Outside the Bayrischer Hof restaurant in Montrose, a 140-foot tent festooned with the blue and white checkered banners of Bavaria is erected in a field, and for one weekend in September, a tradition that began nearly 200 years ago in Munich is reenacted.
At long rows of tables, men and women hoist high their steins of Paulaner and Spaten Oktoberfest or Warsteiner lager, and are led by boisterous men in lederhosen in rousing cheers of 'Zicki-Zacki! Zicki-Zacki! Hoi Hoi Hoi!"
Oktoberfest at the Bayrischer Hof in Montrose can't quite match the original Munich festival for size, but the spirit is the same. The annual bacchanalia on Munich's Teresienwiese attracted 5.8 million visitors last year, who consumed 5.8 million liters of beer, 589,000 chickens, 320,000 wuerstchen (sausages) and 84 oxen. More than six million revelers are expected for this years' celebration, which began Sept. 16 and lasts until Oct. 3.
At Montrose, 40 miles west of Minneapolis on Hwy. 12, the tallies are more modest. Co-owner Paul Strehleke estimates that this year's festival, held on Sept. 8 and 9, attracted 2,500 visitors, who downed 2,350 liters of importer Paulaner, Spaten and Warsteiner beers, and about 1,800 bratwurst.
It started out as a Bavarian king's wedding celebration, but Oktoberfest in Minnesota celebrates the three great German Bs -- no, not Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but Bratwurst, Bockwurst und Bier. (And some might add Besoffenheit (drinking to excess.)
The original Oktoberfest was a five-day festival in October of 1810, celebrating the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Theresa of Sachsen Hildburghausen. Highlights included parades, a horse race, and lots of royal pomp and ceremony.
The horse race was such a hit that they held it again the following year, and included a livestock show with prizes for the best horses and oxen. In 1818, a carrousel was added, along with a couple of swings, and gradually some beer booths were opened.
The festival grew over the years; in 1886 the tavern owners teamed up with the local brewers to put up some tents, and the Munich brewers have had a monopoly on beer sales ever since.
The Montrose Oktoberfest, held the first weekend after Labor Day, is the first of the Minnesota season; most other local German restaurants celebrate Oktoberfest from mid-September to early October. Here's a quick look at what they have planned, and some tasting notes based on recent visits to their dining rooms.
The festivities at the Gasthaus Bavarian Hunter in Grant Township, just outside of Stillwater, began last weekend, and continue tomorrow through Sunday. Admission is $4 Friday and Saturday, with dance music provided by the Artie Schaefer Band. Sunday is billed as Family Day, with pony rides, clowns and music by Dale Dahmen and the Beats; admission is $1.
The tent holds about 500 people, and about 2,000 people attend each weekend. The menu inside the tent includes bratwurst ($3), knackwurst ($3), marinated chicken sandwich ($3.75), roast pork sandwich ($4), and a pork chop on a stick ($3.75), with red cabbage, German potato salad, and sauerkraut available on the side. Imported Paulaner and Spaten Oktoberfest are on tap.
A full German menu is served inside the restaurant. Service is friendly and the atmosphere gemütlich (comfortable); the cuisine unimpressive. The Bavarian King Size Platter includes the pork hock, smoked pork chop, knackwurst, bratwurst, mashed potatoes and sauerkraut for $17.95). The beef rouladen ($15.50, Saturdays and Sundays only) were first-rate, but the Wienerschnitzel ($14.50) were much too thick, the pork hock ($12.95) limp and flavorless, and the apple strudel ($3.25) tasted more like bread pudding. But stick to the sausages inside the tent, and you can't go too far wrong.
Festivities at the Gasthof zur Gemütlichkeit in northeast Minneapolis start Friday, and continue every weekend (Fridays and Saturdays only) through Oct. 14. There will be a band inside the tent for dancing from 6 to 10 p.m. nightly; after 10 p.m., the music moves inside the restaurant, and continues until 1 a.m. The bill of fare inside the tent includes bratwurst, pork chops and apple strudel, with four to six different imported German beers in tap, including Oktoberfest.
Here, too, you probably won't go too far wrong if you stick to the beer and the brats inside the tent, but if you are thinking of dining in the restaurant, proceed with extreme caution. If the Schlemmer Platter for two ($42.95) is supposed to showcase the best that the Gasthaus has to offer, I would hate to see the worst.
The dinner began with bowls of iceberg lettuce topped with a truly unpleasant acrid and goopy red dressing. The main platter included veal schnitzel sliced much too thick, a chicken breast topped with a floury caper sauce, a frozen vegetable medley of cauliflower, carrots and broccoli, American fries, a dry portion of sauerbraten, and thick soft noodles (though the menu had promised spaetzle), plus a couple of shots of a German apple liqueur.
When we asked to substitute beef rouladen for the pork schnitzel with cheese sauce, our waitress was very accomodating, and the beef roll-ups, stuffed with pickle and bacon, turned out to be the tastiest item on the platter.
The strudel ($3) apparently had just been microwaved; it was quite hot in some places, lukewarm in others, and the pastry was soft instead of flaky. This place wouldn't last long in Bavaria, or even in Milwaukee.
Other local German restaurants have more modest plans for Oktoberfest, or none at all. Oktoberfest at the charming Winzer Stube in Hudson, Wis., will be a low-key affair this year. Owner Marie Schmidt will add a few dinner specials and some Oktoberfest tap beers to her menu from Sept. 25 to Oct. 14, with live German music on Saturday nights (Sept. 30, Oct. 7 and Oct. 14) performed by the trio of Gabby, Norb and Bill.
The dinner specials sound promising, though: Schweinshaxe mit Semmelknödel (pork hock with with bread dumplings and sauerkraut, braised with riesling wine $10.95), a sausage salad plate ($7.95), Bavarian weisswurst (white sausage, $8.95), and a Schlachtplatte mit Semmelknödel (mixed sausages with sauerkraut and dumplings, $13.95.)
Glockenspiel in St. Paul has been open for less than a year, and owner Dave Wildmo decided to wait until next year to hold his first Oktoberfest. But a lunchtime visit to the Glockenspiel was a delightful surprise. I still think it's a shame that the restaurant, housed on the ground floor of the historic Czech C.S.P.S. Hall, doesn't offer some authentic Czech dishes, but as a German restaurant, it's really quite decent.
The Schweinshaxe, especially, a roast pork hock ($14.95), was crackly and crispy on the outside, moist and juicy inside, and tasty enough to bring back fond memories of the Schweinshaxe served at the Schweizerhof in Vienna's Prater. (I know, that's Austria, not Germany, but this is one of many dishes the two countries share.)
A portion of Schweinebraten (sliced roast pork, $11.95) was also perfectly rendered, and the accompanying spaetzle and red cabbage were quite authentic. The apple strudel ($3.95) was no match for the Black Forest's definitive version, but still a very respectable rendition.
The Black Forest, my favorite German restaurant, doesn't have any plans for Oktoberfest. "We'll bring in some Oktoberfest beers, and we'll have October dinner specials, but we don't really do any of the oom-pa-pa stuff," says co-owner Joanne Christ. On a recent lunchtime visit, their Wienerschnitzel ($10.50 lunch/ $11.25 dinner) and Sauerbraten ($11.50/ $13.50) were as good as ever.
You'll find a good selection of imported and domestic seasonal Oktoberfest beers at better local liquor stores. Oktoberfest beers are made in a traditional German brewing style called Märzen (March), brewed in the spring from the last of the old grain before the new barley crop is harvested.
Typically copper-colored, they are very malty and full-bodied. Local brewers producing Oktoberfest beers include Schell's Brewing Co. of New Ulm (available at local bars, restaurants and liquor stores, and the James Page Brewing Company (kegs only) available on tap at local restaurants and taverns.
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