TookTook Eats with BRLO
Around a decade ago, while I was living in New York, Berlin was barely a twinkle in the distant night sky. It was in the big apple that I happened to meet Katharina Kurtz, a star media professional at Bertelsmann. Fast-forward 10 years later, life has taken us through various adventures and somehow we’ve managed to cross paths again here in Germany’s capital. Today, Katharina is the co-founder of BRLO, one of the star craft beer brewing companies in Berlin. I had a chance to catch-up with her and a few of her colleagues at their amazing new HQ, which is part brewpub and part beer garden. We chatted over a feast fit for a small army and of course, a few beers.
Katharina is originally from the small town of Fürth, in Northern Bavaria. After attending college in Frankfurt, she got a job at the international media company Bertelsmann, working in marketing. Her job took her around the world, with stints in New York, Berlin and Shanghai. It wasn’t until Katharina got to Paris that she finally managed to settle down for a while. It was here that she began to grow restless and eager to try something new with her life.
“I didn’t want to do anything with media or marketing, because it would have driven me insane if I had to think about work all the time. I also knew, for me to complete my Phd, I had to dedicate to my studies full time”
Katharina decided to quit her job at Bertelsmann and pursue a PhD in marketing with a focus on the art market. A drastic break with her previous career path. Her work focused on the power relationships between artists, dealers and collectors, examining the problems of the art world with a metaphorical microscope. As she studied, she travelled regularly between America and Germany. It was a period of great excitement, meeting some of the best collectors and gallery owners on both sides of the pond. The relationships of the art world fascinated her, but also convinced her that when she graduated, art wasn’t the career path for her.
“I always follow my gut instinct when it comes to career decisions and at that point I honestly had no idea how to move forward.”
Katharina began to interview for positions similar to her old job at various bit companies. She struggled through interview after interview, feeling like a failure for going back to the career she’d decided to leave behind. She didn’t want to work for anyone else. She was tired, frustrated and homesick for Berlin,
She decided to head back to Berlin and figure her life out, but before she did, she figured a little bit of an escape was in order. Katharina wanted sun, sea and some time without the worries of academia or business, so she set off for a holiday in Australia. It was summertime down South, and Katharina remembers vividly the great weather, good parties and amazing beer.
“I was standing in a bottle shop in Sydney, trying to choose a six pack of beer and I was struggling to decide what to pick. Everything was so creative and cool, with lots of different styles. It was at that moment I realized if I put myself in the same situation in Germany, I wouldn’t care at all. I thought how cool would it be if I started my own brand?”
For Katharina, beer in Germany might be great, but it isn’t very varied. Beer is very much part of the German identity and is a tradition most Germans are very proud of. At the time, there was very little creativity in the German beer selection, quality might be high, but most beers were made by a few large breweries, with branding as homogenous as their flavour profiles. Katharina wanted to change that.
Katharina returned to Berlin, where she found herself immediately falling back into a rut, attending interview after interview for jobs she didn’t want to do. One day, over lunch, she was venting to a friend and mentioned her dream of making great beer instead. It turned out by sheer chance that their mutual friend Christian Lasse had just mentioned something about making beer the week before. Katharina’s friend urged her to get in touch with Christian and make her dreams a reality.
So just like that the seeds for BRLO were planted. It was around March of 2014, Katharina and Christian, now one of her co-founders, met up over few beers and began to research craft beer. They saw there were a few people doing it in Germany and decided to give it a shot. The early days were tentative and cautious.
“I couldn’t imagine abandoning my career at this point, so I didn’t take it that seriously at the beginning”
Christian is a Berliner and successful entrepreneur. He and Katharina had been friends since their time in College. At the beginning of their endeavour, he was no beer expert. He’d bought some equipment as a fun hobby to spend time with his father, making beer together, but when Katharina contacted him, he had yet to produce a single batch.
The two future heads of BRLO were starting a brewery with no clue how to make beer or to sell it. It wasn’t the most auspicious start, but their commons 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.
BRLO | TookTook
The duo 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.
“We didn’t have a brand name at the time, just the domain name megabeer.com. A lot of people must have thought we were crazy!”
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 a 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 tasting. Thanks to Micha’s expertise, the R&D period was a breeze. The branding however took a little longer. They wanted to make sure it represented the brand well. After months of rejected ideas and scrapped designed, they settled on BRLO, an old Slavic word for Berlin.
“It was one of the first names we thought of. But we didn’t jump on it because we thought it was too risky. Eventually we came around full circle. After many iterations we just thought, ‘We’re just going to be the beer with the weird name!’”
For the record, Katharina states that BRLO 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. The helles is a type of lager beer, which is bottom fermented from 8-14 degrees Celsius. Ales on the other hand are top fermented at high temperature, typically ranging from 14-22 degrees Celsius. 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.
The pale ales we see now a days from the craft brewers are a bit different because they have a dry hopping stage, which means they add an extra helping of hops after the brewing process is complete. This is what gives the beer that extra level of bitter and fruity notes.
While the pale ale may be unusual to the palate of the average German beer drinker, the crew of BRLO have 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 out there 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.
“We really came at a great time. Lots of people were already talking craft beer. The press was talking about it but a lot of the restaurants and bars were not there yet. Thus a lot people were interested!”
As they built momentum, they invested back into the company, even hiring a Späti sales expert, which is a job I didn’t know existed before now. To their credit, to this date they’re the predominant craft beer at Spätis in Berlin.
After eight months of working out of car-trunks and other people’s breweries, the team felt disjointed, they were all working from different locations, communicating mostly by phone and email. It was time to bring everything under one roof. It had always been part of their plan to have their own space for BRLO, so they started to search for a location. They initially saw a few typical bar spaces in Prenzlauer Berg, but nothing felt quite right to the trio. Instead, the trio went with a far more ambitious solution.
The BRLO Brwhouse is instantly noticeable as you pass by the Gleisdreieck U-Bahn. It was put together out of 38 shipping containers and looms large and oddly beautiful, in a Berlin-industrial kind of way. The inspiration initially came from the guys at Platoon, who do event spaces with shipping containers.
To build the entire structure wasn’t easy. The folks at platoon had some experience, but no one had constructed a fully functional brewery and kitchen out of shipping crates before. The entire BRLO project was self-funded, with help from a few angel investors and a bank loan. Funding and building a one-of-a-kind brewery was a daunting task.
“We completely underestimated how much it will all cost, because no one could tell us how it would cost.”
They were lucky to have world famous Graft Architects to help with the design. The guys at Graft loved the concept, and designed the space for BRLO team at a discount. Their foresight and enthusiasm were rewarded with multiple awards for the design. Most recently, they were awarded best exterior design for a restaurant in Europe.
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 two years, and they’re making the most of it.
“We fell in love with the idea that we don’t have to plan 15 years in advance. We found a space we can grow and it’s perfect for us now.”
The whole building took about a year, from the first architect meeting, getting permits and finding the right builders. Today, the BRLO Brwhouse is fully open and is already 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.
“When you think about beer food, it is always unhealthy. It is very heavy, very rich and typically bad meat. This is why we thought, ‘why don’t we be more healthy and put vegetables in focus and have meat as side dish?’”
The key member of the wider BRLO team is resident Chef Ben Pommer. Ben connected with the BRLO team, initially as competitors 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.
“We always wanted to do food, but it was very early in planning, so all we were thinking about at the time was the space.”
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, bring fine dining techniques to comfort food.
The plates are primarily meant for sharing with vegetables as the key focus. 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 brews 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 I tried.
The flight contains the pillars of BRLO’s beer, Helles, Pale Ale, German IPA, Porter, and Berliner Weisse. A massive tip from me 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 trust me, when you eat Ben’s version served with smoked broccoli cream and sheep’s cheese your vegetable prejudices will be turned on their head.
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 Apple wood 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 mouth watering morsel.
Today BRLO makes 8 different beers, along with a few extra special and limited edition brews. Most are available by the bottle or can.
Three and a half years ago, Katharina was standing in the aisle of a bottle shop in Sydney, thinking vaguely 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. All achieved with hard work, determination, outstanding marketing and teamwork.
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 couldn’t imagine having done it any other way.