“Carpe Brewski.” The bright yellow words on the T-shirt set the theme Saturday for the 14th annual Oktoberfest.
And there were plenty of participants ready to seize the samples of 80 different Maine-made beers and wines offered by 20 brewers and vintners from around the state. By noon, cars were lining the sides of the road in front of the Smugglers Den Campground and the beer tent was crowded. But Bruce Carlson, executive director of the Southwest Harbor-Tremont Chamber of Commerce, which sponsors the event, said the crowds would build throughout the day.
The festival, which also featured a wide variety of foods and crafts, began in 1996 as an end-of-the-year thank you party for employees who had worked in the community all summer, Carlson said.
“It started to grow and by 2000 it had outgrown the local marina and we moved up here,” he said. “It’s grown every year since.”
The first party was attended by just 240 people, Carlson said. Last year, between 3,200 and 3,300 people came to the Oktoberfest.
The festival has become one of the largest in the region and has won accolades in regional and national brew magazines.
“All the brewers told us that if we go to one festival, go to Southwest Harbor,” said David Carlson, the owner of the Marshall Wharf Brewing Co., a 2-year old beer pub in Belfast. “We came last year, and it certainly lived up to expectations.”
One of the nice things about the festival, he said, is that the people who come have a real interest in the beer.
“This is not a frat party,” he said. “The people are genuinely interested in beer and brewing and they take time to talk with us. They like to learn more than just how strong the beer is.”
Kai Adams, owner and brewmaster at Sebago Brewing in Gorham, has been attending the festival since its beginning.
“The people here are awesome,” Adams said. “We enjoy making beer in Maine for Maine people.”
Andy Hazem, who with his son Ben owns Andrew’s Brewing Co. in Lincolnville, also has been a fixture at Oktoberfest since it started. He said the festival is a way to promote his beer in a market where it is sold.
“We tend to go to festivals that can help us,” he said. “We like the exposure and our beer is in the area here.”
The festival attracts locals and visitors alike. Summer residents Ken and Esther Revis-Wagner from Clemson, S.C., flew in for the weekend specifically for the festival.
“We are beer people,” Ken said.
The festival, he said, is the right size that gives visitors a chance to sample a nice variety of the beers.
“The people are friendly here; it’s sort of an all here together thing,” he said. “And there’s a really diverse group of brewers here.’
Debbie and Gary Alley of Southwest Harbor have been coming to the festival for several years.
“There’s good food and entertainment and I like sampling the beverages,” she said. “It’s fun. You meet people you know and you also get to talk to people you don’t know.”
“It’s nice to sample the different ales and stuff,” Gary added.
The couple were finishing lunch outside the food tent and then were headed to the entrance where they volunteered to sell tickets.
According to Bruce Carlson, the festival is more than a celebration. It’s also a boost to the economy at the end of the summer season. Oktoberfest brings people into town, many of whom come to stay for the weekend.
“We’ve been getting calls all week,” he said. “You can’t find lodging here.”
The festival helps all retailers and restaurants, and most say they see an increase in business during the day and in the evening after the festival ends.
“You can’t bring 3,500 people into a small community like this without benefiting everybody in some way or another,” he said.