A Festhalle at K-W Oktoberfest, 2019

A news story in Kitchener, Ontario summed up one view of the 51st edition of the nine-day K-W Oktoberfest that ended earlier this month. Taking place in Kitchener, Waterloo, and Cambridge some 60-70 miles west of Toronto, a non-profit corporation has run the event since the early ’70s.

Organizers like to emphasize that K-W Oktoberfest is more than about beer, German food, folk dancing, and oom-pah. There are family breakfasts, various sports competitions, a Kitchener food walking tour, a new citizen welcoming event, a PRIDEtoberfest, the famous Thanksgiving Day Parade, and much more. The official 2019 FestGuide gives a good overview.

Some new elements featured this year – an open, daytime Bavarian marketplace was one. This story from the Waterloo Chronicle lists other new elements.

For many though, the Festhallen remain a key attraction. This year we attended an evening at the Alpine Club. The club, founded in the early 1950s, is a German cultural touchstone in K-W. It’s not the biggest festhall – Concordia Club with its huge tent has always held that honour – but offers a pleasing mix of intimacy and spaciousness.

Not as many German clubs and other venues participated this year as officially-approved Festhallen. There was a total of nine, versus perhaps two dozen in past decades. Still, the K-W Oktoberfest draws some 600,000 annually. It’s still a potent regional attraction in the Province and will remain so for many years.

Bingemans, the large recreation and event centre outside Kitchener, was an approved Festhalle from Day 1 but two years ago, went its own way, setting up tents for its own event. Beers from Paulaner in Munich and Waterloo Brewery, founded in K-W over 30 years ago, could be purchased.

International beer giant Molson-Coors is an important sponsor of K-W Oktoberfest and hence its beers have been dominant at participating clubs. Due in part to this restriction, Bingemans disengaged from the official event, allowing it to offer beers of its own choosing. Probably for this reason the 2019 event permitted sale of various German brands at the venues (see the Chronicle story above).

A further option for craft beer fans is Craftoberfest, held over a weekend in early October. It features German and other foods as well as harvest-themed craft beer and cider from across Ontario.

People who appreciate craft beer and good imports, especially a younger demographic, expect a broader choice today. It looks like it’s coming at K-W Oktoberfest, but it’s taken some time. As a result, the event has less traction (IMO) among craft beer fans than it otherwise might.

The Alpine Club is about the size of a high-school gymnasium and was comfortably full the night we attended, I’d estimate 200-250 people. The demographic was weighted to an older crowd but there were younger people too, considering also it was a Thursday.

On the beer side, there was (very fresh) bottled Hofbrauhaus Original from Munich, German Erdinger wheat beer, California’s Lagunitas IPA, Dutch Heineken, Molson Canadian, Ontario’s Creemore Lager, and Coors Light among others. Pilsner Urquell was also listed but none was at the bar that night. Plus, there were local and German wines and a few traditional German spirits.

Craft beer central? Not at all, but preferable to earlier years. I’d like to see a Festhalle at future K-W Oktoberfests that’s dedicated to craft beer and quality imports. It’s a logical next step.

At bottom, Festallen offer a German cultural experience for a time to a larger community. The Alpine’s version served excellent food – I had cabbage rolls and sausage – great live music, German-themed but with early rock and roll and pop favourites, non-stop folk dancing, and dazzling costumes.

K-W Octoberfest is on the original “beer calendar” of this Province, and is still there. Hopefully the festival will find ways to attract greater numbers from the GTA and beyond, and in particular the craft beer segment. So much of craft beer culture derives one way or another from Germany, that closer ties between the two communities makes perfect sense.

Some GTA brewers and other Metro groups host their own Octoberfest – Amsterdam and Steam Whistle have in Toronto. These are always fun, and the beer of course prima. But K-W Oktoberfest has a unique character, not just via the world-famous Munich inspiration but also the longstanding German cultural presence in K-W.

It began in the late 1700s when Mennonite communities from Pennsylvania and New York came north to the area. Due to this initial presence, German-speaking immigrants later arrived from various lands, an influx that probably peaked in the ’60s and ’70s. Today, many more ethnic communities and nationalities are represented in the area, all contributing to its growth and future.

Staying the same and being relevant for the future is never an easy path to negotiate, but I hope K-W Oktoberfest finds a way. Meanwhile, I’m planning to attend next year.