Last updated on July 3rd, 2019 at 07:16 pm
While the Milwaukee area has retained traces of its German heritage since those roots were established in the mid-1800s, a new wave of German-themed venues has reignited widespread interest in the city’s Old World traditions.
With the nation’s fifth Hofbräuhaus likely coming to Glendale, re-emergence of beer gardens in metropolitan Milwaukee and the resurrection of the Von Rothenburg Bier Stube in Germantown, German culture is making something of a comeback in the region.
With hopes of closing a transaction by the end of November, the Bistro Group, a Cincinnati, Ohio-based restaurant operator, plans to transform the existing structure of the former Bavarian Inn in Glendale into a replica of the original Hofbräuhaus in Munich, Germany.
“It’s like a trip to Munich without having to board the plane,” said Jeff Ritson, president of the Bistro Group, which will own and operate the Glendale Hofbräuhaus at Old Heidelberg Park along the Milwaukee River.
In addition to a beer garden featuring a cascading patio, mature trees and room for 2,000 to 3,000 patrons, the restaurant will have an authentic Hofbräuhaus dining room outfitted with furniture and fixtures mirroring those found in the original Bavarian brewery.
The Glendale Hofbräuhaus will also feature an authentic German menu and its very own microbrewery, complete with a German-trained brew master and state-of-the-art brewing equipment custom manufactured in Munich.
The microbrewery will offer fresh, authentic Hofbräu beer brewed on site with barley, hops, malts and yeast and will adhere to the German Beer Purity Law, an historical German regulation dictating the ingredients allowed in the production of beer. While the law is no longer actively enforced, it is still widely respected among German breweries.
The microbrewery plans to offer a premium Hofbräu lager, Hofbräu Light, Hofbräu Dunkel, Hofbräu Hefe Weizen, Hofbräu Oktoberfest and Hofbräu Maibock, among other rotating flavors, each following the authentic recipes of the original Hofbräuhaus.
In releasing these recipes, the Hofbräuhaus is extremely cautious, Ritson said. To obtain the recipes, the Bistro Group entered into confidentiality agreements with the Munich brewery.
Securing a license to the Hofbräu brew recipes was a “coup” on the part of the Bistro Group, said Bob Monnat, a member of the Friends of the Bavarian Soccer Club LLC, which currently owns the site of the former Bavarian Inn.
“When (the Hofbräuhaus licenses) someone to brew their beer outside of Bavaria, they have all of these strict guidelines and criteria by which their beer has to be brewed,” Monnat said. “They think of it as an extension of Munich, and by overseeing and monitoring operations like the one that will be at the (former) Bavarian Inn, they ensure the integrity of their brand.”
About a mile away from the Bavarian Inn along another stretch of the Milwaukee River, the Estabrook Beer Garden in Milwaukee has brought new meaning to the city’s sense of “gemütlichkeit,” or friendliness and amicability.
The beer garden, which opened to the public in June 2012, emulates the classic Munich beer gardens dating back about 400 years. It also revives a long-lost Milwaukee tradition dating back to the 1800s when German immigrants congregated in beer gardens along the banks of the Milwaukee River.
Many of those beer gardens, which evaporated with the onset of Prohibition, formed the basis for today’s Milwaukee County Parks, according to Hans Weissgerber III, managing director of ABC Estabrook, the developer and operator behind Estabrook Beer Garden.
Weissgerber, who also opened the Old German Beer Hall in downtown Milwaukee eight years ago, was a key driver in reintroducing and popularizing the concept of the beer garden in Milwaukee.
“We wanted to bring that lifestyle back, but we wanted to use a model that was in modern practice,” Weissgerber said.
Munich beer gardens, which serve as Estabrook’s model, have been in consistent operation with little disruption in tradition for the past couple centuries. The typical Munich beer garden, according to Weissgerber, is situated in a public park in a natural setting and a fair-weather environment. The social venue includes communal seating for families, friends and strangers alike and allows patrons to bring their own picnic food and soft drinks.
In his quest to reenergize Milwaukee around beer gardens, Weissgerber submitted a proposal for a beer garden at downtown Milwaukee’s Pere Marquette Park to the Milwaukee County Executive’s office, the Milwaukee County Parks Department and the Milwaukee County Historical Society. His initial proposal, submitted in 2007, was met with silence, and so he resubmitted the same proposal again and again.
In 2011, Weissgerber approached the Westown Association and former Milwaukee County Parks Director Sue Black about hosting a one-day beer garden at Pere Marquette Park purely to benefit the Westown Association.
“Within 15 minutes of opening, there were 250 people there,” Weissgerber said. “It was proof to me that we had a viable concept, and it was a huge eye opener to I think the park system and the county that this really could work.”
Following the success of that inaugural beer garden, Weissgerber won a bid put out by Milwaukee County Parks for a beer garden in Estabrook Park.
The location of Estabrook Park, along with its surroundings and built-in features makes it a near ideal spot for a family-friendly beer garden, Weissgerber said.
With the Milwaukee River directly adjacent to the site, nearby bike trails and sports fields, a neighboring playground, and relative proximity to residential areas, Estabrook Park embodies the kind of natural setting that is so typical of Munich beer gardens and is easily accessible for patrons.
During its first year of operation, Estabrook Beer Garden was “phenomenally successful,” Weissgerber said.
The beer garden, which can hold about 600, now draws people of all backgrounds from all over metro Milwaukee and all over the world.
“I think it’s something that works well in Milwaukee because of all the German heritage that is here, but I think that it’s simply human nature to come together and find common ground instead of focus on our differences,” Weissgerber said. “That’s what I think the beer garden really centers around.”
Estabrook Beer Garden’s success has also largely inspired the development of The Landing beer garden at Hoyt Park in Wauwatosa. While The Landing at Hoyt Park does not have a distinct German flavor, its objective parallels that of the German beer gardens– to provide an outdoor gathering space where families, friends and the general community can come together to socialize.
“I guess people see the value in it, and they see that it’s something that people enjoy,” Weissgerber said.
Bavarian social life
The inherent sense of fun in the Bavarian social life has been a significant factor in rekindling elements of German culture in Milwaukee. People are rediscovering that it’s fun to be German, said Hans Weissgerber Jr., father of Hans Weissgerber III and owner of both Weissgerber’s Gasthaus & Beer Garden in Waukesha and The Golden Mast on Okauchee Lake.
According to Hans Jr., who immigrated to the United States from Offenburg, Germany at the age of 13, the social fabric of German culture consists of a strong work ethic and a drive to socialize – or the notion of working hard and playing hard.
“Germans know how to do that, and they do it well,” he said.
And perhaps nowhere do Germans play harder than they do at Oktoberfest, a world famous 16-day festival of drinking, dining and socializing in Munich held each September and October.
In recent years, Milwaukee has seen its own replications of Munich’s Oktoberfest crop up.
“The high season of celebrating the (German) culture is during Oktoberfest, and whereas before there were only a couple of Oktoberfest celebrations in Milwaukee, today you have at least six Oktoberfest celebrations of considerable size,” said Monnat.
The area’s largest Oktoberfest is organized by the Bavarian Soccer Club at Old Heidelberg Park on the nearby grounds of the former Bavarian Inn. The festival, held annually for four consecutive fall weekends, started in the early 1950s and today welcomes crowds of 2,000 to 3,000 people daily for authentic German food, beer and live music.
“The Germans like music (and) they like to sing (and) they like to have a band play songs where they can sing along and get involved with the band and have a good time,” said Guenther Behre, a member of the Bavarian Soccer Club’s board of directors and one of the festival’s organizers. “And while they’re doing that, have a beer or two and also have food.”
Behre, who immigrated to Wisconsin from Göttingen, Germany, in 1953 and joined the Bavarian Soccer Club the following year, is largely responsible for running the show at Oktoberfest each year.
He credits high attendance at the Soccer Club’s Oktoberfest to a spectrum of festival elements, particularly the location of Old Heidelberg Park.
“We are basically in downtown Glendale,” Behre said. “The location is tremendous being next to a river and next to a freeway and next to housing.”
Patrons flock to Old Heidelberg Park from all over metro Milwaukee, and some even venture in for an Oktoberfest weekend from Chicago and Minnesota.
“People make the party,” Behre said. “The more people you have here attending, the more fun it is.”
Apart from the recreational aspect behind German social customs such as beer gardens and Oktoberfest, Milwaukee’s rich German history has also reinvigorated interest in German culture.
“When we look at ourselves as a community, we start to appreciate who we really are in a sense of being our own culture, which is based on a German heritage and German history in Milwaukee,” Hans Jr. said.
He points to Germanic features of the city like its heavily European-influenced architecture and its integrated park system with pavilions that act as outdoor entertainment venues.
“Those things are imbedded in the community,” Hans Jr. said.
Nearby Germantown also has a storied German history with many German immigrants having settled in the area in the late 1800s through the 1940s.
“A lot of people settled in Milwaukee, but a lot of farmers settled in Washington County because it was so similar to where they were from in Germany,” said Josh Neureuther, whose own family traces its lineage back to German settlers in the county.
Neureuther manages downtown Germantown’s Von Rothenburg Bier Stube, which new owner Chaz Hastings reopened in March after the venue closed its doors in 2012.
The revamped Bier Stube mirrors an authentic German bier stube – or small corner bar – with authentic décor including original stonework, woodwork and stained glass windows made by German craftsmen.
And nearly all of the bier stube’s accents are authentic to Bavaria – from its oil paintings and wall hangings to its light fixtures and glassware.
“Everything in the entire building is from Germany, except for the plumbing and electricity,” Neureuther said.
Even the bier stube’s pretzels are authentically German. The venue has flash-frozen pretzels flown in from Munich and bakes them onsite.
“I just think that there are so many people that have German heritage that want to reconnect with that German heritage,” Neureuther said. “So it makes it really easy to celebrate that by going out and meeting people that want to actually celebrate and have that German experience.”
The new German venues in the area join Milwaukee’s collection of iconic German restaurants – well-established dining locales such as Mader’s Restaurant and Karl Ratzsch’s, both of which opened just after the turn of the 20th century.
The restaurants, each originally owned and operated as family ventures, have continued to draw multiple generations of multiple families who have made a tradition of dining at their establishments.
During Christmas Day each year, Dan Hazard, general manager of Mader’s, estimates he knows about 70 percent of Mader’s patrons by first name.
“Because we’ve been in business so long, we have that luxury of generational loyalty,” Hazard said.
In terms of a resurgence of German culture, Tom Andera, general manager and co-owner of Karl Ratzsch’s, suspects that people are turning to German restaurants with a craving for “something different.”
“I think there’s been different phases of people rediscovering different ethnic foods and cultures,” Andera said. “Sometimes, something old becomes something new.”