Sunday, July 29, 2007

Get thee to the Hofbrauhaus Newport. Seriously.

Few institutions in the world of beer and brewing are as revered as Munich’s Hofbrauhaus.

Few are as misunderstood.

People the world over tend to confuse regional Bavarian culture with that of Germany as a whole, something that never fails to elicit sighs from residents of Bremen, Idar-Oberstein and Hannover. In like fashion, the Hofbrauhaus is erroneously viewed as the exact model of how German beer is made, served and celebrated, but in fact it is uncommon to see such a large-scale beer and food service entity outside of Munich itself, even in the remainder of Bavaria.

Other than a shared fondness for pilsner-style lagers, which is a relatively recent historical development, beer and beer culture vary widely throughout Germany. Munich has no smoked beer; Bamberg does. Cologne and Dusseldorf brew Kolsch and Alt, respectively, and both are top-fermenting, but neither city has a tradition of wheat ales, which are a Bavarian innovation … except for Berliner-style wheat ales, which are something entirely different and come from much further north.

To be sure, Bavaria’s self-promotional savvy conjures imagery of Lederhosen, Bratwurst and “Ein Prosit!”, and as such, it is perhaps appropriate that a pilgrimage to the Hofbrauhaus at its Platzl address has been de rigueur for tourists in Munich ever since the current building was constructed in 1897. Be as curmudgeonly as you please, and yet no one seriously doubts that a visit to the Hofbrauhaus is fun, memorable and infinitely capable of being photographed.

Paris feasts may be moveable, but Hofbrauhaus stories are expandable. Typically soft, clean Bavarian lagers are served in oversized liter mugs, pork in all its conceivable bodily incarnations is expertly prepared, a vast and sprawling acreage of diners and drinkers clink noisy toasts and sing along as they are regaled by tuneful brass bands, and restrooms the size of Rhode Island are patronized constantly and tended by grimly serious cleaning personnel.

While the Hofbrauhaus well represents Bavarian beer, cuisine and communal traditions at an almost lunatic, exaggerated extreme, experiencing these wonders would be nowhere as delightful if their intrinsic worthiness were not so transparently obvious to beginners and veterans alike.

But can that worthiness be transplanted to foreign climes?

In 1999, and with much fanfare, the Hofbrauhaus was cloned and a second location opened in … yes, Dubai, of all places. This was followed by a third site in Newport, Kentucky (across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio) in 2003, and then another in Las Vegas. A fifth Hofbrauhaus is slated to open in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the fall of 2007. More are sure to follow.

I had not had the chance to visit the Hofbrauhaus Newport until last Saturday afternoon, when it was crammed to the rafters with locals and tourists devoting a gorgeous day to enjoying resurgent Newport’s aquarium and surrounding shops and eateries, or, like my party, preparing to walk across the nearby pedestrian and bicycle bridge to watch the Reds play at Great American Ball Park in downtown Cincinnati.

Hofbrauhaus Newport’s web site takes a reasonable approach to expectations in spite of muddling the Bavarian with the German:

The first authentic Hofbräuhaus in America is here. Guests are now able to enjoy many of the traditions from Germany that have made Hofbräuhaus famous.

So it was for us, and we enjoyed the ongoing translation of these venerable traditions into something comprehensible for the masses, and that for the most part has not lost its potency and relevance during the course of the conversion. As one who has been to the Hofbrauhaus Munich and numerous establishments throughout greater Bavaria many times since 1985, the ultimate compliment that I can pay the Hofbrauhaus Newport is that during much of my time there, while devouring a workmanlike facsimile of Leberkase and several (small for varied sampling) mugs of tasty Bavarian style Helles, Dunkles and Export, it was indeed possible to drift off into an incredibly relaxed continental reverie – and accordingly, almost impossible to resist hopping a cab to the nearby Northern Kentucky airport for an immediate flight to the original Munich address to sate the voracious desires thus released.

So, just remember: You’ll enjoy “many” of the traditions, and “much” of it will be authentic, at the Hofbrauhaus Newport, but an exact match it is not (and to its credit, does not claim to be).

Brewing is licensed and supervised by German brewers, and it shows, although the presence of a “light” version reminds you that it’s the Ohio outside and not the Isar. Televisions at Newport make sense; not in the Munich Hofbrauhaus. The Newport menu has numerous reliable Bavarian beer hall options, and the overall effect is quite close to the mark, but to be blunt, Americans simply don’t do pork as pork is done in Bavaria – and burgers aren’t exactly on the Speisekarte at the Platzl location. Finally, Bavarians instinctively understand one crucial truth about beer and the average male: Allow him to drink liters of tasty lager, and he will make frequent trips (somewhere) to return that spent liquid to nature. That’s why the Hofbrau Munich restrooms are so thoughtfully large … and the HB Newport might profit from it.

By and large, these are niggling criticisms, and a trip to the Hofbrauhaus Newport is highly recommended by the Publican.

Riding back to Louisville after the game with a busload of human karaoke machines is much less desired. In Bavaria, they’d have been speaking German, and while still obnoxious, not so painfully fact deprived.

1 comment:

Rob said...

When I was in high school, a bunch of us in German class went over to Germany with our teacher in 1987, the summer before our senior year.

Two things stand out regarding our visit to the Hofbrauhaus. First, was the disappointing... Two songs broke out while we were there. One was the theme to "Gilligan's Island", which was met with indifference, and the other was "The Star Spangled Banner" which was somewhat booed by the non-Americans. It was kind of weird to me. I guess at that age I was figuring that some German version of the Clancy Brothers.

The other tale is kinda funny. The place was packed when we arrived, and it took a little while to luck into a table - we were wandering around, looking for space, and saw a Bierfrau cleaning off a table, so the seven of us plopped down.

After ordering our Biers, this crusty old German guy comes back from the restroom, and with an anguished look in his face starts asking, "Wo ist mein Bier?" Apparently the rest of his party left while he was in the bathroom, and so the table got dutifully cleaned off, including his beer that he hadn't yet finished. One guy in our group played diplomat, though, and bought him a beer.

Apparently that's all it takes to instantly endear a (stereotypical) German to you. He sat next to me and proceeded to talk to me in Süddeutch the rest of the night. We had learned a northern German accent in school, but he had a thick Bavarian accent. I didn't get a whole lot of what he was saying.

This much I know. He was missing most of one finger, and when he talked about it, he kept saying "Krieg" - the word for "War". When he would ask me questions, I would sort of nod and smile.

This nodding and smiling, I think, caused me to admit to this guy that I was dating (or more?) all three of the girls we were with. He's saying something I don't understand, I nod and say "Ja", and he elbows me in the ribs, and says something else, raised eyebrows, raised voice pitch, while gesturing at one of the girls. Basically needling me, saying something to the effect of, "Oh yeah? You and her?"

It was hysterical. The guy was really nice, and hung out with us the whole time we were there.

Just thought I'd share my Hofbrauhaus story. Looking forward to trying the Newport version.