Once upon a time, dating to 1840, German brewing in Philadelphia was a powerful presence; inhalable, in fact: "The air was as nourishing as vaporized bread," the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin noted, bemoaning the smothering hand that Prohibition visited on neighborhoods once populated by stout brewmasters, "titanic drivers in leather aprons," and giant draft horses, and on evenings that had been alive with drinking songs and "the guttural language of Goethe and Schiller."
Caves for cooling German lagers were cut into the banks of the Schuylkill at the edge of Brewerytown, home to 10 breweries. Dozens more dotted Kensington to the east. In the late 1800s a German beer garden (part of the Bergner and Engel brewing complex) stood at the corner of 32d and Thompson, boasting a wood-frame dancing pavilion and an overarching grape arbor to shelter the gathered drinkers.
German bakeries and delis abounded. And eateries and taverns. What is more remarkable is how thoroughly and completely they all disappeared. Schmidt's Brewery at Second and Girard was one of the last to go, at the end of the 1980s. Today it is the site of a trendy apartment complex. (About the same time, the venerable Hoffman House went dark on Sansom Street, putting an end to meals that would start with spot-on steak tartare and finish with a fine Sacher torte that regulars pine for to this day.)
The old Blue Ox Brauhaus in Fox Chase? Gone. Ludwig's Garten, the sour-smelling taproom at 13th and Sansom? Gone, too, a few years ago, the last of the shrinking public venues that specialized in German food and drink.
You could find classic German brews here and there - at Monk's, for one - but it was a little like looking, well, for a kartoffelknodel (a potato dumpling, to you) in a haystack.
So it has been with more than a little anticipation, stoked by a new generation of beer geeks, that the rise of a serious, handsomely crafted German bierhalle called Brauhaus Schmitz has been followed as it slowly took shape on South Street at Seventh.
It's impossible to know how it will fare over the long haul. But it is obvious how hungry people are to give it a try: It opened to packed houses two weeks ago, selling 808 servings of beer (to tables, not counting the bar trade) on its first Thursday night.
The beer hall is the project of German-born Doug Hager and Kelly Schmitz, who married in 2004 and promptly set off for Germany for two years, he working in the biggest beer garden in Cologne (where he watched the Pope's flotilla pass by on the Rhine), she at an Irish pub.
Hager had previously bartended at Ludwig's Garten, along with Alyssa Wegner, who is now a bar manager at the Brauhaus. You get the impression that they came to see the experience at Ludwig's as a cautionary tale: The space here is far fresher and cleaner, the long, tall room crisp and airy (but annoyingly noisy), the bar punctuated by a whimsical ceramic tap tree. The servers wear sort of hokey dirndls. The glassware flirts - roly-poly mugs, straight-leg glasses with hefty bottoms, some open-mouthed, others with bosomy curves.
The menu is a work in progress. Chef Jeremy Nolen cut his teeth cooking traditional fare at a private German club in Reading, and here he sticks close to the classics. He smokes his own (gently seasoned) Nuremberg-style bratwurst, a loosely packed pork sausage accented with caraway and ginger. (The rest is from Rieker's, the German butcher in Fox Chase.) There's wiener schnitzel (my first serving dry and pounded within an eighth-inch of its life; my second, a little thicker and juicier).
Shortly, Nolen says he'll roll out the big boys - sauerbraten, rouladen and schweinshaxe, the ever-popular (in Bavaria) pig's knuckle.
Wegner will continue her introductions, matching up first-timers with German brews: If they're Yuengling drinkers, she points them toward Spaten Oktoberfest, an amber lager. Miller or Bud? Perhaps they'd enjoy a light, crisp Reissdorf Kölsch. Blue Moon? Ayinger Bräu-Weisse, a wheaty, lemon-scented beauty.
A taste of refreshingly fizzy Köstritzer Schwarzbier is offered to black-beer skeptics.
Already, Wegner has seen a number of first-timers come back, not once, but twice and more.
Making up, you could say, for lost time.
718 South St.