Situated between the Hauptbahnhof and the swathe of Federal buildings on the other side of the Spree, Zollpackhof seems to feature in almost everything Google throws up when asked about the best places to drink in Berlin.
I hadn’t planned to visit on a Saturday evening until the helpful security officer at the Reichstag pointed out our reservation to visit Sir Norman Foster’s stunning dome was actually for 18.15hrs the next day.
Google maps pointed out the proximity of Zollpackhof and after a short, but very cold walk, through some amazing architecture, we arrived to be greeted by a bloke who had the sort of aura of the owner rather than a doorman. Only the traditional Bavarian Jancker, complete with deer horn buttons, suggested he was a paid employee.
My first impressions suggested it was purely an eating establishment, which isn’t strictly the case, although it is an exceptionally good restaurant. I explained we only wanted a drink, so he showed us to a table overlooking the bar area, slightly away from the main hall, asked us what we would like to drink and things sort of went from there.
He told us he was going round to his ex-wife’s for dinner. I asked if that was wise. But he said she was making Lasagne for him and in any case he’d get to see the little dog. At this he made his excuses and went to greet some important looking customers. I found Benjamin to be a genuinely very friendly bloke. Only thing was there was just something I couldn’t put my finger on, something he was holding back?
A short while after, he returned, apologising for his absence, telling me there was something he thought I would like to see. On cue a barman trundled into the room with a wooden cask on a sack cart. Up until this stage, nice as it was, I hadn’t realised I’d been drinking beer from the wood. The cask of Augustiner Edelstoff had just run off so I watched the barman hammer in the bespoke brass tap and vent plug.
The beer is dispensed with the cask stood on it’s head on the counter top, tipping it forward to get all the beer out. I asked if there was any secondary fermentation? Benjamin didn’t know if there was any viable yeast in the beer explaining the Edelstoff was essentially bright racked. He said the beer went through a six week maturation period and was stored at 2°C, which I thought sounded very cold, either way there’s no secondary fermentation going to occur at that temperature.
I reckoned the Augustiner Edelstoff from the wooden cask was less carbonated than other Lager styles I’d tried in Berlin, a bit softer, sweeter too. Apart from the Augustiner Braü Biergarten and Wirtshaus in Munich, you can’t get it from the wood anywhere else, Benjamin assured me. As brewing partners in the Zollpackhof venture you can get the widest range of the famous Munich brewers products from the bar, delivered to your table by a server of course.
Although they use 30L casks in the winter, when the Biergarten is in full swing they go onto 50L and 100L casks, the larger being around 22 imperial gallons. Benjamin pointed out the brass letters set into the cask head saying they were for tax purposes. The one he showed me said ’31′ signifying that although it was a 30L cask it had actually been tested and stamped for excise purposes as holding 31L of beer.
I was staggered when he told me Zollpackhof would serve 6,000 customers a day in the summer. At any one time they can seat 2,000 in the beer garden and 1,000 people inside. I’ve simply got to go back in the summer and see the place at it’s zenith, it’s open April to October. There’s no wonder the riverside beer garden is independently billed as ‘simply the best’ in Berlin. Shame I couldn’t fully appreciate it in the dark.
As well as the garden and restaurant they have extensive cellars underneath. They weren’t open when I visited but I had a bit of a peek when I visited the swish toilet facilities. Benjamin said they were the little sister of the original Munich Augustiner cellars
Benjamin wondered whether we would be dining that evening? I apologised, saying we had already made arrangements. He complemented me on my choice of BRLO saying they had done marvellous things with a derelict piece of land and a load of shipping containers.
I think it was the marvellous plates of food coming out of the gleaming kitchen that did it for me, that and the ambience of the place, so I asked Benjamin whether it would be advisable to book if we wanted a table for the next evening? I did, after all, have to return to the Reichstag.
After a couple of minutes behind the reception desk Benjamin returned saying the booking had been made. Looking at my watch, I made our goodbye’s and thanked him for his company, as we shook hands he handed me his business card.
I didn’t know what a Geschäftsfuhrer was? On the lines that hauptbahnhoff is a big bahnhoff I had an idea that a fuhrer with a long prefix must be quite important, so I looked it up when I got back to the hotel; Executive Director.
A bit more Googling revealed Benjamin was quite a lad. There are photos a plenty of him with famous Berliners, politicians and the social elite on Google. Pictures with Angela Merkel, Carolin Schultz renowned socialite and now ex-wife, Brother David Groenewold a well known German film producer, and Lady Peddy the little dog. I knew all along there was something he wasn’t letting on about, but fair play to him for that.
I didn’t have to say anything to the chap at the front of house when I returned the next evening. He just confirmed I was the gentleman who had been with Mr Benjamin the previous night and led the way to a table placed at the side of a glass fronted 360° fireplace. It looked quite incongruous against the ordered rows of tables along the room, but very cosy for those sat there.
You can see the obvious Bavarian influence throughout the whole building. Benjamin told me they had stuck to traditional, hand crafted materials throughout. Apparently each of the wrought iron chandeliers cost as much as a small car. It was obvious a lot of care, and cash, had gone into the place.
The staff stood out too, customer focus of the highest degree, even down to the regular stoking of the fire with new logs. How many times have you been in a UK pub and they’ve let the fire die out well before time?
Apparently Schmankerl means ‘Bavarian delicacies’, or similar, so it seemed rude not to try it. It’s a sort of sharing platter. It said for two people, think half a duck, a family sized hunk of melt in the mouth roast pork, slices of meat loaf, sauerkraut, red cabbage, enough sausages to start up a hot dog stand, potato dumplings and gravy. All washed down with three pints of Edelstoff, Apple strudel and coffees. A gastronomic bargain at €88.
Thing was, every time I looked up I got the feeling everyone was looking at us. Maybe it was because we were the only ones sat in the middle of the room right by the fire? Maybe it was because they knew the Schmankerl was really only suitable for a party of at least four people? Perhaps it was because I had my camera out? Maybe it was because they approved of my choice of beer? Whatever they were looking at, this felt like a proper little part of Germany and I felt privileged to be consuming it, sat at the fireside, at it’s very heart.
Benjamin Groenwold’s Zollpackhof – der König of drinking places in Berlin.