An Authentic German Beer Fest in Minnesota: How Schell’s Bock Fest Came to Be
August Schell Brewing Company, now named Schell’s Brewery, is the second oldest family-owned brewery in the nation. Founded in 1860 by German immigrant August Schell, the brewery is rich in German tradition. Stationed in the historic town of New Ulm, MN, Schell’s has weathered the storms of Prohibition and today’s ever-changing craft beer market thanks to staples like Grain Belt Premium. But it’s one of its seasonals that often gets the most attention due to the festival that celebrates it. First started in 1987, Schell’s Bock Fest celebration is an event as rich in tradition as the brewery itself. Here’s what you need to know about the event, which takes place on March 2, 2019 from 11 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. at Schell’s Brewing Company.
The idea for a Bock Fest celebration originated with Schell’s former president George Marti and current president Ted Marti. The concept started as a dinner and a simple ceremony that would highlight the end of winter and the capturing of the “Seven Bocks” hidden in New Ulm’s Flandrau State Park that, once found, would release Minnesotans from the grasp of winter and beckon in spring. Think of it as Groundhog’s Day, but with delicious Bock beer. The traditional origins of Bock Fest were readily embraced by the residents of New Ulm and were implemented alongside the town’s Fasching Festival back in 1987.
Along with the bock hunt, Bock Fest always has polka dancing, live music, traditional German cuisine and something called Bock Poking.
“The idea of Bock Poking came from an old tradition of warming one’s beer up with a hot poker of some sort, as was typically done in the bars by older German descendants,” said Leigh Wendinger, Schell’s Marketing Manager.
The Bock in question is one of Schell’s most popular releases of their Stag Series. With a brewing tradition that spans more than a century, Schell’s clearly has some experience in making traditional German-style beer. Their Dopplebock is a great example with a smooth dark body and strong malt taste. That said, the Bock consumed at Bockfest is actually a Caramel Bock, providing added drinkability thanks to its sweeter overtones.
What started as a small celebration has quickly turned into a historical event celebrated for more than 30 years. Each year’s event brings huge crowds of New Ulm citizens, native Minnesotans and folks from across the nation and the world looking to partake in the Bock-fueled fun. Wendinger expects about 7,000 attendees this year, with many being return visitors.
And while Bock Fest is rooted in tradition, there are some fun, new features that are sure to excite patrons. One example is the human “St. Bernards” that help thirsty beer drinkers in pursuit of the Seven Bocks, providing a bit of added cheer in the snowy wilderness.
“[We] strap a keg on their back [safely, of course] and they walk up and down the trails searching for thirsty hunters,” Wendinger explained. “Those people who are hunting for the hidden bocks and are lucky enough to cross their path will get a free beer.”
The hunt for bocks may be the most labor-intensive part of Bock Fest, but it’s only a small part of what has morphed into a weekend-long celebration in New Ulm; the town has wholly embraced the event as its own.
“During Bock Fest, the town really comes together to show the festers a good time. Many of our venues host pre- and post-Bock Fest parties that draw large crowds. In combination with Schell’s, our chamber and many local bars contribute to a shuttle service that runs to the bars, hotels and the festival all day to ensure people have safe transportation,” Wendinger said.
With temperatures forecasted to be near zero, having a beer (or three) will be vital in staying warm throughout the Saturday spectacle. The fire pits, fits of polka dancing and German sausage may also help.
“It’s a great opportunity to drink a few beers, listen to music and hang out with 7,000 of your closest friends,” Wendinger said. “It’s really special to see how many of our festers come back year after year to celebrate with us.”
Bock Fest almost seems like a Minnesotan rite of passage with the creamy Bock smoothing the creases between native New Ulm residents, out-of-staters and beer tourists alike. Hell, it just seems like a fun time to get together and sway along to some polka music with a German beer in hand. That’s what I’ll be doing. Prost!
Feature image courtesy of Beer Info/Schell’s