Milwaukee’s “original haus party”
Milwaukee’s ethnic communities have a rich and storied past. Once the last stop for those migrating from Poland, Austria, and Germany (among others), these same immigrant communities thrived in rust belt cities. Though Milwaukee was once one of the largest Polish settlements in the U.S., during the mid to late 19th century it also bore the nickname “the German Athens” due to the influx of more than a million German immigrants at that time.
And so it’s only fitting that Wisconsin’s “original haus party” is held on the Milwaukee lakefront. This Thursday kicks off the 31st annual German Fest — four days dedicated to German culture, food, and entertainment.
While this year’s fest features time-honored favorites like traditional German music and dance, glockenspiel performances and the annual parade, German Fest President and festival organizer Klaus Fromme says 2011 sees a few exciting new additions.
For example, this year the festival teamed up with The Beer Barons of Milwaukee to host an authentic German brew competition.
“We put out the call to any homebrewer in the state of Wisconsin, thinking we’d get about 40 or 50 participants,” says Fromme. “We received more than 130 submissions.”
That’s a lot of German beer – or should I say, bier. Local and regional brewers will offer their best German varieties, which will be judged by local brewmasters. While there won’t be samples for the public to try at the festival grounds, the winning beer will be brewed in small batches in Milwaukee and available to the public at a later date.
Speaking of beer, attendees can cool off with a frothy cup of Sprecher’s own German Fest beer, brewed exclusively for the festival. There will also be wine tastings, where for just $5, attendees of legal age can sample four authentic German wines, including Possman Apple Wine from the Hesse region of Germany, not available elsewhere in Wisconsin.
But you don’t want to drink on an empty stomach. Luckily, there’s no shortage of hearty eats at the festival. The German Fest website boasts some impressive stats about the food offered — over the course of the four-day festival, visitors consume 20,000 brats, 10,000 pounds of sauerkraut, 9,000 dumplings … the list goes on. All of the food is hand-prepared on site by a group of dedicated volunteers. In fact, German Fest is the only lakefront ethnic festival to rely on 100 percent volunteer labor.
If you really want to get your fill this weekend, Fromme suggests you try your hand (or more likely, your stomach) at the Eat-a-Thon, another new feature for 2011. Each day of the festival, contestants will compete to see who can eat the most bratwurst, sauerkraut, pickles and Bienenstich, a custard-filled German coffee cake with honey and almonds. The contestant who can down the most food in five minutes will win. On Sunday, the cumulative points will be tabulated, and the winner will receive a voucher for one roundtrip ticket to any destination in the contiguous 48 states, courtesy of Air Tran.
Once you’ve had your fill of strudels, schnitzels and Spanferkel, head over to the Battle of the Bands to dance off those extra calories. New to the festival, the three-day long battle begins Thursday night and continues on through Saturday, with 17 lesser-known acts from the region competing for the big prize – a chance to open for festival headliner 10,000 Maniacs on Sunday.
In addition to a slew of local and regional musical acts, several European groups will appear on stage, bringing an eclectic mix of brass band, folk music, and contemporary rock to the festival grounds.
For the kids, there’s Pretzel Park, an expansive activity area with games, music and crafts for the little ones. For moms and dads looking for a little alone time at the festival, parents can drop the kids off at a supervised play area for up to an hour while they peruse the grounds.
Oh, did I mention there’s also a Dachshund Derby? Beginning at 1 p.m. Sunday (after a blessing of the Dachshunds), these short-legged canines compete in a race to the finish line, and at 3 p.m., the pooches strut their stuff as part of a costume contest — most creative outfit wins!
For festival goers, Klaus offers a tip: purchase tickets in advance to save money and get a free raffle ticket with each admission. This year’s raffle prizes include a 2011 Volkswagen Jetta, four roundtrip tickets to any destination in the 48 states from Air Train Airways, or a case of wine every month for an entire year! Additional raffle tickets can be purchased on the grounds for $2, and winners are drawn Sunday night, but winners don’t need to be present at the drawing.
“Sit down have a nice piece of torte and a European style cup of coffee,” says Fromme. “The coffee is a bit stronger … it’ll keep you awake so you can stay the full day,” he adds jokingly.
German Fest kicks off Thursday, July 28 and runs through Sunday, July 31. Admission is free for the public on Thursday, with additional discounts throughout the festival – click here for more information.