Sunday, December 04, 2005

Beer Crisis

I've often remarked that the Germans, at least in this part of the country, have no sense whatever of seasonal cuisine. Many's the summer when, broiling in my apartment, I've left to take a walk on a Sunday afternoon and smelled the halls redolent with roasting pork -- the same roast pork as you'd get on a Sunday like today. There are times of the year when things are traditionally eaten, of course: St. Martin's Day, Nov. 12, is when you eat roast goose and red cabbage, and New Year's sees people in this part of the country eating (shudder) carp, but it's not like you can't get those things year round. To the extent that a Berliner observes the seasons' changing on the table, it's to the extent that that Berliner eats Italian food, which is very much the thing with a certain age cohort here.

So when there's a fabulous seasonal product, I want it. Especially when it seems to go well with the dictates of the current season, being warming and compatible with the kind of food I tend to eat in cold weather. I'm referring to dark bock beer.

Now, when I first moved here, this was no problem. The supermarkets had dozens of brands of beer, and when dark bock season came, they'd have special displays to let the customers know they were here. This was in marked contrast to the way things were when the city was divided: back then, West Berlin had a reputation for awful beer, and it was well-deserved. You had your choice between Schultheiss, which was awful, and Berliner Kindl, which wasn't any better, although they made a premium brand called Jubiläums Pilsener that was barely acceptable. (There was also a brand called Engelhardt Charlottenburger Pilsner that was only available on draft and was totally undrinkable, by which I mean you'd probably never take a second sip).

One thing adventurous travellers knew when they crossed the Wall, however, was that the East Berlin Schultheiss and Kindl actually tasted good: the Communists had just taken over the brands and continued to make them the way they'd always been made, while the rocket scientists in the West were trying out marketing strategies and tinkering with the recipes. So when the city was reunited, the two biggies grabbed the cross-town rivals: Schultheiss took over Berliner Pilsner over on the colorfully-named Indira-Ghandi-Str. and Kindl zoomed in on Berlin's oldest brewery, Berliner Bürgerbräu. So most of the year, I enjoy the crisp, dry, hoppy flavor of BP, but in the winter, I look for this:

True, it's not the best bock I've had since I've been here, but the best one was from the Bärenpils brewery, which used to exist in a tiny town northeast of Berlin, and has now been gobbled up as a brand by Kindl. (The very best German bock of all, as most people will agree, comes from just outside Munich, where the medieval monastery of Andechs makes an astonishing dark bock, along with many other great beers). Schultheiss claims it still makes a bock, although I've never seen it for sale, and I do remember Kindl's being way too sweet and giving me a powerful headache after one bottle.

So (are you thirsty yet?) once I realized that Bürgerbräu was available at the market across the street, there'd be a day each year when I'd just switch, and that's what I'd be drinking, for the most part, between Thanksgiving and sometime in March, since it would always have vanished from the shops by the time I got back from my annual visit to SXSW. It's nice and malty, not very sweet at all, a bit thin on the finish compared to Andechs, perhaps, but hey, it's cheap, it's local, and it's from a really nice place.

That picture of the brewery on the lake is no joke: it snuggles up to the shore of the Müggelsee, and is attached to Friedrichshagen, which I think is the latest of all the Bezirke (boroughs) to be added to Berlin: the Communists just grabbed the little village one day so they could have more Bezirke than the West had. It's still a charming corner of Berlin, particularly when Bürgerbräu has its brewery-fest: you get off the S-Bahn and walk down the long main street, which is lined with the peculiar village architecture of this part of Germany, with subdued Italianate houses -- can't have too much ostentation! -- and tall-roofed farm buildings still evident among the usual clutter of Döner Kebap stands and so on. At the end of the street is the brewery, and I'm told that the restaurant built into its walls is one of the best traditional German restaurants in town. Unfortunately, when the weather's right for that kind of thing, I find it a rather long ride -- about 40 minutes from Friedrichstr. -- so I've never tried it. But during the festival, there are tables all over the place and light snacks available as you slug down some of the local product. The brewery even has a sign on the gate leading out of it, for departing workers and guests: "Be true to Friedrichshagen: buy Bürgerbräu beer!"

But I'm wondering if something's happened down there. Bürgerbräu is no longer listed among Kindl's holdings on its website, and looks to have gone independent again. Perhaps this is why it's also vanishing from the stores: the place across from me no longer carries any of their beers, and virtually none of the Turkish stores and kiosks and the like have it. My supermarket, on the other hand, carries the pils and the Rotkelchen, but it hasn't added the bock this year. I've only found one place in my whole neighborhood -- ironically, another branch of the much bigger supermarket I usually go to -- which carries it.

Now, one weird thing about Germany's economic system is that consumer demand doesn't always reflect itself in the retail sector. Someone figured out that people will buy stuff if you have it out for them, even if it's not exactly what they want, and in turn, people passively consume what they're offered and don't complain. So I don't know if Bürgerbräu is being frozen out of the market, or if people here have been drinking less and less dark bock in the winter. If so, it's another disturbing whiff of the alienation and depression I'm picking up from people in the streets here, a kind of trudging fatalism that isn't so much seasonal as, at this point, endemic.

I still vote with my pocketbook, though, so the "little brewery in the greenery" will be getting my vote this winter as long as I'm able to cast it.

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