Monday, October 13, 2014

Charles Rahr Goes Home

Charles Rahr
In June 1908, Oshkosh brewer Charles Rahr returned to his homeland after 52 years on American soil. When Rahr boarded the ship bound for Germany, he was 72-years-old. He had prepared for the journey by becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen four months prior to his departure. And just two months before leaving New York for Hamburg he had retired from brewing and turned the Rahr Brewing Company over to his son, Charlie. Yet on the ship’s manifest, Rahr still listed his occupation as brewer.

Rahr, his wife Caroline and several Oshkosh friends would spend more than three months traveling though Germany. Their trip included a three-week excursion down the Rhine River that took Rahr back to Wesel, the city of his birth.

But the world Rahr was returning too was quite unlike the one he had left behind. When Rahr left Wesel in 1856, the city was part of Prussia. It was an isolated fortress city racked by years of war. German unification in 1871 made Wesel part of the German Empire. It was followed by the city’s modernization and redevelopment.

Charles Rahr had changed, too. He had fought and was wounded in the American Civil War. And after working at several other Wisconsin breweries, he had launched his own brewery in Oshkosh in 1865. Rahr had come from a brewing family and had probably been involved in beer making in Wesel prior to his leaving for America. But the beer he would have found in Wesel upon his return would have been quite unlike the beer he remembered.

When Rahr lived in Wesel, the region surrounding the Lower Rhine was dominated by small breweries producing dark ales. That was beginning to change as Rahr came of age. By the time Rahr returned to Wesel, he would have found most of the dark ales of his youth being supplanted by pale lager beer produced by large, industrial breweries. In fact, the beer Rahr returned to in Wesel may have more closely resembled the beer he was producing in Oshkosh than the beer he recalled from his younger days.

I wonder if that disappointed him. Perhaps not. He may have felt validated by the popularity of the new beer in Wesel. Lager breweries had begun to take hold in the region around Wesel in the 1840s and the impact of that change seems to have influenced the Rahr family of brewers. Three members of the Rahr family left Wesel and launched breweries in Wisconsin during the 1800s. Each of their breweries made lager beer. Rahr must surely have noticed the irony. In the 52 years since his departure, Wesel had given itself over to the type of beer he had invested his life in brewing 4,000 miles from home.

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