Sauerkraut shots. Beer choir. Barking hot dog buns. Welcome to Oktoberfest country.
If any place knows how to pull off a good Oktoberfest (outside of Deutschland, that is), it’s the Midwest. A lot of us have German in our blood. Emigrants from Germany built many of our towns. They gave us brats, beer, cuckoo clocks and a fall party tradition dating back to an 1810 royal wedding in Munich. So crack open our guide to all things oompah. First tip: Oktober thrills start in September. Gemütlichkeit! (This doozy of a word—guh-MUHT-lich-kite—is German for good cheer, fun and friendliness. Try saying it three times fast after your third hefeweizen.)
Lass Uns Tanzen! Let’s Dance!
Oktoberfest Zinzinnati USA (September 21–23, 2018)
It takes pluck to brave the country’s biggest Oktoberfest. But we can count about a million reasons to go—literally.
Cincinnati hosts the king of all American Oktoberfests, drawing more than half a million people over three days. (For comparison: Munich’s 16-day fest attracts more than 7 million.) Along more than six street blocks downtown, you’ll find truckloads of kraut and strudel, live music, the Goodwill Games, and the signature Running of the Wieners. But the real point of pride is the World’s Largest Chicken Dance. That’s a sea of humans in varying states of sobriety beak-miming, elbow-flapping and booty-shimmying to the most obnoxious earworm of all time. These days, unifying that many Americans on any topic is cause for a toast. Maybe that’s why Cincinnati hit a new attendance record in 2017. So don’t be chicken. Or, rather, please do.
Courtesy of Oktoberfest Zinzinnati USA
Oktoberfest Zinzinnati by the numbers
48,000 chicken dancers
20,000 cream puffs
702 pounds of Limburger cheese
400 pickled pigs feet
The taste of Oktober
The classics are salty, meaty, carby and almost universally made for mustard.
Chicken This may explain the Cincinnati dance. Despite the sausage hype, more chicken (usually rotisserie-roasted) is consumed than any other meat at the official Munich Oktoberfest.
Metts This German delicacy, known as mettbrötchen when spread over bread, is usually spiced raw pork. An American version served in Cincinnati typically swaps in beef, gets smoked or cooked, and is served like a hot dog.
Pretzels Crunchy, soft or strung on a necklace, beer’s best friend dates back to the Dark Ages. Long ago, European monks prayed with crossed arms. In observation of Lent, one symbolically crisscrossed plain dough, making the first pretzel.
Red cabbage A sweet-and-sour German favorite, served alone or as a side to meat.
Sauerkraut The real stuff is marked by onions, juniper berries and fermentation. Heap your kraut on a brat or savor it solo.
Guide to The Wurst Eats
We can’t list the 1,000-plus sausage varieties you’ll find in Germany. But look for these top dogs (or spreads) at a bona fide Oktoberfest.
Bratwurst The short-and-stout classic brat contains minced pork and beef. You don’t need our help here: Grill it, throw it on a roll and slather it in sweet German mustard.
Bockwurst Also known as a frankfurter, it’s often made of veal and pork and resembles a curved American hot dog. Devour it with mustard and bock beer.
Liverwurst This spreadable meat is usually made from pork and pork liver. Try it on crackers or as a liverwurst sandwich with raw onion and mustard.
Weisswurst A breakfast staple of lightly spiced veal and bacon, this boiled white sausage hails from Munich. Traditionalists suck it out of its casing.
Auf Bier Gebaut/Built on Beer
You won’t find a Minnesota town that wears (or drinks) its German heritage more proudly than New Ulm, home to America’s second-oldest family brewery.
As 11 a.m. approaches, all ages flood New Ulm’s Minnesota Street for free shots. “Still hot,” says a dirndl-clad woman. Not booze. Just a mini cup of pure sauerkraut, pulled from a wagon in the street parade, like a rabbit hiding in a magician’s hat.
Consider it an initiation: the Oktoberfest purist’s hair of the dog after dancing in the Bier Garten late into the night on the other side of town. Or, for some, a snack after the day’s drinking began hours ago—preferably with a Schell’s brew.
While Abe Lincoln was mounting his first presidential campaign in 1860, German immigrant August Schell was selling his first beer in New Ulm. Six generations and 158 years later, the Schell family is still pouring lagers, Oktoberfests and Kölsch beers in this profoundly German enclave 100 miles southwest of Minneapolis.
Specializing in German craft beer (and now the Grain Belt brand), August Schell Brewing is Minnesota’s largest beer producer. Among independent, family-owned brewers, only Yuengling in Pennsylvania has been operating longer. So it’s fitting that New Ulm throws what may qualify as the nation’s most authentic Oktoberfest (October 5–6 and 12–13 in 2018).
Clockwise from top left: George Glotzbach models his Oktoberfest best at Veigel’s Kaiserhoff restaurant. Wearing authentic wooden masks, The Narren of New Ulm have been stirring up mischief for 30 years. Visitors hoist steins at Schell’s Brewery. Photos: Ackerman + Gruber.
The first-Saturday parade unfolds like a time line: “Forstner 1856,” “Havemeier 1857” and “Zangel 1860.” Each float or walking group holds a sign declaring when their family arrived in New Ulm. Census data shows that 65 percent of the town’s 13,500 residents have German roots. But these aren’t the stoic and proper Germans of the north, explains George Glotzbach, Obrigkeit (authority) of the parade. “Bavarians are a different breed,” he says with a smirk. “We drink more beer. We are louder. And we know how to have a good time.” Call them the Oktoberfest Germans.
Hearing that, and seeing the oompah spirit around town, it’s surprising that New Ulm held its first Oktoberfest only in 1970. But it’s a far-reaching celebration now. At B&L Bar, an accordion and tuba blare to a packed crowd ordering $10 Schell’s samplers and bloody marys with nearly a full brunch skewered in the glass. Rodney’s Tavern serves sauerkraut margaritas down the street. Draft horses tow hay wagons full of visitors to stages and beer tents downtown. Even in the countryside, Morgan Creek Vineyards hosts a day of wine tastings, traditional dancing and a grape stomp that draws costumed teams from across the state.
Schell’s throws its own Oktoberfest bash on the brewery’s historical grounds on the edge of town. Deer graze in a fenced-in park while peacocks wander freely outside the original brew house. The structure was one of just a few buildings to survive a city-wide fire in the 1860s. Lesson learned: Beer has always been the strength of New Ulm.
What a view! Hermann the German has watched over New Ulm since 1897. Climb spiral stairs up the 102-foot-tall national monument. Photo: Ackerman + Gruber.
Hit the road
Go big for Oktoberfest in these small towns.
Frankenmuth, Michigan September 20–23, 2018 The first Munich-sanctioned Oktoberfest outside Germany takes over Michigan’s Little Bavaria. The fest also became the first U.S. spot to import Munich’s famed Hofbräuhaus beer in 1997. Today, don’t miss up to 100 dachshunds in wiener races.
Hermann, Missouri October 5–28, 2018 In the heart of Missouri wine country, Oktoberfest really does happen in October—all four weekends. Park yourself at one spot, or take advantage of the Hermann Trolleys that whisk visitors between some of the wineries, breweries, bed-and-breakfasts, restaurants, and events (ghost hunts in haunted buildings!).
Guide to the German beers
Oktoberfest In Germany’s classic fall brew, malt is the shining star, not hops. At Schell’s, a touch of sweetness makes their fall Märzen-style beer taste like a delicious loaf of bread, says brewery president Ted Marti.
Firebrick Named after the bricks lining old boilers, this Vienna-style amber lager combines a hint of hops with subtle maltiness. The result is a mild and dangerously drinkable year-round beer.
Hefeweizen This Bavarian-style unfiltered brew was the first wheat beer made in the U.S. after Prohibition. Schell’s reintroduced it as a spring-summer seasonal in 2001. It has a citric tang and banana aroma.
Fort Road Helles The brewers at Schell’s teamed with nearby farmers to create this pale lager made from local barley. The grain’s bready notes create a full-flavored, Bavarian-style classic.
Ein Prosit! A Toast!
Raucous drinking songs are an Oktoberfest tradition. But a choir director in St. Louis has spun that cultural phenomenon into a year-round movement across the Midwest. All together now!
By the time the after-dinner crowd straggles into the timber-vaulted beer hall at Das Bevo in St. Louis, the choir is well into the hymnal. Boisterous voices stammer through the “Schnitzelbank” song. Some people hold posters illustrating the lyrics: fräuleins, sows, Christmas trees. There are no robes, no music risers and no audience. Because anyone who shows up to drink that night is, in a way, a member of the choir. Beer Choir.
Think of it like trivia night at a local bar, except instead of slinging facts, you’re singing songs and swinging pints. “There’s power to it,” insists Mike Engelhardt. He started Beer Choir in 2014 on the firm belief that making music together in public can unite people.
As the music and worship director at a Methodist church, Mike knows his way around the “deepest, richest, nerdiest levels of choral music.” His Beer Choir Hymnal catalogs 40 songs: a mix of originals, classic drinking songs and hymns edited with beer-inspired lyrics. His goal, ultimately, is “finding ways to connect with a general audience and make music that is meaningful and accessible.”
It’s working. Four years since it started, Beer Choir has active Midwest chapters in the Twin Cities; Chicago; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Rapid City, South Dakota. You can buy T-shirts and hats that read “Sing Responsibly.” But that doesn’t mean you have to hold a tune. Rather, just let go of your inhibitions and trust you’ll have a great time.
Mike Engelhardt (right). Photo by Paul Nordmann.
Guide to Oktober Fun and Games
Stein hoisting This real-deal competitive sport, aka Masskrugstemmen, has legit rules: Arm out. No bend in the elbow. Last person holding their mug parallel to the floor wins. Sound easy? A full-liter stein weights more than 5 pounds. Be prepared to last 20 minutes if you want to challenge the best.
Oktoberfest Zinzinnati USA attendees compete for the stein-hoisting crown. Photo courtesy of Oktoberfest Zinzinnati USA.
Toasts Oktoberfest is no dainty clink-on-the-rim affair. Tip No. 1: Grab the stein’s handle to avoid crunching fingers. Tip No. 2: Aim for the bottom of the mug, where it’s thickest. Tip No. 3: If you don’t slosh any beer, try again. Some say the heft of a stein was designed for a forceful collision of mugs in (less-than-sober) revelry.
The chant At any moment in a beer tent, be ready for call-and-response cheers. For example, someone shouts, “Ziggy Zaggy, Ziggy Zaggy!” The room replies: “Oy, Oy, Oy!” Toast and swig. If you’re feeling bold, start it yourself. The ritual also ends the most popular Oktoberfest song, “Ein Prosit.”
Strapping on their custom buns and condiments, canine competitors take to the track in Cincinnati. Photo courtesy of Oktoberfest Zinzinnati USA.
Wiener-dog races House rules apply for most Oktoberfest dachshund races. Frankenmuth, Michigan, rewards the smallest, fattest and even best-dressed wieners. But any event that features an army of hot dog
buns, tiny tails and paws flailing makes every spectator the true winner. Wiener’s circle The original 1810 Oktoberfest in Munich culminated with a major horse race. In the Midwest, we prefer dachshunds.