Paige Latham Didora
they have peacocks. #drinkthestory
People know that Schell’s isn’t just Deer Brand, right? Isn’t that a little tired? My first and most beloved editor said to me while redlining my beverage roundup copy for Heavy Table about four years ago. Well, he wrote it in the margins, actually, leaving me to take or leave the feedback. It was a fair point.
People should, I thought.
Deer Brand, a perfectly respectable yet pedestrian, 30% corn lager, beer-of-grandpas-everywhere had been the face of August Schell Brewing Company, the 159-year-old New Ulm brewery, for decades. Especially during the dark ages of beer consolidation and limited consumer interest in anything small or new. But its history runs even deeper. Deer Brand predates prohibition. It is a Midwestern staple — not hipster ironic like PBR or farmed out like Hamm’s.
I considered my editor’s point further. No, was the answer that came to mind. People don’t know anything about Schell’s.
It didn’t really matter that Schell’s had been making world-class, gold-medal-winning beer for decades and interesting (even to the Inner Beer Circle) varieties for many years. People don’t realize that, despite their quaint footprint, they are the largest brewery in Minnesota since the acquisition of Grain Belt in 2002.
To this day, serious beer drinkers, even in Minnesota, don’t recognize that Schell’s was at the cutting edge of sours. While the coasts and even the south were experimenting heavily with mixed fermentation and souring, the Midwest was sleeping on just about everything besides clean brewer’s yeast. Anything sour was a mistake. Meanwhile, Schell’s was quietly resurrecting what would soon become the literal wooden foundation of a second facility in the form of cypress lagering tanks. This, The Starkeller, was designed to serve their traditional and non-traditional Berliner Weisse beers and foeder sours, all the while miraculously relying on a Jurrasic-era brewhouse with strictly functional upgrades.
First impressions are everything, and for many people my age, that first August Schell impression was as a child, digging past cold stag-clad cans deep in someone else’s fridge while searching for a Mug root beer at a potluck.
Second impressions aren’t useless, though. While working at The Four Firkins, a now-shuttered legendary craft beer store in the Twin Cities, I discovered Schell’s for myself as a full-fledged adult. I became a fan of their classic beers — Schell’s Dark, Bock, and Hefewezen. The Firkins brought a constant stream of dazed clientele, staring back at my enthusiastic face describing that the brewery behind Grain Belt and New Ulm’s annual Oktoberfest celebration was not only (all due respect here) fishing and mowing and bad college decisions.
It took me a moment to get there, too. Like many modern beer snobs, my first real eyebrow raise was probably while tasting wine-barrel-aged Schmaltz’s Alt, the first beer in the Schell’s specialty Stag Series. But when the Noble Star Collection sour beers sat before me, I was just confused. I unpacked two cases of Star of the North, a traditional Berliner Weisse, and North Country Brunette, a Marzen-Style Berliner Weisse which was, as far as I was concerned, not a thing. Berliner Weisse rung a bell, and I had tasted the classic Flemish sour Duchesse du Bourgogne. I did my research on the classic German sour wheat style, and I listened when Jace Marti, son of fifth generation brewmaster Ted Marti, would bring us samples. Whether an ancient American brewery, the second oldest family-run operation in the nation, could be churning out serious sour beers from a town of about 13,500 — that would need to be proven to me.
Now, almost seven years later, I pair a Noble Star Berliner Weisse with every private dinner and pop-up I curate. (And, I shit you not, at every single event, I get a deadpan glance and a “Schell’s? You mean like…Oktoberfest?”)
But this isn’t a Cinderella story. When it comes to a traditional German brewery making German-American beer while surviving settlement uprisings, prohibition, the Great Depression, world wars, brand consolidation, and — maybe most challenging of all — fickle consumer tastes, you either get it or you don’t, you know?
Go crack a Schell’s Firebrick, the best beer on the planet, and get at me about your feelings.
This is a story about peacocks.
Jason Alvey, my boss at The Four Firkins, decided we all needed to see the Schell’s campus for ourselves, since few of us had ever been. He organized a company field trip for a Sunday, back when the only good thing about Minnesota restrictions on Sunday alcohol sales was a good day for a company-wide liquor store field trips. We traveled in style, in the only way that a person should arrive in New Ulm — a city whose town slogan is come see what’s brewing –on the Schell’s Short Bus. I was excited but I wasn’t sure what exactly to be excited for.
Doug, my filterless co-worker said, “maybe you’ll fall in love and become heir to the Schell’s fortune.” I replied, “I could never live in New Ulm.” We were on the edge of the city now, where cows would start to appear. “They have peacocks,” said Alvey, like it was a helpful suggestion. “What do you mean, they have peacocks?” Somehow my question seemed like the weird part of the conversation.
There’s really no point in describing something that’s living, unexpected, and picturesque with words, because nothing will do it justice. But this is a blog, so I will try. The campus is located on one edge of the small city, near the confluence of the Cottonwood and Minnesota Rivers on wooded and rocky terrain. Once you’re on the little private road that winds at a slight incline about a third of a mile or so from the mundane (Target parking lot) to the forest, it’s otherworldly. I’ve heard the lore – they built the brewery there because it feels like the Black Forest in Germany. They had to be proximal to a water source for both brewing water and cutting ice in the winter. The steep terrain made digging the lagering caves easier. It’s probably all true.
Upon arrival, the road is flanked by an old building, now a gift shop and museum, on the left and older buildings, the brewing operations, on the right. Straight ahead is a smaller, charming Victorian-meets-Bavarian building that formerly housed brewers. In the front, it’s painted in an understated fashion, but the back now houses a service window facing outdoor tables, the building as a whole like a Biergarten mullet.
Proceeding beyond the first buildings brings visitors to the heart of the grounds, the low shade gardens and paths, which are at once wild and manicured. The mansion follows. It is unoccupied but serves to anchor the rolling space and remind visitors that Schell’s is and has always been a home and a family.
Sure enough, there were peacocks. If you’ve not seen a peacock in person, it’s somewhat like a blue, slender turkey whose business end may, at any point, bloom upright into a poultry-based fan. It’s really a remarkable thing to behold, what with its ornamental head feathers, picking at nothing on the ground.
Deer, too, have been present on the grounds for the last 159 years. They’re privy to their own park and pen, and meticulously cared for by special projects coordinator Jodi Marti and brewery staff. Last year, Schell’s added honey bee husbandry to their repertoire, and hives are housed on the brewery roof.
The fact that peacocks roam the grounds at Schell’s isn’t any more amazing than the story of the brewery itself. The birds embody fantasy come to life: a German lager house that has adapted to some trends, created some of their own, all while embracing its roots. The Marti family can throw a mean party, but they are also kind and humble people.
The multi-generational affection for Schell’s is what sustains them, and it is at the heart of the American brewing industry. There is no other story I’d rather be drinking.
#drinkthestory is a media collection conceived by writer and craft beer expert Allo Gilinsky, based in Sonoma County, California. We want to hear about the stories your drinking. Please use the hashtag and share.