Cleveland’s Labor Day Oktoberfest brings beer, ethnic eats, wiener dogs, oompah bands, family fun and more to Berea fairgrounds
By Laura DeMarco, The Plain Dealer — True story: A few years ago, I was driving through Bavaria just as Oktoberfest was starting. But I didn’t want to do anything so touristy, so we kept on driving past Munich – right to Neuschwanstein Castle (not touristy at all, ha ha.)
Neuschwanstein – aka Mad King Ludwig’s castle, aka the inspiration for the Disney castle — was fantastic. But I’ve always regretted not checking out the original Oktoberfest a bit. I mean, its not like I’m often in the neighborhood.
Which is why I make it a point each year to attend the traditional Cleveland Labor Day Oktoberfest. The event has a long history, though not quite as long as the original.
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 2012 fest attracted more than 6 million partygoers to the world’s biggest keg party.
Oktoberfest 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.
In 2005, Oktoberfest was reborn at the Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds under the direction of German-American Bob Haas, a retired policeman.
“I always thought since it was an important part of my German heritage – just like good times at Kiefer’s restaurant – that it was a shame to let it go away. Especially in an area with such a large German-American population,” says Haas.
“I was a Berea policeman for 35 years and had worked at it and saw how they let it get out of control. So I talked to then-Berea Mayor Biddlecombe and convinced him that I could put it on and not have it become this large drinkfest. The key was to make it a family event, and the key to that was to not sell pitchers of beer.”
Since Oktoberfest was revived, it has grown every year. Organizers expect this year’s to be their biggest yet, with no competing Labor Day weekend air show.
So, how do you make an event centered around beer more than a beerfest? Well, have a lot more than beer, for starters, such as three days of traditional ethnic music and dancers representing 25 countries; marionettes; gingerbread houses; renowned sand artist Carl Jara; the ever-popular wiener-dog races; a kids area with inflatables, hayrides, chalk artists and more; and lots and lots of traditional food. And of course, there is the ever-popular live glockenspiel, where German dancers throw out beads to revelers every hour.
Several of Cleveland’s most popular German and Central European restaurants will be serving their delicacies, including Der Braumeister, Balaton Hungarian restaurant, Frank’s Bratwurst and Seven Roses. They’ll be joined this year by Sterle’s Country House, the East 55th mainstay that has been revamped under new ownership in the last year.
“New owner Rick Semersky is really trying to revitalize the restaurant,” says Haas. “Like us, he is trying to attract younger people, who may have lost interest in their culture but are rediscovering it now. It seemed a perfect fit for us.”
Semersky is excited to join Oktoberfest. And just as he is honoring tradition but giving it a modern twist as his restaurant, he plans to do a few unexpected things.
“We’ll be doing traditional fare with a twist,” he says. “Schnitzel on a stick, fried European cheeses, apple strudel dough balls, and giant turkey legs in paprikash gravy.”
But what about the beer? Oktoberfest is, no matter what anybody says, ultimately a beerfest.
Bavaria has a centuries-old beer-making tradition, and Oktoberfest quickly became a popular way to feature their brews. To this day, there are strict rules about what kind of beer can be served in Munich. Only beer brewed within the city limits is allowed be “Oktoberfestbier,” meaning six breweries: Augustiner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrau, Lowenbrau, Paulaner and Spaten.
“We have again Hofbrauhaus [Munich] and Warsteiner, from North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany,” says Haas. Each of the breweries will be featuring three brews: their original, an Oktoberfest and a dunkel. Oktoberfest beers generally have a high alcohol content, with 5.8 to 6.3 percent alcohol.
There will also be a microbew competition featuring 20 local and national competitors.
And, as in Munich, the Cleveland fest will open with a ceremonial keg tapping at 7:15 p.m. Friday. After broaching the cask, the tapper must yell “O’zapft is!”, “The barrel is tapped!” … “Let’s get the party started!”
Cleveland Labor Day Oktoberfest
When: 5 p.m.-midnight Friday. Noon-midnight Saturday and Sunday. Noon-9 p.m. Monday. Fireworks at dark on Sunday night.
Where: Cuyahoga County Fairgrounds, 164 Eastland Road, Berea.
Tickets: $8, at clevelandoktoberfest.com; $10, at the gate; free, children 12 and younger.
Opening ceremony: Celebrity keg tapping at 7:15 Friday. More information:clevelandoktoberfest.com