Monday, October 5, 2015

The Story of Rahr's Elk's Head Beer and How to Brew Your Own

Elk's Head Beer was considered by many in Oshkosh the finest beer made in the city. Some of that fondness may have been born of nostalgia. In 1956, The Rahr Brewing Company became the first of the Oshkosh breweries to close after Prohibition. People here mourned the loss of Oshkosh's last family owned brewery. When it was gone, Elk's Head beer was missed.

But the reputation of Elk's Head didn't hang on nostalgia alone. This beer was different from others brewed here. When Prohibition ended in 1933, the beers of both the Oshkosh Brewing Company and Peoples Brewing Company, became lighter in body and color as the years wore on. The Rahr's resisted that change by brewing the same beer after Prohibition as they had before it. Elk's Head was the old timers favorite.


The Birth of Elk's Head Beer
The Rahr's began releasing their beer under the Elk's Head label in the summer of 1916. Previously, the beer had been known as Rahr's Special Brew. The change followed a tumultuous period for the brewery. In 1914, the Rahr's had begun construction of a new bottling plant on the brewery's grounds. At the time, Rahr beer was being bottled at a facility owned and operated by brothers Fred and Ludwig Neumueller across the street from the brewery. But brewery owner Charlie Rahr had grown dissatisfied with the arrangement and the packaged beer coming out of the Neumueller's plant.

By 1915, the Rahr's had taken their bottling in house. The following year they renamed their beer Elk's Head. It doesn't appear that the beer itself had actually changed. Advertising from the period doesn't indicate that the recipe was reformulated or that brewing methods had been altered to produce a new type of beer. Instead, it seems that the new name was used to further distinguish the beer now bottled on premise from that bottled by the  Neumueller's.

After Prohibition began in 1920, the Rahr's continued to use the Elk's Head brand. But now it was being applied to the various sodas the brewery produced during the dry years. That ended with Prohibition's end in 1933. Rahr's beer was once again packaged under the Elk's Head label.

Though the Rahr brewery closed in 1956, the Elk's Head brand perished earlier. By 1952, the Elk's Head label was being phased out in favor of new branding. It was now being labeled as Rahr's Pale Beer, an attempt to update the perception of the beer. Again, it appears the beer inside the bottle went unchanged. Charles Rahr III, the last brewmaster at Rahr Brewing told me that Rahr beer continued to be brewed using the same recipe that had been used prior to Prohibition.

The Rahr Recipe
This recipe for Elk's Head Beer was given to me by a collector of Oshkosh memorabilia who would prefer not to be named. In 2011, I met with Charles Rahr III and showed him the recipe. He confirmed that this was the one used at the brewery to make Elk's Head Beer. Though detailed in many respects, there are still a couple of missing pieces here. I'll get to those, but first here's what is contained in the recipe. The percentages are my own.

Grain Bill
Malt (6-row): 3850 Lbs. (76.47 %)
Flakes (Corn): 1040 Lbs. (20.65 %)
Caramel Malt: 10  Lbs. (0.0019 %)
Black Malt: 9  Lbs. (0.0017 %)
Maltodextrin: 125 Lbs. (0.024 %)
Total: 5034 Lbs.

Hops
53 Lbs.

Other Materials
NaCl (Sodium chloride) 10 Lbs.
Irish Moss 4 Lbs.

Equipment
During much of the time that this beer was being produced, Rahr Brewing used a 135 barrel mash tun with a copper boil kettle corresponding in size.

Mashing
The recipe shows a two-hour mash schedule with four rests. The temperatures are written in degrees Réaumur, a scale often favored by German brewers. I've converted the temperatures to fahrenheit.

1) 108.5 °F for 60 minutes
followed by a ten minute ramp to
2) 149 °F for 10 minutes
followed by a five minute ramp to
3) 158 °F for 25 minutes
followed by a five minute ramp to
4) 169.25 °F for 15 minutes
Recirculate and run into kettle.

Boiling
The boil lasted an incredible 4 hours. It began while the wort was being collected. Runoff was completed 2.5 hours into the boil. The full-kettle boil lasted 1.5 hours.
The maltodexrin was added to the kettle as the wort was being collected, at a point when the kettle was nearly full.
The first hops were added 55 minutes before the end of the boil.
Ten minutes before the end of the boil, a second addition of hops were added along with the NaCl and Irish Moss.

What's missing here are the type of hops used and the basic brewing parameters, including wort gravities, final gravity and alcohol percentage. The The International Bittering Units scale had yet to be developed when the Rahr's were brewing this beer, so that of course is not available. None of these missing pieces though are insurmountable. There's enough information concerning the brewery and its practices to fill in these blanks with a reasonable degree of surety.

Hops: I have not seen a single instance where the Rahr's mention the use of a specific type of hop in their advertising. That's telling. The Rahr's advertised their beer fairly heavily. Their use of traditional methods and ingredients were often featured in these ads. Most breweries using European hops – including Peoples Brewing and the Oshkosh Brewing Company – made a point of advertising their use of the more expensive ingredient. The fact that the Rahrs didn't make such claims leads me to believe the brewery used American grown hops exclusively. And that effectively narrows the choice to cluster, the hop ubiquitous in American lagers when Elk's Head Beer was being produced.

As for IBUs, most pre-Prohibition lagers are estimated to have been in the 25-40 IBU range. The Rahr's use of approximately 1/2 pound of hops per barrel of beer puts them within the lower end of that spectrum. That makes sense. The use of salt to promote malt flavor along with the addition of maltodextrin indicates that Elk's Head was intended to be a malt-forward beer. That aspect of the beer is supported in much of the brewery's advertising for Elk's Head.

Gravities
The typical batch size at Rahr Brewing was just over 100 bbls. If you plug the numbers listed above into a brewing calculator using that batch size, you arrive at gravities, attenuation and alcohol levels that are commensurate with other lagers of this type made prior to Prohibition. With that in mind, here are estimates of the missing brewing parameters.

Original Gravity: 1.051
Final Gravity: 1.014
ABV: 4.82%

The Rahr Brewery

Brewing Your Own Elk's Head Beer
Of course, I wanted to brew this beer myself, so I scaled the recipe to match my home brewery. Here's what a homebrewed batch of this beer looks like. I'll list the ingredients using percentages to make it easier to tailor the recipe to individual brewing systems.

Homebrewed Elk''s Head
Specs
Original Gravity: 1.052
Final Gravity: 1.014
ABV: 4.82%
SRM: 5

Grain Bill
American - Pale 6-Row: 74.8%
Flaked Corn: 20.2%
American - Caramel / Crystal 20L:  0.2%
American - Black Malt: 0.2%
Melanoidan Malt: 2.3%
Maltodextrin: 2.3%

The tweak I've made to the malt bill (adding melanoidan malt) was done to approximate the effect of that long boil. There's just no way I'm doing a four-hour boil. I'm also not going to do a two-hour step mash. I've brewed this beer once using a more standard step mashing regimen and three times using a simple infusion mash (at 154ºF for 1 hour) followed by a batch sparge. The step mash made little, if any, impact.

Hops
Cluster Hops 6.5% AA: 55 minutes before the end of boil for 24.54 IBUs.
Cluster Hops 6.5% AA: 10 minutes before the end of boil for 9.10 IBUs.
Total IBUs: 33.64, which is maybe just a tad high, but that's how I like it! A more appropriate target would be closer to 25 IBUs.

Brewing Salts
1/2 teaspoon NaCl (per 5-gallon batch) added to wort 10 minutes before the end of boil.

Yeast
Wyeast 2035 | American Lager
This yeast supposedly originates from August Schell Brewing of New Ulm, Minnesota. It's fairly complex for a lager yeast. I like the way it works with this recipe.
At Rahr, they often used yeast sourced from the A. Gettelman Brewing Co. in Milwaukee.
I'm assuming the two yeasts would have been at least somewhat similar.

Fermentation
I use a very basic protocol when fermenting lagers. I crash to just below fermentation temperature and then pitch the yeast. Primary fermentation at 50ºf lasts approximately two weeks followed by a two day diacetyl rest at around 65ºf. This is followed by a three to four week lagering phase at 50ºf.

I've brewed this beer four times now. I love it. It's a medium-bodied, balanced beer that's full of flavor. To me it tastes "bigger" than it is. It's one of those beers that keeps me coming back to the glass.

If anybody else out there decides to give this beer a brew, I'd love to hear about it. Happy brewing!

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