Beer Awesomeness in 1908

MEET THE OLD BOSS, SAME AS THE NEW BOSS

A diamond of an old menu appears here from the classic German-American restaurant, Janssen Hofbrau Haus.* Operated in New York from 1898 to some time in the 1960s, it was founded by August Janssen, a real estate mogul and restaurateur (1867-1939). The house slogan was “Janssen Wants To See You!”, a double-entendre for his many employees.

New York once had a tradition of German eating, a heritage of the substantial influx of German-speakers that began in the mid-1800s. Famously they concentrated in the Yorkville area on the Upper East Side. A classic product of German Yorkville was Lou Gehrig, for example.  Donald Trump’s paternal line descends from New York-area German incomers of the 1800s. For that matter Jacob Astor was a German immigrant, albeit of an earlier generation.

A significant sub-set of this German crowd was Jews, the upper crust memorably portrayed by Stephen Birmingham in his social history, Our Crowd.

The menu of Janssen’s Hofbrau covered many bases in German and some American eating but primarily rendered the metropolitan and hotel cuisine of contemporary Germany and Austro-Hungary.  Whether hot dishes or cold, fish-based or game, eggs, delicatessen, grills, there was an enormous choice. Only the famed Luchow’s had a comparable range of menu items.

With the onset of WW I the Hofbrau Haus remained open despite sentiment that ran high against German-Americans following the Belgian invasion and the Lusitania disaster.  Overt displays of the German ethos were held to a minimum in New York to avoid the charge of siding with”Kaiser Bill”, but Hofbrau Haus never closed.

Its high-end, international reputation helped it survive the period of anti-German sentiment. The same thing occurred during the next war. By then the restaurant had relocated to Lexington and 44th street in the still-standing Greybar Building.

(It is possible Hofbrau Haus had some connection to the famed German beer hall of this name, however I’ve not been able to substantiate one).

Even in 2015 New York hasn’t quite forgotten its German history. There are German restaurants and pubs scattered in Manhattan – one or two still in Yorkville – and beyond, notably in Staten Island, Queens, and New Jersey. A Goethe Institute does its good work in Manhattan albeit at Irving Place, far south of Yorkville.

The original Munich Hofbrauhaus now has a small outpost mid-town, as does Paulaner which brews onsite in a restaurant in the Bowery. Still, it is probably a safe bet that no German restaurant in New York today, and probably few outside Germany anywhere, can equal the breadth of Janssen’s menu.

The menu is distinguished by a carefully-wrought Germanic design theme and features scenes from the Teutonic decor of Janssen Hofbrau Haus. The restaurant’s artistic and cultural goals are well expressed in Baroque narrative in the handsome and ornate menu.

The authenticity extended to the small but well-curated and explicated beer list, set out on page 9. The best saved for last, we might say.

There were four beers described by name, all imports from Germanic territories, all draft, and amazingly, each from a brewery still in operation. As the menu explains, the restaurant took significant pains to ensure a quality “seidel”, noting that 36 barrels were kept in constant operation with temperature carefully controlled.

How beer was shipped then from Central Europe to America is not something easily fathomed but I’d guess the trip took a lot longer than now. These draft beers surely were not pasteurized, so how they arrived in a drinkable, let alone ideal, state is hard to understand.

The boss beer bar of pre-WW I may have arranged a way still to ensure a top glass every time. Its critical clientele would have expected no less. In any case, the beer list clearly was of repute.

Domestic beers were available too at Hofbrau Haus but not dignified by name  – presumably these local productions were not felt worthy to bracket with great Central European originals. One wonders if cultural pride and the lure of the import made people drink long-travelled beer that was actually inferior to the best New York brewing kettles. We will never know, but in a good-size city one can do the test today and decide for oneself.

Each of the four beers was accompanied by a taste note which, if one ignores the puffery on health and doctors’ opinions, wouldn’t be out of place on BeerAdvocate or a current beer blog.

Beer is the description of each, shorn of the puffery:

Burger Brau Pilsener [this is the same beer as Pilsner Urquell from the Czech Republic]

Light, bitter, slightly veiled. This is the lightest [meaning in colour] of all beers and contains the smallest amount of alcohol [4.4% ABV then and now, not so shabby actually].

Münchner Hofbrau [this is the modern Dunkel, or dark lager of Hofbrauhaus in Munich].

Dark, sweet, creamy. The finest brew in the world.

Nurnberger Tucher Brau

The burgundy of all beers; very dark, creamy and full of character.

Wurzburger Burger Brau

A little lighter in the color than the Munchner,not quite so sweet, and therefore a good medium between Pilsner and Munchner.

It’s easy to check reviews of these beers on a modern rating service. For the last two breweries, beers differently named correspond closely to colour and taste on the Janssen’s menu. Pilsner Urquell is not “veiled” (lightly cloudy) as available anywhere today unless you get a Keller version in the Pilsen cellars, so the beer sent to New York in the early 1900s sounds pretty authentic.

Let’s raise a New York cheer – not a Bronx cheer, a real one – for what was an important beer and dining haunt in the Gilded Age and long after. And it’s more proof that great beer was always taken seriously by some people in some places – it was always part of gastronomy, a conclusion reinforced for us recently with the success of our Waldorf Hotel 1944 Beer Tasting Recreation held recently at Dora Keogh Irish Pub in Toronto.

*Note added August 21, 2015: Please see the comments below of noted ephemera and menu-collector Henry Voigt who states that the menu in fact dates from 1934, despite bearing a copyright notice of 1908. On page 7 of the menu we read “Ten years ago…the doors of the Hofbrau Haus were first opened to the public”. As it opened in 1898, this, plus the curator’s notice Henry Voigt referred to, convinced me initially this menu is a 1908 original but in fact it appears not the case. Many thanks to Henry Voigt for his sleuthing. Clearly one way or another, these fine beers were long available at Janssen’s, probably from near to inception and into the 1930’s at least.

3 thoughts on “Beer Awesomeness in 1908

  1. Here is an actual, 1913 menu of Hofbrau Haus on Broadway and 30th St. in New York City: http://menus.nypl.org/menu_pages/76429b One sees in the bottom right-hand corner the same four beers as on the 1934 menu, so that much is clear. Whether they tasted as indicated on the 1934 menu is less certain, although I think they probably did, especially if the taste notes in the 1934 document were taken from a 1908 menu or thereabouts.

    Henry Voigt’s expertise in matters of historical menus is vast. His highly informative and beautifully designed website, see http://www.theamericanmenu.com, is a must for the absorbing social and cultural history they reveal. I have been a follower of his site for years now.

    Gary

  2. Terrific post Gary. I am delighted to learn about some of the beers on this menu.

    Curators invariably catalog this menu as 1908 because it has a “copyright” on the title page. It actually dates to about 1934. When I first came across this menu, I knew it came from a later period because the cover shows only one location in New York City—there were two locations in Manhattan in 1908. In addition, the menu pops up too frequently in the ephemera market to be from the earlier period. Still, I had no idea what the correct date might be until I found a copy with “Jan. 4, 1934” written in pencil on one of the blank pages.

    Ironically, the incorrect copyright helped me pinpoint the age of an undated menu from the Hofbräu Haus which actually comes from the 1905-10 period. Interestingly, the older menu features a different design. It is a little smaller and the delicately-rendered illustrations are more charming. The older menu also displays the German Imperial Eagle that was in use until 1918. And so it appears that the design of the 1934 menu was simply inspired by the earlier version; the design was not really copyrighted.

    It should be noted that the incorrect copyright date was not meant to fool anyone. Customers would have automatically known the year in which they were dining. It was simply a nostalgic reference point to a previous, more joyful era before Prohibition. In other words, these menus were saved as post-Repeal souvenirs.

    American menus from 1934 are not always this difficult to date. Beginning in July 1933, companies that accepted the Re-employment Agreement of the New Deal were permitted to use the thunderbird emblem of the National Recovery Administration (NRA). Many restaurants displayed this emblem on their menus until September 1935, when the program was abolished. If the Hofbräu Haus had used the NRA symbol, instead of a bogus copyright, their menus from this period would be much easier to date. The fact that August Janssen didn’t use the symbol may tell us something about his political leanings.

    • Henry, that’s wonderful, thanks so much for this. I did have a nagging doubt only in the sense that the design of the building on the menu’s front page and I think the back one, is somewhat different from the 1914 archival photograph, it looks like the stepped pitched roof (not sure of the right terms here) was modified and the entrance extended somewhat onto the sidewalk. I assumed the renovation was done between 1908 and 1914 but now I see it is the other way around, the stepped roof was the older and clearly changed by 1934! So my ruminations about WW I etc. are not relevant to the narrative but still perhaps useful as general social history. We must lop off 25 years or so from the antiquity of the beer notes in the menu but they are still of absorbing interest! Thanks again.

      Gary

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