The Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest in Ontario has been going strong since 1969. It is, today, one of the largest of its kind in the world. A good part of Kitchener, formerly called Berlin, and nearby Waterloo were settled by Mennonite and other incomers of German culture from Pennsylvania and New York starting from the early 1800’s. Perhaps because the German language was established in K-W as it’s called and German was known in church and school, emigrants from Germany came as well. In particular, there was an influx in the 1950’s and 60’s. Due to this cultural background, a number of German-Canadian clubs were established in Kitchener. Some represented people from a given area of Germany, or perhaps were associated with a particular denomination or trade. There are now almost 50 such clubs. Even though the German cultural imprint on the area has diminished over time through marriage with other extractions and general Canadian acculturation, the clubs are still a well-known part of the social scene. They assume an important role during Oktoberfest by offering food, music and dance, and of course beer, to the general public, to whom doors are open during festival period.
The biggest club is, I believe, the Concordia Club. In 1967 and 1968, it held an Oktoberfest which started as a Centennial project (Canada was 100 years old in 1967). A group formed in 1969 then expanded the event, a cooperative effort of local service organizations, the tourist and visitors bureau and city council. It was an immediate success and has grown considerably since these early years.
Many events take place during the Oktoberfest period in K-W that have nothing to do with food and drink including the famous Thanksgiving Day Parade, but this blog entry will discuss my impressions of the festhalle entertainment as I’ve experienced it over the years.
In general, I would say, it’s a great time out, the food and music are always excellent, the atmosphere is fun and family-oriented (at least during the day but I’m sure nothing gets out of hand later in the day, the event is well-controlled). No one who enjoys a festival atmosphere, beer and German-style food and music should miss it.
From a beer standpoint, the event started decades before the beer revival and has not, from what I’ve seen, been greatly marked by it. I’ve attended 4-5 festhalles over the years and generally one encounters mass market brands for the draft beer. Some clubs may well, especially today, offer a wider range and hopefully one representative of the craft brewing scene in K-W. Even where the range is limited though, you can usually find a brand or two of more interest. Today at Concordia Club, (excellent) draft Hacker-Pschorr was served in the small banquet hall vs. the much larger tent area where Molson Canadian and Coors Light were the only drafts available. At the stand-up bars alongside the tent, Big Rock Traditional Ale was available in bottles: a “dark” of a kind. It’s worthy, but I’m not sure why a dark lager wasn’t obtained from a local brewery, Brick, say, and why an Alberta beer of an English type is served at a German Ontario beer event.
I did find Brick Bock once at another festhalle but they also had Heineken IIRC. All this to say, beer is not a strong focus from a connoisseur’s standpoint, it is though from a more traditional standpoint that lots of quaffable draft is sold to go with the food and suit a general party atmosphere. The beer choice in Munich at its avatar event likewise is fairly restricted in that a given brewery’s draft (one beer) is sold in each tent albeit a tweaked version of its usual helles, with the odd bottle of something else possibly available, maybe a dunkel (dark lager) or a weizen (wheat beer). So net net, the two situations are really not all that different. That said, it would be a good idea for the clubs to offer a range of local drafts, blonde and dark lagers in particular as these are the tradition of Munich since the time the festival started there. It might be a good sales point for the clubs, too; we live in a more “beer-aware” time than 40 years ago. As I walked from the bar with my glass of Big Rock ale, someone came over and asked me what it was. Clearly he was someone looking for an alternative to Molson Canadian and Coors Light. We talked, and he said he was going to buy one.
The Concordia’s food was top-notch, we had sausage in a bun and also schnitzel in a bun, strudel too. The bars carry a small range of German spirits, white spirits of different kinds and a brandy, but also some flavoured liqueurs and the general kind popular with the younger crowd.
The music is fun and local groups perform various kinds of dances, both traditional German but also sometimes more contemporary.
There is also (at Concordia) a passageway between the banquet hall and the tent area where they sell nuts, have a carnival-type shooting gallery, and games of various kinds, some suitable for children.
We were there for a couple of hours only mid-afternoon and the place was full of kids. Since my wife and I first visited 30 years ago, we reflected that some of the parents of these kids probably had been brought by their parents at our early events.
Basically, the experience is almost exactly as it was 30 and 20 years ago, at the clubs I’ve been to. This is a probably a good thing, certain things should be traditional and gain their appeal from being predictably enjoyable but just once a year. I’d give a little attention to the beer, but apart from that it’s great as it is.