"Just brewing Pilsner beers is boring. Experimenting with beer is my biggest passion." Thorsten Schoppe
"I once brewed beer with 27,5% alcohol. It was the strongest beer in the world, but definitely not the best beer." Thorsten Schoppe
Close to steaming kettles and in the smell of freshly brewed hops, water and barley malt, Thorsten Schoppe tells about his passion for the world’s most popular alcoholic drink: Beer. But the 42-year old beer brewer doesn’t just like brewing normal pilsner beers. “That’s boring. Experimenting with beer is my biggest passion.”
Feeling the product
And that’s exactly the reason why Thorsten doesn’t want to work for a big beer brewer. “I come from Braunschweig in the west and once did a traineeship for a bigger brewer there. But you would just sit behind a computer, sometimes you press a button. You don’t feel the actual product, you don’t throw the hops into the kettle yourself.”
He preferred to be close to his product and to be able to brew various types of beers. “I came to Berlin in 1994 after the traineeship, wanting to learn more about brewing. I studied to become a brew engineer here. I also worked in a very small brewery around the corner in Kreuzberg. It was so small, we could brew only 100 litres per day. But we had so much fun experimenting. We threw in herbs, honey, cinnamon, chilli, you name it.”
After his studies, Thorsten moved on to become the beer brewer of ‘Brauhaus Südstern’ in 2001, a restaurant and bier garden with its own microbrewery in Kreuzberg. “I brew the beer for the restaurant here; Heller Stern, Dunkler Stern and Stern Weisse. Apart from that, we supply a few local bars here in the neighbourhood. We also sell the more specialty beers that I like to brew – Indian Pale Ales are getting more popular here. The ones with more hops, or more alcohol.”
Whereas it was hard to survive as a microbrewer in the early years of Brauhaus Südstern, Thorsten now notices that microbreweries are getting more popular in Berlin. Berlin’s beer scene significantly changed over the last years.
“People really look for new flavours and start trying out new beers. They move away from the big brands. And of course, as a microbrewer you get a lot of sympathy from the people. People can just walk in here, look into our kettles, and chat with me about beer. It fits with the trend that people go back to more local products. They like to buy their bread in the bakery around the corner, get their eggs from a farmer they know. And now they can get their beer from their local beer brewer,” Thorsten smiles.
Between brewing the house beers and supplying the local bars, Thorsten still finds time to experiment. That’s how he broke the record of ‘the world’s strongest beer’ in 2009. “It was quite funny. We worked a month on this, trying to make such a strong beer. In the end we did it – we made beer with 27,5% alcohol. It was the strongest beer, but definitely not the best beer,” he laughs. His record was broken one month later by a beer brewer in southern Germany – nowadays brewers are still competing and pushed the bar up to beers with more than 60% alcohol. Thorsten doesn’t compete anymore. “It was fun, but I am focussing on other things.”
His micro brewing success in recent years takes up most of his time. Capacity problems are now an issue. “These big breweries easily fill 20.000 bottles an hour. We have a tiny filling machine in the basement that can fill 100 bottles if you work really hard. And then we have to paste the labels on the bottles ourselves. It’s madness.”
Success combined with limited capacity led him to open up a second brewery in the historical brewing place ‘Pfefferberg’ in Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg. And he recently signed a deal with a bigger brewer – they will brew 20.000 bottles of his beer. “The idea that 20.000 people are drinking your beer, that is so cool. Of course, there is a bit of irony in the fact that you as a microbrewer are getting bigger and bigger – but I know I will always stay close to the beer I believe in. The aromatic beers that are rich in hops and alcohol.”
With the increasing popularity of microbreweries in Berlin, Thorsten hopes that Berlins beer image will change. “Berlin was never really known for quality beer, people always go to Munich for that. But it is so great to see that many small breweries are opened up. I think this represents Berlin very well. Berlin is famous for creative ideas, for the many start-ups that pop up here. It’s good to see that this extends to beer-brewing as well now.”
So what is the best beer in Berlin? He has to think a while and before he answers with a big smile: “I can now truly say that my own beer is the best beer.” Cheers to that.