Except for the monumental Hermann the German statue an impressive, if strange, commemoration of German victory over the Romans at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 A.D. New Ulm feels just like any other sleepy southern Minnesota town.
But then there's Bockfest. Once a year, New Ulm's own August Schell's Brewery hosts one of the Midwest's biggest winter beer festivals, and the town swells with busloads of visitors from all over the state, most of whom arrive with only one goal: the excessive consumption of alcohol. Bockfest is not for the faint of heart, the weak or the scantily clad. Bockfest is for those who love beer, or, more precisely, Bockfest is for those who like getting toasted on cheap Minnesota beer in subzero temperatures and now I'm one of them.
I first heard about Bockfest from an enthusiastic supporter of the event, my high school friend Rick Knowlton. Rick and I spoke immediately after I had returned from a semester studying in Ireland and another month traveling in Europe. Bouncing around from city to city, I had reveled in sampling local brews. My two weeks in Germany were awash with various weissbiers, my time in Barcelona a tidal wave of Damm, and, needless to say, I may have sampled a smooth stout or two while residing on the Emerald Isle.
Upon my return to the Deuce Cities, I was determined to seek out local Minnesota brews that I had hitherto ignored, so that someday I too could sing the praises of some provincial suds. Armed with a valid identification card and some spirited friends, I was (and remain) confident that my search for the best regional plonk would be fruitful. And Rick was adamant that my quest should begin at Bockfest.
It will probably change your life, he said ominously.
Foolishly, I protested. Traveling to a beer festival in New Ulm sounded like more of a hassle than it was worth. After a few feeble objections about my academic workload and possible transportation troubles, Rick, a Mr. Miyagi-type figure in the arena of alcohol, simply commanded I attend: Go. No questions asked.
Like Daniel in the Karate Kid, I assented to this forceful proposition. I would go to Bockfest.
Two friends of mine, juniors Aidan Currie and Mark Legler, agreed to accompany me on my pilgrimage to New Ulm. Aidan, who had worked at a local brewery in his hometown of Bend, Ore. one summer, considered his attendance an academic exercise, a chance to brush up on and expand his beer knowledge. He had actually already heard of Bockfest, and he recruited a former Ole and friend of ours, New Ulm native Shannon Johnson, to drive us to the event, set to take place on Feb. 17. Mark's reasons for tagging along were less scholarly than Aidan's, but no less noble. He's maintained an admirable, even enviable, dedication to beer since our first year in college, and, more importantly, I don't really think he had anything better to do.
It takes about an hour and a half to get to New Ulm from Northfield, and since Bockfest kicks off each year at 11:30 a.m. sharp, we agreed to leave around 9:30, which really meant that we agreed to leave around 11:30. (It's practically a mathematical certainty that any undergrad seeking an early rise on the weekend should plan for an additional two hours of pounding on the snooze button, staring at the ceiling, cursing decisions made the previous evening, etc.)
Accordingly, our journey commenced in the early afternoon. The drive was pleasant, despite the fact that Shannon's driver-side window is permanently open and her car radio broken. The lack of music meant that we depended on conversation for entertainment, a frightening concept that actually enabled us to take our minds off the impending free-flow of beer. As we pulled into South Park, a huge chunk of forested lands that surround the Schell brewery, I had almost forgotten why we had come to New Ulm in the first place.
I was quickly reminded.
Look at the wardrobe. It's like Hot Topic had sex with Gander Mountain, Mark said with wonder in his eyes as we tried to take in the scene unfolding before us. Marching up the hill towards the Schell's campus was a huge congregation of men and women decked out in neon yellow Arctic Cat jackets, snowsuit overalls, flannel jackets and Arapho boots. One woman sported a pink feather-boa hat and a beer-can necklace, while the man standing besides her was jabbing the antlers of his animal skin cap into his friend's ample belly.
At a table near the entrance of the brewery, two middle-aged men were recruiting (with considerable success) other groups of middle-aged men and women to walk back to their van and take grape Jell-O shots with them. Another guy was exchanging Mardi Gras beads for swigs of beer. According to him, the line for beer, a couple hundred people long, was a waste of time.
Despite his warning, we waited patiently with the rest of the crowd, purchasing a booklet of forty tickets worth eight beers for the three of us; Shannon had gone home to visit her family. As we advanced towards the taps, we quickly realized that our expectations for this beer festival were decidedly off the mark. We had all figured that an event like Bockfest would be akin to a wine tasting, a semi-serious affair in which different varieties and styles of beer would be available for testing, reflection and meaningful pontification about the merits of each brew. But at Bockfest, only two beers are available Schell's Light or Schell's Dark. Blonde or Black. Piss-water or liquid bread.
After acquiring our four Lights and four Darks, we moved around the event site slowly, shivering, drinking and sopping up the atmosphere. Unfortunately, our lack of a bubba keg a container that can hold up to four beers limited our movement, since we had to drink out of cups that are easily spilled when surrounded by a swarm of drunks. (An experienced Bockfester later told me that only morons come to a beer festival without a suitable drinking vessel. Apparently, 64 oz. jugs are the norm.)
Incredulously, we watched from a distance as people participated in the Bock Hunt, a yearly drunk hunt in which beer guzzlers roam the woods in search of cardboard cutouts of deer, antelope and other big game. I've since considered that the Bock Hunt probably accounted for the inexplicable profusion of camouflage clothing at the festival, but at the time, I was simply confused.
Tired of Bock Hunt, we wandered over by the food pit were brats, kraut, soup and breadsticks made up the entire menu. I debated acquiring a Bock Brat, but the sound of a band warming up caused most people to rush towards the center stage area, and I figured that food was less important than a Bockfest Boys concert. According to Ted Anderson, an employee at Schell's, the Bockfest Boys have played at the festival since its inception 21 years ago, and I can certainly see why.
Even with the temperature below freezing, the band was able to cobble together a rousing renditions of Beer is Good for You, Ya Sure Ya Betcha and an assortment of Johnny Cash and Jimmy Buffett covers. Unfortunately, weather and time considerations stopped me from requesting Free Bird, but let me assure you, this is the only time in my life that there's been a legitimate chance the band would've busted into the song. Instead, the sweet sounds of the strikingly appropriate Why Don't We Get Drunk and Screw provided the perfect capstone to one of the best musical performances these (tipsy) eyes have ever seen.
The blowing of the Bock horn signaled an end to the festivities, and after grabbing a few more Darks, we prepared for the arduous trek back to the parking lot. As we left, an enormous, grizzled man in a court jester hat and an official Schell's Brewery T-shirt gave us one last bit of advice: Finish your beer before you drive, he yelled. And come back next year.
I'm already planning on it.