There are not many bars in Philadelphia where a German tourist can walk in and order a beer from their hometown. But Belgian-born restaurateur Michael Naessens prides himself on his vast collection of beers, numbering in the hundreds and ranging from local brews to imported Belgian and German lagers.
Naessens opened Bierstube in 2012 on the corner of 2nd and Market streets, after his first restaurant Eulogy Belgian Tavern—located just down the street—started gaining more popularity and praise. Focusing on dishes found in the Rhineland of Germany and Wallonia in Belgium, Naessens highlights two regions he feels are under appreciated when it comes to German foods.
“Germany is so big and most Americans think of Germany as just Bavaria,” he said. “A lot of people do just Bavarian [foods] with the heavier meats and sausages and gravies.”
Naessens uses an extensive spice chart to match particular dishes with similar or contrasting beers, depending on what taste he wants. Each year, he tries to sample each of the bar’s more than 400 beers and often asks regulars or workers to sample a taste pairing.
A traditional German-style braised short rib paired with the Dark Knight brew—a Belgian strong dark ale beer brewed specifically for Bierstube and Eulogy Belgian Tavern— provides hearty comfort food for the cold winter months, Naessens said.
The short-rib, seared first to lock in flavors and then slow-cooked in the oven, leaves behind fond, the leftover caramelized drippings of meat, which Naessens uses to make a vinegar-based gravy, poured on the housemade mashed potatoes alongside fresh grilled vegetables.
Naessens, who has lived all across Europe and America, recognized that in order to maintain a successful business, he had to modify his dishes to keep up with the rapidly changing taste profile of Americans.
“If someone tells you German food is what their uma [grandma] ate, those restaurants pretty much went out of business in Philadelphia,” he said. “The taste profile was not what people wanted. I’ll put a spicy twist to things, which some of the older Germans don’t like, but I just took it up a few notches to hit the younger taste profile.”
While some older Germans might not agree with Naessens’ changes, his ways of modernizing German dishes are actually taken from their natural roots.
“Even though I start with recipes from Germany, I take them back to their roots then extend that into the current time,” he said.
Naessens regards pairing food and beverage as a luxury, something that heightens an eating experience and “makes your mind go on a temporary vacation.”
“We say that the experience here should be a $25 two-hour vacation,” he said.
“When pairing food and beverage, they work in tandem,” added Bierstube bartender Neil Rickett. “The ingredients that we use to make the sauerbraten … if you pair that with the same beer or a like beer, you’re going to pull out those flavor notes that we used.”
“I chose a beer that has high original gravity, which means it has a lot of sugar in the beginning of it,” Naessens said. “It’ll stand up to all the flavors that you taste in the short ribs, it’ll complement it very well as opposed to contrasting it.”
Naessens said the sweet maltiness of the ale will contrast nicely with the well hidden vinegar in the gravy, giving a sweet and sour taste.
“We’ve realized that you can’t just keep cranking out the same German food as you did in the 1950s and ‘60s,” Naessens said. “I might anger some grandmas, but at the same time … people appreciate the new flavors to traditional German recipes … we’ve adapted to the lighter German taste and I think you need to do that to really survive.”
Emily Thomas can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.