Opinion | Paul Olson: Happy Oktoberfest!

Dancing the polka is fun, but my favorite moment of any Oktoberfest is the stein hoisting contest. It only takes a few minutes for the 5 pound beer-filled steins to leave strong men and women grimacing and trembling. Last week, Main Street in Breckenridge was filled with Oktoberfest celebrants, many enthusiastically sporting lederhosen and dirndls that probably are not worn much the rest of the year. 

At the Beaver Creek Oktoberfest over Labor Day weekend, I listened to Helmut Fricker play the alphorn and sing our favorite polkas. Fricker is a German immigrant who has been giving Colorado Oktoberfests authentic flair for over 50 years.

The first Oktoberfest was was held in Munich in 1810 to celebrate the marriage between Bavarian Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. After that big event the city continued the fall festival to promote Bavaria’s agricultural products. Now over 6 million people attend each year, with over 70% hailing from the Bavarian state.

Almost 6 million liters of specially brewed strong beer will be served at this year’s event from Sept. 16 to Oct. 3. Since 2005, Munich has promoted a “quiet Oktoberfest” to make the event more attractive to families, with more emphasis on amusements and music and limiting the late-night noise. However, they still have their share of bierleichen (beer corpses) sleeping off their excesses on the grassy Kotzhugel (Vomit Hill) near the beer tents.

Organized by the G. Heileman Brewing Company (Old Style beer) in 1961, La Crosse, Wisconsin, claims to be the home of the first Oktoberfest in the U.S. Now these fall festivals have spread across the country, including at least two dozen in Colorado. There is still time to attend the Denver festival from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1. We also have a local beer hall, Ein Prosit in Frisco, if you crave a bratwurst and stein of German brew over the rest of the year.

I am grateful to the many German brewers who immigrated to America in the 1800s and popularized that crisp, clear, refreshing lager that is now the preferred beer for most of us. Though there has been tremendous growth of craft breweries in the U.S. and many more options for ale drinkers, lagers still account for over 85% of U.S. beer sales.

The domination of the beer industry by Germans a century ago only brought them trouble during the anti-immigrant, anti-liquor period leading up to World War I. There was the same xenophobic atmosphere we see today in the U.S., except that back then the fear and anger was directed mostly at Germans and other European immigrants. Once the U.S. entered the war against Germany in 1917 German beer, language and customs became seen as unpatriotic.

The 1910 census counted more than 8 million first- and second-generation German Americans, almost 9% of the U.S. population, and our largest non-English-speaking group. The German language went from being studied by 25% of U.S. high school students in 1915 to only 1% by the end of World War I. Germans found it safest to assimilate quickly by changing their German-sounding names and giving up customs like enjoying beer after church on Sunday. Anti-German sentiment helped push through the 18th Amendment, which resulted in a nationwide ban of the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages from 1920-1933.

There wasn’t much enthusiasm for German culture for many years following World War II. My wife and I both have German ancestors, but there was little talk of those roots when we were growing up. It is an indication of the forgiving nature of people and the importance of international diplomacy that our bitter enemy in two wars is now a trusted ally and that we have festivals across our nation celebrating German heritage.

Our Colorado Oktoberfests may have been started to promote tourism, food and drink, but they have turned into wonderful community events that help us to appreciate other cultures and the diversity of our nation. When we raise a glass and say “Prost!,” let it be a reminder of our connection not just to friends and family but to all our neighbors around the globe.

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