06 Jul Gerst Haus in Evansville Ties Brewing History, Traditional German Food and Beer, and American Craft Together
German food with beer is one of the best combinations in the world. It might be because the Germans invented both German food and Oktoberfest, but it could go even deeper. The German people seem to have good food and good beer in their very souls.
One of the manifestations of this phenomenon is the German restaurant/beer hall in America. Other than particle physics and quantum theory, these may be the Germans’ biggest contributions to world culture. If you haven’t visited a Hofbrauhaus (Newport KY, Columbus OH, Las Vegas, NV, Philadelphia, PA, Pittsburgh, PA and more), or the Rathskeller Beer Hall in Indianapolis, you haven’t really started your life yet. There are others that are great to be sure – Bavarian Inn in Frankenmuth, MI and the Urban Chestnut Beer Hall in St. Louis to name just a couple. But now Walter and I have another to add to your bucket list – Gerst Haus in Evansville.
History. Gerst Haus is a German restaurant with great food and tons of beer. But it’s connection to Evansville goes beyond just being a good local restaurant, and it’s connection to beer goes far beyond having a good beer list. In fact, Gerst Haus was literally born from German brewing.
William H. Gerst was born into a Bavarian brewing family in 1847. In America, he partnered with Christian Moerlin to form the Moerlin-Gerst Brewing Co. in Nashville, TN in 1890. Within three years Gerst had bought out Moerlin, and the brewery became just the Gerst Brewing Co. They made and sold a lot of beer, with Gerst himself being the 2nd president of the United States Brewmasters’ Association. William H. retired as the Volstead Act rolled across America, so his four sons took over the brewery. They did survive Prohibition, but William H. didn’t live to see it; he died in 1933.
The brewery finally shutdown in 1954, but a grandson of William H., William J. Gerst, opened Gerst Haus Restaurant a year later in order to keep the families name alive in Nashville. The restaurant was popular and survived two locations changes (one to make room for the Tennessee Titans stadium). Then two brothers, Jim and Jerry Chandler, bought the restaurant in 1988.
Very soon after purchasing Gerst Haus, the Chandlers contracted the Evansville Brewing Co. to produce a Gerst Premium Amber Beer for the restaurant. The Evansville Brewing Co. had opened been in 1988 by three local businessmen in the former Sterling Brewery. They never really caught here, and sold 40% of their beer overseas. Evansville Brewing declared bankruptcy in 1997, but their assets were purchased by Pittsburgh Brewing, so they made the amber lager for Gerst for several years. After closing, the brewing of the Gerst beer landed back in Nashville, with Yazoo Brewing (where it is still being made).
The Nashville restaurant closed in 2018 due to slow sales, but by that time the Chandlers were deep into their second decade with their Evansville location (opened in 1999). Located on W. Franklin Street, the building for Gerst Haus Restaurant – Evansville was built in 1890, so the 19th century history of Gerst is carried on.
The Feel of Gerst. The restaurant/bar is housed in the old Rosenberger Grocery Building, a three story brick and metal edifice that is the best example of 19th century commercial architecture in the city. For many decades it was the Heldt & Voelkel Hardware store, but it has also been other things, including a dentist office. The building is said to be haunted – some children can be heard playing at quiet times, and there is a workman in dungarees that is often seen in the basement.
The 44 ft. bar along the west wall is actually two bars. The front end is from the Sterling Brewery Rathskeller in Evansville, making it just one more link between Gerst Haus and Indiana/national brewing history. It even includes the brass foot rail and drip trays! The end toward the kitchen is the bar from a tavern in St. Louis called The Fortune Teller Bar. Even this bar came to Evansville in an interesting way, the truck hauling to Indiana in 1998 was attacked by an East St. Louis gang. Luckily, only the truck was damaged, the bar was fine.
The knickknacks around the restaurant and in the windows have been collected over the years. Many of them had been traded from the Nashville location to Evansville and back many times, but now they are all in southern Indiana. Walter really liked the huge squirrel carving outside – squirrels are the bane of her mother in law’s existence, so we buy or get pictures of them where ever we can.
The Beer. Back in 2000, the owners got so tired of bartenders disappearing to smoke a cigarette that they took a chance on a guy name Paul Ankenbrand simply because he didn’t smoke. Twenty years later, Paul is the bar manager and does the beer buying – he does a great job. Behind the bar on the afternoon Walter and I visited was Trent – he knew his beer too.
There is American craft beer (local and national), German beers, and of course the Gerst Premium Amber Lager. All the beers can be served in “fishbowls,” the Gerst Haus moniker for their 18 oz. chalices. There are 49 taps now at Gerst Haus (double the number originally), and they have about 100 bottle selections, including all the classic German beers (except for the Aventinus Eisbock – need that one).
The bar at Gerst Haus is a truly social place. We met two nice couples in the short time we were there, even at lower than maximum capacity. We discussed the idea of short pours versus chalices in order to try as many beers as possible versus getting to sit back with a beer and not needing to study the menu so intently. Both are good strategies, depending on your mood.
On this particular afternoon, we tried several beers in and around our meals, including the Gerst Premium Amber. I can’t wait to get back to Yazoo and discuss this beer with them – I had no idea of the story of it all prior to our visit. We also had several American craft beers from near and far that we hadn’t had before, including Prairie Artisan Ales, Rhinegeist, Stone, Toppling Goliath, and Untitled Art/Arkane Aleworks. Finding that many beers we hadn’t tried before on a bar beer list is an amazing feat in and of itself. Kudos to Paul.
The Food. I may be talking about the food last, but it doesn’t take a backseat to anything at Gerst Haus. The classics are there, wurst platters, schnitzel of all types, and of course sauerbraten. Even though the choices aren’t just German in style, we were certainly going to try several things that were German. Walter had the German bologna sandwich, sourced straight from Dewig Meats in Haubstedt, IN while I had my all time favorite, Jaegerschnitzel (schnitzel with mushrooms in a brown Hunter’s gravy). The sides were also traditional, from the spaetzle to the hot potato salad to the red cabbage.
It was all very enjoyable, but we didn’t even find out until we left that they had a giant Bavarian pretzel – it’s not on the menu. Yes, they have it all the time, but they don’t tell anyone, you have to specifically ask for it. We also didn’t learn about the fame of the pig knuckles until it was time to go and we were stuffed. Apparently, even on a slow weekend they will sell 160 plates of these – next time.
Beer, food, history, more beer – Gerst Haus is a great part of the beer and restaurant scenes in Indiana. This might have been our first visit, but it won’t be our last. If you have the opportunity to visit, do yourself a favor. I’m going to put extra effort into getting more Evansville beer spots to join the Tasting Society Marketplace, so that a trip to the southwest corner of the state will be on more peoples’ minds. Prost!