Monday, December 14, 2015

Brewed Fresh and True: A History of Fox River Brewing Company

A New Beginning
In the summer of 1995 a new brewery was being built in Oshkosh. Things like this used to be common here. But those days were long gone.

There hadn't been a brewery raised in the city since 1913, when Ben Ganther's company put down the foundation for Peoples Brewing. Ganther's progeny was now laying the foundation for this new brewery. It was just one of many connections to the past that went mostly unnoticed that summer.

The years had scrubbed away Oshkosh's reputation as a city of breweries. People had forgotten how it used to be. What memories did remain were usually tied to the Oshkosh Brewing Company and Peoples Brewing Company, the two industrial firms that dominated the city's beer culture for much of the 20th century. When Peoples failed in 1972, Oshkosh was left without a brewery for the first time in 123 years.

By 1995 that absence had come to seem normal. And this new brewery was looked upon as something of a curiosity. It was anything but. This was the renewal of a tradition lost. The new brewery would be named Fox River Brewing Company and the similarities between it and the city's first set breweries were striking.

Between 1849 and 1857, five breweries were launched in Oshkosh. All of them were located near water – either Lake Winnebago or the Fox River. Same with this new one. It was going up just off of Congress Ave. on the northeast bank of the Fox.

The early Oshkosh brewers had specialized in all-malt beers made by traditional methods. They brewed in small batches. Most of their work was done by hand and most of their beer was consumed by people living in the surrounding area. These same customs would be adopted by Fox River Brewing.

There were, though, significant departures from how it used to be, especially in the background of the people behind the new venture. Jay, Joe and John Supple were unlike previous Oshkosh brewery founders in that they weren't German immigrants. The brothers were born in Wisconsin. They'd grown up in Oshkosh. But perhaps the most striking difference was that the Supples weren't even brewers.

The Supples
Their father, John Supple, Sr., had been an engineer for the Soo Line Railroad before becoming a restaurant owner in 1968. His sons followed him into the business helping manage three Shakey's Pizza restaurants. But by 1995, the Supple brothers were looking for a new challenge. They found it when Jay's wife, Heidi, suggested they start a brewpub.

John, Jay (on ladder)
and Joe (seated) Supple
At the start of 1995, there were just six brewpubs operating in Wisconsin. The segment, though, was poised for growth. More than 160 brewpubs launched nationally in 1995, including eight in Wisconsin. Like many in the class of 1995, the Supples weren't quite sure what they were getting into.

"We could drink beer, but we couldn't make beer," says Jay Supple with a laugh. "We thought, if we're going to do a brewery, how do we do this right? That's when we hooked up with Rob."

A year earlier, Rob LoBreglio had launched Great Dane Pub & Brewing Company in Madison. "The Dane" quickly gained a reputation as the preeminent Wisconsin brewpub. In 1995, the Supples approached LoBreglio offering him a one-year consultancy to help get the brewing side of their operation in place. LoBreglio accepted. The relationship would prove crucial to the early success of Fox River Brewing.

But the Supples needed more than brewing advice. LoBreglio also had connections to a brewing equipment supplier. In the end, he both designed the Fox River brewhouse and acquired the system that would produce its beer. "It worked out beautifully," Jay Supple says. "Having these guys come in from Madison made it a smooth, almost seamless transition."

Supple was coming to realize just how different the brewing business was from the restaurant business. "We were coming from a place where competition is looked at so differently than it is in the brewing world," he says. "It's a much more united world where everybody kind of helps one another. For us that was a really unique place to be in."

By October 1995, the pieces were nearly in place. The restaurant side of the business would be named Fratello's Italian Cafe. With 70% of sales projected to come from the dining room, the Supples wanted it to stand out.

They hired their chef, Channing Boyer, from a list of 300 candidates. Boyer had a wealth of experience as an executive chef at restaurants throughout the Midwest including a recent turn as executive sous chef at The Berghoff in Chicago. "We had to be a step above on the food," Jay Supple said in a 2004 interview. "We wanted to build a restaurant first and the brewery second. We're restaurant people." It showed in the design of the space.

When Fratellos opened on Friday, December 15, 1995, it looked like no other brewpub in Wisconsin. The upper level of the 8,800 square foot space featured a winding, wooden bar with seven Fox River brews on tap. Below was a spacious dining room with a striking view of the Fox River. Suspended above from a 26-foot-high ceiling, were a vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a 16-foot racing boat, and a 1965 biplane. Opposite the river view, stood the new brewhouse encased in glass. Mingling there among the tanks was a brewer as colorful as his surroundings.

Bunde
Rob LoBreglio brought more than knowledge with him from Madison. He brought Al Bunde, his assistant brewer at Great Dane. Bunde was relatively new to professional brewing. The Eau Claire native had spent the previous decade at IBM as a manufacturing engineer. After his position was cut, Bunde changed career paths. "I wanted to take control and do something a little more positive," he said.

Al Bunde
He went to Chicago to attend brewing school at the Siebel Institute. His plan was to open a brewpub after graduation. But when that day came, he heard that a fellow Siebel alumnus had recently launched Great Dane. Bunde headed to Wisconsin. "I was done with school on December 9 (1994), and I was in Madison helping them brew that day," Bunde said. Less than a year later, he was in Oshkosh as brewmaster for Fox River.

Bunde was the just the sort of brewer the Supples needed. He was smart, engaging and loved to play the accordion. If he wasn't in the brewhouse, he was at the bar, beer in hand, regaling the guest. The jolly brewmaster became the de facto face of the brewery.

"Al was a free spirit and extremely sharp," says Jay Supple. "He brought a lot of passion. He liked his beer and he liked to go out and socialize. With him being as outgoing as he was, he really promoted the beer within the Valley. That was great for us."

Bunde had a tall order to fill. To the vast majority of beer drinkers in Oshkosh, beer meant one thing: pale, light lager. Winning them over with brews that were darker, heavier, and more flavorful was going to be a challenge. "It will take some educating to get people used to the flavors," Bunde conceded. But he wasn't shy about what Fox River would offer. "It will be the freshest, highest quality beer you can get in town," he said.

The timing was right. By 1995, a small, but vocal contingent of beer lovers was making its presence known in Oshkosh. They rallied at places like Oblio's and the Lizard Lounge – taverns featuring "micro-brew" on draft. Some of them were members of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers, a homebrewing club formed in 1991. But this was a minority faction. Resistance from other quarters remained persistent.

Jeff Fulbright learned that the hard way. In 1991, Fulbright launched Mid-Coast Brewing Company in Oshkosh. His flagship beer, Chief Oshkosh Red Lager, was an amber-hued, easy drinking brew that would seem tame in today's craft-beer market. In 1990s Oshkosh, though, Fulbright's beer was at the cutting edge. And the old-guard didn't want it. “I went to all the taverns in town,” Fulbright says. “I’d go in and have some old-geezer tavern owner yelling at me ‘I can’t sell that dark shit!’” Mid-Coast Brewing went out of business at the end of 1994.

Bunde wasn’t going to bend to that crowd. From the beginning, he challenged the local palate with styles that hadn't been brewed commercially before in Oshkosh: dark stouts, strong Scotch ales, and bitter IPAs. Those adventurous enough to try it loved it.

The Rise
Within seven months of opening, Fox River Brewing had become the 14th largest of the 32 breweries in Wisconsin and the second largest brewpub in the state behind Great Dane. The beer was being sold at more than 20 accounts in and around Oshkosh. After 12 months of operation, the brewery had produced over 1,000 barrels of beer. For the first time in more than a generation, people here were embracing local beer.

The Supples decided to up the ante. Less than a year after the Oshkosh brewpub opened, the Supples announced they would open a second Fox River brewpub in Appleton. The new venture had been part of their early plan to build on the brand and move the brewery's beer beyond Oshkosh. Another piece of that strategy was distribution.

In 1997, with construction of the Appleton brewpub underway, the Supples began looking into retail sales. But the brewery lacked the equipment needed to bottle beer on the scale required for distribution. A solution was found some 60-miles north of Oshkosh in tiny, Denmark, Wisconsin.

In 1995, Green Bay Brewing Company, which later became Hinterland Brewery, started operations in an abandoned cheese factory in Denmark. The small brewery had a bottling line and excess capacity. The Supples contracted Green Bay Brewing to produce and package Fox River's Golden Ale from a recipe Bunde developed. The Supples hired Kip Damrow, a former assistant brewer at Appleton Brewing, to sell and market the beer. Before long, six-packs of Golden Ale were showing up on store shelves throughout the Fox Valley.

"At the time, craft brewing wasn't what it is today," says Jay Supple. "We'd just do it ourselves. We'd go into grocery stores and make cold calls with our beer. At that point you could still do something like that. We had quite a few retail accounts and we had built up quite a few draft accounts as well."

Lonsway
To help shoulder the brewing load, a new assistant brewer was hired. Steve Lonsway had been a homebrewer who wanted to make beer and brewing his life's work. In 1993 he and his father, Tom, opened Homebrew Market, a supply shop for beer and wine making hobbyists. "I was running that store and homebrewing like crazy," Lonsway said. "I was reading every recipe I could get my hands on. I wanted to take it to the next level."

Lonsway tried the direct route. He made a bid on purchasing John Junger's Appleton Brewing Company. Unable to secure financing, he took another approach. In 1996 Lonsway enrolled in the Siebel Institute to study brewing. After graduation, a friend told him of an opening at Fox River. Lonsway got the job. In April 1997 his professional brewing career began.

The plan was to have Lonsway move in as head brewer at Appleton when the brewpub opened in fall. Bunde would continue to run the Oshkosh brewery. Lonsway assumed his new role in November 1997 with the opening of  the Appleton brewpub in the Fox River Mall. A couple months later, the plan collapsed.

Fox River Appleton

In early 1998 Fox River Brewing lost its brewmaster. Bunde left for Milwaukee where he would be the brewmaster at the short-lived Stout Brothers Public House. Back in Oshkosh, the Supples asked Lonsway if he thought he was ready to run both brewhouses. Lonsway said he was, though privately he had doubts. Two years later he remarked, "I still don't know if I can do it."

Lonsway suddenly had the job he had been dreaming of. But living the dream wasn't easy. He often worked 70-hour weeks to keep up with the demands of his new position. "My bosses work me hard," he commented. But his labor had purpose. "I want my product everywhere," Lonsway said.

That Lonsway took ownership of the beer he made was obvious. One by one, he did away with the recipes Bunde had been brewing. Eventually, just two beers from Fox River's original line-up remained – Caber Tossing Scottish Ale and Winnebago Wheat. Even those he began to make his own with recipe changes.

The Supples were pleased. "Steve was a great brewer for us," says Jay Supple. "I liked working with him a lot. He was very meticulous." He may not have been as overtly gregarious as Bunde, but Lonsway had his own way of building links between the brewhouse and the people drinking the beer that flowed from it.

His ties to the homebrewing community made him a favorite with that crowd. They enjoyed seeing one of their own at the controls. To entice the uninitiated, Lonsway conducted "Beer Schools" inviting people to step into the brewhouse and make beer with him. At the same time, he continued to push their limits. Lonsway was a self-professed "Hop Head" who said he loved, "Hoppy beer, the hoppier the better." He worked in a series of IPAs under the brewery's specialty beer list at a time when the style was an outlier in the Midwest.

Caber Tossing
By the end of 1998, Fox River was selling more beer off-premise than any other brewpub in the state. Lonsway and the brewery were gaining recognition beyond the Fox Valley. National recognition was soon to follow.

In July 2000, Caber Tossing Scottish Ale won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver. The following year, the North American Brewers Association awarded Lonsway a gold for Fox River’s Abbey Ale and bronze medals for Caber Tossing and Winnebago Wheat.

Caber Tossing captured Lonsway's imagination. He continually tweaked the recipe. "The taste varies from one batch to the next and I like that," Lonsway said. "I get to personalize it a bit." His tinkering paid off. Caber Tossing developed a following that made it second in sales only to Buzzing Honey Ale.

In 2001 Lonsway put Fox River Brewing on the national beer map when Caber Tossing was awarded a gold medal at the Great American Beer Festival. The achievement was the culmination of his early brewing career. "It has been a fantastic year," he said. "It's kind of a dream come true." The brewmaster had his next dream already queued up.

Lonsway's primary goal had always been to have his own brewery. In 2002, he left Fox River to make it happen. In partnership with his father, Lonsway acquired Appleton Brewing Company and changed its named to Stone Cellar Brewpub. Jay Supple  wasn't vexed over losing his brewmaster. "We had a great relationship with Steve," Supple says. "That was his goal and when the opportunity came, I honestly thought it was awesome. I was very happy for him." The months following Lonsway's departure weren't quite so happy.

Steve Lonsway at his Stone Cellar Brewpub

In March 2002, the Supples hired Richard Stueven to become the new brewmaster of Fox River Brewing. Like his predecessors, Stueven was a Siebel grad. Prior to coming to Oshkosh, he brewed professionally in Hawaii and at Egan Brewing in De Pere. It looked like a good fit. It wasn't. Stueven was let go less than four months after he started.

While the brewmaster position was in flux, the Oshkosh brewpub was being expanded. Construction on a 4,500 square foot addition began in January 2002 and was completed by summer. The addition was named The Lounge. It was built to create a separate space where live music and pool tables wouldn't conflict with the more subdued atmosphere of the dining room. "We definitely want to keep it separate," said Jay Supple. "We don't want to deter from what we've built here."

What they had built was growing into a divergent set of businesses. Organized as the Supple Group in 2001 with Jay Supple as CEO, the company was expanding beyond its two brewpubs. Over the coming decade the Supple Group would branch out in hotels, initiate development projects in Madison and Oshkosh, and launch a series of new restaurants in a number of Wisconsin cities including Appleton, Green Bay and Milwaukee. Brewery operations became just a part of a much larger business. Back in Oshkosh, they needed an experienced brewer comfortable within that format.

Allen
The Supples found what they were looking for in a brewer from Boston. Brian Allen had been making beer professionally for seven years when he came to Fox River in 2002. He had started out at Boston Beer Works, a brewpub across the street from Fenway Park. While there, he earned a brewing degree from the Siebel Institute. In early 2002, Allen came to Wisconsin where he landed a job at Capital Brewing in Madison. But the routine of a packaging brewery didn't suit him. The brewpub in Oshkosh did.

"We were fortunate," says Jay Supple. "He was looking for more of that brewpub feel. He had heard about us and came in. I loved the guy. He's got a great personality, really laid back and he had that Boston accent. He had a lot of good ideas."

Brian Allen
One of Allen's early ideas was a fruit-flavored beer that would become the best-selling beer Fox River Brewing has produced. "Brian was the guy that brought in BLÜ," Supple says. "He had been brewing that out in Boston and it had been doing well. He said 'I'm going to get some blueberries and we'll float them in there.' I remember thinking, 'we're going to get blueberries and float them in the beer? Really?’ I kind of laughed, but from the first time we brewed it, people loved it."

No brewery can afford to back away from a beer that pleases a crowd. But among a more vocal minority, BLÜ came to be viewed as the symbol of a brewery playing it too safe.

In the mid-2000s, craft beer was no longer the novelty it had once been in Oshkosh. It was on the verge of becoming mainstream. And the audience for the new beer had grown increasingly sophisticated in its tastes and demanding in its expectations. They sought variety in the extreme and beers that pushed limits. The scene was changing. Fox River wasn't.

The brewery's line-up remained static through the latter half of the decade. Specialty beers would come and go, but the main emphasis was on the tried-and-true core: Buzzin' Honey, Caber Tossing, Fox Light, Winnebago Wheat. Not the sort of brews that grabbed the attention of fickle beer geeks. Those people were moving on. The estrangement was reinforced by their lack of connection to the brewmaster.

Unlike the boisterous Bunde or the popular Lonsway, Brian Allen was comparatively unknown by the tightly-knit Oshkosh beer community. There just wasn't the time to make those connections. Keeping two breweries running, coupled with his daily commute to and from his home in Madison, didn't allow for much elbow bending with patrons at the bar. Where Bunde and Lonsway had each become the face of the brewery, Allen remained something of a cipher to many of those drinking his beer.

Fox River Brewing’s profile had also diminished. In 2007, the Supple Group re-branded the Appleton brewpub, changing its name from Fox River Brewing Company to Fratellos Restaurant and Brewery. It was part of a larger push to grow the Fratellos brand, this time at the expense of the brewery’s brand. At the same time, distribution of Fox River beer was being curtailed.

Few Wisconsin brewpubs have distributed its beer as aggressively as Fox River did in its first five years. But the effort wasn't always commensurate with the return. "It was great starting out, but for us the hard part of it was just going out and collecting money and kegs and all the costs associated with that," Jay Supple says. "We had restaurants in Milwaukee, Green Bay, Stevens Point; we were all over the place at that point. So we thought, let's get away from the wholesale side. Let's keep the breweries busy and continue on with our other projects."

The retrenchment meant that Fox River beers were no longer seen at Oshkosh taverns such as Oblio's or O'Marro's, places where craft beer drinkers congregated to check out the next "new" thing. Yet, the Supple's desire to"keep the breweries busy" was being amply fulfilled.

Through the 2000s, Fox River remained the second largest brewpub producer in the state, with only the Great Dane brewpubs outpacing them in terms of brewery output. As the decade came to a close, Fox River had settled into a successful, predictable routine. Its course appeared to have been charted. But the map was about to be re-drawn.

Bowen
In 2009, Brian Allen left Fox River, going to Springfield, Missouri, where he helped launch the highly successful Mother's Brewing Company. Allen didn't leave the Supples hanging. He later remarked, "I feel good about the fact that I have trained over 20 people in various breweries and many of these people are still in the brewing industry." One of the young men he trained in Oshkosh became perhaps his most successful protégé.

Kevin Bowen had the sort of brewhouse apprenticeship that was lost with the rise of industrial brewing in the late 1800s. He began working at Fox River Appleton when he was just 16. He started out bussing tables and helping in the kitchen, but soon became fascinated with what he was seeing in the brewhouse.

“Steve Lonsway was the brewer then," says Bowen. "I remember being really impressed by him. He used to walk around in a white lab coat and big Wellies. He was just this dude making beer. I was too young to drink, but it really caught my attention. I expressed an interest in the brewery and they put me to work bottling beer.”

After graduation from high school, Bowen travelled for a couple of years then returned to Fox River in 2002 just as Brian Allen was stepping in. “Brian took me under his wing,” Bowen said. “We wound up having a great mentor/protégé relationship. I learned the ropes by doing grunt work. He’d give me more responsibility as I was able to handle it. After about a year, he involved me in the actual brewing.”

In 2005, Bowen won a scholarship to attend the Siebel Institute in Chicago. “That was perfect for me,” he said. “It solidified everything I had learned up to that point.” A year later, at age 24, he left Fox River to become brewmaster at Hereford and Hops brewpub in Wausau. When the Hereford and Hops chain of brewpubs closed in 2008, Bowen returned to Fox River. “I came back in as the workhorse brewer,” Bowen said. “I made a lot of beer that year."

When Allen left in 2009, Bowen was named brewmaster. He wasn't yet 27. Jay Supple didn't care about Bowen's age. "Age to us means nothing," says Supple. "At the end of the day it's about attitude. It's your work ethic. It's your experience." Bowen already had plenty of experience. In his first year at the helm, he focused on mastering his craft. "I’ve really been working to hone my skills and nail the styles and flavors I’m setting out to achieve," he says. "For me, it’s always a progression." That progression took a giant step forward in 2010.

Fox Light had been part of the Fox River roster since 2000, when Lonsway formulated the recipe to replace Golden Ale in the brewery's line-up. It was an ill-fitting name for a beer more complex than the "Light" moniker implied. In reality Fox Light was a German-style Kolsch: a mild, delicate type of ale notoriously difficult to brew. Bowen, whose appreciation for beer developed at a young age after visiting Germany, was drawn to it.

He'd been putting his own twist on Lonsway's old recipe. In 2010, he submitted the beer to the biennial World Beer Cup, the most prestigious international beer competition. Bowen won a bronze medal for the beer. "It was the first brewer’s conference I had been to and it was for a German style,” he says. “The panel was made up of German judges and I was going against several German brewers. To win that award at that time was huge for me.”

Bowen scored again in 2012, winning a World Beer Cup silver for his Brandy Barrel Abbey Normal. It with the first barrel-aged beer he had ever made. "That's one of the things I love about Kevin," says Jay Supple. "He's always willing to test the waters and take a style and make it his own. He's got a great palate."

Kevin Bowen receiving his 2012 World Beer Cup award from Charlie Papazian

Fox River Brewing Company
The awards ignited interest in the brewery. People began taking notice of the renewed vigor at Fox River. At the time, Supple was hesitant in his characterization of what was occurring. “I don’t think the energy has been any different,” Supple says, "But one thing we have been focusing on is brewing different types of beers. If there is a renewed energy, it’s probably in that we’re now trying to create more diverse beers.”

The momentum kept building. Bowen had grown especially adept at brewing German styles and in 2012 Fox River was tapped to brew the beer for Appleton's Old Bavarian Brewing. Among the those beers was a doppelbock named Tanjanator packaged in 22oz. bottles. It was the first time in more than a decade that a beer brewed by Fox River Brewing Company appeared on local store shelves. Jay Supple began thinking it was time to get his labels back into distribution.

The Supple brothers almost 20 years
after the launch of their brewery
"We were starting to see all these beers from other Wisconsin breweries going on the shelf in our area," Supple says. "I'm like 'Hey, what are we doing here? We're the local guy.' I really felt we had too good of a product, too good of a name. We should be on the shelf."

This time, they'd go all in. "We said if we're going to do this, let's go out and get a bottling line and let's do production,” Supple says. “Let's jump into it. Let's do it the right way"

Fox River re-entered the wholesale market in early 2014 with a series of newly branded keg beers named the Bago Brew Collection. Among the mix was, Marble Eye, a beer that dated back to the days of Bunde when it was called Caber Tossing Scottish Ale. Fox River tap handles were popping up again in Oshkosh, the Greater Fox Valley and then into much of Northeastern Wisconsin.

In March 2015, the bottling line was installed at the Appleton brewery. It has the capacity to package 100 cases of beer in an hour. A month later, six-packs of Fox River beers returned to retail shelves in Oshkosh.

In July 2015 the Fox River Brewing Company came full circle. Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant & Brewery in Oshkosh was renamed Fox River Brewing Company & Taproom.

"We know for the next 20 years, they're still going to call us Fratellos," Jay supple says with a shrug. "We're fine with that. But we're just going to get back to what our core is. We can't do it like we used to do years ago where we're building restaurants two hours away in Milwaukee. We're not going to do that anymore. Our focus is on building the wholesale side. It's a brewery."

The result has been dramatic. By October of this year Fox River had already sold more beer than it had in any previous full year. Production at year's end will exceed 2,000 barrels with the brewery nearing the limits of its capacity. Supple is pondering the next move.

"If we're going to build a brewery it has to be based on 12 months," he says. "We had a great summer. We were bringing IPAs out and they'd be gone in 6 days. It was crazy. I can't tell you how many times we were close to pulling the trigger on more tanks. But I always held back because I think we need to see what we do production wise through winter and spring. If you build capacity based on three or four months out of the year, that's where guys get in trouble."

I've interviewed Jay Supple several times over the past five years. He's always come across as engaged and energetic. But when I spoke with him recently for this article, I was struck by his enthusiasm for the brewery. It’s palpable when he talks about the future.

"It's going to be interesting for us to see how far we go," Supple says. "That's what we're trying to figure out. How far can we drive this? We're not interested in conquering how many different states, we're saying let's own as much as we can of this area here."

For the brewery that brought local beer back to Oshkosh 20 years ago, it feels like a new beginning.

Fox River Brewing Company, Oshkosh
The Oshkosh brewhouse
Fox River's Oshkosh tap room
Notes
I initially planned to include my sources for this, but abandoned that idea when I realized the list would be even longer than the extremely long blog post I ended up writing. Thanks for your patience, by the way. If you’re wondering where I found any of the info here, just drop me an email. My address is in the column on the left. 

I would like to clarify that quotes accompanied by the present tense “says” were derived from interviews I conducted. Quotes from preexisting sources are accompanied by the past tense “said.”

Finally, a large thanks and much appreciation to everyone at Fox River, especially Jay Supple and Kevin Bowen. Jay has been incredibly generous with both his time and in his patience for my endless questioning over the past few years. I’m equally indebted to Kevin Bowen. They say beer people are good people. Kevin exemplifies that in the extreme. Also thanks to Randy Bauer. Randy supplied some of the pictures used in the post without even knowing I was planning on writing it. He just sent them because he thought I’d be interested. I’m lucky to have such friends.

5 comments:

  1. Congats on the first 20 years. Been a customer since the beginning, looking forward to the next 20 years of operation.

    TiKi Jeff

    ReplyDelete