Wednesday, October 10, 2012

FoodTrek: Releasing the Kraken at Rocktoberfest

The day before I left for Oktoberfest in Leavenworth, I had Liam Neeson in my head, a la Zeus, from that moderately amusing remake of a much better classic Ray Harryhausen stop-action-animation masterpiece, Clash of the Titans, shouting, RELEASE THE KRAKEN!  An Irishman being a Greek god, dressed in an impossibly shiny silver suit of armor, was on constant loop as my mental meme prefunc before I partook of my very Festing-of-Oktober. My First Oktoberfest, if you can believe it. Because nobody puts Baby in a corner, not where there's this much public drunkenness to be had.

It's 11pm, Do You Know How Drunk Your Children Are? - Photo by Wasabi Prime
To be clear, this is Leavenworth the faux-Bavarian-themed town in Washington, not the medium security federal prison in Kansas. Although I would argue that the quaint Leavenworth village is chock-full of as many police and private security for the next few weekends as the eponymous prison. This past weekend was Day One of the Zombie Beer Apocalypse, there's two weekends left, the 12-13th and 19-20th. The Leavenworth Oktoberfest has been festing-it since 1998, having their distinctively European-themed village raise a beer stein to its Munich origins and celebrating this annual European tradition which has been festing-it for a considerably longer time -- try 1810. A group of our friends have been making the trek to Leavenworth's Oktoberfest somewhere in between 1810 and 2012, probably the last two or three years, and this was the first year I was able to make it. Prost!

Beyond boot-shaped steins and beer mugs the size of your head, Leavenworth is a bizarre and marvelous place. You drive through beautiful evergreen-topped mountains made extra-splendid with the autumn colors starting to come in, you notice building rooftops starting to become more Alpine chalet-angled, and suddenly you find yourself in an oddly Disneyland-like place. The buildings resemble a picturesque Bavarian village and  almost every wall has hand-painted murals of lederhosened lads and dirndl-wearing ladies. There's a city ordinance requiring all businesses to Bavarianize their signage and building storefront design -- even big-business companies like Starbucks, Safeway, McDonalds and Union 76 gas stations all have to comply. It's the one place that if you were a specialty muralist or sign-painter, you would be flush with business, year-round.

Bavarian Sign-Spotting at Leavenworth's Oktoberfest - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Despite Leavenworth's themepark-like look, it's a beautiful place. Surrounded by evergreen-topped peaks and great rivers for rafting and rock formations for climbing, it's a haven for outdoor activities during the summer. I've spent non-festival time here as a lunch stop on the way to a campground or resting a night after a long day on the water. The village has cute stores full of little treasures, either inspired by or imported from Germany and plenty of things visitors love, like little wine shops with tasting bars, and boutiques clearly marketed towards female consumers, since they know the fellas will likely be off drinking beer. It's a clever town, this Leavenworth. One of the must-visit shops is Cured. On the first floor and owned by the Italian restaurant, Visconti's, Cured is a charcuterie, sausage and pickled-everything treasure. They make their own dry-aged salumi, including Soppressata Cotto, Vanetta, Smoked Paprika, Cervalot, and Felino, among others. They do their own sausages, which are sold fresh at their shop or cooked-up in their next-door Cured Sausage Garden area, where you can try their traditional bratwurst, bockwurst, currywurst, and a few vegetarian sausages as well.

Head to Cured, dry-aged meat heaven - Photos by Wasabi Prime
The company I travel in is a protein-hungry group, so Cured is like their Meat Nirvana. Dry-aged meat sticks that are way fancier than snapping into a SlimJim, and incredibly tender beef jerky was picked up as beer-fortification for the first night of Festing. We hovered around Cured, migrating to their Sausage Garden for dinner to partake of their meats. (Insert joke here) I had my first beer at their sausage garden, a basic Oktoberfest beer, which is nice and light, perfect to go with hearty food. I got one of their currywurst, a pork sausage seasoned with curry and tomato, making it a little on the sweet side, and a little fragrant from the curry's mix. My mindgrape was fully blown by the giant table of condiments -- there were half a dozen different mustards: traditional with the whole seeds, spicy, and some funky flavors like a pineapple mustard. I felt like I had won the Condiment Lottery, and like all lottery winners, I made hasty, binge-like decisions. That poor currywurst didn't know what hit it, but despite the avalanche of toppings, Cured has by far The Best Sausage Place for Oktoberfest in Leavenworth. And of course there was sauerkraut, which also makes Oktoberfest the unofficial Digestion Challenge Festival. The running joke throughout Oktoberfest was the growing food/beer babies we were all carrying, which I'm sure had a lot to do with a lowered tolerance for gluten, thanks to a protein-heavy diet. While no one had any allergies, this whole weekend of carbohydrate-laden food combined with an overabundance of beer and sauerkraut led to Octomom-sized bellies ready to burst. Note to self: prep the week before Oktoberfest with some Hefeweizen and bring a lot of antacid.

An indulgence of food riches and the Beer Baby we all became inevitably pregnant with - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Our main beer spot was scouted the year before by my travelmates -- given the huge crowds for the main Oktoberfest tents and halls, it's nice to have a beer or twelve in a smaller beer garden without losing your voice, trying to shout over the noise to the person sitting next to you. I give to you, der Hinterhof Leavenworth Beer Garden, the unofficial "Rocktoberfest" alternative to the main tents, located amusingly enough within strolling distance of the local medical center, on 9th Street, right next to The Adventure Inn hotel. Reasons this place is awesome: more interesting/better/local beers than the typical Oktoberfest offerings (and more kind to the wallet), it's dog-friendly, there's always live music but it's not ear-splitting loud or pure polka, they take their beer pong deadly serious, and there's a dude named Teague who has the most epic mullet and bacon shirt-tuxedo in the known universe and he will school your ass at Trivia Pursuit. I could see myself spending a few obligatory hours in the main Oktoberfest tents, but let's just say if I managed to stay happily buzzed at der Hinterhof for the duration of a festival weekend, I will not be sad. One thing to remember -- bring a heavy coat. During the day, the weather was beautiful and even sunscreen-worthy if you're not under their tents, but at night, the temperature dropped as fast as a prom dress and we were wondering if mulled beer could ever be a thing, so remember fortune and drunkenness favors the prepared having winter coats. I'm already hatching a plan for next year, seeing if we can bring Indy with us, as I was on such fuzzy dog withdrawal, especially with all the other adorable dogs at this beer garden, including  Napoleon, the Newfoundland wearing the Drool is Cool barrel collar.

Wilkommen to der Hinterhof - you may never leave this awesome place for the official tents - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I'm not dissing the main Oktoberfest beer garden tents, as that is truly a sight to behold. With the costumes that go beyond typical traditional wear, the best way to describe it on a Saturday night is Carnivale. It's a lot more line-waiting, but with enough beers, that stick up your ass that's normally there any other time of the week is magically gone, and you just make a lot of new friends and giggle nonstop at all the funny hats people are wearing. That experience was saved for our last night, which I was glad we rested-up for with naps (because we are not all 20-somethings anymore) and heavily fortified ourselves with pizza, bacon and steak beforehand. Oh, the indigestion! Oh, the glory! Oh, the humanity!!

Saturday Night Kraken Fever at Oktoberfest - Photos by Wasabi Prime
My takeaway from the big night in the Oktoberfest tents was this: get a monster-sized glass stein only if you're wanting to lug that thing everywhere and babysit it like, well, a beer-baby. Towards the end of the night, table bussers were pulling everything, including unattended mugs, so kiss that $12 goodbye. And the pourers can't fill the mugs directly, which I know sounds crazy. Thank Washington State alcohol laws that continue to abandon logic and reason. You buy tickets, which you then trade in for food, beer or souvenirs -- makes sense for quick transactions, I love it. However the logic train ends there, because to fill one of those monster mugs, it takes about three or four regular pours of beer, but the catch is that they'll only serve two beers per person at a single time. So you need a table home-base where someone can watch your empty mug while you make two trips in a long line to get the four beers that will fill your giant souvenir mug. Got that? Needless to say I did not get a mug, nor will I for any future Oktoberfests, that's just too much fuss when I'm perfectly happy nursing a single beer at a time. It wasn't a dealbreaker, everyone in our group were old pro's at this beer line game, so we stuck with tents that had seating and people went in shifts to beerify. I was happily buzzed, amused by music that was a weird mix of polka-swing, polka-funk and traditional polka, depending on the bands who were playing. Judging from the funny drawing a friend sent, my Unleashing of the Kraken was fairly pleasant and uneventful.

The Mister mugs for the camera and shows off his pin collection - Photos by Wasabi Prime
Also, what-the-what, the Oktoberfest people were herding everyone out of the main tents by 10:30, if you can believe it. Not that I was looking to fully poison my liver that Saturday, but they were on heavy crowd control alert, herding people from tents to consolidate, and pulling the party ripcord fairly early. Granted, they had already had a full night of several crowd incidents that I totally missed out on. Pantsless women? Fist-swinging drunkards with viking helmets? Curses, I miss all the good stuff. We of course wound up back at der Hinterhof and then eventually back at the condo we were all staying in, which kept the Festing going till about 3. Which leads me to another must-do for Oktoberfest: Stay In Town. Walking distance to the main village is key, for ease of access and just safety as a whole -- hide your car keys for an Oktoberfest weekend, don't be stupid. Sure, it might seem tempting to stay at a picturesque lodge at a berry farm 15 minutes outside of Leavenworth, thinking there will be shuttles to take you back and forth, hoping one of your friends will manage to stay sober, or perhaps you can just ride a unicorn on the way back to your dwelling. Just pony-up the extra Benjamins and roomie-up with friends for a weekend. A group of us stayed at a condo rental at Alpine Place, maybe a mile from the center of town, easily walkable and plenty of handy places along the way for things like coffee, quick meals or a convenience store run. Breakfast is a challenge during Oktoberfest, it's when the restaurants are hit the hardest for a single meal time, so having a full kitchen to make breakfast with coffee and have a lazy morning is so worth it.

Falling in love with Fall and Oktoberfest in Leavenworth - Photos by Wasabi Prime
I knew I would have a good time at Oktoberfest, but it wasn't for the obvious beer drinking or the drunken-tipsy times. I finally got it. I get why people are in love with Oktoberfest, why one friend said with such certainty, that, "Oktoberfest is my happy place." The natural beauty of Leavenworth, especially with fall in the air, made the whole town feel like an imaginary wonderland. Despite the heavy crowds of people during the day, I found time to carve out some "Me Time," with a cold but refreshing early morning jog and leisurely browsing a few stores before everything got crazy. I was with really great people, and they knew the best way to navigate the festival from previous years, so it felt like a guided tour outside of the typical experience. But the point was, I finally got it and I'm really looking forward to Oktoberfest in Leavenworth next year.

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