The first annual C-U Oktoberfest took place Saturday in Downtown Champaign. All proceeds benefited the Developmental Services Center. The parking lot in front of the Orpheum Children’s Science Museum was blocked off and a few tents were pitched. Beer was on tap, food was served up, and the polka music was loud. Thankfully, it wasn’t raining.
The event opened at 5 p.m., and there were a handful of people waiting in line for entry. The entire parking lot was fenced, with only one way in and one way out. Entry to this family-friendly event was $5. Plastic beer steins were available for an additional $5 at the entry point. Food and drink tickets were $1 each. Upon entering the lot, there were three or so tables on the right where you could purchase beer and food tickets, raffle tickets, or C-U Oktoberfest gear, including green hats and screen-printed t-shirts. Further ahead was a large tent under which were tables and a stage. This was a lovely, if not necessary, addition, as this event was scheduled rain or shine (thankfully, it was all shine, despite an ominous forecast). The beer table was situated at the north end of this music/seating tent. Pekara Bakery had a table in the southwest corner of the tent, where parents of the Unit 4 German club sold Pekara-made pretzels and ginger heart cookies.
Directly in front of the Orpheum building were the food stands: the White Horse Inn, King Philly Sandwiches, and Chester’s BBQ. There were a few high top cocktail tables in between the three eateries, but since they only accommodated two or three people, most folks were sitting on the curb around the food and music tent. Why sit on the curb when there is a tent full of tables and chairs? Most of the tables were reserved for sponsors of the event.
The food selections were limited. White Horse Inn was the only place that offered up a German menu; King Philly Sandwiches offered up cheesesteaks and other fried things; Chester’s BBQ had barbeque. Burrito King was slated to be there, but they were a no show, which was ok with me. I thought the entire food curation was curious and thematically disparate, anyway. It’s an Oktoberfest festival, I want to eat German food. Based on the lines at the White Horse Inn tent, it seemed like the patrons wanted it, too.
I had the German meal from White Horse, which was typical German fare done well. This included your choice of bratwurst, knackwurst, or bockwurst served with German potato salad, sauerkraut, some mustard, and a pickle, all for seven tickets (seven dollars). Considering all of the festivals I’ve attended in the last five months, this was a deal, and completely reasonably priced for the amount of food. I had my meal with the bratwurst, and I was pretty well satisfied. The brat was moist and salty; from the cooking operation it looked like they were cooked in a pan of beer and/or broth on the grill. The overall texture was soft and the interior was fairly smooth. There weren’t any large pieces of fat or meat, as you might expect in a traditional sausage. I couldn’t taste too much in the way of seasoning beyond general sausage-ness because the salt was just too overpowering.
The potato salad was also good. The potatoes were cooked to al dente; they maintained their form but were soft enough to spear without falling apart. The onions were cooked to translucent, so they too held their shape and a bit of crunch. The bacon pieces were limp and floppy, but tasted just like bacon. In an entire bite, the components held the tang of vinegar with a little hint of sweetness from the Dijon mustard.
The sauerkraut—made in house, they told me—had a sharp vinegar bite, which balanced with the fizzy taste of fermented cabbage. It didn’t have any caraway or other seasoning, and overall there wasn’t anything too special about it. The acid and texture provided a crunchy addition to softness of the meat and potatoes. The pickle, surprisingly enough, was not overly acidic, but rather a bit sweet and slight in flavor. Pickles were made by Kruegermann, a California based company.
I paired my meal with Blind Pig Brewery’s Oktoberfest beer. For five tickets (five dollars), I received a plastic cup of the brew. It smelled beery with notes of warm spices. There was a hit of sweet at the beginning of the sip, and then a strong bitter finish at the end.
The beer table was situated at the north part of the music/seating tent, which was not a great idea, especially as the event became more crowded. Most people went straight to the beer table, and even though the people working the beer table were efficient at serving up the brews, the line of people oozed into the seating area, causing a cluster of confusion and congestion.
Blind Pig Brewery had three different beers on tap: an IPA, an Oktoberfest, and a Rauch Weizenbock. The other beers on tap included Left Hand Oktoberfest, Capital Munich Dark, Weihenstephaner Festbier, Hofbrau Oktoberfest, Hofbrau Hefe Weizen, and EKU pils.
I also had some of the Hofbrau Hefe Weizen on tap. It was delicious, fragrant, and tasted like sophisticated applesauce beer. The sweet taste of apple was paired with warm cinnamon notes, creating a depth of flavor that probably would have better complemented my acidic German meal.
Even though Bob had a less than delicious time at King Philly last weekend, a friend and I were lured in by the siren’s call of deep fried corn nuggets and decided to give them a go. In short: a bad idea. They were indeed nuggets, which was mildly disturbing. They came out in a little nugget container, but it was splattered in some nasty deep-fry residue, which was just short of disgusting. It was also served with a little side of maple syrup. I bit into the nugget and was greeted with corn kernels and a milky creamed-corn filling. It didn’t taste like much, not even corn. The texture of the filling was weird, and after one bite, I was done.
This event has a lot of potential, and overall, wasn't so bad. As it’s first year, I’m sure organizers were unsure of exactly what to expect. I think that with a few logistical shifts—more available seats for patrons, moving the beer table to another part of the lot to allow for a less awkward experience, and a few more food and drink options—this event could be festive, fun, and maintain it’s family-friendly appeal. In terms of food, it could be interesting to not only solicit local eateries, but also catering companies willing to develop German menus for this event. This town doesn’t need any more festivals featuring BBQ nachos or shitty fried things. C-U Oktoberfest has the potential to be something big and unique, and blow the other festivals away. (JH)
Food writer Kaya DeFehr also stopped by the event on Saturday evening, and her thoughts are below.
I ordered the German landjäger sausage from White Horse Inn, which is customarily a small dried sausage, made of pork, lard, red wine, and spices: imagine salami crossed with a Slim Jim. It was good, but not amazing. It was just what you would expect a hearty snack to be: chewy, salty, filling.
Given the salty snack choice, I needed a beverage. A nice cold beer from a local that I would be proud to pair with this meat-stick, I searched for the beer stand. The beer tent was difficult to get to and hidden in the back by all of the reserved tables and a water/soda tent. I ordered Blind Pig’s IPA. Like the beer I was hoping for, it had a nice aroma that overshadowed the perfumed alcohol with malt and strong hop flavor. This IPA was big enough to stand up to the richness of the sausage.
However, the lack of beer options was definitely noticeable for an "Oktoberfest" celebration. Where was Triptych? I would have loved to try one of their newest brews. Looking around there is a section of the parking lot that is fenced off for use, but completely empty. More options of beer, food, or seating would have been nice.
I also tried Pekara’s ginger heart cookies. The ginger heart cookies are traditionally very large, often nearly 10 inches tall. They have a hole with a ribbon so they can be worn. Pekara’s cookies were two tickets (two dollars) each and were, in fact, wearable. They were nicely spiced with a soft inside and a slightly crunchy outside. I really appreciated that they did a traditional item instead of a brownie or some other sweet option. Pekara was also selling Bavarian pretzels, which I did not try because they looked a little overdone. (KH)
All photos courtesy of Jessica Hammie.