Consider these two very different scenes:
In Munich, Germany, two weeks of celebration begin when the city’s mayor taps a ceremonial keg of beer. By the time it is over, more than 6 million visitors will have consumed about 6 million liters of local beer.
In Cullman, AL, “The Fest of Two Worlds” opens October 3 with the tapping of a keg of root beer. Cullman and the surrounding county have been dry since before Prohibition and the town celebrates its Oktoberfest without any alcoholic drinks.
It’s little surprise that last year when a national wire service transmitted a little story about Cullman’s Oktoberfest, newspapers and websites everywhere published it. In the nearly 200 years since the first Oktoberfest, the celebration has become as closely associated with beer as with Munich.
However, Munich’s Oktoberfest is most accurately described as the world’s largest folk festival or, simply, the biggest public festival—and certainly not as a beer festival. Only a half-dozen beers from Munich breweries are available, and heartier, more traditional Oktoberfest/märzen beers are not among them. You’ve got a better chance of finding Spaten Ur-Märzen, the original Oktoberfest beer, at an American Oktoberfest than in Munich.
It’s everything else that makes Munich’s Oktoberfest spectacular—starting with the sheer size that allows the festival to accommodate 6.5 million tourists and locals over 16 days. The festival grounds cover 104 acres and have carousels and roller coasters that put you in a time past rather than at the local county fair. The massive beer tents offer seating for nearly 100,000, and bands with 35 or so members keep the music coming.
You’ll also find things beer related that are missing in the United States. About 1,600 of the 12,000 who work at Oktoberfest are wait staff. These women range in age from 18 to 80 and share a particular gift—they deliver up to 10 1-liter glass steins (weighing up to 60 pounds when filled with beer) at a time, often making their way through rowdy crowds.
Munich’s Oktoberfest dates to 1810, but the first Oktoberfests in America didn’t begin until after World War II when German-American societies recognized that they could help rebuild positive images of Germany and have a good time simultaneously. Today, there are literally thousands of “Oktoberfest” celebrations in North America, ranging from giant community festivals to parties at bars that include neither German beer nor German music.
This year, On Tour Events (based in California) sought to tap into the popularity of Oktoberfest by sponsoring BavariaFest in 17 US cities between April and December. Each event is held in a 28,000-square-foot tent made by Munich tent makers, and the fare includes German food, music and beer (shipped directly from Germany).
We’re more partial to the community events that have grown into an essential part of the local calendar. They may not have beer in Cullman, but locals decked out in lederhosen and colorful dresses waltz and stomp their way around the dance floor, then recharge themselves with traditional food from the local German club. The scene is repeated from Leavenworth, WA, to Amana, IA. Often you’ll find German beer, sometimes American-brewed versions of German styles. Drink a few and you’ll be ready to tackle the chicken dance, a ritual not often seen in the Munich beer halls.
Many US Oktoberfests mix tradition and something a little different. For instance, Altamont Schuetzenfest in southern Illinois has a beer garden and German music but also a trap shooting competition.
Across the United States, there are far too many Oktoberfests to list them all, so here are 10 to get you started:
Sept. 8 – Oct. 28
Held at Alpine Village Park for 31 years, this Oktoberfest is the largest in southern California, drawing nearly 100,000, mostly on weekends. Besides German oom-pah bands, entertainment includes contests like yodeling, pretzel eating, wood sawing, and beer stein holding.
In 1995, Christian Ude, lord mayor of the city of Munich, and Hermann Memmel, member of the German parliament, signed a Certificate of Ennoblement that pronounced Frankenmuth’s Oktoberfest as the first such celebration outside of Munich to operate officially under the auspices of the City of Munich.
Sept. 13 – Oct. 28
Located in an area that was the center of Cherokee Indian culture before 1800, the town of Helen has led many lives. What was left of the town after those mining for gold or harvesting timber departed was rebuilt as a faux Alpine village in the 1960s. On weekends in September and October, traffic into town (much it from Atlanta, 90 miles to the south) can be bumper to bumper. The festival attracts about 50,000 visitors.
Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati started in 1976 and claims to be the largest Oktoberfest in the United States with 500,000 attending. Seven stages feature live entertainment, and 90 booths serve up authentic German food, beer, wine and music. Last year’s festival featured Davy Jones of the Monkees leading the largest music ensemble of all time—the World’s Largest Chicken Dance and Kazoo Band (30,000 free neon-colored kazoos were distributed). The performance was carried over a public address system to all five blocks of Oktoberfest-Zinzinnati. This festival made the Guinness Book of World Records in 1994 for the largest chicken dance in the world (48,000 participants).
Fremont bills itself as the center of the universe, so you’d expect Fremont Oktoberfest to be a little different. As well as pumpkin carving for kids, there is an alternative pumpkin carving contest for adults: “Instead of stupid medieval feats of strength and drinking, we have substituted lunatic feats of daring fashion and power tools. This year will witness the return of cross-dressing lumberjacks for the Texas Chainsaw Pumpkin Carving Contest.” The beer garden features Oregon microbreweries and the music is eclectic. Each band is required to play at least one German song in its set.
La Crosse, WI
Sept. 28 – Oct. 6
Eight breweries in La Crosse were German owned or operated in the late 19th century and the Temperance movement never caught on here—in 1896, for example, one bar existed for every 120 adults. This Oktoberfest extends across two weekends and attracts about 175,000 celebrants. Parades are always among the highlights, with a three-hour Maple Leaf Parade, Kids Day Parade, and the Torchlight Parade. The event was born in 1961, the first such community festival to be held since 1921, and within two years, the city registered “Oktoberfest, USA” as a US trademark.
This is the largest Oktoberfest in North America, with more than 20 halls in a two-square-block area of downtown. Attendance for the week-long activities is expected to top 700,000. Settled in 1805 by Pennsylvania Mennonites, the area was called Berlin and Waterloo in the 1850s. Berlin was changed to Kitchener during World War I, after Lord Horatio H. Kitchener. The festival has been around for 33 years and every year includes Bogenschuetzenfest, an archery tournament where grandparents, children and grandchildren all shoot together. All try to knock off parts of a plastic foam eagle mounted atop a 35-foot pole. Then they all shoot at a special kill bird (plywood) with a small disc in the center that explodes when hit.
Mount Angel, OR
Billed as the “oldest and largest folk festival in the Pacific Northwest,” the Mt. Angel Oktoberfest commences with a traditional German Webetanz, or May pole dance, performed by local school children. The town was first settled by German pioneers in the early 1800s, and the setting was said to remind them of their native Bavarian countryside. Entertainment includes four music stages and there are 60 food booths. About 350,000 are expected to attend. Mainstream beers are available in the Biergarten, while the Microgarten showcases Oregon microbreweries and Munich imports such as Spaten and Paulaner.
More than one in five Tulsa residents claim German heritage, and Bon Appetit magazine calls this one of the top German food festivals in the world. About 200,000 turn out for Bier Barrel Racing, carnival rides, a Polka Mass, a Volksmarsch and more. It’s held along the Arkansas River at the River West Festival Park. Although some of the entertainers come from Germany, the beer consists of mainstream products from the United States.
Founded in 1846 by German settlers, Fredericksburg was named after the Prince of Prussia and is rich with historic German homes. For its 21st Oktoberfest, the town will celebrate with more than 30 bands, waltz and polka contests, an exhibit area that showcases local artisans, and a kinderpark with two stages.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of The Beer Lover’s Guide to the USA (St. Martin’s Griffin).