Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Were The Oshkosh Beers Any Good?

From Paul Esslinger's Collection
If you take an interest in the bygone breweries of Oshkosh, one of the first things you discover is that there’s no good record of what beers such as Peoples or Chief Oshkosh actually tasted like. Looking at it from our perspective, when we have websites such as Rate Beer and Beer Advocate filled with detailed descriptions of practically every beer currently being made, makes the lack of information about earlier beers seem almost incomprehensible. If you want a hint as to what the beers of the past were like, all you really have to go by are the bromides of advertising that chirp about how “refreshing” or “mellow” or “pure” the beer was. One of my favorites of these is from the early 1900s and the Oshkosh Brewing Company who described their Special Old Lager as being “ripened and matured to develop rare zest.” Cute, but it says nothing, really.

Over the past couple months I’ve made a habit of questioning people who remember drinking Peoples or Chief Oshkosh. I ask them if they can recall anything about the flavor of these beers. The answers I get couldn’t be more vague. “It was all right” or something to that effect is what I’m usually told about Chief Oshkosh Beer. The descriptions of Peoples Beer are often less charitable, but no more detailed. The most descriptive remembrance I’ve heard came from one of the regulars at Oblio’s who told me that Peoples had a “soapy” flavor. He couldn’t recall much more than that.

Towards the end of their runs there probably wasn’t much that was worth remembering about either Peoples or Chief Oshkosh Beer. American beer after prohibition went through a long, dumbing-down period where much of what made a beer distinctive was stripped away resulting in bland lagers that would appeal to broader markets. Also working against the local brews was the growing perception that the national beers were of higher quality. This almost certainly wasn’t the case, but the alluring advertising that drove beers such as Schlitz and Miller definitely contributed to the perception that the regional beers were second rate.

So were the local beers any good? From here, it’s hard to tell. But in the case of Peoples there are a couple bits of information that suggest it was a decent beer, after all. The first nugget is from the Siebel Institute, the Chicago brewing school that ran quality assurance programs for many of the nation’s breweries. In 1971 they reported that Peoples Beer “makes an exceedingly good impression in almost every respect.” Again, this doesn’t tell you much other than that the beer wasn’t crap. But the best source I’ve been able to locate in this vein comes from a January 12, 1971 article in the Milwaukee Sentinel. The article is about the trouble Peoples was having trying to crack the Milwaukee market. Towards the end of the article there’s a quote from “Mrs. Harry Siegel, whose husband operates the Siegel Beer and Liquor Depot,” which is still in business on Milwaukee’s East Side. Mrs. Siegel thought the beer was fine, but that the price was too high. She said, “The people who try it do rebuy, but it should be more in the neighborhood with Gettleman and Old Milwaukee on pricing.” Peoples President Theodore Mack countered her statement saying that “the hops, grain and brewing skill put into Peoples made it worth premium prices.” That doesn’t say much, but the fact that they were arguing about price while the quality of the beer seems to be a given, may be the best indication we have that Peoples Beer may have actually been pretty good.


  1. I remember drinking Chief Oshkosh and I would say the closest beer on the market today in terms of flavor would be Point Beer. It was a very distinct taste; you either liked it or hated it. Point is less intense than Chief Oshkosh was, but very similar. I lived near Peoples toward the end and drank it, too, but it was really unremarkable. We bought both beers by the case right off the loading dock.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    Thanks for the notes on Chief Oshkosh. I’ve been asking people what that beer tasted like for months and you’re description is by far the most detailed I’ve heard. If you’d like to share more of your memories about beer in Oshkosh, let me know. I’d love to hear more. Thanks.