Oktoberfest in Your Back Yard

It's that time of year again: Oktoberfest is coming. Beginning September 18, millions of revelers will descend on Munich, where they'll celebrate the 200th anniversary of the original event by stuffing themselves with grilled chicken and sausages, drinking beer out of huge steins, and singing and swaying to oom-pah music.

Why did Munich become home to the world's biggest beer festival? One reason is Bavaria's brewing calendar. Beer made in warm weather was so awful the government outlawed summertime brewing. Brewers coped with the ban by making strong beer in late winter, and storing it in a cool place until summer. The beer was called Märzen, German for March.

When fall brought cooler weather, brewmasters went back to work. With fresh beer on the way, it was time to finish off the Märzen. In October 1810, Bavaria's royal family gave Münchners an additional reason to drink up. In a break with tradition, they invited the public to celebrate Crown Prince Ludwig's wedding to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen.

The first Oktoberfest featured horse races, but no beer; local brewers didn't set up shop until a few years later. Gradually, Oktoberfest became the party it is today as carnival rides, rotisseries, and the famous beer tents made their appearance. As the festivities become more popular, they were moved up to September, which offered more cooperative weather.

Like the festival itself, Oktoberfest beer has changed over the years. The original Märzen was a robust, dark copper-colored brew. In the 1870's, it was replaced by a lighter-colored, less powerful beer known as Oktoberfest or simply, festbier. The beer has continued to evolve. Today's version is crisp, pale-colored beer called Helles, German for "light-colored."

For most of us, a trip to Munich is a once-in-a-lifetime proposition--if we can get there at all. But every fall, hundreds of communities across North America stage homegrown versions of Oktoberfest. Like St. Patrick's Day, it has become an all-American celebration: you don't have to be German to join in.

Some maintain that Oktoberfest in America dates back to 1846, when Milwaukee's German-American community celebrated its first German Fest. But the first event to call itself "Oktoberfest" didn't take place until 1947. The distinction is claimed by Blob's Park, a beer garden in Jessup, Maryland, which still hosts the annual celebration.

Oktoberfest in America has been transformed from a rowdy beer bash to a party for all ages. It's still a celebration of German culture, of course; Oktoberfest wouldn't be complete without brass bands, folk dancers, and German food and beer. But don't be surprised if the festivities include country music and magic shows for the kids.

The nation's biggest Oktoberfest takes place in downtown Cincinnati, Munich's sister city and home to thousands of German-Americans. Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati, which began in 1976 as a block party to lure visitors downtown, now draws over half a million. The event has earned a reputation--not to mention a place in the record books--for organized silliness. Its signature event, the World's Largest Kazoo Band and Chicken Dance, has been led by the likes of Weird Al Yankovic, Tony Orlando, and Chad Ochocinco.

In the Ontario cities of Kitchener and Waterloo, Oktoberfest celebrates both German culture and Canada's Thanksgiving. The nine-day event draws more participants than any other Bavarian celebration outside Munich. Sports arenas and social clubs--nearly 20 venues in all--are turned into
festhallen offering traditional food and entertainment. The festivities, which begin with trumpets from the rooftops and end with the singing of "Ein Prosit," include family and cultural events, highlighted by a Thanksgiving Day parade.

Communities with large German-American populations are naturals for Oktoberfest celebrations. In Fredericksburg, Texas, founded a century and a half ago by German settlers, organizers promise "oom-pah at its best," along with a separate Kinderhalle and activities for children. La Crosse, Wisconsin, once the home of eight German-owned breweries, stages Oktoberfest USA, complete with an honorary royal family, a lederhosen luncheon, and a torchlight parade. Tulsa, where one in four residents claims German ancestry, celebrates with the Chicken Dance, beer barrel races, and plenty of traditional food.

Smaller German towns join in the fun as well. Frankenmuth, Michigan's "little Bavaria," celebrates America's only Oktoberfest that's earned an official seal of approval from Munich's Lord Mayor. The pioneer town of Mt. Angel, Oregon, celebrates with a Maypole dance by local children, street dancing, and, this being Oregon, microbrewed beer. The festivities at Torrance, California's Alpine Village include wood-sawing and yodeling contests, and festbier brewed on the premises. Helen, Georgia, a reproduction of an Alpine village, celebrates Oktoberfest from late summer until the leaves change color.

America's most offbeat Oktoberfest takes place in Seattle's funky Fremont neighborhood, which modestly calls itself "The Center of the Universe." This one-of-a-kind event features chainsaw pumpkin carving, cross-dressing lumberjacks, the famous "Tubapalooza," and dozens of microbrews on tap. But even here, tradition hasn't gone by the wayside. By rule, musicians must perform at least one German song per set.

Wherever you live, there's probably an Oktoberfest right in your back yard. Best of all, you won't need a passport, plane ticket, or language tapes to be part of the fun.

Ludwig's 2010 Oktoberfest picks:

Alpine Village Oktoberfest,
Torrance, CA: September 10-October 23 (Friday through Sunday)

Frankenmuth Oktoberfest,
Frankenmuth, MI: September 16-19

Fredericksburg Oktoberfest, Fredricksburg, TX: October 1-3

Fremont Oktoberfest, Seattle, WA: September 24-26

Helen Oktoberfest, Helen, GA: most days between September 9 and
October 31

Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest,
Kitchner and Waterloo, ON, Canada: October 8-16

Mt. Angel Oktoberfest,
Mt. Angel, OR: September 16-19

Oktoberfest USA,
La Crosse, WI: September 24-October 2

Cincinnati, OH: September 19-20

Tulsa OktoberFest,
Tulsa, OK: October 21-24