As August approached, I’d been tourist-grade ambulatory in the East Bloc for almost two months. Now, prior to the commencement of my much anticipated volunteer work gig in East Germany, there’d be a week’s respite in the gloriously capitalist enclave of West Berlin.
It stood to be a welcome diversion with all the restorative amenities for an American abroad, like laundromats to ameliorate the wardrobe grunge, reliable postal facilities for shipping Soviet black market booty back to the States, and plenty of döner kebab outlets to add some much needed pizzazz to the caloric intake. The Irish pubs were like oases.
I’d reserved a sizeable multi-bed room at an old-school pension in Savignyplatz, where a few of my Moscow classmates set up camp as they made travel plans, and I awaited the arrival of my cousin and mentor Donald Barry. He’d be arriving by train from Paris via West Germany.
On our first night in West Berlin, having gotten rooming arrangements squared away and showered (it had been a long, hot, drunken train ride from the USSR), the USSR alumni association went strolling down the Ku’damm, West Berlin’s famed commercial street, toward Zoo Station.
In the slightly seedier area near the public transit hub there appeared a garish, neon-infested outpost of an internationally famous Argentine steakhouse chain, to which our eyes and stomachs were drawn like moths to the Olympic torch. The ensuing splurge on slabs of beef and mounds of French fries is memorable to me primarily because my youthful companions insisted on merrily mispronouncing “Pommes Frites” as the name of a long forgotten Roman emperor.
It was all in good fun. Once Don arrived, we quickly became bar stool devotees of the nearby Dicke Wirtin, a venerable and grandly informal Berlin pub and bistro favored by denizens of the student quarter and budget travelers, with inexpensive Veltins Pils beer and hearty, equally economical goulash.
One by one my Moscow friends peeled off to pursue further roaming, leaving the cousins alone together to catch up on their summer adventures.
One day Don, Wes and I rode the S-Bahn to Friedrichstrasse station, passed through German Democratic Republic (GDR) passport and customs, and greeted East Berlin on a 24-hour visa. After a few hours glancing at the mandated sights, which I’d have far more time to digest in August, we chose to dine for reasons unknown at a relatively upscale restaurant in the Palast der Republik (“People’s Palace”), a glassy and modernistic structure erected amid the devastated square footage of the former Berlin royal palace, which was bulldozed after WWII, and has since been rebuilt at the cost of a cool billion Euros atop the cleansed square footage of the Palast der Republik, itself summarily demolished following unification.
The Palast was completed in 1976 to house the Volkskammer (parliament), also serving various cultural purposes including two large auditoria, art galleries, a theatre, a cinema, 13 restaurants, 5 beer halls, a bowling alley, 4 pool rooms, a billiards room, a rooftop skating rink, a private gym with spa, a casino, a medical station, a post office, a police station with an underground cellblock, an indoor basketball court, an indoor swimming pool, private barbershops and salons, public and private restrooms and a discothèque. In the early 1980s, a video game arcade for the children of Volkskammer members and staff replaced one of the restaurants.
Don’t ask me which of these restaurants we chose; in retrospect, any of the beer halls would have been a better choice, but we knew quite little about the available options and probably followed a guidebook’s advice. My recollection of the experience is one of pervasive ennui. The food was cheap and passable, the bottled beers tepid, and the service indifferent.
In short, while not exactly unexpected in Warsaw Pact terms, the meal was disappointing for reasons that have never been clear to me, hence my tendency to forget we’d eaten it, or even spent that day in East Berlin. It also was one of those odd, inexplicable times when I refrained from photos. No doubt we returned to Savignyplatz and embarked on another session at Dicke Wirtin.
Leaping ahead 33 years, in the summer of 2022 I orchestrated a tasting of beer styles from the territory of the GDR at Common Haus Hall, the short-lived German restaurant and beer hall in Jeffersonville, which closed in early 2023.
In the run-up to the tasting, I wrote a three-part series called “My Beers in the GDR” about my time in East Germany in 1989, which includes information about the overall status of beer in the GDR. To complete this installment of 40 Years in Beer, I’ll refer you to these essays.
If a book ever comes from these efforts, I’ll weave together the installments more artistically. Until then, here are the links, with paragraphs of teaser text pulled from each.
Westerners like us worked alongside veteran employees of the East Berlin parks department, and I noticed early on that none of them seemed eager to abandon socialism for the enticements of the capitalist world. In short, they pretended to work, and their bosses pretended to pay them. To most, especially one named Wolfgang, this was a highly acceptable arrangement.
As an orientation of sorts prior to being handed our shovels, we boarded open-backed “pickup” trucks for an amazing ride down Karl-Marx-Allee, past the Stalinist architecture at Strausberger Platz, to a building where we were treated to a lecture by the volunteer brigade’s Communist party functionary, an older man with ludicrously black-dyed hair, about the importance of our labor.
The East German student assigned to translate the man’s utterances artfully mocked them aloud, safe in the knowledge that the functionary couldn’t speak a word of English.
Our hands-down favorite was Radeberger Pilsner, brewed just outside Dresden, and specifically as dispensed at the city’s “rustic” Radeberger Keller, a partially subterranean restaurant located at HO Gaststätte Am Zwinger, an all-in-one gastronomic food court of sorts dating to the 1960s before closing in 1992, the building later to be demolished.
Am Zwinger was the largest such restaurant complex in the GDR; in addition to the Keller, there was a huge coffee shop and cafeteria. It’s a measure of our beer hall inspired tunnel vision that I knew none of this until this article was being written.
We went to the Keller to cool our heels, kill time and drink cheap and tasty lager. The service staffers at Radeberger Keller could be surly and inefficient in the typical fashion of the Bloc, which didn’t institutionally value customer service, but no matter. Traditional beer hall etiquette was honored, and we were allowed to seat ourselves wherever open spaces permitted, with one notable exception.
In West Germany by the early 1950s agricultural production was stabilized and transportation links rebuilt, and in broad terms breweries were able to resume normal operations. Familiar beers reappeared, and once again the men could repair to the pub on Sunday to drink, smoke, tell whoppers and wait for the wife and kids to be finished with church so the entire family could eat together.
Meanwhile the areas incorporated into the GDR made up just 25% of German territory, and produced only 18% of the country’s beer. Breweries there were faced not only with rebuilding, often from scratch, but also the uncertainties of impending nationalization. In the GDR over the coming decades a mere sliver of private ownership would be permitted, totaling perhaps 3% of economic output by the 1980s. In the main, communism meant the “people’s” collective ownership of the means of production.
Most of the existing East German breweries were taken over by the state; by the 1970s, remaining private owners had been presented with offers they couldn’t easily refuse (“hand over the keys, and you can continue to be a brewery manager” being most common). Some breweries were merged into larger entities, others kept as they were, and still others closed outright. They were organized into regional groupings called kombinats, supposedly to facilitate planning, and which were given a small degree of autonomy to make local and regional decisions.
My GDR month concluded in early September when the group was deposited by rail back in East Berlin following our Dresden stay. It was highly inadvisable to exceed the stipulations of one’s visa, so I immediately purchased a ticket for the train northward from East Berlin to Warnemünde, followed by the night ferry to Gedser in Denmark.
Copenhagen was on the horizon. When I decided to visit the duty-free shop aboard the East German ship, and to purchase a bottle each of Korn (read: German moonshine) and Polish bufalo grass vodka as gifts for my Danish hosts, I could not foresee the crazed circumstances of their emergency deployment into my own stomach.