Ice House

Why Is It Only Our Sixth-Annual Oktoberfest?

Little remains of the Bayou City’s German heritage, although remnants can be found.

By Katharine Shilcutt August 21, 2017 Published in the September 2017 issue of Houstonia Magazine


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For decades—starting in 1830, and continuing through Germany’s 1848 Revolution and beyond—a wave of Germans fleeing their tumultuous country flooded into Texas. Many stopped in Houston, or what would become Houston in 1837, which occupied the eastern end of the state’s so-called German Belt, stretching west through the Hill Country into Kerrville.

The 1860 U.S. Census pegged the young city’s German population at 17 percent, although the number during earlier decades was estimated to be twice that. German Houstonians settled Cypress, Tomball, Spring Branch and Settegast. They established tight-knit neighborhoods in Germantown (now Woodland Heights) and Schrimp’s Field (now Second Ward). They founded German-language newspapers (Galveston had the state’s first, the Zeitung, in 1847) and performed in German singing societies (Houston Saengerbund is the city’s oldest choral group, founded in 1883).

Today, little remains of the Bayou City’s German heritage, although remnants can be found in street names like Conrad Sauer, Bingle and Beinhorn (all in Spring Branch) and meals like chicken-fried steak (adapted from the Teutonic schnitzel). But because of prevailing anti-German sentiment in an increasingly non-German city during World Wars I and II, our German roots were largely forgotten.

Which may explain why, until six years ago, Houston—which once boasted a main thoroughfare named German Street, now Canal Street—didn’t even have its own Oktoberfest. Still, says Omid Rafiei, “The demand was there.” Rafiei and his wife Andrea, who also run the Houston Sports & Social Club, helped organize the city’s inaugural Oktoberfest in 2011. “We wanted to try and bring German culture to Houston proper,” says Omid.

The six-year-old festival is “not as traditional as you might see in a small town like Fredericksburg,” he adds, though it does offer plenty of seasonal beers—both German and Texan. “That’s one of the nice things about having our festival at the beginning of the season,” says Andrea, “because later on in October the beer can run out really quickly.”

Traditionally kicking off in September, the original Oktoberfest in Münich was, and is, supplied by the Märzen style of beers—lagers brewed in March, left to ferment during the summer, and enjoyed when fall arrives. Houston’s event is no different.

“We’re going to have a wide variety of German beers, the Paulaners and the Warsteiners and the Hofbraus,” says Omid, in addition to seasonal autumn beers from Houston’s leading craft breweries. Last year, the festival was the first place in town to pour Saint Arnold’s immensely popular Pumpkinator beer, a feat the Rafieis hope to pull off again this year.

The event will also feature German food from the likes of King’s Biergarten and Deutscher Fleischwagen, live polka music, brat-tossing contests, barrel-rolling races, stein-hoisting competitions, and more lederhosen than you can shake a dirndl at—roughly half of the 2,500 attendees dress in their German finest each year.

And for the second time, Oktoberfest Houston will be held at the Water Works in Buffalo Bayou Park, whose large, grassy lawn, boasting a postcard-perfect view of downtown, makes for an ideal setting. “It’s never going to feel like walking into Münich,” says Omid, “because we’re in Houston, obviously”—a Houston that’s finally getting back in touch with its German roots.

Oktoberfest Houston, Sep. 30 from 11 a.m.–6 p.m. The Water Works at Buffalo Bayou Park, 105 Sabine St., $25–$100 (children under 15 free). 

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