Oom-Pah! Oktoberfest!

Raising a stein at Hudson County’s atmospheric biergartens.

Co-owner Andrej “Andy” Ivanov relishes the Old World atmosphere he’s created at the new Pilsener Haus & Biergarten in a renovated industrial building in the northwest corner of Hoboken. To go with the 21 beers on tap, a grill cook turns out kielbasa and other sausages.
Photo by Melissa Hom.

You don’t have to be in Munich to celebrate Oktoberfest. You don’t even have to be in Brooklyn (home of Radegast Hall & Biergarten and other über-hip neo-retro beer gardens). Just belly up to the very long bars at Pilsener Haus & Biergarten in Hoboken or Zeppelin Hall Restaurant & Biergarten in Jersey City and try making up your mind.

“You can come every day for a year and not have the same beer,” says John Argento, director of Zeppelin Hall, which opened in 2009. “We have four bars with 48 taps each.” While a number of brews are always available, others change weekly.

Pilsener Haus, which opened in August, offers a rotating selection of 21 beers on draft plus more than 40 different bottled beers. “The quality is the main thing,” says co-owner Andrej “Andy” Ivanov, whose family frequented biergartens in his native Slovakia. He founded Radegast Hall in 2006. “We want people to say, ‘Let’s go to Pilsener Haus because they have beers no one else has.’”

Both places have indoor and outdoor communal tables, an essential part of the biergarten experience. Both feature live music, including traditional oom-pah bands, and organize mug-holding contests in which the aim is to hold a full stein of beer straight out from your shoulder longer than anyone else. 

Zeppelin Hall is cavernous, with a high, wood-beamed ceiling and Old World-style arches. Yet Pilsener Haus edges it out in atmosphere. It occupies the ground floor of a hulking, 1920’s brick factory building that has been renovated yet retains its been-here-forever look (especially the words Pilsener Haus painted in artfully faded letters around the crown of the building.) The interior evokes old Central Europe with massive wooden beams, vintage-looking lamps, clocks, posters, hand-painted (and faded) signs and murals. The retro bar stools are made of iron and wood, the long tables from weathered barn planks.

One thing you won’t find at Pilsener Haus is TV monitors. “It’s not that I have anything against sports,” says Ivanov, “but it kills the conversation.”

No biergarten menu would be complete without an array of sausages and schnitzels, and both places deliver. Zeppelin Hall patrons can dig into foot-long Nuremberger-style sausages, served on a pretzel bun imported from Germany and a side of potato salad. One’s inner cave man can curl up with giant roasted ham hocks.

Pilsener Haus has hired an executive chef, Thomas Ferlesch, a Vienna native with a distinguished resume, including 12 years as head chef at George Lang’s Cafe des Artistes in Manhattan. Pilsener Haus’s Austro-Hungarian menu includes charcuterie, späetzle, mushroom strudels and, for Oktoberfest, roasted pork shank, fried calf’s head and smoked blood sausage strudel, to be paired with German brews such as Jever Pilsener, Hofbräu and Köstritzer.

This fall, Zeppelin Hall will be featuring Hofstetten Hochzeitsbier. “It’s a re-creation of the beer served at the wedding of Prince Ludwig to his bride, Therese, in 1810, which started Oktoberfest,” says Argento. It costs $240 per keg (compared to $60 for a keg of commercial domestic beer).

The two establishments do not admit a rivalry. “It’s great that more people are aware of this,” says Zeppelin Hall’s Argento. But, he adds, “I think we’re the best choice in Jersey.”

For his part, Ivanov said he decided to open Pilsener Haus because “New Jersey [was] lacking a truly authentic place with a wide variety of premium beers and food.” Maybe they should settle it over a mug-holding contest.

Pilsener Haus, 1422 Grand Street, Hoboken; 201-683-5465, pilsenerhaus.com.
Zeppelin Hall, 88 Liberty View Drive, Jersey City; 201-721-8888, zeppelinhall.com.

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