Oktoberfest isn’t just about the beer, but family, say Salt Lake City’s brewers

Breweries in Utah replace alcohol with art to develop authentic festbier.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) As the seasons change to fall, some of Salt Lake City's brewers are hosting Oktoberfests as a way to introduce Utahns to a traditional German brew house experience, including at Bewilder as seen on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2021.

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When Kevin Templin looks out across the employees and beer drinkers that flock to his brewery he sees family.

The founder and head brewmaster of T.F. Brewing — the T.F. stands for Templin Family — said Tuesday that the “family” in the pub’s name isn’t necessarily about his own kin, but the community. “That’s the whole family deal. It’s not just me, and my brother, and my mom and dad and my kids.”

“It’s more Templin Family like, well, you’re part of our family now,” he says during an interview at the brewery. “Michael’s part of our family. This guy sitting at the bar is,” Templin said, breaking eye contact to look at a manager and a patron who’d recently bellied up. “I like that vibe,” he added.

On Saturday, the T.F. Brewing crew will host hundreds of extended “family” during their annual Oktoberfest. Templin, a 26-year veteran of the Utah beer scene, said his family is German and they always seem to get together this time of year to celebrate the changing of the seasons. So, for the last three years, he’s strived to share that experience with the community.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Oktoberfest is in full swing at Templin Family Brewing in Salt Lake City as Taylor Nebeker, pours a brew for a customer for a traditional German brew house experience on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2021, and it isn't just about the beer. Oktoberfest is a way for "family, a community of people coming together" to enjoy each other's company, TF Brewing bartender Taylor Nebeker explained, "and I think we need that, especially after 2020.”

“We laid down lager beers for two, three months at a time just to get them prepared for this festival,” the brewmaster said. Templin has also ordered more than 600 pretzels from local German bakery Vosen’s Bread Paradise and Beltex Meats is providing food, including sausages, for the event.

The brewery will also tap a traditional, 200-liter cask that is being flown in from Franconia, Germany, this week. Upon arrival at Salt Lake City International Airport, Templin will fill the cask with his own marzen-style festbier.

Blue and white streamers, representing the flag of the German state of Bavaria, already hang above T.F.’s long, cafeteria-style tables and benches. “We force people to socialize,” Templin said of the communal environment of the brewery, and encourages strangers to strike up conversations with each other.

Sharing an anecdote of why the tables are so important to T.F. Brewing’s ethos, bartender Taylor Nebeker told a story of her boyfriend’s Oktoberfest experience in Germany, where an employee working the festival grabbed him, and squeezed him between strangers at a long, already crowded table. “I wasn’t even going to get in,” he told Nebeker, she recalled, but they pressed him into a small gap in a bench “like a too hot Tetris piece.”

“Oktoberfest is more about a family, a community of people coming together and enjoying the day. The whole point of it is to be able to drink from start to end — not partying, not getting out of control — but just really enjoying each other’s company and having a great day,” Nebeker said meaningfully. “And I think we need that, especially after 2020.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wine and whiskey barrels age brews 6-18 months at Templin Family Brewing in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2021, as they celebrate Oktoberfest as a way to introduce Utahns to a traditional German brew house experience.

If you put the Wasatch Mountains off your right shoulder and drive your car or bike about a mile northwest from T.F. Brewing (and perhaps stopping at Fisher Brewing Company — 320 West 800 South — along the way) you’ll end up at Bewilder Brewing Company.

A downtown brewery that opened its doors at 445 South 400 West in December 2019, just months before the coronavirus pandemic nearly shuttered those same doors, Bewilder is in the midst of their own Oktoberfest.

On Sept. 18, Bewilder replaced its menu — which already prides itself for hand-made sausages — with German-inspired cuisine, including roast chicken halves and Munich weisswurst. For dessert, Sweet Vinyl Bakeshop in Sugar House has contributed German chocolate cupcakes to the menu. Blue and white flags hang from the rafters.

But no Oktoberfest would be complete without beer. Bewilder co-owner and head brewer Cody McKendrick has brewed several German beers, including a special “festbier,” for this year’s nine-day event.

“The biggest thing we rolled out for this is called a festbier, which by law is the official beer of Munich Oktoberfest,” McKendrick said. In 2017, when he and his wife went to Germany for the traditional festival, the brewer said he expected to find a lot of marzen-style beers on tap, or a darker beer that Americans might consider as the official beer of Oktoberfest.

“But in the mid-’90s, they changed the law,” McKendrick explained, and that now festbier is the official festival beer “because amber lagers were too hardy to drink liter mugs of.” He said the festbier is his favorite to brew, isn’t particularly difficult, but “a lot of technique goes into it to balance everything and make it really drinkable and enjoyable.”

Celebrating Oktoberfest earlier this week at Bewilder was Derik DeBoard, the brewmaster of Strap Tank Brewery in Lehi.

During a dinner of wienerschnitzel with his wife April, DeBoard said he got into brewing in late 2012 after spending nearly a decade as a Navy corpsman on active duty and as a reservist. Now bearded, and still tattooed like a sailor, DeBoard’s left hand knuckles are inked in tribute to the west coast Marine Corp units he deployed with to Afghanistan. One finger reads “1/7,” for 1st Battalion 7th Marines, while another digit is tattooed “3/4” in black ink.

After leaving the Navy, the former corpsman was introduced to beer-making by his cousin, who, he said, is a Gulf War veteran. DeBoard then started taking biology and chemistry classes at Salt Lake Community College and working in different capacities at local breweries.

Holding a full stein under his nose like a sommelier, DeBoard praises Bewilder’s festbier. It had a “nice little bit of honey character” he said of the beer. “Clean finish, easy to drink, crushable.” he adds. Exactly what McKendrick was looking for in his Oktoberfest brew.

“I love how Cody was able to create this festbier as a 5% version,” he says of McKendrick’s Oktoberfest brew. “I mean, most fest beers and Oktoberfest beers are generally a little bit stronger.”

DeBoard had only one critique of the beer, and said he thought the beer would benefit from a “tiny little touch” more body. But that isn’t anything McKendrick could fix, he explained, as long as Utah’s lawmakers continue to regulate draft beer alcohol content to 5% alcohol by volume.

In late 2019, not long before Bewilder sold its first pint, a new state law effectively raised Utah’s 4% ABV cap for retail beer to 5% ABV. The Responsible Beer Choice Coalition had initially lobbied for a 6% ABV limit, but “that idea got a frosty reception from lawmakers — the overwhelming majority of whom are members of the state’s predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and are taught to abstain from alcohol as part of their religion’s Word of Wisdom health code,” Kathy Stephenson reported for The Salt Lake Tribune at the time.

McKendric said after the law passed, brewers pushed their beers to 5%, but had the law been capped at 6% ABV, there would have been more room for brewing nuance, which would have allowed brewers the freedom to make beer more to style.

“Like my kolsch, for example,” he said, “is probably at its best at 4.8%, which is ideal, but I brew it at 5%, because that’s just what it’s supposed to be. But, if there was a 6% cap, I would absolutely brew it at 4.8 and have more beers that fill out that other range (between 5 and 6% ABV).” Both DeBoard and McKendrick said traditional Oktoberfest beers fall into that five to six ABV range.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cody McKendrick, head brewer at Bewilder in Salt Lake City moves kegs of beer on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2021, as they host Oktoberfests as a way to introduce Utahns to a traditional German brew house experience.

During his dinner, DeBoard said that Utah brewers “try to make every beer as true to style that you can get,” and that brewers like Bewilder, Red Rock Brewery and T.F. Brewing do great jobs making beer authentic as they can within the constraints of Utah’s alcohol laws.

Beer drinkers seem to be noticing the beer quality as well, and are flocking to Salt Lake City’s unique pubs. McKenrick said the opening day of this year’s Oktoberfest was Bewilder’s best business day on record. And back down the street, T.F. Brewing has already sold out of 400 presale tickets for its own festival, but is offering a $10 door charge on Saturday for those who missed out. The “third annual-ish” Templin Family Oktoberfest kicks of at noon on Sept. 25 at the brewery’s 936 South 300 West headquarters.

“Utah is renowned for craft beer, because we got to get it right,” T.F. Brewing bartender Nebeker said. “So for something to have a body, a presence, a bouquet, a mouth feel — in any category of beer — and taste the way it’s supposed to and blow you away at 5%, is art and science.”

Nebeker added that the art and science of brewing in Utah is so good because the community of brewers is so tight. Her boss agreed.

Templin said Utah’s “brewing community is too small for someone to be an outlaw” and that community of brewers is important to fostering good beer.

“Like Cody (McKendrick), I want his beers to be super good, world-class all the time, because it reflects poorly on our whole community when someone’s not towing the rope,” the veteran brewer said of newcomers Bewilder. The openness and communication that exists across brewers in town, he explained, leads to sharing ingredients in a pinch and candidate conversation about beer quality.

So why is family so important, not just at T.F. Brewing, but all across Utah’s beer scene? Templin’s answer is as philosophical as it is professional.

“You want to keep that open relationship going, because what happens if you don’t have that?”