Oktoberfest is when the unassuming people of the Pacific Northwest begin dusting off their lederhosen and dirndls and prepare themselves to drink from enormous glass boots. Almost overnight, Seattle and Portland become hubs for beer- and bratwurst-lovers of all kinds. Hotels open their doors and prepare for the wild crowd to arrive. And in hot spots from Bend (in Oregon) to Bellingham (in Washington), the parties are all about microbrews and kraut.
Oktoberfest certainly has a rich history. The “holiday” started in Germany in 1810, when Prince Ludwig of Bavaria married Princess Therese. They couple had the good taste to invite the whole kingdom to come and celebrate their nuptials at the front gate. The celebration lasted for weeks and consisted of copious amounts of beer-drinking and horse-racing. Eventually, the start of Oktoberfest was moved to September to allow for better weather. Then the event spread all over the world.
Here in the United States, many of today’s Oktoberfest celebrations look a lot like the original ones. The beer and the outfits remain the same. Instead of horse races, many regional Oktoberfests race dachshunds. In the Pacific Northwest, Oktoberfest is about microbrews, craft brews and local food. Local communities also rally together around the events to celebrate fall.
It would be impossible to talk about Oktoberfest in the Northwest without mentioning the pastoral town of Leavenworth, Washington. Framed by the evergreen ridges of the Cascade Mountains, this Bavarian-themed town offers bratwursts, local breweries, and traditional German games. One of my favorite of these games is Hammerschlagen (hammer-whacking), a contest in which participants attempt to drive a nail into a stump with the narrow edge of a hammer. The game might sound easy, but after two or three boots’ worth of beer, you’re lucky to hit the massive chunk of wood at all. (Trust me. I have first-hand experience in this matter.)
Leavenworth’s Oktoberfest also offers dozens of beer gardens. There is live music and entertainment along every avenue downtown, and a free shuttle from most of the local hotels. Half of Oktoberfest is a community fair with carnival games and caramel corn—making the celebration a great place to take kids. The party rages all weekend long for the first three weekends in October.
Viewfinder Tip: Show up at Leavenworth’s Oktoberfest celebration on Saturday mornings to watch the local mayor tap the inaugural keg, just like they do in Germany.
While Leavenworth has the largest and most Bavarian Oktoberfest in Washington, the town of Mt. Angel, in Oregon, is a great spot for Oktoberfest as well. Like Leavenworth, Mt. Angel also sports a Bavarian theme, and every October the Oregon own offers celebrates with lederhosen, a golf tournament and a marathon. Add to these celebrations the traditional games and beer gardens and this is one party not to miss.
Finally, right in the heart of Seattle, the city’s Fremont district is the site of one of my all-time favorite Oktoberfest parties. This legendary event is home to the Texas Chainsaw Pumpkin Carving Contest and a 5k race in which wearing dirndls is encouraged. While the microbreweries of Fremont pour excellent brews every year, 2014 in particular promises to offer up some fine steins of local beer, as a huge complement of Pacific Northwest breweries will be in attendance. To make sure you can taste, be sure to pick up your tasting tokens and remember that one token equals one taste of beer. The festivities will rage all weekend this weekend, Sept. 19-21. Bottoms up!
What’s your favorite Oktoberfest tradition?