Oktoberfest lacks true cultural influence

Out of Left Field Oct 5, 2012 · Opinion · By Brent Golem

The taps open on Oktoberfest today, wunderbar! Starting this weekend, Canada’s largest Bavarian festival will run for nine days and attract almost 1,000,000 visitors to Waterloo region for the 16 Festhallen and over 40 “family and cultural events.” No matter how much “gemuetlichkeit” or “coziness” exists at the festival, it can hardly call itself a Bavarian festival. The only tradition and culture that remains at Oktoberfest is the custom of tourist exploitation. KW’s Oktoberfest boasts that it is the largest Oktoberfest outside of Munich; however, the similarities between the two festivals are miniscule.

For the past three decades Oktoberfest has been in partnership with Molson Coors Canada, and as long as I can remember they have had an exclusive lock on taps at the events and only served two beers. In the German festival, there are six breweries that compete for patrons with a variety of beers at a minimum of six per cent alcohol.

Walking into a “festhalle” in Kitchener and you may wonder how over 750,000 people are enjoying the festival. Most halls — which are mostly com-munity centres and arenas, lacking that German feel — can host a maximum of 2,000 people, though Concordia Club can hold 3,950.

Meanwhile in Germany, Oktoberfest creates a sense of festiveness and spectacle. They have 14 beer tents in a single location that hold on average 7,000 with as many as 9,300 under a single tent. These tents with its 100,000 patrons are located on a 100 acre open space in downtown Munich — the size of Waterloo park. Each tent has its own unique atmosphere. Inside each pavilion, everything is made of wood, with hundreds of wooden picnic tables and benches, and beer is served in one litre steins by hefty German women who carry these glasses in a pyramid 25 at a time.

While KW’s local events feature authentic polka bands, in Munich the band plays a ‘cheers’ song every 10 minutes forcing you to get up, sway your beer back and forth, and drink. The vast majority of people get into the spirit of the festival, wearing lederhosen or a dirndl.

All of these elements add to the spirit and camaraderie of the event. At a university night in KW, with its patrons sporting Abercrombie and Hollister attire, it feels more like a stag and doe than a beer festival.

KW’s Oktoberfest fails on many other levels besides the beer and atmosphere offerings. If we are holding a cultural event in Kitchener-Waterloo, why not host it for the most predominant ethnicities? Region of Waterloo residents were identified in a 2001 census (with multiple responses) as German in only 25 per cent of the population, Canadian at 30 per cent, and English, Irish, and Scottish accounting for another 54 per cent of the population. An October festival in the Region of Waterloo would be better to reflect the actual heritage of its residents.

Oktoberfest in Germany succeeds very well because it promotes an authentic atmosphere that people enjoy. The heart of Oktoberfest, which is simply a beer festival, is to celebrate Bavarian culture and roots. Even the Toronto Festival of Beer, succeeds in that regard, promoting Ontario’s regional beer culture. Located at the CNE for three days in late July, the festival features over 200 brands of beer — from the small batch craft brewers to the big three companies that run the beer store. You have the ability to sample in a much larger open atmosphere alongside over 10,000 other patrons.

Oktoberfest reportedly brings $10M to our local economy, but how many fold would that increase if they were promoting regional products?

KW’s Oktoberfest has drifted too far from the festival it is aiming to emulate. They should rent some farmland — UW has a couple hundred acres underutilized in north campus — and start promoting the fine food and drink our region has to offer.

Instead of insisting on a branded festival name to draw a crowd, and really just drink overpriced Molson products, KW’s Oktoberfest needs to get back to its roots and start promoting our heritage and local traditions. Then we can all enjoy a festival full of beer, schnitzel, and pride.

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