My favorite beer in the world is an amber ale named Palm Speciale. I spent the better part of three months abroad in its company, savoring every chance to crack open a bottle and get to work on a beverage that would never make its way to my own continent. After returning to California, I didn’t have too much trouble setting my thirst for Palm aside – the States are, after all, replete with microbreweries more than capable of whetting my whistle.
Three years and many a pint glass crawled by. I moved to New York, hung my hat, walked into the corner store and quite sincerely flipped my shit upon finding the forest green cardboard of a Palm Speciale six pack chilling in the beer fridge. I ran home with my prize and poured a glass, only to discover that the flavors of the beer had mysteriously fled the scene, leaving only a stale sense of bitterness. I examined the box to find that my bottles had been slated to expire the previous September. Palm was finally being imported into the US, but apparently only the brewery’s clearance inventory was good enough for the American palate.
Luckily, I lived on to learn that a stream of fresh Palm is always on tap at my own neighborhood’s Radegast Biergarten. Modeled in the typical style of an import beer hall without succumbing to its typical flaws (constant overcrowding and obsessions with authenticity), Radegast is one of the best places to while away a few hours in Williamsburg, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon. The picnic style, friend-for-yourself setup captures the lazy charm of any beer hall or BBQ joint without overreaching in size or scope. The crowd is almost uniformly laid back, the sound system delivers generous doses of Talking Heads, and although wait service can sometimes be lousy, I have never walked out of this place without feeling immensely satisfied.
Palm, of course, is at the center of my satisfaction. The top fermented counterpart to Belgium’s Stella Artois, Palm is a considerably poor fit for the drinking man’s definition of a Belgian ale. Its alcohol content is a mundane 5.4%. Its body is devoid of richness, its taste lacking in the hallmark floral sweetness of its brethren. By conventional Belgian yardstick, Palm has a hard time measuring up to immense brews like Westvleteren, Duvel, Rochefort and Delirium Tremens.
This isn’t the point, and Radegast knows it. Palm is a session brew: bright, smooth and impossibly well balanced. It achieves the perfect compromise between complexity and drinkability, backing up its lightly sweet and grainy flavors with just a touch of bitterness to instigate the next quaff. Whenever I’m passed a pitcher of Palm, it seems like I’m looking at the sudsy bottom of my pint glass before I’ve finished pouring, feeling refreshed but not full, warmed up but not buzzed, and ready for another. Radegast’s tap is more than ready to oblige, offering an armful of thirst-quenching German standbys and one incredibly delicious wheat beer (the refreshing, orange rind infused Blanche de Bruxelles, pictured above right), all of which could easily define a summer’s day.
While Radegast does have a full pan-European kitchen menu, I’ve never seen the point in ordering from it when a separate walk up grill operates at all hours. To be honest, I haven’t even bothered trying all of the items on the grill menu. Just as I’m perfectly happy with my everyday beer, I’m happy with Radegast’s $7 bratwurst, which is simple, salty and satisfying. The other sausages on the grill are similarly one-note, including the more delicate weisswurst, a fresh veal and pork sausage that trades heavy flavor for a tender, juicy texture.
Accompanying the sausage is a pile of fries and delectably sweet and tangy sauerkraut. Four savory varieties of mustard and a metal tub of horseradish follow suit. Nowhere to be seen is steak tartare, schnitzel or any other German and Austrian specials you’d find in San Francisco’s Suppenkuche or Silverlake’s Red Lion. At Radegast, the higher concepts of European cuisine take a backseat to the undressed pleasure of unmitigated beer food.
This unconcerned approach to running a beer hall is the constant that makes my meals here so enjoyable. By nailing the communal-yet-cozy atmosphere and focusing more on hunger and thirst than their sophisticated descendants, Radegast has carved out quite the watering hole. There couldn’t be a better place for Palm Speciale to rest its laurels.
Radegast Hall and Biergarten
113 N. 3rd St
Brooklyn, NY 11211