Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Hop Harvest at Pfeister Pfarms

A quick follow up to last Tuesday’s post about Tim Pfeister’s hop yard in the Town of Algoma. This past weekend, Pfeister, family, and friends – 15 people in all – hand picked the yard clean. The 62 plants harvested took approximately 68 man hours to pick and netted a total of 77 pounds of hops. I can’t confirm this, but that may be the largest harvest of hops in Winnebago County in 125 years. It was an event worth remembering. Here’s a few shots from the Saturday and Sunday harvest.

The hops laid out in panels that form the oast used for drying them.
The oasts loaded with hops being dried.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Hops and the Changing Nature of Beer in Oshkosh

Here’s a sweet little ad from the Oshkosh Brewing Company that appeared in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern on June 25, 1907. It comes with a hefty dose of the brewery’s standard hokum, but hidden amongst the tripe is a nugget of info about hops that’s revealing. If you click the ad it will enlarge, making it an easier read.

Did you catch that part about OBC using hops from the “celebrated Oregon fields”? That’s a telling comment. It’s an indication of the brewery transitioning away from its German roots to make beer that was more in keeping with the emergent style of American lager.

I mentioned in last Monday’s post that many of the German-born brewers who drove the American brewing industry in the 19th century weren’t exactly in love with American hops. They considered them “catty” and coarse. But American-grown hops were often the only hops at their disposal. Brewers made do with them. Locally, that began to change in the 1880s.

The decade brought the collapse of hop farming in Winnebago County, forcing brewers here to look elsewhere for their hops. At the same time, the importation of hops from Germany and Bohemia increased substantially.

Brewers who could afford the pricier continental hops began brewing with a mix of both European and American hops. They would typically use American-grown hops for bittering, driving off much of the hop flavor and aroma during a long boil of the wort. The continental hops were employed as flavor and aroma additions late in the boil, preserving their delicate attributes, giving the beer the “old-world” character brewers were after.

This was certainly the case locally. At OBC, the mix of American and Bohemian hops became standard. But that began to change during the first decade of the 20th century. As late as 1908, OBC was still using Bohemian hops in its beer. By 1910, though, that practice had all but ended. Pricing was certainly a factor in the change, but other forces were at work as well.

German-born immigrants were no longer the largest group of beer consumers in Oshkosh. By 1910, most beer drinker here were American-born and had little, if any, experience with European beer. That same shift was occurring within the brewery.

OBC’s first brewmaster, Lorenz Kuenzl, had been born in Bohemia and had used Bohemian and German beer styles as his template when formulating OBC’s beers. After Kuenzl’s death in 1897, he was replaced by Frank Menzel. Though Menzel had been born in Germany, he had come to America while still a teenager and gained the bulk of his brewing experience using American ingredients.

While Menzel had a foot in both the old and new worlds, he was part of a generation that was more intent on assimilation than in preserving the traditions of their parents. That shift was reflected in the beer Menzel brewed. It was a transition that continued to play out over the coming decade until it was eclipsed by the advent of Prohibition in 1920. Though brewers in Oshkosh would continue to use their German lineage as a selling point, the references were mostly puffery. They now made an American beer increasingly detached from the heritage it had grown out of.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #12: The IPA Challenge

For this episode, we’re joined by Oshkosh Hop Head Mike Engel as we do a blind tasting of three American IPAs currently available in Oshskosh: Toppling Goliath Golden Nugget IPA, Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter IPA, And Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA. We find ourselves somewhat surprised, when the identities of the beers are revealed.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Season at Tim Pfeister’s Hop Yard

Tim Pfeister has spent the summer coaxing his now towering plants up from the earth. He's established a hop yard just west of Oshkosh in the Town of Algoma. It may be the only plot of its kind currently under cultivation in Winnebago County. "I know of nobody else doing this around here," Pfeister says. At the same time, he's reviving a type of agriculture that was once deeply rooted in our area.

During the latter half of the 1800s, hop farms were scattered across Winnebago County. As the local brewing industry grew, more than 130 acres of farm land here were claimed by hop production. At less than an acre, Pfeister's hop yard is small by those standards. His timing, however, is much the same. With local breweries again on the rise, Pfeister's first-year hop yard has come into full flower.

But Pfeister hasn’t taken his inspiration from the past. His project is more akin to the small-batch segment of the modern craft brewing movement. His fractional acre is the agricultural equivalent of a nano-brewery. Unlike artisanal brewing, though, the model for growing hops at this scale has yet to be established. Pfeister is figuring it out as he goes along.

Early May. Plotting the Hop Yard

"I've been stopped out here by a few curious individuals," Pfeister says. "Sometimes they look at me like I'm crazy." The reaction is understandable. This isn't the kind of thing people are used to seeing around here anymore.

What used to be a pumpkin patch is now spiked by nine 20-foot poles. They form the basis for a trellis that stands in three rows strung with 66 hop plants, nearly all of them more than 16 feet high. "Originally, I was going to go 99 plants in three rows," he says. It's probably for the best he didn't. "Sixty-six plants has kept me very busy," Pfeister says.

His project began with a search. "I was all over Craig's list looking for land," he says. The field he eventually located and now rents is a short drive from his home. That proximity would turn out to be important. Pfeister has had to tend to the field on a daily basis.

But first he had to transform the plot into a hop yard. False starts were inevitable. "I wasted $57 renting a post-hole digger," he says. "You start getting into the clay down there and all it does is chatter," he says. "It was a colossal waste of energy and time. My stepson and I came back out here with a clam shell digger. Turns out you can dig a hole pretty fast that way."

They planted each of the nine poles 3.5 feet into the ground. "That was the deepest we could get down," he says. It proved to be deep enough. "We get ridiculous winds out here, but the poles don't sway." With the trellis in place, he added a drip-irrigation system fed from 55-barrel drums filled with water. Lacking an available water source at the site, the metal drums act as a reservoir.

Mid-May. Pfeister with the completed trellis and irrigation system

Meanwhile, he had already started growing three different hop varieties in planters. Pfeister settled on Centennial, Chinook and Cascade hops for his field. Most of the rootstock he acquired from RiteBrew, a mail-order homebrew shop in Little Chute. With the trellis in place, he planted the yard. "I spent a tedious number of hours putting them in the ground," Pfeister says.

That's a theme that comes up again and again when Pfeister talks about his hop yard: the sheer amount of hands-on, time-consuming labor that went into starting it and then sustaining it. "The worst thing for me is that there's only 24 hours in a day," he says. "I work a full time job and after my full time job, this becomes a full-time, part-time job." He also has a wife and family competing for his time. A family that includes a two-month old baby girl. "That kid is so cute," he says. "She gobbles up all my time."

By early summer he had worked out a routine that managed to address all his commitments. A portion of most evenings is spent doing the recurrent work of hop farming. "There's definitely redeeming things to doing this, but there's also a lot of bullshit work," Pfeister says. "It turns into weeds and watering, weeds and watering... and then mowing."

But the bullshit work was paying dividends. By early June the hop yard had taken shape. The plants adapted to the soil quickly. They began rapidly climbing the trellis.

As the season progressed, Pfeister developed a better understanding of what he had gotten into. "Part of the fun about doing it on a large scale like this is that it becomes less about growing hops and more about field management," he says. "It's agriculture at this point. Very small agriculture, but I still have to be more concerned about the overall health of the field rather than the health of any one individual plant."

A good portion of that management has come down to keeping the soil hydrated through an unusually dry summer. It was a problem compounded by the fact that Pfeister had to haul water from his house to the field. He came up with a novel solution. He fills a 55 gallon drum with water at his home. "It costs me 27 cents a fill." Then transports the water in his mini-van to the hop yard. There he transfers the water to his irrigation drums using a pump powered by his car's battery.

"This part is hugely boring," Pfeister admits. But it works. He gets about an hour's worth of watering from each fill. "During the really dry spells I'll run them a half an hour a night," he says. "I'd love to run them in the mornings and at night, but I'm not a morning person. They get their water at night."

And then came the pests. "My biggest enemy has been caterpillars," he says. "They do a lot of leaf damage that the plants just can't sustain. I had to spray them. I use organic practices when and where I can, but the long and short of it is that when you've got pests that are destroying your yard, you don't have much choice."

Mid-June. A hop leaf damaged by caterpillars.

By the first week of July, it was already becoming clear that the season was going to be far more productive than Pfeister had anticipated. Many of the plants had crested the trellis. The flowers that would become cones were sprouting and in abundance.

"This year wasn't supposed to be about the harvest," he says. "It was supposed to be about root establishment. That I'm going to get this big harvest is just a bonus.” Large cones now hang heavy from the bines. They signal the end of the growing season. With that comes a new set of unknowns.

"I'm a little intimidated by harvest time," Pfeister says. "They say it takes one man an hour to harvest one established plant. It will be a very inexperienced process, so we're looking at quite a few man hours out here." After the hops have been picked, they'll need to be dried. Pfeister is building an oast – a kiln for drying hops – to accomplish that. Again, he's venturing into new territory. "I don't know, yet, what to anticipate for volume so that's got me a little nervous."

Pfeister sampling the fruit of his labor.

If he can navigate the harvest successfully, Pfeister will have arrived at another question he didn't anticipate having to answer this year: what to do with all these hops?

"I'd like to send some out for analysis," he says. "That way I can go to a brewer and show them just what I have. Either way, I want to have the analytics done, so that I have some accurate numbers to work from. Unless out of the blue somebody says I want to buy your hops, the odds are I'll be giving them away. Or putting them in my own brews."

After spending time with Pfeister in his hop yard and seeing all that he's done to get to this point, I wanted to know if in hindsight he would have done things differently. Would he have even attempted this? "You mean If I had it all to do over again and I didn't have to worry about my wife yelling at me?" He says laughing. Then he quickly says, yes, he would.

"I'm glad I did exactly what I did here," Pfeister says. "Sometimes, it's a love/hate relationship, but I'm having a lot of fun with it. But it's something I'm doing in the anticipation of greater results. My big thing is, one way or another I belong in this (brewing) industry. I just haven't found my corner yet, my niche. In the meantime, I'm bored and I like growing hops. When the work is done, this is my zen garden. I get to come out here and walk down between these rows of hops. There's nothing else like that."

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Winnebago County Hops Farms of 1870

To travel through Winnebago County at this time of year in 1870 would have been wonderful. Nearly everywhere you went you would have encountered towering poles draped with thick vines sending out broad, green leaves and plump hop cones.

Hop farms were omnipresent here. By the end of the 1860s, Winnebago County was the fourth largest producer of hops in the State of Wisconsin, which was then growing 20 percent of the nation’s hops. During the peak years of the 1860s and 1870s, nearly 140 acres of land in Winnebago County was given over to the cultivation of hops, with an acre producing more than 1,000 pounds of hops on average.

The map below illustrates the extent of hop farming in Winnebago County in 1870. This is adapted from a map compiled from United States Census of Agriculture data and published in The Wisconsin Geographer. Each large green dot represents 10,000 pounds of hop production (approximately 180,000 pounds in total).

Though commercial hop farming was conducted throughout much of Wisconsin, the majority of it was based in the south-central portion of the state. Sauk County was the epicenter. Winnebago County represented something of an outlier. In comparison to Winnebago, hop farming in neighboring counties ranged from limited to almost non-existent. The hop boom here was partly the result of the unique mix of settlers who began arriving to the area in the 1840s.

Yankee settlers such as Silas Allen and John Braley migrated from the hop growing regions of the east and began seeding a hop culture in Winnebago County soon after their arrival. Coupled with the arrival of the Yankees was a torrent of German immigrants. They brought their beer culture with them and immediately began establishing breweries.

By 1870, there were 10 breweries operating within Winnebago County alone and that many again making beer in neighboring counties. With breweries of this period using approximately 1.5-2 pounds of hops per barrel of beer, hops were in high demand locally (for comparison, most modern craft breweries use about 1.2 pounds of hops per barrel. Macro brewers average 0.2 pounds per barrel).

Some of the larger breweries in the area were capable of consuming nearly 3,000 pounds of hops annually. And what wasn't used locally was sent to Oshkosh for distribution. One New York hop buyer took up residence in the city. Meanwhile some local businesses found it profitable to play supporting roles in the growing hop trade.

An ad from the 1868 Oshkosh City Directory for plow maker James H. Ward. Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1811, the Yankee transplant arrived in Oshkosh in 1852 where he made implements for hop farmers.

The predominant type of hop grown here was almost surely cluster. With its mixed heritage of European and native wild strains, cluster is as near to an indigenous hop that is grown commercially in America. German-born brewers, however, tended not to favor the hop. Acclimated to the gentle aromatics and flavors of European hops, they often described the more aggressive American hops as "catty" and coarse. 
Despite their apparent misgivings, brewers here used cluster prodigiously. They had little choice. Importation of German hops was sporadic at best prior to the 1880s. Even if they'd had other options, the bounty of locally grown hops would have likely proved irresistible.

But the bounty was short lived. The decline in hop farming here occurred rapidly. After the the great harvests of 1867 and 1868, hop prices fell sharply. In the latter half of the 1870s, farmers here began digging up their hop yards to put their land to more lucrative use. In 1876, there were 138 acres of land devoted to growing hops in Winnebago County. By 1880, that had been reduced just 33 acres. At the close of the 1880s commercial hop farming in Winnebago County reached its end.

There's little that remains of the hop growing boom that occurred here more than a century ago. But among the scarce remnants are the cluster hops that grow wild in some areas where hop farms once resided. At this time of year, they're reaching their annual maturity. They are a perennial reminder of what once was in Winnebago County.
Cluster hops cultivated from rootstock found at the location of a former hop yard in Winnebago County.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #11: What's Doing at Dublin's

This week Adam and I are back on the road. We stop in at Dublin’s Irish Pub in Oshkosh to meet up with Ian, Jon, Logan and Zach of Dublin’s and drink Increase Wheat, a Berliner weissbier from Milwaukee Brewing Company. 

There’s some good stuff coming up at Dublin’s. Among the things we talk about is their upcoming beer dinner on Wednesday, August 26 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $30 and are available at the pub. Below the video, is the menu. On with the show...

Here’s the full menu for the beer dinner featuring the beers of Milwaukee Brewing Company.

Course 1
Increase Wheat Berliner Weissbier paired with shrimp and caper rangoons with cranberry sweet and Sour Sauce.

Course 2
Louie's Demise Amber Ale paired with mussels and chorizo sausage with a tomato braise.

Course 3
O-Gii Imperial Wit paired with cilantro chili pepper chicken pinwheel served over couscous.

Course 4
Hop Freak Imperial IPA paired with wasabi brined agave BBQ ribs with wild mushroom risotto croquettes.

Course 5
Snake Oil Stout paired with banana cream filled doughnuts topped with chocolate ganache.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On Tap for Tonight: Gardina's Beer Bar Volume 21.

Tonight – as in the evening of Tuesday, August 18 – Gardina's in Oshkosh will crack open another cask of rare beer. This time it's a firkin of Happy Summer IPA from Sheboygan's 3 Sheeps Brewing Co.

Happy Summer starts with a base of Amarillio, citra, and mosaic hops. The brewers at 3 Sheeps then dry-hopped this particular cask with another coveted dose of citra. Sounds juicy. At 7% ABV and 70+ IBUs, it's an IPA that's big where it ought to be.

In addition to the cask beer, Gardina's will have three additional 3 Sheeps brews on tap: Rebel Kent the First Belgian-style Amber Ale, Really Cool Waterslides IPA with gin-soaked white birch barrel staves and dry hop additions, and Paid Time Off Imperial Black Wheat Ale with cocoa nibs, coconut and walnuts. For $10, you can try a flight of all four 3 Sheeps beers.

And as they've been doing lately at these tastings, Gardina's will offer a separate, four-course dinner to pair with the 3 Sheeps lineup of beers. Come hungry.

It all starts at 6 p.m. with James Owen of 3 Sheeps on hand to answer your questions about the beer and the brewery. See you there!

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Beer Trucks of Oshkosh

Last Monday we took a look at the horse drawn wagons that used to roll through Oshkosh toting beer around the city. Today, let’s see what replaced all those beasts of burden and the wagons they pulled.

Motor vehicles began being used by breweries in Oshkosh in the decade prior to the start of national Prohibition in 1920. By 1911, both the Oshkosh Brewing Company and Rahr Brewing were hauling at least some of their beer around with trucks. When Peoples Brewing opened in 1913, the brewery delivered its beer by horse and wagon, but eventually transitioned to trucks.

The first picture here illustrates the gradual changeover from horse power to motor power. This photo was taken circa 1915 in front of the Oshkosh Brewing Company on Doty St. Notice the mix of both horse drawn wagons and motor trucks.

Here’s another truck with OBC beer. This appears to be from the 1930s. Those are some nice, wooden barrels. Like the horses, those wooden barrels wouldn’t be around much longer, either.

The next couple of pictures shows beer trucks in front of the Rahr Brewing Company on Rahr Ave. I’m guessing these were taken sometime during the mid-to-late 1940s.

This one shows Carl Rahr, president of Rahr Brewing, and his sister Blanche Rahr, the brewery’s secretary and treasurer.

Next up, a trio of trucks from Peoples Brewing Company. These pictures were taken at the brewery on South Main St. sometime during the late 1940s/early 1950s.

Here’s a good look at an OBC truck from the same period. As the brewery grew, its trucks also became larger.
And here’s the OBC fleet parked outside the brewery circa 1950.

A 1960s truck from Peoples. The brewery’s delivery trucks were serviced by Nick Hubertus at Nick’s Standard Station across the street from the brewery. His son John Hubertus says “My very first job was washing the Peoples trucks on Saturday mornings. There were eight or ten of them and at one dollar a truck that wasn’t bad for a ten-year-old kid.”

A 1960s OBC truck. This one is looking the worse for wear. The brewery was also in decline.

A couple of novelty trucks from OBC. These pictures are from the 1960s. This first shows “Old Hank.” David Uihlein, the president of OBC, was a collector of vintage vehicles. Uihlein used this Model A Ford truck that he found in a junkyard and restored. The truck was used for local deliveries and promotions.

OBC gave away this truck as a prize to the winner of a sturgeon spearing competition the brewery sponsored in 1964.

OBC, Peoples and Rahr have all bit the dust, but we still have beer trucks hauling Oshkosh-brewed beer. Here’s a picture taken last week of the Fox River Brewing Company’s truck.

We’ll end on an historical note. Last Friday, August 14, Bare Bones Brewery loaded its first batch of beer for distribution onto a van owned by Oshkosh’s Lee Beverage. I can tell you from experience, the beer going into that van is a hell of a lot better than the beer that comes from the bottle you see on the side of the van.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Get in on the Ground Floor with Fifth Ward Brewing Company

Zach Clark (Left) and Ian Wenger
Back in April, I wrote about Ian Wenger and Zach Clark and their plan to launch a new brewery in Oshkosh named Fifth Ward Brewing Company. Since then, the two have made significant progress.

At this point, Clark and Wenger have secured 95% of the funding needed to get Fifth Ward up and running. They’re now in the last phase of raising the capital they need and are seeking investors. Here’s an opportunity to play an important role in the start of a new brewery in Oshkosh.

I’ll let Clark and Wenger take it from here. Below is their outline describing where they currently are in the process of getting Fifth Ward Brewing started and what’s coming next.

Seeking Enthusiastic Investors for an Exciting New Startup

Fifth Ward Brewing Company is a small craft brewery start up based in Oshkosh, WI. We are looking to secure our final stretch of funding before we begin breaking ground.

Three years ago, two energetic college friends with a passion for craft beer started brewing in the basement of a house just off the UWO campus. Soon enough this hobby turned into obsession and Fifth Ward Brewing Company was born.

A confident team of investors, mentors, business professionals and motivated young individuals, we are looking to add the last key person/people to our team.

We have nearly brought this dream forward into reality. Working closely with the Small Business Development Center and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, we have made the business connections and received the guidance that will be crucial to our success. We have worked with, and received mentorship from brewery owners and head brewers from around the state, giving us confidence that we have the skills and know how to succeed in producing and marketing great beer. A shared background in different aspects of the craft beer as well as the hospitality industry allows us to feel confident we have what it takes to compete and succeed in the booming craft beer industry.

Thus far, we have...

  • Secured 95% of all funding needed through private investors and bank financing
  • Building location chosen, offer to purchase accepted, and building plans drawn up
  • Equipment manufacturers on stand by with our specific order
  • Core Line-up of beers developed (product available for sample), as well as many specialty beer recipes developed
  • A “Can’t Fail” attitude towards a daunting and richly rewarding project

We are looking for...

  • Wisconsin state resident
  • An open-minded and driven individual
  • Someone with a passion for all things craft beer and the communal, brotherly culture that surrounds it
  • Someone looking to be a part of a company with a focus on community outreach and involvement
  • Willing and able to invest $7,500 or more

If this sounds like you, we would love to hear from you!

We can be reached at:
Ian: 920-574-4604
Zach: 920-410-8090

Please send us an email or give us a call if you would like more information. We would love to set up a phone call, or preferably a personal meeting to discuss a potential opportunity. We are willing to travel. Full business plan including financial and growth projections, branding description and strategy, and marketing plan, completed and available upon meeting.

Serious inquiries only please.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #10: A Tale of Two IPAs

This week, Adam and I are drinking a couple of IPAs that illustrate the development of the style. First, we crack open a bottle of Tom, a new-style American IPA brewed at Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery. Then we go back in time with Ballantine India Pale Ale, an interpretation of what the style was like when it was being brewed in America in the 1870s.