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Booze-free booze: What’s the buzz in Berlin?

Berlin is hardly a city of abstinence, but its residents are increasingly forgoing alcohol in favour of refined alternatives. Their pockets are deep, and the restaurants know it.

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The Mindful Drinking Club, which offers a predominantly booze-less selection of classy drinks, opened on Prenzlauer Allee in June. Photo: The Mindful Drinking

Holger Schwarz is a giant of Germany’s wine scene, acclaimed as a well-versed merchant and the discerning palate behind Charlottenburg’s Viniculture. So when he started selling no- and low-alcohol wine alternatives earlier this year, glasses were set down and ears pricked up.

“You go through your phases of not drinking or drinking less, especially in the wine trade,” he says. “And it gets you thinking. Above all, it was this discrepancy that annoyed me: three people would be sitting at the table drinking a vintage champagne at €16 a glass, and the fourth guy would be sipping on a tropical fruit juice, maybe with a plastic flamingo garnish. That’s just not on.”

Schwarz belongs to a growing faction at the top of Berlin’s food and drink scene that adheres to – or at least supports – a new way of drinking. Horváth, the Michelin-starred Austrian restaurant on Kreuzberg’s Paul-Link-Ufer was among the first establishments in the city to start offering its diners a non-alcoholic alternative to the standard wine pairing – one curated with equal care… and the same price tag, starting at €60 for five courses.

Sebastian Frank, the restaurant’s obsessively product-savvy head chef, has developed an array of infused juice creations drawing on the extract of carrot, apple, parsley root and celery – and he evidently enjoys working with them. “With the high oil content in the glass, I can balance things like spicy or rich dishes, or I can dab little kicks of aroma along the walls of the glass, a seasoning of dried cauliflower and anis, or a vinegar chocolate cream,” he says.

Jumping on the wagon

Other restaurants have followed suit. (Not least because this new and improved league of soft drinks bring in more money than the typical bottle of table water or Apfelschorle.) Veggie temple Cookies Cream and minimalist dining counter Ernst, together with its sister restaurant Julius, now offer non-alcoholic beverage pairings – and they don’t need to look far for a local supplier of elevated drinks without the high percentage.

So-called mindful drinking is pretty hyped at the moment… but a lot of stuff tastes too lemonade-y, too fruity, too sweet. 

In an old industrial estate in Marzahn, Walker Brengel samples a wine-red liquid that indeed has wine in it: Dornfelder from Rheinhessen, the largest of Germa- ny’s wine-producing regions, combined with some dried currant leaves and left to ferment over a period of weeks. The alcohol content amounts to just 0.1 percent.

Brengel belongs to Bouche Berlin, a newcomer on the Berlin drinks scene whose kombuchas became the hipster’s refreshment of choice this summer. This new product, decanted into French-sourced bottles, is their attempt at getting a little more refined. “So-called mindful drinking is pretty hyped at the moment,” says Felix Rank of Bouche Berlin, “but a lot of stuff tastes too lemonade-y, too fruity, too sweet.”

So what about Novin, as their new creation is called? It’s got depth: earthy, almost oaky, with some berries coming through. The finished product is slightly carbonated, reminiscent of a pét nat. And like its boozy cousins, this too is one for sipping. Novin is now served at both Cookies Cream and Ernst, as well as Gaia, the summer restaurant in the Uckermark’s foodie sanctuary of Gerswalde.

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Bouche Berlin, a newcomer on the Berlin drinks scene whose kombuchas became the hipster’s refreshment of choice the summer. Photo: Anthea Schaap

Sour grapes

This non-wine was developed in an exclusive partnership with the natural wine specialists at Viniculture, which sells it for €15.90 per bottle. Schwarz estimates that a tenth of his business’s offering will be non-alcoholic by 2025. The producers he’s work- ing with to get there are about more than just glorified grape juice. “They don’t start from the beginning when thinking about a wine alternative – that is, with the grapes. They focus on the end product, the impression it makes in the glass, the way it feels on the nose and in the mouth, the breadth and depth of the aromas,” he says. “Quince kefir, geraniums, fig leaf, East African teas, occasionally actual wine, but fermented – that’s what we’re talking about. This is about actual ingredients and not flowery associations.”

On its ‘no & low’ shelf, Viniculture also stocks beverages by Muri, a Danish purveyor of “no- and low-alcohol drinks with complexity and depth of flavour”. At almost €20 a bottle, these creations, gently effervescent and with a faint whiff of cider, are here to remind you that staying sober doesn’t mean scrimping. Muri also happens to be the kombucha kitchen closely associated with Copenhagen’s top-tier Noma restaurant.

It is one of two labels in Schwarz’s offering that come “directly from the field of contemporary fine dining”, a crowd he knows well from the traditional wine trade. The other is Ama Brewery, a fermentation lab linked to the kitchen of Mugaritz, a world-class restaurant in San Sebastian. “Dani Lasa, the head chef there, is a kombucha nerd,” Schwarz says.

Hangover-free zones

You don’t need to order an expensive meal just to enjoy a glass of the best soft drink of your life. Since June, the Mindful Drinking Club on Prenzlauer Allee has been offering tea- and kombucha-based wine alternatives, as well as alcohol-free beer and spirits, and a few other exciting beverages that don’t fit any known category. But the shop takes an 

undogmatic approach, also selling selected natural wines and ciders (for those who want a bit of a buzz after all). So far, they’re only open three days a week (Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays), but they are busy expanding. They also offer their expertise both as business consultants and in workshops.

Over in Bergmannkiez, Berlin (and Germany) now has its first booze-free Späti: Bergmannkiez’s Null Prozent, which went permanent in March this year after a successful pop-up in Kreuzberg’s Hallesches Haus. They have a selection of wines, but also spirit alternatives, so you can get that rum/ whisky/gin/aperol taste without the headache to go with it the next morning.

One of the brands on offer, another Copenhagen import called Ish, even adds a bit of cayenne pepper to its fake G&T to mimic the sense of that comforting throat burn. Null Prozent is the brainchild of Katja Kauf and Isabella Steiner, the founders of Nüchtern Berlin, an online shop that promotes mindful drinking. “It’s not about saying alcohol is bad or poisonous, we’re just asking what kind of alternatives exist,” Steiner explains. She herself enjoys the odd boozy night. “But you just can’t drink every day of the week.”