A Year in Berlin

An Englishman abroad

The Sternburg stigma

I first visited Berlin in March 2005. I knew absolutely nothing about the city. I was on my own but I knew one person and we agreed to meet up in Prenzlauer Berg – Berlin’s coolest district, back then.

I may have mis-remembered it but the friend told me to find a place called (I think) Red Cafe on what was (I think) Kastanienallee. It really doesn’t sound like Kastanienallee (even in 2005) but wherever it was, I remember a street with a squatty/alternative feel – lots of crumbly buildings, graffiti and banners hanging from balconies. It looked kinda cool, I have to admit.

Inside the bar, I found my friend and took a seat. I prefer to avoid familiar beer brands when I’m somewhere new and asked what beer I should try. She held up a bottle of Sternburg Export and said, “Just buy Sternburg. It’s as good as the others but cheaper.”

That’s what I did. When the barman took the beer out of the fridge, I had a moment to notice the white on red star on the bottle-top before he whipped it off with his opener. That seemed kinda cool too and it tasted good to me.

Kirst and I with a couple of Sterni's at the Slowlympics.

Kirst and I with a couple of Sterni’s at the Slowlympics.

Seven years on, I’m still enjoying Sternburg. You don’t see it on sale in bars anymore but it costs around 45 cents for a 500ml bottle from a supermarket (not including the 8 cent refundable pfand/deposit). So including the deposit, that’s around 42p – and for that kind of money, it’s great.

It’s not the only beer I drink and it’s certainly not the best in the world. I like trying lots of different types and there a loads in Germany. Back in the UK, I’m always happy to see a pub with a selection of real ales. If I’m going have a drink at home, I’ll often buy a few wheat beers, or perhaps a schwarzbier before happily moving on to Sternburg Exports. But sometimes, the wheat beer and schwarzbier are made by Sternburg too.

The thing is, I can’t see anything wrong with drinking Sternburg. Nothing at all. But there’s a stigma to it and I’m suspicious as to why. True – it’s the drink of choice for the city’s drunks. But drunks use the U-Bahn too and I don’t let that affect how I get around.

Naked man drinking Sternburg on the U-Bahn.

Classic 2012 meme of a naked Sternburg drinker.

On one fairly big summer night out, I did a Späti run (a trip to the off licence) and bought a bag full of Sternburg Export. Someone in our group mentioned that they don’t drink Sternburg. When I asked why, they came up with a pretty unconvincing answer.

“It tastes okay at first, but after a few, you start to feel really full and a bit sick.”

To me, that just sounded like how it feels to drink beer. They could’ve added “…and it makes you want to wee more often too.”

On another day out with friends, again, I bought Sternburg and a different friend said, “Sternburg? Don’t you want a beer you can actually taste?”

Sternburg bottle label from GDR era.

Sternburg bottle label from GDR era.

Say what you like about Sternburg, but nobody can call it tasteless. And believe me I’ve had more than my fair share of tasteless, pissy, fizzy beers at gigs, festivals and events. Sternburg is better than those and it has been brewed according to the Reinheitsgebot (the same German purity laws that all the more prestigious brands abide by) for 190 years. I found just one beer review site that includes Sternburg Export – it scores around 3.3 out of 5. Not amazing, but not many beers score more than four on that particular site and cost/value isn’t part of the rating.

It made me wonder about the Sternburg stigma. All due respect to anyone who doesn’t drink Sternburg for whatever reason (including the friends already referred to) but is it less about taste in terms of flavour and more about taste in terms of fashion? It’s a genuine question. Is it about the quality of the beer or the status of the product?

Freiherrlich v. Sternburg’sche Brauerei, Lützschena, 1882.

The Sternburg Brewery in Lützschena, 1882. Image sourced from Sternburg’s website (click image for link).

Sternburg goes back a long way. All the way back to 1278 according to the Sternburg page on Wikipedia. Sternburg properly started in 1822 when it was bought in by Maximillian Speck. A year later, Sternburg was being brewed in the cellar of a castle in Leipzig and selling 300,000 litres per year.

Information sheet from Interflug.

Information sheet for an Interflug’s iL-62. Picture sourced from http://www.interflug.biz.

After WWII and as part of the GDR, Sternburg became a state-owned brewery and exported beer to the Soviet Union and all over the Eastern Bloc. It was also served onboard East Germany’s national airline, Interflug.

After re-unification, Sternburg’s Export and Pilsner varieties were launched and Sternburg became the first East German brewery to achieve EU quality assurance standards (DIN ISO 9002, if you must know). Around this time, Sternburg adopted a no-advertising policy and became a ‘discount’ brand.

Oh, and in 2011, Sternburg became the first German beer in space. Seriously. See below.

GDR era Sternburg beermat.

GDR era Sternburg beermat.

The no-advertising thing is particularly interesting. Most of us feel like we’re far too sophisticated and intelligent to be too influenced by advertising. But of course, we’re not. I’m subject to it, we all are. So much of what’s considered cool is just what advertising tells us is cool. And companies spend an awful lot of money doing it – money that has to be re-couped somewhere.

So, is this the source of the Sternburg stigma? Is it that we don’t see cool people drinking Sternburg on billboards, TV or via cooler underground advertising avenues? Or is it that the people choosing other beers really do have have more discerning palates than I do?

Either way, I’m going to continue drinking Sternburg Export as my favourite Späti tipple. I’m no beer connoisseur so I’m not going to pay extra for tastes I don’t have.

But finally, I’m grateful to Sternburg for another reason: it goes hand in hand with my Berlin experience and I love it for that. Berlin may not be the be the prettiest city in the world and Sternburg isn’t the best beer, but you don’t need a fortune to enjoy either of them. So, Prost: to Sternburg and Sternburg drinkers everywhere!

11 comments on “The Sternburg stigma

  1. digitalcosmonaut

    nice article – but Sternburg is not the only Beer that does the whole non-advertising thing. Id say most smaller beer breweries don’t bother with it, the notable exception being “Augustiner” – probably one of the most famous Bavarian Beers – which sells on reputation alone.

    • hawkinsian

      Yep, I’ve enjoyed several Augustiners too but I didn’t know they were a) so big and b) didn’t advertise. I definitely like the idea that money is spent on brewing rather than advertising – though I suppose that in itself doesn’t guarantee good beer.

      • James

        Ignore Georg, he’s such a troll! 😉 Enough with the Augustiner, Cosmo!!!!

        Great article Ian, nice celebration of the cheap (but not nasty) stuff!

  2. irishberliner

    Hey man, they do advertise. I’ve seen their posters around aplenty!
    I also like Sterni, because it’s cheap. The taste’s alright, especially for the price, BUT – and this is a major but – it gives me hangovers from hell the next day. Without fail.
    I still drink it on occassion, despite the collateral damage, and I don’t think it suffers from a stigma. If anything its coolness keeps it going – as well as its price – and you certainly wouldn’t see any yuppie types drinking it. It’s a (non) working man’s drink and so it’s good enough for me.
    Thanks for the history lesson. I’ll appreciate my next Sterni all the more now!

  3. hawkinsian

    They do advertise? I must admit I’ve never seen any Sternburg advertising but that doesn’t mean anything. I got the no-advertising thing from their own site (the 1882 image links back to their history page).

    Perhaps stigma is a bit strong but I’ve definitely picked up on sniffy responses to it. As for hangovers? Well, yes. I’ve had a few stinkers from it too but I can’t say for sure whether that’s all Sterni’s fault!

    Anyway, thanks for reading and adding your thoughts. Much appreciated.

    • James

      Oh yeah, fucking killer hangover.

  4. andBerlin

    I haven’t had a Sterni yet but I’m determined to try it when I get back to Berlin. I’m a little concerned about the hangover comments but will just have to risk it for the sake of expanding my beer knowledge.

  5. Sterni does advertise, there was a campaign I saw in the U bahn stations last year. Also the distinctive bottle cap is clever marketing, you must have seen them pressed into the pavement and grass around Berlin, its basically free viral marketing.
    The taste of Sterni is fine when it’s cold, not so flash warm, and I find too much isn’t great for my stomach the next day.I prefer Augustiner (which is incredible at the Augustiner Keller in Munich) but its three times the price, and if you’re buying a round for your friends in the park it has to be Sternberg.
    Yeah it has a stigma, lower class people and punks drink it. I’m sure no upper-middle class snob would be caught dead drinking it. But hipsters drink it, I guess to like try and be down with the po people, like drinking pabst blue in america. With hipsters and that it has cult status. In the end it’s a good and very cheap beer, but I think people are much more likely to conform to their peer group than to trust their own senses.

  6. gary neath

    bollocks! alcohol gives you a hangover, not the label on the bottle. warm beer allways tastes like shit, no matter how much it costs. long live sternburg, great beer!

    • Justin

      I love Sternburg, it’s a great little beer. From a taste perspective it’s quite fresh and sweet, so if you prefer a stronger flavor try their Pilsner with a green cap, you can buy at supermarkets for €0.40 cents a bottle! That’s incredibly cheap.

      I’ve seen a few comments about hangovers and bad stomachs, well that’s beer for you! It’s bullshit that it’s this brand that gives you bad hangovers, it’s the amount you drink. All German beer has to comply to quality standards, so there is no shit in it. I lived in Amsterdam for many years and had some of the worst hangovers from beers which can be brewed with rice and poor quality water… Now I’ve never had that in Germany. Also because it’s cheaper you probably drink more of it… And often in the park with a BBQ where everyone drinks a little more than usual.

      Sternburg do advertise, but mainly posters. I’ve seen more and more people drinking it in Berlin, more hipsters and Yuccies. I’ve also seen the price increase in some shops in mitte areas…. Once was €0.80 now is €1.00 – and Augustina has not increased in price for example.

      Finally I’d like to praise Sternburg for its consistency…. It always tastes the same and I’ve never had a ‘dodgy’ bottle. On the other hand, Berliner Pils and Kindl is Terrible for consistency!! Really terrible. They are made by the Berliner brewery and I just stopped drinking that stuff because the flavor and bitterness varies….

      It’s all about image…. Fuck that. It’s about good beer at a great price.


  7. Evan

    Nothing wrong with Sterni. Rampue dedicated a track to the brand.

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This entry was posted on 28/08/2012 by in beer, fashion, Sternburg Export and tagged , , .
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