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Just in time for Octoberfest: America's best beer festivals

Rosemary McClure
September 6, 2012

Tap into one of the fall season’s most spirited traditions by raising a stein, beer mug or glass to toast the world’s best beers. September and October mark busy months for U.S. beer festivals. None can compare to Munich, Germany's Oktoberfest, which draws 6 million party-goers to a 16-day beer bust, but the United States is well on its way to setting its own record for the number of festivals taking place across the nation, with more than 2,000 now planned annually.
Some of the older events, such as Cincinnati's Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, fashion themselves after the Munich festival, but the newer festivals are an homage to craft beers, where interest and sales are skyrocketing.

Whether you chug your suds from a pitcher or drink them sedately from an amber-colored bottle, this is the season to join in the cheer. Following are some of the nation's hottest hops spots.

Oktoberfest Zinzinnati
Cincinnati, Ohio, Sept. 22-23, 2012

Can’t make it to Munich, Germany, this year for the world’s largest Oktoberfest? You need only go as far as Cincinnati, Ohio, to party at the second-largest Bavarian beer bust in the world,  Oktoberfest Zinzinnati USA.  Sponsored by Sam Adams, the event draws more than a half-million participants who down more than 800 barrels of beer in a salute to the German heritage. Brats, schnitzel and cabbage rolls are among the European specialties on the menu at the event, which takes place in a six-block downtown area of the city. For entertainment, participants can get crazy performing the chicken dance, or watch a doggie derby in which dachshunds dressed in hot dog costumes compete in the annual Running of the Wieners race.

Tour de Fat
15 U.S. cities, through Oct. 20, 2012

Beer-loving cyclists can embrace their two favorite hobbies at the Tour de Fat, a tongue-in-cheek rolling festival that hits 15 cities from June through October. Sponsored by New Belgium Beer, the maker of Fat Tire Amber Ale, the cycling circus is a series of beer-soused bike parades and events that raise money for charity.  Beginning in Nashville on June 2, the Tour de Fat moved to Washington, D.C., through the South and Midwest, visiting Chicago in mid-July and Fort Collins, Col., Sept. 1, where the flagship event drew an estimated 20,000 participants. Upcoming stops on the Tour de Fat are:

Big Bear Lake Oktoberfest
Big Bear Lake, Calif., weekends Sept. 15 to Oct. 27, 2012

There’s nothing stuffy about this Bavarian-style mountaintop festival, now in its 42nd year. Big Bear Lake Oktoberfest participants can test their mettle in a log-sawing contest, a stein-carrying competition or a sausage-eating match. Or, they can join in a “shoot and yodel” competition that features a shot of Jagermeister followed by a chance to belt out a Swiss yodel. Of course, no Oktoberfest would be complete without barrels of beer, and participants in this alpine-like Southern California community drink about  500 kegs during the event, which draws nearly 25,000 merrymakers annually.

Great American Beer Festival
Denver, Oct. 11-13, 2012

This mega-festival – one of the largest in the nation – is so popular that tickets for the event sold out in a matter of minutes when they went on sale earlier this year. Now celebrating its 31st year, the Great American Beer Festival draws nearly 50,000 beer lovers to the mile-high city for three days of tasting and judging. The event toasts the nation’s diversity, offering participants a chance to sample beer from 580 U.S. breweries. And while craft beer lovers are busy tasting for pleasure, judges from throughout the world will be on hand to taste for business purposes – analyzing and scoring 4,300 beers for their qualities of excellence. The event, sponsored by the Brewers Association, is one of the nation’s best-known competitions.

LA Beer Week
Los Angeles, Sept. 20-30, 2012

Southern California's beer lovers like to do things in a big way, so instead of holding a single festival they schedule 11 days of drinking, eating and fun. LA Beer Week, now in its fourth year, celebrates the diversity of the local beer culture and includes a variety of events, including beer dinners, tap takeovers, meet-the-brewer events and an ice cream social featuring beer floats. The anchor event, LA Beer Week Beer Festival, will feature more than 100 beers from local, national and international craft breweries. Several beers will be brewed especially for the event, which will be held Sept. 30 at historic Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

Killington Brewfest
Killington, VT., Sept. 29, 2012

Cheers to autumn color – and craft beer.  Killington Brewfest, held at the peak of Vermont's spectacular fall foliage season, makes it easy to sample some of New England's finest brews while catching a look at the brilliant reds and yellows that draw hordes of visitors to the Green Mountains of Vermont during the season.  Established in 1995, Brewfest offers more than 70 craft beer styles, a brewmaster's dinner, kick-off party, golf tournament, music and vendor's village.  The event sells out each year.

Atlanta, Oct 6, 2012

Grab your smart phone and become an official judge for HOToberFest, which bills itself as the nation’s largest consumer-judged craft beer competition. The peoples’-choice event, held at Atlanta’s Historic Fourth Ward Park, includes 225 beers, firkins and whiskey-barrel aged casks. There are VIP or general-admission tickets and “hang out” admission for non-drinkers or people who would like to buy individual beers. VIP and general admission ticket holders use a smart phone balloting system to locate, rate and track their favorite beers.  Music, food and bocce ball round out the activities. The non-profit event raises funds for TREES Altanta and Legacy World Missions.

Fresh Hop Ale Festival
Yakima, Wash., Oct. 6, 2012

For some people, fall signals it's time to pick apples in Washington state, the nation's largest producer of the fruit. For other folks, it's time to celebrate another of the state's most bountiful crops, hops. And the best place to do that is at the Fresh Hop Ale Festival in Yakima, Wash.  The annual event salutes the world's number one hops producer, the Yakima Valley, located southeast of Mount Rainier in central Washington. There will be both tasting and a fresh hops competition. (When the organizers of this event say "fresh hops" they mean it: For a beer to be considered fresh hop ale for the competition, it must be produced with hops that were picked no more than 24 hours prior to brewing.) The event includes food, wine, music and homebrew demonstrations.

Great Tucson Beer Festival
Tucson, Ariz., Oct. 6, 2012

Check out hundreds of beers from throughout the Southwest and world while you play horseshoes or try your hand at steer roping during the Great Tucson Beer Festival, a down home-style festival at Hi-Corbett Field baseball stadium in Tucson.  The Saturday festival, now in its 26th year, features local breweries showcased alongside national and international varieties. Many local beer makers offer seasonal recipes created especially for the event. The festival, organized by az.beers.com, raises funds for charity.

Great Alaska Beer Train
Anchorage, Alaska, Oct. 6
If the chug, chug, chug of a train engine makes you think of beer, you'll love the Great Alaska Beer Train, which celebrates Oktoberfest while rolling through some of the 49th state's most scenic countryside. The Microbrew Express travels 80 miles round trip from Anchorage to Portage and features an assortment of local microbrews and the incredible scenery of Turnagain Arm, where beluga whales frolic and salmon head to spawning grounds. The area is part of the 6-million acre Chugach National Forest, the second largest national forest in the U.S. As the Alaska Railroad says, take a scenic journey with the world's best designated driver.

Baltimore Beer Week
Baltimore, Md., Oct. 19-28
They love their brewskis in the Land of Pleasant Living. That's why there are more than 300 activities on tap during Baltimore Beer Week. The 10-day event, which celebrates all things beer, is a smorgasbord of suds-filled things to do, including a pints-and-pancakes breakfast, a beer-and-pumpkin-carving event and dozens of other opportunities to get soused. In addition, beer festivals are scheduled Oct. 20 and 27. Organizers say there has never been a more exciting time in American brewing history, thanks to the movement from national, mass-produced beers to local hand-crafted ones. And they say their multi-faceted event is the best way to celebrate this movement.