Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Spelunking the Beer Caves of Oshkosh

The beer cave is nothing new. Until the early 1900s, when mechanical refrigeration systems became a viable option, local brewers would harvest ice from Lake Winnebago for holding in insulated bunkers to create cold spaces. Here they would store, or lager, their beer for extended periods, usually a month or more, to allow the brew to mature and “ripen” before it went to market. The annual ice harvest was a massive undertaking. In 1910, the year before Oshkosh Brewing built its new brewery equipped with its own ice-making machinery, the company harvested more than 10 thousand tons of ice from Lake Winnebago.

Those days are long gone, but the beer caves remain. A hundred years later, though, the term has undergone an unexpected corruption. In the idiom of gas station operators, the beer cave is now the freezing cold room at the back of the store packed with a volume of straw-hued fluid that would have left our early brewers awestruck. A number of such beer caves have popped up around Oshkosh and most of them are about as interesting as the macro-brewed swill they proffer to keep the punters pie-eyed and jonesing for lottery tickets. But they’re not all of that ilk. We’ve got a couple beer caves in Oshkosh that are a cut above the rest, so let’s take a look at what they have to offer the not-too-discriminating beer snob.

Lets start on the south side of town. A quick trot north from where Glatz, Horn and Schwalm dug their beer caves almost 150 years ago, is the The Condon Party Mart Beer Cave at 1424 S. Main Street. This cave first went into operation two years ago and if you can get past the exorbitant prices tagged to the best of their stock, this is probably the top spot for beer shopping on the south side. The Party Mart treats their beer with a measure of respect by keeping most of it in the cave at a temperature that doesn’t encourage casual browsing. The selection is surprisingly good, too. In addition to the familiar craft favorites by New Glarus, New Belgium and Capital they’ve got a stash of beers you don’t expect to find at a gas station such as Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale and Three Floyd’s Gumballhead. The last time I stopped in I mentioned to the manager that I was surprised by the variety of beer in the cave and without missing a beat he said, “That’s our pride and joy.” If malted beverages comprise the majority of fluid you consume, you’ll probably go broke making the Party Mart your main source of liquid, but in a pinch this place is great.

Now to the north side where the Blue Moose Beer Cave at 708 West Murdock Avenue is like an abridged version of the American beer scene. This place has it all, from the lowest gut-rot malt liquor to the Belgian beers that set the snobs to babbling. Any gas station that regularly has the full line of Chimay on hand is OK by me. And there’s something good about seeing that high-toned ale neighbored with genuine retro-product like Schlitz Tall Boys and Schell’s Deer Brand. The Blue Moose Cave usually has a good stock of New Galrus’ Unplugged beers and always has the coveted Raspberry Tart and Belgian Red on hand. Recently they’ve been bringing in bombers of Goose Island including the Night Stalker Imperial Stout (sold out) and the excellent Sofie Farmhouse Ale. They take the extra step, too, of tacking up little, hand-written signs explaining to the uninitiated what these beers are all about. I’ve asked a couple people at Blue Moose who’s responsible for the good beer coming in and they’ve told me that it’s a group effort, that they have a couple beer lovers on staff. The prices are about what you’d expect from a convenience store (too damned high!), but I’ve seen worse. The only downside, is that the beer cave here tends to be a bit hit and miss. If you see something good you’d better grab it because it might not be coming back.

One bit of shopping advice - in places such as these you really ought to avoid anything that comes in a clear or green bottle. The good beer at these places sometimes hangs around longer than it should, amplifying the strain those sorts of bottles put on the beer. So if you grab some gas and a six of Newcastle Brown Ale there’s a good chance it’s going to be sour enough to make you pucker. I suppose that’s what I get for buying Newcastle.

Want a Beer Cave of your very own? Here you go!

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