The Best Oktoberfest on the East Coast is @BrauhausSchmitz in Philly this Saturday
When this blog began last week, I told you that there were many stories I never got to write because the editors of my former print column weren’t interested in beer news beyond Greater Baltimore. This is one of those stories.
As a guy with a moniker like mine, it’s no secret that I love Oktoberfest. Every city has one, and with my heritage, I’m a bit of an Oktoberfest snob, going all the way to back to when my Dad dragged the kids to Oktoberfest celebrations in Maryland and Pennsylvania every year. Please forgive me, but I don’t consider it a real Oktoberfest if you can get a Bud Light Lime or you have Bacardi as a sponsor. No matter how tight the lederhosen are, you need real German product and zeitgeist at the event to impress me with your gemütlichkeit. And I’ve been very impressed with the efforts at Brauhaus Schmitz in Philadelphia, celebrating their 8th annual Oktoberfest on the streets of South Philly this Saturday.
I spoke with Doug Hager, the founder and owner of Brauhaus Schmitz, a restaurant and bierstube so authentic you’ll forget you’re a stone’s throw from I-95 for an hour or two while you eat mouth-watering wursts, drink real German beer, catch a Bundesliga match and speak with real Germans. The food is great, but I’m not writing about that today. I direct your attention to the party, people.
“It’s Cool to be German Again”
“I think we do a really good job throwing a great party,” Hager explained to me two Oktoberfests ago of the event that last year drew a crowd of over 8,000. “Personally, I’ve been to (Munich’s) Oktoberfest seven times and I can’t turn South Street into Munich but we try our damned hardest. It’s just such a great event and there’s such rich German culture and history in Philadelphia.” One of the reasons it’s so popular, he said, is because “it’s cool to be German again. It’s a lot of forces coming together, what we do as a business here that people keep coming back for more, and they’re telling their friends to come with them”.
When we spoke back in 2014, he had a secret that he could barely keep at the time, telling me, “This isn’t official, but we’re kind of outgrowing our festival and we’re looking at contingency plans on how we can continue to grow this for the future.”
And so it was, two years later, that a separate three-day Brauhaus Schmitz Oktoberfest will launch in addition to Saturday’s South Street festivities at Philly’s 23rd Street Armory from October 7-9 this year. If that one is anywhere as good as Hager’s original, you might need to book a second weekend in the City of Brotherly Love.
It’s as if Hager was put on this planet to bring a little bit of Germany to the Mid-Atlantic. He was born there as the son of a US military officer and his mother is German, which granted him dual citizenship. He grew up in Philly and was employed as an engineer. Then one day, he had an epiphany. “When the last good German place, Ludwig’s in Center City closed, my wife and I decided that it’s kind of ridiculous that Philadelphia didn’t have a good German place, so we threw our hat in the ring to see how far our concept would take us and we’ve been busy since day one. It’s something Philadelphia really needed.”
What he needed first was a name, and naming a German place for American consumers is not the easiest task. “As a German speaker, I look at words and think they’re easy to pronounce,” he said. Not wanting to make his customers butcher the pronunciation, Hager chose the maiden name of his wife, Kelly Schmitz. At the time, she hadn’t yet taken his last name. So they made a pact: he would call the restaurant Brauhaus Schmitz and she would become a Hager. The couple lived in Cologne for two years after getting married and the name Schmitz, as spelled, is unique to that city. Hager has his own family ties to Cologne so the name was a perfect fit.
“Barley, Hops, Water & Diligence”
One of the most unique aspects of the Brauhaus is its pedigree of rare German brews. Hager proudly described how the restaurant was the first place in Philadelphia and only the second place in the US to serve Andechs, “which any good German beer snob knows is a cult beer and one of the best doppelbocks in the world.” He also traveled to various sites in Germany to convince brewers to export their product to Philadelphia. “We said ‘we want these beers’, and at first the brewers said, ‘no, we’re not interested’, but we wouldn’t leave them alone until they said ‘fine, take the beer and leave us alone.” Thanks to that diligence, names like Andorfer and Innstadt are available on tap at the Brauhaus and some of them made their US draft debut in Philly.
Their quest to deliver Teutonic brews to Philadelphia has paid off handsomely. Hager installed 20 taps when Brauhaus Schmitz opened its doors in June 2009, and he was worried that it would be hard to dedicate them all to German beers. Now, he says, with over 30 taps, “we’re having more difficulty making (brewers and distributors) happy and we’re spoiled with too much good product.”
Getting back to the party: revelers come from as far away as Baltimore, Connecticut and Texas to celebrate at the Saturday Oktoberfest Street Festival on the 700 and 800 block of South Street. Former Philly resident Mike Barber, a German beer and Bundesliga aficionado, describes it as “eight straight hours of German food, oom-pah music, singing, and arm-strengthening through the many lifts of the liter glass full of delicious German beer” and credits the event to making many long-lasting friendships.
South Street Oktoberfest events are actually already underway, with Liter Lift Competition qualifying rounds, but the Street Festival takes place on Saturday, September 17 from noon-8:00 p.m. VIP Admission is still available with some nice perks, and General Admission is free and pay-as-you-go. I’ll be there for the fifth straight year. One welcome change this year is a kinder zone with a bounce house to keep the kids from getting bored. Whatever you do, make sure to thank Hager for what he’s done to bring you the best of Munich without the long flight and the currency exchange. Prost, Doug!
12:00PM FESTIVAL BEGINS
1:30PM LITER LIFT COMPETITION ($500 WINNER)
2:00 PM BAND BEGINS
2:00 PM CEREMONIAL KEG
6:00PM BAND FINISH
8:00PM LAST CALL