Oktoberfest – From Wies’n to Valley

Tomorrow brings with it an event that I have been waiting for patiently for over a year. 369 days have passed since I left last year’s Beau’s Oktoberfest sporting a belly full of beer and a super cool green hat – and for 369 days I’ve wanted to go back and do it all over again. This was only the second beer festival I had ever attended – and also the second Oktoberfest.

My first Oktoberfest experience was an opportunity I’m sure most would relish, but for me, it proved to be a lot more hype than substance. In 2007, I was moving to Germany for University and I made absolutely sure to arrive in the country in time for the fabled autumn festival. I spent the months leading up to it meticulously researching everything from which beer tents to visit, to S-Bahn routes, to where I could buy a ‘Stiefel’ (drinking boot). I naively overlooked making reservations at any of the tents, but thankfully that sort of worked itself out. Suffice to say, I had built up my excitement and when the day finally arrived for that journey to the Theresienwiese I was ready to go.

First impressions are everything they say and my first impressions of Oktoberfest were very positive. It was actually everything one would come in expecting: beer, people dressed in ‘Tracht’, more beer, horse-drawn beer carts, beer maidens carrying ten litres of beer at a time and even more beer. The grounds were colourful and vibrant – there was music and camaraderie everywhere you went. I was genuinely thrilled to be there.

I took some time exploring the grounds with my friends, even managing to track down that drinking boot, before we eventually started to look for a place to sit, eat, drink, and pretend we knew how to sing along to all of the Bavarian folk songs. After some time we lucked out and found a table in the Paulaner tent that was available until the late afternoon. The atmosphere in the tent was one of excitement; everyone was having a great time – I even saw kids of no more than 7 or 8 with juice-sized glasses filled with Märzen (not sure if they were provided by the good folks at Paulaner or you would have to bring your own). Our first round of Maß’s (1-litre mugs of beer) were delivered by what I can only assume was a member of the German woman’s weight lifting team (seriously impressed by how much they can carry) and they went down nicely. With our beer we enjoyed some of the traditional food like Weißwurst which, when eaten properly, is a sight to behold.

Had I stuck around for just one more rousing verse of ‘Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit’ I could have probably walked away completely thrilled with my experience, taking with me a feeling of longing that would have no doubt stuck with me for years to come.

Sadly, the bubble gradually started to burst somewhere around the end of my 2nd litre or my first trip to the men’s wash-trough. We were all getting full, tired and after each trip to the washroom more and more crowded as tourists waited like vultures to jump on any slight opening at a table. As the day wore on, everything felt less and less exciting and more and more chore-like.

Later in the afternoon, after a brief visit to the Hofbräu tent (where – wow variety – they had Dunkel to drink), we decided to get some fresh air to lift our spirits. Out on the grounds the jovial vibe seemed to have gone missing; half the crowd looked like they had just finished Thanksgiving dinner and the other half looked like they probably couldn’t tell you where they were. We sat under the towering statue of Bavaria for a short while before deciding to call it a day. We were bored; bored with the lack of variety in beer, bored with the crowd, bored with being full.

A couple of days later, feeling lame for having not had the ‘best time ever‘ at Oktoberfest we redoubled our efforts. With a renewed spirit we ended up having a pretty nice day, despite being so squished that we couldn’t move, at our table outside the Hacker Pschorr tent. In those tight quarters we met a lot of genuinely interesting people, something that certainly lacked the first time around. Our new friends came from across the globe and they shared their drinking customs, songs, stories and games, with us. That experience was very special.

I am often asked what I thought about the whole ‘Oktoberfest Munich experience’ and my answer is usually something along the lines of: “if you want to see people dressed up in Tracht, eat German food, drink Bavarian beer and listen to traditional beer hall music, go to Hofbräuhaus (the most famous beer hall in Munich) any day of the year”. I think that’s what most tourists come for. Certainly there are those who all like to take in the carnival-like atmosphere of the games and rides, but I found that to be more for locals and families. It wasn’t my type of festival, especially considering the best parts of it can easily be replicated elsewhere.

Cross an ocean and fast-forward to 2012 and you have Beau’s Oktoberfest in Vankleek Hill. Now, this is a fundamentally different type of beer festival. For years the Germans have made excellent beer, mastering numerous varieties but never really stepping too far outside the box. That said their drinking culture, much like their mastery or beer styles, comes across as more of a serious endeavour. The experience at Beau’s on the contrary is extremely light-hearted, and they do a much better job balancing tradition with the present day and in some respects the future of beer culture in Ontario.

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Beau’s is quite obviously a brewing company that has a great deal of respect for traditional German brewing styles, producing their own versions of Kölsches, Alts, Goses, etc. Their festival includes those German style beers, along with some of the cuisine and music – even the odd person dressed in costume. Much like their Munich-based counterpart, there is an emphasis on local. Local food, local music, local beer. Beau’s do that element, and they do it extremely well. But there is an abundant quirkiness, as they have become known for, that can’t seem to help but manifest itself everywhere you look. Their creativity is displayed across all aspects of the event from the activities, to the decor, to the beer itself. They balance those serious, classic styles with an offering of more unique and offbeat variations – and they also invite their friends to the party. Beau’s Oktoberfest showcases craft beers from across Ontario and Quebec in strength greater than any other beer fest I’ve attended. A selection so vast that it is almost infuriating, because you don’t know where to start.

The net result is an event that is not just about celebrating drinking culture but also the beer itself. That is something that resonates with me. It’s something that I felt Munich Oktoberfest lost in the crowds, the giant mugs and the pomp and circumstance.

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