"Locals should leave work early on Friday," advised Sandy Metzger, event director of Breckenridge's 18th annual Oktoberfest, which starts a day early this year for the first time. Though Oktoberfest usually kicks off Friday night with the Paulaner Brewmaster's Dinner, this year's festival begins this afternoon, replete with brews, music and yes, chicken and hat dances. "Last year, walking around on Friday, I noticed a lot of people were in town and I thought we should really start early. So I went to the town and got approval and we're giving it a try," Metzger said. "It's a huge change."Tonight's sold-out Paulaner Brewmaster's Dinner on is being held at Sevens for the first time, meaning guests get to arrive via gondola. To attend the annual event, advance booking is a must. "With the Paulaner Brewmaster's Dinner gaining notoriety and selling out, it's kind of nice to extend the street party to Friday so now people have something to do in town," said Rachel Zerowin of the Breckenridge Resort Chamber, which puts on the event.The street party starts at 2 p.m. today. Patrons who purchase steins in advance and pick them up today can earn two free beers for their efforts. Then, after folks have had a chance to put a few away, the dancing games get started at 4:30 p.m. in Blue River Plaza.There's not much to say about chicken dancing; just do your best chicken dance to see if it merits a prize. For the hat dancing, which is "like musical chairs, but with hats," Metzger said, hats are handed out and the music starts; when it stops you put your hat on the person behind you. Somewhere along the line, hats disappear, and folks start ending up without hats. Denver's Edelweiss Dancers, who also entertain to the sounds of accordion music between musical acts throughout Oktoberfest, will run the hat dance. The party continues this evening, with the Six Million Dollar Band belting out '80s tunes at the official after-party at Salt Creek Steakhouse, 110 E. Lincoln in Breckenridge.
In addition to the extended schedule, this year's festival features a family-friendly kids' zone on the fenced-in lawn of the Barney Ford House with hula-hoops, balls and other toys and games. The liquor license extends there, so parents can bring their beers in and hang out on the lawn - conveniently located across the street from the stage - while their kids play. "It's just a cool place for people to get out of the craziness of Main Street for a second," said Metzger, who indicated future plans to grow the area if it proves popular. The new kids' area is in addition to the beer-free one on the Riverwalk Center lawn."Our goal is to add a new aspect every year to keep it new and fun," Metzger said.
Ceramic, commemorative Breckenridge Oktoberfest steins, imported from Munich, cost $25 for a 1/2 liter or $30 for a full liter at the festival, though participants can buy 1/2-liter steins online at www.breckenridgeoktoberfest.com and get a free 16-ounce beer or glass of wine with purchase. Beer and wine tickets are $5 otherwise."The steins tend to sell out," Zerowin said. "Especially this year with the event starting Friday, getting your hands on those early is probably the best way to make sure you get one." Three different Paulaner beers will be on tap, in addition to seasonal microbrews from the Breckenridge Brewery and a selection of wines from Paulaner and Toasted Head. Gluten-free beer will also be available this year.
Breckenridge's Oktoberfest is one of the biggest in the Rocky Mountains, with 40,000 people attending last year. Aside from brews and chicken dances, the festival features traditional German food, Oompah and polka music, Bavarian dancers, children's activities, a keg-tapping ceremony and a 5-kilometer run. Those Austrian Guys play throughout the weekend, and the Summit Concert Band plays Sunday at 11:15 a.m.The keg-tapping ceremony happens at the "real" Oktoberest in Munich, Metzger said, so it's become part of the Oktoberfest tradition in Breckenridge too. Mayor John Warner returns to tap the keg this year, assisted by councilman Mark Burke. "They tap it; beer comes flowing out; and people just throw their mugs under it - so that's how you can get free beer," Metzger said, chuckling. A different kind of ceremony precedes the keg tapping; this year, at 11:45 a.m., a couple from Parker will wed onstage. "We're excited," Metzger said of the development, especially since the original Oktoberfest was founded to honor the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig's marriage. The couple took one of their first trips together to Breckenridge's Oktoberfest and decided that's where they wanted to get married. They couldn't have picked a better time, as leaf-peeping season in the High Country continues forth in all its splendor. "The leaves are cooperating more than we could have ever hoped for," Zerowin said. "It's gorgeous out there."