New Ulm, MN
Cities such as Cincinnati and Milwaukee have larger German-American populations, but tiny New Ulm—population 13,500—is the most German city in America per capita based on the U.S. Census. It’s so German that it supports two Oktoberfests simultaneously. One is a ticketed event at the Holiday Inn, and the other is downtown and free. But it’s not the biggest event in this rural town. That accomplishment belongs to Bock Fest at the August Schell Brewing Co., America’s second-oldest surviving brewery founded in 1860 and still in the hands of Schell’s fifth- and sixth-generation descendents.
In an age when most production breweries are in nondescript business parks, a visit to the August Schell Brewery (1860 Schell’s Road) begins with a stroll through the gardens with peacocks strutting around next to a large pen with deer reportedly descended from the same line that August kept, the inspiration behind its Deer Brand beer. While there’s great history here, the hospitality center is new, though some of the memorabilia housed inside are quite old. Of course, visiting in the fall demands drinking Oktoberfest, while visits in the winter call for drinking the bock. In fact, try it “poked.” Having a red hot iron poker placed in your winter lager warms it, creates caramelized malts and adds a smoky flavor you’re not likely to find anywhere outside the fest.
Terry Sveine is a native New Ulmer and the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau manager. He says that New Ulm—founded as a German utopia that didn’t establish an English-language newspaper until after World War I—is home to Turner Hall (102 S. State St.).
“The Turner movement started in Germany,” Sveine says. Promoting the concept of “sound mind, sound body and general good German fellowship,” the Rathskeller is Minnesota’s oldest bar. Today, diners and imbibers can enjoy Gemütlichkeit ( a sense of coziness) while gazing at 19th century murals of Old World scenes. Turner Hall remains the epicenter of social and business activity for the town.
Proffering an authentic German cuisine is Otto’s Feierhaüs & Bierstube (2101 S. Broadway St.). It is tucked into the Holiday Inn but operated separately. When Sveine last visited, he enjoyed the Landjäger, a tasty wurst made from pork and beef. If you’re hungrier and feeling old school, try the Hasenpfeffer, rabbit braised with spices in red wine and fruit, practically a mainstay of the German-American diet before World War I. Otto’s serves it with sweet and sour cabbage and housemade spätzle.
Veigel’s Kaiserhoff (221 N. Minnesota St.) is another institution that has been here since 1938 and features a broad menu heavy on German classics such as Jägerschnitzel, or just go for the Stout Burger. Either way, order the sauerkraut balls to start. Schell’s beers are served, but so are wines from Morgan Creek Vineyards, the local winery started by one of August Schell’s other great-great-grandsons. It makes some German-style wines such as Riesling and Gewürztraminer. And for the kinder, the restaurant carries the Ulmer Brewing Co.’s soda, contract brewed at the Schell Brewery.
Pop directly behind the Kaiserhoff for an after-dinner brew at the Pub and Patio (225 N. Minnesota St.), which has a gorgeous back bar about 100 years old made by Brunswick of billiard table fame. Across the street is The Lamplighter (214 N. Minnesota St.) for a family-friendly atmosphere. All these bars are hospitable to locals and visitors alike. Sveine adds to the list Rodney’s Tavern (6 S. Minnesota St.).
One of downtown’s main attractions is the 45-foot-tall glockenspiel that plays daily at noon, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Three blocks away is the B&L Bar (15 N. Minnesota St.), operating as a saloon since 1897, although it served only near beer during Prohibition. Schell’s is rumored to have made that near beer.
When it comes time to go schluffen, rest your weary head at the Holiday Inn (2101 S. Broadway St.). Those who seek unique accommodations may balk at the idea, but the host of the town’s original Oktoberfest boasts German-themed décor and fills up quickly (see sidebar for details). For more down-home lodging, the Deutsche Strasse (404 S. German St.) is a B&B perfectly named for the street it’s on. Old-world hospitality with delicious breakfasts included can be enjoyed a four-block walk from downtown.
Though New Ulm is understandably dominated by Schell’s, consider visiting comparatively off-the-beaten-path breweries in the area. If driving, check out Worth Brewing just below the state line in Northwood, IA (826 Central Ave.) run by the husband-and-wife team of Peter Ausenhus and Margaret Bishop, a fifth-generation brewing family. Their Herminator Dunkelweizenbock should be ready before the fest. Brand new is Okoboji Brewing, in Spirit Lake, IA, a destination only the most ardent beer traveler can claim to have visited. Another new brewery, Heist Brewing in Brookings, is one of South Dakota’s few craft breweries. Unlike the Germanic beers in New Ulm, these New World brewers make beers such as Tea Off, similar to a Witbier with green tea added. On your way back to New Ulm, be sure to detour to Lucan, MN, population 191, home of Brau Brothers Brewing, which features a hopyard and estate barley field.