Monday, May 4, 2015

Oshkosh Homebrew Boom and Bust

While researching last Monday’s post about homebrew shops in Oshkosh, it struck me just how prevalent homebrewing was here during Prohibition. I’d heard stories about the boom in homebrewing here during the 1920s. But I’d never truly grasped the scale of it. This city was flooded with homebrew all through the “dry” years.

The best indicator of the homebrew scene that flourished here is the number of businesses that carried homebrewing supplies. It was a highly competitive market. In addition to the two stores that specialized in outfitting homebrewers, there were shops in every quarter of the city selling ingredients specific to making beer at home.

By the mid-1920s there were well over 60 stores in Oshkosh offering hopped malt extract to homebrewers. Most of these were small, neighborhood grocery stores. Many carried a variety of different extracts made to mimic pre-Prohibition beers such as Budweiser, Miller and Pabst. Here’s a full-page ad for Pabst malt extract that appeared in the Daily Northwestern on June 10, 1927. Notice how many retailers in the area were stocking the Pabst extract. As always, click the image to enlarge it.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company produced several brands of hopped malt extract that were sold locally. OBC’s extract was available in grocery stores and at the brewery. Here’s a can of OBC malt extract used for brewing a dark beer.

At OBC they also sold hops. And it appears that the brewery sold malted barley for homebrewers who preferred not to use extracts. That wasn’t all OBC had to offer. If you were a homebrewer with questions about making beer, what better place to get your supplies than from people whose lives had been dedicated to making beer. There’s no resource the equal of this today.

In comparison to the amount of homebrew made now, the numbers from the 1920s are staggering. The American Homebrewers Association estimates that homebrewers currently produce about 2 million barrels of beer annually. In 1921, the estimates of annual homebrew production were placed at 10-11 million barrels. By 1927, the number had jumped to 35 million. That’s as much beer as was made by commercial brewers in the year after beer was legalized in 1933.

It leaves me questioning why it all died off so quickly? Homebrewing in Oshkosh went into a steep and immediate decline as soon as beer became legal. By the end of 1934, brewing supplies essentially disappeared from store shelves here. The preference for commercial beer over homebrew was obvious. Was the average homebrew that bad?

Could be. The one thing you never see in any of the 1920’s advertisements for homebrew supplies in Oshkosh is yeast. That’s telling. Sanitation along with yeast and fermentation management are crucial to producing good beer at home. Yeast appears to have been a secondary consideration for homebrewers during Prohibition. Without good yeast you won’t make good beer.

Another defining character of Prohibition-era homebrew was its strength. An article from the Daily Northwestern entitled THE “HOMEBREW” FLOOD tells of the powerful beer made by homebrewers.

Home brewing has none of the mechanism essential to holding down the alcoholic content. It permits fermentation to be completed, resulting in a beverage which runs from 6 to 8 percent alcohol and is in reality a heavy ale rather than a true beer. Much of this finds its way to the saloons...
   -- Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; June, 14, 1922.

That’s strong stuff, especially when compared to the pale, 4% ABV beers offered by commercial brewers here in 1933. Nevertheless, people in Oshkosh preferred it to homebrew.

It would be nearly 60 years before homebrewing in Oshkosh underwent a substantial revival. Homebrewing supplies were once again being sold locally when the Society of Oshkosh Brewers formed in 1991. The hobby has continued to grow here, but in comparison to our counterparts of the 1920s we’re merely dabblers. Then again, our beer may be better.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, could you please get back with me I'd like to buy my husband a couple of cans of your Oshkosh beer light an dark home brew Hop flavored syrup for xmas. So please let me know, I'm in Michigan. Thanks