CLEVELAND, Ohio – Eins ... zwei... drei ...
The countdown to fall has begun in Cleveland . . . and it's in German.
The 2015 Cleveland Oktoberfest signals the beginning of the fall festival season this Labor Day weekend . . . or is it one last chance to raise a stein to the end of summer?
Either way, the annual keg party is a great time. One that has roots that date back to the early 1800s in Germany. That's when Munich's Oktoberfest started, in 1810, as a wedding celebration for Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. Since then, it has grown to mammoth international proportions. The 2014 fest attracted more than 6 million partygoers.
Cleveland's Oktoberfest also has deep roots. It was brought to Cleveland by Bavarian immigrants who settled in the area. It had a 40-year run under the direction of restaurateur Steve Bencic, who owned the Hofbrau Haus on East 55th Street. But rowdy crowds, changing locations and declining attendance eventually shut the fest down.
But not for long. In 2005, Oktoberfest was reborn at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds under the direction of German-American Bob Haas, a retired policeman.
A decade into its rebirth, Cleveland Oktoberfest continues to grow each year. So, how do you make an event centered on beer more than a beer fest?
Have a lot more than beer, for starters, such as four days of traditional ethnic music and dancers representing more than 25 countries, from Germany to Russia to China and Ireland; a marionette show from the lauded Frisch Marionettes Puppet Show; gingerbread houses; renowned sand artist Carl Jara; wiener-dog races; a kids' area with inflatables, hayrides and more; and lots of traditional food.
This year, the four-day party will also feature hipster polka man DJ Kishka and punk-polka favorites Alex Meixner – not to mention ABBA and Journey tribute bands.
And of course, the popular live glockenspiel, where German dancers throw out beads to revelers every hour, is back. Several of Cleveland's most popular German and Central European restaurants will be serving their delicacies, including Der Braumeister, Balaton Hungarian restaurant, Das Schnitzel Haus, Frank's Bratwurst, Sterle's Country House and Seven Roses.
But what about the beer? Oktoberfest is, no matter what anybody says, ultimately a beer fest.
Bavaria has a centuries-old beer-making tradition. Only beer brewed within Munich's city limits is allowed to be "Oktoberfestbier, " meaning six breweries: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrau, Lowenbrau, Paulaner and Spaten. Traditional Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr brews will be served at the Cleveland Oktoberfest.
There will also be a microbrew competition featuring 18 local and national competitors. And that's not all the competition. A traditional Masskrugstemen (Bavarian strong man/woman) contest will determine who can hold a 1-liter stein filled with beer – about 5 pounds – with one arm outstretched for the longest period of time.
And, as in Munich, the Cleveland fest will open with a ceremonial keg-tapping on Friday. After broaching the cask, the tapper must yell "O'zapft is!" — "The barrel is tapped!" In other words, "Let's get the party started!"