Three and a half years ago, Katharina Kurz, co-founder of BRLO, was standing in the aisle of a bottle shop in Sydney, thinking about changing German beer. Today she and her team have created a brand that you can find in restaurants, Spätis and bars all over Berlin. They’ve built a brewery and a restaurant from the ground up. It is an incredible success for Berlin craft beer!
Beer is very much part of the German identity and a tradition most Germans are extremely proud of. However, the majority of beers are made by a few large breweries, with branding as homogenous as their flavour profiles. Katharina wanted to change that.
Christian Lasse, now one of her co-founders, connected over a few beers and began to research. They saw that there were a few people getting into craft beer in Germany, the market had potential and decided to give it a shot.
The only issue was they wanted to start a brewery with no clue about how to make beer or sell it. It wasn’t the most auspicious start, but their mutual friends loved the idea of Katharina and Christian making beer. They kept connecting the duo to new people who could offer their skills, knowledge and experience. There was a snowball of momentum that was building in size and speed.
They also decided that if they were going to start a brewery, they needed a master brewer to help them. They put out an ad at the local brewing school to try and find one.
Six young brewmasters applied to their add, and Michael Lembke (Micha) was among them. After speaking with the candidates, Katharina and Christian knew Micha was their guy.
It was time to stop hovering at the edge of the precipice. If they wanted to make beer, they had to be serious and work on the project full time. They convinced Micha to join the team as a co-founder and began to run officially as a startup.
They spent the next few months brewing various beers and doing tastings. Thanks to Micha’s expertise, the R&D period was a breeze. The branding however took a little longer. After months of rejected ideas and scrapped designed, they settled on BRLO, the old-slavic origin of the name Berlin.
For the record, Katharina states that the correct pronunciation is ‘Bare – Lo’, but for her, as long as you enjoy the beer, you can pronounce it any way you please.
The first two beers that BRLO produced were a helles and a pale ale. It was a combination of comfort and challenge. Helles, was the local brew that Germans could relate to. The pale ale on the other hand was their way to challenge the status quo and show how amazing a more hoppy, flavourful beer can taste.
As with anything new, it takes a while to change people’s perception. Ales have long been burdened with the image of old men at an English pub, drinking room temperature liquids with very little carbonation. It’s not exactly everyone’s cup of tea, especially when you’re trying to change centuries of beer tradition.
While the pale ale may be unusual to the palate of the average German beer drinker, the crew of BRLO has taken pains to make sure it’s still accessible. Their brew has all the elements of a modern pale ale, without pushing the boundaries of dry hopping into the realms of excessive bitterness, like some of the more niche American brews. For a novice beer drinker, it’s a great stepping stone to the world craft beer.
At first, Katharina and Christian started selling the beers out of the trunk of Micha’s car. They made a list of all the bars and restaurants and literally went door to door and pitched their beer.
After eight months of working out of car trunks and other people’s breweries, the team felt disjointed. It was time to bring everything under one roof. They initially saw a few typical bar spaces in Prenzlauer Berg, but nothing felt quite right to the trio. Instead, they went with a far more ambitious solution.
The BRLO Brwhouse is instantly noticeable as you pass by the Gleisdreieck U-Bahn. It is made out of 38 shipping containers and looms large and oddly beautiful, in a Berlin-industrial kind of way.
The crew at BRLO know they can’t stay forever. There’s a lot of residential and commercial development around the Gleisdreieck U-Bahn station. They do know they have the place for at least another few years, and they’re making the most of it.
The whole building took about a year, from the first architect meeting, getting permits and finding the right builders. Today, the BRLO Brwhouse is a beloved spot for a beer with locals and tourists alike. With twenty beers on tap and forty different bottles of beer, there’s always something new discover.
BRLO’s philosophy of excellence and creativity extends to their food menu as well. Just like their beer, they didn’t want to go down the traditional German brauhaus route of schnitzel, pork knuckle, and boiled potatoes.
The key member of the wider BRLO team is Culinary Director, Ben Pommer. Ben connected with the BRLO team, initially as a competitor to get the lease for the land where BRLO Brwhouse sits today. The owners of the land, played matchmaker and told the BRLO team to speak with Ben.
It was a natural fit, instead of competing for the land, they teamed up. Ben did the food and they did the beer. Before connecting with the BRLO team, Ben worked in various Michelin star restaurants in Hamburg and Cologne. He has also been involved with the Berlin street food scene, bringing fine dining techniques to comfort food.
If the thought of having cauliflower, broccoli and carrots with your beer sounds super weird, you should give it a try. Not only will you end up feeling less bloated, but the dishes are flavourful and pair perfectly with the various beers on offer.
The cauliflower with vadouvan rub, pale ale glaze, fresh Parmesan, bean vinaigrette and walnut crumbs in particular was the star of the show. It was perfectly moist and crispy, with a complex, subtle flavour palate that brought out the best in the flight of craft beers.
The flight contains the pillars of BRLO’s beer: helles, pale ale, German IPA, porter, and Berliner Weisse. A massive tip is to go from light bodied beers to the dark bodied, remember to have some water in between. It won’t just fight off any future hangovers, it’ll cleanse your palate so you can truly enjoy the next beer.
The wild broccoli may summon up images of your grandmother boiling brownish green stalks to death, but when you eat Ben’s version served with smoked broccoli cream and sheep’s cheese your vegetable prejudices will be turned on their heads.
The carrot dish was a work of art on a plate. Served with a side of roast malt and sour clover, it was a lesson in how delectable simplicity can taste.
There are only 4 meat dishes on the menu, but the care in which Ben goes to source the quality ingredients, is clearly evident. The beef short rib, smoked with hickory and applewood for 8 hours, is a serious piece of meat. Tender, smoky and a little bit sweet, it looks like something cavemen would eat and tastes like something a king would be honoured to be served.
The Mangalitza dry aged pork belly is a very special addition to the menu, a dish almost unheard of on any menu in Berlin. It’s very unusual to dry age pork, and the pork belly they serve has been dry aged for twenty five days. Every bite is just packed with flavour, concentrated and altered by the delicate aging process into a mouthwatering morsel.
Today BRLO makes eight different beers, along with a few extra special and limited edition brews.
There were many opportunities for them to slow down or to not take the risks they have. Especially, during the difficult time of building the BRLO Brwhouse, when the costs were going up. Katharina looks at the massive rise of BRLO and credits her success to her philosophy of Augen zu und durch, which translates to “close your eyes and go for it.” It’s been a risky, difficult journey, but she and her team can’t imagine having done it any other way.