CULLMAN, Ala. – Mike Mullaney spent his childhood on a bicycle traipsing around the roads of Cullman at all hours with his friends. A few years later, as a Cullman High School student, Mullaney and those friends spent weekends hiking and camping in Bankhead National Forest, hanging out at Smith Lake and spelunking in north Alabama’s ample caves.
“Growing up in Cullman in the 1970s was great. Cullman was a much smaller town and provided the best childhood,” Mullaney said, remembering fondly. “We would be out from the time the sun went up until dinnertime riding all over town.”
Recently named 2022 Cullman Oktoberfest Burgermeister, or “master of the town and its citizens” or just plain old “mayor” in modern English translation, Mullaney is enjoying a realm that has substantially grown since the days of yore.
“Being selected as Burgermeister is just awesome. It’s such an honor to be this year’s Burgermeister. I know it’s going to be a great time,” he said. “My brother-in-law John Richter was a previous Burgermeister. I know so many of the previous Burgermeisters as well. Casey Harbin was a recent one, and his dad is one of my best friends. This experience is so cool and I’m going to have a blast.”
The 1980 Cullman High School graduate will now be responsible for creating memorable experiences and fun for those who travel near and far to join in the 2022 Cullman Oktoberfest festivities. While Goat Island Brewing’s head brewer will be tasked with tapping this year’s keg, Mullaney will also hold the honor of emceeing many of the events and being a man about town – in lederhosen – in the days prior to Oktoberfest.
Cullman Mayor Woody Jacobs shared his thoughts on Mullaney being selected this year’s Burgermeister.
“I am happy that Mike Mullaney was chosen to be the 2022 Cullman Burgermeister. I have known Mike and his family for many years. He is a well-respected citizen and businessman with great pride in our community and German heritage,” said Jacobs. “I know he will enthusiastically fulfill the duties of Burgermeister and help make the 2022 Cullman Oktoberfest the best yet!”
The happily married father of two adult daughters, Emily and Kate, Mullaney is an opa (I’m sure he’s known as granddad or papa, but this is an article about Oktoberfest so we’re going with the German translation, opa, for our Burgermeister) to Guillermo, 5, and Elena, 3. He has been with REHAU for fifteen years and currently serves as its safety and environmental manager. But you might recognize Mullaney from his other job and passion project – he is a cofounder and president of Cullman’s Goat Island Brewing, the place where award-winning craft beers are made and served.
With his other true love, Mullaney married into a prominent German family with generations of Cullman roots.
“My wife’s ancestors were hard-working German businessmen and farmers, who have been prominent citizens of Cullman from the earliest days of the city,” he said. “One of my wife’s great-grandfathers was OF Richter, who started OF Richter and Son’s Painting and Contracting, which is still in business to this day.”
Mullaney shared more about his wife’s family tree. His great-great-grandfather-in-law was Wilhelm Friedrich Richter. Mullaney’s wife Lisa’s ancestor owned Richter’s Hotel and Saloon and was a well-established businessman. Years ago, Mullaney said, he found one of Wilhelm’s ancient beer recipes on faded paper. On a whim, they brewed a batch, and Richter’s Pilsner, Goat Island Brewing’s second highest selling beer, was born.
Despite Cullman’s deep German heritage, its Oktoberfest wasn’t always celebrated with steins brimming over with pilsner from generations-old recipes.
Beginning in 1982, Cullman celebrated Oktoberfest; however, the celebration in those days was kicked off by the tapping of the root beer keg due to Cullman’s localized prohibition. It was in those years that Mullaney’s earliest Oktoberfest memory occurred, and he still chuckles retelling the story.
“My first Oktoberfest memory is way back before we went wet when (TV station) Comedy Central came. It was so funny! We had our dry Oktoberfest and were drinking our special sparkling apple cider. Pastor Bob Kurtz from St. John’s was interviewed by Comedy Central, and they also interviewed Free the Hops in Birmingham,” he laughed. “They took a lot of video and just laughed at our little dry Oktoberfest. It was hilarious. We made national news!”
After the blue law was dismissed by Cullman voters in 2010, Oktoberfest celebrants were able to trade in the non-alcoholic sparkling apple cider Octoberzest for a stein of the real deal in 2011.
No longer touting itself as the only dry Oktoberfest, Cullman’s festival continued with the Miss Oktoberfest Pageant, carnival games, wiener dog races and the famous “hay people,” an inspiration from former Burgermeisters Philip and Pat Clemmons’ trip to Germany in 1999.
Traditionally, two pairs of hay people appear in Cullman every fall before Oktoberfest: one at Depot Park and one at the intersection of US Highway 278 and US Highway 31. This year, there is also a pair at Goat Island. The giant hay people are constructed of three bales of hay each, with both pairs having one dressed in lederhosen and a hat and one in a dirndl and long braids. The hay people are popular for photo opportunities and have even inspired hay people-themed T-shirts and other merchandise.
“My favorite memory of Oktoberfest is the second wet Oktoberfest. I’m a proud member of the Cullman Brewers Guild. Some of us are home brewers while others are simply beer aficionados. Well, we’re all aficionados on the Guild!” Mullaney exclaimed. “In 2012, we set up the Alabama Craft Beer Garden. We were able to have several breweries from all over the state come and set up booths. Many of those statewide breweries were small, having just gotten started at the time. Now, they’re some of the most well-known bigger breweries around the state. (The year) 2012 gave us the opportunity to go around the beer garden and taste a wide variety of craft beers. That was great fun and one I’ll always remember.”
While he was born in Cullman, Mullaney and his family moved to Florida when he was an infant. After a few years in the Sunshine State, the Mullaneys ventured back to Cullman by way of Birmingham and Decatur. Returning to Cullman in the fifth grade, Mullaney formed a lifelong group of friends who are still tight with each other to this day.
Upon graduation from high school, Mullaney moved south again, this time to Auburn University for college. Afterward, he and his wife headed to Atlanta, where they spent seven years and both of their daughters were born. The birth of their precious girls solidified the Mullaney family’s desire to return home to Cullman.
“We always planned to come back to Cullman. When we moved to Atlanta, we knew wouldn’t be there long because we love Cullman so much,” he said. “Atlanta was never our intended home for the long term. Having our daughters made coming back home more important than ever. Our education in Cullman is top notch and our people are just great. We have such a wonderful community of our best friends here.”
Mullaney’s grandfather has historical significance in the community.
“My grandfather was one of the three outsiders brought in with King Edward Cigars when the Flying 50 recruited them to come to Cullman. Those were Casey Haddock, the plant manager, Ernie Reddick, the human resource manager and my grandfather, Neil Mullaney, the maintenance manager,” he said. “My mother married a ‘Bernard Boy,’ as the young men attending St. Bernard College were called back in the day.”
As an active member of St. John’s Evangelical Protestant Church and the Cullman Brewers Guild, Mullaney said he most appreciates the involvement of Cullman’s citizens in their community.
“Everyone loves this community, and everyone works so hard to make it even better. There seems to be a knowledge that we have a beautiful little town, with a hard work ethic and many things going for us,” he smiled. “There has always been a sense that we are a great place to live and raise a family, and there has always been a community effort to work together to make it better.”
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