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The Weinerei goes underground (literally)

The success of Berlin’s pay-what-you-want wine bars means lots of tourists and a changed atmosphere. Now they’re rethinking their strategy.

Berlin's infamous Weinerei - it is possible to drink as much as you want all night, but the original intention was something different.
Photo by Tamsin Ross Van Lessen

The success of Berlin’s pay-what-you-want wine bars means lots of tourists and a changed atmosphere. Now they’re rethinking their strategy.

For more than 10 years, Berliners have been packing the Weinerei wine bars – Forum, Perlin and FraRosa – peppered around Zionskirchplatz in Mitte.They are intimate spaces with low tables, upholstered chairs and candlelight. But what makes an evening at a Weinerei unique is that it ends not with the cheque, but with an act of faith.

Consume what you like, then pay what you think it was worth at the end. A surprising business model, but one that proved sustainable due to a dependable neighbourhood clientele. Increasingly, however, it’s a concept in trouble: students and tourists are stopping by more often to binge drink without paying their fair share.

“Something has gone wrong over the last two years because of the press. People think they can just come here and get drunk for cheap,” says Jan K., who organises wine tasting nights at Forum, the Weinerei on Veteranenstraße.

The Guardian calls the Weinerei a “pay-what-you-want bar”. A budget travel site refers to it as “the free place”. And The New York Times reported in October on the “almost free wine… Pour as many reds or whites as you like and just throw some bills into a glass jar, based on what you think you owe. Socialism never tasted so good.”

This publicity has attracted large numbers of twenty-something easyJet-setters: they crowd into Forum’s upper level on the weekends. There is an air of excitement – travellers thrown together by the Eurorail adventure, sharing stories and negotiating sex in the nearby hostel dorms. And more tourists are on their way as more hotels (including an easyHotel run by the budget airline group) pop up around Rosenthaler Platz.

A group from the Circus Hostel, who came to the Weinerei on a tip from “eurocheapo.com”, lounge on a comfy couch. They’re waiting for a Liverpudlian named Karen to return with a bottle she’s taken – without the staff noticing – from the bar. They give her a roaring, inarticulate cheer as she trips her way back to the table.

“This concept would not work back home in Australia because people would abuse the system… Drinking and getting pissed and forgetting to pay at the end,” says David, while pouring himself a glass of cheap, candy-sweet Chardonnay.“ I love this place,” Karen adds. “It’s so much better than that pub crawl that cost €10.”

Indeed – at Forum, the upstairs Weinerei has a lower starting cost (€2 for the glass) than a hostel organised bar hop. Pub crawls typically provide a few free shots – the beer is free for the first 45 minutes. At the Weinerei, it is possible to serve yourself as much ‘free’ wine as you like, when you like, all night. But the original intention was something different.

Susanne G. worked for four years at the Kollwitzstraße Weinerei (now closed due to problems with the building’s owners). “It worked out with the money because it was like having an intimate dinner with friends. We also knew the clientele, which we invited from an email list. I’ve talked to friends, and the atmosphere has changed: morale is lower. In the past two years, students who have less money have been showing up just to drink.”

She explains how the business concept worked: “It was a Verein, an association, where officially the guests were members. It was a good deal for the clients, who paid about half less than they would in a normal bar, and it was a good deal for us workers, who took enough home to compensate our work. It worked because of the trust established between the guests and the workers, and the sense of community.”

Individual organisers ran each evening as a separate event. A few euros per glass paid for the rental of the space. The wine itself was bought from the “Weinerei Laden” on Veteranenstraße, run by the owner of the Weinerei venues, Jürgen Stumpf. After the wine and space were paid for, any profits went to the organisers. “The idea was something between a business and a community. It was not for free, nor for a lot of money,” Susanne explains, “but we expected to be paid for our efforts – and we were.”

With the Weinerei’s discovery by tourists, and the subsequent change of atmosphere, Forum has reacted by opening a separate bar downstairs, which is marked “Private”.

The Weinerei has been forced underground – literally. “It says ‘Private’, but tourists are welcome if they are willing to become part of the Weinerei. They can come in if they can fit in here and know how to behave,” says Jan. “This is for people in the know. The wine is also better. The right people are those who, on first impression, are interested in the difference between an industrial wine and our wine. They take responsibility for what quality means.”

In reality, the wines downstairs are better than those upstairs, but fall more into the ‘acceptable’ than the ‘exceptional’ category. The Panamera Chardonnay is overly honeyed, and the Primitivo and Merlot from the Collezione Il Mio line of wholesale wines are both aggressive. The full retail price per bottle is €5-6. They mightbe surprising choices for a serious “wine tasting” (what the evenings downstairs are called) but, then again, they are better than those found in many Berlin watering holes. And, as Justin from Pittsburg, sitting in the next room, explains: “You get beer goggles for the wine, the more you drink.”

And what does the Weinerei do when people start drinking too much and don’t pay? “We stop opening bottles if we have the impression people just want to drink to get drunk, and on the cheap,” Jan explains. “In that case, they are not really members. We talk to them and ask them to take some responsibility. We want to protect our atmosphere.”

But when people start drinking more and paying less, there’s more than an atmosphere to protect – there’s an innovative business model. And there’s the neighbourhood.