviewer and pursuer of all things good in beer. He lives in the North West of England and London. Despite his CAMRA membership, he does not limit himself to cask conditioned beer, though he believes that cask conditioning, when done correctly and appropriately, brings a quality to beer that is hard to equal by any other kind of presentation. He is a strong supporter of Northern methods of beer dispense and avidly detests poorly presented beer and dislikes pasteurisation. He regularly visits Germany, has conducted corporate British and German beer tastings for CAMRA at the Great British Beer Festival where he has worked for years on Biere Sans Frontieres and was Deputy Organiser at CAMRA's very successful National Winter Ales Festival in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and at the Manchester Beer and Cider Festival from 2013 to date. He admires good brewers wherever they are and has travelled extensively in pursuit of good beer to drink. He also judges beer at both the International Beer Challenge and the World Beer Awards.
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