The first weekend in October is one of my favorites as a C-U resident. You can start to feel a crispness to the air, Halloween decorations hit the store shelves, and the C-U Oktoberfest is held downtown, marking the official start of fall.
As someone who lived in Germany for several years, I have come to expect that a change in season should always be marked with a festival. At the start of spring, you have a
“frühlingsfest” and at the start of fall, a “herbstfest”, the most famous of which is Wiesn (Oktoberfest) in München (Munich), which actually starts in September and continues into early October. Most German towns, especially those in Southern Germany, have their own version of this festival, usually involving a big tent, loud music, more carby and fatty meat foods than you need, and plenty of cold beer.
We here in Central Illinois are no exception with our C-U Oktoberfest turning six years old this year and seeming to only improve with age.
Given the soggy conditions last year, I was hoping for a dry night. I nervously checked the weather every day last week, only to be repeatedly greeted with expected thunderstorms. Thankfully, we had a surprisingly, mostly dry event this year. The fantastic mild weather helped keep the crowds cool under the tents that were set up downtown at the corner of Neil and Washington St.
The C-U Oktoberfest started with the family-friendly fare from 3-6 p.m., where families were invited to bring their kids to decorate cookies, enjoy balloon animals, and play around in the jump house. Unfortunately, the early rain put a damper on some of the scheduled activities.
The adult activities involving live music and beer started around 6 p.m. and went until around midnight. Like previous years, there were three main tents that separated food, drink, and music. A $5 entrance fee ended up being a great return on investment, especially when you consider that the proceeds from the event help the Developmental Services Center. I had to get the commemorative C-U Oktoberfest stein to add to my collection. Plus, picking one up for $5 guaranteed I got slightly larger pours all night, which seemed like a good idea at the time.
Adding to the theme, there was a smattering of dirndl and lederhosen-clad attendees, myself included. I wore my traditional costume, taking into account the historical context of how you tie your apron bow. Whether dressed traditionally or seasonally, it was impossible to not smile <span 0.875em;”=””>when you heard the tuba and accordion being played at a jovial pace, smelled the roasting sausages and chickens wafting from the back tent, and saw the assortments of beers available to choose from.
I invited some local and out-of-town friends and we arrived at the event around 8 p.m. Despite the sizable turnout, our group was able to find a high-top table to eat our tasty snacks and sip our drinks.
We had some traditional German options from Destihl including bratwursts with spicy mustard, traditional mustard-based potato salad, and, the crowd favorite, huge, warm, doughy Bavarian pretzels covered in chunks of salt. They were a bargain at 3 tickets (1 ticket = $1). They are traditionally served plain, but since we are not in Deutschland and do not have to live by their rules, a sweet Bavarian mustard or warm beer cheese sauce for dipping could make this snack into a meal. Regardless, I could not get enough and I was not alone —the pretzels were in such high demand, they occasionally ran out, but if you checked back later they had more.
Chester’s BBQ was also in attendance frying up pork and chicken schnitzels and offering some of their regular barbecue options. By the time our group arrived, the traditional pork schnitzels were sold out, but I did get to try the chicken schnitzel. I asked that they use the pork schnitzel sauce, which was lemon-y and mustard-y and delicious, as opposed to the offered savory mushroom sauce. They were out of red cabbage kraut, which was a shame. Knowing the demand, next year we will plan on eating earlier.
Overall, the food options were tasty, but fairly similar to last year. I think more variety and perhaps an additional vendor would be welcomed in the future. Also, I have a bit of a sweet tooth and always ended the German fests with Nutella crepes or warm, candied nuts. A booth with sweet treats would be a nice addition.
After all the snacks, we needed something cold and refreshing to wash it all down. We were in luck with local favorites Blind Pig, Triptych, JT Walker’s, Destihl, and Riggs among others in attendance. Each pour cost 5 tickets. Every brewery offered an Oktoberfest-style beer (which varied quite a bit in color and strength, I would say) as well as one or two of their classic offerings. The adventurous beers of last year, for whatever reason, did not seem to make the cut this year.
I started with the Riggs’ Oktoberfest, which was smooth and delicious. I expect nothing less from the German-trained brewmasters. I gave the Blind Pig’s Oktoberfest a few sips and found another robust offering. Other members of the party tried JT Walker’s Oktoberfest and noted its wonderful caramel color and smooth finish. I wanted to switch it up, so I tried the Marketplace Selections’ Oktoberfest, which was much lighter in both color and flavor. For non-beer drinkers, there was a selection of wines from Von Jakob, a vineyard from downstate. Their selection included a blue riesling and some nice reds, but most were quite sweet.
After eating and drinking, we filled our mugs again and headed to the music and dancing tent. The music is always the highlight of the night. Young and old alike were on the dance floor having a ball. The best part is that all the bands look like they are having the best time, putting everyone in the mood to swing someone around. The first set was the traditional sounds of Die Musikmeisters, who are legends of the area. They seem to know the whole German songbook and clad in lederhosen really looked the part too! The more rambunctious Polkaholics were up next with their colorful yellow outfits and a mix of punk, rock, and polka — they did a phenomenal job hyping up the crowd.
Before the Bolzen Beer Band finished out the night with their seamless blend of classic and contemporary hits, there was a stein holding competition for women and men, which was a blast! What is a beer celebration, without a little drinking game, right? Ten contestants had to hold a full Maß of bier straight out in front of their bodies without moving the mug up or down and without spilling the beer. As a contestant, I can tell you this was much harder than it looked. The good news if you are eliminated early, you can relax with a beer until the end of the competition.
All in all, there is a reason that C-U Oktoberfest is one of my favorite events of the year and much of it has to do with the commitment of the people putting on the event. All parties involved seem to truly get into the spirit: vendors, performers, and attendees alike. I look forward to seeing what year seven has in store!
NB: If you were not able to make it to the C-U Oktoberfest this year or did not get your fill of the traditional German fun, Bayern Stube in Gibson City is having its Oktoberfest celebration until October 20th. If you show up in a dirndl or lederhosen, you get a free schnaps!
Photos by Madeline Trimble