22 August 2012

Berliner 'burbs

I drew extensively from Knut Albert's excellent blog when I was putting together my Berlin beer itinerary. Südstern has appeared a couple of times in his recommendations so I made that a priority. We arrived around 8.30 on a blustery wet evening, the pub spilling welcoming light onto the busy dual carriageway which cuts through that quarter of unglamorous south-east Berlin. But the light, it turned out, was the only welcoming part of the offer.

We had barely eaten all day and were ravenous. The menu was full of hearty German beerhall fare which was just what we were after, and the kitchen stays open to 11. When our waitress came over, however, it transpired that all that was on offer was two types of flammekuche and the nacho plate. Oh. Well, we'll have ALL of that please. The nachos arrived with one flammekuche. We waited patiently on the second, then on politely enquiring as to its whereabouts were told the waitress had forgotten it from our order and the kitchen was closed and the chef had gone home, tough. After our meagre meal and a couple of beers we left hungry, grateful for the ubiquitous corner kebab shops that dot Berlin.

But what about the beer? Heller Stern is the unfiltered pale lager, and boy is it unfiltered: a totally opaque orange-yellow with the suspended yeast adding a not-unpleasant weissbier spice to proceedings. The central flavour is quite a sickly orange cordial thing which I didn't like at all. Its counterpart Dunkler Stern had some lovely coffee notes but was spoiled by coming out totally flat. No one was in the mood for cold coffee that evening.

The inevitable weizen is inevitably called Stern Weisse and is another headless one once the initial foam subsides. Pale yellow, it's rather heavy and sticky with a bit of a bleachy brewery-floor aroma. Once again there's a slight saving grace, this time in an unusual marzipan complexity. The seasonal was enigmatically called Matebier and is a hazy brown colour. They allege it's brewed with Cascade but I detected zero citric zest. Instead, bizarrely, lots of Christmas cookie spices full of cloves, cinnamon and orange pith. The body is unfortunately rather watery, otherwise it would pass muster as a winter warmer.

Maybe I just caught them on a bad day, but Südstern really came across to me as a pub that has stopped caring about what it brews, what it serves and how it looks to its customers.

We had a much better time on a much sunnier day at Schalander, an unremarkable-looking corner bar in a pleasant upmarket neighbourhood. They've managed to squeeze a tiny 150L brewkit in here and there were three offerings when we visited. Schalander Helles is a vibrant but hazy lemon yellow colour with a sharp hoppy aroma. There's that powerful waxy bitterness I associate with north German lager and lots of really interesting herbal complexities: chopped parsley and thyme. As it goes down there's a rising lime citrus flavour. Once the palate adjusts to the uncompromising bitterness it's really quite enjoyable. Schalander Dunkel is less of a success: murky brown and starting on caramel mixed with cardboard, finishing on an unexpected waxy punch. Oddly, their Schalander Weizen was clearer than the other two beers and quite dry, though with a powerful tongue-numbing clove whack and just a dash of ripe banana and a hint of gunpowder in the finish. The busy fizz does let it down somewhat, however.

Strolling down the hill through a bohemian quarter that feels more like Copenhagen or Amsterdam than Berlin, we arrive at Hops & Barley, a shabby-chic brewpub about which I'd heard some great things. Business was brisk with most of the crowd opting to sit out on the pavement and enjoy the evening sun. Friedrichshainer Pils is amazingly clear for a brewpub offering, and an attractive dark gold to boot. The aroma is beautifully grassy and this sharpness translates into a strawberry or raspberry tartness on tasting. Great stuff. There's no fear of the dark malts here as the Friedrichshainer Dunkles is properly black, showing only slightly red at the edges. The aroma is coffee and this continues in the flavour with some major dry roast character and only a tiny hint of brown sugar sweetness. And of course there's a Friedrichshainer Weizen, this one is extra spicy with big jaffa orange aromas coming from the quite pale beer and a flavour which mixes mandarin sweetness with clove spice. A worrying sharp edge of vinegar and vomit just spoils the party a little.

I had been expecting something a bit different from these run-of-the mill styles at Hops & Barley, and the seasonal was something enticingly named Cascade Amber. It looked the part when it arrived: a sultry red and quite hazy. I got a fruit chew aroma and it's seriously sweet to taste. They really could have done with a lot more bittering hops in here. From the cleanness of the flavour I suspect it's a lager as well. Quite a distance from the American-style amber ale I was, perhaps unreasonably, hoping for.

On Friday we go back to the city centre for yet more brewpubs.


  1. We seem to be on the same lines with Hops and Barley. I thought a bit less of the pils, but it wasn't bad by any means. The dunkel was pretty damn good - possibly the best I had in Berlin.

  2. Ouch, you must have visited Südstern on a *very* bad night! Our experience a few weeks ago was much better, so maybe its pretty good reputation is not entirely undeserved. At the time, the seasonal was a Pilsener, and I was ready to launch into a rant about timid and unimaginative German brew pubs who don't ever attempt anything unusual -- and then I tasted it. I've never had a Pilsener hopped with Cascade before, but this one was so good that we changed our plans for the evening. Well-balanced and wonderfully citrusy. Yum!

    That mate beer, incidentally, should have kept you awake all night, as it is brewed with actual South American mate leaves that are filled to the brim with caffeine. A portend that German brewers are in fact beginning to experiment outside the Reinheitsgebot (and it is very much an experiment still: the recipe has gone through a number of iterations, so maybe you got a less successful sample).

    1. Yep, I'm perfectly prepared to believe it was just a blip. But a bad experience is still a bad experience.

      Funny, I was wondering if the matebier had mate in it but there was no mention of that in the description on the blackboard.