The noise is deafening. I say noise, but most of it is music, some of it is clapping, a little bit is stomping, and the rest is over a thousand people screaming in a call-and-response chant led by a portly man in lederhosen and an alpine hat festooned with enough badges to sink the Bismark yelling Zicke Zacke, Zicke Zacke into the mic whereupon those thousand people scream back hoy hoy hoy then pound a liter of beer.
I’m at Hofbräuhaus in Rosemont at the front table for the tapping of the keg that symbolizes the beginning of Oktoberfest and while I may never make it to Munich, where the original Hofbrauhaus serves massive flagons of beer, I feel like I have found my people: they stand on benches in a massive beer hall chanting about lager while a brass band blows their lungs out through e-flat tubas. It is so obvious. It is so glorious. It is so right. Beer is the song of my people.
I am home.
I am no stranger to the Hofbräuhaus. I know there’s a strong German history in Chicago with some authentic beer halls scattered from Lincoln Square to Ravenswood, but I am biased toward Hofbräuhaus for its massive size, its toothsome schweinbraten, and its respectable commitment to presenting insane live music from insane German bands all weekend.
Hofbräuhaus seats ninety bajillion people and they were all there for Oktoberfest, even though it’s September, and they were all standing on benches, scream-singing weird German children’s songs, oompah-pah-ing and downing a-half-Lake-Michigan-sized portion of beer.
There were minor celebrations erupting all across the massive hall within the general hullabaloo of O-fest. In the middle of a song, there would be an eruption of screaming and howling and rhythmic applause and my entire table would turn to see a mountain of people rising up from the floor, onto the benches, and finally on a table where they surrounded a heroic lederhosened dude killing a 34oz stein of Dunkel.
Except when it was someone getting spanked, which is a thing if you order the shots which a dirndl sporting waitress will deliver to your table nestled in the holes of a giant paddle which she will then apply to your posterior with surprising aptitude and force.
The band is, as always, insane. I say this with absolute respect because they are gleefully and joyously nuts on stage and off. The band is comprised of regular rock instruments like bass and drums and guitar grafted onto a 19th century Bavarian marching band’s gear of tubas, trumpets, and Alpine Horns. And you will hear oom-pah-pah in all its glory, you will stand on your bench and shout, you will lock arms with your new friends at the long communal tables and you will sway back and forth and pretend to sing in German and you will think, man, this is the thing, this is the most fun, this is wonderously dumb.
And then the band will fall deeply off the sanity scale. First, they will play the Star Spangled Banner which you may miss at first because you’re still oomping and pah-pahing in your head but suddenly a thousand people will rise, remove their hats, and place a hand over their hearts as the band plays our national anthem and everyone joins in. Which is fine. Which is baseball and apple pie normal and you’re about to sit down but then they segue into the sheer sublime joyous scream singing of Sweet Caroline. Which is great, but then we zicke zacke hoy hoy again right into a rousing, classic rendition of Ring of Fire and something inside us snaps and we lose our collective minds because we’re listening to these songs played through tubas and we’re drunk and we all love each other and the world is perfect.
For the next 45 minutes you will hug your neighbors and pound your fists in the air and reach the glassine foundation of a number of liter mugs as these short leather pants and suspender wearing maniacs play the American Songbook from 1973 to 1988, like a halfway decent jukebox in a dive bar in Jackson, Mississippi.
The music goes well with the food. I order the breaded pork shank which is like a slow roasted pork wrapped in the best part of crispy bacon. In a normal restaurant where everyone is trying to be respectful and talk quietly to each other I would have to remark, I do say, fair companion, this victual is rather tasty; but under the cacophony of a thousand people screaming along to I Would Walk 500 Miles (as if they know the words. Nobody knows the words. Even the Proclaimers fake it until the chorus) I take one bite then shout in my very best fake Bavarian, THIS PORK IS RESPLENDENT! THIS PORK IS AMBROSIAL! THIS PORK IS ON FLEEK!
Of course a gloriously prepared, slightly divine pork shank may not be your thing so by all means, order a pork tower, a giant pretzel, some kartoffelpuffers, schweinebauch, or the geflügelbratwurst. Wash it all down with a lager, a dunkel, or a hefe weizen or, obviously, their Oktoberfest Bier, all made under their roof. Do it. Yell about it.
For your Oktoberfesting pleasure, here are some important details:
- When you toast, say PROST!
- When you’re thirsty, say Noch ein Bier, bitte: (nock ine beer bit-a) which means Another beer, please.
- When you’re chowing down on your brezeln (pretzel) or a wurst (sausage) tell your table Guten Appetite!
- When you all lock arms and sway and pretend to know the words, loudly, you’re doing the Schunkeln: (Shoon-kulln)