The title is a reference to a hit song composed in 1902 by the Americans Harry von Tilzer and Vincent Bryan that lauded a much-admired German beer of Luchow’s, Wurzburger. The beer is from a brewery, called Wuerzburger Hofbraeu, still going strong in northern Bavaria.
The beer had a cult status in America from the 1880s until the 1980s and can still be found (numerous brands), for example at the national retailer Total Wine.
There are two ways I can do what follows, one long, one short, and I elect the latter. I reproduce below notable passages on beer in Leonard Jan Mitchell’s Luchow’s German Cookbook, published in 1952. They have historical importance and have not received attention from other beer historians, to my knowledge.
The book is sub-titled: The Story and Favorite Dishes of America’s Most Famous German Restaurant.
In the short method, I’ll state first some detail, with minimal references, gleaned from weeks of reading Luchow’s history in New York. The subject is surprisingly vast and would warrant a full-length essay if not scholarly article.
The sources are digitized Luchow menus, Mitchell’s book, books on the history of New York cuisine, books by H.L. Mencken on literary personages and beer (sample: Luchow’s is a “citadel of pilsner”). Also, websites, blogs, newspaper and magazine articles, and yet more.
Luchow’s was started in 1882 by a German only lately arrived from Hanover, August Luchöw. (Henceforth I’ll omit the umlaut, which has a mini-history of its own in relation to Luchow signage and advertising).
It was founded on the site of a saloon on East 14th Street in the Union Square district in New York, then a happening area gathering theatre, business, and nightlife activities.
August had worked there for two years as a waiter, and then set up his German-theme restaurant. He had the help of a $2000 stake from William Steinway, the piano magnate and fellow German-American.
August did this by buying the saloon and steadily enlarging the restaurant through land acquisition until it occupied a full block to 13th street. It encompassed various “hunting” and other rooms in the baronial German style in addition to the main dining hall. It was known for dark wood panelling, carved beams, giant paintings, statuary, and cut glass. A wag once termed the general style “Early North German Lloyd”.*
The restaurant lasted at the same location a full 100 years. It moved to new premises on Broadway in 1982 but expired a couple of year later with a satellite in Penn Station going dark in 1986. From 1950 Luchow’s had been owned by Mitchell who bought control from August’s nephew, Viktor Eckstein.
Mitchell, who must have changed his name in the fashion of countless American immigrants, was a debonair blond Latvian or Swede (accounts vary) who arrived in the country by jumping a ship of the Russian merchant marine in 1932.
In his book he suggests had he not come to America he’d have settled as a country squire at home. I believe this an arch or humorous statement as he was a Jewish immigrant and like millions of incomers, likely came without much personal resource except abundant drive and ambition.
He became prosperous through investments in the restaurant business and also by collecting pre-Columbian gold, a collection he donated to a New York museum which you can see today.
Mitchell’s goal was to revive Luchow to its pre-Prohibition eminence and he did this successfully for decades until the bell finally tolled. He had his work cut out for him since Prohibition and WW II had diminished the venerable establishment.
After WW II the menu was considerably slimmed, the beer choice too, from the prewar glory. In 1936 for example no less than 15 draught beers were available, see details here in a menu in the collection of the Culinary Institute of America. Numerous bottled beers were offered, in addition.
Only Janssen’s in New York had anything comparable, as I discussed earlier here. Still, its draught range, certainly carefully selected, was rather smaller than Luchow’s in its prime.
Still, Luchow’s enjoyed new-found popularity from the 1950s until it finally lapsed in 1986.
Quite amazingly, Leonard Jan Mitchell lived until 2009, dying at 96. It is truly a pity no one interviewed him on Luchow’s and its beers in his last years. He passed away just before the onset in America of widespread interest in culinary and beverage matters. One wishes that a gastronomic researcher such as Anthony Bourdain had sat down with him for an extended chat.
Luchow’s was American agent for Wurzburger from the 1880s until well into the 20th century. It also represented Pilsner Urquell, two valuable franchises for the top end of beer imports.
As Mitchell lived well into the era when beer again became a gourmet item in New York one can only ponder how he viewed its revival. Had he been in his prime in 2009 I’m sure he’d have wanted to start again in the beer and restaurant trade. As it was, he sold out in 1970 to focus on other endeavours, and the restaurant faltered thereafter.
Earlier I described the wide-ranging 1930s beer offerings of the Waldorf-Astoria bar in New York. Luchow’s offerings, especially in the 1930s, amounted to almost as many beers but focused more squarely on the European lager tradition, not least via its palette of draught beers.
Wurzburger in multiple types was the star, a light or Helles, an Edelbrau (perhaps a Dortmund or Export variation), a dark Munich, and sometimes a bock or other seasonal specialty.
Now from Mitchell’s volume, which benefitted from a witty introduction by the Belgo-Austrian-American writer Ludwig Bemelmans, who possibly ghost-wrote the book:
Down Where the Wurzburger Flows When August Luchow and his friends first sniffed the fine Bavarian fragrance of Wurzburger Hofbrau and tasted its benign liquid blessing, they were overjoyed for differ- ent reasons. To August the beer was a happy reminder of home, and to those who had never been fortunate enough to sample such a brew, the gates to a new gastronomic heaven were thrown open and they hearkened to the singing of hitherto unheard choirs. Loud were the cries of anguish when they were cast out of this paradise by the advent of the first World War. The long dry reign of Prohibition following immediately after added to their parched misery. Then, scarcely had imported beer started flow- ing once more in the thirties when war ended the supply again, and it was not until 1950 that Wurzburger was at last obtainable. Meanwhile a whole thirsty generation has slipped by and a new one, unused to the delights of Wurzburger, awaits education. For the uninitiated, then, this celebrated nectar comes from Upper Bavaria. It is amber in color (between light and dark), and its special distinction is its status as the original March beer. When a shipment arrives, the beer has to rest from its journey for at least three days in the cooler before it can be served. Wurzburger is the glory of Luchow's beverage list, but the restaurant also offers seven different kinds of draught beer and fifteen domestic and imported bottled beers. Every week Luchow's uses about one hundred barrels of draught beer, which is maintained at a cellar temperature of forty degrees. If a guest wants colder beer, a glass, mug, goblet, stein, or seidel is chilled for him. Imported beer is usually served in big half-liter (pint) stone mugs with covers. It is not at all uncommon for the older customers to ask for warm beer, and in other days the restaurant had beer warmers nickel pipes filled with hot water in the bar [sic]. Now the task must be done by more modern methods. On its way from barrel to consumer, beer can find its way into considerable trouble, a thought which seldom occurs to the drinker who watches the brew foaming effortlessly from the tap. Clean pipes are essential, for instance, and some time ago we had the old coil system taken out because it was so difficult to clean the coils, and the modern Zahn system was substituted. Because different pressures are needed for every type of beer, each draught type has to have its own set of pipes. An old bartender's axiom reads, "The older the beer, the greater the froth," a pri- mary factor in determining the correct amount of pressure for the pipes. Our pressures vary from sixteen to eighteen pounds, A housewife who is particular about her cleaning would be well pleased with the way we clean our beer pipes. Water is run through them until it is clear, and this is followed by a cleaning solution made especially for us, which remains in the pipes for an hour, after which the water is resumed until it becomes clear once more. As a final touch, the pipes are blown out with fifty pounds of pressure. The tanks are cleaned by hand, which experience has shown is the most effective method. We test the success of the entire procedure by not drawing beer for three days, then drawing a test beer, which always turns out to be perfect. In less effective systems, the beer will not stand more than twenty-four hours without becoming dark and cloudy. Besides the Wurzburger, another beer specialty on the Luchow list is October beer, so called because that is the autum- nal moment when it is first drawn in Germany. October beer was also a victim of war and Prohibition, and like Wurzburg, it returned to these shores in 1950, where patrons first tasted its strong, tangy flavor at the Venison Festival in November of that year. About Christmas time the brewers are busy preparing another delight for us, the heavy, dark Christmas Bock, which is poured out of the vats where it has been aging for eight months into barrels which are shipped to us. At Luchow's beer enjoys a festival all its own on the calendar of special events, when the first days of March come around and the Bock Beer Festival is celebrated. That, too, was resumed in 1950 after fifteen years, and the enthusiasm for it was uncon- fined. While the amber herald of spring flowed unceasingly for three evenings, a ten-piece German band played the old songs, just as it did in August Luchow's time. As a fitting accompaniment for the revelry, we served the menu that traditionally goes with bock beer, which is bockwurst, liver dumplings Bavarian style, a Schwabenplatte consisting of liver sausage, roast ham, and pigs' knuckles, and pheasant on wine kraut. It was a year of festivals, revivals of the great feasts which made Luchow's famous, and part of my program to restore the flavor of the old days. There is a Venison Festival in Novem- ber and a Goose Feast in December, with the superb wines these meats demand brought up from our cellars. The Goose Feast is enough to start the tears from a grateful gourmet's eyes. It begins with a choice of Luchow appetizers, including marinated herring; soup made of goose giblets and a barley called Giblet Ecossaisse, and consomme with dumplings; then as a prelude to the main theme, goose ragout and potato dumplings, and at last the roast goose itself, served with stewed apples and cranberries.
Parsing a number of statements, here is my interpretation:
- the reference to March beer may refer to the colour of the standard Wurzburger then, apparently a Vienna-like bronze. Wurzburger is a classic Franconian brewery and would seem inapt for influence from the Viennese brewer Anton Dreher, so perhaps March beer simply meant here long-aged lager. American breweries had cut down lagering times significantly but Wurzburger in 1950 likely aged its standard brew three or four months and the specialties (see below) longer
- the “resting” of the beer in cooler after shipment was probably to allow re-absorbtion of carbonation. There is no indication if this beer was pasteurized or treated with preservative of some kind, or how long the journey took from a newly-peacetime Germany
- the beer-warmers mentioned can still be seen in parts of Germany, e.g., for wheat beer
- the “Zahn” draft system mentioned probably is technology of Zahm & Nagel, a brewing equipment supplier based in Buffalo, NY founded by a German immigrant who had brewed in Germany. He designed volume meters and other carbonation and piping equipment whose basic designs are still used by the firm today (see website referenced).
- The October and Christmas beers were probably heavier-gravity versions of the basic lager that received longer aging
- Beer kept long in barrel would in the old days sometimes have been extra-fizzy from continued fermentation in the cask, often probably by wild yeast or Brettanomyces. This is lore deriving from pre-Prohibition times
- The consumption, at some 100 barrels per week, is impressive but was far greater in the heyday of Luchow’s, when the house got through scores of thousands of half-barrels per annum
- The reference to different gas pressures for each beer is of particular interest. The range specified is quite high by modern standards, I’d say 10-12 psi is more typical. Two reasons may explain Luchow’s practice: first, if the lines were unusually long between casks and fonts, more pressure may have been needed to speed the beer to destination. Alternatively, if the lines were a standard length in relation to the pressure, Luchow’s may have liked a high froth as in some German traditions beer is served with a thick head
- would that I could have attended their 1950s Bock Beer Festival! What I wouldn’t give for that. A gala of Gambrinus, gammon and gans that must have been…
- to my best recollection, none of the beers on any Luchow menu or menus of other German-American restaurants from c.1900-1970s was a wheat beer. The reason I think is, the relative lack of popularity of these beers in contemporary Bavaria. The style only really resurged from the 1970s as many commentators have stated. One can see this refracted through the contents of otherwise well-curated German beer lists in America
N.B. The edifice that housed the restaurant on 14th Street no longer exists. The building, derelict by the late 1980s, was torn down to build a residence and related functions for NYU or New York University.
Note re images and quotation: the first and second images are courtesy the historic photo and menu collection of the New York Public Library, www.nypl.org. The third image was sourced from the digitized newspaper site Chronicling America, here. The fourth image is from the menu collection of the Culinary Institute of America, here. The extract from Leonard Jan Mitchell’s book is from the online version of his book linked in the text. The last image is from the website of Wuerzburger Hofbraeu, also linked in the text. All intellectual property in the sources belongs solely to the lawful owners, as applicable. Images and quotation are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcome.
*For further context regarding North German Lloyd see here, and this 1982 article by Frank Prial in the New York Times. The wag was journalist and author Bob Considine, famous for his co-authored Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.