After hearing about a website that allows people to customize their own devotional candles, Joshua Van Horn knew immediately what he wanted on his—an angular line-drawing of a blonde German girl, dressed in a red dirndl, holding two glasses of foamy beer. Once it arrived at the Brooklyn bar he owns, Gold Star Beer Counter, Van Horn placed it on the back wall by the taps, letting it serve as an altar to Biergit Kraft, the longtime logo for Rothaus Tannenzäpfle. It’s a fitting tableau for a brew that is now worshipped by Brooklyn beer geeks.
“I remember my first time trying it, I thought, ‘This is phenomenal,’” recalls Van Horn of the traditional pilsner, which has been made since the 1950s at a German brewery that dates to the 18th century. “We didn’t really have a true German pilsner available in New York at the time. Nowadays if you see it, it’s pretty much only at connoisseur-type places.”
Almost overnight “Little Fir Cone,” as its name translates, was seemingly at every cool bar or restaurant in Brooklyn. But its entrée into the borough is decidedly less snooty. “There were already lots of Bavarian places in Brooklyn, but not really one that celebrated the Black Forest,” explains Tobias Holler. An immigrant from that southwestern part of Germany, Holler coincidentally met and married another Black Forest expat upon moving to Brooklyn in the early aughts. The couple soon decided to open a beer hall, Black Forest Brooklyn, to bring the tastes of their homeland to their new home.
“Rothaus is the number one beer in the Black Forest,” explains Holler. “We grew up drinking it as teenagers and young adults. So we knew we had to have it.”
Unfortunately, when Holler contacted Rothaus and explained his desire to carry their beer, they unceremoniously turned him down; they were simply unwilling to wade through the FDA’s red tape (more on that in a second) to get their beer to America. But after a year of getting solid press coverage back in Germany, Rothaus decided they were ready to do whatever it took to get their beer to Holler’s Fort Greene restaurant. On October 17, 2014, Black Forest Brooklyn served the first pint of Rothaus in the U.S. The brewery even sent over an entire contingent to commemorate the event, with their CEO Christian Rasch tapping that first keg.
“The atmosphere was amazing,” recalls Rasch. “We were all so excited and relieved but, in the first case, we were very happy that we overcame all the difficulties together to make it possible to let [America] taste our beer.”
From there, the pilsner started expanding to other locations in the borough—Spuyten Duyvil, Gold Star—mostly served via those eye-catching bottles with Biergit Kraft on the label and a gold foil-encased neck.
“It’s more that these bars and restaurants found us,” explains Jennifer Mauer, the brewery’s head of PR. She claims Rothaus has nothing to do with who sells their beer in America, though she’s not surprised who has chosen to sell it, explaining that, “The people in New York have a sense for high quality.”
But there are plenty of other high-quality German beers available in Brooklyn, like Ayinger Bavarian Pils and Weihenstephaner Pils—why do all these hotspots want Rothaus and not something else? For one, Holler claims Rothaus is the only German export pilsner that comes unpasteurized, something that allows the beer to retain aromas and flavors from the yeast and proteins that remain following fermentation. According to Mauer, that unpasteurized state also means the FDA labels Tannenzäpfle shipments as biological weapons. The upside to that designation is that it’s exceptionally well-handled in getting here. It typically ships in refrigerated containers, and Holler claims he is able to tap kegs just two weeks after they have left the brewery.
“It’s a state-owned brewery so they’re pretty conservative and also don’t have to be as competitive,” explains Holler of the reason why they allow so few places to serve their beer. “People from the Black Forest are very stubborn—they like quality, they like craft. Rothaus is like: ‘This is our beer and this is how you’re going to do it.’”
If you’re on the hunt for the pilsner, you’re not going to find bottles at the Whole Foods in Gowanus. Beyond the two locations of Black Forest Brooklyn, which is now the biggest account for Rothaus in America, and those select accounts throughout Brooklyn, it escapes to a few top beer places in Manhattan (The Ginger Man, Cafe d’Alsace), Philadelphia (Monk’s Café) and even greater Los Angeles (Native Son Alehouse). But it’s not deified in those markets—certainly not the way it is in Brooklyn where local breweries Other Half and Interboro even paid homage to the iconic label when they released Interhalf Helles in the summer of 2017.
It makes sense that these trendy breweries would want the Rothaus association. In a world dominated by fruited sours and pastry stouts, Rothaus is the only Old World lager many Brooklyn beer geeks will deign to drink. “They’ll have a million Rothauses,” explains Van Horn, claiming geeks now use it as a palate re-setter between those trendy, more over-the-top styles. That’s one reason he’s started selling Rothaus to go. “I’ve never seen that with any other beer. I’m used to guys picking up cases of hazy IPAs—not a full case of German pilsner.”