Don’t mess with the Fest

Typically when a plan seems foolproof, you haven’t factored yourself into the equation. That was the case in writing this article.

I wanted to find the Minnesota brewery reinventing Oktoberfest. Who was adding mango puree to Märzen, serving schnitzel egg rolls or hiring a DJ to remix polka standards? 

The headline would be: “Not your Opa’s Oktoberfest.”

I contacted the usual suspects in the Minnesota River Valley. I reached out to other contacts around the state. Finally I emailed Brian Kaufenberg, creative director at Beer Dabbler. No one fit the bill.

“Since it’s such a tradition, most folks are sticking with tried-and-true recipes and approaches,” Kaufenberg replied.

The brewing team at Giesenbrau in their biergaten
In the New Prague biergarten: Erin Hutton (left) and Tom Giesen.

I was the fool. But the answer wasn’t completely satisfying. To understand, I needed to talk to a brewery that fully embraces the traditions. This led me to Erin Hutton and Tom Giesen of Giesenbräu Bier Co.

“Of all the parties in the world, Oktoberfest has the biggest reputation as the best party,” Hutton said, sitting in his New Prague biergarten one July afternoon, pint glasses sweating on the table. 

“Anybody who’s been there has had a great time, and if it’s the best party in the world, why would you want to stray from that?”

During a Giesenbräu Oktoberfest, staff and patrons dress in German tracht, lederhosen and dirndl. 

The brewery charges admission to its festival tent, either basic entry or a slightly higher price that includes a souvenir liter stein and pour. Polka music plays, and an area food truck serves pork dumplings, sauerkraut, etc.

The first Oktoberfest occured in 1810 as part of a wedding celebration for Bavarian royalty, replete with feasts, parades and horse races. The locals enjoyed the festivities so much that they decided to reprise them the next year and the one after that.

“Anybody going to an Oktoberfest in the U.S. — they don’t want to show up and see a rock band and a taco truck,” said Giesen, who’s Hutton’s brother-in-law. “They want that tradition.”

And for their family, German beer culture is personal.

While studying in Munich, Hutton met Anna Giesen. She also had studied in Bavaria and had returned to live there after college. They bonded over their love of beer halls and would wonder, “Wouldn’t it be great to open a German beer hall back in the States?”

After returning from Germany, Hutton worked at a microbrewery in the Denver area that made beer flavored to resemble, say, Hawaiian pizza or Lucky Charms. He decided that when it was time to open his own brewery, it would resemble a beer hall.

After marrying and starting a family, the Huttons moved to Anna’s hometown of New Prague. Recruiting Giesen and his wife, Becka, they opened Giesenbräu in 2017 to make “bier-flavored beer.”

Giesenbräu Bier Co. opened in 2017 to make “bier-flavored beer” in a setting inspired by German beer halls.

Hutton, owner-operator and brewer, and Giesen, brewer, took home two second-place medals in the 2021 MN Brewers Cup by sticking with European styles and using imported Weyermann malts. Their Festbier is no different.

Only “the Big Six” are allowed to call their beers Oktoberfestbier: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschor, Löwenbräu, Paulaner, Spaten and Hofbräuhaus. But many, including Giesenbräu, follow their lead when making Festbier.

Spaten debuted the first Märzenbier at the 1841 Oktoberfest, and the amber lager became the festival’s official beverage in 1872. In the 1970s, however, these Bavarian breweries shifted from the caramel-colored concoction toward lighter, crisper flavors. Today’s Festbier leans much less on Munich malt but offers the same ABV punch.

“A lot of people confuse Märzen and Festbier,” Hutton said.

Of course, Märzenbier (“March beer”) was around long before the 1800s. The term applied to beers brewed before the cutoff imposed by a 1553 Bavarian ducal decree. Brewing had to cease from April 23 to Sept. 29 due to increased risks from bacteria and wild yeast. Until Spaten’s amber lager debuted in 1841, Märzen referred to any beer cranked out as the end of spring approached — almost always dark beers!

A pint of Helles Lager sits on the bar at Giesenbrau in New Prague, Minnesota
Hildy’s Helles, Giesenbräu’s version of the classic pale lager found throughout Munich, took second place in the 2021 MN Brewers Cup.

So, to recap: Oktoberfest no longer involves a wedding or horse races. Festbier is no longer Märzen. Märzen isn’t even Märzen anymore.

Maybe my premise wasn’t too off base. What we celebrate may be your Opa’s Oktoberfest, but it isn’t his Opa’s. It’s unrealistic to think cherished traditions will never change.

But with traditions, especially those involving beer, thinking takes a back seat. That’s where I’d gone awry. And it’s what the Giesenbräu crew had been trying to explain about Oktoberfest.

“It’s a day where everybody just enjoys themselves,” Hutton said. “They’re all drinking a liter of beer, like, ‘It’s Oktoberfest today. I can drink a whole liter of beer or maybe two, why not? Let’s have a good time.’”

Oktoberfest at Giesenbräu 

Sept. 30-Oct. 2, 2022

$20 basic entry

$25 entry plus stein and first fill

More information: giesenbraubierco.com

Image of Oktoberfest article in Mankato Magazine

James Figy is a writer and beer enthusiast based in St. Paul. In Mankato, he earned an MFA in creative writing from Minnesota State University and a World Beer Cruise captain’s jacket from Pub 500. Twitter and Instagram: @JamesBeered

This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of Mankato Magazine.

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