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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Milwaukee Beer Drinker in Berlin

Liquid culture topped with foam

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Born and bred in Wisconsin, I’ve had my fair share of exposure to beer. As a child, I vividly recall fetching bottles for my father and uncles from the cases of Old Milwaukee in the basement. In high school, there were the quintessential Midwestern field parties where small-town kids met in the dark to get wasted. (Side note: I was an insanely good girl who never partook). In college, the festivities simply moved inside and involved kegs instead of cans (which is when I started to join the party). And after more than a decade in the Brew City, I can safely report that I, along with many other Milwaukeeans, have already consumed a whole lot of beer in my 30 some years. Yet, as I left for my three-month stint in Berlin this past fall, I wondered how my background as a beer-drinking Wisconsin gal of German ancestry would fit in with the Deutschland bier experience. My grand conclusion is as follows:

Germans take their beer very, very seriously. I don’t quite fit the mold.

Not only do they consume the stuff like it’s water, the average Joe (Josef?) seems to know quite a bit about it. At first, I was surprised by the beer knowledge that surrounded me. However, I then learned that many cities, towns and even teeny remote villages produce beers of their own. According to current stats, there are approximately 1,200 breweries in Germany. Hence, kids grow up knowing a thing or two about the industry.

Of course, there are plenty of Milwaukeeans, and Wisconsinites in general, who are well versed when it comes to the history, making and types of beer. However, I have never had beer-centered conversations like those I had with Germans. They not only informed me about every beer/soda concoction known to man (a Radler is beer and white soda; a Diesel or Colabier is beer and coke, etc.), they always had a litany of reasons why their ales, stouts, Weissbiers and doppelbocks were better than the pathetic lagers that came from elsewhere. For kicks, I would ask if they had ever tasted Miller or Budweiser. The hysterical laughter that ensued was enough of an answer.

Beer Purity

Germans are also quite proud of their country’s Beer Purity Law, the Reinheitsgebot, handed down from the royal Bavarian court back in 1516. The great majority of German brewers still adhere to this law, which allows only for barley, hops, water and yeast.

Perhaps due to this respect for the pureness that is their beer, along with the rather stoic German culture in general, there doesn’t appear to be a strong desire to drink gallons of the stuff to get blitzed out of one’s mind. Instead, more Germans seem to take advantage of the feierabendbierchen phenomenon, which basically means winding down after work with a couple of beers, preferably with one’s co-workers. After this rather subdued happy hour(s), they go on their way, stone sober and ready to focus on family life at home.

Indeed, my general impression of Berliners was that they tend to handle their liquor better than the average American. They need to, considering that the law allows them to carry alcohol almost everywhere they go. This is also a country where alongside my falafel sandwich from the street stand, I can enjoy a Pilsner and a shot of Jagermeister and then proceed with my day. There’s also the fact that a bottle of beer from the street typically costs no more than $1.50. I felt like I was perpetually on spring break, hopping on the U-Bahn any Saturday night and finding 90% of the passengers holding a bottle of something. Not surprisingly, though, the Germans tended to be reserved and matter of fact about it, as if they were carrying around bottles of Evian, not half-liters of Berliner Pilsner. If there was any drunken hooting and hollering on the U-Bahn or on the streets, it typically came from tourists who were taking advantage of what seems to be government-encouraged hedonism.

As I got into my weekend routine of buying a Berliner Kindl at the corner bakery/liquor store (the two go hand in hand, really) and then hopping on the underground to meet my friends, I repeatedly found myself immensely grateful for Berlin’s mass transit system. I’m not sure how such lax drinking laws would function back in such a motorist-heavy/beer-happy state like Wisconsin, but something tells me that it would be problematic.

As I try to readjust to American drinking laws, I can’t help but feel influenced by my time in Berlin. I now want to see a good amount of foam on the top of my beer, because as the Germans say, “Ein gezapftes Bier braucht sieben Minuten” (“It takes seven minutes to draw a good beer”). And heaven help you if you don’t look me in the eyes when we clink glasses and shout, “Prost!”—you will be doomed to seven years of bad sex. And god knows that’s no way to ring in the beginning of spring.


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