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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Engineered to Refreshment

Believe it or not, drinking and writing about beer is not my full-time gig. But beer still finds me, even in my day job at a global automation technology vendor. (It doesn’t hurt that it’s a German company.)

One of our top engineers, Matt, is also an avid homebrewer. As a resident beer buff, I often get to try his test batches and offer feedback. One day we discussed how many brewers start out in engineering, listing several examples. The conversation was brief, but the idea lingered.

Engineers, of course, are details people. But there must be more to it, right? And do many folks involved in beer making actually come from engineering? I tracked down some Minnesota brewers with engineering backgrounds to find out.

How many engineers are in brewing?

A non-exhaustive list of Minnesota breweries with engineering professionals includes August Schell Brewing Co., BlackStack Brewing, Lost Sanity Brewing, Tin Whiskers Brewing Co., Uncommon Loon Brewing Co., Urban Growler Brewing Co. and Utepils Brewing Co. This excludes folks from broader STEM fields and those who received brewing engineering degrees but don’t identify as engineers.

Deb Loch, head brewer at Urban Growler, in the brewhouse
Deb Loch worked in biomedical engineering for 20 years, including eight years at Medtronic, before becoming master brewer at Urban Growler. (Urban Growler Brewing Co.)

The list highlights people like Deb Loch, master brewer at Urban Growler in St. Paul. She put in 20 years as a biomedical engineer and product manager, then received a degree in brewing and went to work at Northern Brewer, the homebrew supply store. 

She noticed engineers made up a good share of customers and often focused on gear more than others. That made sense to Loch.

“When I transitioned to brewing, I never transitioned out of engineering,” she said, adding she’s an analytical, problem solver by nature. 

“It wasn’t like I stopped doing any of those things. I just applied it to a different situation.”

Why do engineers make good brewers?

Two key themes were process and measurement. These are critical for recipe development, reliable production and fixing issues with ingredients or equipment, said Schell’s brewmaster Dave Berg, a former aerospace engineer.

Tin Whiskers beer glass
The exclusive dimple glass was reserved for members of Tin Whiskers’ Robot Collective group.

“In the brewhouse, we measure temperatures, volumes, pH, specific gravity, to name a few. In fermentation, we measure temperature, pH drop, specific gravity drop, the time it takes to reach attenuation,” he said. “Knowing what your targets are and what to do for something out of specification is critical for consistency.”

Brad Klatt, co-owner and head brewer at Uncommon Loon in Chisago City, sees the craft’s multidisciplinary nature as another key reason. “Brewing contains a number of mechanical, chemical, electrical, controls/automation and microbiology sciences,” said Klatt, who retired after 36 years in engineering to open the brewery.

Collecting data at each step and using that to enhance the brew is also critical, said Jeff Moriarty, founder and president of Tin Whiskers. The downtown St. Paul brewery also draws on Moriarty’s electrical engineering career in its branding, with a pint-wielding robot mascot and beers titled Short Circuit Stout, Reverse Breakdown Maibock and the Bot IPA series.

“Brewing beer is also very science-based,” Moriarty said. “I like to think of it as engineering, but with beer instead of electronics.”

How to enjoy beer like an engineer

Are there any lessons non-engineers can apply when tasting beer or homebrewing? Pretty much all of the engineers-turned-brewers responded something like: Sure, but why?

Jordan Nordby, lead brewer at Utepils in Minneapolis, emphasized her chemical engineering knowledge wasn’t her most important tool. “It is having the mindset to know that things can always be improved and being able to see those opportunities when they present themselves,” she said.

Still, Nordby suggested homebrewers add a light lager or blonde ale to their rotation. These seem simple but don’t hide mistakes well. Stick to the recipe, don’t dump in extra hops, taste carefully and make intentional changes, she said.

“Do you want to know how different yeasts change the flavor of beer? Split your wort in half and ferment each half with a different yeast,” she said. “There are a lot of ways to experiment with recipes. But it is important to make sure you have the basics down first before going crazy with styles.”

The engineers’ main advice was to calibrate your palate. Don’t limit yourself to specific styles. Try to describe what you’re tasting. And always remember to enjoy each new drink and brewery — don’t turn it into a science fair.

As Klatt put it, brewing is highly technical, but beer itself remains more ethereal.

“While engineering is an important skill set, equally important is appreciating the art and beauty in crafting beer,” he said. “I’m continually in awe of the miracle that combining four simple ingredients – grain, hops, yeast and water – can produce such a magical beverage.”


Mankato Magazine April 2022 issue

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.

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

Update: Tin Whiskers unfortunately closed in May 2022.

The basics aren’t basic: Pilsner

Josef Groll had a big head. Arrogance was one of the brewer’s defining characteristics. His own father dubbed him “the rudest man in Bavaria.” But even Groll couldn’t have imagined — when he brewed the first Pilsner on October 5, 1842, in a small Bohemian city — his new pale lager would become a global mainstay.

The people of Pilsen, in what’s now Czechia, recruited Groll to create an alternative to the terrible ales they regularly dumped. They built a state-of-the-art brewery, now called Pilsner Urquell. Czech Pilsners retain much of the sweetness, hefty Bavarian malt mouthfeel, spicy bitterness from Saaz hops and golden color of the original.

Fair State Pils can with a full pilsner glass next to it
Fair State Pils draws on aspects of the north German and original Czech Pilsner. (Fair State)

In the late 1800s, advances in refrigeration and yeast accelerated the style’s popularity. Pilsner spread, adjusting to local tastes, agriculture and water. First it moved south into Austria and Bavaria where it spawned the Helles lager. Then it went north, creating the crispier northern German Pilsner and another spinoff: Dortmund export.

What about now? Unfortunately, Pilsner is no longer seen as Groll’s revolution, but too often as a macro style that breweries carry as a gateway to more exciting styles.

In this column, I want to occasionally revisit the basics, highlighting a Minnesota offering that’s a standard bearer of the style. For Pilsner, I spoke with Niko Tonks, founding brewer at Fair State Brewing Cooperative. Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, runs the gamut between what the beer was and what it might become again.

James Figy: Are Pilsners nowadays just something for the not-a-beer-drinker to sip?

Niko Tonks: Pilsners, in particular, are gaining ground. We always have Pils in the taproom, and when we have a second Pilsner, it often moves faster than IPAs at that time. But Pilsner is just one kind of pale lager. The lager in general has further to go. 

JF: You once said brewers, rather than being beer snobs, prefer pale lager. Why?

NT: Taste among brewers is a diverse thing. But it’s a truism that the longer you’re in the industry, the more likely you drink pale lager at the end of the day, oftentimes not even craft beer. 

At a base level, it tastes good, and you can have two or three. If you’re working in the “kettle sour mines” all day, cutting bags of fruit puree into a fermenter, you’ll probably crave a “regular beer.” On a technical level, Pilsners require consistency and are difficult to do well. That’s another truism.

JF: What makes Pilsners so difficult?

NT: The old story is there are fewer things to hide behind. That’s true to an extent. Material selection is important, but that applies to any style. Really, reaching the pinnacle of IPA is as hard as getting to the pinnacle of Pilsner. 

Fair State Brewing Cooperative's taproom in Minneapolis
Fair State Brewing Cooperative is a Union brewery with a Northeast Minneapolis taproom and St. Paul brewhouse. (Fair State)

But the opportunity cost is huge: In our peak season, we could put two or three batches of IPA through a tank in the time it takes to do one of Pils.

We use some old school, continental techniques, too. Much American brewing equipment isn’t set up for them, though many new breweries are building in these capabilities. You need to do a temperature program mash or decoction if you want to get to the next level. 

And we keep Pils simple, which is the nature of the beast. As a brewer, you have to resist complicating recipes for beers like this.

JF: Which pale lager ancestor does it most closely resemble?

NT: Fair State Pils is a mashup of the Czech and northern German versions. It’s maltier and less dry than the latter because we use Bohemian Pilsner malt. But we pair it with a lot of classic German aroma hops from the Hallertau region of Bavaria, so it’s more bitter and hop aromatic than the former. We aimed for an authentic continental style.

JF: Why have you focused so much on craft lagers, like Pils, Crankin’ Foamers, Union Lager and Vienna Lager?

Exterior of Fair State Brewing Cooperative in Minneapolis
While Fair State received early attention for its sour program, including the ubiquitous, hibiscus-infused Roselle, the brewery’s focus remains on low-ABV lagers and other easy-drinking styles. (Fair State)

NT: Our concept when we opened in 2014 was to make low-alcohol beers. Early on, our sour beers got more attention, so we leaned into that. And we’ve definitely chased a trend or two. 

But during the pandemic, we had some downtime to think. We realized we’re technically proficient enough to make almost any style, but people can really tell when you’re excited and care about the beer. 

We’ll keep brewing as many lagers as possible, and if that’s our niche, we’ll still sleep well.

JF: Will the industry overall trend in that direction?

NT: Everything’s possible on small scales. To stay alive in Minnesota’s beer scene, most breweries must cater to everybody. I hope we see greater differentiation, with go-to places for English pub ales or brown ales or Belgians.

But I take it with a grain of salt. My first brewing job was at Live Oak Brewing in Austin, Texas, which makes Pilz — a very Czech Pilsner. Every year since, articles have said, “This is the year of the craft lager!” The only difference now is I sort of believe it.


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.

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

Nikki Giovanni on Kurt Vonnegut and Antarctica

If I say something stupid, which does happen, I prefer to be in the company of friends. Not famous people. But when I met Nikki Giovanni, I said something pretty stupid.

Nikki was speaking for a diversity lecture at UIndy, and she kept bringing up Kurt Vonnegut, a personal hero of mine. So I recommended: “If you’re staying a few days, in town you should check out the Kurt Vonnegut museum.”

Nikki Giovanni spoke about everything from diversity, the Civil Rights movement and Emmet Till to Kurt Vonnegut, alcohol and Antarctica on Feb. 5 at UIndy. (Photo credit goes to Ayla Wilder)

Nikki Giovanni spoke about everything from diversity, the Civil Rights movement and Emmet Till to Kurt Vonnegut, alcohol and Antarctica on Feb. 5 at UIndy. (Photo credit goes to Ayla Wilder)

She smiled (coyly) and said, “Oh, dear.” And she proceeded to tell me how she and Kurt were close friends, how he would take her son to the circus. He loved the circus, she said, but since his kids were grown, he would always ask to take her son whenever the big top was in town. He would babysit for her, too. I was instantly jealous of her son’s childhood.

But the reason I brought Vonnegut up in the first place was she deeply wanted him to go on her next trip—to Antarctica. Apparently she and her nonagenarian aunt went there a few years back, and ever since, she has wanted to take a group of writers. And writers from Indiana would be great, according to her, because they would know how to describe a flat, empty landscape.

Although I wrote an article about her reading for The Reflector, there were other things that I didn’t write. At least, not until now. So here’s her pitch for a writers booze cruise—I mean, research trip—to Antarctica:

It would just be wonderful to put 10 of you all on a boat, with a couple of cases of wine, beer, you know? Because you’re going to come up with something different.

When you think about it, well I always think about it when I think about Indiana, cause my first thought is Kurt Vonnegut. He was one of the best and most imaginative writers, you know? And Kurt’s gone, so we don’t get to take Kurt to Antarctica. But you can see that there’s, I don’t mean a Kurt, but that kind of mentality. Can’t you see Kurt Vonnegut, and beer, and Antarctica?

So that’s what I’m saying, and so I just keep talking about things because somebody’s got to do it. NASA’s not listening to me right now. They haven’t said a firm no, but they’re always asking for more information and more information. And of course they’re going to push it, and I’m going to say, ‘Fuck you.’ And that’ll be unhappy for everybody. Because, well, what the hell? I mean, they have the beds, right? You can only go in December, because otherwise you’re stuck down there. And they have the beds. It’s just that.

I mean, we’re writers: how much food do we eat? And a couple of cases of wine, you know, if we come through Chile—that’s it. And we’d just get to talk and imagine. I think that we can’t always look at things as what their worth is.

I’m still waiting for an invitation. Nikki had talked more about Kurt, Antarctica and beer earlier in the evening. The best way to sum it all up is with this Vonnegut-ism:

And so on.