If you aren’t aware, Cincinnati is home to a festival on the first weekend of March every year called Bockfest. Bockfest is a celebration of Bock beer, and one of the few celebrations of it’s kind around the country (and the best one in my opinion.) Where did it come from though, and what exactly are we celebrating?
What is Bock beer?
Bock beer is a lightly hopped, but strong malty beer that is typically brewed in the spring. It’s existence can be traced back to German monks, who started brewing the beer to have sustenance during the springs Lenten fasts. There are many varieties of bock beer at this point, almost all of them being lagers. Some of the popular styles of bock beer you will encounter are:
As for the name? There are a multitude of stories that attempt to trace back the Bock name (which means “Goat” in German). My favorite story of the name’s origination is this: During a legendary drinking contest “back in the day” two brewing monks were facing off with each other. Upon losing the competition one of the monks toppled over in his chair. In his embarrassment, the monk blamed his upturned nature on an errant goat that had wandered into the tavern. The winning monk, upon hearing this, told his companion that the only goat that had knocked him over was the beer itself.
What about Bockfest? Where’d it come from?
The history of Bockfest, straight from the horses mouth is as follows:
Bockfest was created by the Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Company to celebrate the brewery’s introduction of Christian Moerlein Bock. Prior to Prohibition (1919 in Ohio), Christian Moerlein was the largest brewery in the state and one of the five largest in the nation. Despite its size, the brewery did not re-emerge after Prohibition, but the Hudepohl Brewing Company, originally founded in 1885, did return. Hudepohl was a local favorite for decades. Most Cincinnatians know that, but surprisingly few understand the company’s role in helping give America better beer. In 1981, Hudepohl recognized an untapped market in craft beer. The company became one of the first two craft beer producers in America (Anchor Steam in California was the first.) The craft beer line was produced under the resurrected name Christian Moerlein to pay homage to Cincinnati brewing history. The beer was sold with the tag line, “quite simply a better beer” and became the first American beer to pass “Reinheitsgebot,” Germany’s stringent beer purity law. In 1992, the Moerlein line of craft beers was expanded to include a bock. The company decided to turn the launch of the beer into an entire festival celebrating Cincinnati ‘s brewing heritage, including a parade. The parade started at Arnold’s Bar & Grill because Arnold’s is both the city’s oldest saloon as well as being the first place to serve the twentieth-century Christian Moerlein beer.
With the work and dedication of Hudepohl-Schoenling, bar owners, Over-the-Rhine residents, and non-profit organizations like Merchants of Main Street, the tradition of Bockfest was carried on through subsequent years. During the festival’s history, Hudepohl fell on hard times and Bockfest was kept alive largely due to the once-beloved (but now defunct) Barrel House Brewery. When Barrel House left Over-the-Rhine in 2005, the future of Bockfest was placed in question, but a small number of people refused to let that happen. The festival was maintained and, through a great deal of hard work by a number of OTR proponents, has grown significantly in the years since 2006. Brought from the brink of death, it now draws attendees from both near and far.
Traditionally, Bockfest Hall was a different vacant building every year. This succeeded in bringing attention to Over-the-Rhine properties that subsequently housed important contributions to OTR (Jefferson Hall and the Know Theater as two examples), but there were a number of problems associated with this strategy. First, the buildings were often in need of significant work just to open them for a weekend. Secondly, they were often too small to serve their intended purpose. And most importantly, owners did not like to commit to renting a space for a weekend event more than a few weeks before it occurred – leaving the important location of the hall unknown even to event organizers until a matter of days before the festival. Fortunately, this changed in 2010. The festival now has a permanent location for its Bockfest Hall in the Event Hall adjacent to the new home of the Christian Moerlein Brewing Company.
Pre-Bockfest Precipitation Retaliation
2008 was a catastrophic year for the bockfest celebration. The weekend started on Friday with a massive snowstorm that left the city of Cincinnati in a level 3 snow emergency, and all the streets closed to traffic. The city at the time did not have the residential community that it has now, and left many people unable to make it to the festival.
Regardless, several hundred brave souls walked or drove illegally down to the parade and marched the streets regardless, with Bockfest almost a total failure that year, it’s organizers knew they needed to do something to prevent this in the future. Bockfest Czar Mike Morgan decided the next year to do what any logical person would do… he build a 4 foot tall snowman effigy and before the weekends festivities threw a party in which the snowman was burned.
This tradition has continued year after year, enabling the festival to go on without a snow related hitch ever since. The snowman, and the party itself has grown every year, with this years (2015) snowman reaching a height of 8 feet. Mike Morgan summed up his weather control philosophy perfectly with this statement:
“We’re not a bunch of wimps in Pennsylvania that let a groundhog tell us what the weather is going to be, we take it into our own hands.”