Though the official Oktoberfest in Munich, Bavaria has been canceled this year due to COVID concerns, one of the traditional sounds of the world-renowned festival will still be audible all throughout Germany’s third largest city: the tweeting of birds.
Yes, year after year, Oktoberfest features beer by the bootful, lederhosen by the meter and the copious oompahs of accordions, but there is another feature of the annual harvest festival that rarely gets the same media attention: the presence of Vogelpfeife—professional bird-imitators. A feature of the festival since the 1920s, the alpen-hatted Vogelpfeife peek out from shrubbery-themed booths to whistle and tweet to passersby in the calls of Munich’s varied fowlery.
“The bird whistlers normally stand in a booth/stand and whistle using a special device called Vogelpfeiferl,” says San Jose State German Program Advisor Dr. Larissa Chiriaeva. “Some consider this thing a musical instrument.”
The Vogelpfeiferl (capitalized because Germans capitalize their nouns) looks and acts remarkably like an item from the Legend of Zelda. Sawtoothed and semi-circular, the multi-colored Vogelpfeiferl (instrument) sits upon the tip of the Vogelpfeife’s (player’s) tongue, where it becomes softened by saliva. When placed near the roof of the mouth and blown through, the device produces surprisingly bird-like sounds.
“The instrument or the whistle consists of a wax cardboard box, a metal ring and a membrane,” Dr. Chiriaeva says. To use, aspiring Vogelpfeifes place the instrument lightly to the palate behind the front teeth. “If you then make the right sounds with your teeth closed, it will make the bird noises.”
Expert Vogelpfeifes know how to produce a variety of chirps and tweets, imitating a flock’s worth of sounds by simply alternating lip and tongue placement, and changing the strength of their breath.
The first Vogelpfeiferl seems to have been invented—or at least popularized—by a man named Lorenz Tresenreiter, who set up the first bird-whistling booth at Oktoberfest in 1928. Back then, he was known as “Der Vogel-Jakob” and was renowned for his nightingale impressions. Believe it or not, the Vogelpfeiferl is a catchier, updated name for his original device, which was called the (take a deep breath) Original Vogeljakob-Nachtigallflöten: the “Original Vogel-Jakob Nightingale flute.”
“The nightingale is a thrush. They have very complicated, very beautiful and varied whistled songs,” says Matthew Dodder, Executive Director of the Santa Clara County Audubon Society. Dodder says that, just as in Germany, many thrushes are common to the Bay Area.
“We share a lot of the birds—similar or very close descendents—because the continents were combined at one point,” he says. “So we had birds that split apart and then evolved separately but retained a lot of familial qualities.”
In Santa Clara County, where there are roughly—and appropriately—408 species of birds, the tawny Hermit Thrush is a common representative, as is the ready-for-Halloween orange and black Varied Thrush.
Before he became Munich’s current Vogelpfeife, Horst Berger was a childhood fan of the previous Oktoberfest bird-whistler. According to the official story, he even once helped defend his predecessor from a band of thieves. As a reward, the young Horst was gifted his first Vogelpfeiferl.
Today, Berger has been whistling like a bird at Oktoberfest for almost thirty years—and is now joined in the booth by his son.
Though there were no Germanic thieves involved, the Audubon Society’s Matthew Dodder also says his interest in birds spans way back to his youth.
“I lived in Boston and there was a big snowstorm,” he says. “And for some reason I suddenly got worried about the birds. So I put a little bit of bird seed out, and it attracted some. I just had to know what they were, especially once the bright red one showed up. That was a cardinal. It’s been a lifelong pursuit ever since.”
While bird appreciating and imitating doesn’t quite have the same social cache as Oktoberfest’s more famous export (vast quantities of beer), perhaps now is the time for Vogelpfeifing to catch on at American Oktoberfests. Already, birding has received a huge spike in interest following the pandemic.
“In a way, birding is the natural evolution of Pokemon,” Dodder says. “Pokemon people go out there and capture all the little icons and monsters in the environment with their cell phones. In a weird way, birding is just a natural progression for people who have that mentality.”
EIN BIER BITTE
German beer flows deep in Santa Clara County
By Katie Lauer
Dreams of hoisting up five-pound steins chock full of beer in Munich, Germany may be dashed, but it’s fortunately not necessary for South Bay residents to travel nearly 6,000 miles east for the 18-day celebration to tap into the festival’s 211-year legacy.
At their core, German brews are invariably lagers, pilsners and wheat beers, known for their balanced roasted malt flavors, which some describe as tasting “bready” and sweet, especially compared to hop-heavy IPAs and hearty stouts.
Two distinct German-style beers, specifically, deliver the Oktoberfest goods: pale-to-golden wheat Hefeweizens and red-hued, malty and slightly sweet Märzens.
Whether ordering a half-litre Humpen mug, Maßkrug glassware or even a boot-shaped Bierstiefel, these beverages offer a crisp, clean and light drink. Notes of wheat linger on the tongue, but don’t heavily coat the mouth. Additionally, while often heavy on the foam, the alcohol content of German beers traditionally hovers between 4.7% and 5.4%, making the perfect drink to savor for longer.
By the 1880s, a boom of German-owned operations were happily churning out hoppy beverages right here in the Santa Clara Valley.
San Jose claimed seven or eight breweries, most notably Fredericksburg Brewery on the Alameda at Cinnabar Street. Founded by German tavern-keeper Gottfried Frederick Krahenberg, the business reportedly produced nearly 60,000 barrels of beer annually by 1889.
The neighboring city of Santa Clara was also home to two flourishing breweries—George Lauck’s Santa Clara Brewing Company on Benton Street and the Emig Brothers’ Brewery, complete with its own beer bottling plant and a bowling alley, over on Franklin Street.
While those establishments are long gone, Gordon Biersch took over the reigns of locally brewed German beers 100 years later, combining authentic training from the Technical University of Munich—the most renowned brewing school in the world—with ingredients allowed by the centuries-old “Reinheitsgetbot” purity law—water, barley and hops. Since its founding in 1988, 3.1 million gallons of beer are crafted annually at Gordon Biersch’s facility in San Jose—claiming the title of the Bay Area’s largest brewery.
However, some stand by their convictions that the best in a glass still comes straight off the boat from Deutschland.
Ludwig’s German Table in San Jose—plus its Biergarten location in Mountain View—offers a rotating tap of both light and dark authentic concoctions imported from Germany, with specials that change every two weeks.
Jillian Brackett, the manager at Ludwig’s German Table in charge of ordering kegs and other non-beer drinks, says she loves the history steeped within German lagers.
“I am super-passionate about German beer—they’ve been doing it for almost 3,000 years,” Brackett says, adding that specific areas within the country even have their own unique brews, similar to the origin of wines. “They’re all the classic beer styles, so almost any beer you have in America is going to be a German-style beer; it’s the German experience.”
She says anyone in Santa Clara County looking for the “complete” Oktoberfest experience can find a good time by grabbing a chair in the restaurant, which is housed in the historic Germania Hall tucked on the western edge of downtown.
The location and food Ludwig’s offers is a major component of its legacy. Nicole Jacobi, the part owner, was born in Germany and spent most of her life there. When creating the menu, Brackett says she uses recipes that have been passed down through her family.
Whether ordering the classic Wiener Schitzel—a thin, breaded and pan-friend veal cutlet with lingonberry jam—Nürnberger Sausages on a bed of sauerkraut with a pretzel or traditional Spätzle dumplings, Brackett hopes the fares inspire diners to travel to Germany, if they haven’t already.
In pre-Covid times, Brackett says German business men spending time in Silicon Valley would frequent the restaurant to “test” the American plates. More often than not, she says, they were surprised and even thrown off by how well the food lived up to German meals they’re used to eating at home.
“So much in the Bay [Area] is fusion—which I love to death—but there’s something special about being able to go somewhere and have food prepared exactly how it would be in its country of origin,” Brackett says. “I have had people come in and literally cry over their food while telling me it tastes exactly how their German grandmother would cook it for them.”
When all’s said and done, anyone using the women’s restroom onsite should also keep an eye—or rather an ear—out for bird sounds emitted from the “Zwitscher Box” hung on the wall.
An avid birder with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society thinks the sounds come from the Eurasian Blackbird—the American Robin’s counterpart across the Atlantic Ocean—combined with other snippets from birds like the European Starling.
No matter which beers or fares consumed for a local Oktoberfest celebration—cheers! Prost! Responsibly, of course.
Oct 1&2, 8&9, 15, 22&23, 29&30
Fridays and Saturdays are the days to be at Teske’s Germana in Downtown San Jose. This traditional German restaurant and beer garden goes all-out for Oktoberfest with live music provided by the Internationals, traditional dancing and an array of the best in Bavarian food. Of course, no Oktoberfest is complete without the beer, and this year Teske’s Germania will have over 30 different imported frothy brews to delight the taste buds, fill the steins and keep the songs coming. (MW)
Stein’s Mountain View
Until Oct 3
Stein’s keeps one foot in Oktoberfest year-round by dint of being a beer hall, but for Fall they make it official with a special menu featuring many Germanic favorites: sausage plates and spaetzle, German style pork chops, and for dessert—mein leib—a warm apple cake. Special prices on steins and boots make the pilsners go down even easier than ever, as do the German beer flights. (MH)
Oct 1-3 & 8-10
For those whose tastebuds have a wunderlust for flavor and variety, Clandestine Brewing in San Jose is the go-to stop this Oktoberfest. Whether it’s the hoppy, pale Mailbock, the fruity and malty wheat-based Weizenbock, the rye-based Roggenbier or the traditional Oktoberfest, full bodied Märzen, Clandestine has plenty of rarities available for the avid beer connoisseur. Drinkers will also be offered a variety of different food options and the chance to purchase a stein for continued consumption of Clandestine’s many brews. (MW)
Ok, a winery might not be the most traditional setting for Oktoberfest, but that doesn’t mean they can’t prost with the best! This year, Fortino Winery temporarily ditches the grapes and joins in the hoppy fun with authentic German food, desserts, music and—of course—beer! The fanciest dress lederhosen is not required—simply encouraged—to enjoy a different blend of Oktoberfest in Fortino’s elegant tasting room. (MW)
Oct 9, 5pm, Free
The owners of Camino Brewing came up with the idea for their brewery while cycling across Europe, so it’s fair to say they don’t take Oktoberfest lightly. This year Camino celebrates with a brand new Mӓrzen—the traditional Oktoberfest beer of Munich—in a full, one-liter stein. What goes best with beer? Brats and kraut of course! Don’t eat meat or lean more on the health conscious side? Don’t worry, Camino has you covered with veggie options available as well. (MW)
Oct 9, 12pm, Free
At San Jose’s Cider Junction, Oktoberfest means more than just alpen hats and lederhosen—it also coincides with the beloved South Bay Cidery’s anniversary. Now four years old, Cider Junction has been serving up craft ciders from all around these United States by the bevy for almost half a decade. Ringing in the special day with them is even more festive, with a themed menu of pretzels, brats, strudel and Germanic beers and ciders—plus some free giveaways for the merry occasion. (MH)
Oct 16-17, Free
Campbell’s Oktoberfest is a glücklich (happy) time, and after the doldrums of 2020 it will feel more glücklich than ever. This year’s event includes live German and Swiss music from Zicke-Zacke Band, stein-holding and best-dressed contests, a true Biersch Garten, and—for those who want in on the festivities but don’t care for malts and hops—Wine Central. Saturday’s event also includes a Fun Run, because who doesn’t love running for miles at a time with a stomach full of beer? (MH)
Los Lagos Golf Course
Oct 2, 5pm, $25
With their rolling green hills and efficient vehicles, there is an undeniably Germanic quality to golf courses. And at San Jose’s Los Lagos Golf Course off Capital, Oktoberfest is a yearly tradition interrupted only by COVID. Free beer stein, tastings from local breweries and live music from the six-piece Sound Decision Band. Sure, they may not be playing polkas, but after 2020, let’s all enjoy some live music when we can. (MH)
Ludwig’s Oktoberfest 2021
Oct 8, 5pm, $120
Diners hoping to don and flaunt their favorite dirndl and lederhosen at one of Ludwig’s tables will need to secure reservations for the annual 21+ event, which is taking names for the entire event, from 5-10pm. For $120, six to eight adults will be given a table in the biergarten, where a menu of traditional Oktoberfest fare will be offered—such as schweinshaxe, nuernberger sausages and baked chicken—while festival goers enjoy live music, a best-dressed contest and the annual Stein-holding competition. (KL)