“Where the Wurzburger Flows…”

 

The title is a reference to a hit song of 1902, composed by Americans Harry von Tilzer and Vincent Bryan, that lauded an admired German beer at Luchow’s, Wurzburger. The beer was from Wuerzburger Hofbraeu, still going strong in Bavaria.

The beer had cult status in America for some 100 years from the 1880s. It can still be found (numerous brands), e.g. at the national chain outlet Total Wine.

There are notable passages on beer in Leonard Jan Mitchell’s Luchow’s German Cookbook, published in 1952. These have historical importance and have not previously been remarked by beer historians, to my knowledge.

The book is sub-titled The Story and Favorite Dishes of America’s Most Famous German Restaurant.

First, a summary of my reading of Luchow’s history in New York. The subject is surprisingly large and would warrant a full-length essay, at least.

The sources include 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 statement: Luchow’s is a “citadel of pilsner”). Also reviewed were various websites, blogs, and newspaper and magazine articles.

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.

Mitchell’s volume benefitted from a witty introduction by the Belgian-Austrian-American writer Ludwig Bemelmans, who possibly ghost-wrote the book.

My interpretation of a number of statements in the introduction:

  • 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 is from the menu collection of the Culinary Institute of America, here. 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.

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*For further context regarding North German Lloyd see here, as well as 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.