The United States might be on the cutting edge of beer brewing, but much of its beer-drinking culture is archaic, with laws and practices dating back to and preceding Prohibition. This is especially true in terms of public consumption. America has only a handful of exceptions to widespread open-container laws — most famously in New Orleans, on Beale Street in Memphis, and in towns like Hood River, Ore., and Butte, Mont.
Otherwise, it’s generally illegal to drink beer in public just about anywhere in the United States or Canada. That means if you’re only halfway done with your Brut IPA and you suddenly need to be somewhere else, simply carrying an open bottle puts you at risk of a citation.
In Germany, on the other hand, walking with an open bottle of beer is not just allowed, it is so ubiquitous and commonplace there’s even a compound German noun for it: Wegbier (pronounced roughly like “vague beer”).
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“A Wegbier is a simply a beer that you drink while you’re walking,” Ludger Berges, owner of the Hopfen & Malz bottle shop in Berlin, says. “Actually, ‘Weg’ means ‘way,’ so it’s a beer for the road. If you’re on your way to a party or on your way home from a party, maybe it’s 10 minutes by foot, many people in Berlin will walk that distance, and many people will drink a Wegbier along the way. It’s cool, it’s relaxed. Everybody does it.”
The concept of Wegbier seems fairly specific to Germany. Despite the country sharing a border and lager-brewing (and -drinking) history with the Czech Republic, there is no Czech-language equivalent of Wegbier. Nor is the concept in neighboring countries like Belgium or Poland.
The idea is so widespread in Germany that German Wikipedia even has an entry on it. For many outsiders, however, Wegbier life can be hard to grasp. Because of the disconnect between the beer cultures in North America and in Germany, Berges frequently has to reassure visitors that they won’t get in trouble.
“I actually heard a joke about that,” he says. “Someone said that the police stopped a person to check his papers on the Oranienburger Strasse,” referring to a street in central Berlin known for its nightlife. “It turns out he was a Canadian tourist. And the police stopped him because he was the only one who didn’t have a Wegbier, so he looked suspicious.”
Berges says some of his customers will make a detour to his shop so they can pick up a special Wegbier from one of the cult breweries he stocks. For most Berliners, however, a Wegbier just means a cheap pilsner from a corner store or kiosk. (A newer term for Wegbier is Fusspils, which combines Fuss, the German word for “foot,” with pils, meaning “pilsner.”)
While cities all over Germany have claimed to be the home of Wegbier, Berlin is especially proud of its Wegbier tradition. One newspaper article says that Wegbier is a “must have” in Berlin, while another claims it belongs to Berlin’s “attitude of life.”
“Every major city has it,” Berges says. “You can see it in Hamburg, in Munich, but of course Berlin is the No. 1 place for Wegbier.”
That might be news to people in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, where the local tourism office published an English-language article that says that Wegbier is “almost a fashion accessory” in Düsseldorf. In the city of Aachen to the west, there is even a German punk band with the same name. Meanwhile, one city guide describes Wegbier as part of the “magic” of Munich, the capital of the southern state of Bavaria.
According to Markus Lohner, general manager of the Bavarian brewery equipment manufacturer BrauKon and its related craft brewery Camba Bavaria, Wegbier is not so much of a fashion accessory in southern Germany.
“Maybe in bigger cities like Berlin, it looks like something cool, but for us in the south it is normal,” Lohner says. “For us in the south, we call it the daily bread. Beer is still on this level, in Bavaria, a basic drink.”
Lohner says that visitors frequently ask him if it is true that there are places in Germany where they can drink a beer on the street.
“I told them yes,” he says. “On every street, everywhere.”
Wegbier has become so much a part of everyday drinking culture in Germany that it is no longer something done primarily while walking and is now even common on public transportation. In many cities, carrying and drinking from an open bottle of beer on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn and city buses is newly being tolerated.
That’s a long way away from open-container laws and trying to hide your beer in a brown paper bag.
“A lot of tourists ask about the Wegbier, how does it work,” Berges says. “Some people ask if is it really legal. For many tourists, it’s the first time in their life they can drink a beer in public. And that’s an experience they love.”