Saturday, February 20, 2010

Schell’s Bock Fest. Drink Beer. Make Friends. Get Poked.

Schell’s Bock Fest 2010 in New Ulm, Minnesota

This year marked my third trek to New Ulm, Minnesota and the grounds of Schell’s Brewery for their annual Bock Fest. Among the many beer festivals I have attended, Schell’s Bock Fest stands out in it’s simple enjoyment of beer for beer’s sake, and for the camaraderie formed among fest goers while standing outdoors on the frozen grounds of the second oldest brewery in the United States.

The August Schell Brewing Company was founded in 1860 by German Immigrants August Schell and Jacob Bernhardt, and was passed into sole possession of the Schell family in 1866. Schell’s Brewery is celebrating it’s 150th anniversary this year and holds the title of the second oldest brewery in the US, surpassed only by Yuengling of Pottsville, PA which was founded in 1829.

Attending the festival is as straightforward as the Bock beer poured on Schell’s historic grounds. The entry fee is $5 at the gate, after you pass through and get your wristband a brief walk along a narrow road brings you to a throng of fest goers at the brewery where you’ll want to buy tickets to later exchange for beer or bratwurst. Since Bock Fest occurs in February it’s extremely important to dress warm, as the entire festival is held outdoors in the frigid Minnesota winter.

Of equal importance to your winter apparel is the mug you bring from home to quaff your Caramel Bock. Extra points go to the size and uniqueness of your serving vessel. I always bring a traditional glass Oktoberfest stein, but Bock containers can range from a simple plastic cup to such tankards as a gas station Big Gulp mug, glass and plastic pitcher’s, “SunnyD” orange juice containers, a 5-gallon cornelius keg strapped on your back, sport bottles, even a 1-gallon gas can will hold your Winter Lager quite well.

Navigating the festival can be daunting to the newcomer considering the crowd. However, your journey to the beer line will be much more enjoyable if you consider every person you bump into, walk around, or stand next to, your very best friend at that very moment. While discussing beer ticket prices ($1/ticket. 4 tickets/beer.) I told a man who’s stature far exceeded my own that he “wasn’t as dumb as he looked”. We instantly became best friends, for the next 3 minutes.

Squeezing into the beer line for Bock is a warming experience literally and figuratively. At it’s peak the beer line doesn’t move fast, and hardly resembles a line. It’s more of a pile of bodies waiting to board a packed subway train, except we’re all holding empty beer mugs. Once you’ve reached the holy grail of the taps, you have to make the choice between the only two beers served at Bock Fest. Schell’s Caramel Bock or Schell’s Light. Here’s where your mug comes into play, you can buy up to four 16oz cups of beer at a time. Pour these beers into your mug carefully but quickly, and exit the line.

Now you’re ready to revel in the festivities of Bock Fest. Work your way around the snowy grounds of Schell’s Brewery, grab a bratwurst complete with kraut (4-tickets) and listen to the Bock Fest Boys Polka band. No trip to Minnesota would be complete without traditional Polka after all, and if you’re lucky you’ll hear a rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall” played on the accordion.

Head over to one of two bonfires to take the chill off and get your beer “poked” with a red-hot wrought iron poker. Also known as “Mulled Ale”, inserting a hot iron poker into your Bock will cause it to foam up considerably, so be sure to drink your flagon down a bit before doing this. When the beer settles again you’ll notice a slight crystalized effect on the body of your winter lager and bit of smoke from the fire. While it’s not for everyone, getting your beer poked at Bock Fest is certainly tradition and a must for the first time fest goer.

Many beer festivals feature a broad array of breweries offering an astounding selection of craft beers. Beers that cause the beer lover to pause and reflect, discussing the merits of the beer, brewery, and perhaps the brewer responsible. Schell’s Bock Fest provides a venue for the beer lover to bundle up and unwind. To enjoy a winter lager that naturally stays as cold as Minnesota in February. And to befriend complete strangers around a fire while we all get poked.

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Beer enthusiast and advocate. Recognized beer judge and traveler of west coast beer destinations.