Monday, May 5, 2014

The First IPA in Oshkosh

A 1950s ad for Labatt's IPA
The May edition of the Oshkosh SCENE is now out and available all around town. This time for the Oshkosh Beer Garden, I wrote about the surging popularity of India Pale Ale in Oshkosh. And while I was working on the story, I began to wonder: what was the first IPA to arrive in Oshkosh?

I started digging expecting to find that IPA had been flowing into Oshkosh prior to the 1900s, but found nothing confirming that. That’s not to say that Oshkoshers weren’t drinking IPAs in the 1800s, it’s just that I haven’t been able to locate anything that explicitly says so.

Frankly, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t an IPA or two being served in Oshkosh by at least the 1880s. Though lager beer dominated in this city, we were also getting a healthy assortment of English styles prior to the turn of the century (examples HERE, HERE, HERE & HERE). We know that Scottish brewed IPA was coming into Wisconsin by the 1850s. We also know that in the 1880s IPA was being brewed in Wisconsin at the Todd Brewery in Janesville. I’d bet some of that beer was finding its way to Oshkosh.

But until I can find evidence of that, there’s this: in 1956 IPA had definitely arrived in Oshkosh. It came in the form Labatt’s IPA, which was being sold at Bowen Street Beverage at the corner of Bowen and Waugoo (217 Bowen). John Thiessen, who was then running the liquor store, was good for bringing in “unusual” beers during this period. In a November 23, 1956 ad for Labatt’s IPA that Thiessen ran in the Daily Northwestern, he commented, “Labatt’s Ale is really the finest. You'll get a kick out of it. Try a 6 pack or a case.”

The Labatt’s IPA Thiessen was selling was brewed by Labatt Brewing in London, Ontario, Canada. By the time its IPA reached Oshkosh, Labatt had been brewing it for nearly a century. The Labatt’s IPA was said to have come into being in the 1860s after the son of the brewery’s founder returned home from a brewing apprenticeship in Wheeling, West Virginia, where he had picked up the recipe. The beer became the brewery’s flagship brand and by the 1890s accounted for almost 75% of Labatt’s output.

How did the 1956 Labatt’s IPA taste? Labatt Brewing was known to use American hops, but certainly not in the quantities used in the kind of IPAs that are now so popular. Today it would probably more closely resemble a modern pale ale, than it would an American-style IPA. Still, this would have been a substantial beer and especially so in 1956. Ads for Labatt’s IPA of the 1950s sold it as “A real ale brewed for men who enjoy the natural tang of hops” and stressed “it’s hearty strength.” Sounds kind of good. Sadly, it’s no longer being brewed. In 1995, Labatt Brewing was scooped up by Interbrew, which subsequently became part of Anheuser-Busch InBev. Another sad end to a once-great brewery.

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