The union of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese in 1810 gave birth to the world’s biggest beer fest.
Probably not what the prince had in mind when he orchestrated a public horse race and games on a meadow outside Munich to celebrate his marriage. Everyone had such a grand time that the games grew into a tradition. The kegs weren’t tapped until 1881, however.
In Munich, today’s thirsty throngs stretched their arms to reach a coveted heady stein on opening day, Sept. 17. This year’s Bavarian brewhaha stretches through Oct. 3. Eastern Iowa’s revelry, while still spirited, is officially confined to one weekend and offers plenty of fun even for those only old enough to hoist a stein of root beer.
The Amana Colonies have been saluting the October Old World ways since 1965, while Iowa City is launching its first Northside Oktoberfest on Saturday. It’s expected to draw about 2,500 people and organizers already are talking about expanding it to three days next year. To the north, our neighbors in Galena, Ill., are staging their fifth annual Oktoberfest on Saturday, too, packing a day full of fun, from polka lessons to wiener dog races, wrapped around German cuisine and suds.
The Amana festival is the long one. Headquartered in the main colony along Highway 151, Oktoberfest activities begin Friday and run through Sunday.
“It’s the festival of the year and attracts 35,000 people annually,” says Sarah Tarnowski, assistant director at the Amana Convention and Visitors Center.
“They come for the food, they come for the music — the live German bands — and really the whole atmosphere, the whole package.”
Beginning with the tapping of the keg and a shout of “Prosit!” at 2 p.m. Friday in the Festhalle Barn, the beer officially flows freely. But that’s not the only Amana attraction. “We have lots of events for families and kids, including the big parade on Saturday morning,” Tarnowski says.
Authentic sounds will come from Barefoot Becky & the Ivanhoe Dutchmen, Alpensterne, Die Tiefen Keller Kinder, Die Freistadt Alte Kameraden and the rumbling University of Iowa Collegium Tubum. Yodeler Kurt Boche of Muscatine always provides a favorite sound with bite in Millstream Brewery’s biergarten. He’ll be there from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, clad in his trademark lederhosen and alpine cap, hoisting a stein or two and leading the occasional singalong.
Contests and games for all ages abound, hearkening back to the Oktoberfest’s Munich roots. Along with an energizing run/walk and bike race, Saturday festivalgoers can compete for bragging rights in a brat-eating contest, keg toss, log sawing competition and such team challenges as walking a balance beam carrying full steins of beer.
Saturday also brings the merger of Iowa City’s 16th annual Brewfest with the new Northside Oktoberfest.
“Beer and the north side just go together. At one time, we had three breweries on our block,” says Doug Alberhasky, Brewfest chairman, co-chairman of the Northside Oktoberfest and “the bier guy” and store manager at John’s Grocery, a purveyor of gourmet global beer, from Argentina to Vietnam. “Brewfest is coming home to where it rightfully belongs in Iowa City.
“It’s really brought our neighborhood together. When you look at the iconic businesses in Iowa City, you think of Pagliai’s Pizza, Hamburg and John’s. This is a great way to showcase our neighborhood,” he says. “We’re not downtown, so we don’t get all the support the downtown gets. We’re up here on our own. This is a really good way to welcome people into our neighborhood.”
Beer aficionados can flock to Pagliai’s parking lot where nearly 400 brews from 38 countries will be in the spotlight — but not for long. Those who purchase a $40 ticket in advance can begin sampling the rare, vintage and new releases an hour earlier than those who buy a $20 ticket. Alberhasky expects those unusual beers to disappear quickly and safely.
“It’s a great time,” he says. “For years, I’ve stressed, ‘Drink for the taste, not the effect.’ This event really plays into that. Last year we had 389 beers. With that many different beers to choose from, it really does force people to be very choosy in what beers to sample,” he says of Brewfest.
“It’s always been a family-friendly event. For years we’ve wanted to do a Sodafest. It’s just like Brewfest, but for the kids and people who are really into cream sodas, root beers and other various non-alcoholic drinks.”
Guests also can sample the fares of area restaurants, stroll through the wares of area artists, enjoy the music of area groups, decorate pumpkins and try their hand at fun and goofy games like keg bowling, a beer slide and a yodeling contest.
The piece de resistance may very well be the Munich bar-wench challenge, where competitors run an obstacle course while hoisting full liter steins. It’s open to both genders, but to even the playing field, the guys have to strap on a loaded bra. What’s a little humiliation for the sake of history? The winner gets a private tour of the caves beneath Brewery Square.
“We need to make sure the guys don’t have an unfair advantage,” Alberhasky says. “There is a reason why they say in Munich, ‘You don’t mess with Helga.’”
– Diana Nollen
- WHEN: 9 a.m. to midnight Friday, Sept. 30; 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 2
- WHERE: Festhalle Barn and other sites in and around Amana
- FEATURES: German food, music, parade at 10 a.m. Saturday, kids’ games, contests, demonstrations, carriage rides, pet costume contest, plays, bike race, run/walk
- DETAILS: Festivalsinamana.com/oktoberfest.html
Northside Oktoberfest, Iowa City
- WHEN: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1
- WHERE: Northside neighborhood between Jefferson and Bloomington streets from Gilbert to Linn streets
- FEATURES: Iowa City Brewfest 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sodafest, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Culinary Row, kids’ area, music, art vendors all day
- COST: $20-$40 advance; $25 gate; $5 sodafest
- DETAILS: Northsideoktoberfest.com; Johnsgrocery.com
Oktoberfest, Galena, Ill.
- WHEN: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 1
- WHERE: Depot Park (Highway 20 and Park Avenue)
- FEATURES: 50k and 100k bike ride, music, contests, polka lessons, wiener dog races, kids’ activities, German food, beer and beverages, raffle; kickoff party Friday 6 p.m. to close, Gobbie’s Beer Garden, 219 N. Main St.
- COST: $5 adults, free ages 12 and under
- DETAILS: Galenalions.com/galena-oktoberfest.asp