In addition to being Independence Day in the United States, today is also The Session, a monthly group beer blogging event that was started in 2007 by Stan Hieronymous at Appellation Beer and Jay Brooks at Brookston Beer Bulletin. The Session occurs on the first Friday of every month; this month’s host is Bill Kostkas over at Pittsburgh Beer Snob. The topic of this month’s Session is: Beer in History.
Nashville’s first commercial brewery – simply named The Nashville Brewery – was founded in 1859 by a Jacob Stifel on the corner of High and Mulberry Streets. Several other brewing concerns and bottling companies operated in Nashville in the late 19th century, but it was Stifel’s brewery that, after several changes of ownership, became The William Gerst Brewing Company in 1893. The Gerst brewery grew to dominate the beer industry in Tennessee and throughout the American South in the early years of the 20th century, producing as much as 200,000 barrels annually and employing hundreds of people.
William Gerst was born in Alpirsbach, a German town in the the Black Forest, in 1847. Descended from a long line of brewers (the name Gerst derives from the Middle High German word Gerste which means “barley”), he immigrated to the U.S. in 1866 and was soon employed at Christian Moerlein Brewing Company in Cincinnati. Moerlein and Gerst purchased The Nashville Brewing Company in 1890 and Gerst moved to Nashville to run the renamed Moerlein-Gerst Brewing Company. In 1893 Gerst bought out his partner’s interest in the business and it was renamed yet again – to remain The William Gerst Brewing Company until it closed in 1954.
Gerst Brewing was quickly successful, winning the gold medal at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in 1897, in what is now Nashville’s Centennial Park. Gerst Pilsener, Extra Pale Bohemian, Old Jug Lager, and other beers were kegged and bottled and distributed extensively throughout the South until the beginning of Prohibition in 1920. William Gerst settled in Nashville with his family (he and his wife Mary had six children, including four sons who all worked at the brewery and ran it after his retirement) and became a prominent member of the community. He was also passionate about horse racing, and maintained stables in South Nashville where he raised race horses. In 1910 his horse Donau (named for the river Danube) won the Kentucky Derby – the only horse from Tennessee ever to do so.
During Prohibition the company survived by bottling sodas, sparkling waters, and Gerst Select, a cereal beverage or “near beer” with less than 1/2 of 1% ABV. William Gerst retired with the onset of Prohibition and died in 1933, and the brewery was thereafter run by his sons. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, Gerst Brewing resumed the production of beer but was not able to regain its former success in the face of competition from national brands, and closed their doors in 1954. The original brewery was finally demolished in 1963.
In 1955 William Gerst’s grandson William J. Gerst opened The Gerst Haus restaurant in downtown Nashville. Many artifacts from the original brewery taproom were transferred to the restaurant including the original taproom bar and many lithographs and items of memorabilia. The restaurant has moved twice in the nearly 60 years since it originally opened, and has been in its present location a few blocks from LP Field since 2000. The Gerst Haus restaurant, its sister restaurant in Evansville, Indiana, and it’s “house beer” Gerst Amber Ale brewed by Nashville local Yazoo, are all that remains of William Gerst’s brewing empire.
The Gerst Haus is a German-American restaurant in beer hall style, with a menu and atmosphere that reflects American stereotypes of German cuisine and culture as predominantly Bavarian. The walls are made from dressed stone and the interior features a lot of dark polished wood. On Friday and Saturday nights a live Polka Band performs.
The restaurant has 25 beers on tap: mostly a broad selection of domestic and import big beers. Local craft beer is also represented: Yazoo Gerst Amber, Dos Perrros, and a seasonal rotation, as well as Extra Easy Ale from Tennessee Brew Works. Most appropriate (and interesting to this beer drinker) were the eight German drafts available – one of the best selections in town. Paulaner Oktoberfest and Hefeweizen, Spaten Lager, Köstritzer Schwarzbier, Hofbräu, Warsteiner, Krombacher Pils, and Bitburger are all available on tap. Drafts are available in (12 oz.?) Mugs, 18 ounce fishbowl goblets, and by the pitcher.
Service is prompt and the wait staff is friendly. Earlier this week I sat at the bar for lunch and chatted with Kyle, who has tended bar at The Gerst Haus since the present location opened nearly 15 years ago. I had a Gerst Amber Ale, served in a frozen fishbowl goblet. This golden brown, malty session ale is a bit fruity and became sweeter as it warmed up. The back of the bar is adorned with a collection of German bier steins and antlers, deer heads, and hundred-year-old lithographs hang on the walls. The place reminded me very strongly of restaurants I went to as a child when I visited my grandparents in Pennsylvania.
I had the sausage sampler: a hearty selection of bratwurst, kielbase, smoked Mettwurst, and Berliner Mettwurst sausages served with cold German potato salad, sauerkraut, and rye bread. The portion was generous – I couldn’t finish it – and the food was hearty and delicious. The only aspect that was lacking was the bread – a couple of slices of dark American rye bread that was nothing like the bread I have eaten in Germany. I had a Köstritzer Schwarzbier with my meal – a smooth, earthy dark lager with a delicate twinge of roast malts. Despite the bustle of the lunch crowd, I felt a stately sense of the past in the dining hall at The Gerst Haus, and was in no hurry to finish my meal.
Thanks to the staff at The Gerst Haus for allowing me take photographs of their collection and for answering my questions; much of the information in this article came from them and from Nashville Brewing by Scott R. Mertie.
Disclosure: when they found out I was writing a story on The Gerst Haus, I received a goblet of Gerst Amber “on the house”.