Thursday, October 8, 2015

Remembering Oktoberfests

Would it surprise you to learn that I have only been to three Oktoberfest celebrations in my entire 50 years of existence?

And the first time doesn't count, because I was a kid, much too young to be drinking beer (although, I wouldn't be surprised if my father gave me a sip). My sisters and I were stuffed in the back seat of our car, as my parents drove us down to Whiteface Mountain, in the Finger Lakes district of New York State. We were part of the Porsche Club of Canada, part of a long line of these exotic German sports cars, and while my parents reminded me that we weren't crammed into our orange 912, my sisters and I remember the 911s, the 356 tubs, and the 914s in the convoy.

I remember the beer hall, in Wilmington, the polka music, the clinking steins, and the green, feathered hats. I don't remember how long we were there, I don't remember how we whiled away the hours, and I barely remember our late-night drive home. But that was my first Oktoberfest.

I almost spent my second Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, in 2009. Almost. I saw the fair grounds, saw the peaked, white tents of the festival grounds. I was about 2,500 feet above it, in a plane, on my final approach to the Munich airport.

My family and I had vacationed in Italy, having visited Rome, Tuscany, Pisa, and Venice. I had flown on points and, while we travelled from Ottawa to Rome together, my return flight was different from the rest of my family's. They flew from Rome, to Frankfurt, and then straight back to Ottawa. I, on the other hand, had to leave Rome shortly before them, to Munich, where I would catch a connecting flight to Frankfurt, where I would meet them and continue home, together.

My flight to Munich only allowed 20 minutes for my connection, which was crazy, but I thought that if Air Canada would allow it, it was possible. Only, my departure from Rome was 10 minutes late.

The plan with my family was simple: if they didn't see me in Frankfurt, they were to assume that I missed my Munich connection and continue home without me. I was an experienced traveller: I would find my way home.

Approaching Munich, I was panicking. I didn't want to miss my connection. I would be alone in a city I didn't know. Flying over the Oktoberfest grounds and realizing that I would be in Munich during a beer festival, my mood changed. There were worse things that could happen to me. I would be more than okay.

While we had flown over the Alps, the flight attendant had informed me that we would be disembarking the plane on a tarmac and boarding a bus that would take us to the same gate from where my connection flight would be leaving. All I had to do was get off the bus, go through the doors, climb the stairs, and make a 180-degree turn to be at my boarding gate.

I made my flight, with no waiting. Most of the passengers were boarding. Even my luggage made the connection.

But I was disappointed that I would be missing a truly authentic Oktoberfest.

My first Oktoberfest as an adult was only about three years ago. I was invited to be the official photographer at the festival in Barrhaven, and I was privileged to meet the one and only George Wendt (Norm, from Cheers!) and the very funny Shawn Majumder. The beer was great and was flowing freely for the photographer, and I had a great time over the two-and-a-half days.

On Saturday, I attended the Oktoberfest in Vankleek Hill, some 100 kilometres east of Ottawa. The event was hosted by craft brewery extraordinaire, Beau's. When I arrived, I knew it was going to be big but I didn't expect it to be as big as it was. Two stage areas, massive tents, halls, bleachers, skateboard park, and games areas. The music seemed to run non-stop, broken only by comedian-host, Elvira Kurt.

I cycled to the festival as part of the fundraiser for the United Way of Ottawa. Some 200 cyclers had signed up for the 100-km journey, but I doubt everybody participated. While we had mild temperatures and sunny skies, we faced an incessant 30-kph headwind that would often increase to 50 kph, gusting to nearly 60.

I don't like to cycle in the wind. I would much rather have rain than wind. At Carlsbad Springs, at the 25-km mark or so, I found the ride a challenge. Passing through Cheney, I was no longer having fun. I was cycling with a beer friend, Katy, and I was thinking that when we reached the halfway point, at Bourget, if Katy wanted to continue, I would. My wife was meeting us at the rest area, where she had decided she would start the ride, and the three of us would slog it through to the end. But if Katy wanted to stop, I would stop.

Before we entered the Bourget town limits, it didn't matter to me whether Katy wanted to keep going. I was tired. I didn't enjoy the prospect of reaching Vankleek Hill and being too tired to enjoy the festival, or worse: too tired to want to drink.

And I hadn't had a beer since September 7.

I saw my wife, standing by the road, watching out for us. I waved. She smiled, relieved to see us. We were almost an hour later than we had anticipated, and she was afraid we had run into trouble.

"I'm done," said Katy. I sighed a big relief.

"Me, too," I said, and then to Lori, "tag: you're it." I told my wife that it was a hard ride, but that she could do it. She could do what Katy and I had done.

Katy and I threw our bikes into my van and we made the rest of our way to Vankleek Hill.

It was a great festival, though the wind still raged. Standing in the shade, unless you were packed in a tent with the other hundreds of party-goers, was chilling. But the beer was great and I was able to try a wide variety of ales. Here's what I had:
  • Rumtopf Pale Ale (Beau's)—malty and flavourful, with nicely balanced hops, this was my first beer of the event and my first beer in almost a month. It went down nicely as a secondary recovery drink. Beer O'Clock rating: 3
  • Farm Table Märzen (Beau's)—clean and light-bodied, it went well with fish and chips. Beer O'Clock rating: 2.5
  • Return of the Mumme (Beau's)—this was my wife's choice, and she liked it so much that she stuck with it for the rest of the day. Easy-drinking and light in body. Beer O'Clock rating: 3
  • Shawi Beach (Le Trou du Diable)—my favourite of the day, this west-coast IPA had beautiful tropical flavours with lush hops. If I had tried this ale first, I may have stuck to it for the rest of the day. Beer O'Clock rating: 4
  • Achterbahn Dunkel (Junction Craft Brewing)—this was good dark lager but it didn't really stand out. My wife didn't enjoy her sip of it, and when I was halfway through it, I was looking forward to moving on. That said, I was looking forward to starting the Shawi Beach, which I ordered at the same time and had already sniffed. Beer O'Clock rating: 3
  • One Ping Only (Beau's)—this Nordik porter was a great beer on which to end the day. Rich coffee flavours and not overpowering, I would love to give this ale a proper review sometime. Beer O'Clock rating: 3.5
One of the advantages of having the van in Vankleek Hill was that we wouldn't have to wait for the bus that Beau's had provided to get the cyclists home, and we could keep our bikes with us. I wasn't in a condition to drive, but my wife had only tried a couple of samples, and was more than fine.

Would I do the ride again? Maybe. At this time of year, the weather is a bit of a crap-shoot, and there's nothing worse than being cold, or wet, or, as it was this weekend, wind-swept. I would have to be better prepared.

Would I go to Beau's Oktoberfest again? Oh, yeah! Absolutely.

With only two Oktoberfest celebrations under my adult belt, I have more celebrating of the harvest season left in me.


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