September, the month that brings the last holiday of summer, the beginning of football, the relief that the mercury will only be in the 90s instead of triple digits, and ... Oktoberfest. Oktoberfest? In September? Is this just one more marketing attempt to hype an event before its time? Like hawking Christmas the day after Halloween or stretching hockey season into June?
Actually, you can dust off your beer stein with good cause. September is truly the beginning of this two-week tribute to the nectar of barley and hops. While the Germans gave the world the Kaiser, Hitler and two World Wars, give them credit for brewing some of the highest-grade suds to touch any beer connoisseur's tongue. They take the quality of their beer so seriously, they even created the purity law Reinheitsgebot in 1516 that requires beer only be made from water, malted barley and hops.
Before you go search out one of Tucson's Oktoberfests, getting a few facts straight about this celebration of golden liquid pleasure will impress your friends and avoid the embarrassment of having your MaB (one liter beer stein, pronounced "mas," like Spanish for "more") taken away.
First, there's more significance to Oktoberfest than just a bunch of dudes in lederhosen looking for an excuse to pound a liter or two. Before refrigeration (yes, Virginia, there was a time when homes and shopping malls and restaurants were not cold enough to double as the frozen food section of the grocery store), the brewing season took place only during the colder months, from October to March. After March it was usually too warm to ferment quality beer. Thus, Germans would brew a stronger beer in March known as Marzenbier. The higher alcohol content of about 5 to 5.5 percent would serve as a preservative through the long, warm months of summer. This Marzenbier was ceremoniously consumed prior to the new brewing season. Even when refrigeration technology became possible, the practice of brewing a stronger March beer and drinking all that remained the following fall continued.
But this practice remained just a tradition until the early 19th century when the Bavarian festival was born. In Munich, the capital of Bavaria and Germany's most fervent beer-drinking region, King Ludwig declared the first Oktoberfest in 1810. According to The World Guide to Beer, the festival was to honor Ludwig's wife, Queen Theresa, and was held on the city's village green, giving the beer-fest a royal blessing and its official standing.
The grandest festival still takes place each year in the Munich meadow where more than two million liters of beers are consumed, along with traditional sausages, sauerkraut, German potato salad, pretzels as big as hats and strudel, while oohm pa-pa bands (the music that heavily influenced the norteño sound so common in Mexico and the Southwest) provide the deep, rousing sounds of Bavaria.
Fortunately, desert dwellers who don't have time for a pilgrimage to Bavaria need not cry in their beer. While events in Tucson are limited, there are a few happenings that go a long way to create a little Bavarian flavor without a trip across the Atlantic.
Your best bet is to make a trip to Mount Lemmon for the Tucson area's longest running festival. The merriment at Ski Valley is also the most authentic Bavarian setting this desert burg has to offer. It means a drive up the Catalina Highway, but since 1970 this outdoor event among pines and cool weather would probably even get King Ludwig to raise his MaB in approval.
In addition to the cool climes most like Bavaria, the Norm Siess Band will bring the hills alive with sound of German folk-tunes and polkas, and the Edelweiss Folk Dancers will entertain with traditional Deutsch foot stomping.
Siess, the son of German immigrants, began playing the accordion at 8 and after 50 years in the business, he has traveled the last six years from his Michigan home for the Tucson festivities with his band, which includes guitarist Rudy Valens and German drummer Helmut Kron.
According to Siess, the gig on Mount Lemmon keeps him coming back each year because of the receptive audience. "It's the crowd," said Siess, explaining his preference for Tucson Oktoberfest. "There's enthusiasm, and they come from all over."
You'll also have a chance to sample the pleasures of German food, like bratwurst, sauerkraut and German potato salad. And of course there will be plenty of the beverage that gave birth to the festival. Paulener, a Munich brewer since 1634, and Lowenbrau, a relatively young brewery that established its Munich hop and malt factory in 1883, will be available.
The brouhaha on the mountain takes place four consecutive weekends (Saturdays and Sundays only) from noon to 5 p.m., starting September 21 and ending October 13.
Keep in mind it can be a tricky drive down the mountain sober, so after honoring the beer, make sure you have a designated driver or overnight stay on the mountain planned.
On the valley floor, the Bratwursthaus, 7854 E. Wrightstown Road, will do its part to create three nights of Oktoberfest with authentic music, food and beer. Long, wooden beer-garden style benches and tables will give partygoers a chance to mingle. Norm Siess will have to pack up his polkas and make a quick trip down the mountain, as he will once again provide the music for dancing.
A choice of set menus, including a three sausagewurst plate, wienerschnitzel, veal cutlet, or paprika chicken will be served, and the Spaten beer available comes from one of Munich's premiere brewers with more than 600 years of experience. Spaten's traditional Marzenbier will be on tap along with over 20 varieties of bottled German beers.
The Bratwursthaus fest takes place the Saturdays of September 28, October 5 and October 12, and starts each night at 6 p.m. The tickets ($15), which cover dinner and entertainment, should be purchased in advance.
Mountain View Restaurant at 1220 E. Prince Road also serves authentic German fare, but owner Laddie Kletechka will tell you in his heavy Czech accent that there's no need for any special events in his restaurant because "everyday is Oktoberfest." Despite the absence of festival activities, if you feel the need to honor those who have maintained the integrity of beer by adhering to Reinheitsgebot, this midtown eatery is a good bet. Besides a traditional German and Czech menu, Spaten Oktoberfest beer is also available.
Lastly, even if you're a homesteader, consider going Deutsch for a day with friends and family in your own abode. You don't have to own a pair of lederhosen or be named Hans--just pick up a selection of German beer, cook up some brats, kraut, schnitzel or any snacks from the motherland, and gather a few tasters willing to pay tribute to the Germans for their achievement in that most wonderful barely beverage. Prost!