Monday, August 30, 2010

Small Beer No.1: Wet Hops & SoBe

In the course of researching some of the stories that wind up here on the blog, I often come across tidbits related to beer and brewing in Oshkosh that don’t warrant a whole lot of examination, but are interesting, all the same. It’s the sort of stuff that’s good for cluttering your head and not much else. It’s a nice sort of clutter, though, and I’d like to start passing some of this useless information along. So here’s the first installment of Small Beer. Feel free to drop these nuggets the next time there’s a lull in the conversation. Those within earshot will immediately develop a new appreciation for silence.

The First Wet-Hopped Beer Comes to Oshkosh

The hop harvesting season is nearly upon us in Oshkosh and there'll soon be a few local homebrewers making beer with hops they've plucked fresh from the vine. Well, that ain't nothin' new. This is an advertisement that ran in the Oshkosh Northwestern on July 10, 1957 and it claims that Tempo was the first beer to be brewed with fresh hops, as opposed to the dried hops brewers typically use. That's wrong. The first people to stumble upon the realization that hops added something good to their brews certainly hadn't gone to the trouble of drying them out. That came later. Truth be damned, it remains impressive that Blatz was marketing a wet-hopped beer here in Oshkosh more than 50 years ago. But you've got to wonder just how "fresh" those hops could have been. They were selling this beer in July, hardly the time of year for fresh hops in Wisconsin. The problem is, fresh hops don't hold up very well. You need to go from the hop plant to the kettle in just a few hours. If you miss that window of opportunity your beer ends up tasting as if you brewed it with lawn clippings. Still, you've got to admire the Blatz chutzpah. How many brewers these days would dare to run an advertisement for their beer claiming "It's the world's greatest beer"! By the way, there's an excellent beer bar in Milwaukee named the Bomb Shelter that supposedly has an old bottle of this floating around in their collection. Unfortunately, I've heard it's empty. But of course, it’s empty. You wouldn't expect the world's greatest beer to have gone unopened, would you?

SoBe and the Oshkosh Brewing Connection

Thomas Hardy Schwalm
At first glance, it wouldn’t appear that the iridescent fluid sold under the brand name SoBe would have much to do with beer or brewing in the city of Oshkosh. Look a little deeper though and you’ll find that SoBe is actually the wayward issue of the forefathers of beer in Oshkosh. SoBe was co-founded in 1996 by Thomas Hardy Schwalm, an Oshkosh native with a pedigree that maps to the heart of a bygone time in our city. Schwalm’s grandfathers were Oscar J. Hardy, publisher of the Oshkosh Northwestern from 1917 to 1950 and Arthur L. Schwalm, president of the Oshkosh Brewing Company from 1941-1961. His father, A. Thomas Schwalm, was brewmaster for the Oshkosh Brewing Company until he abandoned beer in 1950 to join his in-law’s newspaper business. But Thomas Schwalm wanted to be a beer man. He followed in the footsteps of the Schwalm men before him and over the course of his career worked for Schlitz, Stroh's and Barton Beers. Then came the SoBe gold mine. In 2000, Schwalm sold SoBe to Pepsi for a whopping $370 million dollars. Schwalm passed away in 2009 at his home in Greenwich, Conn. He was 64. He may have died a happy man, but he should have stuck with beer.

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