Three Years of Beer


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The legendary Oktoberfest of Munich, Germany, is the largest festival in the world, an autumnal explosion of tents and costumes, activities and food, culture and history — and, of course, beer.

Iowa City’s North Side Oktoberfest has yet to attract 6 million visitors to town, but the 3-year-old event, beginning Saturday, reflects local culture much like its German predecessor.

“It has become a true town celebration,” said Doug Alberhasky, the Oktoberfest organizer and owner of John’s Grocery, 401 E. Market St. “Most people think of Oktoberfest in Munich as just a beer festival, but it’s really like the Iowa State Fair.”

With down-home food, drink, music, and family games as defining aspects of the Munich tradition, North Side business owners found Oktoberfest to be an ideal custom to emulate as well as a good way to expand on Brewfest, a renowned beer festival organized by Alberhasky that is entering its 18th year.

“When you think of Iowa City, most people think of the University of Iowa, but the town was actually built on beer,” said Alberhasky, who is a seventh-generation Iowa City resident. “There were lots of Bohemian and German immigrants who settled in Iowa City [in the mid- to late-1800s], so you had lots of brewers in the area around John’s Grocery. Beer has been a lifeblood … and a lot of people have lost sight of that.”

Pit Smokehouse owner Tim Fischer said composing a fall festival to acknowledge Iowa City’s historic North Side — home to such local bedrocks as Hamburg Inn, Pagliai’s Pizza, and John’s Grocery — has united locals around Oktoberfest.

“The whole goal is to emphasize the neighborhood and all the businesses in it,” Fischer said. “I’m pretty confident that everyone in the neighborhood has fallen in love with it, and every year we have grown.”

Part of this growth has included partnerships with such local organizations as the UI Credit Union, the Iowa Children’s Museum, the Englert Theater, Hospice, UI Dance Marathon, and the American Heart Association, which provide activities, information, and 400 volunteers. In return, the proceeds from Oktoberfest — $26,000 over the past two years — are donated to these participants, and this year will benefit the American Heart Association and Children’s Museum in Coralville.

“It’s a tremendous help for us,” said Jill Franz, the developmental coordinator at the Children’s Museum. “[Oktoberfest] is good for all ages, even the little ones that are just starting to walk.”

The festival added a new sponsor this year as well: the Iowa City Downtown District. Operations director for the district Betsey Potter said it was only natural to encourage an event that highlights Iowa City’s “cultural vibrancy” — even if it is off downtown’s beaten trail.

“The North Side Marketplace is only separated [from downtown] by a block, but people say it’s the longest block ever with all the university buildings in between,” she said. “They don’t have as much traffic, so it’s a little calmer, and the businesses mix into the residential area. There’s a great historic character preserved in that area, and it’s just a short walk away.”

With the help of the Downtown District, Market Street will be closed for the BrewFest on Saturday — which will feature more than 500 different local, national, and international craft beers, including a rare keg of the Norwegian beer Vikings Blood — and Iowa’s highest HD television will show the Iowa/Minnesota football game.

Live music from local artists such as Justin Roberts and the Feralings will be featured throughout the day, and kids can enjoy various activities, including rock climbing, pumpkin bowling, big-wheel racing, crafts, and face-painting. Adult games include a beer slide, yodeling contest, old-fashioned strong-man contest, keg bowling, and the Munich bar-wench challenge, which involves dressing up as a German maid and racing through an obstacle course to deliver pitchers to tables.

Additionally, dozens of gourmet sodas will be available for tasting at SodaFest, while food from 14 North Side restaurants and cafés will be offered. There will also be North Side history tours conducted by a state archeologist.

“Every year, a new group wants to come in and get involved, and I don’t see any of that faltering,” Fischer said. “It’s really neat how it brought the whole neighborhood together, which is kind of a byproduct of it.”

Alberhasky said the attention Oktoberfest generates for the North Side creates a ripple effect that bolsters the health of local business and culture.

“A lot of cities turn everything into a strip mall, and they’ve lost their history and culture. Iowa City has maintained that, and a lot of it has been kept in the North Side,” Alberhasky said. “Oktoberfest may be the only place a 20-something can sit down and have a beer with an 80-something. It’s just a great time for the city to come alive.”

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