The King William beer garden was already filled with people gathered around tables Friday night when, playing for only a beer and a brat, band members settled into their seats, flipped the pages of their music, and struck up Germany’s national anthem, “Deutschlandlied.”
In stitched-leather lederhosen and gingham shirts, a men’s quartet sang along – Blühe, Deutsches Vaterland! – Flourish, German Fatherland!
Thus began the nearly 100-year-old tradition of Oktoberfest at Beethoven Maennerchor.
“This is a little bit of Germany in San Antonio,” Beethoven Concert Band director Toby Knight said. “The most authentic Oktoberfest in the San Antonio area.” Then he led the stein-raising crowd in a rousing prosit followed by toe-tapping fan favorites, “Zigge-Zagge, Hoi, Hoi, Hoi” and the “Beer Barrel Polka.”
Founded in 1867 by early German settlers to the area in a building that now operates as the Magik Theater, Beethoven Maennerchor is one of the oldest German singing societies in Texas, and the oldest west of the Mississippi, said Claus Heide, club president.
The nonprofit dedicated to preserving German culture and heritage moved in 1921 to its current location at 422 Pereida St., a building the Rough Riders once used for recruiting, said club member James McCann. A collection of buildings surrounding a tree-shaded courtyard, Beethoven Maennerchor also holds the second oldest beer license in the county.
Heide, a native of the northern region of Germany, followed his wanderlust to San Antonio in 1965 and joined Beethoven Maennerchor 35 years ago. During Oktoberfest, he wears his authentic Bavarian lederhosen and drinks beer from a stein made in his homeland especially for the occasion.
The flowing beer may be Heide’s favorite thing about Oktoberfest, he admitted with a grin after escorting Mayor Ron Nirenberg for the ceremonial tapping of the first keg, crafted by Karbach Brewing. But it’s also seeing the same people year after year, he said.
Beethoven Maennerchor’s Oktoberfest isn’t the only such event in a town known for its German heritage. There’s another Oktoberfest-themed event planned for Oct. 5 at the Tower of the Americas, for instance, and another through Sunday in the Polka Capital of Texas, Fredericksburg.
But for Heide and others, there’s no other Oktoberfest like this one. To start with, Beethoven Maennerchor has the history and lineage to do it right. It’s also family-friendly, he said.
The club has been hosting Oktoberfest since the 1930s, with members providing everything from food service to entertainment. Bruno Kriese, a 30-year member, boasted he holds the record for selling the most food and beverage tickets before the club began using computers.
“This is like going to Oma’s house,” said David Uhler, vice president of the club and a member of its men’s choir. “It’s like the cake she made you isn’t the prettiest, but it’s made with love.”
Here, the classic reubens, gulasch, and sauerkraut are cooked and served by members of the Beethoven Maennerchor. The club has about 500 members, but membership isn’t limited to those with German ancestry, nor is it required to attend its annual events or even to visit the historic bar and listen to its bands and choirs rehearse.
Many who attend Oktoberfest have German ancestry or lived in that country while serving in the military, Heide said.
But actual members can recount their connection to Beethoven Maennerchor going back generations. Joe Moulder, whose great grandfather once lived next door to the club, serves on the board and has been cooking for Oktoberfest for 10 years. “I empty the trash, too.”
Molly Hartmann, who was selling souvenirs and making potato pancakes under the red begonia-filled flower boxes of Olsen House Friday evening, feels like she grew up on the place.
Oktoberfest is fun, Hartmann said, because everyone is family whether it’s their first time or they’ve been coming 40 years. “But to us, it’s just another Friday night.”
Inside the club’s bar, member Fred Pfeiffer pointed out his grandfather, Julius Pfeiffer, in a photo hanging on the wall among other members from 1916. “I’m a non-singing member,” he joked. But he couldn’t say whether the event was the best Oktoberfest around. “It’s the only one I come to!”
Oktoberfest at Beethoven Maennerchor continues through Saturday, from 5 p.m. to midnight, with sing-a-longs of traditional beer hall songs led by the Männerchor and Damenchor choirs and dance performances by Fire on the Mountain cloggers.
The event continues Oct. 11 and 12. Admission is $10 at the gate; children under 12 and active duty military admitted free.