Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Oshkosh Beer Timeline

I began building the Oshkosh Beer Timeline website in 2011. Years later, I’m still adding content. There's more to come, but I can say without reservation that it’s now the most comprehensive overview of Oshkosh brewing and beer history available in any format. It begins in 1849 and carries forward through 2019, covering 170 years of Oshkosh beer history.

I’ve recently completed another set of updates to the timeline. It now contains more than 200 entries. Most of the timeline events are accompanied by a link leading to a deeper examination of the topic at hand. Have a look. Here’s the Oshkosh Beer Timeline. Prost!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Germans in Wisconsin

This week began a new exhibit at the Oshkosh Public Library titled Neighbors Past and Present: The Wisconsin German Experience. It's an excellent presentation about the Germans who migrated to this region and the enduring influence they have had on communities such as ours. If you're interested in understanding the culture of Oshkosh, this exhibit is essential. It's all on the second floor of the library and free and open to the Public.

Of course, when you're talking about Germans in Wisconsin, beer is going to have to be a part of the discussion. Local breweriana collector Steve Schrage was given a display case to show off part of his substantial collection of memorabilia related to German brewers and beer bottlers in Oshkosh. My picture doesn't begin to do that display justice...

A portion of that display is given over to Oshkosh's independent beer bottlers of the late 1800s. I've written about this crew before HERE and HERE. Like the breweries they worked on behalf of, these bottling operations were run almost exclusively by German immigrants. Some of their bottles now on display at the library are incredibly rare.  It's worth a trip over just to get a look at those. It's probably the only opportunity most of us will ever have to see these items in person.

Neighbors Past and Present will be on display at OPL until February 28. In addition to the displays, the library will host a series of related programs. And OPL has put together a nice set of online resources that add substantially to the experience. I can't recommend this exhibit highly enough for anyone fascinated by how we became what we are.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A History of Beer Prices in Oshkosh

Beer became a staple product in Oshkosh even before the city was chartered in 1853. And its price has been rising ever since. But if you think you’re paying too much for beer today, you should see what those who came before us were paying. We have it pretty good.

A quick note before digging in. You’ll see numerous places where prices are presented like this: $2.75 ($40). The price in brackets is what the cost would be today when adjusted for inflation. Meaning what may have once cost $2.75 would today cost $40. Here we go...

Early Oshkosh
In 1849, Oshkosh's first newspaper appeared. Though the Oshkosh True Democrat backed Wisconsin's emergent temperance movement, the paper was larded with ads for booze and beer. Notices for London Porter and Detroit Ale were common in the pages of the True Democrat. What went missing from those ads was any mention of price. What were people in Oshkosh paying for London-brewed porter in 1849? I doubt we’ll ever know, but I’ll bet it didn’t come cheap.

In the summer of 1849, the Oshkosh True Democrat often contained ads featuring London porter. 

Oshkosh-brewed beer began appearing in the pages of the True Democrat in 1850 after Joseph Scheussler (more often spelled Schussler) and John Freund launched the Oshkosh Brewery on what is now Bay Shore Drive. But Scheussler and Freund also avoided any mention of a specific price in their advertising.

Oshkosh True Democrat, September 6, 1850

The reluctance to advertise beer prices in Oshkosh became ingrained. There are allusions from the early 1860s that a glass of beer in an Oshkosh saloon could be had for a couple of pennies, but nothing definitive is presented. Let's suppose that's accurate and that in 1865 you dropped two pennies on the bar for a schooner of beer. Adjusted for inflation, those two 1865 pennies would be worth about 32 cents today. That's a damned cheap beer.

In Mugs, Growlers, and Glass
Prior to the 1870s, bottled beer in Oshkosh was scarce. But by mid-decade, it was becoming somewhat more common. In 1877, Rahr Brewing in Oshkosh was selling 12-packs of its bottled beer for $1.20 ($29.40). Those would have been quart-sized bottles, so fluid-wise, it was the equivalent of a case of beer. Not a terrible price considering how novel bottled beer was at this point.

About this same time, the nickel ($1.25) mug of beer was on its way to becoming a hallowed tradition in Oshkosh. A 5-cent piece got you a hearty pour. About a pint's worth. That fixed price would come to haunt saloon keepers as the cost of kegged beer began to rise in the 1890s.

The War Revenue Act of 1898 increased the federal tax on beer and drove up the price on a barrel of beer in Oshkosh from $6.40 ($198.33) to $7.40 ($229.32). Even with the added tax it wasn't a bad price. A barrel of beer in most cities during this time averaged around $8.00 ($247.91). Today, a bar in Oshkosh will pay about $110.00 for a half-barrel of Miller Lite and about $150.00 for a half-barrel of Spotted Cow. Keep in mind, those are half barrels, so the actual cost is not all that different.

An 1898 tax stamp for a one-eight barrel of beer.

When keg prices rose, a shorter pour was the only way for a saloon keeper to make up the difference. Of course, the short pour was never popular on the customer's side of the bar. And with well over 100 saloons in Oshkosh, there was always plenty of competition for customers. Most saloon keepers here kept on serving up the large mugs. Here's a picture taken in the early 1900s at John Wawrzinski’s saloon, which used to stand on Oshkosh Avenue. Those hefty mugs are filled with the Oshkosh Brewing Company's lager.

The New Millennium
By the turn of the century, bottled beer had become widely available in Oshkosh. In 1900, the Oshkosh Brewing Company was selling its Gilt Edge Beer for 75 cents ($23) a case. Gilt Edge was the brewery’s premium lager, comparable to something like Coors Banquet, which you can now find in Oshkosh for $14.99 a case. The diminished price of premium lager reflects the diminished reputation of that sort of beer. But in 1900, pale lager was the fashionable thing. It was the hazy IPA of its day, but with a much larger audience.

Early 1900s hipsters drinking Gilt Edge Beer.

If the price of Gilt Edge was too steep for you, OBC offered a budget beer in bottles referred to as "Standard." This was the brewery's basic keg beer diverted into bottles. It sold for 45 cents ($14) a case. Although none of our current breweries produce a low-cost beer, the budget beers that are available here are much cheaper now than they were at the turn of the century. A 30-pack of Hamm’s, for example, regularly sells for less than $12 in Oshkosh.

Beer drinkers in the early 1900s paid dearly when they ventured beyond the realm of the hometown lagers. There were Oshkosh saloons at this point selling bottles of imported Burton Ale and White Label Bass Ale for 25 cents ($7.31). You won’t find either of those around anymore, but a pint of pale ale at an Oshkosh tavern or brewery taproom now goes for $4 or $5.

The cheapest stuff in the early 1900s was bucket beer. Most Oshkosh saloons charged between 5 cents ($1.50) and 10 cents ($3) to fill a half-gallon pail or "growler" with standard, keg lager. Let's compare: A half-gallon growler of something like 842 Pale Ale at Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh costs $10 today. And that's a very fair price compared to what most taprooms are charging for growler fills. It may have been cheaper back then, but keep in mind that you had to carry it out in something that looked like this...

Prices rose with the approach of Prohibition. In 1917, both the Oshkosh Brewing Company and Peoples Brewing were selling cases of their premium brands for $1.50 ($30). Each sold their budget beer at 90 cents ($18) a case. That's substantially more than you'd pay for comparable beers today. Unless, of course, that beer is coming from a craft brewery. In which case, a $30 case would be considered a bargain.

When Prohibition began in 1920, prices climbed fiercely. A bottle of bootleg beer cost 25 cents ($3.75) in an Oshkosh speakeasy. A full case went for $3 ($45). It's basic economics: make it illegal and you'll make somebody a lot of money.

Butch Youngwirth's Speakeasy at 6th and Ohio in Oshkosh, circa 1925.

Beer Can Blues
When Prohibition ended in 1933 prices dipped, but still remained rather high. In 1934, Oshkosh-brewed lagers were selling for $1.90 ($37.59) a case. That's more than double the price of a comparable beer today. Those prices gradually came down as more breweries came back online, but they remained well above the present going rate.

The new canned beers were especially expensive. Beer packaged in cans first hit Oshkosh in 1935 with the arrival of Pabst Export, which sold for $2.75 ($40) a case. At that time, it was the most expensive beer sold here.

The best deals were still when drinking beer poured from a faucet in a tavern. Oshkosh's persistent nickel-beer tradition survived into the early 1940s. A 5-cent beer at the Tip Top on N. Main Street would cost 92 cents in today’s money.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, November 16, 1940.

Prices stagnated and then dropped again in the 1940s after the launch of the Office of Price Administration (OPA). Established as part of a national defense program, the OPA set limits on beer prices. In 1946, for example, the highest legal price for a bottle of Chief Oshkosh or Peoples Beer was set at 10 cents ($1.32). Nationally distributed brands were awarded a higher upper limit. A bottle of Budweiser or Schlitz, for example, could go for as high as 14 cents ($1.85).

The OPA guidelines were arbitrary and worked against smaller breweries. Tavern owners didn’t like it either. In 1943, 26 taverns in Oshkosh were charged with violating established price ceilings. The OPA list shown below is from 1946 and covers most of the beers then sold in Northeast Wisconsin.

By the mid-1950s, such pricing tiers were essentially locked in. Customers came to expect that local beers were cheaper. Though the beer may have been the equal of nationally distributed brands, regional breweries were never again able to price their product on par with those of much larger breweries. The circumstance was especially frustrating for the smaller breweries. Due to economies of scale, it cost them more to produce their beer. Yet they had little choice, but to charge less for it.

Here's a sampling of how that played out in Oshkosh. These are 1954 prices from West End Beverage, which was located just west of the bridge on what is now Oshkosh Avenue.

1954 prices on cases of returnable 12-ounce bottles, deposit not included.
    Berliner Beer, Berlin, Wis.: $2.25 ($21.51)
    Budweiser, St. Louis: $3.95 ($37.77)
    Blatz, Milwaukee: $3.95 ($37.77)
    Chief Oshkosh, Oshkosh: $2.35 ($22.47)
    Gem Beer, Menasha, Wis.: $2.25 ($21.51)
    Golden Glow, Huber Brewing Monroe, Wis: $2.25 ($21.51)
    Knapstein, New London, Wis.: $2.15 ($20.56)
    Miller, Milwaukee: $3.95 ($37.77)
    Old Style, Lacrosse, Wis: $3.39 ($32.41)
    Peoples Beer, Oshkosh: $2.35 ($22.47)
    Rahr's Beer, Oshkosh: $2.35 ($22.47)
    Schlitz, Milwaukee: $3.95 ($37.77)
    Stork Beer, Slinger, Wis.: $1.95 ($18.65)

Even the lowest-priced beer, Stork from Slinger, is fairly high when adjusted for inflation and compared to budget brands selling in Oshkosh today. And check out the adjusted price on Budweiser. Today, you can easily find a case of Budweiser in Oshkosh for well under $20. Blatz? You can get a case of that in Oshkosh for about $13 now.

By the way, that pricing structure helped to kill off most of the small breweries on that list. By the end of 1964, the breweries in Berlin, Menasha, New London, Slinger, along with Rahr in Oshkosh were closed.
GEM from the Walter Bros. Brewing of Menasha, which closed in 1956.

The Beginning of the End
In the 1960s, America's largest breweries used cut-throat pricing to pummel the remaining smaller, regional breweries. Big-brewery budget brands were being sold at the same price point as locally made beers. The list below is from late 1963 and illustrates that point. At Ray's Beverage on New York Avenue, cases of Kingsbury, made by Heileman; Old Milwaukee, brewed by Schlitz, and Gettelman from Miller, were all selling for around $2.54 ($21.35). The same price as Chief Oshkosh and Peoples.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; September 20, 1963.

We all know who won the battle. The brewery’s here couldn’t compete. Near the end, Chief Oshkosh, the brand having been sold to Peoples, was selling for $2.60 ($16) a case. Peoples Beer went for $2.70 ($16.61) a case. Both brands died when Peoples Brewing closed in 1972. And with that, Oshkosh was without a brewery for the first time since 1849. What had happened here had already swept across the state.

By 1974, there were just eight breweries remaining in Wisconsin. It was the lowest count since 1840. Four of those breweries were large: Heileman, Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz. Four were small: Stevens Point Brewing, Huber in Monroe, Leinenkugel in Chippewa Falls, and Walter in Eau Claire. Stevens Point is the only brewery of that group of eight that remains as an independent entity. All the rest were either gobbled up by competitors or snuffed out.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; December 18, 1974.

Crafty Beer
The beer that poured in Oshkosh in the 1970s and 1980s all came from somewhere else. And almost all of it was run-of-the-mill, pale lager. At the high end was Special Export, which in 1980 was selling in Oshkosh for $8.63 ($27) a case. Budweiser went for $7.63 ($23.82) a case. Cases of Pabst sold for $7.54 ($23.54). Miller and Miller Lite were $7.16 ($22.35) a case. At the other end of the spectrum was the lowly Bohemian Club at $4 ($12.50) a case, and the nearly undrinkable Fox Deluxe at $3.92 ($12.25) a case. I know whereof I speak when it comes to Bohemian Club and Fox Deluxe. I sent gallons of each down my neck in the 1980s.

Craft beer wasn’t entirely absent from Oshkosh prior to the 1990s, but it might as well have been. When Chief Oshkosh Red Lager came on the scene in 1991 many here didn’t quite know what to make of it. Jeff Fulbright, who launched Chief Oshkosh Red Lager as the flagship brand of Mid-Coast Brewing, met plenty of resistance. “I went to all the taverns in town,” Fulbright said. “I’d go in and have some old-geezer tavern owner yelling at me ‘I can’t sell that dark shit!’”

C’mon, it wasn't even that dark.

And it wasn’t just the color that shocked people. At $3.99 ($7.53) a six-pack, Chief Oshkosh Red Lager sold for about a dollar more than ultra-premium brands such as Augsburger or Michelob. But it was still cheaper than imported Heineken, Grolsch, or Beck’s Dark, which were priced from $4.75 - $4.99 ($8.97 - $9.42) for a six-pack. Most of the “micro” brews trickling into Oshkosh at that time – Capital’s Garten Brau beers, for example – were priced similarly to the imports. Others, like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, were as high as $6.99 ($13.20) a six-pack. When you adjust for inflation, craft beer in Oshkosh today is, on average, cheaper than what folks here were paying for it in the 1990s.

When Fox River Brewing opened here in 1995, a pint of beer at the brewpub cost $2.50 ($4.22). Adjusted for inflation, that’s 50-75 cents cheaper than most pints offered in Oshkosh brewery taprooms today. The recent price creep we’ve seen in brewery taprooms here is largely made possible by the intensely-hopped, and adjunct-laden high-alcohol beers that breweries feature as specials. Pints of hazy IPA and beers that get into the 8% ABV and above range tend to sell anywhere from $6 to $10 a pint. That said, it’s still possible to get a $4 pint in a brewery taproom in Oshkosh. Those days are probably numbered. There are, however, still plenty of $4 pints of craft beer being sold in local bars that feature craft beer.

The price of craft beer in Oshkosh held fairly steady into the 2000s. As late as 2005 you could still pick up a six-pack of New Glarus' Hop Hearty IPA or Spotted Cow for $5.99 ($7.89). But Sam Adams Boston Lager was up to $6.99 ($9.21) a six-pack. At the same time, the price of big-brewery lager was tanking. In 2005, you could get a case of Budweiser, which for almost a century had been the highest priced domestic premium beer in Oshkosh, for $14.99 ($19.74). Miller Genuine Draft was just slightly cheaper. The big breweries had finally gotten their comeuppance. Their flagship brands are even cheaper today. Those beers aren’t going away anytime soon, but they’ll never again be anything more than second or third-shelf brands.

By 2010, the $4 ($4.72) pint of craft beer was well established in Oshkosh. A basic six-pack of craft beer in a grocery store was selling for about $6.99 ($8.25). Today's prices tend to be higher than that, but not by much. The $5 pint for a non-specialty craft beer is now the norm here. A six-pack of the same can usually be found for $8.49, though $8.99 is becoming more and more common. Sixers from local breweries tend to be around $9.99.

On average, our beer prices are lower now than they have been over most of this city's history. Of course, it doesn’t feel that way. A couple of things contribute to that perception.

First, locally made beer has never been as expensive as it is right now. Part of that has to do with the small size of our breweries. But mostly it's because what they sell is presented and approached as a specialty product that comes with the expectation of a higher price.

Second, there have never been so many different types of beer available here. That variety comes with an array of price points. At the high-end it's quite steep and at the low-end it's incredibly cheap. You’ll pay a premium to explore the outré fringe of that diversity. That’s been the case in every era, but even more so now.

The full gamut has never before presented such extremes. Enjoy it while you can. Because most likely it will not last.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Beer Cranks in Oshkosh

Here we have an ad from June 5, 1940 that appeared in the Rhinelander Daily News. Notice the part about the beer “cranks” in Oshkosh. I especially like this part: “Folks down in Oshkosh think they are the most particular beer drinkers in the world. And they say, Chief OSHKOSH – is the finest beer brewed anywhere. ‘Milwaukee? St. Louis? Nix! They can’t touch Oshkosh.’ That’s what they’ll tell you.”

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Year in Oshkosh Beer, 2019 Edition

It was another eventful year for beer and brewing in Oshkosh. Here's a look back at 2019 and how the beer scene here continues to evolve.

A couple of Oshkoshers at February's Winter Beer Fest. 
HighHolder Brewing releases a Grisette, an obscure style of Belgian beer, at O'Marro's Public House. It’s the first time this style has been produced by an Oshkosh brewery. Like most of the beers HighHolder released in 2019 – and there weren't many of them – this one sells out in a matter of days. Tracking down beer from Oshkosh's only nano-brewery grows increasingly difficult as the year progresses. HighHolder has not released a new beer since June.

Bare Bones Brewery holds its 2nd Annual Winter Beer Fest. It features beer from six of Winnebago Counties eight breweries (HighHolder and Emprize are absent). There had never been a previous occasion when so many of the county's breweries had their beer available in a single location. 

Zach Clark (left)and Ian Wenger (center) of Fifth Ward at the Winter Beer Fest.
The hairless one is your humble blogger.
Bare Bones releases Oshkosh Lager, a beer inspired by classic Oshkosh beers such as Chief Oshkosh and Peoples Beer. It soon becomes the brewery's best-selling beer. It's also the first time since Mid-Coast Brewing ceased operations in 1994 that an Oshkosh-based brewery has included a lager as part of its year-round line-up.

Fox River Brewing releases Red Bobber raspberry ale, the companion to its best selling BLÜ Bobber blueberry ale. Fruit-flavored beers have taken hold in Oshkosh in a big way.

Fifth Ward Brewing sells bottles of Blueberry-Peach Frootenanny from its lineup of kettle-sour beers. It's the first time since the early 1900s that an Oshkosh brewery has released a sour beer in bottles.

A Fifth Ward bottled sour alongside an 1870s clay bottle from the Leonard Schiffmann brewery in Oshkosh.
The Schiffmann bottle contained a sour, Berliner-style Weissbier.

Fox River Brewing's BLÜ Bobber goes on tap at Miller Park in Milwaukee. It's the first time since 1972 that an Oshkosh beer has been sold at a Major League Baseball stadium.

Winnebago County Beer is released. It's the first book to detail the complete history of beer and brewing in Winnebago County.

Bare Bones Brewery's Pawsome Pils wins the Northeast Wisconsin Brew Battles Craft Beer Bracket Challenge. It was an upset win for a pale lager in a bracket heavy with strong stouts and modern IPAs.

Historic Oshkosh tavern Mabel Murphy's burns to the ground. It had been a fixture on the local tavern scene since 1890 and was a major player in the Oshkosh beer wars of the early 1900s. It’s later announced that the tavern will be rebuilt on the same site. As of now, there's nothing but an empty pit there.

Craig Zoltowski and Jeff Duhacek purchase The Cellar Brew Shop from longtime owner Dave Koepke. Zoltowski is co-owner of Emprize Brew Mill, a brewpub that opened in Menasha in 2017. 

Craig Zoltowski

Hidden Valley Hops Farm in the Town of Winchester is up and running. It’s the first commercial hop farm in Winnebago county since the 1880s. Among the hops being grown by Justin Gloede of Hidden Valley are plants transplanted from the site of the former farm of Silas Allen. In the late 1840s, Allen had established the first hop farm in Winnebago County in what is now the Town of Allenville.

Hidden Valley Hops Farm.

Bare Bones releases the first beer in its Oshkosh Heritage Series. The series begins with Peoples Beer brewed from the original, 1950s recipe supplied by Wilhelm Kohlhoff,  a former brewer at Peoples.
Wilhelm Kohlhoff

The Granary Brew Pub closes. The restaurant opened in August of 2017 with plans of having a brewery as part of its operation. It never came to be.

Kevin Bowen leaves Fox River Brewing. Bowen had been the brewmaster there since 2009. The new brewmaster is 29-year-old Andrew Roth

Andrew Roth of Fox River Brewing.

The Magnet Bar closes. When it opened in 1940, the Magnet was Wisconsin's first teen-age beer bar. It was recently announced that the bar will reopen in early 2020.

Both Bare Bones and Fox River produce wet-hop beers using locally grown hops. The Bare Bones beer is made with hops grown at Hidden Valley Hops Farm in the Town of Winchester. Fox River's beer is made with hops grown by Steve Sobojinski in the Town of Nekimi. It's the third year in a row that each brewery has produced a wet-hop beer. It's the first time they've both used locally sourced hops.

The hop harvest for Fox River’s Big Ed’s Hopyard Ale.

Iconic south side bar Witzke's closes. Built by the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1902, the closure is symbolic of the plight of Oshkosh's "neighborhood" taverns.

Witzke's in the early 1980s.

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers hosts its annual Cask and Caskets Homebrew Event for Charity. The festival, composed entirely of homemade beer, cider, mead, and wine, remains the only event of its kind in Wisconsin. The festival nets $7,000 for the Winnebagoland Hunger Network.

Through the first 10 months of 2019, overall beer production in Oshkosh is up 7% compared to 2018. Nationally, growth among craft brewers is up 4%. The largest producer in Oshkosh remains Fox River, accounting for more than half of the 1,994 barrels of beer made here through the end of October. Fifth Ward is Oshkosh’s fastest-growing brewery with production up 31%. Production numbers for all of 2019 will not be available until February.

Fifth Ward Brewing celebrates its second anniversary with the release of the first set of beers from the brewery's barrel-aging program. The endeavor includes beers aged in spirits barrels and sour beers conditioned in wood.

Barrel aging at Fifth Ward.

Oshkosh Bier and Brewing - in planning since 2016 - fails in its bid to secure a city-owned property in the 700 block of South Main Street. The vacant land there is part of the Sawdust District. After the announcement, Oshkosh director of community development Allen Davis says he'd still like to see more breweries in the Sawdust District. “We have Fifth Ward, but it would help to have a second or a third,” Davis said. “It would help to make Oshkosh a destination.”

Bare Bones releases White Paw and becomes the first Oshkosh brewery to release a hard seltzer.

At the end of December, Oshkosh’s four breweries have combined to produce well over 100 unique beers. Never in the city’s long history of brewing has the number of different beers made here approached that amount. Fifth Ward, which has clearly had a breakout year, is the leader in this category having released more than 50 unique beers in 2019. BLÜ Bobber is once again the most widely distributed and best selling beer produced by an Oshkosh brewery.

And now it’s on to 2020. Let’s hope it’s a good one filled with plenty of good beer. Happy New Year, and thanks for reading the Oshkosh Beer Blog. Prost!

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Return of Chief Oshkosh Holiday Brew

On Tuesday, December 17 Bare Bones Brewery will release the latest in its Oshkosh Heritage Series of beers. This time, it’s a remake of the Oshkosh Brewing Company's Chief Oshkosh Holiday Brew. The beer will go on tap at Bare Bones Tuesday at 5 p.m. A limited number of 12-ounce commemorative bottles will also be available at the brewery.

This is the third in a series of beers that Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones, and I have collaborated on based on beers produced by long-gone Oshkosh breweries. This time, we went back 60 years to the 1950s version of Holiday Brew. Putting the recipe together was easy. We were working from the brewery's logbooks, so it was just a matter of scaling things down from the 230-barrel batch made at OBC to the seven-barrels of Holiday Brew we made at Bare Bones.

We felt obligated to follow the same process that OBC used when making Holiday Brew in the 1950s. That meant performing a traditional cereal mash. This technique hasn't been used by a brewery in Oshkosh in almost 50 years. And I can understand why. It's time-consuming and difficult to coordinate. But it produces a distinctive flavor that can't be achieved otherwise.

On the brew deck at Bare Bones. Jody Cleveland is on the right.
I’m with the canoe / mash paddle wondering why we thought it “might be fun” to do a cereal mash.

The Holiday Brew Backstory
The Oshkosh Brewing Company introduced Holiday Brew in 1935; two years after Prohibition had ended. It was what was known then as a Strong Pilsener. Today we might call it a Premium Lager. In essence, Holiday Brew was a pale lager that was a bit stronger, maltier, and hoppier than standard-issue Chief Oshkosh. At just over 5% ABV and 26 IBUs, this would hardly be considered a "winter warmer" by today's standards. In its day, though, Holiday Brew was something special.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; November 30, 1940.

Holiday Brew was a more expensive beer to produce, but OBC would sell it at the standard rate as a favor to the brewery's customers. It was typically released in late November or early December, though as the years went on pre-Thanksgiving releases became more common. Most years, Holiday Brew would sell out before the new year.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; December 12, 1955.

Holiday Brew remained an annual tradition until the last batch hit the market in November 1968. By then, OBC was trapped in a downward spiral it would never recover from. The brewery closed in 1971.

The last Holiday Brew. Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; November 23, 1968.

We're excited about bringing Holiday Brew back as part of the Heritage Series. And thanks to local collector Steve Schrage, when the beer is tapped Tuesday, it will be from an original Holiday Brew tap handle.

But like the Holiday Brew of old, when this batch is gone, that'll be it. Get it while you can.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Farmers Beer Hall, 1869

An ad from 1869 for the Farmers Beer Hall where "Fresh Lager" was always on hand.

This place was located on the southeast corner of N. Main and Ceape where the Oshkosh Convention Center now resides. It's the same land that hosted Fred Rahr’s Bar, a place of dubious renown that I recently posted about

Back to Louis Schwalm. He was born in Saxony in 1824. He left there in 1850 and soon after arrived in Oshkosh. In 1853, Schwalm bought the property on N. Main where he opened his Beer Hall.

Louis Schwalm’s younger brother was Leonhardt Schwalm. The younger Schwalm was a brewer and co-owner of Horn and Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery in Oshkosh. I'll bet I know where all that "Fresh Lager" was coming from.

Monday, December 9, 2019

The Loudest Speakeasy in Oshkosh

Put yourself in Fred Rahr’s shoes. It’s 1920 and for the past 20 years you’ve been running a popular saloon on Main Street in Oshkosh. Before you got into that, you worked in the family brewery. But now Prohibition is here. Suddenly, what you and your kin have always done has been made illegal. What would you do?

If you’re Fred Rahr, the answer is obvious. He flouted Prohibition at every turn. No other saloon keeper in Oshkosh breached the dry law as often or with as much tenacity as Fred Rahr did.

Fred Rahr's Tavern with an Elk's Head Beer sign in the 1940s.

Before the Storm
The Rahr family had been in the beer business for as far back as any of them could remember. For generations, the Rahr's had operated a brewery in Wesel, an ancient brewing city on the river Rhine in the north of Germany.

Fred Rahr's father, August, settled in Oshkosh in 1865. August and his brother Charles bought land on the shore of Lake Winnebago and built a brewery. Fred Rahr was born in Oshkosh in 1872. He grew up on Rahr Alley (now Rahr Ave.) working in that brewery.

In 1884, August and Charles Rahr divided the family business. August took over the beer bottling side of the operation. Charles maintained the brewery proper. Fred Rahr completed the ninth grade then quit school and went back with his uncle Charles at the brewery. He lived in Charles Rahr's home while working as a brewer in what was then being called The City Brewery.

The Rahr Brewing Company as it looked when Fred Rahr worked there.
The inset photo shows Charles Rahr's home where Fred Rahr lived while working at the brewery.

In 1899, Fred Rahr left his job at the brewery to go into business with "Little Joe" Thalhofer, a longtime Oshkosh barman. Thalhofer was running a saloon on the east side of Main between the river and Ceape. He'd been in there since 1893. It was a three-story, brick building that had gone up in the late 1860s. It was just up from the Revere House hotel.

Looking north from the Main Street Bridge in 1875.
The arrow is over what would become the Thalhofer and Rahr Saloon at what was then 20 Main.
In the foreground at the right is the Revere House.

Little Joe Thalhofer died in 1902. His brother Albert took his place at the bar and for the next 17 years the Rahr and Thaholfer saloon thrived at the gateway to downtown Oshkosh.

Keeping Little Joe's memory alive. From the 1912 Oshkosh City Directory.

In 1919, Albert Thalhofer quit the saloon business. He was looking to the future. The onset of Prohibition was imminent. For Fred Rahr, there was no other way. When the dry law took hold, Rahr took out a license to sell soft drinks so he could keep the doors open. He sold booze on the sly.

Rahr wasn’t alone in refusing to submit. More than 80 former saloon keepers in Oshkosh were testing the waters to see whether such a foolish law could even be enforced. The first year went their way. City police showed no interest in arresting people on liquor violations. As always, Oshkosh ran wide open.

But it wasn't long before the mutiny caught the attention of state and federal officials. Fred Rahr's decade of disorder was about to begin.

1921: Oshkosh on Notice
National Prohibition arrived on January 17, 1920. It was only a matter of months before Oshkosh was well known as a place where liquor still flowed freely. The feds decided something had to be done about it. On the Friday evening of August 26, 1921, Prohibition enforcement agents made their first coordinated raid on the city. They went straight for Fred Rahr's place.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, August 27, 1921.

The feds met resistance at just one of the dozen places they raided that night. When they burst through the door at 20 Main, Fred Rahr bolted towards the open safe where he kept a stock of moonshine. But before he could get there, he "scuffled" with federal agents. Rahr was thrown to the floor and subdued, and then arrested.

Rahr didn't go down easy. Though they had caught him red-handed, he fought the charge for the next six months. He was finally convicted and fined on February 16, 1922. That was not a good week for Fred Rahr. Just a day earlier, he had been arrested once again.

1922: Big Booze Raid
Fred Rahr’s name hit the pages of the Daily Northwestern again on February 16, 1922. This time he appeared under the headline, OSHKOSH CENTER OF BIG BOOZE RAID AND THIRTEEN ARE PUT UNDER ARREST.

Federal agents had been casing the city for days in advance of the raid. That they were able to make only 13 arrests was a testament to the underground network that had been established among Oshkosh’s bootleggers and speakeasy operators in the six months since the previous invasion. Once the raids were underway word began spreading that the feds were in town. At one of their stops, an agent intercepted the alarm call: “This is Heinie,” said the voice at the other end of the wire. “The Prohibition men are in town – you better be careful.”

Rahr’s call didn’t come in time. When the feds arrived he was caught holding a pint of moonshine. That should have put him out of business. But again, he fought the charge and this time somehow managed to beat it.

If Fred Rahr was experiencing any apprehension about his ongoing criminal pursuits he certainly wasn’t showing it. Since 1900, he’d been paying rent on the towering building that housed his saloon. Now, just five months after his second bust, he purchased the property. The job was risky, but the money was good. Rahr was living large, Roaring-Twenties style.

Circa 1923. The arrow is over Fred Rahr's Bar.

1926: The One and Only
Aside from his frequent court dates, Fred Rahr managed to spend the four years between February 1922 and February 1926 relatively free from the harassment of booze cops. The old ways prevailed at the south end of North Main Street. Rahr and his barroom neighbors operated as if Prohibition was merely a suggestion. The latest addition to the mix was directly across North Main Street. A woman from Green Bay had moved in there and opened a homebrew shop for those who thought they could make better beer than what the local bootleggers provided.

The sodden enclave was disrupted on a winter’s morning in February 1926.

“A squad of state prohibition officers invaded Oshkosh this morning and between 6 and 7 o’clock visited some nine or ten soft drink establishments. Oshkosh apparently is an arid desert, for only one man was brought in.”
     –Oshkosh Daily Northwestern February 2, 1926

For Fred Rahr there was no humor in the reporter’s sarcasm. He’d had a pitcher filled with moonshine sitting on the bar when the agents came in. Rahr immediately tossed the liquor into a sink. But the smell of booze lingered on the glass. That was enough to get him arrested and dragged back into court.

But again, Rahr escaped punishment. He hired Attorney Frank B. Keefe to represent him. Keefe had plenty of influence in Winnebago County and was gearing up to run for District Attorney. Rahr wasn’t the only dry-law violator that Keefe took on as a client in the runup to the election. Perhaps that wasn’t a coincidence. Keefe may have considered it a way to curry favor with a certain class of voters. In the end, Rahr went free and Keefe was voted in as the county’s new District Attorney. A year later, Keefe would find out what it was like to be on Rahr's bad side.

Frank Bateman Keefe

1927: I'll Choke it Down Your Throat
It was around 9 p.m. on a Tuesday in early August when Albert Kieckhafer ambled into Rahr’s speakeasy looking for a drink. Harry Witzel, who'd been bartending at the Rahr place for years, was working that night. Witzel sold Kieckhafer two glasses of moonshine for 50 cents. When Kieckhafer left he was good and drunk. Kieckhafer was known to be a nasty drunk.

He stumbled across Main Street and into the Waffle Shop restaurant and began busting up furniture and smashing plates. He was brawling with the owner when the cops arrived. The following afternoon, Kieckhafer appeared before the judge. He pleaded guilty to all of it. The judge asked him where he’d gotten the alcohol. The cops headed straight over to Rahr’s place and arrested Harry Witzel.

Harry Witzel adhered to the Rahr method of defense: deny everything. When he got his day in court, the prosecutor was none other than Rahr's old ally, the recently elected District Attorney, Frank B. Keefe. The trial was a fiasco.

Rahr hired Earl Finch to represent Witzel. Finch took the fight straight to Keefe; mocking and goading the district attorney. Keefe lost his cool when Finch pointed out the D.A.'s double-dealings where Prohibition was concerned. "That's a lie!" Keefe screamed leaping to his feet and thrusting towards Finch. "It's a lie and I'll choke it down your throat." The judge had him restrained.

Keefe eventually regained his composure and Witzel was found guilty. Finch called for a mistrial on grounds that the jury was composed entirely of Ku Klux Klan members. Witzel had endured enough of this. He paid his $300 fine and went back to work at Rahr’s bar.

After four, separate dry-law violations, you would think Rahr would have had his license pulled. Not in Oshkosh. But even here there was a limit to what could be tolerated. And Rahr was about to finally reach that limit.

1929: Bad Night for the Boy Wonder
Al Gullickson was in his twenties and they were still calling him the boy wonder. How annoying. He was born in Oslo, Norway in 1907. His musical genius was recognized early. Gullickson's parents dragged him across Europe to have his raw talent shaped by masters in Berlin and Paris. By the time he was 10, he was touring the continent displaying his freakish abilities on the harp, piano, and accordion. When he turned 12, they hauled him to America.

The Gullicksons settled in Milwaukee and young Al entered show business. He toured the Orpheum Theatre Circuit with Rudy Vallee's troupe. Impish Al was a triple threat. He danced, he sang, he played the accordion. People adored him, especially the ladies. Gullickson claimed women of all ages, even "mothers and matrons" were throwing themselves at him. What was a boy to do?

But when the Boy Wonder stopped being a boy, people stopped being amused by his antics. At the age of 16, his showbiz career fizzled. Gullickson wound up in Oshkosh employed as a demonstrator for the Barton Organ Company.

Al Gullickson, The Boy Wonder.

In 1929, Gullickson was 22 and working the organ at the Fischer Theater on Main Street. After the Friday-night show of March 1, 1929, he packed his 16-year-old girlfriend, Marguerite Reimer, into his car and they went off in search of a drink. They stopped at Fred Rahr's place. Gullickson came out with a quart of booze. The couple then headed for the Peacock Restaurant just up the street. They ordered a bottle of Canada Dry and began mixing drinks.

At the Peacock, their party grew. It was still going, albeit without Gullickson, the following morning. At 3 a.m., he was sleeping it off while Marguerite Reimer was behind the wheel of his car cruising the southside with two of the young men they’d been partying with. Both of those men had their skull crushed and died after Reimer flipped the car near the corner of 17th and Minnesota. Marguerite Reimer walked away with a couple of small cuts on her pretty, little face.

Marguerite Reimer

The tragic story went bleeding across the pages of the Daily Northwestern for the next month. Reimer was portrayed as the out-of-control rich girl destined for horrible things. The Boy Wonder was the dissolute rake fueling her delinquency. Gunning for both of them was none other than District Attorney Frank B. Keefe. He dispatched each of their cases in short order.

Marguerite Reimer was declared incorrigible and sentenced to a five-year hitch at a Catholic reform school for girls in Green Bay. They reformed her all right. Soon after her release, Reimer converted to the Bahá'í Faith. She spent the remainder of her life preaching the "Greater Covenant" of universal justice, unity, and the equality of all people.

Gullickson was convicted of transportation of liquor and encouraging the delinquency of a minor. Keefe was dismayed when the judge let The Boy Wonder off with fines totaling just $440.55. He was being lenient he said because of Gullickson's "youth and musical promise." But Gullickson was never to reclaim his adolescent glory. His swan dive into obscurity continued.

With those two out of the way, Keefe drew his bead on Fred Rahr. If the city wouldn’t shut Rahr down, Keefe said he would. He reached out to the feds imploring them to padlock Rahr's speakeasy. Rahr claimed he wasn't responsible for this latest transgression. He said he had leased the bar out to a couple of bootleggers. The logic behind that defense went to the grave with Fred Rahr. Still, it took almost eight months for Keefe to convince officials to put a padlock on 20 Main. It took Rahr about as long to get that lock taken off.

1931: Dead Drunk
It's amazing that, despite his lengthy list of offenses, Fred Rahr avoided a jail sentence. Even more stunning is that year after year, he managed to get the city to renew his license to operate his unruly establishment. Keefe's intervention made little difference.

In November 1930, Rahr went to city hall and asked again to be issued a new license. Understandably, there was trepidation among Oshkosh officials. But then Councilman Henry Hagene said he was for it. Oshkosh Mayor Taylor G. Brown also consented. With that, Rahr's application went sailing through. The lock came off. Fred Rahr was back in business. And in no time, it was business as usual.

The south end of North Main remained awash in illicit booze. Rahr may have been the most prolific violator, but he had plenty of company. Among that cohort was a speakeasy doing business one door south of Rahr’s. In 1931, that bar was run by veteran Oshkosh saloon operator Fred Schneider.

Schneider was a hard case. He would show his mettle by drinking a customer under the table. On the night of Wednesday, October 7, 1931, Harvey Walter walked in. Schneider challenged him to a drinking contest. It lasted four hours and Schneider won. Walter was carried out of the bar and dumped at his home on Ohio Street. His family found his dead body the next morning.

Later that day, after the police had gotten the story, Schneider's speakeasy was raided. Fred Rahr was standing in the doorway of his place laughing as the cops went rushing by. For once it wasn't him. Rahr should have kept to himself. His laughing so aggravated the police that they raided his bar. They found him holding. Rahr ended up with a $200 fine. He was lucky it was just the Oshkosh cops. They went easy on him. But the lurid story – the drinking contest and Rahr’s laughing response – made headlines across the state. A week later, federal agents came pouring into town.

1931: Barroom Blitz
On October 17, 1931, federal agents staged their largest raid on Oshkosh. There had been rumblings for weeks that something like this was coming. But there were always rumors like that floating around. This time the hearsay materialized in the form of 68 agents who simultaneously raided 29 of Oshkosh's better known "malt houses." At the end of the night, there were 40 new residents in the county jail. Fred Rahr was among them.

Rahr posted a $1,000 bond, walked out, and was later fined. But that wasn't the hard part. After 11 years of running an illegal liquor dispensary and seven arrests on dry-law violations, the City of Oshkosh pulled the license Fred Rahr had been "granted for the sale of non-intoxicating liquors." Rahr's Bar was officially closed... for almost three weeks.

After the dust settled, Hugo Behling went to city hall and asked for an application for the same sort of license Rahr had been stripped of. Behling told them it was for the place at 20 Main. Better known as Fred Rahr's Bar. Behling was no stranger to Rahr. Along with his wife and two sons, he was living in Fred Rahr's home on Rahr Avenue. Now he'd also be inhabiting Rahr's building on Main Street. That's what the license implied anyway.

Built in 1906, Fred Rahr's former home still stands on Rahr Avenue.

At city hall, they knew what Rahr was up to. It was a common dodge. They had to make it at least smell proper. They had Behling file an affidavit stating that he was not working on behalf of or in partnership with anyone who had been refused a license or whose license has been canceled. Whatever. Nobody was going to keep Fred Rahr out of there.

And they never caught him again. In 1933, time ran out on the dry law. The 18th Amendment was repealed. What Fred Rahr had been doing all his life went back to being legal. The license he was granted in December of 1933 gave him the right to sell "strong, spirituous, ardent, malt or intoxicating drinks or liquors." No more ducking and dodging, no more feds, and no more court dates. Rahr’s Elk’s Head Beer was back on tap. Happy days were here again.

Another World
Fred Rahr stayed behind that bar for 12 more years. He served the family beer there right up to the end.

Rahr retired in 1945. A couple of weeks before his 74th birthday he sold the building and business to Max Schmiedeke. A year later, Schmiedeke sold it to Jack Zuelke, who had a number of different partners in the business over the years including Ray Parsons and Frank Gutsmeidl. It was no longer a Rahr bar. They painted a big Chief Oshkosh Beer sign over the old Rahr’s Beer sign. At times it was called Jack and Ray's Bar, and at other times it was Jack and Frank's Bar. In the end, when the bar closed in 1965, it was just Jack's Bar.

Jack and Ray's Bar with the Chief Oshkosh Beer sign in 1950s.

Fred Rahr died in the spring of 1951. He was 79 years old. The brewery that his father helped launch in 1865 closed in 1956. Fred Rahr was one of the last of the old-timers who had come of age in and around that brewery.

The building that housed Fred Rahr's saloon was sold to the City of Oshkosh in the summer of 1981. It was knocked down to make room for the Oshkosh Convention Center. It’s a whole other world.