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Oh, Oktoberfest: You had us at beer

Ashley Wilson, Cydnie Pohl, and Tanya Wright, the top three finalists of the Dirndl Dress contest, during the 2014 Ybor City Oktoberfest Pub Crawl.
Luis Santana/tbt*
Ashley Wilson, Cydnie Pohl, and Tanya Wright, the top three finalists of the Dirndl Dress contest, during the 2014 Ybor City Oktoberfest Pub Crawl. Luis Santana/tbt*
Published Oct. 9, 2014

Wendy Carey was almost an hour late, but she was determined to make it to all 20 bars in the annual Ybor Oktoberfest Pub Crawl.

"It's really just the kickoff for us," she explained as she power walked toward Tequila's restaurant and adjusted her drindl dress. She and a friend had attended the crawl last year, as well as the Tarpon Springs Oktoberfest. "We decided to dress up this year because it's a chance to wear costumes not on Halloween and be out and have a good time," said the teacher, 45, of Tampa.

More than 500 people were crawling through Ybor's fifth annual event — possibly a record for organizers and more proof that Tampa Bay loves Oktoberfest.

Wes Miller, executive director for the Ybor Chamber of Commerce, said the local interest that has spawned more than 12 Oktoberfest events is probably twofold. "There's a lot of German ancestry in the area," Miller said. "Right here in Ybor City, there was a sizable German immigrant population because they used to operate the printing press that printed all the box and cigar labels for the cigar factories."

The other factor is simpler still. "People like beer," he laughed.

The German tradition, founded in Munich 181 years ago, is still going strong, becoming a part of popular culture and a point of pride for German expatriates.

Pinellas County's German American Friendship Society split its annual Oktoberfest over three weekends after more than 20 years of trial and error, said Bob Courtney, who has been a member since 2001.

"We used to hold it Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but Sunday became a little too much for our volunteers," he said. Their biggest day so far saw 1,000 people streaming in and out of the club building to see authentic folk dancing and taste real German food.

"I have no idea why there are so many Oktoberfest events around here," Courtney said. "But ours is the most authentic."

Authenticity doesn't make it the largest, though.

That honor may belong to Oktoberfest Tampa — being held this weekend at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park — which managed to bring in more than 10,000 guests over three days last year.

"We saw that there was an event in St. Pete and other cities, but nothing (large) in Tampa," said Nicol Winkler, owner of Goodie Labs, an event promotion company. She and her husband started Tampa's Oktoberfest with the city's blessing and have been adding features annually. The biggest draws are the games, which range from stein races (running an obstacle course without spilling any of the beer in both hands) to grain sack tossing.

Among this year's sponsored prizes are Tampa Bay Lightning tickets and copies of e-game Settlers of Catan.

Individual competition winners who accumulate the most points will be qualified for the new Oktoberfest Olympiad. The eight top-scoring men and women will return at 2 p.m. Sunday to compete in six events, including stein hoisting and a water gun marksman challenge. The winners get a crown and bragging rights.

Last year's big crowd has Winkler hopeful that the event will continue to grow.

"We don't know what our future looks like right now," she said. "But we'll keep going."

Oktoberfest is about celebrating the now, according to Ashley Peters, 28. She came across the state from Melbourne with her husband, Alan, to ring in his 30th birthday at Ybor City's Oktoberfest.

"We came to drink lots of beer," she laughed. "Plus we get to go to all the different bars in the area, and we always wanted to come to an Oktoerfest."

She found the Ybor crawl online and decided to make the trip.

"We aren't driving back tonight," she said.