Wisconsin is filled with autumn festivals that celebrate beer, dancing, heritage, the harvest… or any other reasons to raise a stein.
There’s a refreshing snap in the air and that means it’s time to raise a stein, dance a polka, and celebrate Wisconsin’s ethnic heritage with a beer.
Whether you celebrate Gemuetlichkeit Days with the Bavarians in Jefferson, drink up with the college kids at the Midwest’s biggest Oktoberfest in La Crosse, or polka with the Czechs in Hillsboro, there’s likely a harvest-time beer festival near you.
Oktoberfest began in 1810 in Munich as a five-day celebration of the marriage of Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen. It proved so fun that it became an annual tradition, growing longer and starting earlier, in mid-September, to take advantage of better weather.
Here in Wisconsin, Oktoberfest type celebrations can be found all over the state and some start as early as late August.
La Crosse Oktoberfest dubs itself as “Das Beste,” and it’s certainly the biggest. It began in 1961 to draw attention to the beautiful fall colors along the Mississippi River. This year the festival runs from September 29 through Oct. 1 on the festival grounds along the river. The old water tower that looks like a 6-pack is still there, but it’s no longer painted to look like a 6-pack of Heileman’s Old Style.
The Czechs also know a thing or two about beer, so if you’re in the Driftless Region in mid-October, you might want to Czech out Hillsboro Oktoberfest, which is on the grounds of Hillsboro Brewing October 15.
Even if you miss this particular day, Hillsboro Brewing is worth a visit. Located in the renovated Hillsboro Condensed Milk factory, the brewery features a full service restaurant (love that dill pickle pizza), a shop and a 2nd floor event space called Willow & Oak that hosts weddings and other celebrations. It’s a big place in a small town, and sometimes it seems like the entire population of Vernon County is there at once, raising a Nutty Monkey ale or a house-brewed spicy pineapple hard seltzer.
Likewise, the Swiss of New Glarus also celebrate Oktoberfest. New Glarus Oktoberfest is the weekend of Sept. 22 to 25 this year. And no beer lover visit to America’s Switzerland is complete without a stop at New Glarus Brewery.
Located on a hilltop above town, from far away it resembles a giant dairy barn and silo. But if you venture up the winding drive, you’ll find a Swiss village scene with a beer garden that resembles the ruins of a European castle. You can take a self-guided tour and sip your beer while listening to the bellowing of Swiss Alpenhorns. The parking lot is often full of Illinois license plates, as tourists from down south load their trunks with cases of Spotted Cow, the beer you can’t buy outside of Wisconsin.
The Oktoberfest tradition also proves that Norwegians like beer. The annual Grumpy Troll Oktoberfest in Mount Horeb is Sept. 16 to 18 on Second Street in the Troll Capital of Wisconsin.
Jefferson’s Gemuetlichkeit Days is also Sept. 16-18 this year, and celebrates its 51st birthday. They have one of the state’s largest lineups of polka bands. Fun fact: Jefferson is the farthest west of Lake Michigan that you can buy a true German hard roll. Stop by the Bon Ton Bakery and pick up a pack. Your bratwurst will thank you. The bakery also features a full month of Oktoberfest takeout specials, including sauerbraten, rouladen, and beer barrel chicken with German potato salad.
The Chippewa Falls Oktoberfest is also the same weekend, Sept. 16 & 17 It begins on the Leinenkugels brewery grounds with the “tapping of the golden keg” and a procession up the hill to the Northern Wisconsin State Fairgrounds. It includes a sauerkraut eating contest for the kids.
If you’re in Door County the last weekend in September, you can celebrate with the Germans at “Door County’s Wurst Bar,” the Hugel Haus in Ellison Bay. Oktoberfest is Sept. 24, but any time you visit, you can have your German schnitzel, spaetzle, and pretzels along with German beers.
Cedarburg Oktoberfest is October 1-2 and includes two days of polka music and a live cuckoo clock show.
And if you feel like you’ve missed your favorite Oktoberfest – and it’s not even “Oktober” yet! – never fear, the most German place in Wisconsin has got you covered. The Bavarian Bierhaus—just north of Milwaukee on Port Washington Road in Glendale—celebrates Oktoberfest every weekend in September plus the first weekend in October. And their definition of “weekend” begins on Thursday.
Heidelberg Park has its roots in Milwaukee’s German social clubs that began acquiring land in the 1920s for soccer fields and an extensive biergarten. It is the home of the Milwaukee Bavarian Soccer Club. Some regard the Oktoberfest here as the most authentic in Wisconsin.
So as the good people of Munich said, in 1810, to toast the wedding of Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese: “Prost!”