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Sobriety on the rise: Is Berlin over the influence?

With alcohol-free alternatives and sober lifestyles growing in popularity in the Hauptstadt, we investigate what a booze-free Berlin really looks like.

In a city where partying comes easy, quitting alcohol may seem hard. Photo: Makar Artemev

Less booze, more alcohol-free options – it seems Berlin is sobering up. Sobriety rates are growing globally, and about one in five Berliners say they don’t drink at all. But is it harder to quit alcohol in a city famous for hedonism and overindulgence?

In a city where partying comes easy, quitting alcohol may seem hard.

Berlin’s attitude toward alcohol is captured by the Wegbier, the street drink carried so casually out of any Spätkauf. For new arrivals from less permissive places, the first stroll with a bottle of cheap booze can be a moment of enlightening liberation. Some relocate here to embrace such freedoms. But what happens when the bottle becomes a burden?

There’s a narrative about life in Berlin that paints excessive indulgence as inevitable. Yet the same Spätkauf fridges are now filling up with more alcohol-free beers, a sign of the growth of a culture of sobriety. For some, reaching for a non-alcoholic drink is as easy as shifting perspectives. Others may require social and medical support. But those who make the transition say they’ve discovered new layers to the city without forgoing its dynamism.

The monster of all cities

Alcohol has helped ferment the myth of modern Berlin. In ‘Heroes’, David Bowie sang, “You, you can be mean, and I, I’ll drink all the time,” – a song he wrote about living in West Berlin in the 1970s. Bowie had moved here to kick a cocaine addiction and instead found plenty of all-hours bars where he spent many nights drinking excessively. Berlin, he told music magazine Melody Maker in 1977, “is a city made up of bars for sad, disillusioned people to get drunk in”.

The amount of alcohol consumed in Germany has dropped by almost 20% in the past two and a half decades. Photo: Waldemar / Unsplash

Germany’s lax laws make access to alcohol easy. There’s no prescribed closing time for liquor-serving businesses, unlike in the United Kingdom, for example, where most pubs must close at 11pm. For some Berlin workers, it’s even legally acceptable to drink a beer on their lunch break, unless an employer explicitly prohibits it. The drinking age for beer and wine here starts at 16, compared to 18 in many countries, and 21 in the puritan United States.

Berlin was once the beer capital of the world, with over 100 breweries in the early 1900s, more than any other city. Schultheiss Brauerei, headquartered at today’s Kulturbrauerei, was once Germany’s largest, while Kindl Brauerei in Neukölln boasted Europe’s biggest brewing kettles.

Despite its reputation and cultural association with hedonism, the vast majority of its residents aren’t overindulgent.

After the First World War, everyone just wanted to have a good time. Berlin, capital of the newly-declared German republic, was ready to put on a party. Writer Klaus Mann described 1920s Berlin as “Babel, the sinner, the monster of all cities” with a nightlife “unlike anything the world has seen!” A century later, the world keeps coming to see it.

That first hedonistic era was fuelled by alcohol and other substances created and consumed in Germany. German scientist Albert Niemann isolated and named cocaine in 1859; the German company Bayer formulated and trademarked heroin in 1898. A factory in Berlin’s east produced millions of pills of Pervitin, a methamphetamine similar to crystal meth, popped by Nazi soldiers and housewives, as described by Norman Ohler in Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany (2016).

More recently, round-the-clock low-cost drinking has helped turn Berlin into one of the most popular party destinations in Europe. The Berlin Club Commission estimated that in 2018 (the last statistically normal year), one third of all visitors were party tourists, spending about €1.5 billion on their clubbing holidays.

Don’t blame Berlin

But those looking to blame bad behaviour on Berlin’s influence are not supported by statistics. Despite its reputation and cultural association with hedonism, the vast majority of its residents aren’t overindulgent, according to the Alkoholatlas, a compilation of data published annually by the German Cancer Research Center. Risky alcohol consumption by men (considered more than 20g of pure alcohol a day, which is the equivalent of one pint) is slightly lower in Berlin (14.2%) than the German average (16%). Fewer Berlin men drink dangerously than our neighbours in Brandenburg (20.1%) and far below their neighbours in Saxony (26.7%). Among women (10g per day), the number of risk-taking drinkers in Berlin (11.3%) is just about at the national average (11.1%), and below the biggest drinking state of Bavaria (13.8%). Of course, this could be because Berlin is home to the largest population of Turkish people in Germany, as well as many other ethnic groups who are predominantly Muslim, many of which abstain from drinking alcohol for religious reasons.

Photo: Christian Lue / Unsplash

When it comes to alcohol-caused harms, Berlin doesn’t stand out from the rest of Germany. Hospitals here admit a similar number of patients for alcohol-related issues to other German states, and far fewer than the most problematic state Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. There are fewer diagnoses of psychiatric and personality disorders from alcohol issues, an average number of diagnoses of acute alcohol poisoning and addiction, and fewer deaths from alcohol consumption in Berlin than in several other German states.

Even when it comes to other drugs, the vast majority of Berliners aren’t exceptional abusers. Sewer water samples show Berlin has the highest cocaine use in Germany, but compared to other European cities, it doesn’t even make the top ten. Belgian and Dutch cities have at least more than double of Berlin’s cocaine use, and Amsterdam is far ahead for almost all drug types. And while it’s famous for its big nightclubs, the city’s smaller bars are disappearing. The number of registered alcohol-serving businesses has declined slightly, from 40,900 in 2014, to 39,924 in 2019, before plunging to 27,402 in 2021 (likely due to the impact of pandemic closures).

Booze is losing its appeal

The era of big booze is coming to an end, here as in other Western countries. The amount of alcohol consumed in Germany has dropped by almost 20% in the past two and a half decades, according to the Alkoholatlas. German residents now drink about 10.6 litres of pure alcohol each year. That’s slightly above the EU average of 10 litres, but far below the 17 litres consumed in the 1970s.

While alcoholic beer sales in Germany are stagnant, alcohol-free beer sales are popping off like a Bügelverschluss top.

Among German teenagers, alcohol has never been less popular. A 2022 study by the German Federal Centre for Health Education found only 8.7% of 12- to 17-year-olds drank alcohol in the past year, compared to 14% in 2011, and 25% in 1979. Young adults (18-25) are also drinking less: 32% said they drink regularly compared to 40% a decade ago and 66% in the 1970s. In Berlin, 30% of women and 36% of men drink at least weekly. But 21% of women and 16% of men here drink no alcohol at all, and more than half drink less than once a week, if at all, according to surveys by the Robert Koch Institute.

The Exberliner audience is, curiously, both ahead and behind the average Berliner. Our survey found that 25.9% consider themselves sober – defined as someone who abstains from alcohol. When asked how frequently they drink, 10.8% said never, and 6.6% said less than once a month. That’s a slight gap (about 8% of our respondents) between the number of people who rarely or never drink and people who consider themselves sober, which could be an indication of the increasing flexibility with which people are defining their own sobriety – some people may drink a glass of wine once or twice a year and still consider themselves sober, for example.

There’s a narrative about life in Berlin that paints excessive indulgence as inevitable. Photo: Chris Curry / Unplash

More than a third of our survey respondents (68.4%) said they want to reduce their alcohol intake or are already sober (1% said they’d like to increase it). But well over half (60.1%) think it is difficult to abstain in Berlin, and many (54%) say living here encourages more drinking.

Going ‘Berlin Sober’

For those who decide to cut down or quit drinking, there’s a range of labels and lifestyles. Many don’t associate with the word ‘sober’ and its inference of alcoholism, nor its implied commitment and potential for failure – though for some, the label helps reinforce their choice. “I’m almost glad I’ve accepted it was alcoholism, because now I have moments where, if I’m getting a drink, I’ll ask for an alcohol-free Hefeweizen or a Diet Coke, and people say something like, ‘do you not want a real drink?’ And I’ll go, ‘I’m a recovering alcoholic’,” says software engineer Chris Ward, who went sober less than a year after moving to Berlin in 2017.

“I do it partially because it’s genuinely funny to see the look on their faces and how they suddenly backtrack into apology mode… but I think the only way we can really have an honest conversation around this is if we don’t approach it from this polarised idea that drinking is good or bad. I think that’s why a lot of addiction happens, because there’s no space for people to have this conversation without falling into these categories.”

Photo: Miikka Luotio / Unsplash

The term ‘sober curious’ has been adopted by the growing industry around non-alcoholic drinks. ‘California Sober’ has emerged from the West Coast of the US, where marijuana and psychedelics are legal and socially acceptable. Some give up alcohol but continue using marijuana, MDMA and ketamine, which some might call ‘Berlin Sober’ – though many health and addiction experts warn against replacing one drug with another.

Those who need more than just a healthier lifestyle can find plenty of options for systematic and professional help in Berlin. Doctors can provide a prescription for therapy to address addiction, which is covered by private and public health insurance. But getting a psychotherapist in Berlin is hard enough as it is. Dedicated EXB readers will know from Issue 223 that navigating the psychotherapy maze usually requires many eye-watering bureaucratic workarounds.

Thankfully, if you’re seeking psychotherapy specifically for alcohol addiction, there are specialised clinics that offer outpatient and inpatient therapy. This means you wouldn’t necessarily be competing with the entire pool of therapy-seekers in Berlin. Long-term therapy options in addiction clinics and outpatient therapy treatment can also be obtained, but applications have to be submitted through pension insurance. Some skip insurance-funded therapy and pay directly. Sites like BetterHelp offer online counselling in various languages.

In our survey, we found that 25.9% consider themselves sober – defined as someone who abstains from alcohol. Photo: YesMore Content / Unsplash

And then there are routes like the one offered by Anna Parés, who works as a ‘sober coach’. Her counselling service, Bright.Site, offers a 30-day quitting programme and personalised coaching. “The opposite of addiction is connection. It’s not sobriety, it’s connection,” says Parés, who encourages her clients to keep up social interactions after quitting alcohol. Parés starts off by gauging a person’s level of addiction, and if it’s emotional or physical. If withdrawal treatment is necessary, that’s a case that requires medical supervision, she says. Parés offers what she calls a positive educational approach, with a hybrid online education course and weekly group or private meetings. “It’s self-help approach. I support them emotionally. It’s like a partnership.”

AA in Berlin

The classic approach to going sober is Alcoholics Anonymous. In Berlin, AA offers over 30 in-person and 40 online weekly meetings in English; the separate, German-speaking AA organisation also has over 70 weekly meetings. The sessions are tailored to the diverse needs of Berlin’s sobriety-seekers, with groups based on gender identity, race and language.

One AA participant told us how attending queer-focused meetings has been integral to his recovery. “As a queer person, I think the idea of becoming sober is really scary because so much of how we are represented or how it is to be queer is consuming in bars or clubs,” says Michael*, a Berliner who’s been clean for 10 months. “But we exist, and queerness is a whole spectrum and that includes living life in a sober way and having a full, joyous life.” And, no, meetings aren’t really like in the movies, her says. “They don’t really portray the joy and the hope, the camaraderie and the community.” Usually participants are welcomed but not required to share about their experience without interruption.

Did you know that the modern alcohol-free beer industry can trace its roots to East Berlin. Photo: Giovanna Gomes / Unsplash

This year, AA chose Berlin as the host of its annual youth-focused conference, EURYPAA, with the theme: ‘Is it all over now that I’m young & sober?’. “It’s all beginning, now that I’m sober,” says Michael. For him, the conference was a chance to learn how others deal with elements of sobriety that quickly get blurred in the party scene, like sex and consent. “A lot of people might have only been able to have sex while under the influence of alcohol or substances, it takes work for some people to relearn how to be intimate in a conscious way and how to navigate that in a club setting.”

Another AA attendee, Sarah, said she doesn’t believe Berlin is special when it comes to alcoholism or finding sobriety. “It doesn’t matter where you are. Alcoholism is the same everywhere. It is a sickness that affects people regardless of their location or status,” Sarah says. “I can go anywhere, whether [it’s] to parties where people are drinking or taking drugs around me, as long as I have things sorted in my head.”

Partying booze-free

Many Berlin parties would hardly be described as booze-ups. The presence of lots of other drugs might not be optimal for sober people worried about addictive behaviour, but at least they’re not the only ones without a bottle in their hand – and that sometimes includes the DJs at the forefront of the techno scene.

“I see a lot of people in that scene, the big DJs in these clubs that we know, that are in sobriety. They don’t advertise it, and I’m not going to give you a list of their names, but you’d be shocked at how many brilliant DJs are now sober. It’s just like, how can you show up for a big career if you’re having a hangover all the time?” explains Larry Tee, a longtime DJ and fashion designer who has been sober for 25 years and now sponsors others through AA. “I really honestly believe that other people can have the same kind of success, and that’s why I often coach my fellow DJs and designers and music makers and artists.”

Quitting booze in Berlin has been made easier by the growth of the alcohol-free drink market, including specialty stores. Photo: Daniele Colucci / Unsplash

There are also parties specifically for people who don’t want to drink – like Sober Sensation, now in its seventh year. Founded by Gideon Bellin, Sober Sensation parties focus on high production value with natural scents, creative mocktails, lights and bubble and smoke machines on top of the music. The idea is to engage all five senses so that no one feels like they need a substance to distract them, says Bellin. Sober Sensation parties start early, around 6 or 7pm, and end around midnight. Venues are selected to be a counterpoint to the typical dark, grungy club space, says Bellin.

“We don’t have doorkeepers like normal clubs, we have more like door doctors who are there to have fun with the people who enter and break the ice in the beginning,” says Bellin. “That’s the idea, that people are not treated from the top down, more like from down up – you know, that they can be lifted up.”

Since starting in 2016, Bellin has thrown around 40 Sober Sensation events across Europe. They usually attract a mix of sober and healthy living-focused folks, but also people from religious traditions that don’t allow alcohol, pregnant women and those who abstain for medical reasons.

Tapping into alcohol-free 

Quitting booze in Berlin has been made easier by the growth of the alcohol-free drink market, including specialty stores. Berlin’s first alcohol-free Späti, Null Prozent, opened in Kreuzberg in 2020 and is about to open its second store in Charlottenburg. Co-founder Isabella Steiner says there’s so many options that she can afford to be selective about what she stocks. “An incredible amount of new products are coming onto the market. Unfortunately, 80% of it is junk – products that only see the light of day in order to make a quick buck. That doesn’t stand a chance with us,” Steiner says. “Our aperitifs are particularly popular, such as alternatives to Aperol, Campari and Limoncello. Sparkling wine and wine are also drunk a lot.”

Photo: Martin Lostak / Unsplash

Another alcohol-free Mecca is Mindful Drinking Club, whose brimming-with-bottles store on Prenzlauer Allee looks like a high-end wine cellar. Its large portfolio includes alternatives for wine, spirits, mixers and beers, but also entirely new drink categories like ‘adaptogenic’ drinks that create new tastes, not just replicate them.

The presence of lots of other drugs might not be optimal for sober people worried about addictive behaviour.

The beer market is the biggest indicator of changing habits. While alcoholic beer sales in Germany are stagnant, alcohol-free beer sales are popping off like a Bügelverschluss top. The Deutscher Brauer-Bund (German brewers’ association) says production has doubled since 2007. Almost every 10th beer sold in Germany is now alcohol-free, up from 3% just a decade ago. German brewers are also earning a reputation globally, with around 7% of all beer exports now alcohol-free varieties. Indeed, Germany ranks fourth behind China, the US and India amongst global alcohol-free exports.

“Technologically, we are definitely one of the top countries,” says Markus Raupach from the Deutsche Bier Akademie. Brewers here have improved the two main manufacturing processes. One involves stopping fermentation early to prevent yeast from generating alcohol, creating light and sweet flavours. The other uses osmosis to remove alcohol from full-strength beer, though this means that some aroma is lost. German brewers are also perfecting a new method which uses special yeasts to produce little or no alcohol. “The varieties that many say taste the best are a mixture of several of these processes. It’s a very complex procedure,” explains Rapauch.

Many sober Berliners credit the availability of alcohol-free options, particularly beer, as a factor in their success. “The thing that actually made quitting really easy was the availability of alcohol substitutes. We don’t quite have that in the UK, where you’ve got lots of different areas of the country that have their own proud production of their own beer. And because they have that in Germany, they also have their own proud production of alcohol-free beer,” says Ward. 

The modern alcohol-free beer industry can trace its roots to East Berlin. In 1972, the Engelhardt Brauerei in Straulau produced one of the first commercial and exported brands. Its Autofahrerbier, or AuBi, was intended for motorists and factory workers. According to its creator, Ulrich Wappler, it initially did not taste good. He even risked angering the DDR state by secretly contacting a professor from West Germany to get expertise on how to improve the flavour. Eventually it was good enough to export – to the US as Foxy Light, and to the UK labelled Berolina.

Almost every 10th beer sold in Germany is now alcohol-free, up from 3% just a decade ago. Photo: Thanh Serious / Unsplash

Small and mid-sized local breweries have taken up the tradition. Berlin’s non-profit beer brand Quartiermeister has added an alcohol-free beer to its range after spending time on perfecting the flavour. “In the 1990s there was already non-alcoholic beer, but it just tasted very bad,” Quartiermeister’s Lisa Wiedemuth says. Quartiermeister uses a slow brewing process, storing the beer for a long time to improve the taste. Not all small breweries can afford to invest in the technology, but those that do are reaping rewards. Quartiermeister has seen its alcohol-free beer rocket from 3% of its total sales in 2019 to 15% in 2022, becoming the third-most popular drink in its seven-beer range.

Popular local craft brewery BRLO has also joined the teetotaling trend – to great success. Launched in 2017, ‘Naked’ jumped nearly 60% in sales from 2021 to 2022, and accounts for more of the brand’s bottle and can sales than anything else in their product lineup, according to BRLO. Their ‘ZERO.5’ alcohol-free pale ale, originally brewed in 2021 for the Greentech Festival, has also skyrocketed, netting 190% more in boozeless profit – though the brand’s sales are up across the board, they say.

One last shot

In a city where partying comes easy, quitting alcohol may seem hard. But those who have made the change say it’s no more difficult here than anywhere else, and possibly easier thanks to the expanding alternatives. There’s never been so many ways to go sober in Berlin, from support to entertainment and drinks. Alcohol culture is losing its appeal and a bit of its shelf space. Sobriety is on its way to becoming just as normalised as intoxication.

Perhaps this is most evident in interactions with Spätkauf sellers, the city’s great observers of alcohol-related behaviour. Not long ago shopkeepers would warn buyers that they’d selected an alcohol-free beer. Now most say nothing at all.