Monday, May 12, 2014

Beer Ads in Oshkosh: That Delicious Hop Flavor Found in Oshkosh Beer

Each May, I tend to have hops on the brain. Can’t help it. I’m being influenced by the garden in my back yard, where for the past week the hop plants have been adding 4-8 inches of new growth a day (have a look HERE). So, of course, bells started going off when I came across this simple ad. It’s about “That delicious hop flavor found in Oshkosh Beer.” This appeared in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of May 20, 1908. Hop fever in May is nothing new.

During the first decade of the twentieth century, the Oshkosh Brewing Company was ardent in promoting its beer as being hoppy. There are advertisements from this period that refer to OBC beer as having a “peculiar hoppy flavor” and featuring a “pungent bitter.” Another ad from 1908 describes Oshkosh Beer as having “that spicy flavor and aromatic taste that are so distinctive, and it’s because we use the best hops money can buy.”

That bit about the “spicy flavor” of the beer makes sense. OBC at this point was sourcing its hops from Oregon and Bohemia (now part of the Czech Republic). The Oregon hops were almost certainly cluster, which the brewery probably used for bittering. The Bohemian hops were saaz, the classic, noble hop known for its spicy flavor and clean bitterness. The result was a Classic American Pilsner of the pre-Prohibition variety. It was a unique style of American beer, now rarely encountered.

The beer was made from malted barley – comprising 70-80% of the grain bill – with the remainder of the grist being corn. The malt flavor would have been subdued; just enough to support the beer’s pronounced hop flavor. Sounds not unlike what American brewer’s are trying to achieve these days with their IPAs, though the hop flavor would have been quite different.

Hoppy beers began falling out of favor with American drinkers after Prohibition, yet the Oshkosh Brewing Company maintained its propensity for producing a hop-forward beer. Well into the 1950s, OBC’s Chief Oshkosh Beer was still being described as “sharper” and more bitter than others. This would have been especially true in comparison to the beer of its cross-street rival, Peoples Brewing. In that respect, the two Oshkosh breweries managed to create an equilibrium. Peoples Beer was favored by Oshkoshers who preferred a maltier lager. Chief Oshkosh was the choice of the city’s mid-century hop heads. If you were stepping up to the bar at Witzke’s in 1957, which would you have chosen?

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