MEET THE OLD BOSS, SAME AS THE NEW BOSS
A diamond of an old menu appears here, from the classic German-American restaurant, the Janssen Hofbrau Haus. It operated in New York City from 1898 to some time in the 1960’s. It was founded by August Janssen, a real estate mogul and restaurateur (1867-1939). The house slogan was, “Janssen Wants To See You!”.
New York once had a tradition of German-style eating, a heritage of the substantial influx of German speakers which began in the mid-1800’s. Famously, they concentrated in Yorkville 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 1800’s. For that matter, Jacob Astor was a German immigrant albeit of an earlier generation. A significant sub-set of German New York was the German Jews, memorably portrayed in Stephen Birmingham’s Our Crowd. The menu of the Hofbrau seems to have covered many bases in Germanic, and also some American foods, but primarily from my reading rendered the metropolitan and hotel cuisine of contemporary Germany and Austro-Hungary. Whether hot dishes, cold, fish-based, game-based, eggs, delicatessen, grills, it had it all. Only the famed Luchow’s had a comparable range of offerings, in my view.
With the onset of WW I, the Hofbrau Haus continued despite the sentiment which ran high against German-Americans in the wake of the Belgian invasion and the Lusitania disaster. Overt displays of the German ethos, even culinary, were held to a minimum to avoid the charge of siding with”Kaiser Bill”, yet Hofbrau Haus’ high-end, international reputation helped it survive a period of anti-German sentiment. The same occurred during the next war although by then the restaurant had relocated to Lexington and 44th street, in the still-extant Greybar Building. (It is possible Hofbrau Haus had some connection to the famed German beer hall of similar name, however I’ve not been able to substantiate this).
Even today in 2015, New York hasn’t quite forgotten its German side. There are German restaurants and pubs scattered in Manhattan – one or two still in Yorkville – and beyond (Staten Island, Queens). A Goethe Institute does its good work albeit at Irving Place, far south of Yorkville. The Munich Hofbrauhaus mentioned has a small outpost mid-town, and Paulaner does too – brewing onsite in a mini-plant – in the Bowery. Still, it is probably a safe bet that no German restaurant in New York today, and probably few anywhere at least outside Germany, can equal the breadth of the menu and the consciously imparted ethnicity of design and decor featured by the Janssen Hofbrau Haus. The artistic and cultural goals of the owner are expressed well in inimitably baroque language in the handsome, beautifully designed menu-book linked above.
The care of the house extended to its small but carefully chosen and explicated beer list. It’s contained in page 9 of the menu – the best saved for last? Today we would say it is a short but well-curated list. And so, what of these beers of long ago, always the prime interest, subject to necessary and other digressions, of beeretseq central?
There were four described by name, all imports from Germanic lands or places of Germanic influence, 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 something not easily answered, but I’d guess the trip took a lot longer than now. I’d think these beers were not pasteurized, so how they arrived in a drinkable, let alone ideal, state is hard to fathom. The boss beer bar of 1908 may have had a way to ensure a top glass every time though. Its critical clientele would have expected no less. Domestic beers were available too at Hofbrau Haus, but not dignified by name – presumably these were local productions, 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-traveled beer that was actually inferior to the best that New York brewing kettles could offer: we shall never know, but in a good size city one can do this test today and decide for oneself.
Each of the four named beers received a taste note which, if one ignores the puffery about health and doctors’ testimonials, wouldn’t be out of place on BeerAdvocate or any 2015 beer blog. And this is almost 110 years later. Here is the description of each, shorn of the puffery mentioned (to see the full original text, consult again page 9 and magnify as needed):
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.
Check out these beers on a modern rating service. For the last two beers, find one in the brewery’s range corresponding most closely to the colour and taste mentioned for 1908. The modern equivalents are pretty much, well, “the same as it ever was” as David Byrne, another New Yorker, sang. Probably more Scots than German is Mr. Byrne, but we’ll forgive him that. Pilsner Urquell is not “veiled” (lightly cloudy) as imported to North America today but some Urquell specially available in the Czech Republic is exactly that including some beer served to tourists in the deep cellars carved from the soft stone under the Urquell brewery in Pilsen. That’s what I call consistency.
Let’s raise a New York cheer – not a Bronx cheer, a real one – for what was a key beer and dining haunt of New York’s Gilded Age. And it’s more proof that beer was always taken seriously by some people in some places – always part of gastronomy, a datum that gained renewed currency recently with the success of the 1944 Historic Waldorf Beer Tasting Recreation held at Dora Keogh Irish Pub in Toronto. There’s an Irish factor, well, in matters of fine beer it will come up, just as Germany, or the United Kingdom, comes up (other places too now courtesy the beer renaissance). And so it should be in the expansive, generous and interconnected world that is beer.
But this discussion is kaput as all hurrahs of the bibulous are followed by a draught of the best, of which mine is next to the Mac and not getting any colder. Or shall I speak for myself?
*Note added August 21, 2015: The reader is referred to the comment of Henry Voigt published below that the menu referenced in this article in fact dates from 1934, despite bearing a copyright notice of 1908. On page 7 of the menu, there is the statement, “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 information Henry referred to, convinced me the menu is a 1908 original but in fact this appears not the case. Thanks again to Henry Voigt for his sleuthing on this point.