Story by Adrian Brijbassi
Vacay.ca Managing Editor
KITCHENER, ONTARIO — Ask Wendy and Stefan Schuster how the Kitchener-Waterloo Oktoberfest has changed over the years and they’ll both agree. It’s much more about family.
The couple operates the Hillcrest House, a bed-and-breakfast in a historic home on pretty George Street in downtown Waterloo. Stefan is also a member of the Oktoberfest’s organizing committee and has seen the largest beer-drinking festival in Canada turn into a celebration of the community — and not simply a reason for university students and those who think they still are to vacuum up copious amounts of suds.
“They’ve really started to make it more about family activities. It’s more of a cultural event and a community event than ever before,” says Schuster, who holds the title of Gemuetlichkeit Chair of Oktoberfest, meaning he’s essentially in charge of friendliness.
He’s a good choice for that post. Schuster is quick to get Hillcrest House guests into the mood with cheeky T-shirts, Oktoberfest pins and a drink, of course. In his role with the Oktoberfest team, he coordinates the volunteers who assist festival-goers with information and recommendations around town.
“We look forward to this time of year and not only because the entire Waterloo Region really comes alive for it, but because we see so many people come back, year after year.”
In 2012, the festival marks its 44th year and it will be the first time I attend since moving away from Kitchener 21 years ago. When I was growing up in the city, Oktoberfest played true to the stereotypical image most people have of the event. It was an excuse to drink, and to do so at venues beyond its sanctioned Festhallens. Every bar and establishment seemingly took advantage of the party atmosphere to draw in the hordes of revellers who descend on southern Ontario’s tech centre each year, making this Oktoberfest the largest in the world outside of Munich, Germany. Coming from an immigrant family with roots in India and the Caribbean, I found Oktoberfest bewildering. Men wore shorts and overalls on cold days in October, fried foods that we were told were bad for us suddenly became celebrated, our English teacher, who was of Bavarian descent, spoke of the magic of Deutschland moments after our history teacher told us about the evils of Nazi Germany. To the young and uninitiated, Oktoberfest presented a conundrum. It celebrated a culture that seemed utterly uncool to outsiders because of polka and lederhosen and the reputation of being unwelcoming, a fallout from the conflicts of the 20th century. Like just about any large cultural celebration, however, if given a chance it will win you over. (Although polka is a tough sell.)
What to Do at the 2012 K-W Oktoberfest
The K-W Oktoberfest has all the things a good festival should — music, food, joy — and some unique aspects that bring an emotional touch to the event.
Formerly called Berlin, Kitchener was settled by German immigrants in the 18th and 19th centuries. It changed its name in 1916 following the sinking of the HMS Hampshire, a British vessel that was bombed by Germany midway through World War I. The backlash against people of German ancestry in Canada was so fierce that the residents of Berlin, Ontario ratified a vote on a name change of their city. They aimed to prove to doubters they were loyal to Britain — and not spies of the enemy. On board the Hampshire was Lord Kitchener, the head of Britain’s war effort, and the city adopted his name in honour of his patriotic service to his country and its commonwealth nations.
No one was going to give up beer drinking, though.
In 1969, the K-W Oktoberfest was officially founded and has taken place annually on the weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving. Despite being ridiculed and despite anglicizing their name, the citizens never surrendered their identity, nor their culture. It’s the kind of story that resonates in different parts of Canada. In Kitchener, the German flavours endure and have been adopted by others.
The event is now nine days long and the downtown areas of both twin cities and their parks are filled with people of different cultures, participating in the family-friendly and adult-oriented activities. The celebrations include a keg-tapping ceremony at Kitchener City Hall, free pancake breakfast on the first Saturday, Miss Oktoberfest beauty pageant, Canada’s largest (and reportedly only) Thanksgiving Day parade, and enough beer to flabbergast even Bob and Doug McKenzie.
Among places to visit in Kitchener-Waterloo are German drinking halls like the Schwaben Club (conveniently located across from the high school I attended) and establishments like the extremely fun Edelweiss Tavern that carry on German traditions.
This year, there are 14 official Festhallens with ticket prices that start at less than $10. Each venue has different attractions, including a variety of special events like fashion shows, rock concerts and celebrity dinners. The second annual Chamberfest takes place at the Concordia Club, the site of the inaugural Oktoberfest celebrations. For $42.50, guests can hobnob with corporate leaders over dinner and perhaps take part in tapping the keg.
You don’t have to go to one of the official parties to get into the mood, though. Oktoberfest can be enjoyed just about anywhere in town. The best way to celebrate it, in fact, might just be to sit back at your favourite place with friends and drink it all in.
More About the 2012 Oktoberfest in Kitchener-Waterloo
Dates: October 5-13, 2012
Tickets: There are numerous free events, including the Opening Ceremonies at Kitchener City Hall on the event’s first Friday and the Thanksgiving Day Parade on Monday, October 8. To purchase tickets to the Festhallen events, visit the Oktoberfest tickets page.
Where to Stay: The Hillcrest House (73 George Street, Waterloo) is cozy and cute — what you expect from a B&B. The surprise is the quality of the breakfasts, prepared with great care by Wendy Schuster in an immense and beautiful kitchen. Schuster is the past-president of the Federation of Ontario B&B Association and is keenly aware of how important customer experience is for both her business and the community. Nightly room rates start at $135. For reservations, telephone 519-744-3534 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Where to Drink: If you can’t get into one of the Oktoberfest halls, you need not worry. There are more than enough choices for a night of bar-hopping in Waterloo. That said, Vacay.ca thinks your night should begin and end at the uber-awesome Huether Hotel (59 King Street North, Waterloo), home to the Lion Brewery, which reputedly has Ontario’s oldest tap lines. The hotel overflows with character and some terrific stories.