Monday, August 31, 2015

Hops and the Changing Nature of Beer in Oshkosh

Here’s a sweet little ad from the Oshkosh Brewing Company that appeared in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern on June 25, 1907. It comes with a hefty dose of the brewery’s standard hokum, but hidden amongst the tripe is a nugget of info about hops that’s revealing. If you click the ad it will enlarge, making it an easier read.

Did you catch that part about OBC using hops from the “celebrated Oregon fields”? That’s a telling comment. It’s an indication of the brewery transitioning away from its German roots to make beer that was more in keeping with the emergent style of American lager.

I mentioned in last Monday’s post that many of the German-born brewers who drove the American brewing industry in the 19th century weren’t exactly in love with American hops. They considered them “catty” and coarse. But American-grown hops were often the only hops at their disposal. Brewers made do with them. Locally, that began to change in the 1880s.

The decade brought the collapse of hop farming in Winnebago County, forcing brewers here to look elsewhere for their hops. At the same time, the importation of hops from Germany and Bohemia increased substantially.

Brewers who could afford the pricier continental hops began brewing with a mix of both European and American hops. They would typically use American-grown hops for bittering, driving off much of the hop flavor and aroma during a long boil of the wort. The continental hops were employed as flavor and aroma additions late in the boil, preserving their delicate attributes, giving the beer the “old-world” character brewers were after.

This was certainly the case locally. At OBC, the mix of American and Bohemian hops became standard. But that began to change during the first decade of the 20th century. As late as 1908, OBC was still using Bohemian hops in its beer. By 1910, though, that practice had all but ended. Pricing was certainly a factor in the change, but other forces were at work as well.

German-born immigrants were no longer the largest group of beer consumers in Oshkosh. By 1910, most beer drinker here were American-born and had little, if any, experience with European beer. That same shift was occurring within the brewery.

OBC’s first brewmaster, Lorenz Kuenzl, had been born in Bohemia and had used Bohemian and German beer styles as his template when formulating OBC’s beers. After Kuenzl’s death in 1897, he was replaced by Frank Menzel. Though Menzel had been born in Germany, he had come to America while still a teenager and gained the bulk of his brewing experience using American ingredients.

While Menzel had a foot in both the old and new worlds, he was part of a generation that was more intent on assimilation than in preserving the traditions of their parents. That shift was reflected in the beer Menzel brewed. It was a transition that continued to play out over the coming decade until it was eclipsed by the advent of Prohibition in 1920. Though brewers in Oshkosh would continue to use their German lineage as a selling point, the references were mostly puffery. They now made an American beer increasingly detached from the heritage it had grown out of.

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