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The canopy of Caras Park became a Bavarian beer hall Sunday, with hundreds of Missoulians getting their fill of bratwurst and beer for the city’s annual Germanfest.

The festival marks the 26th time residents have celebrated their connection with Missoula’s sister city, Neckargemünd, which sits on the banks of the Neckar in southern Germany.

“Food, beer and music: it’s a formula that seems to work,” said Tom Benson, the executive director of Arts Missoula.

Germanfest began in 1993, with a Pledge of Friendship signed between the two cities by their mayors at the time. Since then, nearly 500 Neckargemünd high school students have come to Missoula, while students who call the Garden City home have had a chance to spend several months in its southern Germany counterpart.

The high school exchange program went on hiatus in 2012. Following a recent push from the Global and Cultural Affairs department of Arts Missoula, however, Hellgate High School currently hosts 16 German students. The students will stay for several weeks, and organizers plan on sending students from Missoula to Neckargemünd in June 2020.

“It was great to get the exchange program back, because that was really at the core of why we started this,” said retired University of Montana German professor Jerry Fetz. He operated a booth for the event, giving some a quick visual tour of Neckargemünd through photographs and chatting in German with those away from home.

In between conversations, he stole a sip of Bayern pilsner from a stein.

Fetz began a collaboration with Heidelberg University professor Erich Pohl at the start of the 1990s, trading universities for a year. Following exchanges in choirs and civic leaders, Fetz brought the proposal to the city council to declare the two as sister cities.

“It wasn’t a hard decision at all,” said Daniel Kemmis, who signed the Pledge of Friendship while mayor of Missoula alongside Oskar Schuster of Neckargemünd 26 years ago.

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Richard Thyce, one of four members of the band S-Bahn, wove around the tables that lined the pavilion, accordion in his hands. The Vancouver-based band returned to Missoula for the fifth year in a row to help visitors enjoy the beer, brats and pretzels with polka.

According to Benson, an obvious benefit to the sister-city program can be seen in events like Germanfest. He said being able to dive into a new culture and enjoy its unique flavors, be they culinary or musical, has universal appeal.

“There’s a deeper value, I think though, to having a relationship with a city with a similar infrastructure and population,” he said. “We can share with each other what problems we’ve faced, what’s worked and what hasn’t.”

When asked what he enjoys the most, he said it’s always special to watch Bayern Brewing owner Jürgen Knöller spike open a wooden beer keg with a mallet.

“Even though the beer doesn’t taste any different, there’s just something interesting about getting beer from a wooden keg,” Benson said.

Knöller, a native of Bavaria, took an apprenticeship in brewing while a teenager and became the owner of Bayern Brewing in 1991. Since it began in 1993, Bayern Brewing has supplied the beer for Germanfest.

“We do enough to drive each other apart, so it’s great to hold an event like this when we’re coming together,” he said. “But, I think the beer helps.”

Knöller, who celebrated over 40 years of brewing with his own Oktoberfest at the brewery in Missouala the previous night, said tradition makes for a better brew. While living in Germany, he learned from breweries that date back to Maximilian I in the 1400s. Tradition, he said, and the simple ingredients of yeast, hops and water.

“You won’t catch me dead putting fruit in my beer,” he said.

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