Monday, March 23, 2015

If You Drink Beer, Why Not Oshkosh Brewed Beer?

This post is the fifth in a five-part series. If you’d like to read the earlier related posts, here are links to them: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.

The Truce
When the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC) was formed in 1894, the brewery’s goal was to take control of the Oshkosh beer market. Within five years of its launch, OBC had done just that. But the brewery’s fierce domination of the Oshkosh beer market led to a revolt among Oshkosh saloon keepers. In 1913, the saloonists retaliated by launching a cooperative brewery: The Peoples Brewing Company.

In the run up to the opening of Peoples, OBC attacked the upstart brewery with claims that it would produce inferior beer and damage the city’s brewing industry. The stage appeared to be set for a beer war in Oshkosh.

But that war would never be waged. In 1914, Oshkosh’s three breweries – Rahr, OBC and Peoples – came to the agreement that their real enemy wasn’t within.

Beginning in January 1914, Oshkosh’s breweries collaborated on a series of advertisements to persuade the people of Oshkosh to buy no beer but that made in their hometown. In their appeal to Oshkosh drinkers, the breweries here rallied around a common enemy – Milwaukee.

Oshkosh’s breweries had good reason to be nervous. The world’s largest producer of beer was just 90 miles south of the city. Worse yet, Milwaukee had drawn a bead on Oshkosh. In the months after Peoples Brewing opened, Milwaukee breweries launched an aggressive campaign aimed at Oshkosh’s beer drinkers. With the introduction of Peoples, OBC’s near-total domination of the Oshkosh beer market had come to an end. The Milwaukee brewers smelled blood in the water. Miller, Schlitz and Pabst grew tenacious.

Daily Northwestern, July 16, 1913
Each of these three Milwaukee breweries began running large, sometimes full-page, ads in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. The ads were ornate, polished and dominated the page. The much smaller ads from Oshkosh’s breweries appeared insignificant and antiquated in comparison. Ads for beer from both cities often appeared on the same page. The juxtaposition favored Milwaukee.

The Oshkosh brewers rallied. The first of their responses to the Milwaukee onslaught occurred just six months after the opening of Peoples. With text-laden, half-page ads, the breweries of Oshkosh leveled the same sorts of claims against Milwaukee’s big breweries as OBC had made in its earlier attack on Peoples: the beer was inferior.

“...some of the big outside brewers employ expert chemists to provide substitutes for high priced materials and to find ways of artificially aging beer so that it can be sold as soon as made. This, of course, means a big saving to the brewery that produces hundreds of thousands of barrels of beer yearly, but the beer is never the same.”
     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, January 17, 1914

The appeal to localism was explicit.

"Why not specify home beer? It's as pure and wholesome as a drink can be made. You get just as much for your money and the same service from the man who handles the home beer as from the agent of the outside brewery. You are helping boost your own town."

Miller, Schlitz and Pabst each had distribution centers and agents located in Oshkosh.

The Oshkosh brewery's collaborative ads ran under a banner that asked, “If you drink beer, why not Oshkosh brewed beer?” And ended with the homey refrain, “Just specify Beer Brewed in Oshkosh. It’s a little thing to ask for, but it’s a big thing after it’s done.”

It worked. Selling beer brewed in Oshkosh to the people of Oshkosh wasn’t a difficult task. For the previous 66 years there had been a marked preference here for beer made in this city. The old loyalties were still vital in 1914. That aspect of our beer culture didn't change substantially until the 1960s. When it did, our breweries went into swift decline.

In 1914, the thought of Oshkosh not having a brewery was unimaginable. In 1972, it was a reality. Rahr, OBC and Peoples were gone. Miller, Pabst and Schlitz were everywhere.

But there was a time when it made sense to ask...

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