Sunday, August 13, 2017

A City of Breweries

On Friday, August 4, HighHolder Brewing Company brewed its inaugural batch of beer. It was the first time since 1972 that beer has been made on the south side of Oshkosh by a commercial brewery

The first batch. Shawn O'Marro (left) and Mike Schlosser of HighHolder Brewing.

HighHolder joins a lineage of south side brewers going back more than 150 years. To get at what that means, you have to begin with the river.

The Fox River splits Oshkosh in two. It forms the border between the north side and south side. That division has sometimes been more than just a geographical feature. The river once delineated the segregation of separate cultures.

In the early years, the north side of Oshkosh was referred to as Athens. The south side was called Brooklyn. The north side was initially the province of the Yankee settlers who founded Oshkosh. The south side became the locus of European immigrants, primarily Germans and Bohemians.


Each side of town had its own heritage. And its own breweries. How those breweries developed was representative of the contrast and eventual blending of the north side and south side cultures. It began before Oshkosh had even incorporated into a city.

In the summer of 1849, the Oshkosh True Democrat newspaper was peppered with beer ads reflecting the dominant Yankee influence. The north side Yankees favored English-style ales. It was a taste they brought with them from the east. In Oshkosh, the Yankees drank Detroit Ale and London Porter. Both were common here. But that was about to change.

Brewing on the North Side
The first brewery established in Oshkosh was on the north side. It was launched by Jacob Konrad. In July 1849, he began building a brewery on the east side of Lake Street just south of Ceape Ave. Konrad established what came to be known as the Lake Brewery.

1858 map showing location of the Lake Brewery on Lake St. just south of Ceape Ave.

Jacob Konrad was born in Germany. He was trained as a brewer there. Since Konrad didn’t advertise his product, nothing definitive is known about the beer he was making. Considering his background, though, he was almost certainly brewing German-style beers. His impact was immediate.

By the summer of 1850, German-style beers were as common in Oshkosh as the English-style ales that had first been prevalent here. Throughout this period, the north side was the brewing hub. Between 1849 and 1865, five more breweries were launched north of the river. All of them were initiated by German immigrants.

The German-style lagers that flowed from those breweries washed away the ales and porters. Lager beer saloons sprung up along Ferry (now N. Main St.) and Kansas (now S. Main St.) streets. The two sides of town had their differences, but they came to share a taste for German-style beer.

The Rise of the South Side
The first production brewery on the south side was started by Leonhardt Schwalm in 1865. In 1865 Schwalm purchased land on the east side of Doty St. just south of W. 16th Ave. Schwalm partnered with his brother-in-law August Horn. Together, they launched Horn & Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery.

The original Horn & Schwalm Brewery.

In 1867, Franz Wahle, another German immigrant, built the second south side brewery. It was on land now occupied by Glatz Park. In 1869, Wahle sold his brewery to John Glatz and Christian Elser. They named it the Union Brewery.

The Union Brewery
The two south side breweries differed from their north side counterparts. The north side breweries tended to be neighborhood based. Often, their beer was sold directly from the brewery to people living nearby. Brewery tap rooms were common on the north side.

The south side breweries took a more ambitious approach. Their model was to sell beer to saloons. Oshkosh’s saloon culture was just beginning to take hold. The city directory of 1866 lists six saloons. The 1876 directory lists 20. Each year that number grew. With it grew the fortunes of the south side breweries.

By the late 1870s, Oshkosh’s south side breweries were the largest producers of beer in the city.

South Side Dominance
By 1889, just two breweries remained north of the river. In 1893, one of those breweries – Kuenzl’s Gambrinus brewery – merged with the two south side breweries to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. With that, Rahr Brewing Company became the north side’s lone brewery. The others had failed.

The south side juggernaut continued. In 1912, the Oshkosh Brewing Company built a large brewery on Doty St. In 1913, Peoples Brewing Company opened on South Main St. Collectively the south side breweries were capable of producing well over 100,000 barrels annually.

After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, Oshkosh's breweries picked up where they had left off. The south side breweries continued their rise. But on the north side, Rahr Brewing struggled. In 1953, Rahr Brewing closed. For the first time in more than 100 years, the north side was without a brewery.

By the late 1950s, the combined production of Oshkosh’s south side breweries was near 90,000 barrels of beer annually. In terms of sheer output, the south side breweries were at their peak. It had taken 90 years to reach that point. It was undone in a decade.

The Fall and Rise
There was no single reason behind the collapse of Oshkosh’s south side breweries. There were many reasons. Predatory pricing by larger breweries. Loss of focus on the local mark. Mismanagement. The Oshkosh Brewing Company crashed in 1971. Peoples Brewing failed in 1972.

When it came to beer, 1973 was a bleak year here. Oshkosh was without an active brewery for the first time since 1849. There seemed little chance that would change. The city was awash in cheap, industrial lager.

An ad for Ray’s Beverage Oshkosh, 1117 W. New York Ave. September 1973.

Much of that beer wasn’t very good. All of it came from somewhere else. And so it remained for the next 22 years. Then, as if history were repeating itself, brewing returned to Oshkosh.

Fox River Brewing Company
When Fox River Brewing Company launched in 1995, it had more in common with its north side counterparts of the 1850s than it did with the south side breweries that came to dominate Oshkosh.

Like the early north side breweries, Fox River relies heavily upon on-premise sales. The beer is produced in small batches. Traditional, all-malt beers are the norm. The model may be an old one, but it’s driving the brewing renaissance taking place here today.

Bare Bones Brewery.

When Bare Bones opened in 2015, the north side gained its second brewery. Its approach also more closely aligns with that of Oshkosh's early breweries.

Now with HighHolder up and running, the south side is back in the mix.

Fifth Ward Brewing Company will be the next brewery to open in Oshkosh. Fifth Ward will be located on the south side, but takes its name from a north side brewery that opened in 1857. That’s as fitting as it is ironic. We’re coming full circle.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Granary Brewpub

The Granary Brewpub is on pace to open in Oshkosh this October at 50 W. Sixth Ave. Here’s what we can expect at The Granary when it comes to beer.

The Granary will launch with 30 beers on tap. “We're going to do it differently from a lot of people,” says Dave Toman, a partner in the new venture. “We're going to do all Wisconsin beers. We're not doing anything from out of state. And we're going to bring in some of these smaller breweries that self-distribute, like Lion's Tail (Neenah),  Knuth (Ripon), and Lazy Monk (Eau Claire).”

As more Oshkosh breweries come on line, Toman expects to also include their beers in The Granary line-up.

As for the brewing side of the brewpub, Toman says an in-house brewery will not be part of the initial launch.

“We'll be applying for a brewpub license, but making it all happen could be a year or more down the road,” he says. “If it comes to pass, it’ll be a smaller system. We wouldn’t distribute the beer. It would just be for the brewpub.”

Toman’s partners in the business are Todd Ceman, Jeff Conger, and Chet Wesenberg. Toman and Ceman currently operate Dublin’s Irish Pub in Oshkosh and West Bend. “We want to create a comfortable, local pub kind of environment,” Toman says. “We want everybody to feel comfortable coming in there.”

The interior will have a familiar feel to those who remember the original Granary, which closed in 2004. “It won't look exactly the same,” Toman says, “but the structure is going to be pretty close.” Much of the woodwork and back bar is being preserved, he says.

The dining side will feature tapas, wood-fired pizza, and pub-style comfort food, Toman says. “We should have something for everyone.”

Built in 1883, the former flouring mill, was designated as an Oshkosh Local Landmark in 2015.

The outdoor seating plan.

Follow The Granary Brewpub’s Facebook page for updates.

Monday, August 7, 2017

When Carrie Nation Smashed into Oshkosh

A regressive movement needs its geek. Prohibitionists had Carrie Nation.

Carrie Amelia Nation
Born in 1846, Nation was strong, six-foot tall, and often unhinged. When she turned violent she grew famous. Her act was to smash saloons. It began in 1900 in Kiowa, Kansas. She said God told her to go there and throw bricks at taverns. So she did.

Nation moved on. She attacked saloons in Wichita and Topeka. The press loved it. She refined her game. She began using a hatchet. Her tool of choice came to symbolize her one-woman war against saloons and alcohol.

A Carrie Nation Souvenir Hatchet
By 1901, Carrie Nation was known nationwide.  She took her act on the road. It was inevitable she'd hit Oshkosh. She was said to have grumbled it was the wickedest city in the State of Wisconsin, if not the entire Northwest. She'd never been to Oshkosh. She'd heard stories, though.

Oshkosh came to Nation's attention early on. In 1901, she'd met James G. Clark, vice president of what is now Oshkosh B’Gosh. Clark was visiting Kansas. At the time, Nation was being held in a Topeka jail for running amok in saloons there. Clark went to see her.

"I was permitted to do my talking through the iron bars of her cell. She asked me about Oshkosh, and I told her that it was a beautiful city… and that it is true that we have saloons, both good and bad ones... I told her the rumors that she had heard about ladies dancing on hotel tables in Oshkosh must have originated in the fertile brain of an outsider... I told her there are some of our saloons that are disreputable places and had brought disgrace on the fair name of our beautiful city."
   – James G. Clark, Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; March 16, 1901

Carrie Nation praying in her Topeka jail cell.

A year later, Nation paid a visit to the “wicked” and “beautiful” city of Oshkosh.

In the summer of 1902, Carrie Nation came barnstorming Wisconsin. Oshkosh was on her list. Her sojourn here was arranged by E.E. Downs, manager of the Winnebago Traction Co. He paid her $50 a day to spend a Saturday and Sunday – July 19 and 20 – in Oshkosh. Downs acted as her booker. He scheduled two speaking events for her in parks owned by the Traction Company. Nation would give her spiel, meet the locals, and make some cash selling her trinket hatchets.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 15, 1902

As the date approached, anticipation grew. "The saloon smasher of Kansas is coming to Oshkosh," the Daily Northwestern bellowed. "This may cause the some odd-127 saloon proprietors of this city to lock up their places and take to the tall timber." Carrie Nation was on her way.

She limbered up for Oshkosh by throwing a tantrum in Fond du Lac. There, she frothed rabid about Wisconsin drowning in beer. "Every German in Wisconsin should be blown up with dynamite," she raged.

Nation marched down Fond du Lac's Main Street hissing at saloon men and their patrons. At the E. J. Schmidt saloon, she produced a hatchet and smashed a bottle of whiskey. It was all show. Schmidt grabbed her axe and threw her out. Next morning, she headed north by rail.

Commemorative sign at Main and Division in Fond du Lac.

Carrie Nation arrived in Oshkosh on a rain-soaked Saturday; July 19, 1902. She checked in at the Athearn Hotel as "Carrie Nation, the Home Defender."

Nation took a room on the second floor. She was preparing for a nap when a reporter from the Northwestern came knocking. She immediately put him at ease. "Her smile was enough to reassure him if he had any misgivings as to her temper.” But it was all downhill from there.

"I wish I could find a hotel here with no bar in it," she groused. "There are none here? That is what I expected. You have a very beautiful city here. I understand, though, that it is a very bad, wicked city."

It rained all morning. The weather kept Nation confined to her room. By noon her mood had cratered. In the Athearn dining room she went ballistic when a waiter handed her a menu that included a wine list.

"This aroused her wrath and in loud tones she gave an argument in favor of prohibition and said it was a shame and a disgrace that hotels sanctioned the serving of liquors in the dining room or anywhere else... She said it was ruining the girl waiters, making bartenders out of them. She 'roasted' a group of men for ordering liquor served with their meal."
   – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 21, 1902

While the staff scrambled, she barked at a group of men drinking beer at a nearby table. Finally, someone found a menu without a wine list on it. Nation momentarily quieted.

After eating, she spewed more insult. Nation railed at a young lady working the Athearn's cigar case. She said it was "A shame that a handsome girl should hand out cigars to vile smokers." She accused the girl of  "Helping to wreck the lives of the men."

She abused a bartender then turned to a clerk demanding to know if he was a Christian. The clerk wasn't intimidated. He smiled at her and said he thought he was. Nation stormed out.

It kept raining. Her first public appearance was scheduled for 4:30 p.m. at Sub-Station Park (at the intersection of County Rd. JJ and Breezewood Lane). But the weather was too harsh for it. The event was hastily relocated to Armory B Hall at the northeast corner of Merritt and Jefferson streets.

Armory B Hall
The crowd was smaller than E.E. Downs and the Traction Company hoped for. Rev. Edward H. Smith of the First Congregational Church introduced her. Nation took the stage at 8 p.m. She wasn't there to make friends.

"These brewers are nearly all Germans," she roared at a city heavily populated with German immigrants. "They come over here and are drugging the American people. Tonight this city is a place of crime, of murder. Even your hotels trap men and murder them with the drink they furnish."

She pulled out the Athearn menu that had set her off earlier in the day. She recited its wine list and the names of the different beers offered.

A 1902 ad for the Athearn Hotel, including its beer list.

It was a floundering mess of a speech. The Daily Northwestern remarked, "She is not a literary woman and her lectures are more or less rambling and disjointed."

Sunday was supposed to be better.

Nation was scheduled to appear at Electric Park in the afternoon and evening. Until then, she had time to kill in Oshkosh.

Around noon, her anger flared again. From the steps of the Athearn she could see Oshkosh paid no heed to Sunday closing laws. Saloons were running wide open. Nation had been threatening to go "slumming" since coming to town. It was time she hit the pavement.

From the front door of the Athearn she could see the Opera Buffet, a saloon run by William Bedward. Nation made a beeline across Opera House Square.

Opera House Square – later known as Monument Square – with Bedward's saloon indicated.
For Carrie Nation’s purposes, the ideal saloon was a hellish dive roiling with immigrant drunks slurring in their native tongue. Bedward's place was the antithesis of that.

William Bedward was born in Wales in 1852. He was in his early 20s when he reached Oshkosh. He worked as a railroad brakeman before going into the saloon business about 1899. The saloon Bedward ran on Opera House Square was anything but a dive. It was well appointed. He catered to the downtown clientele and business travelers.

Inside Bedward's Opera Buffet Saloon.
Carrie Nation was fuming as she advanced over Opera House Square. The Bedward place was in her sights. Nation later admitted she "had a mind to smash the place." She barged through doors and broke into a temperance rant. Bedward would have none of it.

As his patrons looked on, Bedward took Nation by the arm and led her back out the door. He told her he never allowed women in his saloon. And that she was no exception.

Nation turned tail. She headed north and up High Ave. This was more her style. The saloons and hotel bars along lower High were the sort of places Nation made a career out of railing against. Among them was the William Koch saloon across from the Grand Opera House. Koch had long been a sponsor of alcoholic mayhem. Serving minors was among his specialties.

But Carrie Nation couldn't make a go of it strolling on High Ave.  She stopped to harangue saloon keepers along the way, but each time was rebuffed. They told her to keep moving. None would let her inside. Worse yet, they seemed to view her with amusement.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 21, 1902.

Any remaining illusions Nation may have had about her standing in Oshkosh were finally shattered when she ran into a beer peddler. Seeing a beer delivery on the Sabbath triggered her. Nation lit into the man, spitting that he was a fool. The beer man gave it right back. “Well, you are a damned fool,” he shouted at her.  “And everybody knows it.”

Nation's High Ave. campaign ended near the corner of Jackson St. at the home Rev. James O'Malley of St. Peter's Church. At the time, O'Malley was the leading light of Oshkosh's beleaguered temperance movement.

James O'Malley
The conversation Carrie Nation had with James O'Malley went unreported. And O'Malley’s opinion of the Kansas Saloon Smasher remained his own. At least publicly. Others in the local anti-liquor brigade were not so reserved.

"The sentiment of most of them is probably contained in the remark made by one of the leading ministers of the city, who is an earnest temperance worker. Said he: "No. I did not go out to hear the famous Mrs. Nation. I have no sympathy with her since she allowed herself to become a dime museum freak and is endeavoring to exhibit herself for the money there is in it." 
   – Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 21, 1902

After her visit with O'Malley, Carrie Nation headed back to her room at the Athearn. It began to rain again.

Her afternoon appearance at Electric Park was supposed to be the highlight of her Oshkosh visit. The amusement park just south of the city would be an ideal fit for her routine. "Farmers for miles around are planning to see her," the Northwestern reported. "The crowds that will gather to hear her lecture and get a sight of her will undoubtedly be very large."

Electric Park, later known as White City.

Carrie Nation never made it to Electric Park. The rains proved too severe. Again she was moved to Armory B Hall. The farmers stayed home. The audience was sparse. Oshkosh had heard enough from her.

Newspapers across the country had followed Nation as she made her way to Oshkosh. Expectations ran high. The "wicked city" with the unruly saloons was bound to send her off the deep end. But folks in Oshkosh didn't take the bait. When they weren't laughing at her, they ignored her. Disappointment followed in her wake.

"Carrie Nation didn't draw well In Oshkosh, which indicates two things. First, that more people might have gone to hear her had it not rained, and, second, that Oshkosh people are not so blamed anxious to be humbugged as one might think to look at them."
   – Janesville Gazette; July 29, 1902.

When she left town Monday, the weather improved. The clouds followed her. Her next stop was in Madison. While giving a speech there, the stage she stood on collapsed.

Carrie Nation blundered away and into obscurity. She died in Kansas in 1911. Her obituary in the Northwestern was perfunctory. The paper made no mention of her failed visit to Oshkosh. Did anyone remember?

William Bedward was still behind the bar at the Opera Buffet when Carrie Nation died. And at the Athearn the menu still featured plenty of beer and wine. The saloons and hotel bars on High were still thriving, and the beer peddlers still made Sunday rounds. The Kansas Smasher came and went. She didn’t even leave a dent.

“Faithful to the Cause of Prohibition. She Hath Done What She Could.”

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Here Comes HighHolder Brewing Company

The HighHolder Brewing Company of Oshkosh is set to open. The brewery’s first beers will begin pouring in September. Here’s Mike Schlosser and Shawn O’Marro from HighHolder explaining what Oshkosh’s newest brewery is all about.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Lorenz Kuenzl in Stevens Point

Back when I was working on the Breweries of Oshkosh, I kept digging around trying to figure out what Lorenz Kuenzl was up to before he came to Oshkosh to take over the brewery on Harney Ave. I knew he had been in Stevens Point. I figured he probably worked as a brewer there. But I could never find confirmation of it. Until now...
August Lutz spent several days in Oshkosh last week visiting his old friend Lawrence Kenstzl, who for two years was employed in Andrew Lutz's brewery in this city as head brewer. Mr. Kenstzl now has a brewery of his own in Oshkosh and is doing well.
– Stevens Point Journal; July 26, 1884
The butchered spelling of Kuenzl's name is creative. No wonder I couldn’t find this. Here’s a picture of the Lutz Brewery as it looked when Lorenz Kuenzl was its brewmaster. By the way, the old Lutz Brewery is now the Stevens Point Brewery.

After finding the 1884 article, I did a little more digging. Turns out Kuenzl’s wife, Barbara, was related to the Lutz family. Here’s a picture of Lorenz and Barbara Kuenzl with their children. This would have been taken in Oshkosh in the early 1880s.

The Lorenz Kuenzl link to Stevens Point adds a second, direct connection between the Stevens Point Brewery and brewing in Oshkosh. The other, as I wrote here in June, is that the Point Brewery was launched by Franz Wahle, who later moved to Oshkosh and established what became the Glatz Brewery.

Here’s something else. In 2011, I was on a mission. I asked the same question to dozens of Oshkosh natives old enough to have drunk Chief Oshkosh or Peoples Beer. I’d ask if there was a current beer that reminded them of either of those Oshkosh beers. I got all kinds of answers. Only one response occurred with consistency. Point Special Lager reminded people of Chief Oshkosh.

Let’s follow that thread back. During the early 1870s, Lorenz Kuenzl was the brewmaster for what became the Stevens Point Brewery. Kuenzl moved to Oshkosh in late 1874. He launched the Gambrinus Brewery here in 1875. Kuenzl’s brewery merged with two others in Oshkosh to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Kuenzl became OBC’s first brewmaster. OBC was the maker of Chief Oshkosh Beer.

Kuenzl was dead by the time Chief Oshkosh came out. I can’t help wondering, though, if his influence was still there when Chief was being brewed. He had, after all, laid the groundwork for the brewery’s beers. Is this the original source of the flavor similarity between Chief Oshkosh and Points Special Lager? Rampant speculation, I know. But for me that’s part of the fun of this stuff.

Should you feel moved in the near future to pick up a pack of Point Special Lager, you’ll find it in commemorative packaging. Point is celebrating its 160th anniversary this year. The current Special Lager can is wrapped in artwork used in the early 1900s. That’s when Gustav Kuenzel was running Point Brewery. His name is on the commemorative can.

In addition to their similarly spelled last names, Lorenz Kuenzl and Gustav Kuenzel were both born in Bohemia. Lorenz in 1845. Gustave in 1869. Both also trained as brewers in Bohemia. I’ll bet if you traced their bloodlines back far enough you’d find they merge at some point. Somebody else will have to figure that one out.

Lorenz Kuenzl came to America in 1871. He was in Stevens Point soon after. He moved to Oshkosh in late 1874 and never left. Lorenz Kuenzl died here in 1897.

Gustav Kuenzel took a more circuitous path. He came to America in 1890. He went to Milwaukee, working in breweries there before moving on to Stevens Point. He bought the Point brewery from Andrew Lutz on July 8, 1897.

In 1902, Gustav sold the Point Brewery and bought a brewery in Hastings, Minnesota. He was there until Prohibition. Then he moved to Canada where he could continue making beer. When Prohibition ended, Gustav came back to the states. He ended his career at the Dahlke Brewing Company in Westfield, Wisconsin. He died in 1937. Now that is a life!

Here’s a wonderful picture of Gustav Kuenzel at the Dahlke brewery. You have to love a brewer who drinks from a brass mug. You may notice he’s missing the index finger on his left hand. He lost it in a brewing accident.

The Stevens Point Brewery survived. The Oshkosh breweries didn’t. The Point Brewery never lost its focus on its local market. The last of the Oshkosh breweries – OBC and Peoples – turned from their home market as they strove to increase distribution regionally. It didn't work. In the end, that’s what killed them.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Independent Brewer's Seal

At the end of June, the Brewers Association (BA) introduced the Independent Craft Brewer Seal. The BA's objective is to offer a quick, visual indicator that differentiates independent brewers from international conglomerates such as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, and MillerCoors.

Independent brewers who adopt the logo can apply it to just about anything: bottles, cans, tap handles, websites... We should see it beginning to appear around here later this summer.

If you care about such things, the information is welcome. Non-independents have grown especially crafty in shielding their identity. Look at any label, tap handle, or ad from Goose Island, Golden Road, 10 Barrel, or Elysian and you'll find no indication that they're, in fact, products of Anheuser-Busch InBev. They'd prefer you didn't know.

Both Oshkosh breweries have signed on to use the seal.

At Fox River Brewing Co., they've begun work to put it in place. "We are starting to implement the new Independent Seal on all new beer related material and any updated pieces," says Jay Supple, of Fox River. "We like the new logo, it’s a great representation for independent brewers, plus lets our customers know we are an independent craft brewer."

Bare Bones Brewery owner Dan Dringolli shares that viewpoint. "We're really good with the emblem," Dringolli says. "We're going to use it. Hopefully, a lot of people will. I think it's good to have some way to separate truly independent breweries from those that pretend to be. It's another way to help educate people about what's going on."

For small breweries such as Bare Bones and Fox River, it may be a while before the logo appears on their bottle labels. Label stock for core brands is typically bought well in advance of production. Running through the labels they have on hand may take months.

Lion's Tail Brewing of Neenah doesn't plan to use the logo.  "I don't see a lot of value in this thing," says Alex Wenzel of Lion's Tail. "I don't think it tells my customer anything that they didn't already know."

He has a point. Local drinkers of craft beer are already aware that Winnebago County's breweries are independent. Those who don't know that probably don't care. For larger independents such as New Glarus, the distinction would likely hold more value.

There are a couple of potential pitfalls to this thing. Use of the label is free, but as Wenzel pointed out, the BA is leaving the door open to adding a fee for its use in the future. That would be a mistake and stifle its use. The last thing a small brewer needs is another fee attached to its operation.

An unintended outcome might be the sort of "badge wars" you see among food products claiming to be organic or cruelty-free. There would be nothing stopping AB InBev from creating its own badge to muddle the issue. AB InBev appears intent on creating just this sort of confusion.

And that's reason enough for independent breweries to stake out a position. If ownership weren't important, you'd see the AB InBev, Heineken, MillerCoors and the other conglomerates putting their names on the beers they produce. That they don't, speaks volumes about their intent. They like to keep you in the dark.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Brewers Behaving Badly: The 300-Pound Krall

Now for a dash of local color. Our tale is ripped from the pages of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of Wednesday, January 16, 1878.

Let’s set the stage. We’re visiting Horn & Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery on the east side of Doty St. just south of 16th Ave. At the time, the brewery appeared as you see it below. Here we go...

A police court drama was enacted in Justice Sarau's office yesterday.

C. F. Rogers, a farmer, took a load of barley to Horn's brewery to sell, and got into an altercation with Horn's foreman, a stout, 300-pound German named Krall, who pounced upon Mr. Rogers and pounded him somewhat.

Rogers had Krall arrested, and the latter was fined $2 and costs.

Krall was inconsolable and immediately had Rogers arrested for calling him names.

Rogers in turn was fined $2 and costs, which made the 300-pounder happy, and thus the matter ended.

Sparring outside of the Horn & Schwalm Brewery, 1885.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Fifth Ward Gets its Brewer’s Permit

Things are coming along quickly for Fifth Ward Brewing Company of Oshkosh. Yesterday, the soon-to-be brewery received its Federal Brewer’s Permit. Look for Fifth Ward to open in late October / early November.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Beer By Any Other Name...

Spring, 1966. You grab a bottle of Chief Oshkosh. Out comes the churchkey. You apply it to this…

A year later, the Chief Oshkosh crown looked like this...

The inserted symbolism wasn’t meant to be cryptic. This new cap was about expediency. It was used on four different brands produced by the Oshkosh Brewing Company. We’ll get to that in a moment. First, some necessary background.

In 1966, the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC) went on a buying spree. It scooped up three defunct brands: Badger Brew of Baraboo, Liebrau of Two Rivers, and Rahr’s of Green Bay. Notice how the cap above is a blend of the labels below.

By late 1966, those left-for-dead brews had been revived. They were being produced by OBC in Oshkosh. To make things easier, OBC changed its bottle cap. The same cap could be used for each beer.

What distinguished the beers were their unique labels. Makes sense. Afterall, they were different beers, right? Well, maybe not.

I’ve been going through old brewing logs from OBC. Specifically, the years 1967 and 1968 when these brands were in production in Oshkosh. Looking at the logs, you’d never guess OBC was producing a number of different beers.

The logs show no variation. Aside from OBC’s seasonal beers – Bock and Holiday Brew –  the composition of each beer is identical. The same malts and adjuncts. The same hops. The same yeast. The same ratios. Here’s an example (click to enlarge it).

That’s the brewer's log from February 1967. This was when OBC was filling orders for the brands it had recently acquired. Yet, aside from the four bock beers brewed that month, the 12 other batches are indistinguishable. This log is typical. All of them from the period are like this. It leads me to suspect OBC was brewing one beer and putting four different labels on it.

I can’t say for certain OBC was playing this kind of game. But I also can’t find a shred of evidence from the brewing logs suggesting they weren’t. I suspect this sort of thing may have been occurring at a lot of breweries in the late 1960s.

The industry was contracting rapidly. The brands of belly-up breweries were being scavenged. The G. Heileman Brewery in La Crosse became notorious for collecting labels from the wreckage. Heileman produced beer under a dozen different labels during this time. Almost all were pale lager. There was piddling difference among them. How many would notice if there were no difference at all?

In 1971, the Oshkosh Brewing Company failed. Its brands were acquired by the neighboring Peoples Brewing Company. Peoples brewmaster Howard Ruff told the Daily Northwestern he would match as closely as he could the beers produced by OBC.

Had Ruff seen those brewer’s logs when he said that? His job may have turned out to be easier than he first expected.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

How We Get Our Beer

Monday morning Leoš Frank drove his small van across Wisconsin. It was loaded with beer he made. Frank is the brewmaster and co-owner, with his wife Theresa, of Lazy Monk Brewing in Eau Claire.

He reached Oshkosh a little after 10 a.m. His first stop was Gardina's. He immediately began unloading cases and kegs of beer from his van.

Leoš Frank

It's becoming more common for small, Wisconsin breweries to deliver their own beer. It was once the rule here. That ended with Prohibition.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, new restrictions were put in place. At their core was the three-tier system; a web of regulation intended to create a barrier between breweries and retail outlets.

More than 80 years after its implementation, the three-tier system remains. One outcome has been to stifle the direct contact small brewers once had with their customers. Leoš Frank doesn’t subscribe to that.

In Wisconsin, breweries producing less than 300,000 barrels of beer annually can circumvent the second tier. Frank, who brewed 648 barrels last year, has taken the alternate route. He distributes his own beer. Hence his Monday morning trip across the state.

“I wanted to do it this way because it gives me a connection to my customer,” Frank says. “And I thought this is a better way to represent myself. I might not have as much exposure as with a beer distributor, but this way there's no insulation between me and the customer.”

Frank, who launched Lazy Monk in 2011, has been delivering his beer to Oshkosh for almost two years. His first outlet here was Gardina’s. He’s since expanded to include The Ruby Owl, Oblio’s, and the Lion’s Tail Brewery Tap Room in Neenah. He also takes his beer to La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee, and Waukesha. Still, the majority of his sales come from his brewery's tap room in Eau Claire.

Between the brewery and tap room, Frank struggles to find time to get out on the road. “There are plenty of times that I wish I didn't have to go pick up kegs, but if I didn’t think it was worth it, I wouldn't be doing it,” he says. “I think that it's worth it just because of the personal connection. The beer business is a personal business. Nothing else.”

Others have come to see it that way, too. Currently, four breweries self-distribute in Oshkosh. Black Husky Brewing of Milwaukee has been at it the longest. In the past year, Lion’s Tail Brewing of Neenah and Knuth Brewing of Ripon have also brought their beer to the Oshkosh market.

Of course, money plays a significant role in the decision to self-distribute. Distributors typically take a 25-30% cut on the gross margin. That money stays with a brewery that self-distributes. But that comes at a price.

A significant downside is access to market. Getting beer into larger outlets such as chain grocery stores and gas stations can be next to impossible for a brewery that goes it alone. Frank has had better luck than most. He’s been able to get his beer in Walgreens and Target stores in Eau Claire. But on his terms. “This way I can control the growth,” he says.

For a small brewer that element of control can be critical. Especially when distributors have been quick to fill their portfolios with beers they have little interest in promoting or selling. It’s a way to reduce competition. And a small brewery that finds itself buried at the back of a distributors book has little hope of extricating itself. The law is stacked heavily in favor of distributors.

Wisconsin's beer distributors aren’t taking the self-distribution trend lightly. In June, it was leaked that lobbyists for the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association are working on legislation aimed at making three-tier regulations more rigid. The plan would make it more difficult for a brewery to sell beer directly to its customers. The proposal has been roundly criticized by brewers.

Barring any sudden, reactionary moves by the state legislature, we’ll likely see more breweries going the self-distribution route. Most recently Bare Bones Brewery of Oshkosh began self-distributing its beer in the Green Bay market. And both  Fifth Ward Brewing and HighHolder Brewing plan to self-distribute when they open in Oshkosh in the coming year. Unfortunately, none of them will be rolling through the streets of Oshkosh in the thundering style of their predecessors.