Wednesday, November 25, 2015

An Oshkosh Water Report for Homebrewers

For homebrewers only... Here’s a new water report for the City of Oshkosh that comes to us courtesy of Mike Schlosser. In anticipation of the opening of HighHolder Brewing Company, where Mike will be the brewmaster, he’s had a complete water report worked up using Oshkosh city water.

This report is derived from water drawn on the South Side, but it ought to provide a reliable baseline for all of us brewing with city water. Time to unleash that inner geek...

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Fifth Ward Brewing Company Update

Back in April, I wrote about the plan of Ian Wenger and Zach Clark to launch a new brewery named Fifth Ward Brewing Company on Oregon St. in Oshkosh. Clark and Wenger are still at it, but some aspects of their original plan have changed.

The building Clark and Wenger were trying to secure at 611 Oregon St. is no longer an option. It was recently sold to another party. They've now shifted their focus to a building located at 1009 S Main St., previously occupied by Canteen Vending Services.

1009 S Main St.

Clark and Wenger have an agreement to purchase the building contingent upon site-plan approval, variances and the like required by the City of Oshkosh. The building is large enough, 7,500 square feet, and well suited for a brewery. And it's an area that could sorely use this type of development.

"We'll be the first ones to have to redevelop one of these sites down here," Wenger says. "Anything we do to it will make it look a thousand times better than what it looks like now.

The re-design they've had drawn up for the space includes a sizeable taproom looking out onto S. Main and a beer garden behind the building. They're also considering re-opening a blocked-in entrance to the building and replacing it with glass to allow a view into the brewhouse from the street.

Overall, the S. Main property is a better prospect for the venture than the original site on Oregon. "Not getting that building turned out to be a blessing in disguise," Wenger says. "It worked out really well."

Equally important at this point is that Clark and Wenger have now raised the capital needed to move the project forward. "We have all of our financing in place at this point," Wegner says. "We'd like to close on the property at the end of January or early February. And right now, we're looking at putting in our down payment on equipment in January."

The lead time required for delivery of a full brewhouse will be at least five to six months. With that and the work required for converting the building into a brewery, Clark and Wenger could possibly have Fifth Ward operational by late summer 2016.

I'll post more on the progress of Fifth Ward as things develop.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Wilbur Strottman and the Ruin That Became Chief Oshkosh Beer

Wilbur Strottman
If Wilbur Strottman were alive, I'm sure he'd resent the title of this post. The last thing any brewmaster would want to be associated with is the trashing of a beer. And to be fair, the blame for the deterioration of Chief Oshkosh Beer wasn't entirely Strottman's doing. He may have been steering the ship when Chief Oshkosh crashed, but he wasn't charting its course. That responsibility fell to his boss, Oshkosh Brewing Company president, David Uihlein.

In any case, the degrading of Chief Oshkosh Beer began under Strottman's watch. When he left Oshkosh in 1967, the best-selling beer Strottman had been given stewardship of was in ruins. It was an unexpectedly bad end to what had been an unlikely beginning.

Wilbur Strottman was born on October 27, 1913 in Readlyn, Iowa. The son of a blacksmith, he was the second generation of his family born in America; his grandparents having emigrated from Germany. Strottman was six years old when Prohibition began and 20 when it ended. His formative years occurred at a time when beer was illegal. Yet as a young man, he developed the itch to become a brewmaster.

In 1933, the 19-year-old Strottman left Iowa for Chicago where he attended the Siebel Institute of Technology. With the repeal of prohibition in 1933, the school was again focusing on brewing sciences. Strottman must have done well. He was eventually hired by Siebel as an instructor teaching chemistry, biology and practical brewing to aspiring brewers.

Strottman's credentials weren't solely academic. In the mid-1940s he returned to Iowa to work as a chemist for the Blackhawk Brewery in Davenport. In 1953, Strottman was named brewmaster and plant superintendent of the brewery. A year later, he left Iowa and moved to Oshkosh.

The home at Oak and Tennessee street in Oshkosh where Strottman lived

On August 17, 1954, Strottman became the brewmaster for the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC). The position had to have seemed a golden opportunity to him. Unlike most regional breweries in 1954, OBC was growing prodigiously. Its success hinged on a single beer known throughout Wisconsin: Chief Oshkosh.

The recipe for Chief Oshkosh Beer had been developed in 1950 by A. Thomas Schwalm, OBC's brewmaster and the son of the brewery's president Arthur L. Schwalm. It was a 4.5% ABV Classic American Pilsener made from an ingredient list simple enough to scratch out on a napkin – malted barley, corn grits, hops, water and yeast. The beer was an immediate success.

The 1950s label for the Oshkosh Brewing Company's new pilsener

Sales of Chief Oshkosh spiked. Production at the brewery increased by nearly 50% within four years of the recipe being introduced. OBC parlayed its increased revenue into investments in the brewery. When Strottman arrived he entered a brewhouse that was state of the art to make beer for a brewery nearing its peak.

He did well. Production at OBC continued to climb during the early years of Strottman's tenure. By 1959 output at OBC reached an all-time high of 63,165 barrels. Strottman was given his due. He was the highest paid employee of the brewery earning $8,000 in 1960 (the equivalent of approximately $64,000 today).  But change was in the wind.

In 1961, the Horn and Schwalm families sold their controlling interest in OBC to David Uihlein, a member of the family holding controlling interest in Schlitz Brewing. Uihlein was a trained brewer and his influence was felt immediately. He changed the label for Chief Oshkosh, but more importantly directed Strottman to change the beer behind it.

The 1960s Chief Oshkosh label

The Chief Oshkosh Beer of the 1960s was a prototype of the sort of beers micro-brewers of the 1980s would denounce when lamenting the pitiful state of American lager. Like many American beers of the period, Chief Oshkosh was laced with adulterants to be brewed on the cheap.

The recipe Strottman formulated was a convoluted stew heavily reliant on pre-processed adjuncts. It was anything but the traditional lager the brewery purported it to be. Hop extracts, corn syrup, powdered dextrins, and soy flakes all eventually found their way into the Chief Oshkosh recipe. This wasn’t a phenomenon unique to OBC. Countless American breweries were treading this same, dismal path.

A portion of Strottman's brewer's log from 1964

The reformulation of OBC's flagship brand was born out of Uihlein's desire to slash costs. Nothing escaped his scrutiny including the beer OBC's reputation and existence depended upon. Chief Oshkosh fell victim to Uihlein's cost cutting. Sales fell in tandem. By the end of 1961 production was off by nearly 3,000 barrels.

The brewmaster appears to have shared Uihlein's vision. A 1963 Brewers Digest article described Strottman as a "sales" type of brewmaster. It was an approach that gained him the absolute confidence of his boss. Their relationship reached its culmination in 1963 when Uihlein appointed Strottman vice president of the brewery. The new VP maintained his brewmaster position and continued tinkering with his recipe for Chief Oshkosh.

Strottman (left) and Uihlein in the OBC brewhouse

To counter the falling sales of Chief Oshkosh, OBC expanded its distribution network and began producing three other brands of beer – Badger Brew, Liebrau and Rahr's Beer of Green Bay. It was to little effect. In 1966, production fell below 50,000 barrels, the lowest output at the brewery in 15 years. Uihlein, concentrating on his business interests in Milwaukee, was spending less and less time in Oshkosh. The decline accelerated. Strottman wanted out.

His exit came in 1967. In April that year Strottman resigned as brewmaster of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. He moved to Milwaukee and took a position with Pabst Brewing. Six months later he was dead. Wilbur Strottman passed away unexpectedly on October 13, 1967. His death occurred two weeks shy of his 54th birthday.

A well-worn pocket reference published in 1933 and used by Strottman during his brewing career

Uihlein left OBC in 1969, selling his majority stake in the company to a coterie of brewery employees. The decline of Chief Oshkosh Beer continued unabated. A series of brewmasters rotated through the brewhouse. Each of them adhering to the basic composition of Strottman's reformulation of the beer.

Chief Oshkosh Beer tanked. In 1969 production fell to 33,613 barrels. In 1970, less than 30,000 barrels were brewed. In 1971, the Oshkosh Brewing Company closed. The brand was purchased by Peoples Brewing and continued to be brewed until 1972 when Peoples went out of business. It was the last, shallow gasp of what had once been an iconic Wisconsin beer.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #24 - Upper Hand Brewery

​This week, we're drinking three beers from Upper Hand Brewery of Escanaba, MI. Upper Hand was launched in 2014 as a division of ​Bell's Brewery. We're just beginning to get Upper Hand's beer in Oshkosh. It's good stuff, check it out...

Monday, November 16, 2015

Let's Ask the Brewmaster

Beginning in 1957, The Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC) presented a sequence of ads in the Daily Northwestern aimed at educating its customers about the basics of beer. The ads featured OBC brewmaster Wilbur Strottman answering simple questions about various aspects of beer and brewing. Perhaps most striking about the series is its rudimentary nature. It's clear that much of the tribal knowledge about beer that had once existed in Oshkosh had been lost.

The Brewmaster ads ran at the dawn of a dark age for beer in America. By 1957, the overwhelming majority of beers produced and consumed in the U.S. were of a single type - lightly hopped, pale lager brewed with a percentage of corn. The same held true In Oshkosh. Though the city's breweries were producing more beer than ever, there was little variety among the beers they made.

In 1957, Oshkosh's two breweries, OBC and Peoples, each produced just three types of beer. In Spring, the breweries would release a bock beer that remained on the market for no more than two or three months. With winter would come the strong, holiday seasonal beer that saw a similarly limited release. For the remainder of the year it was back to the pale, light lager that had come to dominate the palate of beer drinkers.

Of course, it hadn't always been this way. Prior to the 1900s, breweries in Oshkosh typically produced a range of beers throughout the year. For example, when the Oshkosh Brewing Company formed in 1894, its first ads, often in German, showed the brewery producing six types of beer. And there was no need to explain to the consumer that a Weiner beer was an easy drinking amber or that Culmbacher was a black, rich lager. In 1894 beer drinkers in Oshkosh new these things.

An 1894 ad for the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The brewery's six brands of beer are in highlight.

The narrowing of variety had been gradual. In the early 1900s breweries here began focusing ever-more intently on pale lager. The beer was a symbol of modernity, progress and purity. And beer drinkers flocked to it. With the arrival of Prohibition in 1920, the trajectory was fixed. A generation came of age with beer no longer a part of everyday life.

When beer became legal again in 1933, the connection to the past had been effectively severed. The appreciation for various styles of beer had been lost. Beer increasingly came to mean one thing: pale, light lager. In 1957, that meant the answers to questions such as "What is Bock Beer?" were no longer common knowledge.

Which brings us to these ads. Here's one from November 1957, answering the question just asked.

Here's Strottman explaining what makes a beer a Lager Beer.

Here's one made more interesting by what it doesn't say. Notice how there's no mention of corn being used in the production of Chief Oshkosh. Like Strottman, most brewers of the era preferred not to mention their use of corn as an ingredient.

I like this next one. Strottman clues us in on why draft beer is superior to bottled beer.

This one kills me. It's about beer freshness. Notice the complete disregard for the consumer. They don't need to know how damned old the beer is!

It's almost 60 years since these ads appeared and we're more confused than ever. The incredible variety of beer that's now available has left the majority of consumers utterly bewildered. I see it all the time at beer depots in Oshkosh. I tend to notice it at Festival more than at other places here. You see these people standing in front of that open cooler with a stunned look as they gaze up and down the rows of IPAs, stouts, wheat beers, etc... Then they go grab a sixer of Spotted  Cow.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #23 - Gin & Juice

​This week we're Sipping On G&J, a juniper-influenced IPA from MobCraft Beer of Madison. We also gab about a couple of beer events coming up in Oshkosh. On with the show...

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

A Week Full of Beer

We have a tasty beer calendar around here over the next week or so. Here's what's on deck.

Thursday, November 12: Beer vs. Wine Dinner at TJ's Harbor Restaurant
Beginning at 6:30 pm, TJ's will host a four-course dinner with each course accompanied by a beer and a wine. The object (aside from filling your inner being with delicious stuff) is to decide which beverage pairs best with the morsels on the plate in front of you. They've dubbed it a barrel-to-barrel challenge. I like that. Anyway, it's $50 a seat and all the info you need to squeeze in on it is right HERE.

Friday, November 13: O'so Tap Takover at Dublin's
In celebration of O'so Brewing's eighth anniversary, Dublin's will host an O'so tap takeover beginning at 6 pm. They'll have eight (get it?) O'so beers on tap. For $30 you'll get a glass that will entitle you to unlimited pours of O'so beer until closing time. Do the math, that's a good deal. Sarah Lehner from O'so will be on hand passing out schwag and talking beer. Speaking of which, here's the O'so list for Friday night at Dublin's.

  • Imperial Black Scotch Ale (Wee Heavy)
  • Convenient Distraction (Imperial Coffee Porter)
  • Imperial Cafe Amber Aged on Coffee
  • Infectious Groove (A kettle-soured session ale)
  • Hopdinger (American Pale Ale)
  • Rusty Red (Red Ale)
  • Night Train Porter
  • The Big O (American Wheat Ale - this year's GABF gold medal winner in the category)

Tuesday, November 17: Gardina's Beer Bar Vol. 24
This time, it's going to be Surly Brewing taking command of the joint. Beginning at 6 pm, Gardina's will begin pouring four beers from the Minneapolis brewery including a couple of rarities. They'll be offering flights as well as individual pours. And here's that list...

  • Hell, a German-style Helles Lager
  • Abrasive Oatmeal Double IPA
  • Cacao Bender Brown Ale with Cocoa Nibs
  • Damien (Child of Darkness) Dry-hopped Black Ale 

In addition to the beer, Gardina's will also offer an optional four-course dinner, pairing each of the Surly beers with a dish dreamed up by Head Chef Dane Campbell. For everything related to that, go HERE.

Whadda week!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Then and Now: Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery

Here we have a couple of pictures of the same building. We'll be looking east from Doty St. just south of W. 16th Ave. The first shot isn't dated, but appears to have been taken in the late 1880s when it was Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery. The picture immediately below it was taken yesterday afternoon. It's now the home of School Stationers Corporation. Built in 1879, this is the oldest intact brewing structure in Oshkosh.

Over the years I've somehow managed to sidestep posting anything here resembling a thorough overview of this brewery. Time to fix that. Here's a chronology of the lead-up and significant events related to Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery.

A 25-year-old German brewer named Leonhardt Schwalm emigrates from his native Saxony. He settles in Winnebago County in the Town of Nekimi.

At the age of 17, August Horn emigrates from Bavaria with his parents Gottlieb and Barbara Horn. The family establishes a farm south of Oshkosh in the Town of Black Wolf.

Schwalm opens a saloon on the south side of Oshkosh in the old 3rd Ward (the precise location remains unknown). An early advertisement for the saloon announces that Schwalm is serving “Excellent Lagerbier,” which he had “Attentively” made.

Schwalm leases the Lake Brewery from Anton Andrea. He produces beer there until 1865.

October: Schwalm purchases four lots south of what is now W. 16th Ave. between Doty and S. Main St. He begins planning his brewery in Oshkosh. It will become the first full-sized production brewery in Oshkosh to be located south of the river.

November: Leonhardt Schwalm purchases the Butte des Morts Brewery from his brother Louis Schwalm.

December: Schwalm sells the Butte des Morts Brewery to Frederick Bogk.

The Schwalm Brewery on the south side of Oshkosh is producing and selling lager beer. There are now six breweries operating in Oshkosh.

The Original Schwalm Brewery

Schwalm sells half his interest in the brewery to August Horn. The two are related by marriage. The brewery is known early on as the Schwalm and Horn Brewery.

August Horn

More than twenty people often reside at at the brewery, including the 15 children of the Horn and Schwalm families. The staff of brewery workers share living quarters with the two families.

Brewery worker Leonard Schiffmann dies after falling into a deep vat of boiling wort at the brewery.

Leonhardt Schwalm dies unexpectedly. He is 45 years old. His cause of death isn't revealed in the reports of his passing. The Schwalm family remains involved in the brewery's operations.

The brewery has come to be known as Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery. It is the second largest of the six breweries operating in Oshkosh producing 1,366 barrels of beer. The Glatz Brewery is the largest producing 1,530 barrels of beer.

A sign at the entrance to Charles Raasch's Main St. Saloon in Oshkosh advertising Horn and Schwalm's beer

The brewery and its store of beer are destroyed by fire. Horn & Schwalm post no production for the year. Following the fire, a new brewery is built at the same location. Constructed of brick, the brewery is 45 x 65 feet with three stories above ground and a large beer cellar below. It has an annual capacity of 3,500 barrels. It is described as the best-equipped brewery in Wisconsin outside of Milwaukee.

The stone-arch entrance to the beer cellars is still intact

A fire insurance map of the 1879 brewery

Leonhardt Schwalm's 21-year-old son, Theodore Schwalm, becomes co-proprietor of Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery.

Theodore Schwalm is placed under Guardianship due to his excessive drinking. He is 25 years old.

The Brooklyn Brewery helps to launch Oshkosh’s Anti-Prohibition Association.

A tornado hits the brewery. The brewery's barn and several of its outbuilding are destroyed. The brick brewery built six years earlier goes unharmed.

Aftermath of the 1885 tornado

Theodore Schwalm dies. Death is attributed to his damaged liver. His widow, Sophia Schwalm, becomes the brewery's co-proprietor with August Horn.

Theodore Schwalm

Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery begins a period of rapid expansion. Production increases to approximately 10,000 barrels annually.

Expansion of the brewery continues. Capacity is increased to 20,000 barrels.
The Brooklyn Brewery becomes the first brewery in Oshkosh to use mechanical refrigeration.
This is now the the largest brewery in Oshkosh. Its beer is being exported to counties in the surrounding area.

The panic of 1893 coupled with increased competition from Milwaukee breweries wreaks havoc for Oshkosh brewers. Horn & Schwalm enters into an agreement with the Glatz Brewery and Kuenzl's Gambrinus Brewery to fix prices on beer sold in Oshkosh. During this period, such price fixing schemes are legal.

Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery merges with the Glatz Brewery and Kuenzl's Gambrinus Brewery to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. August Horn is named the brewery's first president.

Can you pick out the Brooklyn Brewery within this image?

After the 1894 merger, this facility continued in operation. It transitioned into a bottling plant and offices following the construction of a new brewery on the property in 1912. After the closure of the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1970, ownership of the property changed several times before being purchased by Robert Stauffer in 1986. The property is currently owned by Robert Stauffer, Jr.

Want more? In the past, I've posted a number of stories relating to Horn & Schwalm on this blog. You can find those here.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

​ Oshkosh Beer Show #22 - Round II of the IPA Challenge

​This time were drinking two, identical IPAs. However, one of them was purchased from a local retailer that kept the beer on a warm shelf, while the other came from a store where the beer was stocked in a cooler. We do a blind tasting of the two beers to find out if we can tell the difference. Can we?

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Production at Fox River Brewing Continues to Surge

Let's take a look at the numbers. The Wisconsin Department of Revenue has released beer production reports through August of this year (there's always a couple months of lag time). The numbers coming in from Fox River Brewing Company are surprising.

Production at Fox River is up 38% over the same period last year. In fact, Fox River has already produced more beer during the first eight months of 2015 than it did in all of 2014. At this point, the brewery is among the fastest growing in the state.

Here's the raw data. Over the first eight months of this year Fox River has produced 1353.16 barrels of beer*. That's 509.06 more barrels than it brewed in the first eight months of 2014. Fox River's total production for all of 2014 was 1334.28 barrels. Obviously, they've already blown past that number and if this pace continues, the brewery will be close to 2,000 barrels by the end of this year.

Historically, production has been split nearly evenly between the Fox River breweries in Oshkosh and Appleton. But with the bottling line installed this past spring at the Appleton facility the balance has begun to shift. Through August, 610.47 barrels have been brewed in Oshkosh while 742.69 barrels were brewed in Appleton.

For comparison sake, here's the August production for the three breweries currently reporting in our vicinity (Bare Bones is not yet included in the Department of Revenue's published reports).

  • Stone Cellar / Stone Arch: 307.85 bbls.
  • Fox River Brewing: 284.18 bbls (combined Oshkosh and Appleton).
  • Appleton Beer Factory: 37.00 bbls.

The final push to the close of this year should be interesting. Everyone I've spoken to at Fox River has indicated that both breweries are maxed out in term of capacity. If this pace continues, and there's no reason to suspect it won't, look for for Fox River to expand in the near future.

*One barrel equals 31 U.S. Gallons, or 13.6 cases of beer, or 330 12oz. bottles.