Biergarten celebrates German culture with food, song under the pines

The biergarten at the German-American Club of Albany is a popular spot for many people looking to so
Toasting German heritage with beer and alpine hats are, from left, Carolyn Steuhl of Delmar, Frank Ramnitz of Delmar and Colleen Seeberger of Rexford. (Jeff Wilkin photo)
Toasting German heritage with beer and alpine hats are, from left, Carolyn Steuhl of Delmar, Frank Ramnitz of Delmar and Colleen Seeberger of Rexford. (Jeff Wilkin photo)

Almost autumn.

That means almost time for Oktoberfests. Local restaurants, parks and ski resorts will soon advertise nights of German beer, music and sausages.

Bill Scheuerman of Glenville prefers more authentic — and more permanent — salutes to German culture. He prefers the biergarten at the German-American Club of Albany.

“A biergarten is a place where people come to have ‘gemütlichkeit’ — German hospitality,” said Scheuerman, 70, the club’s fiscal officer. “We drink beer, enjoy each other’s company and have good discussions over the table.”

There are about 80 long tables on the German-American club’s property at Schuetzen Park, on Cherry Street (off Fuller Road) in the town of Colonie. Tall pine trees provide shade and a green-and-white wooden pavilion offers space and shelter for musicians. Club members say the biergarten is the last of its kind in the Capital Region.

On a recent Sunday afternoon, Greg Reinwald of Schenectady and Vic Meister of Colonie — the Mountain Brauhaus Band — were in the pavilion, with accordion and woodwind instruments, respectively.

More than 130 people were in the “garten,” talking, dancing and toasting, as German-style music filled the clearing. Some wore lederhosen — knee-length leather pants. Suspenders, white or plaid shirts and tall socks were parts of the look. Some women wore brightly colored dresses and hats.

“Roll out the barrel, we’ll have a barrel of fun,” Reinwald sang, in clear voice. “Roll out the barrel, we’ve got the blues on the run.”

The gathering was a German picnic, the club’s third biergarten gathering of the summer. The finale comes on Sunday, Aug. 24, when the “summerfest” party is held on the grounds. A club Oktoberfest will be held off-site, Sept. 27 in Glenville.

“You don’t have to be German or be a club member to come,” said Scheuerman. Club activities are open to the public, and he hopes more people decide to visit Germany via Colonie. The current generation of club members, he said, is phasing out. Keeping the club active means keeping local German culture active.

There used to be more biergartens.

Karl Gerstenberger, a trustee of the Colonie club, said there used to be 23 German-American organizations in the Albany area. In Schenectady, the best-known club was Schenectady Turnverein, which concentrated on gymnastics. The club’s base of operations — Turner Hall — was located on Albany Street.

“That club has dissolved,” said Gerstenberger, 80, who was born in the German state of Saxony. “Some of their members have come to our affairs.”

Troy’s Germania Hall remains open. The club serves dinner every Friday night in its rathskeller.

There were plenty of clubs for Irish immigrants, too. ““We used to say the Germans were the working man and the Irish were the politicians,” Gerstenberger said.

They all used to be football players. Gerstenberger said. Soccer games were held on club grounds; kickers from Ireland, France and Great Britain could have places on the German team. “The so-called ‘immigrant league’ was almost like the United Nations,” Gerstenberger said.

‘Liquid bread’

Scheuerman can talk about German culture’s frothiest elements; Germans love their beer, and appreciate “reinheitsgebot,” the nation’s centuries-old purity law that decrees that little more than water, barley and hops can be used to brew German beer.

“In Germany, I have German relatives and they call it liquid bread or health drink,” Scheuerman said.

“I took my daughter to Germany to meet the relatives when she was 12. We were in Munich, I ordered her a Coca-Cola and the waitress went crazy — ‘You can’t give her a Coca-Cola, it’s bad for her teeth, it’s bad for her bones. They wanted her to drink a ‘radler,’ it’s half lemonade and half beer, that’s what they give to kids, because the beer has no chemicals. To them, it’s a health drink.”

Healthy people seemed to be all over the biergarten.

“We come here for everything they have going on,” said Harold Knapp, 84, of Frankfort, in Herkimer County. Knapp and his wife, Anne, know the old country; they married in Mannheim, in the southwestern part of Germany, in 1952.

Knapp knows a lot of the local German-Americans. One man, with an ample stomach, walked near Harold’s table. “When is the baby due?” Knapp asked. “What do you want? A boy or a girl?”

There were no hard feelings. “Twins!” the man replied, with a big smile.

“You feel at home,” said Carolyn Steuhl of Delmar, who dressed in red alpine hat — with white feather — and red, white and blue German-style dress for an afternoon with friends.

Food is another big deal. Kurt Engler of East Greenbush stood over two electric boiling pots, and made sure assorted wursts — bratwursts, bauernwursts and knockwursts — all were heated to at least 140 degrees before they hit the grill for more cooking. German potato salad — a mix of potatoes, vinegar, salt, pepper, chicken broth and onions — was a big seller. That’s why club chefs made 400 pounds.

“A lot of people like it with bacon, but when you’re serving the public, we don’t do it with the bacon,” Steuhl said. “We leave it plain.”

Of course, mayonnaise is verboten. “They wouldn’t eat it,” Steuhl said. “That’s not the German potato salad.”

Ed Pfeifer of Latham seemed happy enough sipping a beer at a table near the cement dance floor. He was also comfortable wearing his green alpine hat — something he can’t do in other locales.

“They’d look at you a little differently,” he said.

Warm afternoon temperatures didn’t seem to bother Pfeifer, his wife, Donna, or people talking and dancing. “Even on a hot day, it’s cool because of the trees,” Pfeifer said.

Chef Enger said biergartens have faded a little bit in Germany. “The younger people no longer appreciate the music,” he said, adding that the local club has no trouble finding musicians who know favorites from the old country.

Scheuerman expects the German-American Club celebrations will continue.

“We do it all year round,” he said. “This is a way of life — ‘Stammtisch’ [get-together] — and every time I come I meet new people. You get to talking to them, a lot of times they come back.”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected]

Categories: Life and Arts

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