Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Gardina’s Beer Bar Series #19 Tonight

The 19th chapter of Gardina’s Beer Bar Series happens tonight with some help from Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewing. The evening begins at 6 pm. with a cask tapping of Lakefront’s Cherry Lager cask conditioned on cocoa nibs.

Along with the cask beer will be a mini tap takeover with three other Lakefront beers on draft: Growing Power Farmhouse Pale Ale, Wisconsinite Summer Weiss, and My Turn Kyle, a Belgian-style Tripel.

To compliment all the beer, Gardina’s will offer a four-course dinner, pairing each of the Lakefront brews with a specially prepared dish. The dinner pairing is $30. The full menu is here.

Lakefront’s co-founder Jim Klisch will also be in the house talking beer and saying hello to all the fine Oshkosh folk. For more info contact Gardina’s at (920) 231-3516.

Monday, May 18, 2015

An Oshkosh Beer Doctor

In last Monday’s post about near beer in Oshkosh, I mentioned the practice of “needling” or as it was also called “spiking.” This is where folks would take non-intoxicating near beer and inject it with alcohol in an attempt to produce something similar to real beer. The flavor couldn’t have been especially pleasant. Still, needled beer was common in Oshkosh throughout the years of Prohibition (1920-1933).

Needling could be as simple as a bartender dosing a mug of near beer with a shot of alcohol. Or it could be a more elaborate operation with the process taking place en masse. For example...

Harry E. Wiese
Harry E. Wiese was known in Oshkosh as a beer doctor. Weise would buy cases of near beer from the Oshkosh Brewing Company and Peoples Brewing. Then he’d spike each bottle with a measure of moonshine. Wiese would turn around and sell the fortified beer to Oshkosh speakeasies masquerading as soda parlors. Everyone was in on the con, from the breweries on down to the boozing end user who’d amble up to the bar and order a bottle of Peoples Bravo with a knowing wink.

Wiese’s had a good racket going until he was ratted out. On January 12, 1927, Oshkosh police arrested Wiese following a complaint and subsequent raid on his home at what is now 537 12th Ave. Weise’s house still stands, by the way.

They caught him red-handed. Police found 30 gallons of moonshine and a still at Weise’s home. Let’s hear the details of Weise’s operation from Oshkosh Police Chief Arthur Gabbert.

Wiese, Chief Gabbert told the court, is a "beer doctor." He is the man, the chief said, who takes near beer and makes "good stuff" out of it... this man has been operating on an extended scale in Oshkosh and vicinity for some time.”
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; January 14, 1927

Arthur Gabbert
Don’t you love that our top cop was referring to the illegal stuff as the "good stuff”? I do. Gabbert knew what he was talking about. During the dry years the chief was known to make his own wine. Prohibition had a way of making hypocrites out of nearly everyone other than those wholeheartedly devoted to having no fun at all.

Back to Wiese. The thing most striking about him is how unremarkable he was. Though he was a criminal in the eyes of the law, he was just your average, everyday sort of Oshkosh guy.

At the time of his arrest, Wiese was 37 and single (he’d get married a few years later). He was the son of German-born parents, had an eighth grade education and was a WWI Vet. In addition to his bootlegging he also worked a day job in the warehouse at The Buckstaff Company. He moonlit with moonshine.

After his arrest, Wiese pleaded guilty and was slapped with a hefty $800 fine. That would be about $10,000 in today’s money. After paying up, Wiese went on his way. His days of crime had ended.

That’s how it seemed to be in Oshkosh. As we’ve seen before with Oshkosh’s wildcat breweries (here & here), bootlegging was embedded in the community, a pastime pursued by ordinary people.

Here’s another example. Last week I was sent an email by Dave Gehrke, who grew up in Oshkosh. Dave relayed a story about his grandfather that I think is telling. Here’s Dave...
Seeing your recent posts regarding the production/consumption of alcohol during prohibition in Oshkosh prompted me to remember a comment my paternal grandpa (Harold H. Gehrke, b. 1908 d. 1982) made in around 1972, when I was 14. I asked him to drop me off at an antique store on the North side of 6th st., about a block east of Oregon, so I could purchase a Chief Oshkosh beer tray. When we stopped in front of the building, he kind of chuckled and said "this place used to make bathtub gin during prohibition". I had no idea what he meant, so I asked him about it. He essentially indicated that there were numerous places in Oshkosh to obtain various forms of alcohol during prohibition, and "bathtub gin" was a local favorite due to availability and cost. My grandpa drank very little when I knew him, but he did say that the gin of this era was "rotgut". My grandpa rarely talked about drinking/alcohol, so this era must have really left an impression on him.
I’ll bet it did. Kind of romantic in its own way. Personally, I’m happy to forgo the romance and have beer that doesn’t need the needle.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Get to Know Sawdust City Brewing Company of Oshkosh

If things go according to plan, beer from Sawdust City Brewing Company will begin pouring from the taps at O'Marro's Public House this fall. The emergent brewery is the project of Mike Schlosser and Shawn O’Marro. Both are Oshkosh residents who have long been involved with the beer scene here. O’Marro via his well-known pub, O’Marro’s Public House. Schlosser through his years of involvement with the Oshkosh homebrewing community.

O'Marro (Left) and Schlosser
Their plan is to begin making beer late this summer on a brewing system that will reside at O'Marro's Public House. Schlosser refers to it as a “proof of concept" system. “This will be what gets Sawdust City Brewing off the ground,” he says, “but this system won’t be long term. This is just to get us up and running to see what works.”

The 40-gallon system is designed and built by Schlosser, a network engineer by trade. He’s tailored it to meet the initial concept of the brewery.

The idea is to have three or four Sawdust City beers constantly on tap at O’Marro’s with an eye towards scaling the operation and distributing beer to other outlets within the city. But with a 40 gallon system, keeping up with demand at O’Marro’s pub, may turn out to be the more pressing matter.

“That would be a great problem to have,” O’Marro says. “And if it gets to that point, we’re immediately going to start going towards a larger system.”

“We’re not going to sit on this,” Schlosser ads. “At that point we’ll have shown that this concept works and we’ll have the experience we’ll need to take it to the next level. That’s part of why we chose this size to start with. There’s no upgrading this. It’s not even a negotiable thing. From here we’ll go up to a 7 or 15 barrel system. Then when we ramp up, this will be used for test batches or special, one-off beers.”

The first step, though, will be getting Sawdust City Brewing licensed. They’re currently working on obtaining the necessary state and federal permits. The fact that O’Marro is a bar owner complicates the situation. “We had to make sure that we could brew at the pub and sell our beer there without having to go through a distributor,” says O’Marro. “We’ve actually had two lawyers involved with this. They had to go down to Madison to get it straightened out.”

They now anticipate having the licensing process completed by late August or early September. At that point, Schlosser will begin brewing pilot batches with the intent of having beer on tap at O’Marro’s by October or November.

O’Marro and Schlosser are still determining what the original line-up will look like. “We’re going to decide on two or three beers that we’ll have on regularly,” O’Marro says. “Then we’ll do a series of specialty and seasonal beers that will rotate through. I like IPAs, but it would be good to bring some maltier sessionable brews back around.”

Schlosser, who will be brewmaster for Sawdust City Brewing, points out one of the benefits of small-batch brewing. “We’ll be able to shuffle the deck as we go along and see what people are responding to,” he says. “That’s what’s nice about this system. It’s small enough that we can be flexible and respond quickly.”

O’Marro and Schlosser have been kicking around the idea of doing something like this for at least six years. If it comes together as planned, Sawdust City Brewing will mark the return of commercial brewing to the South Side Oshkosh after a 43 year lull. It’s a part of town where breweries flourished for much of this city’s history. The time appears ripe for that tradition to be revived.

Monday, May 11, 2015

From Near Beer to Nearer to Beer

Oshkosh in the 1920s was a city crowded with outlaws. Thanks to Prohibition, criminal pursuit was rampant. The do-gooders dreamed of creating a more sober, orderly society. But their overreach inspired utter contempt for the law among otherwise ordinary citizens. The crime du jour was the production and distribution of alcohol.

In Oshkosh, wildcat breweries and distilleries arrived hand-in-hand with Prohibition in 1920. Beer flats – private homes where homebrew and moonshine were sold – became common. Amidst the lawlessness, dispirited breweries like the Oshkosh Brewing Company worked within the law while abetting those who operated outside it. Here’s an ad from from October 1930 hinting at how convoluted the situation became.

Click Image to Enlarge
Tommy Thirst (“That’s Me!”) was an impish character introduced by OBC to push the brewery’s near beer in the waning years of Prohibition. There’s a line in this ad that’s perhaps more revealing than it first appears: “Our Near Beer doesn't start anything it can't finish.” That’s because the illegal “finish” was left to people outside of the brewery.

OBC’s near beer contained less than 1/2 of 1% alcohol by volume. For all practical purposes, it was alcohol free. It was usually produced by taking an already fermented beer and heating it to about 173º, the boiling point of alcohol. As the beer cooked, the alcohol would be drawn off.

The folks at OBC were certainly aware that their near beer would not necessarily remain an alcohol-free drink. After leaving the brewery, these brews were often spiked with alcohol to bring the beer back to its original strength or even stronger. The practice was referred to as “needling” or “spiking” and though it was illegal, it was so common in Oshkosh that the city sought to regulate it rather then try to eliminate it.

The City of Oshkosh required dealers in near beer to be licensed if the beverage was being consumed on premise. In 1929, Oshkosh Corporation Counsel Lloyd D. Mitchell explained why such an ordinance was needed.

"It has been shown that it is absolutely necessary that some local authority, state or municipal, have some regulatory power over places where drinks are dispensed. They are places where men congregate in large numbers and are idle and if the places are not operated by a proper person many things may take place that are detrimental to the community. Women complain to the authorities that their husbands are spending all of their money in a certain place or are coming home and abusing their families.”
  - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; June 14, 1929

The “places” Mitchell was referring to had been saloons before Prohibition. When Prohibition arrived, nearly all of these Oshkosh saloons suddenly became “soda parlors.” But only those soda parlors selling near beer were required to apply for the special license. Places like Nigl’s, Steckbauer’s, Utecht’s and Witzke’s. All the same places that OBC had been selling real beer to before the dry law. In fact, a number of them were still owned by the brewery.

The licensing requirement was nearly as big a charade as the soda parlors it was invoked to regulate. An amendment to the ordinance strictly limited police enforcement of it. Only select members of the Oshkosh force were allowed to inspect soda parlors that sold near beer. The result was the continuance of local non-enforcement of the dry law here. In Oshkosh, near beer went on being “needled” beer. And Little Tommy Thirst went right on smiling.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Bitter Beer News

This week's Beer Beat column is up at the Oshkosh Independent. It's all about bitter beer. See it here.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fox River Brewing Extends Its Reach

Amid the talk of new breweries being planned for Oshkosh, the city’s only operational brewery is gradually expanding its presence here. For the first time since the late 1990s, six-packs of Fox River Brewing Company beer are on store shelves in Oshkosh.

The picture here was taken last week at the Oshkosh Festival Foods store. Festival is selling sixers Fox River’s BLÜ Bobber, a blueberry flavored fruit beer; and 2 Dams, a blonde ale. The six- packs at Festival are priced at $7.99.  

Both beers are part of Fox River’s Bago Brew Collection, which now includes four beers. The Bago Brews not available at Festival are the more robust beers of the quartet. Neither Marble Eye, a 6.2% ABV Scotch Ale formerly known as Caber Tossing; nor Crooked Dock, a 6.2% ABV American Pale Ale are being sold at Festival. At the moment, the store is only stocking the lower alcohol, lighter bodied beers.

We’ve seen Fox River beers showing up on draft in Oshkosh for the past few months as part of the distribution plan the brewery initiated last year. Retail sales of bottled beer is the other piece of the plan. Earlier this year, Fox River installed a new bottling line at its Appleton brewpub. The bottled beer we’re seeing in Oshkosh is from that line.

The increased activity at Fox River Brewing last year didn’t translate into a substantial increase in output. In 2014, Fox River Brewing produced 1,334 barrels of beer (672 bbls in Oshkosh, 662 bbls in Appleton). That’s just 15 barrels more than the brewery produced in 2013.

Early numbers for this year, however, show production increasing. And the overall trend is significant. Since 2011, Fox River Brewing has increased its output by 25%. With the brewery’s beer now flowing well beyond its brewpubs, those numbers ought to continue to rise.

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.