On the first day of May in the center of most German towns and villages, the maibaum or maypole is stood up and winter’s cold and darkness officially get the boot in this annual celebration. It’s called Maifest, and it goes back centuries. What started out as a pagan ritual has evolved into a bright, colorful celebration of spring.
Villagers march to the woods, harvest a tall tree, bring it to town and festoon it with all manner of decorations and dance about its base and protect it fiercely lest neighboring villages steal it and hold it for ransom in trade for celebratory food and drink in exchange for its return.
In modern times, Maifest is celebrated all over the world and increasingly here in America.
In Chicago, this noteworthy event — a national celebration of German heritage in the United States — takes place between Thursday May 30 and Sunday, June 2. In Leavenworth, Washington, it ran from May 10 through May 12. Maifest has been celebrated in Cincinnati since 1873. In Watertown Minnesota, even churches celebrate; on May 19 revelers will enjoy worship, then a schnitzel dinner, brats, kraut, German beer and a lot of German inspired events.
Spring is a big thing all over the world. Fashion’s inspired by it, and so is partying, food and drink. Of particular interest to me is Maibock, a style of beer specifically brewed for this time of year, and it’s a big part of Germany’s spring celebration.
Miabock is a lager. It’s fermented cold, following Germany’s tradition of storing beers in cold places for a flourishing awakening in the spring. It’s a spicy, stronger version of a German Helles. It’s a clean, drier beer that excites the palate following a long winter of drinking darker, more brooding, sustaining beers. It can be dark or light, but typically leans toward the medium-dark side, though still much more cleaner and refreshing than heavier stouts, porters, weizenbocks and others that move us through the colder seasons.
What do we do up here in Alaska to ward off winter’s cold and darkness when spring tries to turn the corner? We bitch about it a lot like we did this year after our fake summer in April went away and winter seemed to come back. I stomp around a lot of bonfires at this time of year and drink summer-inspired beers, doing my part to pushy winter out once and for all. I often reach for spring beers like maibocks.
We’ve got a lot of tall timber around here that could be fashioned into a maypole, so why don’t we do something here in Alaska like they do across the pond?
Humpy’s Great Alaskan Alehouse has it all figured out. According to Humpy’s beer manager Whey Bowerson, “It’s been going on in Germany forever, but it’s really taken hold in the Lower 48 and we want to get on board with our own celebration. We want to throw something out there before it gets so busy at Humpy’s that we’re all just flying by the seats of our pants.”
Our German heritage is as strong and proud here as it is down south; things just take longer to catch on in Alaska.
Humpy’s gig won’t be much different, but it will only be on one say, Saturday, May 18 with a ceremonial keg tapping at 4 p.m. Expect German food artfully prepared by Humpy’s executive chef Tim Farley, at least a dozen German beers and lots of games and debauchery at this pay as you go event.
Humpy’s co-founder Jim Maurer was busy when I called to get more information. “I’m at Home Depot buying hammers for the hammerschlagen contest will run at 5 p.m.” he said.
What is hammerschlagen, you ask?
“We’ll have a round log and we’ll have people stand around it with these special cross peen hammers,” says Maurer. Nails will be tapped into the log and each contestant gets one hit, then it moves on to the next person. It goes in a circle and the first one to get the nail flush or below the surface of the log wins the round. I’ve always wanted to do a Maifest, but everyone told me I was crazy.”
At 6 p.m., authentic oompa music will crank up with the famed Alaska Blaskapelle band.
“Alaska celebrates Oktoberfest in a huge way,” says Maurer, “but it’s a cold and dark time of year up here and we want something to celebrate spring up here before summer really gets out of control and we get super busy. I ran into Blaskapelle’s Neal Haglund at another event and said ‘hey when we get through this bankruptcy thing, I want to do a Maifest, what will you be doing at that time?’ He said, ‘I guess I’m doing a Maifest thing at Humpy’s.’”
These guys are great; expect to do some chicken dancing.
Hungry? Sign up for the 7 p.m. bratwurst eating contest. Strong? Sign up for the 8 p.m. stein lifting contest. Thirsty? Wrap your lips around frosty mugs of King Street Brewing Company’s authentic Bavarian Hefeweizen, Cynosure Brewing Company’s Schwarzbier and notable imports including Franziskaner Hefeweizen, Weihenstgephaner Original, Ayinger Celebrator, Pinkus Pilsner, Weihenstephaner Korbinian, Weihenstephaner Kristall Weiss, Ayinger Alt Dunkel, Paulaner Salvator, Paulaner Original Munich Lager, Paulaner Oktoberfest Marzen, Paulaner and Paulaner Hefeweizen, all in a mix of draft and bottled offerings.
Humpy’s is having the event outside behind the restaurant in the patio area. The back fence will be taken down and a stage will hold the band extending into the parking lot. “The cooking will take place outside, festival style, just like in Germany,” says Maurer.
This isn’t a one-time event. “This year we’re going to just have fun with it and give Alaskans something to do while we warm up for summer. We want to see how it goes, but we want to do it every year going forward and get a lot more participation from our local breweries,” says Maurer.
It’s a crazy cool concept; I like the idea of an Oktoberfest like celebration in the spring and, like Maurer and Bowerson, dream about more and more of our local sudsmakers brewing something special just for this event. There’s no room for a tall maypole anywhere around Humpy’s, but this gig could get so big it blows out to the Park Strip. Can you imagine a 60 foot maypole and a massive bonfire there complete with a Humpy’s Biergarten?
Put on some drindl and lederhosen and be in place at 4 for the ceremonial keg tapping. According to Maurer, “Midnight Sun Brewing Company is supplying us with keg of their famous Maibock. Yeah, it wasn’t supposed to be ready until next week, so we’ll be the first to taste it. Aren’t we special?”
Indeed Humpy’s is. Next up for major celebrations — Humpy’s can never quit no matter how busy summer gets at Alaska’s original and quintessential alehouse — is the venue’s 25th anniversary celebration that will begin on June 13th, the actual day Humpy’s opened in 1994 and will culminate on June 22 with a big block party. I was in line the first day Humpy’s opened – I’m very proud that my dollar’s framed as the first at Humpy’s – and I’ll be around for this event, too.