Re-creation of venerable German beer hall opens on the South Side

How much Pittsburgh is in Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh?

This re-creation of a 420-year-old Bavarian beer hall, which launched with a "soft" opening on Monday at SouthSide Works, serves a Black Angus "Cheeseburgher," fish sandwich and fettucine Alfredo alongside sauerbraten, bratwurst and weiner schnitzel.

You can get a liter stein of light beer or a lager, hefe weizen or dunkel -- all brewed on-site according to the Bavarian beer purity law. And Steve Grkman's accordion cranks out tunes by the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and Lynyrd Skynyrd along with "Ein Prosit" and the Beer Barrel Polka.

"People don't expect to hear 'Free Bird' from a bunch of guys in lederhosen," jokes Joe Grkman, Steve's brother and fellow member of the Hofbrauhaus house band, Alpen Glow.

Pittsburgh is the third American Hofbrauhaus franchised and licensed by the original in Munich, Germany. In 1589, Bavarian Duke Wilhelm V authorized a royal court brewery, but it wasn't until 1610 that King Ludwig I allowed commoners to drink there, too. By 1897, when the Hofbrauhaus was remodeled and the brewery moved elsewhere, it was already the most famous beer hall in the world.

Two Kentucky businessmen -- Nick Ellison and Eric Haas -- opened the first American Hofbrauhaus in Newport, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, in 2003.

"We didn't know if Americans would share tables and food with perfect strangers," Mr. Haas said.

The concept of celebrating Oktoberfest every day was a success and a year later, a group of German investors opened the second American Hofbrauhaus in Las Vegas. Meanwhile, the Kentucky investors were noticing that their business jumped whenever the Cincinnati Reds or Bengals played against teams from certain cities -- Cleveland, Chicago and Pittsburgh.

"Pittsburgh is a beer-loving town, with lots of German heritage," Mr. Haas said.

But he and Mr. Ellison, a real estate developer, had trouble finding a big, old building like the one they had renovated in Newport: a 1917 Maxwell car dealership that resembled a livery stable. They probably would have moved on to Cleveland or Chicago if they hadn't met up with the Soffer Organization, developers of the SouthSide Works.

"It's the perfect site," Mr. Ellison said. "It has higher-end retail and offices. We're in a recognized entertainment district with a river view."

To take advantage of that view, the partners and their architect, Piaskowy & Cooper of Covington, Ky, designed a stone-and-stucco Germanic building with large arched windows at the rear and an awning-covered terrace that seats 156. The terrace, which can be enclosed for almost year-round use, overlooks a riverfront beer garden with room for another 416 patrons.

The beer garden is 50 percent larger than Newport's, as is just about everything else in Pittsburgh. Total capacity here, including the not-yet-finished beer garden and smaller vorgarten, is 1,085 people vs. 792 in Newport.

The $8 million restaurant project may well be the biggest and most expensive in Pittsburgh ever. The interior is 18,000 square feet vs. 14,000 in Newport and 19,000 in Las Vegas, though Vegas' footprint includes an indoor beer garden, a concession to the Nevada heat. Las Vegas decided to import all of its beer from Germany -- about 80 half barrels a week.

Brewing their own beer is key for both Pittsburgh and Newport, Mr. Haas said. To ensure that their four regular beers and 13 seasonals taste as much as possible like the German brews, they use Hofbrauhaus recipes, $1 million worth of German brewing equipment and German and Czech barley and hops. German brewmaster Eckhard Kurbjuhn and head brewer Ed Slouffman have been here since January to make sure everything is right.

Other members of the team include general manager Tom Williams, who previously ran TGI Friday's restaurants in Pittsburgh and Ohio, and head Chef Tony Loukas, a Community College of Allegheny County graduate who's responsible for overseeing the huge kitchen and 85 of the 250 employees. The food end is being managed by Premier Lube, a restaurant management company.

Food is as important as the beer in this beer hall and restaurant, whose opening has been delayed several times since the project was announced in 2005. The menu has almost as many American favorites as traditional Bavarian dishes.

"You have to protect yourself against the 'no vote' -- the one person in the group who doesn't like German food," Mr. Ellison said. "There's something for everyone."

In Newport, the blackened tilapia ($13.49) is very popular, said Mr. Haas, who runs a family business that manufactures animal identification tags. During a visit here last week, his wife, Jan, opted instead for the Schnitzel Cordon Bleu ($14.49) and said it was even better than in Newport.

Getting the German specialties right is critical, Mr. Haas said. Wassler, a German butcher in Cincinnati, provides the bratwurst, mettwurst and bierwurst for both locations.

The big soft pretzels ($8.99) still come frozen from Germany because Mr. Ellison and Mr. Haas can't find an American pretzel that tastes as authentic.

Hofbrauhaus' Apfel Strudel ($5.49) also comes frozen from Germany but all the other sweets are baked by Signature Desserts in Castle Shannon, including the softball-sized cream puffs ($4.99).

No matter how authentic the food and beer, Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh won't succeed if it doesn't capture the spirit of its German namesake. There, patrons looking for quiet conversation head to the bier stube (beer room) while tourists, families and everyone else grabs a bench in the rowdier main beer hall.

"You sit at long tables with perfect strangers. You meet people from all walks of life," said Mr. Haas. He notes that only the Germans have a word for the fellowship that lives in a German beer hall.

"It's all about the food, the beer, the entertainment. It's all about Gemutlichkeit, and if you don't know what that means, you'll have to come here and find out."

Hofbrau Haus Pittsburgh, 2705 S. Water St., South Side, can be reached by phone at 412-224-2328. Visit its Web site at

Kevin Kirkland can be reached at or 412-263-1978. First Published March 19, 2009 4:00 AM


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