But I was surprised when I arrived in Berlin in 2007 at how similar most German beers were. Pilsner after pilsner, even with the certification of the 500-year-old guarantee of purity, can be a bit boring after the variety of the Pacific Northwest beer scene.
The truth is, Germany once led the beer movement but corporate breweries slowly crushed the little guys. For a long time, only mass-produced German beers like Beck's were on offer. And that fit the clientele who were happy to walk into any kneipe (bar) and simply ask for a pilsner — whatever that may be.
Luckily, as the people of Berlin have changed, so has the beer. There is a craft beer renaissance with new breweries opening regularly and those that dare to be different are celebrated. Drinking your way through the 11 best craft brewers in Berlin is an excellent way to get to know the city and its ever-changing dynamics.
The perfectly named Hops & Barley in Friedrichshain has been in operation since 2008. During their renovation from an abandoned 1950s butcher shop, they were careful to maintain charming elements like the green and cream tiles and exposed pipes.
Suiting the casual atmosphere, service is familiar and low-key. Sports frequently grace the screens and Sunday nights feature Germans' favorite crime show and cultural phenomenon, Tatort.
Even more enticing than its vibe is Hops & Barley's brews. Along with unfiltered pilsners and weizen, there are home-brewed ciders and IPAs. Try combinations like the Schlangenbiss (snake bite) that has bier, cider and a shot of Johannisbeersirup (black currant syrup). Specialty beers are frequently on offer before they inevitably sell out. They are continually trying new things and even have a brewing course for superfans.
To soak up the booze, order the classic Treberbrot platter that utilizes bread made from the spent grain from the brewing process. Or if you've had one IPA too many, Hops & Barley rents rooms upstairs.
Heidenpeters is almost hidden away in a corner of the busy market hall. Escape the crowds by following the alleyway along the Kantine to discover a few bar stools and taps.
Their standards include an American Pale Ale and IPA, but something experimental is also usually on the menu like a Belgian IPA with an impressive 8.2% alcohol content. They walk the line between being a traditional German brewery while dabbling in unusual flavors and American-style methods.
Vagabund translates to "vagabond", which is fitting for a brewery started by three wayward Americans who found a home in Berlin.
They began the brewery while working in other careers with the help of a crowd-funding campaign. Their beer has been at the forefront of the craft beer scene in Berlin and you can also sample their impressive beer knowledge as one of the founders is usually tending bar.
Located in the perennially up-and-coming neighborhood of Wedding, a window in the taproom showcases the brewing process. The chalkboard menu displays their frequently changing options from their standard American Pale Ale, to Tripel Double IPA, Szechuan Saison, or even a smoky rauchbier.
Berlin’s oldest brewery with restaurant is the elegant Brauhaus Lemke. With three different locations around the city and many establishments serving their beer, it is hard to miss — and you certainly shouldn't.
Their most central location is just off busy Alexanderplatz, although they also have spaces in trendy Hackescher Markt or near Schloss Charlottenburg. No matter the exact location, you can expect polished wood, suburb service, and crisp, clean beers like their Lemke Original and Lemke Pilsner. They have started to get more adventurous and the menu provides recommended food and beer pairings.
Taking the industrial aesthetic to the extreme, BRLO is located in a series of stacked railroad cars in Park am Gleisdreieck. The name comes from the original Slavic word for Berlin, but the innovative design is all Berlin.
This slick space regularly hosts events, but people flock to it every day of the week for its high-quality beers and superb biergarten. When Berlin's summer weather is agreeable, there are few places better to enjoy good beer and creative dishes.
Now a Wedding institution, Eschenbräu brews impeccable alt berliner dunkel, hefweizen, pilsner, and many sensational saisonbiere on-site.
Tucked away within the hof (courtyard) of a neubau (new build), those who locate the brewery are rewarded with a surprisingly large underground layer dedicated to traditional beer drinking. There are mugs for the regulars who make this their Stammtisch and the space fills up quickly on weekend evenings.
While they offer flammkuchen to soak up the booze, food is not the focus. Those who need something more are welcome to bring a picnic, or if you get too full you should try their house-produced spirits like the whiskey.
The lively area around Ostkreuz has continued to grow up with more shops, restaurants, and now the eclectic brewery of Straßenbräu. Their inspirational instagram has beer lovers arriving in droves to sample their easy-drinking Stralauer Blond or trendy versions of New England IPAs, sour goses, or a Nitro Milk Stout.
The intimate nooks and crannies of seating are arranged around the working brewing equipment. Beer tours run through, guides animatedly describing the brewery's many offerings. If it ever gets too full, take a seat at the ample tables out front or buy one of their reasonably-priced bottles or growlers to-go.
Tucked away just outside the ring in residential Pankow, this pair of inventive American brewers provide beer with a smile. Friendly service makes a welcome change from Berlin's usually lackluster customer service scene, and robust American-style beers keep people coming back.
Located in a former Irish pub, an intricate wood bar remains and is enlivened with modern decor and an inviting outdoor biergarten in the summer. Regular events like a pub quiz, foodie pop-ups, American football screenings, and even Halloween craft parties for the whole family mean everyone is welcome. The owners are quick to recognize a face and this can quickly become your favorite watering hole.
BrewBaker started on their path of brewing something different back in 2005 in a quiet corner of Moabit. With a bustling bar counter within Arminius-Markthalle as well as a full restaurant nearby, BrewBaker continues to set itself apart as the only artisanal organic brewer in Berlin.
Along with pale ales and pilsners, they provide seasonal offerings like a pumpkin lager for fall or ginger beer in winter. While it'd be hard to perfect the art of their ales, they offer brewing courses to inspire beer lovers.
Pfefferbräu sits on the slight incline of Pfefferberg hill which gives the brewery its name. Pillars frame the street life below, but up here, it is all chill and imbibe.
The site has a brewing history dating back to 1893, but has undergone several renovations and periods of dereliction. The latest version was opened in 2011 and includes a large, industrial, indoor space with full restaurant, but most people choose the sprawling biergarten that melts into the shared space of nearby restaurants, Pfefferbett Hostel and theatre.
Brauhaus Südstern offers well-crafted beers like a sneakily spicy chili IPA, seasonal Märzen, and even a world record holder for strongest beer in the world to adhere to German purity law. They are changing the definition of what German beer can be.
The brewery backs up to the sprawling Hasenheide Park with a beer garden practically spilling onto the grass. Inside, there is plentiful seating with hearty German dining options like schweinshaxe.
Beer fans can order off the expansive menu, or take a look behind the scenes with a guided tour from a master brewer or enroll in a class. When you take a course, you don't just learn about brewing beer, you make life-long friends by finishing the hard work with a meal then come come back when the beer is finished for a final tasting.