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Inside the Midlands Oktoberfest Boom

Dirndls and Drinking Songs

  • 7 min to read

Fall is simply the busiest time of year in Columbia. In a town where sweltering heat keeps folks focused on indoor activities or just plain getting out of town for most of the summer, it seems like everything gets pushed to the fall. September hits, and while the temperatures won’t cool all the way down for a couple of weeks, those Facebook event calendars start filling up fast. There are University of South Carolina football games almost every Saturday. International food fairs like the Greek Festival and others try to plan for the few away game weekends. The State Fair is right around the corner. And every single person you know is getting married.

And then there is the proliferation of Oktoberfests that seem to have taken off in the last few years. From the first weekend in September through October, you are likely to find bars, breweries and, in one special case, a church, throwing an Oktoberfest celebration of one kind or another every weekend.

Why the recent boom?

The gold standard for local Oktoberfests is the three-day event thrown every year (this year from Oct. 12-14) by the Incarnation Lutheran Church on Devine Street. This is the eighth year of the celebration, and they go all out, from traditional homemade food to oompah bands to volunteers and festival-goers dressing up in tracht, the traditional German clothing. There’s even one guy straight-up cosplaying as Martin Luther himself — Andy Nyland, a church member and character actor who has since moved to Maryland but comes back every year for the festival.

Festival co-director Sarah Sawicki says the growing appeal is partially in the area’s history.

“I think a lot of us feel a connection to Germany, even if it’s a long way back,” Sawicki says. “The earliest European settlers of this area hailed from Germany [and] settled in the Dutch Fork area, establishing a lot of Lutheran churches.”

“Also we have a lot of military folks here, many of whom served in Germany and enjoyed the food and the beer,” she adds.

While not a member of the military, Scott Burgess is someone who spent time in Germany enjoying the food and beer and brought his love of it back home with him. He first went in 1993 as part of a USC exchange program with Bamberg and eventually went back on a Fulbright scholarship, teaching at a university there. All in all, he lived in Germany for a decade, and his love of their culture drove him to found Bierkeller Columbia, an authentic German brewery here in town.

Bierkeller will host its third annual Oktoberfest this Saturday, Sept. 15 [Note: Due to Hurricane Florence, this event has been postponed, with no new date yet announced], at Riverfront Park, where the beer isn’t the only thing that will be authentic.

“We try to replicate as much of that [culture] as possible,” Burgess says. “Our tables are from Paulaner brewery in Munich. We have traditional ceramic and glassware mugs for the beer. We serve traditional food from The Wurst Wagen.”

While history may provide some answers to why we Columbians love to raise our steins this time of year, Burgess also thinks it has to do with the type of craft beer culture that we have in Columbia — one that may be quite different from larger cities with more of a craft beer presence.

“We know how to settle in and drink and relax,” he says. “In many cities, craft beer culture revolves around sampling as many small pours as you can and drinking a wide variety of styles. I call that a tasting culture. Here, we still seem to retain a drinking culture; we like to drink beer and not just taste it.”

Indeed, the lower alcohol content of many of the German-style beers means you can enjoy more than one or two at a sitting without having to call an Uber.

“This town just loves to drink beer outside!” Sawicki jokes, but that may be closer to the mark than she suspects. “It’s a fun, family atmosphere,” she says of Incarnation’s Oktoberfest celebration. “Parents can enjoy a beer while the kids play on the playground. Folks can sit and enjoy the homemade food and the real oompah bands.”

Burgess sees the reason for Oktoberfest’s success in Columbia as simple.

“I suspect people have latched onto the concept because beer gardens and fests are wonderful things. Great places to spend an afternoon or an entire day.”

Or even several weekends in a row, apparently. — Tug Baker

Midlands Oktoberfest Roundup

Note: While many of these events are free, the beer and food cost money. More events are sure to pop up in the weeks to come, so check Free Times and free-times.com as the Oktoberfest season rolls on. — Eva Moore

Bierkeller Oktoberfest

When: Postponed due to Hurricane Florence; stay tuned for new date

Where: Riverfront Park, 312 Laurel St., Columbia

What to expect: Traditional German beers (Kölsch, Kellerbier and Festbier) brewed by Columbia-based nomad brewer Bierkeller Columbia and served in traditional glass- and stoneware. You pay for your beer and food with Biertokens, which are good at all Bierkeller events. The Wurst Wagen will serve German sausages and sides. Live music from accordion player T.C. Costello.

Cost: Free

More: facebook.com/bierkellercolumbia

Oktoberfest Kickoff

When: Thursday, Sept. 20, 4-8 p.m.

Where: Lowes Foods No. 267, 5222 Sunset Blvd., Lexington

What to expect: The Lexington boutique grocery store kicks off the Oktoberfest season with lots of Oktoberfest beers on tap at its in-store beer den, half-price. If you’re planning on some backyard Oktoberfest drinking this fall, this would be a good chance to try before you buy.

Cost: Free

More: untappd.com

River Rat Oktoberfest

When: Saturday, Sept. 22, noon-8 p.m.

Where: River Rat Brewery, 1231 Shop Rd., Columbia

What to expect: Five beer stations will feature River Rat brews and special German guest taps. German food cooked in-house. Live music from accordion player T.C. Costello.

Cost: Free

More: facebook.com/riverrat.brewery

Oktoberfest Sumter 2018

When: Saturday, Sept. 22, 5-11:30 p.m.

Where: 33 N. Main St., Sumter

What to expect: A street party in downtown Sumter, with German band The Happy Musicians; German sausages, pretzels, sides and desserts; barbecue, beer and wine; and dancing.

Cost: $10 advance/$15 at gate

More: sumteroktoberfest.com

@116 Oktoberfest Dinner

When: Monday, Sept. 24, 5:30 and 8 p.m.

Where: @116 Espresso and Wine Bar, 116 State St., West Columbia

What to expect: A seated dinner, not an outdoor beer event — but a chance to appreciate local Oktoberfest beers paired with traditional German food.

Cost: $55

More: eventbrite.com

Aiken Oktoberfest

When: Saturday, Sept. 29, 6-10:30 p.m.

Where: Corner of Hayne and Pendleton streets, downtown Aiken

What to expect: Outdoor festival in downtown Aiken features German food; craft beer and German beer; The Foothills Oompah Band and other live music.

Cost: Free

More: aikendda.us

Oktoberfest at Columbia Craft

When: Saturday, Sept. 29, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.

Where: Columbia Craft Brewing Co., 520 Greene St., Columbia

What to expect: One of Columbia’s newer craft breweries hosts its first Oktoberfest, with a specially brewed festbier; German food from Wurst Wagen; and music from the Mountain Top Polka Band.

Cost: Free

More: facebook.com/columbiacraft

Flying Saucer’s Funfzehnten Oktoberfest

When: Saturday, Sept. 29, 11 a.m.-2 a.m.

Where: Flying Saucer, 931 Senate St., Columbia

What to expect: Vista beer emporium celebrates its 15th anniversary with an Oktoberfest featuring lots of Oktoberfest-style beers, a stein hoisting contest, a chance to make your own alpine hats and lederhosen, and more.  

Cost: Free

More: facebook.com/flyingsaucercolumbia

Newberry Oktoberfest

When: Saturday, Oct. 6, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

Where: Downtown Newberry

What to expect: The town of Newberry will be awash in German costumes; music from the Three Dot Polka Band and a wandering accordionist in addition to locals like the Reggie Sullivan Band; and lots of stuff for kids to do. Enjoy beer, German food, hyper-regional food (liver nips, anyone?), arts and crafts vendors, classic cars and more.

Cost: Free

More: newberryoktoberfest.com

Oktoberfest Columbia

When: Oct. 12-14, Friday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday noon-7 p.m.

Where: Incarnation Lutheran Church, 3005 Devine St., Columbia

What to expect: The gold standard of local Oktoberfests, this low-key, multi-day festival features tons of authentic church-made German food, from schnitzel to spaetzle to pretzels to desserts; a large beer selection; live German music; a playground for kids; crafts and more. A guy dressed as Martin Luther wanders the grounds, hammer and enormous beer stein in hand. The event benefits Lutheran Services Carolinas and Incarnation Lutheran Church.

Cost: Free

More: oktoberfestcolumbia.com

Oktoberfest Beer — What’s in a Name?

Beers inspired by the brews associated with the famous Oktoberfest beer festival of Munich are some of the most popular German imports — and have become popular seasonal beers for American craft brewers.

However, the use of the name “Oktoberfest” can be confusing.

In Germany and the European Union, “Oktoberfest” beer is essentially a trademark and its use is controlled by the festival. For more than 100 years, the official beer style of the festival was the märzen style, a full-bodied amber lager that is brimming with rich malt flavor. By 1990, festival organizers had realized that many of those attending Oktoberfest preferred a lighter colored and flavored beer. In deference to consumer preference, the official beer style of the festival was changed from the märzen to a golden lager.

Thus, the only beer style in Germany properly called Oktoberfest is a golden lager and not the märzen, though this restriction does not apply to exports.

American craft brewers are not bound by the German trademark and have continued to use the name Oktoberfest to describe their fall seasonals — which are usually märzens. Most German exports, regardless of style, still use the name Oktoberfest on the label and sometimes will add “fest” or “märzen” to identify the true style. American craft brewers have adopted similar practices, though there is not real uniformity.

Most American craft brewers brew the märzen style because it is more complex and flavorful than the fest style. This is not surprising, as that is what craft brewing is all about — flavorful and interesting beers. However, the fest style does have its charms. Despite its light color, it is full of balanced malt flavor, hints of sweetness, pleasant bitterness and floral hop flavor that make it very drinkable.

You’ll find fest and märzen styles on offer from local and national craft brewers this fall. — Gerald Jowers

Some Carolina Oktoberfest Beers to Look Out For

Unable to get out to a local Oktoberfest celebration this year, or just looking to sip an Oktoberfest beer at home between celebrations? These seasonal brews made in the Carolinas can be found in Midlands bottle shops. — Jordan Lawrence

Duck-Rabbit Märzen

Foothills Oktoberfest

Highland Clawhammer Oktoberfest Märzen Lager

Hi-Wire Zirkusfest

Olde Mecke Mecktoberfest

River Rat Oktoberfest

Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest (collaboration with Weihenstephan)

Thomas Creek Octoberfest

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