Saturday, May 29, 2010

Munich on the Monongahela

There is a new Hofbräuhaus in Pittsburgh upholding traditional standards of German food and drink

By Uwe Siemon-Netto

Authentic German restaurants have become rare in the United States. But our correspondent has found one such place in Pittsburgh. It is huge. It is brand new. It has taken the place of a steel mill. It’s a Hofbräuhaus.

When John F. Kennedy tried to smuggle a beer mug out of the Hofbräuhaus in Munich in 1937, he wouldn’t have imagined that more than seven decades later, delightful coeds from Pittsburgh’s huge student population would lug such vessels past the swaying and singing crowds of revelers in a Hofbräuhaus on the banks of the Monongahela River.

Kennedy’s attempt to be light-fingered under the stern glare of sturdy Bavarian waitresses was of course foolhardy. Who in his right mind would want to mess with muscular ladies carrying eight beer-filled mugs, each measuring 2.259 pints?

In Pittsburgh, the smiling and youthful servers are less daunting. I did not see one with more than four steins in her two hands, but, though lacking biceps, they were watchful, which is a good thing if you are a thirsty man. But try to do a “Kennedy” on the Monongahela, and you’ll probably be asked at the exit whether you would like to buy the thing or leave it behind to be rinsed.

My friend, Rev. Eric Andrae, a Lutheran campus pastor, suggested this place for a tipple. To look a little less conspicuous, he took off his clerical collar, called “Friar Tuck” in ecclesial circles, as he guided me down to the beer garden where we had soft-dough pretzels and a liter of brew while watching the traffic on the Monongahela, which west of Pittsburgh merges with the Allegheny into the Ohio River.

This scene seemed unreal because it was so unexpected. When I visited Pittsburgh for the first time more than 40 years ago, this city was just about the sootiest place in America; on the spot where the Hofbräuhaus now quenches thirst of nurses and doctors from neighboring hospitals, of business executives, scholars and undergraduates, stood the Jones and Laughlin Steel Mill, belching its fumes into the Western Pennsylvanian skies.

Steel was Pittsburgh’s business. The name of Pittsburgh’s football club, The Steelers, attests to this historical fact. The Steelers are still there and faithful patrons of the Hofbräuhaus, according to Nick Ellison. The Cincinnati entrepreneur along with two partners spent $8 million to build this enormous pub whose beer is brewed and whose food is prepared under the strict supervision of the 400-year-old Munich Hofbräuhaus.

Now that the steel mills are gone, Pittsburgh ranks among the 10 US municipalities with the least polluted air and for a second time has been voted America’s most livable city. Now electronics and education are among its most significant industries, with 145,000 students enrolled in 33 colleges and universities in the greater Pittsburgh area. Today, it is also home to a host of American subsidiaries of German corporations with sterling names such as Bayer and Bosch, DHL and Siemens.

In short, Pittsburgh is a good place to have a Hofbräuhaus.

There are other “Hofbräuhäuser” in the United States, of course. One is just downriver on the banks of the Ohio in Newport, Kentucky, outside Cincinnati. It too belongs to Ellison and his friends, and it has the same brew master as its namesake in Pittsburgh. His name is Eckhard Kurbjuhn and he is a silent partner of BrauKon GmbH, a Bavarian company that had built the brewing plants of both establishments.

“Our guests love him, he is a lot of fun,” said Ellison of Kurbjuhn who had previously worked in Japan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Nigeria and who in the past 12 months has produced 160,000 gallons of beer in Pittsburgh alone – strictly according to the recipes of the Munich “mother house,” and according to the 1516 Bavaria purity law that only permit water, hops and barley in the beer production.

Kurbjuhn sends samples of his brew to Munich in regular intervals, and the state-owned Bavarian “mother house” dispatches inspectors to Pittsburgh four times a year to make sure that its beer and dishes are up to its standards. Unless a beer aficionado’s palate is sophisticated enough to taste the difference between the waters used in the two Hofbräuhaus products, he would not be able to tell which comes from where.

This is actually a superfluous observation because you cannot buy fresh foreign beers anywhere in America where all imported brews must be pasteurized, which renders them less pleasant to German tipplers. But this makes a visit to Pittsburgh all the more exciting: No Pasteur on the Monongahela!

My friend the pastor and I finished our first mug and a basketful of pretzels that had been imported, frozen, from Germany. It was getting chilly in the beer garden, so we went up to the heated terrace where Katrina, a comely waitress of Italian descent served us what might be called a German-American combo. The German part was the sauerkraut; it was imported ready to serve from Bavaria. The American contribution was a pair of sausages from Cincinnati; they were slightly less spicy than their German counterparts. “But then,” said Kurbjuhn, “some concessions must be made to American tastes.”

Katrina, an undergraduate, was quite typical of the young people in Pittsburgh, a handsome and spirited blend of ethnicities from all over Europe – children and grandchildren of Poles and Lithuanians, Germans and Hungarians, Slovaks and assorted Mediterranean types. Here in the 1,200-seat Hofbräuhaus, they combined into a joyful lot.

As the evening progressed, they climbed onto the wooden benches of the main beer hall, inviting my pastor friend and me to join them swinging beer mugs, swaying and singing, “In München steht ein Hofbräuhaus, eins, zwei g’suffa,” the theme song of the Bavarian establishment composed in 1939 by Wiga Gabriel, a Berliner, God forbid!

You have to know the patriotic Bavarians to realize how extraordinary this is; they don’t like the Prussians, or so they say, and in Bavarian eyes, any German from north of their state border is a Prussian. But then, they have either overlooked or forgotten that their celebrated Hofbräuhaus has deep non-Bavarian roots. To be sure, its founder, Duke William V, was a Bavarian. But he imported a North German to start his brew house because he considered the locally made tipple too foul.

And now, the Hofbräuhaus brew master of Pittsburgh and Newport, Kentucky, Kurbjuhn, is also a native of Germany’s north but we won’t tell the Bavarians that, especially as Kurbjuhn had learned his craft in their state; so no bias should be encouraged.

Given that from the Bavarian perspective, “south” is good and “north” not so good, there is good news for Bavarians from Pittsburgh. The Hofbräuhaus is located on the city’s South Side, which in the days of the steel mills was its grimiest part and is now its liveliest and most attractive section. Where does Pittsburgh’s society play these days? No longer on the once-elegant North Side but south of the river. Where did Mayor Luke Ravenstahl celebrate his reelection recently? On the South Side, at the Hofbräuhaus.

Cheers! I have not been to the Hofbräuhaus in Munich for decades but it was good to have a Lutheran pastor drag me into its namesake on the banks of the Monongahela River. I am not an Oktoberfest habitué. But on that Saturday evening, not entirely sober, I found it difficult to refute Kurbjuhn’s slogan: “In Pittsburgh, every day is Oktoberfest.”

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