A Family Friendly Event Now, Louisville's Bock Fest Has Rowdy Origins

Mar 2, 2022 at 1:35 pm
Well... maybe there's still a little rowdiness at the modern Bock & Wurst Fest.
Well... maybe there's still a little rowdiness at the modern Bock & Wurst Fest. Photo by Francis Dumstorf

When the beer starts pouring and the goats start running in NuLu on March 26, NuLu Bock & Wurst Fest will be a fun family event — and it will hearken back to the mid-1800s, when German immigrants began arriving in Louisville, bringing their brewing traditions with them.

The full story is a lot to unpack, so let’s start with the beer. While German brewers brought lager brewing to Louisville — often typified by pale yellow, crisp beers — another style of lager made the trip as well: bock beer. Bock in those days was made with dark malts and fermented for months in underground tunnels over the winter, rather than lighter malts fermented for a few weeks. The result was a thick, hearty beer with about double the alcohol content as a typical lager. The beers would be barreled over the winter, and then released in March to coincide with Lent. The thick, rich beer would provide nutrition during Lenten fasting, and it was also sort of a de facto welcoming of spring. As “bock” was a German reference to a goat, signs in tavern windows all over the city would bear likenesses of goats in announcing the coming of Bock Day.

There’s also a legendary back story of how bock beer came to be. In a March 21, 1914, Courier Journal article, the story took on this form:

“It is legend that Jan Primus, or John First, whose name has come down to present times as ‘Gambrinus,’ had a vagabond serving man who ran away from his master and carried with him two stone bottles of beer with which to refresh himself on his travels. He drank the first bottle of beer and then buried the other until he required it. But he wandered far and it was not until hunger drove him homeward that he came on the place where he had buried the bottle of beer.

“It had had several months in which to ripen, or ‘lager,’ and the serf was delighted and surprised to learn that it had greatly improved in quality and flavor, and being a wise knave, he saw his chance to make favor with his master and escape the punishment which he rightly anticipated. 

“Accordingly, the runaway took the bottle of lagered beer to his master and was not disappointed at the pleasure that the king found in the discovery. The result was that Gambrinus had his castle brewer put away a lot of beer every winter to ripen, and thus he became the patron saint of the ancient and honorable Guild of Brewers.”

Is it true? Probably not, but what the heck.

Of course, local breweries will be creating their own bock beer for the festival, in keeping with this tradition. But rather than having a Bock Day celebration for families, as with Bock & Wurst Fest, Louisvillians then celebrated in a different way: by getting sloshed. From the middle to late 1800s up until close to Prohibition, Bock Day was sort of like Oaks Day in modern times — people anticipated it for weeks, took off work and celebrated, typically drinking bock most of the day and into the evening. Hey, they’d been waiting all winter for this treat, right?

click to enlarge An old sign for bock beer from Frank Fehr Brewing Co. | Photo by Kevin Gibson. - Kevin Gibson
Kevin Gibson
An old sign for bock beer from Frank Fehr Brewing Co. | Photo by Kevin Gibson.

A 1903 description of Bock beer in the CJ described it as having a “particularly grateful sweetness that is highly appreciated by the beer drinker.” Additionally, a 1910 CJ story noted that Bock typically packed 7-8% alcohol, which was enough to “make an excessive indulgence a trifle dangerous to those who are not accustomed to malt beverages.” That the standard lager of that time was closer to 4% ABV meant that not everyone was on their best behavior in Louisville when Bock Day rolled around. 

In researching my book “Louisville Beer: Derby City History on Draft,” I found quite a few fun anecdotes by way of The Courier Journal archives via the Louisville Free Public Library. On March 18, 1894, Henry Caldwell and Mary Smith apparently enjoyed several bock beers, according to a police account, and decided to make a living, breathing bock beer sign to celebrate their enthusiasm for Bock Day. However, as they couldn’t find a goat, they instead stole a pig and apparently tried to paint the poor animal into a sign near the corner of Ninth and Walnut streets.

“The beast objected loudly,” according to the report, and the noise disturbed church services that were happening nearby, so Louisville Police was summoned. “Officers McPeak and Hessian arrested all three. The pig was sent to the West End pound, and the man and woman to the station house. They told different stories about how they came into possession of the pig.”

On March 30, 1891, “Babe” Field stabbed Hugh Walker in the stomach in a drunken fight over a game; several people were stabbed that day as fights broke out around downtown, including Stephen Jones, a brick mason who was stabbed in the chest near the corner of Wenzel and Main. April 11, 1892, one Bock Day headline read, “Fannie Dillon Buries Hatchet in the Side of Kate East’s Head.” Yes, the two had been drinking bock beer all day.

From death threats to mudball fights to thrown chairs to broken windows, over the decades there was plenty of rowdy bock-inspired behavior around Louisville. Bock beer popularity declined after Prohibition, and while local breweries still brewed it, Bock Day disappeared as an annual holiday.

But what about those goat races? Well, that’s not a Bock Day tradition, but rather a storied Main Street tradition. The well-known Nanny Goat Strut and Billy Goat Strut alleys have those names for a simple reason. Before there was organized horse racing in Louisville — Churchill Downs opened in 1875 — there was goat racing along Main Street. Those alleys got their name as a result, or at least that’s the legend. 

But according to a 1958 Courier Journal accounts, the alleys as we know them today didn’t exist until around 1910, and it was much later that they were given their official names. The alleys apparently originated in an area that as early as 1831 had been known as “Preston’s Enlargement.” Alleys around downtown generally were given colloquial names by local residents, and both Billy Goat Strut and Nanny Goat Strut were simply referred to that way by locals in the beginning. The Louisville Free Public Library gathered these names, and in the late 1950s, the city officially named the various alleys and erected signs.

Another interesting note: In 1975, a group of residents who had alley addresses petitioned what then was known as the Louisville Board of Aldermen to change the names of these alleys, saying it was “degrading” for them to live at an “alley” address. One thought was to rename them as “courts” or “ways.” Billy Goat Strut Alley’s name was not changed in part because by that time only one person lived directly on the alley, at the 816 address between Shelby and Campbell. Lucky for us, as the names are quick conversation starters today.

NuLu Bock & Wurst Fest, which started in 2015, marries the bock tradition to this goat racing legacy, and adds Kentucky Proud sausages made by local chefs. So, when you grab a bock on March 26 and pick the goat you want to win, you’re carrying on two Louisville traditions at once. The festival is 1-6 p.m. that day, and you can bet NuLu is going to party like it’s 1899. Well, without all the mayhem.

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