German-Americans compose 19.6% of the population in Illinois, making up the largest ancestry group in the state. Large migrations of German immigrants in the 1800s were instrumental in settling this prairie land, and by 1880, Illinois ranked second in the country as home to German-Americans. According to Drew VandeCreek, director of the Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project, German immigrants were instrumental in carrying our state for President Lincoln in 1860.
In central Illinois, the percentage of residents with German roots is even higher than the state as a whole. According to the Economic Development Council for Central Illinois, more than 30 percent of residents in the Peoria-Pekin metropolitan statistical area reported German ancestry in the last census.
With over 1,200 breweries producing more than 5,000 brands, German beer is an essential part of the culture. In 1516, Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria issued the famous Bavarian Reinheitsgebot (purity requirement), which stated that German beers should contain only barley, hops and water. The oldest food regulation in the world, the Reinheitsgebot remains in effect to this day with only one alteration—the 20th century addition of yeast to the list of acceptable ingredients. To this day, German brewers adhere to this standard and are considered some of the most skilled crafters of high-quality beers in the world.
From September 21 to 23, the sounds of clanking beer steins, the German language and featured music will envelope the riverfront at the 12th annual Peoria Oktoberfest, a joint effort between the Peoria German-American Central Society and the Peoria Park District.
Under a tent the size of a football field, authentic German music, food and drink—along with more Americanized fare—will immerse visitors in the culture. Children’s and carnival-type activities provide interactive diversions, while this year’s addition of a beer garden offers a more relaxing retreat. In the heritage tent, a celebration of German culture—authentic clothing, dancing and other activities—will take place, and those with German ancestry can trace their roots. On Sunday, a Catholic Polka mass and an interfaith service will be held.
Of course, Oktoberfest wouldn’t be the same without the German beer! Peoria’s Baumgarten Distributing Co. provides imports brewed and transported directly from Germany. Spaten Lager and Spaten Oktoberfest offer Bavarian tradition, and Franziskaner Hefe-Weiss (white) and Franziskaner Dunkel-Weiss (dark) are Munich wheat specialties, according to company president Brice Baumgarten. For those with a less hearty beverage appetite, specially imported German wines will be available, in addition to American drafts such as Miller Lite.
Musical entertainment will be a large part of the event as well. On Friday night, “Spanky” McFarlane will perform a mix of gospel, blues, country and rock. In addition to singing for Spanky and Our Gang in the late ‘60s, McFarlane toured with the Mamas and the Papas for over 10 years. On Saturday evening, Shades of Blue, a Blues Brothers tribute band, will take the stage. Several bands of German heritage will also play throughout the festival, including the Heidelberg Quartett of Five from Germany, Die Spitzbuam from St. Louis and Ratskeller Brummers, Peoria’s own German band.
It’s no secret that the Peoria area features a range of activities and establishments that cater to German culture. So with fall approaching and Oktoberfest on our minds, we embarked on a quest for the perfect German beer, sampling a variety of authentic German cuisine along the way.
1 Peoria Hofbrau
A local favorite for more than two decades, the Peoria Hofbrau has built a large, loyal following among area beer aficionados and Germanophiles alike. Located at 2210 NE Jefferson Ave., the Hofbrau is a cozy little neighborhood joint, the kind “where everybody knows your name.” Whether you are a regular or a first-time visitor, the place exudes comfort and familiarity, and you won’t find a friendlier or more knowledgeable staff.
The Hofbrau features one of the more extensive selections of beers in the area, with about 10 on draft, including its signature Hofbrau line and an “Import of the Month.” As for bottles, there are more than 70 kinds from which to choose, including 34 different German brews and imports from all over the world. We washed down a light cheese-and-crackers appetizer with a DAB, their most popular beer, and a Warsteiner Pilsner.
And don’t even get us started on the food! Needless to say, if you’re in the mood for schnitzel or spaetzle, knockwurst or sauerkraut, look no further. Spend a little bit of time here, and you’re certain to come back again and again.
2 Kaiserhof Restaurant
If you’re up for a quick road trip, follow IL-40/Knoxville Ave. for 28 miles north of Peoria to the small village of Bradford. There, at 170 W. Main, you’ll find the Kaiserhof Restaurant, its walls lined with traditional German decor. Open from Wednesday through Sunday, guests travel from all over the Midwest to sample the restaurant’s traditional German fare and cultural ambiance.
Offering a variety of daily specials, many visitors claim that this is the best German food they’ve ever had. Try the Kartoffelpfankuchen (potato pancakes) and the restaurant’s signature Jager Schnitzel, a tender pork loin served with a delicious mushroom and white wine sauce. On Friday and Saturday evenings, an accordion player weaves his way through the dining area, entertaining the crowd.
With six German beers on tap and a variety of German wines and after-dinner liqueurs, the Kaiserhof is yet another essential central Illinois stop for German beer connoisseurs. On our visit, we selected a Dartmunder and Schell Caramel Bock to accompany our potato pancakes and sausage sampler.
3 The Lindenhof
In its modern incarnation, the Peoria German-American Central Society (GACS) has been active in central Illinois since 1927, but its roots date back to the early 1800s. The current home of the GACS is the Lindenhof, a banquet hall located at 7601 N Harker Dr. in north Peoria.
The GACS promotes fellowship and community involvement through its affiliates: Harmonie, an all-male singing group; Sport Verein, which promotes Deutsche Kultur through physical activity; and Damenchor, whose purpose is to promote German music, heritage and traditions. Jim McGill, the current president of the GACS, assured us that, as his surname indicates, you need not have German roots to be a member.
Every Friday evening, you’ll find the Lindenhof hopping with fun and fellowship at the weekly German feast, which is open to the public. A different traditional German entrée, such as wienerschnitzel or schweinsbraten, is served each week, to go along with a full-service bar. When we were there, we enjoyed a Köstritzer (dark) and König Pilsner (light). Soak up the German music while you dine—and you can be sure it will be a feast to remember. a&s