Order a pint at one of Philly’s gastropubs, and you’re likely to experience a blast of flavors, including spices, fruits, even coffee. It’s a far cry from Germany’s Reinheitsgebot, the beer purity law drafted in 1516 stipulating that beer could contain only water, barley and hops. The long-repealed law is posted prominently near the bar at Brauhaus Schmitz, the new beer hall on South Street. Co-owner Doug Hager is trying to keep the tradition of simplicity alive.
[sidebar]Hager, born in Germany, tapped into his passion for the beers of his home country working at Ludwig’s Garten. After Ludwig’s closed, he immediately saw opportunity in the void. “I had to scour the city to find a place with more than two German drafts,” says Hager. The long, high-ceilinged, oak-clad room (complete with buxom, dirndl-wearing barmaids) looks like something out of the Munich tourism catalog. With a 20-item draft beer list that changes constantly, Brauhaus Schmitz is a classroom for aficionados.
You might expect the food to be an afterthought at such a beer-centric joint, but thanks to chef Jeremy Nolen, who has worked in Central Pennsylvania’s authentic German clubs, it holds up to the drink. The cuisine is stick-to-your ribs, homey and rustic, but immensely satisfying, in spite of the sometimes-dry schnitzel and the pasty potato dumplings. Start with the airy house-baked pretzel, or a plate of roll mops — tart pickled herring served with onion, sour cream and rye bread. Most of the wursts are from German butcher Reikers, and they’re all good, but the house-made bratwurst, a mouth-watering mix of pork shoulder and spices, rises above the rest. The Schweinshaxe, a rotisserie-cooked pork shank speckled with pieces of crackling, and the surprisingly light spaetzle are just two of the highlights on the still-growing menu of classics.
The food and beer here are as good as at any gastropub, but the taste of German culture puts Brauhaus Schmitz in its own category of bar. The South Street location repels hipsters while drawing in tourists and the beer-clueless, which leads to a convivial, democratic vibe. Though service can be painfully slow, the informed staffers can easily match a big-brand beer drinker with the right German style of brew, many still made from only water, barley and hops.