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Oktoberfest closer to home: Five U.S. festivals

By Adam Carlson, Special to CNN
updated 11:41 AM EDT, Tue September 25, 2012
The Louisville Craft Beer Week now draws several thousand people from around the state to its dozens of events.
The Louisville Craft Beer Week now draws several thousand people from around the state to its dozens of events.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There are festivals around the country that overlap with Oktoberfest
  • Seek out small festivals for rare flavors, beer experts say
  • Several festivals are expanding this year, with more events and many more beers

(CNN) -- Oktoberfest kicks off in Munich on September 22. But Munich is across an ocean — and ocean-crossing plane tickets are expensive, as are hotels and transportation and schnitzel. Fortunately, there are beer festivals across the United States running parallel to the fest's official September 22-October 7 schedule.

Look out for the smaller festivals if you want a more intimate experience, advises Derek Buono, publisher of Beer Magazine. If you're after new flavors, keep an eye out for fests that stock rare brews.

If you prefer a party, the biggest festivals emphasize atmosphere, scheduling bands and food vendors, in addition to breweries.

Your biggest problems, suggests Buono, will be picking one beer festival, because there are so many.

Here are five festivals to choose from so Oktoberfest need not go uncelebrated. They are big and small, stretching from the Northeast onward. They include tastings, trainings and at least one bratwurst eating contest, in Louisville, Kentucky. No doubt there's a festival near you, so mark your calendars and raise your glasses.

World Beer Festival (September 22, St. Petersburg, Florida, $40-$85; October 6, Durham, North Carolina, $40-$45)

Founded 17 years ago, the World Beer Festival is a multi-city, multi-date affair, presented by All About Beer Magazine. Its flagship is still Durham, where festival organizers expect to have as many as 250 beers this year, up from 170 last year. But the St. Pete fest is new, and it's the first time the event has been held outside the Carolinas. It's a reflection of the "massively growing craft beer market" in the Tampa Bay area, said All About Beer beer and brewery manager Leigh Hambleton.

Photos: Oktoberfest 2012

With its slate of events and materials, including tastings and an online "Beer 101" guide, the festival and magazine are committed to "spreading the word about craft beer," Hambleton said. That means showing off the best beverages and helping people learn how to drink them.

Louisville Craft Beer Week (September 21-29, Louisville, Kentucky, tickets range by day and event; prices range from free to $75)

Louisville's Craft Beer Week, backed by LouisvilleBeer.com, isn't a celebration of Oktoberfest exactly, but it's full of celebratory Oktoberfest events, including eating contests and the release of a slate of fall beers. Casktoberfest, hosted by the St. Matthews location of the Bluegrass Brewing Co., is the week's kick-off and there are dozens more events that follow. The festival hopes to keep widening: This year, it's partnering with the Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO, for short), the city's alternative weekly, to publish an event guide.

The expectation is "people that didn't even know [it] existed will find out about it," said John Wurth, the founder of LouisvilleBeer.com.

Beer festivals around town used to draw 100 people. Now they draw thousands, said Wurth. BBC brewery used to reach out to crowds. Now it has to turn them away.

Texas Craft Brewers Festival (October 6, Austin, Texas, $20-$77)

The self-described "largest annual celebration of Texas craft beer," the Texas Craft Brewers Festival, which benefits Austin Sunshine Camps that serve at-risk kids, has been around since 2003.

Held in historic Fiesta Gardens in East Austin, the festival will feature nearly 30 Texas breweries — from No Label to Thirsty Planet — and more than 100 beers. Beer and chocolate and beer and cheese pairing sessions are scheduled.

New Orleans on Tap (September 29, New Orleans, Louisiana, $1-$100)

Last year, New Orleans on Tap exploded.

Supporting the Louisiana Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, New Orleans on Tap is a co-production with the Bulldog, a local bar. It was the Bulldog's founder who first brought up the idea of doing a fundraiser-festival, said Marisa Collins, events coordinator for the Louisiana SPCA.

When autumn leaves fall

That was three years ago. Last year, 7,000 people attended New Orleans on Tap and it raised $100,000. Organizers expect more this year, Collins said.

It's "huge for such a young event to explode like that," she said, "but I think we hit the right chord with young New Orleanians that like drinking and that like being outside."

Schuylkill BrewFest (September 22, Pottsville, Pennsylvania, $10-$25)

Pottsville is the home of the two-year-old Schuylkill BrewFest, and it's also home to Yuengling, America's oldest brewing company. One led to the other.

"Basically what we're doing is celebrating the traditional brewing of German beer in the home of America's oldest brewery," said Keri Johnson, communications coordinator for the Schuylkill County Visitors' Bureau and one of the festival organizers.

It's a small group behind the scenes, but support from both the community and Yuengling, which encouraged the festival to seek out microbreweries across Pennsylvania, has been strong.

The second time around, the BrewFest has quadrupled the number of home brew applicants it has and expanded its programming slate as well: There will be beers to taste and beers to buy and, Johnson said, a band that specializes in Austrian music.

One more to consider:

If you¹re already thirsty for next year, put the Great American Beer Festival in Denver on your list. This year¹s October event is sold out, but Buono calls it "the best 40 bucks you could spend on beer."

Put on by the Brewers Association, a national trade organization supporting craft beer, the festival has been going on since 1982. It brings thousands of people from across the country and spans three days with more than 2,000 beers to taste.

Where do you like to celebrate Oktoberfest or just grab a pint? Please tell us in the comments below.

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