It’s America’s Wurstfest — not worst fest. Early November in New Braunfels, Texas means that it is time for one of America’s larger German-influenced beer festivals. Wurstfest is much more than a beer festival to the many local initiatives that rely on it as a major fundraising activity.
Once a standalone town, New Braunfels is now a big (90,000 population) northern suburb of San Antonio. It is arguably the epicenter of Texas’ German heritage. Back in 1845, the land was purchased by Prince Carl of Solms-Braunfels, an area just north of Frankfurt, Germany as part of an immigration scheme. Hundreds of families made the trip and transplanted German culture and traditions that mutated into what is known today as “German Texas.”
The first Wurstfest took place in 1961 – the idea of a local veterinarian and meat inspector named Ed Grist. He was thinking of a way to showcase the German-style sausage made here, thus the initial focus was the wurst. Over time, it was natural to incorporate a broader range of the region’s German heritage. Attendance grew rapidly over the years and several venues were used until the current home of Wurstfest was established along the Comal River in Landa Park in 1967. There have been a number of expansions, improvements, and a rebuild following a big fire in 2019. Attendance over the ten-day festival is in the neighborhood of a quarter-million people.
Beer, not wurst seemed to be the dominant theme at Wurstfest although I am sure some would argue that the quasi-German food offerings (wurst tacos or sauerkraut pizza anyone?), entertainment, artisans venues, and kids’ activities are equally important. Five music venues of varying sizes provide places to enjoy the entertainment, food, and beer together. The grounds along the river are pleasant and there are a good number of places to escape the crush and enjoy people watching, as well. The bands were an eclectic mix of traditional German-style, Eastern-European, Texican, and modern variations and most had an accordion player – after all a polka is a polka whether sung in German, Czech, English, or Spanish.
Wurstfest charges admission on weekend days and is free on weekdays. Once on the grounds, you encounter an arcane two-step process of standing in line to buy tickets that are required to be exchanged (after standing in another line) for most anything else you may want in the way of beer or food. Food stands seem to be run by a variety of small operators including local service clubs and organizations. A few beer stands, including one offering craft beers, serve all of the beer and have an excellent variety of German beers on offer. Munich Hofbrau, Spaten, Paulaner, and Warsteiner are all represented although don’t expect proper glassware. Everything is disposable at Wurstfest – plastic cardboard, and styrofoam are the order of the day.
A local nonprofit called the Wurstfest Association organizes the whole thing and in the eyes of this casual observer, it looks like quite a cash cow. The money generated is distributed to community organizations and projects or reinvested into the Wurfest infrastructure. Members of the association, whether male or female, are called “opas” and they volunteer a lot of their time to organize the shindig. Some of the nearly 300 opas are highly visible at the event in colorful quasi-traditional-German attire.
The Wurstfest venue is a short walk from the city center of New Braunfels, and we stopped by pre-fest to look around. There are a good number of attractive murals on the walls of buildings and there is a lot of sausage portrayed on those walls. Neither of the downtown breweries (Faust Brewing and New Braunfels Brewing Company) was open – In fact, by the look of the downtown you wouldn’t have suspected there was a big event taking place that day just a few blocks away. We found a nice beer drinker’s refuge though at the Krause’s Cafe’s spacious and airy “Bierhalle”. Their “tap wall” features an impressive assortment of choices.
Related stories on Prime Passages: Texas Hill Country Hikes & Beers – Beery Austin – A Stop in Shiner — German Tradition in the Lone Star State – Out in Luckenbach Texas, There Ain’t Nobody Feelin’ No Pain – Texas Six Pack – other Texas stories