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Wurstfest — Texans' 10-day salute to sausage

A young man plays an accordion at 2006 Wurstfest, an annual event in New Braunfels, Texas, celebrating the town's German heritage.
A young man plays an accordion at 2006 Wurstfest, an annual event in New Braunfels, Texas, celebrating the town's German heritage.
K. Jessie Slaten, Associated Press

NEW BRAUNFELS, Texas — Any old town can have its own Oktoberfest. The beer-stein-hoisting events pop up all over in late September and early October.

But New Braunfels, a Central Texas town with strong ties to its German heritage, waits till a little later in the fall to honor a specific piece of Deutschland tradition: sausage.

The city has been holding "Wurstfest: The 10-day salute to sausage," for the past 46 years, drawing curious, and hungry, visitors from the world over. A large, lush park near a spring-fed river transforms every fall into the international center of Gemutlichkeit — "fun and fellowship, German style."

The fest kicks off with the traditional "biting of the sausage" and always begins on the Friday before the first Monday in November. This year that's Nov. 2.

But why wurst — the German word for sausage?

The town began the event in 1961 to drum up business for local restaurants, markets and sausagemakers and extend the tourist season later into the fall, when Texas weather becomes bearable, even pleasant. Originally the one-day "Sausage Festival," it has evolved into the longer event it is now. Estimates say the fest will get more than 125,000 visitors this go-around. In the past, it's pulled in as many as 200,000.

Set along I-35 between Austin and San Antonio, the city of about 40,000 is growing, but a little effort finds its small-town charm, embodied in part by the friendly attitude promoted by Wurstfest. In the summer, New Braunfels is known as the center for tubing along the Guadalupe River.

And while many of the elements of Wurstfest are similar to an Oktoberfest, some of the traditions are different.

"The biting of the sausage is like Oktoberfest's tapping of the keg," said Wurst Relations director, C. Herb Skoog, who has worked on the celebration since its inception. "We have beer, and we're not ashamed of it, but by the same token we're not a beer fest."

For the uninitiated, the biting of the sausage involves several connected links of the meat. After a German toast, special guests on the main stage take a bite all at once, signaling the beginning of the fun.

Presiding over the entire hoopla is the Grosse Opa, or great-grandfather. He's also referred to as the spassmeister, or "fun master."

The main attraction is the Wursthalle, a cavernous old cottonseed warehouse lined with tables where people eat and drink the delectables they bought at the Marktplatz. It's also one of several places to catch the entertainment, which this year will include bands from both Germany and Austria. Two nearby tents offer additional performances — all German-themed.

"It may not be music you listen to on the radio all the time," said this year's Grosse Opa, Jeff Albrecht. "We have a tremendous amount of talented musicians."

There's also a traditional outdoor biergarten, waltz and polka contests, and a Spasshaus or "fun house," a bar whose windows are lined with thousands of old beer bottles.

And between all the traditional clothing of lederhosen for men and dirndles for women, plus plenty of accordion music, most visitors get a chance to sample different types of wurst. There's bratwurst, of course, but also the lesser-known apple wurst, jalapeno wurst and more.

"You can get it on a stick or in a sandwich or in a pita pocket or in some soup," Albrecht said. "It's prepared in a bunch of different ways."

For the sweet tooth, there are strudel and other German pastries, and for the kids, traditional carnival rides and plans for a Kinderhalle, where youngsters will be treated to magicians and mimes while their parents enjoy the other parts of the fest.

The goal of the event — the crown jewel of New Braunfels' festival schedule, which includes "Wassailfest" in December — is to promote German culture and highlight the city's German past, which dates back to settlers who arrived in the 1840s.

But, said Albrecht, whose distant relative settled in the area in 1845, "you don't have to be German to have fun with it."