As the first hints of fall arrive in the mountains, local Oktoberfest celebrations are primed to welcome the season with traditional beers, Bavarian foods and rousing German music.
The two major Asheville-area events — Asheville Oktoberfest on Saturday, Oct. 6, at Pack Square Park, and the Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Oktoberfest one week later in Mills River — have their own approaches and styles. Neither, however, will be carbon copies of the famous, original Munich Oktoberfest, now in its 185th year and underway through Oct. 7. According to the Associated Press, some six million merry-makers are expected to attend.
Oktoberfest has a long history, dating to the 1810 wedding of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese and the couple’s celebration. It returned in 1811 and has continued most years since then, though there have been interruptions due to cholera outbreaks and World War I. The festival then made its way to the United States and has sprouted in many communities. The largest is in Cincinnati, the official website for which reports a draw of just over half-a-million revelers.
Dieter Kuhn, former owner of the old Heinzelmännchen Brewery in Sylva, who now makes beer at the Whiteside Brewing Co. in Cashiers, remembers the Oktoberfest celebrations of his youth in Germany’s Black Forest.
“In Southern Germany, it’s more of a harvest celebration,” Kuhn says. “I remember that everybody in the town got together and went to a tent for beer and food over a couple of days. There was even a parade with the town fire department band.”
Kuhn says it’s difficult for American Oktoberfests to copy the German celebrations. “I’ve been to several in the United States, but I haven’t been to one that’s like the Oktoberfest I remember in Germany from when I grew up.”
An Oktoberfest includes food, beer and music at many American celebrations, as well as the Chicken Dance, which Kuhn says is authentic to Germany. Though he hasn’t participated in the Asheville Oktoberfest, during his Heinzelmännchen days he produced his own Oktoberfest and will continue that tradition at Whiteside during the first week of October with his own beers, food from the brewery’s restaurant and music.
Meghan Rogers, executive director of the Asheville Downtown Association, estimates that the Asheville Oktoberfest will draw about 2,000 people. She says it’s one of the organization’s biggest fundraising events, along with the Downtown After 5 street concerts.
Now in its 10th year, the event’s format has changed little over the past decade. The $45 festival admission includes beer in 2-ounce pours. More than two dozen breweries are taking part, and cider, wine and non-alcoholic drinks will also be available. Most of the breweries are local and will bring between two and four beers to the event.
The Oktoberfest no longer includes a parade and ceremonial tapping of a first keg. Beyond the beer, there’s music by Asheville’s Mountain Top Polka Band and such activities as a costume contest, the Samuel Adams stein hoist, a pretzel toss and a ping pong tournament.
“We’ve tried a lot of different things, but it comes down to this being an Oktoberfest,” Rogers says. “People really do want to hear Oktoberfest music.”
Among the food vendors is the Haus Heidelberg restaurant from Hendersonville. Owner Helge Gresser, who came to the United States in 1994 to open the business, says he will bring sausages and schnitzels.
Gresser hails from Aachen, Germany, near Cologne, and says that while he never attended the Munich Oktoberfest, he doesn’t believe much of the celebration’s tradition has translated to the U.S. For one thing, he notes that in Germany, Oktoberfest is highly localized.
“It was a new thing for me over here that everybody goes crazy for Oktoberfest,” Gresser says. “I think there is very little authenticity left [in the American events]. Even in the German Oktoberfest, there is little authenticity. It started as a wedding celebration, and now it’s a tourist spot. It’s everybody in a tent with a lot of beer and pretzels and sausages. It’s really not what it was.”
Gresser adds that the month of October brings a big boost for the restaurant, but he is “always too busy” to take part in Oktoberfest parties.
At Sierra Nevada, the Oktoberfest celebration is now in its fourth year, says Lee-Ann Loser, events team manager at the Mills River brewery. The celebration takes place at the Six Row Field festival site.
“We pride ourselves on being a really authentic Oktoberfest,” she says. The $30 tickets include a German meal prepared by the Sierra Nevada taproom kitchen, a commemorative beer stein, one drink or pretzel ticket, entertainment and activities, as well as passage from Asheville or Hendersonville aboard a shuttle. Additional beer tickets can also be purchased.
The event will feature Sierra Nevada’s own Oktoberfest beer, which is a collaboration between the brewery and Germany’s Weihenstephaner brewery. Also served will be Sierra’s Pale Ale, German IPA, Hazy Little Thing IPA, Tumbler Autumn Brown Ale, FOAM Pilsner, Kellerweis and a surprise beer to be revealed at the event.
Providing the music are No BS Brass, Sirius.B and Lagerhosen. Activities include glass-blowing demonstrations and hammerschlagen, a hammering competition. Loser expects the event to pull a crowd of about 2,700, and is looking to grow the brewery’s Oktoberfest for next year.
Asheville Oktoberfest is 1-6 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6, at Pack Square Park. For details, visit ashevilledowntown.org. Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest is 5-10 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, at Six Row Field in Mills River. For details, visit sierranevada.com/oktoberfestnc.