Monday, May 6, 2013
Schiffmann’s Oshkosh White Beer
A few weeks ago, at the Oshkosh Memorabilia Club’s Antique Appraisal Show, a gentleman introduced himself and then showed me the bottle you see here. I would have been less surprised to see a unicorn walk into the room. This is among the rarest of Oshkosh beer bottles. According to its owner, the bottle was found in 1962 near the corner of Ceape and Main during a construction dig. It’s in remarkable shape, especially when you consider its age and the odd journey it must have taken en route to its burial next to Main St. Although fixing an exact date on this bottle is probably impossible, it’s safe to say it hails from the latter half of the 1870s, a time when stoneware bottles such as this were somewhat common. In Oshkosh, though, few brewers used them. One of those who did was Leonard Schiffmann, whose misspelled name is stamped at the shoulder of the bottle.
Schiffmann’s known history is somewhat fuzzy, but what’s there is interesting. Born in Prussia about 1819, Schiffmann rode one of the early waves of emigration out of Germany. By 1865, he was settled in Oshkosh and running a saloon downtown. His stand was in the area of what is now 416-418 N. Main St. (approximately where the old Exclusive Co. was). Things seemed to go well enough for him until the early 1870s. In 1872, Schiffmann’s son Leonard Jr. died after falling into a vat of boiling wort at the Horn & Schwalm Brewery on Doty St. Two years later, the Fourth Great Oshkosh Fire consumed Schiffmann’s saloon, his home and just about everything else on the east side of Main St.
Schiffmann and family headed south. They took up residence on Doty St. just south of 18th. There Schiffmann established a brewery with his eldest son, Andrew, who like his younger brother had also been employed at Horn & Schwalm’s Brewery. But the Schiffmann’s operation wasn’t your typical Oshkosh brewery of the period. Instead of brewing the now wildly popular lager beer, Schiffmann made ale in the form of Weissbier, or as it was called in Oshkosh at the time, White Beer.
Assuming that Schiffmann’s product was consistent with other American Weissbiers of that era gives us a general idea of what his beer was like. It would have been brewed with a mixture of wheat, malted barley and, very possibly, corn grits. The beer would have been cloudy and pale in appearance. Its light body and tart flavor would have been accentuated by an intense, champagne-like effervescence, which accounts for the stoneware bottle. White Beer typically underwent a secondary fermentation in the bottle resulting in a carbonic build-up that required a strong vessel to contain it. Schiffmann’s beer would have been quite low in alcohol. In fact, Weissbier wasn’t even taxed as an alcoholic beverage until 1875, due to its being considered non-intoxicating. At less than 3% ABV, Schiffmann’s beer would have been thought of as a soft drink in hard drinking Oshkosh.
Unfortunately, Shiffmann’s White Beer brewery wasn’t long for Doty St. By 1883, it had ceased operating. The days of stoneware bottles were gone, too. But at least three bottles from the Schiffmann’s brewery survive. In addition to the bottle seen here, there is a bottle with Schiffmann’s name spelled correctly and another stamped A. Schiffmann, after his son Andrew. Who knows, there may be dozens more of these buried around Oshkosh waiting to be exhumed.