Beer Renaissance: Flessa Bräu of Friedrichshain
It should not even be a surprise that beer culture is firmly entrenched in Berlin. Sure as bread, it's seamlessly integrated into all parts of daily life. People walk, ride bicycles, push strollers, ride trams and the U-Bahn with open bottles of beer. It's efficient. So why now a resurgence in Berlin microbreweries? Why would people willingly enter a competitive, highly regulated German institution? One dominated by two monstrous breweries.
German institutions don't play nice. Not even when you're the ethical little guy. Half-liter bottles of over a hundred brands of beer at the thousands of Spätkaufs around, will set you back only a euro, often less.
Berlin Kiezs are distinct as cities—we live, work, drink, dine and shop within a three or four-block radius, because we can. Microbreweries are slowly filling gaps left by the corporatization of beer and the disappearance of Berlin breweries, and they respond to each Kiez's sensibilities. In Friedrichshain, a neighborhood with a long history of breweries like Böhmisches Brauhaus and Bayrischbier-Brauerei Patzenhofer, distinct microbreweries have popped up in locations a kilometer or two apart. One of the most interesting, and possibly the smallest of these is Flessa Bräu.
We arrive at an Altbau on Petersburger Straße, and the only indicator of the Brewery is a small hand-painted sign of a large tree above the words: Flessa Bräu, Berlin. We're buzzed into the Hinterhof. Loud music directs us to the brewery. It's a sunny lazy June afternoon and an unassuming man, wearing jeans and a t-shirt—whom we learn is Christoph Flessa—stands outside the brewery entrance, chatting with a visitor. He greets, then ushers us into the front office space where a young guy sits at a beer garden table and meticulously glues labels to bottles by hand. This is representative of Flessa's business style—hands on and person by person, one of many careful details that make Flessa a microbrewery in the truest sense. A lightbulb covered by a bottomless beer bottle hangs above a large desk covered in papers—behind that a shelf holds three types of beer glasses for the beers brewed at Flessa: Weizen, Export, and Pilsner. Essentially, Christoph says, salt and water content in the brewing process alter the style of a beer.
In 2007 Christoph Flessa was living in Mexico with his wife and young children and he was missing German beer. Their solution: open a microbrewery in Mexico. But as they began researching and planning, the drug war broke out and daily reports of beheadings and shootings were harrowing: “It's not a war against the drugs. It's a war of CIA and other institutions […] the drugs have part of it but there are lots of reasons to have this war.” After a pause, he adds: “It's omnipresent. I have family, three kids and they are small and I don't want them to see all this shit, like military trucks and the violence.”
And so the Flessa family moved to Berlin. “So we're gonna try it here,” Christoph says as we open beers in the back courtyard garden. We're sitting on beer-garden benches we've carried through the spotless white-tiled space. A man wheels cases of bottles across the yard.
Christoph Flessa is the first to admit he isn’t a certified or trained brewmaster. Nor does he believe the Reinheitsgebot protects beer culture. The Reinheitsgebot, the famed German Beer Purity Law, was first instituted in 1516, which makes it the oldest food regulation in the world. According to the Purity Law, only water, hops and barley may be used in beer making. In fact, Christoph says, their rigid definitions of styles of beer hamper microbrewers. You can't, for example, use barley (just barley malt) in a Pilsner. When industrial brewers change their recipes, however, the Reinheitsgebot alters its standard. While Irish and North American microbrewers experiment with ingredients such as herbs and fruit, German microbrewers are bound by the limited palette allowed under the Purity Law.
Christoph's passion for brewing developed the natural way: a love of beer. When he and his family moved to Berlin after seven years in Mexico, they rented a Friedrichshain apartment with a huge balcony. He bought a 50-liter Braumeister Speidel (more than double Speidel's hobby version) and began brewing. Friends, acquaintances, and anyone who tried it, loved his beer. That first beer, he says, came after he sat and thought and thought about beer. He calls it a kind of breakthrough, a masterpiece—the beer that let him know he could brew--though it's not one of his current three brews. He moved his burgeoning home operation to the cellar of his apartment house.
You have a different taste. And the feeling. Even the effect is different. Sometimes people ask me what do I put in my beer? But I put nothing. Just malt, barley, hops. He laughs.
In contrast to other parts of Europe and North America, where microbrewing is well established, Berlin hasn’t had microbreweries to speak of for decades. Christoph suggests the nascent microbrew renaissance is a both an ethical food and punk-inspired movement, a grassroots resistance to corporate beer production. With the dissolution of the DDR, Berlin lost its malteries and most of its breweries. But when you look at old maps and images of Berlin, you see that breweries were prominent throughout all Berlin's neighborhoods and their closures made way for new apartment blocks, with views of abandoned brick buildings and open park spaces—and in this way they remain part of Berlin's urban geography. A few blocks away from Flessa, was the Böhmisches Brauhaus, on Friedenstraße, near Landsberger Allee. Opened in 1868 by a lawyer named Armand Knoblauch. It was one of the largest breweries in Berlin. In a 1908 marketing campaign, Böhmisches Brauhaus ran a contest for Berliners to name Knoblauch's Pilsner. “Pilsator” won 1000 marks and Pilsator is still sold in east Germany. After sustaining heavy WW II damage, production stopped. Later it became the largest wine-cellar in the DDR.
Today you can explore some of the abandoned buildings. The day we walked through the cut chain link fence, we found the usual graffiti, piles of empty paint cans, broken glass, bricks, and plants reclaiming the old brewing area. Around the corner, a huge restored building called Forum Friedrichshain houses offices and loft spaces. It used to be the New Maltery.
Flessa Brewery currently has 13 restaurant and bar clients. Local Kiez people stop by to share a beer with Christoph and buy bottles of his beer—though Christoph advises customers to call ahead to make sure the beer they want is available. “There are Chinese people who are writing me, 'We want to buy your beer.' Some people from India as well.” He tells us, “I'm the only one [microbrewer] who sells beer in bottles,” and he looks satisfied with this labour-intensive difference. When I ask about a bottle on the table labelled “Tanker” with an image of muscular sailors, he points to tiny script at the bottom of the label, “Flessa Bräu”. He tells us he makes batches of his special brew--that very first beer--for special events at a bar on Boxhagener Square: “They glue on the labels, though. That's the deal.” All of these things distinguish Flessa—a necessity in a tight market--and, oddly, make it a rare commodity in Berlin: a real, artisanal Berlin beer, the only one by the bottle--for now.
May 2013 was the first month Flessa Bräu broke even since opening September 2012. Christoph had found the space earlier in 2012—an old family butcher shop on the ground floor of an Altbau—but the landlord stalled over various concerns, like would upstairs tenants be irritated by the smell of brewing beer, or would the noise be annoying. The landlord consented and Christoph and friends spent three months renovating the tiled five-room space. With wry disappointment, Christoph says the landlord removed gorgeous original flooring and stamped-tin tilework from the space before he moved in.
“Germans eat shit,” Christoph says by way of a question about pricing. “Look at Italy and France—people are willing to pay for good food. It's a priority.” He feels even North Americans are further advanced in microbrew culture. People are willing to pay for quality. That market is still small in Germany so he and his purchasers feel 1.40 euro is the highest he can charge for a half-liter of beer. “You can buy beer for 29 cents” at Netto. “German beer is the cheapest in the world.”
His business plan is simple and straightforward: invest and grow. His philosophy reflects his politics. His brewery is regional, transparent, and efficient. Regional: Berlin. He won't even sell to Munich. Relationships Christoph forms—through events and markets--with local microbrewers are essential to his business ethos. On our first visit, he was preparing a demo workshop for Malzwiese, an organic food and drink festival, where local ethical food producers and microbrewers meet and share their work. The festival is held at AltTreptow in an old maltery called Malzfabrik. It used to be the largest maltery in Europe.
Christoph welcomes the camaraderie, which he sees not as competition but rather as informal quality control and a supportive network of like-minded people. His buddy Philipp Brokamp of Hops & Barley (another Friedrichshain microbrewery) gave him malt when he ran out. Near the end of our visit, in fact, Philipp stops by on his bike to drop off fliers and stickers for Christoph to distribute at Malzwiese.
Purchasing quality ingredients locally has not been easy. There isn't, for example, a single maltery remaining in Brandenburg. The nearest he found on the German side is 300 kilometers away. He chose a Bavarian maltery just 50 kilometers further because he knew it was excellent. Organic hops, a priority, and what he calls “the spice of beer” were also difficult. There are only 6 producers in the world and all have long wait lists.
The physical work of brewing has kept Christoph lean and muscular. His movements are quick and precise, like he has lost time to make up. He feels he doesn't have long--it's only a matter of time before investors set up large microbreweries. The race is to ensure the viability of his small grassroots operation, with lots of help and support from family, friends and practicum students from Technical University Berlin. The second time we meet him, he calls out, Hola, across the room and then continues a conversation in fluent Spanish with a man working at the brewery. He halts the conversation, turns to us to suggest we come back, watch him work on one of his 9-hour brewing days that begin at 5:30 in the morning. A kind of, Watch me do what I do. Don't ask me about it. I decline but our photographer agrees and does. Christoph is intense, the way a person is after waiting years to do what he wants to do. Visitors are welcomed with a very fine, very special beer and the willing and able, well, they're put to work.
Cara is a writer and teacher here in Berlin by way of Vancouver Island, Montreal and Vancouver. She loves Berlin when the sun shines and at night.
Together with Magnus Thomas
PHOTOS Diana Gurdulù Pacelli