Monday, August 5, 2013

The Last Gasp of Chief Oshkosh Red Lager

The August issue of the Oshkosh SCENE is out and in it you’ll find my Oshkosh Beer Garden column (it’s also available online). This time it’s about Jeff Fulbright whose Mid-Coast Brewing Company produced Chief Oshkosh Red Lager from 1991-1994.

There is, though, one final piece of the Chief Oshkosh Red Lager story that didn’t fit into the SCENE article and hasn’t been told before. It goes like this...

By the latter half of 1994, Mid-Coast Brewing was in its death throes. A year earlier, the Miller Brewing Company had introduced Leinenkugel’s Red Lager, a beer that Fulbright describes as a “doppelgänger” to his brew. Things had gone downhill ever since. But the problem wasn’t just that the beers tasted similar. Fulbright operated Mid-Coast Brewing as a one-man show on a shoestring budget and he was being trounced by Miller’s massive marketing and distribution chain. “Almost all of my distributors were Miller based and when Leinenkugel’s introduced their Red Lager I was pushed out,” Fulbright says. As Chief Oshkosh Red Lager lost shelf space to its big-brewery double, Fulbright found himself scrambling to keep his brand alive. “I knew that unless I came up with something quick, it was going to be all over with.” he says.

What he came up with was a plan that involved another big Milwaukee brewery. Fulbright decided that he’d try to resurrect the fortunes of his brand by teaming up with a formidable brewery that needed a shot in the arm. “Pabst seemed perfect,” Fulbright says. “They had a great name, but they were old school and they were struggling. I thought I might be able to convince them to update their image with the production of a microbrew.”

It was a solid idea to be sure. By the mid-1990s, Anheuser-Busch, Coors and Miller had all begun to
tap the microbrew market. They had done so by either buying existing brands that had microbrew cachet or by creating special divisions within their companies, such as Blue Moon at Coors, that would be promoted as microbrew. “I went to them (Pabst) and said you're losing share and I’m losing my company,” Fulbright says. “I suggested we start a special division dedicated to microbrews with Chief Oshkosh Red Lager as the flagship beer. They already had some well-known and respected brands like Ballentine that could have worked well with this.”

Pabst was more than interested. “They loved the idea,” Fulbright says. “It was the right thing for them at the right time. They needed something or they were going to keep fading. They were excited about it and I tried not to show how excited I was. At this point I was down to nickels.”

So what happened? Fulbright says the continuing friction between Pabst ownership and its workers flared up again during his talks with the brewery and the plan was shelved. Fulbright didn’t have the means to wait it out. Mid-Coast Brewing had run out of money. The last batch of Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was brewed in December 1994.

But Pabst didn’t forget about the idea of getting in on the microbrew movement. In the summer of 1995, the brewery introduced both a red lager and a red ale. Red Bone Red Lager and Ballentine Twisted Red Ale were near perfect examples of how big beer often failed then - as it often does now - to understand the craft beer segment. Fulbright’s beer would have lent the brewery a measure of credibility in the microbrew market. Instead, Pabst shoved out a couple of mock microbrews. Nobody was fooled. In 1996 the Pabst brewery in Milwaukee closed.

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