Imagine: You’re visiting Germany (in non-coronavirus times!) with your partner, family or best friends. It’s one of those long summer nights in Europe when the sun sets at about 10 p.m. and the city streets are packed with people eating, drinking and laughing, seizing the moment in the hope summer never ends.
It’s the perfect time for a glass of sparkling wine at a nice restaurant or a cocktail at a bar — but no. Why not head to a nearby late-night shop instead? “A kiosk?” you think, “But what does this lovely atmosphere have to do with a kiosk?!”
Well, in Germany the answer is: quite a lot, and you might want to treat it as a legitimate night out. Here’s how to handle it as a foreigner if a Saturday night party at the kiosk around the corner is not exactly the most common activity in your country.
It’s (not) all about the money
Quite expectedly, it’s cheaper to buy alcohol at a late-night shop than at a bar. However, since some types of beer or wine are often even cheaper than water in this country, even in bars, visitors from abroad might ask themselves if there’s really a need to be stingy about it.
Well, apparently, it’s not just about saving money, as I’ve learned in the past six years of living here. “It’s the atmosphere,” I was told by multiple German friends.
What kind of atmosphere is there to a small, often dirty, pavilion selling mainly tobacco products and cheap booze at 2 in the morning, you ask? So did I, and boy have I paid the price for asking.
As a first “punishment” for my skepticism, I was introduced to the concept of the “Wegbier” — literally “way beer” or “road beer” — which, as its name suggests, serves as an aperitif en route to a party or a gathering in which one will consume even more alcohol.
So instead of a pre-meal drink, you can view it as a pre-drink drink, consumed on the way to get more drinks and bought at a kiosk because, well, you can’t really nick that bar glass, with all due. It’s the first drink to get you into the drinking atmosphere. Sure, sounds legit.
It’s not un-classy
Whether enjoying fine food and drinks is a German virtue or not is a topic for a different article, but there’s no denial that at least on the stereotypical level, Germans aren’t exactly perceived as the most lavish hedonists out there.
Efficient — yes; disciplined — definitely; diligent — many times. But luxurious and posh? Not so much.
After all, we are talking about the land of socks and sandals, where souvenir T-shirts purchased at the last package holiday on the Mediterranean are a legitimate way to dress in public.
Consequently, sitting on the stairs of a kiosk with a bottle — or even a can — of beer is not seen as anything graceless. On the contrary, it’s down-to-earth, fun and affordable, whether you’re in the mood for an alcoholic drink, a soda, a late-night snack or just a chat with an old friend.
It’s a lifesaver
The term and the architectural concept of the pavilion have been around since the 13th century, as kiosks were common in Persia, the Indian subcontinent and the Ottoman Empire.
But in Germany, it was only in the second half of the 20th century that late-night convenience shops were created in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), allowing workers coming home from their late shifts to grab a bite or a drink.
Known as the “Spätkauf,” or shortened to “Späti,” the name directly translates as “late purchase.” The shops were a lifesaver for many in former East Germany.
The concept of the late-night shop was later adopted in the rest of Germany, especially following the reunification of the country 30 years ago. However, outside of the former GDR, such shops are rather known as a “Kiosk,” “Trinkhalle” or “Büdchen.”
To this day, Spätis sell mostly alcohol and tobacco, but some of them also offer proper groceries like bread, milk and vegetables.
If you’ve ever spent time in Germany, you may have noticed that not only are supermarkets closed on Sundays, but in many smaller towns, grocery stores can close as early as 5 p.m. even on weekdays.
This makes the kiosk one of the only options available for people to get everyday items — not only on weekends and holidays, but sometimes even during what would elsewhere be normal business hours.
It has a cult aura
Even though the popularity of the kiosk is not equal in all parts of Germany, one aspect that has contributed to establishing their cult status is that they often have small benches and tables for their clients, allowing people to meet in front of the business.
In some cases, owners have even added small dance floors or host drinking festivals and concerts.
In my current city of Cologne, one kiosk was about to shut down due to financial difficulties, but the residents of the neighborhood loved it so much that they started a GoFundMe campaign to keep their beloved kiosk alive — and succeeded.
In many cases, it seems, Germans have turned the kiosk into the main attraction of the evening, rather than something to do along the way. Which is exactly why, if you’re ever planning to spend time here, you might want to consider giving the kiosk a chance.
You would surely save a few cents, but beyond that, who knows, maybe you’ll find your next best German friend on a kiosk bench somewhere.