Tucked away in a Tudor-style meeting house on Washington Street, a hearty-looking German Frau in a dirndl serves frothy beer in giant mugs at the German American Society of Greater Hollywood. A brass band belts out the John Denver anthem "Take Me Home, Country Roads," followed by a round of German oompah songs.
Partygoers sit shoulder to shoulder at picnic tables. They graze on wurst, a German dumpling called knodel, plates of pork shank, plate-sized pretzels with sides of grainy mustard, and suckling pig. Diehard dudes model lederhosen — goofy-looking traditional garb of knickers and suspenders — for another round of the annual Oktoberfest: an epic fall celebration that straddles the end of September through mid-October.
Here in Hollywood, the turnout for the fest is modest compared to crowds anticipated in Lake Worth, where 20,000 people are expected to attend during weekend days later this month. In Oakland Park, 5,000 people boozed under a big tent the first weekend in October for the eighth year of Broward's biggest celebration.
All of this overindulgence on beer and sausages stuffed with all sorts of everything can be traced back to a guy simply looking to impress a girl. It happened in 1810, when Crown Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildberghausen and threw one hell of a party October 12. That single day wasn't enough for the sausage-eaters, who dubbed it Oktoberfest and expanded the revelry squarely into September. These days, more than 6 million people visit the Munich festival grounds, mostly to guzzle 1.75 million gallons of beer in a two-week span.
In Hollywood, a bald guy in street clothes with a beer belly stands near the band, bouncing to the music. He takes a first sip from an oversized stein and shoots his wife a shit-eating grin. It's not every day he drinks from such a big beer. His choice of brews, though, is limited. The Hollywood Oktoberfest serves the six blond lagers approved to be served at the Munich festival, with Lowenbrau, Hofbrau, and Spaten among them. Oktoberfest, after all, wouldn't be famous without those beer steins the size of two liters or glass boots filled with beer the color of the locks on your average Fräulein.
The festival didn't become synonymous with beer until the mid-19th Century, when the celebration morphed into an excuse to tap kegs. Citizens did their duty by drinking the remainder of beer that had been brewed during the last brewing cycle in March, before the miracle of refrigeration and the abomination that is pasteurization allowed for year-round brewing.
In the early 1800s, March beers were sour — as they had begun to turn — and smoky, the result of drying hops over fire. By 1850, a brewing technique from Vienna ushered in a change in styles to a copper, toasty lager with an interplay of malt and hops. By the mid-1900s, Munich had embraced the golden lagers so popular in that city today.
Those beers are also responsible for many of the lagers Americans drink in the name of Oktoberfest today. You know, the ones with names like Miller and Budweiser. But a funny thing has happened lately with American brewers. Oktoberfest labels cranked out by craft brewers now seem more like the brews of 1850 Germany: rich, copper lagers with layers of malt, spice, and more dominant hops.
These Märzen-style beers dominate the 20 or so Oktoberfest brews among the 400 sold at Riverside Market, a grocery turned restaurant in Fort Lauderdale's Sailboat Bend. Oktoberfest beers from Sam Adams and Harpoon fall among standbys, while a toasty brew from Brooklyn Brewery, a hoppy Hex from Magic Hat, and an herbal beer from Bells represent the smaller craft brews that have debuted within the past several years.
As the craft beer scene matures, we're starting to see more variety in seasonal brews this year. John Linn, beer guy for South Florida's Brown Distributing and a former New Times food critic, says a handful of beers "bridge that divide between interesting craft beer and traditional German Oktoberfest," among them Red Brick OktoBeerFest and Victory Festbier, which embody rounder flavors while crafted by brewing methods more unorthodox than those required for Munich brews.
Back in Hollywood, as the night progresses, the main room at Oktoberfest erupts in a "Heeeeeeeey, baby! I want to knooowwwwww if you'll be my girl," the second round of Bruce Channel's chestnut. Over in the corner, a bulky, drunk 20-something challenges his weaker-looking friend to a beer-stein-holding contest during which participants hold a full beer, arms extended and parallel to the floor, until one of them flinches or spills.
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A fatherly guy serves as an announcer, "Come on over to heckle!" he says, drawing a small crowd away from the throng of singers. A couple of cute girls align full steins on the table, waiting for the lead man to give the cue to load 'em up. As each woman hands over the full beers, one guy nearly flags at the start. Facing either other, they struggle to keep straight faces. Though the bigger guy won, at several steins in, neither fared well. Like the majority of this crowd, they're damned well drunk.
Oktoberfest is perhaps the original sausagefest, with 400,000 consumed each year at the festival in Munich. Brats are the most popular, followed by knockwurst served with mustard or sauerkraut. Kielbasa and white wurst aren't as standard, with the whites usually reserved for breakfast. Currywurst, that abomination doused with curried ketchup that's been sighted lately in these parts, is a rendition from Berlin rather than Munich. Currywurst at Oktoberfest is like serving Tex-Mex in Maine.
While Americans geek out on fried anything at a festival, adventurous eaters at Oktoberfest prize super-authentic fare such as grilled fish on a stick or oxen dishes. Sound weird? They seem to hold some kind of cachet, since they're touted as delicacies at the Munich fairgrounds.
By the night's end, the crowd has thinned. The Village People's "Y.M.C.A." — no longer just a gay man's anthem — is aped by the remaining crowd. A man in the corners acts out the chicken dance. And the organizers begin shepherding people toward the door, until next week, when the party will begin again.