Generalisations about beer culture Germany

The Way of the Wegbier in Berlin

It’s normal in Berlin to drink a bottle of beer as you wander between pubs… or wander anywhere, for that matter.

We hadn’t been in the city long before we noticed just how many off-licences there are.

Or, rather, convenience stores that just happen to be piled high with crates of beer.

In Berlin, they’re usually labelled as ‘Spätis’, from Spätverkaufsstellen, meaning ‘late shopping outlet’. It’s a culture that originated in the former Communist East.

Our favourite, glimpsed from a tram, had stolen Spotify’s branding and was called, of course, Spätify.

Alongside dirt cheap mass-produced or local beers there are also exotic imports from Bavaria. Tegernsee Helles from Bavaria, for example, at €2 a pop.

But there’s nothing remotely pretentious about these shops. They also sell Monster energy drinks, chocolate bars, ice cream, vapes, and bog roll.

That the beers are being sold to drink on the go is underlined by the presence on the counter of a bottle opener.

Hand over your cash, knock off the cap, and you’re away.

And that’s exactly what people do. Visiting some Kneipen with Berlin-based friends we lost sight of one on the subway. He reappeared 30 seconds later with an open bottle of Sternburg Export which, he told us, cost €1.

“Back home, people look askance if you‘’’re carrying an open bottle of beer in the street,” he said. “In Berlin, on Saturday night, they look askance if you’re not.”

There’s an old Berlin joke about this, as Evan Rail quoted in an article for VinePair back in 2019:

“Someone said that the police stopped a person to check his papers on the Oranienburger Strasse… It turns out he was a Canadian tourist. And the police stopped him because he was the only one who didn’t have a Wegbier, so he looked suspicious.”

Nor did it take us long to start noticing empty bottles on pavements, and the men who make a living collecting them for the deposit.

Even in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate they dodge between American tourists filling tattered carrier bags, clink, clank.

When our pub-crawling companion – otherwise a very tidy, law-abiding sort – finished his Wegbier, he placed the bottle carefully on the ground near a bin.

Why make the professional scavengers dig around in the filth?

And it’s not as if it will be there long.

It’s a very efficient system, exploitative as it might be.

Wegbier isn’t the preserve of rebels and youngsters, either.

One weekday afternoon we watched a smartly-dressed thirty-something couple escorting their small children along the street.

Both parents were carrying open bottles of lager as casually as someone in Britain might carry a to-go cappuccino.

What if you can simply decide not to be drunk?

What if you can drink constantly, without a Teku glass in sight, and retain total responsible respectability?

Though it didn’t come naturally to us, we decided to try to fit in. We popped into a Späti for a between-pub pick-me-up and, overwhelmed by choice, also went for Sternburg Export.

It’s not the most exciting beer in the world but it doesn’t need to be when you’re swigging straight from the bottle on a busy street in one of the most interesting cities in the world.

Under the glow of traffic lights and kebab shop neon it felt positively glamorous, or delightfully seedy. It adds a swagger to your step.

Looking down into the gutter, we laughed. The road surface was studded, of course, with hundreds of rustling bottle caps pressed into the tar. And a layer of fresh bottle caps had already begun to form, like a tide line.

“We should do this more often,” we said.

Then, on our last morning in Berlin, we saw another bottle of Sternburg swinging past in the street.

Glancing up at its owner we saw a face that looked as if it had been hit by a brewery dray. Yellow eyes, bloody nose, bruises, and a look of forlorn befuddlement.

Perhaps, after all, it is good to pause.

Maybe we can just enjoy some fresh air on the walk between pubs.

And keep Wegbier as a treat when we’re in Germany, doing as the Germans do.

breweries Generalisations about beer culture opinion pubs

The state of beer in 2023

Another year begins and, once again, things feel uncertain and unsettled for pubs, breweries and beer drinkers.

For most of 2020/21 there was a sense that if businesses could survive the worst of COVID-19, and make it out the other side, things would get better.

There was evidence of pent-up demand. Consumers were keen to get out and about and had perhaps learned not to take hospitality for granted.

Government grants and loans, though inevitably regarded as miserly by those on the receiving end, helped keep businesses afloat and even to invest in improvements.

Others were given the nudge they needed to develop online sales and delivery capability.

Then 2022 happened, with a whole new set of challenges on top of a lingering long-tail of pandemic-related problems.

It’s no wonder we’re entering 2023 with people saying things like “I have a generalised bad feeling about what 2023 will bring to the small and independent brewing sector”.

We’re not completely pessimistic – more on that later – but it’s certainly worth facing the facts head on and sitting with them a bit.

A brewery.

We’re not used to breweries closing

In 2022, especially towards the end of the year, a number of UK breweries closed. Steve Dunkley has taken on the administrative job of maintaining a log. At the time of writing, he lists more than 80 closures, including:

  • Box Steam
  • Exe Valley
  • Leeds Brewery
  • Newtown Park
  • Twisted Wheel
  • The Wild Beer Co

It feels mean to say what’s going to come next but if we’re not here to be honest, what’s the point?

The breweries above were known to us but many of the others that have closed so far were relatively obscure and/or second-ranking.

We’d never heard of most of them, and we do pay attention somewhat. Those we did know weren’t necessarily highly regarded, or “hyped” if you prefer.

That’s not to say they were bad, only that they were no doubt already having to work harder to stay afloat without word-of-mouth and national profile.

Kelham Island is an interesting example. It closed and was then saved by Thornbridge. Kelham Island is a beloved brand with plenty of clout behind it; and Thornbridge is clearly not struggling if it felt able to make this move.

And we’ll never get any brewer to say this on record but surely there’s a certain sense of relief that comes with a thinning out of the field, at last.

“There are too many breweries” has been a constant refrain for the past decade and we’ve heard plenty of off-the-record complaints about undercutting and amateurism.

There’s a general expectation that more closures will be announced in January, when breweries tot up their Christmas take and decide whether slogging on is worth it.

Each individual closure is, of course, sad. Jobs gone. Someone’s dream shattered.

But if we try to float above all that, aloof and objective, if 2023 ends with half the number of breweries in the UK, that’s still more beer than we’ll ever get round to drinking. And certainly more than there was in 1984.

Watch out for…

  • brewery closures to be announced in January 2023
  • the number of breweries listed in CAMRA’s Good Beer Guide in autumn 2023
A jumble of pubs.

When were pubs ever not under threat?

Earlier this year CAMRA published statistics on pub closures during 2021. The numbers aren’t entirely dismal and this table in particular might suggest reasons for cautious optimism:

RegionNet change
East Midlands+4
East of England-3
Greater London+14
North East-1
North West-11
South East+3
South West+1
West Midlands0
Yorkshire and the Humber+36
Long-term closures July-December 2021 based on data from

Stats from the Office for National Statistics published a few weeks ago were similarly uncooperative in the decline-and-fall narrative:

“There are 1.6% more high street pubs and bars since the first Covid lockdown… The data, which tracked the percentage change in the number of establishments between March 2020 and March 2022, was conducted by the Ordnance Survey and the BBC.​ The Ordnance Survey data found 700 more pubs and bars were operating after the pandemic.”

But even if you take these figures at face value (and not everyone does) things feel very different in January 2023 than they did in March 2022. Increased fuel bills are just now beginning to bite both drinkers and drinking establishments.

And many pubs will have been hanging on for the combined World Cup, Christmas and New Year take before deciding on their future.

There’s no doubt it’s going to be tough. But perhaps a combination of tactical closures – shutting early if it’s quiet, going into hibernation – and temporary adaptations to the offer can help fundamentally healthy pub businesses weather this, like they weathered COVID.

Watch out for

  • CAMRA’s pub closures report in spring 2023
  • ONS business demography report in autumn 2023
A neon sign reading TAVERN in a pub window.

Yes, but how does it feel?

As you probably know, we’ve been blogging about beer since 2007.

We a book subtitled “the strange rebirth of British beer” and another about the state and fate of the English pub.

We’ve also provided a couple of hefty updates, in 2015 and 2018, covering notable developments on the scene.

All of which is to say, we think we’ve been watching pretty closely, and thinking about the mood as much as the facts.

In a nutshell, we think pubs feel at marginally less risk now than a decade ago, but brewing feels deflated and tarnished.

Accepting that the plural of anecdote is not data, and so on and so forth, anecdotes are helpful when it comes to checking the vibe. In Bristol, it feels as if pubs are back – at least in the city centre, and more affluent suburbs.

The reopening in November of The Kings Head near Temple Meads under the stewardship of Good Chemistry is perhaps a sign of a fundamental shift. It’s a proper pubby pub with a low-key craft beer offer and has been constantly busy. And they’re not daft; they wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t good business.

Micropubs might be an evolutionary dead end, the jury’s still out, and of course they’re not all wonderful. But those that work really work. In our old neighbourhood on the other side of Bristol, The Drapers Arms, now seven years old, has become a fixture of the community, varying from full to uncomfortably crowded on our recent visits.

Further afield, in London and Sheffield, we keep finding ourselves unable to get into, or find seats in, pubs that have any kind of reputation.

If a pint of beer has become a luxury, perhaps it’s at least a relatively affordable one. And if what your soul needs is to be out with friends, even £5 pints are a cheaper way to achieve that than a £60-a-head restaurant dinner.

Brewing is different and perhaps the feeling there is tied to the rise and fall of BrewDog, and the other members of the United Craft Brewers:

Beyond that, there’s also the uncomfortable business of the Cloudwater redundancies, and bitterness over the Wild Beer Co crowdfunding problem.

There was perhaps some naivety a decade ago, but anyone who got the tattoos and joined the fan clubs has surely now had that shaken out of them.

Maybe it’s good for us all to have the rose-tinted spectacles off… but things do look nice through rose-tinted spectacles. That’s why they tint ‘em.

And consumers feeling upbeat and enthusiastic is good for business.

Generalisations about beer culture

Golden Pints 2022: notes on an almost normal year

Which beers and pubs have we enjoyed most during 2022? It’s never an easy question to answer, but pondering is half the fun.

It goes without saying that this is a personal list. We can’t take into account beers we didn’t have, or places we didn’t go.

There’s also an element of compromise when you’re working in a partnership. We’ve noted where we had differences of opinion in a couple of different places.

We’re going to start with the best pub and work our way up to what, we suppose, is the top award – Best Beer.

Best pub

We don’t have a local these days, or even one go-to pub within a reasonable walking distances. The Swan With Two Necks has become a favourite, and the relaunched King’s Head might become one. We decided not to overthink it and name a pub we wish was our local: The Union in Nether Edge, Sheffield. It’s not a pub we’d necessarily tell people to go out of their way to get to but the experience of drinking there was wonderful.

Best new or relaunched pub

You might have guessed this from the paragraph above. The King’s Head in Bristol, near Temple Meads station was shut for three years and has now reopened under the stewardship of Good Chemistry. After two visits, we’re quite besotted: Edwardian signage, dark wood, interesting beer, ten-sided pint glasses… The only problem is that it’s so small you don’t stand a chance of finding a seat if there are more than about 20 people in.

Best beer shop

We’re fascinated by Pat’s News and Booze, our local specialist off licence. It’s not a fancy bottle shop but the kind of place you buy lottery tickets and vape juice. It also just happens to have an incredible range of canned craft beer from breweries such as Vault City and Yonder.

Best beer city

In the UK, it’s probably still Sheffield, although we also always enjoy a trip to London where you can find anything you want if you know where to look. But we can’t stop thinking about Cologne which we now realise has exactly the right drinking culture for us, with our limited capacity for booze and love of German beer. You can read more about this in our post called ‘Impressions of Cologne: one beer, but it’s more complicated than that’.

Best beer writer

Earlier this year we said we thought David Jesudason was the most likely winner of the British Guild of Beer Writers beer writer of the year award. (He wasn’t, but it was close.) So it’s probably no surprise that he’s our choice this year. He’s got his beat – Desi pubs, and the British Asian experience as it relates to beer – and keeps finding new angles within that. He finds great stories and isn’t afraid to be challenging. We’re looking forward to his book immensely.

You might also want to check out our list of best beer writing of 2022. It includes 20 pieces that made our weekly round-ups

Best beer book

Someone needed to write about working men’s clubs and Pete Brown was the right man to do it. We really enjoyed reading Clubland and learned a lot from it. It’s going to be our go-to reference on this subject from now on.

Best cask ale

We had a bit of a moment here, looking back over our notes for the year, and realising that all the cask ales we’d loved were well-established classics. We’ve enjoyed faultless Fuller’s ESB, astonishing St Austell Proper Job, fantastic Butcombe Original, vivid Oakham Citra, and fabulous Fyne Ales Jarl… It feels weird to say this having left it behind in Cornwall but the one we both agreed on was St Austell Proper Job. Wherever we’d drunk it, from London to Pensford, it’s made us smile.

Best keg beer

Most of the candidates for ‘beer of the year’ we jotted down happened to be keg beers, even though we’re cask drinkers by default. Jess lobbied hard for Siren Pompelmocello, a grapefruit sour which our notes describe as “somehow tasting like Tokaj”. And Ray made the case for Left Handed Giant Weizen, which he liked so much he stuck with it on two separate sessions weeks apart. But the one we both agreed on was Newtown Park Leading Lines, an American-style brown ale. It packed a lot of character into 6% with a lot of pine and citrus – the kind of thing we’d have loved to drink at The Rake in about 2009. It’s a shame the brewery is now winding up.

Best bottled or canned beer

It’s always Westmalle Tripel, of course, but for the sake of variety, Taras Boulba from Brasserie de la Senne has become our other by-the-case beer. It’s dry, bitter, spicy and fresh. There’s a touch of funk, too. You can put a splash in a boring beer and it brings it to life, like seasoning. Spending some time in Brussels this year, and visiting the brewery especially, helped us decide. We’ve got a crush on Brasserie de la Senne, simple as that.

Best beer

Overall, it has to be Newtown Park Leading Lines. That red tinted, redwood forest, forest moon of Endor style is just irresistible to us.

Best brewery

There were a couple of contenders here. Do we name breweries that are forces for good, and do the right thing? Doesn’t the brewery that makes the best beer automatically get best brewery? In the end, we decided, almost a bit to our own surprise, to give the award to Siren. It’s slowly become a brewery whose beers we’re always pleased to see on offer and who, thanks to a constant presence at The Swan With Two Necks, have featured in our ‘beer of the week’ round-ups on Patreon more than most. Their Caribbean Chocolate Mole Cake stout was another strong beer of the year contender.

If you want to steal the image above for your own Golden Pints post, go for it. If you write a Golden Pints list, please also feel free to post a link below, whether it’s on social media, a blog, or wherever.

Generalisations about beer culture marketing

Where is that lager with your town’s name on really from?

We’re back on this again: should consumers be told, at point of sale, if a beer is brewed somewhere other than at the brewery whose name it bears?

Bristol Beer Factory is a substantial, well-established brewery, so we had no reason to doubt that its Infinity lager is brewed here in Bristol. And because we never doubted it, we never thought to research it.

If we had, we’d have found this page on the website which explains its provenance in some detail:

For lager that was particularly important and challenging for us with our restrictions on space to fit the necessary bespoke lager tanks into our compact site on North Street. Anyone who has been on a tour of our brewery will know that space is already at a massive premium. Thus, the reason we have not brewed a lager before now: we did not have the space to add the necessary tanks and equipment to brew a world-class lager. So, it became clear, we needed to find a creative solution… We started looking all over for a partner brewery… Utopian Brewery, near Crediton Devon, had recently been set up by Richard Archer and were now producing fantastically brewed, British lagers… [and] we quickly established that Utopian were the brewery that we were looking for.

That is a pretty decent degree of transparency, isn’t it?

You might observe that this important information is delivered quite a long way down quite a long page, after a history of Helles as a style – why not put it in the first paragraph?

But maybe that’s quibbling.

The problem is that where we really need the information, as buyers, is on the front of the can, or the font in the pub, or the beer menu, or the blackboard with the beer list.

When we Tweeted about this the other night we certainly didn’t think it was a ‘scoop’. If anything, we felt a bit daft.

How could we, living in Bristol and reasonably switched on to goings-on in the industry, have missed this important detail?

And if we didn’t know, what are the chances that most people ordering a pint in the pub will have any idea at all?

“But they probably don’t care!”

Well, imaginary heckler, we come back to a point we’ve made before: if it doesn’t matter where it’s from, why put Bristol in the name of your brewery? There’s clearly some perceived value in local, independent, and all those other nice ideas.

People in Bristol, perhaps more than in many other parts of the UK, like to buy Bristol Things – or, if they must, Somerset or Gloucestershire Things. Devon? Might as well be Tasmania.

On Twitter, Ed Wray provided a reason why transparency might be difficult:

That makes sense. 

Let’s say Bristol Beer Factory decides to put ‘Brewed by our friends at Utopian in Devon’ on packaging and in point-of-sale copy.

Then, two months later, they decide they need to increase capacity and start working with a second partner, or switch to a bigger brewing partner.

They’d have to reprint labels, reissue font lenses, update website pages, brief staff and customers…

Keeping it vague certainly makes sense in terms of efficiency.

As consumers, this is very much not our problem. But we get it.

What this has done is reminded us to check the origins of craft lagers.

Is (some) Lost & Grounded Helles still being brewed in Belgium, for example? We think so, but there’s no easy way to find out.

Belgium Generalisations about beer culture

In love with Leuven

We can’t believe it’s taken us so long to get to Leuven given that it’s only 20 to 30 minutes from Brussels. We’ve been missing out.

First, we simply hadn’t clocked that Leuven is an attractive city in its own right.

It has a large pedestrianised city centre with many noteworthy historic buildings.

It’s also got a good feel – just a pleasant place to be. Every fascinating street seems to lead to another fascinating street and the many students make it lively even on a grey Tuesday lunchtime.

It feels as if it should be better known, at least up there with Ghent and Antwerp.

Secondly, there’s the beer thing.

The enormous elephant in the room, or rather beyond the ring road.

Some schoolchildren stopped us in the street and asked us some questions for a project:

“How did you hear of Leuven?”

“Well, we’re from the UK, and there Leuven is famous as the home of Stella Artois.”

This is true and, if we’re honest, has been subconsciously putting us off visiting for years.

When we heard phrases like “Leuven is famed for its beer”, we had assumed this meant the enormous AB-InBev HQ.

And reading that visits to the brewery was one of the things to do in town cemented our suspicion that Stella Artois would have the town sewn up. If there was beer tourism, we thought, it would be of The Wrong Sort. 

We should have learned earlier to trust our Good Beer Guide Belgium: “Its beer culture is significantly more advanced than most Belgian cities, despite being the birthplace of Stella Artois.”

Use of the phrase “beer culture” made us think about our musings from a long while ago about what makes a healthy beer culture – in particular the diversity of venues and of different types of beer to drink. Leuven seems to have all of this. 

A cluttered, cosy Belgian cafe.
Café De Fiere Margriet, Leuven.

During our day there we visited:

  • A city centre brewpub – Domus, which had a really interesting and good unfiltered pils with a pronounced banana character
  • A suburban estate pub – Pakenhof, with an interesting beer list featuring local rarities; somewhat dead mid afternoon but livening up considerably from 4pm as the locals arrived for post-work, after school, pre-dinner drinks and socialising
  • A city centre beer exhibition pub – Fiere Margriet, with more beers on the menu than they could actually retrieve from the labyrinthine stores

We also saw small local boozers selling cheap Stella to drink by the fruit machine; cafes aimed at students; gay bars; and of course plenty of places to get a portion of frites on your way from one to another.

We really feel like we barely scratched the surface and would definitely come back for a longer stay. 

An industrial brewery beyond a flyover.
The Stella Artois brewery.

And yes, we did make it out to the Stella brewery, at least for a look. We didn’t intend to particularly but as we were wandering around the little Beguinage towards the north of the city centre, the smell of an industrial-scale mash – a wall of hot grain – hit us, and pulled us in.

It really is huge. Proud, you might say – or maybe arrogant.

The old brewery, half-demolished, is being converted into flats. If you’re a fan of brewery architecture or Art Deco more generally, there’s still enough there to look at and get a sense of how impressive it must have been.

We also drank some Stella, of course. It didn’t feel right not to. It came in a small ribbed glass, condensation trickling down the outside, with a clean white head. It tasted… pretty good.

A pub near Leuven central station.
A bar across the road from the station in Leuven.

It wasn’t one of those “everything you thought you knew was wrong” moments. This is still a beer with low bitterness, a bit sweet for our tastes, with a peculiar tang.

At the same time, we can see why the locals were so happy drinking it – especially for €1.90 for 330ml in the lively pub across from the station.