For dedicated beer lovers, fall conjures up images of Oktoberfest, and that means steins the size of toddlers, boisterous drinking songs and waitresses in dirndl skirts.
But attending Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany — the biggest beer festival in the world (this year Sept. 17-Oct. 3) — also involves distance, time and expense, unless you have the good luck to live there.
Fortunately for whose budgets and schedules preclude the trip, there is plenty to do — and drink — in the U.S. during the fall beer festival season. Think of it as Oktoberfest in America. The festivals can be rambunctious parties, where you have to shout to be heard. Or they can be quieter affairs, with the hum of mingling and a focus on the task at hand: drinking beer.
So many beer festivals are bubbling up throughout the U.S. that domestic fans now have a dizzying year-round array of choices, said Eric Shepard, executive editor of trade publication Beer Marketer's Insights.
"It's gotten so popular, I don't know of any place that doesn't have one," he said, citing the success of craft beers as the reason.
Here's a look at the phenomenon and some of the festivals going on in the U.S. this fall.
FESTIVAL BASICS: Breweries, brewers guilds, and local groups of enthusiasts hold the festivals. Tickets can range from $20 to $100 or more, depending on what is offered. Tickets may cover drinks or they may be good for entry only, and you have to pay separately for your drinks, said Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the Brewers Association, which represents most of the nation's craft brewers.
OKTOBERFESTS IN AMERICA: Here are a few of the biggest and best-known Oktoberfests in America.
—Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, Sept. 17-18, Cincinnati. The southern Ohio city gives a nod to its German roots with this festival — http://www.oktoberfestzinzinnati.com/ . It bills itself as America's largest Oktoberfest, with half a million attendees. There's a full weekend of festivities, starting with the fifth annual Running of The Weiners at noon on Sept. 16, where dachshunds run in complete hot dog regalia (costumes provided). For humans, there's a beer stein race and beer barrel roll. The actual beer festival, which is sponsored by brewer Samuel Adams, begins Saturday when a parade of German-Americans wearing traditional garb taps the kegs at each festival tent. Admission is free and beers are purchased at each tent, for either $4-$5 for a small, or as much as $11 for a large souvenir mug. Make sure to stick around for Sunday's "World's Largest Chicken Dance." The name says it all.
—Oktoberfest by the Bay, Sept. 30-Oct. 2, San Francisco. The scenic waterfront location is not found at its German ancestor's fest, but Oktoberfest by the Bay keeps the German tradition alive. The festival — http://www.oktoberfestbythebay.com/ — features "sizzling oompah music" (as its web site boasts), native dancing and of course, beer. Entry is split into sessions, either day or night. Tickets are $25 for any session, but that only covers your admission. VIP tickets for $65 include a buffet and a beer. Most beers are $6 and food ranges from $3 to $11. The final day of the event marks the 122nd anniversary of German Day in San Francisco.
—Soulard Oktoberfest, Oct. 7-9, St. Louis. This festival — http://www.soulardoktoberfest.com/ — is held in the back yard of one of America's most successful brewing companies, Anheuser-Busch, which was founded by German immigrants. The city's strong German heritage is on display at the festival, which promises 2,000 kegs and 14 bands. The event includes contests for brat-eating, stein-holding and strongest barmaid. Entry is $5, although if you're wearing German attire, you get in for free. (That means lederhosen, not T-shirts by the German brand Adidas.) Food and drinks are separate. For $40 to $75, depending on the day, you get VIP treatment with all-you-can eat bratwurst and other food, beer, special parking and, perhaps most important at a beer festival, special access to bathrooms.
—Samuel Adams OctoberFest, Sept. 9-10, Boston: Perhaps the best-known craft brewer is throwing a German-style festival to formally mark the release of its Samuel Adams Octoberfest, an autumnal seasonal beer, and kick off what it calls the "OFest" season. The brewer and event organizer beersummit.com are hosting the two-day event, which begins with a ceremonial tapping of the keg. On the 10th, festival-goers can partake in 10 hours of drinking, bands and even test how well — and how long — they can hold their steins. Tickets are $16.25 and include a stein and first beer. Details at http://www.beersummit.com. —Other Oktoberfests worth checking out include Germantown Oktoberfest, Oct. 1, in Germantown, Maryland, and HOToberfest, Oct. 1, Atlanta, billed as the nation's largest consumer-judged beer fest with more than 250 craft beers.
OTHER BEER FESTIVALS: Not all fall beer festivals are Oktoberfests. Here are a couple of others:
—Great American Brew Festival, Sept. 29-Oct. 1, Denver. This festival, run by the Brewers Association, is "cosmic," Shepard says. There are 2,400 beers served in the festival hall from 465 brewers. With some 49,000 attendees each year, it's considered the largest, ticketed beer festival in the U.S. Unless you have your ticket, you won't be one of them. This year, tickets for the 30th annual festival sold out in a record one week. Tickets should go on sale next year in late July. Bookmark their site, http://www.greatamericanbeerfestival.com/ .
Attendees come wanting to taste as much as possible, so the organizers have breweries pour drinks one ounce a time, rather than the typical four-ounce pours found at most other beer festivals, Herz said. "With the multitude of beers, people have to pick a strategy to work the room," she said.
—Belgian Beer Fest, Sept. 9-10, Boston. This event focuses on all beer Belgian, a breed of beer known for its strong flavorings and potency. The event is run by Beer Advocate, a global network of beer enthusiasts, so the emphasis is on the unique. The festival starts Friday with "Night of the Funk" which features food and 50 "funk-a-fied" beers, according to the website http://beeradvocate.com/bbf/ . (The site also advises bringing Tums to cope with all those unique flavors.) It's sold out, but there's still availability for two tasting sessions on Saturday. Both feature more than 200 Belgian beers, from the strong pale ale "tripels" to the tart, fruity lambics. There are also American-made beers inspired by Belgium. Tickets are $50 for either session. There are also special forums with brewers and other industry insiders available to VIP ticket holders only. Those tickets, at $65, are also sold out.
SOLD OUT? VOLUNTEER! Don't be dismayed by sold out events. Look into volunteering. Festivals need of dozens if not thousands of volunteers, and they're usually compensated in free tickets and beer. Ryan Katz, a beer enthusiast in Indianapolis, Indiana, volunteered with a group in 2009 to work at the Great American Beer Festival. He spent two full days with a group of friends, pouring beer for breweries.
"We could take breaks and try other beers," he said. "And they had no issues with us drinking the stuff we were pouring either."
Contact the organizers of the fest where you'd like to volunteer. At the Great American Beer Festival, the need is big: they had nearly 3,300 volunteers last year. There's already a waiting list for this year, though.
STAY CURRENT: To keep up with the latest happenings — and drinks — in the beer world, visit Beer Advocate's extensive calendar: http://beeradvocate.com/events/calendar .