Monday, May 4, 2015

Oshkosh Homebrew Boom and Bust

While researching last Monday’s post about homebrew shops in Oshkosh, it struck me just how prevalent homebrewing was here during Prohibition. I’d heard stories about the boom in homebrewing here during the 1920s. But I’d never truly grasped the scale of it. This city was flooded with homebrew all through the “dry” years.

The best indicator of the homebrew scene that flourished here is the number of businesses that carried homebrewing supplies. It was a highly competitive market. In addition to the two stores that specialized in outfitting homebrewers, there were shops in every quarter of the city selling ingredients specific to making beer at home.

By the mid-1920s there were well over 60 stores in Oshkosh offering hopped malt extract to homebrewers. Most of these were small, neighborhood grocery stores. Many carried a variety of different extracts made to mimic pre-Prohibition beers such as Budweiser, Miller and Pabst. Here’s a full-page ad for Pabst malt extract that appeared in the Daily Northwestern on June 10, 1927. Notice how many retailers in the area were stocking the Pabst extract. As always, click the image to enlarge it.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company produced several brands of hopped malt extract that were sold locally. OBC’s extract was available in grocery stores and at the brewery. Here’s a can of OBC malt extract used for brewing a dark beer.

At OBC they also sold hops. And it appears that the brewery sold malted barley for homebrewers who preferred not to use extracts. That wasn’t all OBC had to offer. If you were a homebrewer with questions about making beer, what better place to get your supplies than from people whose lives had been dedicated to making beer. There’s no resource the equal of this today.

In comparison to the amount of homebrew made now, the numbers from the 1920s are staggering. The American Homebrewers Association estimates that homebrewers currently produce about 2 million barrels of beer annually. In 1921, the estimates of annual homebrew production were placed at 10-11 million barrels. By 1927, the number had jumped to 35 million. That’s as much beer as was made by commercial brewers in the year after beer was legalized in 1933.

It leaves me questioning why it all died off so quickly? Homebrewing in Oshkosh went into a steep and immediate decline as soon as beer became legal. By the end of 1934, brewing supplies essentially disappeared from store shelves here. The preference for commercial beer over homebrew was obvious. Was the average homebrew that bad?

Could be. The one thing you never see in any of the 1920’s advertisements for homebrew supplies in Oshkosh is yeast. That’s telling. Sanitation along with yeast and fermentation management are crucial to producing good beer at home. Yeast appears to have been a secondary consideration for homebrewers during Prohibition. Without good yeast you won’t make good beer.

Another defining character of Prohibition-era homebrew was its strength. An article from the Daily Northwestern entitled THE “HOMEBREW” FLOOD tells of the powerful beer made by homebrewers.

Home brewing has none of the mechanism essential to holding down the alcoholic content. It permits fermentation to be completed, resulting in a beverage which runs from 6 to 8 percent alcohol and is in reality a heavy ale rather than a true beer. Much of this finds its way to the saloons...
   -- Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; June, 14, 1922.

That’s strong stuff, especially when compared to the pale, 4% ABV beers offered by commercial brewers here in 1933. Nevertheless, people in Oshkosh preferred it to homebrew.

It would be nearly 60 years before homebrewing in Oshkosh underwent a substantial revival. Homebrewing supplies were once again being sold locally when the Society of Oshkosh Brewers formed in 1991. The hobby has continued to grow here, but in comparison to our counterparts of the 1920s we’re merely dabblers. Then again, our beer may be better.

Friday, May 1, 2015

More Brew News

The new Oshkosh Beer Beat column is up at the Oshkosh Independent. Check it out here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Get SOB’d

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers have a couple of club events this week that are open to the public. The first is just hours away.

SOB Beer Dinner at Dublin’s
Tonight (Tuesday, April 28) Dublin’s Irish Pub and the SOBs will host a beer dinner featuring beers brewed by area homebrewers. At this moment there are 8 tickets left. And they’re a steal at just $25. The dinner begins at 6 p.m. To reserve a seat, get in touch with the folks at Dublin’s at (920) 385-0277. The full menu and pairings can be found HERE.

Big Brew Day with the SOBs
Then on Saturday, May 2, the SOBs will take part in the American Homebrewers Association’s Big Brew for National Homebrew Day. The SOBs will gather in the parking lot of O’Marro’s Public House for a group brew that’ll kick off at 9 a.m. and last until early afternoon.

If you’re the least bit curious about homebrewing, this is a great way to get introduced to the homecraft of beer making. The SOBs will have several systems set up making beer and showing the brewing process from beginning to end. There’s no admission and everyone is welcome (and there’s usually a bit of good homebrew being passed around). I’ll be there with my ghetto system brewing up a slop of lagerbier. Stop by and say hello.

Here’s a video shot at Big Brew Day a few years ago by SOB Mike Engel. This will give you an idea of what it’s all about.

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Death Knell for Homebrew in Oshkosh

This is the last in a series of four posts about the spring of 1933 when beer became legal again and the effect that had on Oshkosh. The previous posts in this series can be found here, here, and here.

Not everyone was celebrating when legal beer returned on April 7, 1933. And it wasn’t just Prohibitionists feeling the sting of defeat. The people who supported and supplied homebrewers in Oshkosh were left in the lurch when legal beer made its long awaited comeback.

By 1930, Prohibition had been in effect for more than a decade. During that time, homebrewing in Oshkosh grew into a cottage industry. In response, dozens of retailers in the city began stocking malt extracts, hops and other goods for making beer (more on that next week). Two of these outlets were especially noteworthy.

Rex Malt Products Company
Carlton Windhauser
In 1925, Anna Windhauser opened Rex Malt Products Company, a homebrew supply shop on the west side of Main St. south of Ceape Ave. Windhauser’s shop appears to have been the first store in Oshkosh to sell homebrew supplies as its main trade.

Anna Windhauser had recently separated from her husband in Green Bay when she arrived in Oshkosh with her four children in early 1925. Windhauser moved her young family into rooms behind the store and began stocking everything a small-batch brewer needed to make and package beer. The text of an early ad for Windhauser’s shop tells the story.

     Save on Malts and Hops
     BUY In bulk. Also caps, cappers, syphon
     hose, bottles, fillers, brushes,
     bottle washers. Phone 2624. We deliver.
     Rex Malt Products Co., 17 Main Street
        - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern April 13, 1925

The business thrived and Windhauser expanded the operation. She moved Rex Malt Products south, across the river, to what is now 1013 Oregon St., where the Oregon Club tavern is currently located. Windhauser’s 18-year-old son, Carlton, became manager of the store. Here’s a typical ad for Rex Malt Products from 1928 featuring weekend specials offered to Oshkosh area homebrewers. As always, click any of the images you see here to enlarge them.

All was well until 1933 and the return of legal beer. As the breweries here ramped up, homebrewing died off. In April 1933, the Windhauser’s acquired a liquor license and began selling Blatz beer and glassware from their store. It wasn’t enough to compensate for the flagging sales of homebrew supplies.

In September 1933, six months after beer had become legal, the Windhauser’s sold off their remaining stock and closed their store.

Midwest Sales Company
In 1928, longtime Oshkosh grocer James Skole opened a homebrew shop. He planted his store at what is now 617 Oregon, just up the street from the Windhauser store. The Southside of Oshkosh was a hotbed of homebrewing during the dry years. Skole, who lived and operated a grocery on Otter Ave., seems to have wanted his brew store to be near the center of the action.

Skole’s Midwest Sales carried a complete array of brewing products. Much of the equipment he sold was aimed at brewers looking to create larger batches of beer. He stocked fifteen gallon fermentors and half-barrel oak kegs and offered malt extract by the case. Skole acted as both wholesaler and retailer. It looks as though he was trying to capture the business of bootleg brewers as well as homebrewers.

Here’s an ad from August 1928 showing some of the wares Skole was offering shortly after the store opened.

In addition to his homebrew supplies, Skole began selling grocery and other items in his shop. He was thinking ahead. By the close of the 1920s, it was apparent that Prohibition was bound for the dust bin. It was just a matter of when. Skole got out early. In April 1932, he began selling off the stock of Midwest Sales and shortly after closed the store.

Homebrewing in Oshkosh never returned to the peak levels that were seen in the 1920s. Windhauser’s Rex Malt Products was, in all likelihood, the first homebrew shop to open in Oshkosh. It was also the last. We haven’t had a store of this type since.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Oshkosh Brew News

The new Oshkosh Beer Beat column is up at the Oshkosh Independent. Check it out HERE.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Black Marlin Porter

Here in Oshkosh, we began receiving beer from San Diego’s Ballast Point Brewing this past January. The brewery is best known for its IPAs. That’s mostly what we’ve been seeing from BP around here. But this unassuming Porter is something special.

Black Marlin Porter is a deep, brown ale with a sticky beige head that laces the glass as you drink it down. The aroma made me think of chocolate milk backed by a light and lingering note of coffee. This is an almost-full bodied beer with a lower than average carbonation that lends it a creamy texture. Flavors of caramel malt and chocolate lead with a mild vanilla accent at mid-palate. I love the hopping of this beer. There’s a driving, earthy hop flavor that accompanies those sweeter malt notes wonderfully. The staunch bitterness those hops leave makes for a finish that’s cleaner than you’d expect from a beer so flavorful. This is an exceptional Porter.

Black Marlin Porter is 6% ABV and measures in with 42 IBUs. I picked up mine last Saturday at the retail side of Gardina’s where it’s being sold in 22 oz. bombers for $4.99. What’s not to like about that?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A First Look at Fifth Ward Brewing Company

Ian Wenger and Zach Clark have some busy months ahead of them. The two are currently in the thick of preparing a brewery and taproom they hope to open later this year at 611 Oregon St. in Oshkosh.

Clark and Wenger would like to have their Fifth Ward Brewing Company operational by December. “That’s giving us some time to get everything done,”  Clark says. “We should be able to get it turned around. The biggest thing will be finding our investors.”

They’re off to a good start. Clark and Wenger have now raised approximately half the funding they’re seeking. Last week, their bid on the Oregon St. property was accepted. Already resolved is the vision of the brewery they want to establish there.

The brewery’s taproom would be open Wednesday through Saturday. They’d like to start with 10 tap lines, at least eight of them pouring Fifth Ward beer. Clark and Wenger describe the beer they intend to brew as “culinary inspired.” Not surprising considering that both have worked as chefs in the kitchen at Dublin’s Irish Pub for several years.

“That's going to be the focus of a lot of our recipes,” says Wenger. “We’ll lean towards using some unusual and interesting ingredients.” The duo will act as co-brewmasters. Variety will be emphasized.

“A third of our beers will be one offs and specialties,” says Clark. “Every month we'll be coming out with a new beer. We're also looking at doing a continual sour line.”

The brewhouse producing that beer will be located near the rear of the Oregon St. building. Clark and Wenger intend to install a 10-barrel brewing system that will feed four 20-barrel fermenters.

Clark (left), and Wenger
Not all of Fifth Ward’s beer would be sold out of its taproom. “We’ll distribute kegged and bottled beer in the Oshkosh area ourselves,” Wenger says. “We've been going around town talking to people about our beer and asking what they would like to see from us. Right now we have about eight letters of intent to purchase.” They anticipate selling about 360 barrels of beer within the brewery’s first year of operation.

Clark, 24, and Wenger, 23, have been researching their startup for more than three years. “We’ve been doing our homework figuring out costs and poking into every little corner of what we need to do to get this up and running,” says Wenger. “We have a very clear idea of what we want this to be, our brand, and the types of beer we’ll sell.”

They’ve received guidance from other Wisconsin craft brewers including Russ Klisch, president of Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery. “Russ is going to be our mentor through an accelerator program,” says Clark. “He'll be coming here Wednesday to check this place out and meet with us. We're definitely excited about that.”

If their plan comes to fruition, Clark and Wenger will be adding to a legacy that precedes them by more than 150 years. The name they’ve chosen for their brewery is a reference to both Oshkosh brewing history and their own introduction to beer making.

Oshkosh’s first Fifth Ward Brewery was launched in 1857 on land that is now part of the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh campus. When Clark and Wenger began brewing three years ago, they lived just a block from the site of the old brewery.

“It’s where we learned how to brew,” Clark says. “The name is an ode to that.”

“It's also a nod to the history of brewing in Oshkosh,” adds Wenger. “We really want to incorporate that into what we're trying to do. We want to keep that history alive.”

“We're really trying to make it happen,” Clark chimes in. “We have some work to do, but we’ll get there.”

Monday, April 20, 2015

An Old Friend Comes Back

One more look back to the Spring of 1933 when folks around here were getting their first taste of legally brewed Oshkosh beer in 14 years.

Last week, I posted an ad from Rahr Brewing of Oshkosh that ran on March 22, 1933. That was the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Beer and Wine Revenue Act. The new law made it legal to produce and sell beer that was less than 3.2% alcohol by weight beginning April 7, 1933.

Roosevelt signed the bill at 1 p.m. At 1:03 p.m. the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern received a wire telling of the good news. Word spread quickly. Oshkosh breweries and factories began sounding their whistles in celebration. Mayor Taylor Brown declared that April 7 would be a half-holiday in Oshkosh beginning at noon, freeing people to get out and drink beer.

Rahr wasn’t the only brewery in town that rushed giddy ads into the evening paper on March 22. Peoples Brewing and the Oshkosh Brewing Company also had their say. Here’s the Peoples ad. As always, if you click the images, they’ll expand in size.

And here’s the ad from the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

“Our hand has never lost its skill, we are masters in the brewing art.” I really like that!

Each of these were large, 3/4 page ads that dominated the page. The Rahr ad ran on page 7, Peoples on page 9, and OBC’s on page 11. Interspersed were stories telling of how many people the breweries would hire, the tax revenue that would be generated, and how fine it would be to have legal beer again.

This played out while Oshkosh was being pummeled by the Great Depression. With unemployment here estimated to be over 30%, the city was in dire straits. Things had degenerated to the point that city workers maintained 20 fishing nets in Lake Winnebago. They were raised twice weekly with the catch being distributed among the needy. Amidst the despair, the return of legal beer was something to be happy for.

The response in Oshkosh nearly overwhelmed the local breweries. Orders for beer immediately poured in. On April 6, the Daily Northwestern reported that, “there has been such a heavy demand that it is doubtful whether it will be possible to make all the deliveries the first day that have been promised.”

Not to worry, they all received their beer. The “old friend” had come back to stay.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Tuesday Night at Gardina's Beer Bar

Tuesday night, Gardina’s will host the 18th edition of its Beer Bar series. They’re going all out for this one. Here’s the full rundown.

Kirby Nelson
At 6 p.m, they’ll tap a firkin of Blister In the Sun from Wisconsin Brewing Company. This is an India White Lager dry hopped with Amarillo and Nelson Sauvin hops and spiced with orange peel and coriander.

 WBC brewmaster Kirby Nelson will be on hand to introduce the beer and meet with all you fine Oshkosh folk. Kirby is a very approachable sort who loves to talk beer. Don’t hesitate to step up and say hello to him.

 Gardina’s will have a mini tap takeover featuring beers from WBC. On draft will be Yankee Buzzard IPA, Betray Ale (the brewery describes it as an India Pale Bock Ale), and Chocolate Lab Brown Porter.

 An optional four-course beer dinner will be offered, pairing dishes with the four WBC beers pouring that night. The dinner option is $30. Here’s the menu:

Course 1
Asian Spring Roll with Ahi Tuna and citrus Ponzu.
Paired with Blister in the Sun.

Course 2
Scallop-Crab Cake Napoleon with a Mango-Brown Butter Vinaigrette. Paired with Betray Ale.

Course 3
Seared Pork Tenderloin with Citrus Mashed Sweet Potatoes, Sauteed Kale and Pan Jus Lie.
Paired with Yankee Buzzard IPA.

Course 4
House Made Vanilla Bean Ice Cream with a Chocolate-Framboise Glaze.
Paired with Chocolate Lab Brown Porter

It should be a great night at Gardina’s.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Oshkosh Brew News

My new Oshkosh Beer Beat column is up at the Oshkosh Independent.  This times it’s a grab bag of Oshkosh beer news. Check it out here.