Once again, the Hill Country is alive with the sound of accordion music. Wurstfest, the annual German heritage festival celebrating food and beer, is back until November 14, attracting Texans and tourists alike to New Braunfels.
In recent years, over 200,000 people have packed into the miniature Germanic town on the festival grounds for something akin to a hyper-focused amusement park mixed with a Renaissance fair. On Sunday, November 7, it was like nothing ever happened to the quaint little village.
Something did happen, of course. Not only did the pandemic contribute to the cancellation of Wurstfest 2020, but so did fires in 2019. According to the Austin-American Statesman and San Antonio’s KENS5, the venue spent over $10 million repairing damages. The triumphant return was apparently not to be slowed by vaccine cards or negative tests. There were no COVID-19 precautions to be seen, but this seems like the norm outside of major Texas cities these days.
The attractions at Wurstfest are straightforward: a food and beer market, a craft market, multiple stages graced by numerous polka bands, and a small carnival. At any given point between 11 am and midnight, an attendee’s mission is to procure a beer, scope out a place to sit, and respond to the toast shouted periodically from every stage: Oans, zwoa, drei, g’suffa! It’s expanded since its 1961 inception (by the city meat inspector to celebrate the culinary staple), but the core elements remain the same.
At a small demonstration on Sunday, two men in lederhosen outside one of the beer halls made sausage and explained the ingredients involved. One spectator in a low-commitment dirndl with a loose bodice looked horrified to learn that the casing holding together Wurstfest’s namesake is hog intestine.
Although there is no shortage of wurst from various vendors around the festival, there seems to be no distinguishable difference between them except how they’re served. On a bun with sauerkraut and mustard seemed like a sensible way to do it, but with potato pancakes and sour cream was much more indulgent. Visit two vendors to create a potato pancake sandwich with a goulash filling, but don’t let the Germans see you getting suspiciously Polish (the Polish, in turn, call it Hungarian), and thank us later.
Keeping a beer in hand throughout (and a glass of water nearby!) is central to the entire experience. When asked what one does if they come when gates open and leave when they close, one festivalgoer responded blankly, “You just drink.” Those who feel more discerning (no pressure) should try the Warsteiner Dunkel, a roasted barley malt with a lot of body, a smooth, dark taste and a little yeasty sharpness in each sip.
The Paulaner Oktoberfest is lighter, both more sweet and more sour, and grain-forward. Save your drink tickets and go with the Shiner Oktoberfest over the Spaten equivalent, which is a good choice for people drinking more to assuage FOMO than taste beer.
For dessert, stop by one of the pastry stands by Naegelin’s Bakery, which claims to be the oldest such institution in Texas, at 142 years old. One member of the staff recommended an eclair, but the cream horn felt more novel. She was right; the cream horn tasted of dense pastry and powdered-sugar-heavy buttercream, but the eclair was light and spongy. Neither is particularly German when compared with the many strudel options available from Naegelin’s, but no one is stopping you from getting one of everything. Just save room between the pretzels, nuts, and fried fare.
Going in, it seems that hours of nonstop Central European folk music would get tiring, and it almost did. While the bands, like the food vendors, weren’t fully distinguishable to most casual listeners, each had its quirks, and none played just one type of music. One moment audiences heard a waltz, then polka, then yodeling, then an AC/DC cover.
The Alex Meixner Band played three alternating sets, the Grammy-nominated frontman head-banging over his accordion, working undoubtedly harder than anyone else on festival grounds all day, musician or otherwise. The Alpine Village band played just as many sets, and closed out the night with a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep,” you know, that old oompah standard.
There’s still time to road-trip it to Wurstfest, which runs through Sunday, November 14. Weekday hours are 5 pm to various closing times, depending on the day. Check hours, find travel information, and pre-purchase tickets ($18 online, $20 at the gate) at wurstfest.com. Sunday tickets are buy one, get one free. Prost!