Lederhosen. Oompah bands. Dirndl dresses that make us regular ladies look like something out of a cartoon European Disney village. Oktoberfest season has arrived (technically, it runs September 19th to October 4th).
Provocative clothing aside (by which we refer to the sight of so many dudes in green shorts and suspenders), there are many, many reasons to love Oktoberfest—the Bavarian fall celebration is now in its 182nd year of merriment and stein-clinging. Begun in 1810 as a way to mark the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, the celebration (also known as Weis’n) has evolved into the largest festival in the world, attracting six million visitors annually to Bavaria and inspiring imitation here in the States. And while we love a massive Bavarian pretzel and an insane panoply of meat options as much as the next crew, the reason we really get excited about Oktoberfest is simple: beer. Specifically, Oktoberfest beer, aka “Marzenbier,” which shows up at Oktoberfests the world over and helps us say goodbye to the shandies, session beers, and saisons of summer.
Now ideally you get your stein of Oktoberfest at Oktoberfest in Munich, but if you can’t make it to Deutschland, don’t worry. There are plenty of worthy imitators in the States (and no surprise, since if you divide Hispanic immigrants by country, Germans are actually the largest ethnic group in the U.S.).
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Beer Note: Historically, only six breweries can serve at a true Bavarian Oktoberfest: Augustiner, Hacker Pschorr, Paulaner, Spaten, Lowenbrau, and Haufbrau, and respect, since most of those breweries have been around for centuries (all the way back to 1328). But depending on the fest, you’ll likely see other beer options, American-brewed Marzenbiers and beyond. To which we say, of course, willkommen.
It might seem presumptuous to call yourself “America’s Oktoberfest,” but these guys earned it—they’re throwing the largest Oktoberfest in the States, with about a half a million visitors annually. Beyond a glut of authentic Oktoberfest food and drink delights, this one gets a serious edge from fun activities, everything from the world’s largest chicken dance to the Gemutlichkeit (“good will”) games, pitting traditionally styled German waitresses against each other in activities like barrel rolls and stein races. And not to be missed, of course, “The Running of the Weiners.” Basically 100 dachsunds racing each other in hot dog bun costumes. Das is gut.
Anywhere else in San Francisco in late September might not feel very “fall” or German for that matter, but at Pier 48, they go all in, from food and drink to most every visitor decked out in traditional costume. The 21-piece Chico Bavarian Blaskapelle (brass) band promises to keep things feisty and help you dance off the mass quantities of beer and meat. Bonus points for being able to cool off with an incredible waterfront view.
Pennsylvania is another state with a big influx of German immigrants (the “Pennsylvania Dutch” actually got their name from German-speaking immigrants—here “Dutch” equals “Deutsch”). Their influence can be found in many ways and places, but our favorite is the wealth of Oktoberfests statewide, including this one in its 17th year in Canonsburg. Home grown and super family-friendly, it’s good, classic ‘festing here, with some added carnival rides, face painting, and lots of music, including a performance by a group called Sputzy and Tequila Mocking Bird. How can you resist?
Milwaukee’s got serious German heritage (into the early 20th century, German speakers and German-written newspapers outnumbered English), so, unsurprisingly, tradition dominates here, with most beers from authentic Oktoberfest breweries like Hofbrau, Hacker-Pschorr, and Paulaner. Truly though, the food options seem the most staggeringly awesome, with literal rows of spit-roasted whole pigs (aka spanferkel), brats, preztels, roasted chicken, rollbraten (sliced pork sandwiches), and even Bienenstich, or “Bee sting cake,” a German dessert made with sweet yeast dough baked on caramelized almonds and filled with custard or butter cream. Not a great spot for newly committed vegetarians or dieters.
Another one of the biggest and longest-running American Oktoberfests, Denver’s began in 1969 thanks to the efforts of Fred and Hertha Thomas. Fast forward to their 46th year and Denver Oktoberfest attracts 350,000 annually. No surprise, given the fun they have, from the National Championships of Keg Bowling to the 10th Annual “Long Dog Derby,” testing the athletic prowess of tiny-legged dachsunds (separated by size from “Little Links” to “Bier Brats” to “Senior Schnitzels”). Liberties are taken with drink selection; you’ll find German favorites alongside some American options and even, yes, Fireball.
Two less similar accents might not exist on earth, but Fredericksburg, Texas, is deeply German. It was founded in 1846 by the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants, named after Prince Frederick of Prussia, and it’s actually the birthplace of “Texas German,” aka Texasdeutsch, a hybrid dialect spoken by German immigrants reluctant to give up the mother tongue (though by now it is near extinction). All that as preamble that yes, you’re going to get a good, authentic Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg—which is about 75 miles away northwest of San Antonio and southwest of Austin. Beyond a huge food menu, check out the extensive beer selection, which of course features some traditional selections but also boasts a ton of domestic and Texas-specific beers. (Note: The Walburg Boys performing on Friday, October 2nd have no association with Marky Mark or NKOTB.)
Like Denver, Mt. Angel started its Oktoberfest in the 60s (1966), one of the longest-running in the country. What’s most impressive here is that a small town can bring in as many guests (temporarily growing in size from several thousand to over 350,000 people when Oktoberfest season rolls around). They bear it with a smile, not to mention tons of attractions, events, performances (including the von Trapps—yes, those von Trapps) and, beers. Amble from the traditionally rowdy, polka-blasting Biergarten to the chill Weingarten or quiet Prostgarten, complete with acoustic accordion, and more beer. There’s even a Kindergarten area that’s entirely family-focused, with ridiculously fun-looking games and rides that parents might have trouble resisting, especially after a beer or two.
Tradition might weaken a bit here—pretty sure there’s no Chippendale’s Keg Tapping in Munich—but that’s part of the off-kilter fun. If you like to party in Vegas, a little bit more plugged-in and glitzed-up, then this might be the Oktoberfest for you. Where else would Siegfried and Roy do the inaugural keg-tapping to launch the fest? But even if more attendees than normal are aggressively spray-tanned, the fest will still feel distinctly German—the place is styled after a traditional Hofbrauhaus, with Oktoberfestbier on tap and nice, heavy menu items like schnitzel and a “smoke house platter” plate of variety smoked meats. Bonus points if you can get a Chippendales dancer to eat some.