By WilliamPrentiss

The Chicago cold struck early this year, but the motley crowd gathered at the bar Überstein Chicago didn’t notice. The amber fluid circulating in their many steins, German delicacies in their bellies and the spirit of Oktoberfest in their hearts kept them warm.

Oktoberfest isn’t a holiday like St. Patrick’s Day or Halloween—it’s a season. It begins the third weekend in September with the traditional 16-day celebration in Munich, Germany, stuffed with quality pork sausage, traditional Bavarian oompah bands and untold gallons of Märzen beer. It ends when local breweries across the world run out of the Oktoberfest brews that fuel bar patrons’ kitsch bouts of bad behavior and Lederhosen.

Oktoberfest began 200 years ago in 1810 as a five-day event celebrating Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig’s marriage to the Saxony-Hildburghausen Princess Therese. Originally, the centerpiece of the event was a horse race hosted by the newlyweds. The horse race remained a part of Oktoberfest until 1960, but to this day, the German celebration is held on the very same meadow, Theresienwiese, meaning Therese’s Meadow. Booths serving food and beer were later introduced in 1818 and eventually became the modern plywood beer halls seen in Munich today. Each of those beer halls can fit an estimated 6,000 patrons.

Oktoberfest 2009 started with the official tapping of the first barrel of Oktoberfest beer in the “Schottenhamel” beer tent by Gabriele Weishäupl, head of the Oktoberfest management. She spoke the magic words, “O’zapft is!” which translates to, “It is tapped!”, gave the first mug to Bavarian Prime Minister, Horst Seehofer and thus began the season celebrated by the world.

Pete Crowley, Rock Bottom Brewery  Chicago brewmaster, said Oktoberfest beers served in the U.S. have been watered down to better fit the palette of Americans, but that’s changed in recent years with more people’s tastes being refined.

“A lot of the U.S. craft brewers are producing a more traditional Oktoberfest which is malty, it has got a nice, deep copper-red hue,” Crowley said. “These are the flavorful beers that Oktoberfest is known for.”

Crowley said the main beer of Oktoberfest is the Märzen beer, which is brewed in March, but stored in caves during the hot months when beer cannot be brewed. The Märzen beer, which means March beer, is ready to be served in September when the first keg is tapped. Rock Bottom coincides the release of its own seasonal brew with the beginning of Oktoberfest and serves it until the kegs run dry.

Crowley said he uses many imported ingredients to brew his own season mix, like Pilsner and Munich malts with a good amount of Czech and German hops.

Oktoberfest-themed menus and parties—some more authentic than others—run rampant in October, even after the last Oktoberfest stein is emptied in Munich. They range from menu additions like roasted pumpkin and herb and panko-crusted wiener schnitzel at Bull and Bear, to more elaborate efforts like the Überstein’s Oktoberfest Weekend with its costume party, raucous oompah band and liter mugs the size of footballs.

Mary McFarlin was one of the happy members in attendance at The Überstein and also went to the Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany. She said Munich was unbelievably fun, but that Übersein’s celebration

was also good.

“This is really nice,” McFarlin said. “People think you’re just completely drunk, but that’s not it. It’s more about the spirit of celebrating. It’s their right to drink and be happy.”

That night, Überstein was packed and normal conversation was frequently drowned out by mass toasts brought on by patrons and the band, which consisted of a trumpet, tuba and accordion player. They were appropriately joyous for the occasion of course. One navy officer in full uniform sat in front of them and regularly received a raised glass paying due respect to him.

Blue helium balloons with Überstein’s white logo stayed stuck to the ceilings, their strings hung down to eye level amongst the packed room. Waitresses in skimpy German dresses moved through the crowd to serve merry customers their brats and liters of beer. Katie Mahowald and Zack Shanklin, were among those being served. They were also two of the few who actually dressed the German way, besides the bartenders and waitresses. Both Shanklin and Mahowald are Irish, but Mahowald said she does have a little German ancestry. She said she’s not really celebrating her heritage as much as enjoying the party.

“I love that my heritage is German, but I’m not here to be like, ‘I’m German, rah-rah,’” Mahowald said. “I love German culture. I love German food.”

Shanklin’s reason to celebrate is somewhat different.

“I just like wearing short shorts,” Shanklin said. “There’s beer the size of your head and shorts the size

of your underpants.”

While it was easy to find people wearing the traditional men’s alpine hat at the party, it was much more difficult to find people in full authentic garb. Shanklin came close. He had the hat, the shorts and even managed to jerry-rig proper suspenders with his tie.

“This [Oktoberfest weekend] started at 8 p.m., so I got here at 6 o’clock,” Shanklin said. “October is my game. I’m the Irish kid rocking Oktoberfest with my Irish girlfriend, so there you go.”

Crowley said he feels the festival has been commercialized, but that doesn’t make it less fun.

“Saint Patrick’s Day, that’s a one-day thing,” Crowley said. “A lot of people come out for one day, but Oktoberfest is more of a long, drawn out celebration. It’s all about harvest, beer, family and music.”

McFarlin wore an actual dirndl, a traditional tailored dress worn in Southern Germany, she bought while living there. The bar owner, who she knows, asked her to bring it to the event.

McFarlin said she hadn’t gone to any other Oktoberfest-themed parties since she got back from Germany and didn’t plan to go to any in the near future. She came to Überstein because they have the real Hofbräu beer, which has no preservatives and only the basic ingredients of barley, hops and water, she said.

Purity in their beer is highly valued in German culture and is part of the reason the country has become well-known for their prized pints. In the 1500s, a law called the Reinheitsgebot was passed to insure no mysterious ingredients became part of the barley, hops and water standard in the beers produced. The law has been relaxed and changed over the centuries, but a premium is still placed on the basics and tradition of Germany’s brews.

October is nearly over, but there are still a fair amount of opportunities left to find Oktoberfest beer. Chicago Brauhaus, 4732 N. Lincoln Ave., serves German food year-round and has $6.50 half-liters of Spaten Oktoberfest on tap. Sadly, when that runs out the only thing left until next year will be the memories.

Crowley said that while Chicago itself isn’t much different from other cities in that it’s easy to find an Oktoberfest-themed event during October, its large European culture makes the beer and meat selection much more diverse.

“It has become a huge brewing town in the last year and a half,” Crowley said. “There are three new breweries now, so I do think we have a little traditional history, location and

diversity on our side.”