Aside from Onkel Hans and Miss Oktoberfest, one of the most recognizable faces of the annual Bavarian festival are the keepers of the keg – the men who watch over the iconic beer keg at the festival. For more than 10 years, Elmira resident Kevin Schmitt has had that honour. With the annual festival set to get underway again next week, he’s got his hands full again.
“There are times when you have to keep an eye on it, because people like it as a collectible,” said Schmitt. “We tap the ceremonial keg to open the festival, and at the end of the festival we actually put the bung back in the keg to close the festival. There is a certain mystique that goes with the keg.”
As the keeper of the keg, Schmitt is entrusted to ensure that not only the kegs remain safe, but that the beer that goes into the keg is fresh, and that the participants enjoy their time at the festival, because “it’s all about the experience.”
Yet there isn’t as much testing as one might assume – “there are liquor laws against that,” Schmitt said with a laugh – but the keepers do ensure the beer is properly handled by keeping the contents at the correct temperature and with the right amount of pressure.
“Because the worst thing is bad beer.”
Schmitt has been a volunteer at the Oktoberfest in Kitchener for 15 years, and has a strong family tie to the event. His father emigrated from Hamburg, and was involved with the first Oktoberfest in the region back in 1969 at the Concordia Club in Kitchener.
But it takes more than just a little family history to become a keeper of the keg. It is a lot of hard work, and is a serious commitment. There are only two primary keepers of the keg, with several others training to some day reach the position.
“You don’t want it to be too warm, otherwise you get too much foam,” Schmitt explained about the beer. “There is a balance point between pressure and temperature, so it takes years of experience and learning to handle it properly.”
And all that training is certainly necessary for the opening day of Oktoberfest. The festival starts around 6:30 a.m. for the keepers of the keg, and it doesn’t end until 12:30 a.m. the following morning, with nine different kegs tapped over those 18 hours.
“It’s a long day, and each one [keg tapping] is a ceremony of itself. There are a lot of things that go on.”
Despite his role, Schmitt is adamant that Oktoberfest is more than just a beer festival, however.
Throughout the nine-day festival, there are more than 40 events for people to attend, including barrel races, helicopter rides, a bocce ball tournament, and even a 100-km bike race called the Tour de Hans near Hubertushaus, with the winner given the privilege of tapping a keg at the end of the race.
“It’s hard to find something not to do during the festival.”
And the father of three appreciates how the festival caters to all age groups, from grandparents down to the smallest child.
“There are a lot of family and cultural events to the point that we don’t just tap beer out of the keg. We do have kegs that we use for non-alcoholic events. We will even do root beer.”
Oktoberfest isn’t just a nine-day festival for Schmitt, either, but a 365-day commitment. He is the chairman of the Convention Committee for Oktoberfest, the committee that oversees the kegs, and their job is to organize and execute Oktoberfest celebrations throughout the year.
Schmitt said he has tapped a keg at nearly any event imaginable, from stag-and-does to company mergers, and that he attends between 40 and 50 events each year – on top of the nine-day festival in October.
“I travel as far south as Sarnia and Buffalo. I’ve been up to Keswick, Collingwood and Creemore. It’s not just being the keeper of the keg; it’s being an ambassador of the festival so we can deliver the best experience.”
For Schmitt, the job and the title are well worth the effort. The Oktoberfest celebration in Kitchener-Waterloo is the largest one outside of Munich; overseeing its kegs something he would never trade.
More than 700,000 people attend the festival annually, delivering about $1.5 million back into the community and to local service groups. Altogether, the festival will raise $18 million directly and indirectly through economic activity in the region such as restaurants, hotels, shopping and the like.
It isn’t just the economic boost that makes it such a valuable part of the region, though. Schmitt is proud of the role he plays in visiting schools and helping spread the Bavarian culture to those who might not get the chance to taste the fantastic food or hear the wonderful music without Oktoberfest.
“What a lot of us say is that we’re throwing a party for our closest 700,000 friends,” he said with a laugh. “Can you imagine the logistics behind that? That’s what we do.”
This years Oktoberfest celebrations kick off on Oct. 8 in Kitchener Civic Square at 11:15 a.m.