Out of the corner of my eye I saw something launch into the air. I turned and saw a cork arch over the heads of blue-shirted Brewfest volunteers. It seemed to fall in slow motion out of sight behind the sign next to me, probably landing near the Porta Potties. I looked to see where the cork had come from and saw a man holding a green bottle, his wide-eyed and opened-mouth stare saying, “Oops!”
“Is everyone OK?” the woman next to him yelled. “Did anyone lose an eye?”
A collective “We’re fine” hailed from the landing site. I walked to the man who accidentally sent the cork flying. “The beer is very excited to be at the festival,” he said. The perpetrator, a bottle of Saison Dupont, sat chilling in a tub of ice, sans cork, at his feet.
Such was the charge in the crisp air on Saturday that, yes, even the beer was excited to be at the 16th Annual Iowa City Brewfest, paired this year with the first ever Northside Oktoberfest. With music, the sight of a man wearing a wig and a bra stuffed with cantaloupes, and the prospect of sampling 400 beers, it was even a pleasure standing in line at the entrance.
I arrived at noon, when the gates opened to general ticket holders. Armed with a complimentary mini-mug, eight drink tickets, and a 30-page guide packed with beer nerdiness (which I shamefully never opened), I entered the tasting area. Spread out in the parking lot across from Pagliai’s Pizza, this year’s Brewfest was situated in what Doug Alberhasky, co-owner of John’s Grocery, told me is the “beer epicenter of Iowa City.” Such was the thirst of the city’s Bohemian and German immigrants, he said, that the Northside was once home to three breweries.
Inexperienced with daytime drinking, and having had nothing to eat but a piece of bread and a NewPi veggie burrito, I started with something light and refreshing.
Beer #1: Weihenstephaner Kristallweissbier.
It was light and refreshing to a tee, though it seemed my ticket bought an equal part of foam. While letting it settle, I walked around and took in the sights. I was impressed by how massive the operation was. Friendly volunteers staffed 49 tables, each with multiple beers. Keg bowling was underway and people tentatively stepped up to the beer slick shuffleboard. Those who bought $40 “Brewmaster” tickets made me jealous with their much larger complimentary tulip glasses. The selection of beer blew me away; it was an outdoor version of the beer rooms at John’s Grocery. From India’s King Fisher, through Amana’s Iowa Pale Ale, to Denmark’s “Viking’s blood” (Dansk Mjød Viking Blod), the selection ran the entire gamut of beer.
Beer #2: Summit Great Northern Porter.
So much for starting light and refreshing. Beer #2 was a gift from the Spiegelau representative trying to sell me a glassware set. To demonstrate the superior quality of his glasses, he poured part of the bottle into a stemmed Pilsner glass made by Spiegelau and the other part into my mini-mug. It was not an ideal test, and I am sure he knew it; my mug was better suited for porter, and it certainly smelled that way. After the test he held out the pilsner glass filled with porter and asked, “You want the rest of this?” Of course.
Beer #3: Anchor Liberty Ale.
In my notes, all I wrote about this beer was “=goodshit.” By this time I was apparently feeling the Oktoberfest/Bavarian vibe so much that I was compounding words, which Germans love to do on an insane scale. For instance, “Weihenstephaner” means something like “sacred Stephen.”
Beer #4: Meantime IPA…
…which cost four tickets. It was well worth it, but until this time I did not realize certain beers cost more than one ticket. Had I read the handy dandy program, I would have known that.
While I hung around the Meantime IPA tap, a man asked a volunteer where he could find the first beer in the program. Wearing lederhosen, a wool jacket, stockings and a Tyrolean hat, he looked very Bavarian. Also, he had his own stein, so I had to interview him.
“I usually go to the Amana Oktoberfest, but it’s great to have one right here in Iowa City,” said Robert Dotzel, after his stein was half filled with Grieskirchner Hefe.
Dotzel, a campus pastor affiliated with Gloria Dei Lutheran Church in Iowa City, had blessed the first Brewfest kegs that morning. While others may have worn Oktoberfest costumes, Dotzel’s ensemble was authentic. His lederhosen and jacket were ordered 30 years ago, he bought the stockings this year in Oberammergau, and his stein was from Tutzin, where he was an intern at a castle there. He bought his hat at a store in downtown Milwaukee.
“It’s Austrian, though,” he assured me.
Beer #4: Sprecher Irish Stout.
The bees were flocking to the beer soaked shuffleboard, and I kept wondering what kind of beer was used to keep it wet. It looked thick and cloudy, and I hoped it was not hefeweizen.
By now the festival was in full swing and it was starting to get crowded. I was doing an awful job of cleaning my mini-mug with the pitchers of water provided, so each new beer was tainted with the remnants of the last. I was unconcerned because my taste buds had checked out.
I was no longer in the mindset to taste beer. All I wanted to do was drink, which seemed counter to the Brewfest spirit. It was more aligned with the great consumption and social revelry of Oktoberfest beer tents. And by the way people were buying extra drink tickets by the ream, it seemed like I was not alone.
Beer #5: Great River Oktoberfest.
I spent my last ticket on a beer fitting for the occasion, then made one last trip around Brewfest. The tent was packed, as was the area near the keg bowling lane and shuffleboard. Loosened by the sweet nectar all around us, people no longer stood to the side to watch others. They were lined up, eager to play. The tables on the alley side were filled with people lounging with their beers and eating, and the lines at the Porta Potties were growing. I had a good buzz going, and with no more tickets it seemed like a good time to take a break before heading to Amana’s Oktoberfest.
From what I could tell, the marriage of Brewfest and the Northside Oktoberfest was a match made in heaven and a smashing success. Though the loftier intentions of the tasting seemed to be overshadowed by the way it became a well-lubricated social event–a true Oktoberfest–the Northside nonetheless became the beer epicenter of Iowa City once again on Saturday. And as I took the last swig from my mini-mug, I hoped that the occasion would come again next year.
Photos by Zak Neumann.