The dry wave

From Drynuary to sober raves, Berliners are swearing off alcohol. Rachel Glassberg investigates the growing trend.

Image for The dry wave

Photo by Daniel Cati

From Drynuary to sober raves, Berliners are swearing off alcohol. Rachel Glassberg investigates the growing trend.

My Drynuary was a total bust. After three weeks of alcohol avoidance, mostly accomplished by sitting at home watching Netflix, I went to dinner with friends I hadn’t seen in ages. They all ordered gin and tonics, so I did too. But hey, I was trying – just like everyone else. Gone are the days when anyone who politely turned down a Pfeffi was immediately assumed to be in recovery or pregnant. Whether for a month, a year, or for good, even the hardest-partying Berliners are embracing what the trend pieces call “sober-curiosity”.

The average person in Germany still drinks a hell of a lot: 10.6L of pure alcohol each year, equivalent to 700 beers. But consumption has been declining constantly since 1976, especially among young people. According to one recent survey, the number of German teens who drink regularly has shrunk to 8.7 percent, a historic low.

The other week I had a typical ‘good table’ with four guests who all ordered three courses… Drinks? Three big water bottles!”

Berlin numbers are hard to come by, but Michel Le Voguer, owner of Kreuzberg bistro Chez Michel, has certainly noticed a downturn. “My wine sales have gone down like crazy in the past two years – this year, it’s about half of what I’d usually sell. The other week, for example, I had a typical ‘good table’ with four guests who all ordered three courses… Drinks? Three big water bottles!”

Dropping the booze

The change is most striking in the creative scene, where artists and musicians who would’ve been living it up 10 years ago are now ditching alcohol en masse. Take Wanda*, a tattooed 37-year-old photographer who day-jobs at vegan doughnut shop Brammibal’s. On moving to Berlin from Argentina in 2013, she started working as a bartender at a Kreuzberg Argentinian restaurant, where “I got to see the whole process – how people would arrive sober, have a couple of drinks and transform during the night, until you just can’t stand them…” She especially loathed the groups who’d pressure their non-drinking friends into having shots, something she recognised from her own past. “As a teenager, I drank a lot. I never liked the feeling of losing control – I didn’t even like the taste of it! But it was what I was expected to do.” Her turning point came last year, at a party she went to with her husband. “He’d just had surgery and wasn’t allowed to drink, so I didn’t either. At the end he turned to me and said, ‘Actually, that was one of the best parties we’ve ever been to!’ That’s when we both decided to stop.”

For others, the decision is less deliberate and more of an “experiment”, as Johanna*, a 29-year-old musician, calls it. She gave up alcohol indefinitely last Christmas, after her mother was hospitalised with a terminal illness. “I felt like making a radical decision because I was so sad… At the same time, a close friend told me he wanted to stop drinking for one year. We were both casually drinking alcohol quite often without reflecting on what it did to our state of mind… I thought it would be easier for me to not drink at all than to try and drink less.”

For Berliners deep into the “wellness” craze, the decision isn’t a decision at all – or so Anna*, a 32-year-old German yoga instructor, tells me over a decaf oat milk cappuccino. She gave up caffeine, along with alcohol, during her teacher training three years ago. “When you’re doing so much yoga, you start to really observe the effect things like alcohol have on your mood… And eventually, you feel it so much more if you do something even a little unhealthy.” At this point, she adds, even one beer leaves her feeling hungover. “It’s not that I want to be strict about it. It’s just the thing that works best for me.”

Everyone agrees that it’s easier to be a non-drinker in Berlin today than in years past. “The biggest change was when Bionade arrived,” explains Susie*, a German-American who’s been sober for her 19 years here. The organic soft drink became ubiquitous in Berlin bars around the mid-2000s. “Everyone always used to ask me why I wasn’t drinking alcohol, but once we had that and Club Mate and all those other cool sodas, suddenly nobody cared anymore.” At the same time, non-alcoholic beer has gone from a punchline to a market juggernaut – and new techniques mean some of it is actually good. “It was only easy for me because of Störtebeker,” says Frans*, a Dutch translator and beer connoisseur, of his three-month flirtation with sobriety. “I still like their alcohol-free ale better than their normal one, even now that I’m drinking again.”

High on the vibe

That said, when it comes to nights out, Jever Fun doesn’t always equal real fun. “It gets pretty boring after a few hours,” admits Felix, an indie drummer who, for medical reasons, hasn’t had a drink since 2011. “You get into more and more pointless conversations, and at some point sleeping just seems like the better option. It’s hard after shows, when staying out for the whole night suggests some kind of endurance or reliability… I do feel like I’m missing out on some crazy stories.” Many non-drinkers would rather seek out others of their kind. “I’ve been going to a lot of hardcore concerts with straight-edge people – that’s a scene I wasn’t into before,” says Wanda. “It’s a nice experience being at a show where most people are sober and still having a blast – then it’s a real blast, you know, because we don’t need to get wasted to have fun.”

This is basically the mission statement of Gideon Bellin, the 27-year-old event planner and DJ also known as “Mr. Sober Sensation”. Growing up near Frankfurt, Bellin tells me, “I had to repeat a grade because of all my partying.” His epiphany came when he was asked to DJ at a Turkish friend’s party during Ramadan, his first time playing to an entirely booze-free crowd. “I thought, wow, this is new, it’s cool! After that, whenever anybody asked me what my vision was, I’d tell them, ‘I want to do sober parties.’” In Berlin, while putting on conventionally druggy open-airs with the Glück im Ohr collective, he wrote his Bachelor’s thesis on the “conscious clubbing” phenomenon that had already taken hold in New York and London. “Our society has changed,” he says of his conclusions. “Young people are more reflective, more conscious about what they’re consuming and how they’re consuming it… They don’t go as crazy as their parents did.” A research interview with the Londoner behind the pre-work party Morning Gloryville led to a gig organising the events here, offering breakfast ravers “massages instead of molly [and] yoga sessions instead of bathroom sex”, as Exberliner reported at the time. But Bellin wanted his own party, and he wanted it to be at night.

Image for The dry wave

Photo by Daniel Cati

Bellin’s Berlin rave

In December 2016, Sober Sensation was born. The concept: Alcohol-free “after-work” parties featuring fresh juice, pleasant scents and the occasional special effect. “Without the alcohol numbing you, you need something to warm up,” Bellin explains. “Especially with Germans, you have to give them some kind of entertainment so they can relax a bit.” His crowd is indeed mostly German, with little crossover from Berlin’s largest non-drinking demographic. “It’s difficult to reach out to the Muslim community – either they’re so strict they don’t go out at all, or they’re so not strict that they find it boring.” Many attendees come from the “wellness” crowd; others are recovering alcoholics.

Bellin himself isn’t strictly sober. “I used to be, but today I’m more of what you’d call a Genießer (‘savourer’),” he admits. But since normal Berlin clubs aren’t suited for Sober Sensation – “They’re too smoky, and the bar thing is a problem because they can’t earn as much” – he’s been partnering with the alcohol prevention organisation IOGT §and health-related concerns like the Holmes Place gym chain, which brought Sober Sensation to Hamburg last year.

June marked a collaboration with the DNX Festival, a “digital nomad” gathering at Schöneweide’s Funkhaus. Along for the ride, I watched Bellin introduce his party with the same Ramadan story he’d told me earlier, then filtered, with the fedora- and sundress-clad conference-goers, into the cavernous back hall of the GDR-era recording complex. Skipping the chance to have my face painted with plant-based glitter, I purchased a spicy ginger shot from a bartender wielding a hand drum. The Funkhaus had a separate bar selling beer, but, conscious of the party’s theme, barely anyone ordered it. Instead, about 100 German would-be influencers happily flailed to pounding EDM punctuated by crowd-pleasers and well-timed confetti cannons. Towards the end, somebody beatboxed.

I was clear-headed. I was fully present. I had a raging hangover, and I desperately wanted to go home. Still, I could sort of see the draw. At least, the sober revelers were having more fun than the handful of people uncomfortably nursing beers in the back of the room. They did seem to run out of steam around midnight, just in time for Bellin to wrap things up with an exhortation to follow Sober Sensation on Instagram.

“I don’t want to be at a boring party, whether they’re drinking or not,” laughs Anna, the yogini, when I tell her about it. She’d rather go to Oase or Ecstatic Dance, rave-rituals featuring meditation and ceremonial cacao. Bellin prefers Sober Sensation to be “neutral” rather than incorporate these spiritual touches. But in a city with as many parties as people, is it enough for one to be defined only by what it doesn’t have?

If you want to find out, the next Sober Sensation is on October 17 at Wildenbruch. Meanwhile, who’s to say if you should go dry yourself? Even the straightest-edge of non-drinkers I know refuse to evangelise their sobriety – unlike, say, veganism. “Eating animal products involves a victim, but with alcohol, unless you’re drinking so much you hurt everyone around you, it’s just you fucking up yourself,” Wanda says. “I don’t see myself drinking in the future, but I know if I do, it’ll be my choice. That’s the most important thing.”

*Names changed