Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #29 – Top Fives of 2015

It’s our end of the year Top Fives. This week we drink some homebrewed Altbier while counting down our favorite beers of 2015.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Oshkosh Beer: The Year in Review

It was another exceptional year for beer drinkers in Oshkosh. Here’s a look at where we are at the close of 2015.

Local Beer
For the first time in 20 years, a new brewery was launched here. The opening of Bare Bones Brewery in the Town of Oshkosh is undoubtedly the biggest news to come out of the Oshkosh beer scene this year.

Bare Bones opened its taproom on May 29. For much of the summer, the 12 draft lines there were occupied by the beer of other breweries. The brewery began pouring its own beer on August 6. By year's end, six different Bare Bones beers were available in its taproom. According to state tax records, the brewery's production averages just over 20 barrels of beer per month. That's slightly above the norm when compared to similar Wisconsin breweries. Output is bound to increase as Bare Bones beer becomes more widely available. In mid-August, the brewery began distributing kegs of its beer through Lee Beverage of Wisconsin. Oshkosh bars, including Becket's, Chester V's, Dublin's, Gardina's and Peabody's, have since had Bare Bones beer on draft. In late November, Bare Bones acquired a 4-head bottle filler, enabling the brewery to package its beer for retail sales. Bare Bones Christmas Tail Ale in 22 0z. bottles went on sale at Festival Foods in early December. The new brewery is off to a solid start.

Bare Bones Brewery; early June 2015

Fox River Brewing Company had its best year since the brewery's founding in 1995. Over the past year, the brewery experienced significant growth. In March, a bottling line was installed at Fox River Appleton. By early summer, Fox River beer was appearing on store shelves in bottles and on draft in bars throughout the Fox Valley and Northeastern Wisconsin. Beer production at Fox River's two brewpubs increased dramatically. Through October, Fox River Oshkosh had produced 707 barrels of beer; 126 barrels more than it produced in all of 2014. Production at Fox River Appleton at the end of October was up 317 barrels over the 2014 total. Combined production at Fox River will be over 2,000 barrels for the year, a record for the brewery. Within the brewpubs, the range of beers has been expanded. At Fox River Oshkosh there are now often 12 of the brewery's beers on draft. The renewed emphasis on beer was accompanied by the rebranding of the Oshkosh brewpub. In July, Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant & Brewery was renamed Fox River Brewing Company & Taproom. The brewery is nearing the limits of its production capacity. If production continues to grow at the current pace, some form of expansion will be necessary.

Beer in Bars
Chester V's opened on December 14 and appears poised to become the preeminent craft beer bar in Oshkosh. The 40 beers on tap at the gastropub represent the largest offering of craft beer on draft in the city. Included are 16, self-serve, table tenders. These are the first taps in Oshkosh that allow patrons to pour beer at their own behest in serving sizes of their choosing. People have been drinking beer in Oshkosh taverns for more than 170 years. Until now, there's been nothing here like this.

There's been no let up among the already established bars emphasizing craft beer in Oshkosh. Becket's, Dublin's, Gardina's, Oblio's and O'Marro's remain the most notable. Dublin's and Gardina's continue to take the lead in the way of beer events.  Dublin's hosted three beer dinners in addition to its annual Craft Beer Festival this year. Gardina's continued its monthly Beer Bar Series featuring rare cask beers and tap takeovers, each accompanied by a beer-pairing menu.

In 2016, we'll undoubtedly see more craft beer in Oshkosh bars. Some have begun to question whether we're reaching a saturation point. I doubt that. The potential for growth remains extreme, especially when you consider that craft beer is still less than 12% of the overall market. But that growth won't happen without a subsequent increase in venues willing to embrace the change occurring here. We're part of an evolving market still in its early stages of development.

Beer in Stores
Gardina’s and Ski’s continued to expand their beer offerings this year. At Gardina’s they installed a bank of three two-door beer coolers and added more shelf space dedicated to beer. At Ski’s they’ve grown their beer selection beyond their coolers into other areas of the store. Overlap between the two stores is modest. It makes for a local beer market unique to Oshkosh. With Gardina's and Ski's within a short walk of each another, Downtown Oshkosh has become one of the best places to buy good beer in the Fox Valley.

What has occurred in the beer aisle at Festival Foods in Oshkosh underscores the importance of independent retailers. At Gardina's and Ski's, the beer selection is made by local people in regular contact with their customers. At Festival such decisions are, for the most part, handed down from corporate headquarters in De Pere. It shows.

Take for example, the pell-mell scattering of craft beer between the cold and warm shelves at Festival. The segregation has nothing to do with preserving the quality of higher priced beers. At the same time, beers like Corona Light and Red Stripe are lumped into the craft beer coolers. The store plays on the dubious "import" status of these beers to suggest they are of a higher caliber. The notion is pathetically outdated and indicative of the stale approach Festival takes towards beer in general. Two years ago, Festival was the best place to buy packaged beer in Oshkosh. Not anymore. Not by a long shot. If price and convenience are your main concern, Festival still has its merits. Beyond that, there's little to recommend it.

Festival Foods Oshkosh

Beer Fests in Oshkosh
The EAA's Hops & Props was the most successful beer festival held here this year in Oshkosh. Its $75 entrance fee, however, continued to be a nonstarter for many. The cost may not be commensurate with the selection of beer offered, but the accompanying food, live music, and AirVenture Museum setting justified the price of admission for many. Attendance at Hops & Props was near capacity again this year.

Unfortunately the same can't be said about the Oshkosh Jaycees’ 20th Annual Brews n’ Blues festival. The 2015 event was poorly promoted, sparsely attended. At this time, the Jaycees appear to have little interest in continuing the event. That may be for the best considering the festival's damaged reputation. This was Oshkosh's first, modern, beer festival. It's likely end is saddening and would leave a gaping hole in the Oshkosh beer calendar.

The most unique beer festival of 2014 didn't return in 2015. The Society of Oshkosh Brewers' pulled the plug on their Cask and Caskets Homebrew Festival after warnings by state officials. After three years of the festival, Wisconsin Department of Revenue officials decided that the SOBs had strayed beyond the law by selling tickets to an event where all of the beer is homebrew (read: not subject to state tax). The SOBs are hoping to bring the festival back in 2016 using a different approach. The thousands of dollars the club earned for local charities through Cask and Caskets will, however, be lost.

Brewing Your Own
An overview of anything as private by nature as homebrewing is bound to be incomplete. That said, there are anecdotes that indicate trends. The trends aren't pointing in an especially positive direction.

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers has long been the standard-bearer for homebrewing here. The club struggled in 2015. The loss of its beer festival was coupled with a decline in SOB membership. The SOBs now have approximately 55 members, down from a high of more than 80 members two years ago. The SOBs public presence has also diminished. This year, the club participated in fewer community events. Perhaps none of this is problematic. The SOBs' board of directors recently signaled a desire to return the club to its core mission by focussing more on homebrewing. For some SOBs, it would be a welcome change.

It remains to be seen whether the contraction of the SOBs reflects a downward trend in homebrewing in Oshkosh. Our lack of a comprehensive homebrew store certainly doesn't help. The ever increasing availability of good beer may also be having a dampening effect. It's now rarely the case that people take up homebrewing because they can't acquire the sort of beer they want commercially. Despite all this, homebrewing remains a vital part of the Oshkosh beer scene. That's unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Looking Ahead
In all, the beer scene here is more vibrant than it's been in a century. A hundred years ago, Oshkosh was a regional hub for brewing and the city was awash in locally made beer. The likelihood of additional breweries launching here in the coming year is strong and may put us back on that path. On the pouring side, the scheduled opening of the Ruby Owl in late spring should bring another prime outlet for high-end draft beer in Downtown Oshkosh. The coming year is bound to increase our fortunes. We're living through a defining period in Oshkosh's storied beer history. Try to find a moment to appreciate that.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #28 – A Visit to Chester V's

With Adam away on special assignment, I stopped in at Chester V's, to check out Oshkosh's newest craft beer bar and restaurant. Chester V's opened last Monday (Dec. 14) with 40 beers on tap – 16 of them pouring from self-serve table tenders. Check out the latest addition to the Oshkosh beer scene.

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Christmas Card From the Oshkosh Brewing Company

Here’s a swank Christmas card sent out by the folks at the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1933. Click the image if you'd care to see a larger version.

The 10 shadowy figures represent a handful of OBC's finest in the years immediately following Prohibition's end. This had to have been a happy time for them. The dry law was flushed on December 5, 1933. At OBC, they were back to making real beer for the first Christmas since 1919. Let's get to know these folks a little better.

That's Otto C. Horn, president of OBC. He was born in 1863, a couple years before his father had helped launch Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery. Otto actually lived at that brewery during his early childhood.

In 1933, Arthur L. Schwalm was vice-president of OBC. His grandfather was Leonhardt Schwalm, the other half of the original Horn & Schwalm team. Art started in the bottling department of OBC in 1912. He became the brewery's president in 1941.

Earl Horn was Otto Horn's son. He had been with the brewery since 1911 when he became OBC's bookkeeper. In 1933 he was the company's secretary. He became VP of OBC in 1941. I have a few letters written by Earl Horn floating around here. In those letters he comes across as a genuinely nice person.

Look at that, they didn't call him "Shorty" for nothing. Lorenz Kuenzl was the grandson of Lorenz Kuenzl, the Bohemian brewmaster whose Gambrinus Brewery was on Harney Ave. Lorenz the younger had recently started his career at OBC. He was working as a salesman. Later he would become OBC secretary and a member of the brewery's board of directors.

Earl Pfotenhauer was working as a shipping clerk at OBC in 1933. The Pfotenhauer family had been engaged with the brewery since the early 1900s. Pfoty would eventually go on to join the board of directors at OBC.

Lester Schultz was the other shipping clerk at the brewery in 1933. A few years later, he left OBC to work for Oshkosh Truck.

Merritt M. Safford began his career at OBC in 1931 as a salesman. Merritt also eventually found his way onto the board of directors. He remained with the brewery into the mid-1960s.

I'm at a loss with this Bill. Who is Bill? I'm guessing he was part of the OBC sales force. I can't find a Bill listed in any of the brewery's rosters from the period. For now, Bill remains as mysterious as his long shadow on this Christmas card.

Is Clifford J. McCarthy, the assistant secretary at the brewery. He would move on from the brewery to launch several businesses in Oshkosh.

Brewmaster Felix Gertsch had been with OBC since 1908. He's the guy who dreamed up the original recipe for Chief Oshkosh Beer. There's a lot more about Felix right here.

Well, folks, they're all gone now. I'm sure if they were with us, though, they'd send tidings as musical as those from 1933...
May this Convivial Season bring 
Health, Happiness, Joy and Cheer
Peace, Prosperity and everything
From the Brewers of Chief Oshkosh Beer

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #27 – Lion's Tail Brewing Company

This week we visit Lion’s Tail Brewing Company in Neenah to meet with Alex Wenzel, the brewery’s founder and brewmaster. We take a look around, have a couple of beers and get to know Alex in this episode. Here’s our look at Winnebago County’s newest brewery...

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.

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."

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.

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.

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
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.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #26 - Lazy Monk Brewing

This week, we get into a couple of stellar beers from a small brewery in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Lazy Monk Brewing was launched in 2011 to brew quality beers in the tradition of the finest Bohemian and German breweries. Lazy Monk is definitely fulfilling that mission.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Then & Now: From Paine Lumber to Fox River Brewing

A couple of pictures. The photo on top was taken just about 100 years ago. The camera was facing northeast from the Congress Ave. bridge. The image it captured shows the Paine Lumber Company. The lower photo was taken this past Wednesday from about the same vantage point. It shows the Fox River Brewing Company Restaurant and Taproom.

Edward Paine with his sons Charles and George opened their first lumber mill in Oshkosh in 1853. It evolved into the Paine Lumber Company, which became the world's largest manufacturer of wood sashes and doors. At its peak in the 1920s, Paine Lumber was the largest employer in Oshkosh with more than 2,000 workers.

Crippled by the stock market crash of 1929, Paine Lumber closed in 1934, then reopened in 1937. In 1959, the company was sold to Louisville's General Plywood Corporation, which closed the plant again in 1971. Local investors re-opened the mill in 1972, but the company went bankrupt ten years later. In 1982, most of the mill was the demolished. The River Mill Condominiums, shown at the far left in each of the images is the only portion of the factory remaining.

In 1995, the Fox River Brewing Company and Fratellos Restaurant was built upon the vacated grounds of the old mill. The brewery and restaurant opened on December 15, 1995. It was the first brewery launched in Oshkosh in 82 years. Fox River is now celebrating the 20th Anniversary of its opening.

Vestiges of the Paine Lumber Company remain. The current Oshkosh Door Company traces its lineage back to the original Paine Lumber Company.

The row houses built by Paine Lumber in the mid-1920s as homes for millworkers still stand along Summit Ave.

And the former Paine Thrift Bank on Congress Ave. is now the offices of the Supple Group, the parent company of Fox River Brewing.

Over the past few weeks I've been thinking a lot about Fox River Brewing. If all goes well, I'll show you why here next Monday.

In the meantime, here's something cool... Fox River has been posting its tap lists on its website. If you click the beer names on the list, most will open the brewmaster's data sheet for the beer. If you're into digging down into the guts of a beer, these data sheets are amazing. I wish more breweries would do this sort of thing. Check it out right here.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show No. 25 - Celebration with Kevin Bowen of Fox River Brewing

After a week off, we’re back with one of our favorite guests – Kevin Bowen, brewmaster for Fox River Brewing Company in Oshkosh and Appleton. In this episode, we drink Sierra Nevada Celebration Fresh Hop IPA, a beer that inspired Kevin to become a brewer. A lot of ground covered in this conversation, including what's happening at Fox River as the brewery celebrates its 20th Anniversary this December.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Barley’s Beer Sampling Series Continues Wednesday Night

Round two of this season’s Beer Sampling Series at Barley & Hops gets underway at 7 p.m. tomorrow night (Wednesday, December 2). The featured brewery this time is Amherst’s Central Waters Brewing Company.

You know the drill by now: You nab a ticket and from 7-10 p.m. you get to sample all the craft brew, spirits and wine you care to. Nate at Barley’s lines up dozens of different craft beers for these events with the feature brewery typically bringing in a few rare treats we don’t usually see in Oshkosh.

Tickets are available at Barley’s. They’re $20, if you grab them in advance (that would mean, like today) or $25 at the door. Either way it’s a steal. For more info check out the Facebook Event page here.