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.