07 Oct Schnitzel, Dirndls, & Beer: The Perfect Evening at Upland Brewpub’s Oktoberfest
I’ve never been to the one true Oktoberfest that spans 16 days every year in Munich, Germany. From what I’ve heard, everything about it is huge: the tents, the mugs, the crowds—over six million people drinking festbier by the liter, singing “Edelweiss,” and weeping with joy over the reunification of the Fatherland. Frankly, it sounds like a bit much for my tastes, plus the selection of beer styles is limited to one, and even that has apparently changed over time so that today’s festbier is more like a strong Munich Helles than the toastier Märzen that we in the U.S. think of as Oktoberfest beer.
These days if you drive across America at this time of year, you’ll hit an Oktoberfest roughly every 50 miles. If you know me, you know I’m a big fan of beer-focused festivals; throw in a variety of sausages and fry up some peppers and onions and you’ll have trouble getting me to leave (just ask my wife). So heading over to Upland’s annual Oktoberfest in Bloomington is a tradition for us.
On Saturday, October 3, we arrived at the Upland Brewpub on 11th Street around 5:30, which by plan was during the IU-OSU football game. Any earlier or later and the place would be packed with students and alumni either eagerly anticipating a big upset or commiserating over the loss. Eating dinner that early usually makes me feel like a senior citizen out for the Early Bird Special before returning home for an episode of “Murder She Wrote” on Netflix and a 9:00pm bedtime, but I wanted to avoid those hordes lamenting IU’s loss (come on, OSU is ranked number 2!).
Tonight the beer gods were smiling down on us, and we drove up to find an empty space at the front of the parking lot. Given the chill in the air, we decided to forego the tent-covered patio in favor of a table in the brewpub. However, plenty of folks were enjoying the live music outside. Inside, German music played in the background and the staff were all appropriately garbed in lederhosen and dirndls. We were seated immediately even though the place was nearly packed, and before we knew it our server for the evening, we’ll call her Gretel, was standing before us, barely covered by a dirndl skirt intended for someone half her length and a bodice that revealed the ink on her shoulders, arms, and back. “Do you know what you’d like?” she asked. I drifted into a fanciful reverie involving Gretel running toward me through a Bavarian meadow, three overflowing mugs of beer in each hand. This pleasantly unfolding scenario was prematurely interrupted by an unsubtle kick to the shins from my briefly forgotten wife.
The Oktoberfest was the obvious choice, but I have five gallons of homebrewed Vienna lager—Märzen’s closest cousin—carbonating in a keg at home. Both styles share an origin story involving what might have been industrial espionage. According to Horst Dornbusch (in Garrett Oliver’s highly recommended The Oxford Guide to Beer), both styles were introduced in 1841 after brewers from Munich and Vienna visited Great Britain and learned about an innovative method of kilning malts using indirect-firing. Prior to this, kilns were direct-fired, resulting in darker malts and thus darker beers. Greater control over malting led to pale malts in the United Kingdom (and thus pale ales and IPAs), while the Germanic peoples “borrowed” the innovation to create amber-colored lagers. The Märzen is golden-amber in hue and a bit sweeter than the reddish, slightly hoppier Vienna lager.
But I knew going in that just two days prior Upland had tapped the annual Harvest Ale, and I still hadn’t tasted this year’s batch. Upland arranges for freshly picked Citra hops to be shipped overnight from the Pacific Northwest, and as soon as they arrive, they go straight into the kettle. The resulting pale ale has a huge tropical aroma and flavor with a restrained bitterness. That, my friends, is right in my wheelhouse. “I’ll go with the Harvest, Gretel.”
On this most special of days, Upland abandons its usual menu. Full disclosure: I think they have the best burgers and fries in town. The quality of the meat is top-notch, and the burger always arrives just the way I requested, perfectly medium-rare. But for Oktoberfest, the menu is German all the way, with plenty of sausages, schnitzels, and goulash. Nearly everything comes with hot German potato salad and/or sweet and sour cabbage. As always, there are a few vegetarian options.
“What are you going to have?” asked my wife.
“I’m considering the jaeger schnitzel.”
“That’s what I’m having. I thought you’d go for the brat. You love brats!”
“Yeah, but I’m in the mood for breaded and fried pork.”
“If you get the brat we can share. Come on, you know you want it.”
I could see her mind was made up, so I agreed to the brat. I’ve been married long enough to know which battles to fight. “We switch at the halfway point, right?”
“Of course!” she agreed.
Our meals came quickly, but Gretel could see that I was already thinking about my second beer.
“Another Harvest?” she offered, and I thought I detected a hint of seduction in her voice.
“You know me so well,” I parried. She smiled and sashayed off to the bar as I marveled at the thigh-high stockings that ended just inches from her skirt.
“You’re flirting way above your zone of plausibility, tiger.”
“Maybe it’s the beer, but I think….”
“It’s the beer.”
We had reached the mid-point of our meal. “How about passing that schnitzel my way?” She glanced at my half-eaten brat. “I’m not really in the mood for a brat after all. I’m going to stick with the schnitzel. You want a bite?” I gave her my best dejected look, a forlorn face that would thaw the icy heart of any Disney stepmother. “Oh fine, just let me have another bite or two and then you can have it. It’s so good!” Two rather large bites later and I wrested the plate from her grasp.
In the meantime, Gretel had returned and was asking, rather coquettishly I thought, if we needed anything else. I looked at my wife, one eyebrow raised questioningly. She sighed the way only a put-upon wife can. “Yes, I’m driving you home.” Teddy Bear Kisses, Upland’s Russian Imperial Stout, was beckoning me with its chocolate roastiness. At 10% ABV, it’s served in a 10-ounce snifter. It was a delicious if non-traditional ending to Oktoberfest. As I savored its dark flavors, a feeling of profound satisfaction enveloped me. I looked into my wife’s eyes. “I don’t think I ever could have found a better first wife than you.”
“Oh bite me.”