Beer in the Ruins of Communism

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Photo by Clay Risen


There's something splendid in the way Berliners deal with the hulking reminders of two of history's most oppressive regimes. Karl-Marx-Allee, for instance, a monumental avenue southeast of Alexanderplatz, was once known as Stalinallee, a 1.5-mile street 100 yards wide lined with massive Soviet-realist apartment blocks (the buildings are faced with gleaming ceramic tiles, leading the former East Germans to nickname the street "Stalin's Bathroom") and designed as a place to demonstrate the technical prowess of the workers' state, including May Day military-review parades.

Like many of the architectural artifacts of Nazi and Communist Germany, Karl-Marx-Allee and its architectural accoutrements are far too large to tear down. So the Berliners have reimagined it as a place for their own massive parades. Now the Allee hosts massive music festivals, including the 1990's phenomenon Love Parade (a music fest that drew millions from across Europe) and, in 2002, something called Fuck Parade, which was apparently a protest against right-wing extremism.

There are beer festivals in the United States, but nothing like this.

I got to experience the inverted glory of Karl-Marx-Allee this past weekend at the annual Berlin Beer Festival: several hundred breweries offering more than a thousand beers, along with food stalls and bandstands. Nearly a million people from all over Europe showed up for three days of drinking everything from German Eisbocks to Nigerian palm beer and eating bratwurst, pretzels, entire eels, even horse. It was one of the greatest weekends of my life.

There are beer festivals in the United States, but nothing like this. It was completely open--no entrance fee, not even an entrance; you could enter or exit anywhere along its mile-long stretch. If you wanted, you could buy a "Pro Beer Mug," a .2 liter glass with which you could then get 1.50 euro samples. But, as befit the anarchic spirit of Berlin, you didn't have to--you could just buy a full mug or bottle, sit back at a picnic bench, and watch the besotted city pass by.

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Photo by Clay Risen

The route was split into themes, with a special focus on Belgian beers; Czech beers abounded too. The real focus, though, was domestic Most of the major beer-producing states had entire sections; if you ever wanted to round out your knowledge of Thuringian breweries, this was the place.

A few friends from the States were visiting, and the four of us, my wife included, did our best to keep track of our favorites. At the top were Aventinus' Eisbock, a frothy, sweet brew; Franziskaner Weissbier; Schneider-Weisse; and Schwarzer Abt from Klosterbrauerei Neuzelle, a subtly chocolate-y concoction. We had far too many beers to track over a two-day period, but what came home for all of us was the importance of freshness to German beer. There is simply no comparison between a months-old Schneider-Weisse shipped to the United States and one drawn straight from the tap.

What really set the scene apart from what you'd expect in the States was the crowd's unforced maturity. This wasn't a beer-tasting: people were there to drink cheap beer. Bachelor parties and drinking clubs, identifiable by elaborate costumes or just identical jerseys, like bowling teams, abounded. And yet I never saw any rowdiness or even any serious drunkenness. Just a general, loose happiness. And while I doubt many people thought to much about it, celebrating a united European beer culture where Cold War tanks used to tread made me love Berlin that much more.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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