Monday, March 7, 2016

An Afternoon with Chuck Rahr

Charles Rahr died last week Monday, February 29. He was 87 years old.

He preferred to be called Chuck.

Chuck Rahr was the last brewmaster at the Oshkosh brewery owned by his family. His great-grandfather Charles Rahr launched Rahr Brewing Company in 1865.

Chuck Rahr was born 63 years later on October 3, 1928. At that time, no beer was flowing from his family's brewery. Prohibition was on. The Rahr's were getting by making soda water.

Chuck was six years old when the ban on beer was lifted in 1933. He told me most of his early memories involved the brewery where his father, Carl – the third generation of Rahr brewers – made beer.

In February 2011, I was fortunate to get to know Chuck Rahr. I was put in touch with him by Oshkosh beer historian and breweriana collector Ron Akin.

The first couple of times Chuck and I spoke were over the phone. The conversations were awkward. I came away with the impression he didn't want to be bothered. I persisted, explaining that I wanted to write a story about his career at the brewery. That story had never been told. I said to him that I thought it was important and that people would be interested. He didn't seem to share my enthusiasm. We were getting nowhere. I asked if I could come see him. He agreed and we set the date.

February 7, 2011, I drove to his home in Appleton. It was a dreary, Monday afternoon. When he let me inside, I remember thinking of my late uncle's house. Like Chuck, he had been a lifelong bachelor and his home had the slightly disheveled look of a place tailored to the eccentricities of an elderly, single man. You could tell he was comfortable there.

We started talking. At first, it was mostly just me talking. He didn't seem the least bit interested. For no reason I could discern, he showed me one of his numerous trap-shooting trophies. Chuck had been a champion marksman, winning his first state title for trapshooting in 1970. That's what he wanted to talk about. Not me. I was there to talk about beer.

I pulled a sheet of paper from a folder I had brought full of newspaper clippings, pictures and other items pertaining to the Rahr brewery. The sheet in my hand contained the recipe for Rahr's Elk's Head Beer.

I handed the paper to him and asked if we could sit down and go over it. We sat at his dining-room table and he looked over what I had given him. He wasn't at all happy when he realized it was the recipe for the beer he used to make.

He wanted to know where I had gotten it. I didn't like his indignation and didn't want to tell him. Now I was getting angry, too. This was going to hell before it even started. I asked him why my having the recipe was a problem. He told me he didn't want people making bad beer from that recipe and then calling it Rahr's beer. He told me about homebrew he had tasted and that it was terrible.

I told him I hadn't come there to talk about homebrew, but that I was a homebrewer and could make good beer. I offered to make a batch of Elk's Head for him to prove it. That offer seemed to mellow him. He explained that he couldn't drink beer anymore because of health issues he was having. I asked if he had been much of a beer drinker back when he was a brewer. Still looking at the recipe for Elk's Head, he said, "I loved beer."

From that point on, we got along wonderfully. It turned into one of the most memorable afternoons of my life. Once we started talking deeply about beer he was nothing like the distracted, detached man I had first encountered. His mind was sharp and he was generous in sharing his knowledge. He had vivid memories of the brewery and his days making beer there.

He didn't seem to care anymore about me having that recipe. We went through the entire thing, step by step. Before long, I wasn't even asking questions. I didn't have to. He went off on one interesting tangent after another about making that beer. The only downside was me trying and failing miserably to scribble every word he said into a notebook. I wish now that instead of sitting there with my head in that notebook I had spent more time watching him as he explained things to me.

We talked for several hours. By the end, Chuck's voice had grown raspy. I asked him what it felt like when the brewery closed. His answer was oblique, but said everything. "Even as a little kid I used to watch my dad brew the beer," he said. "It was our life.” To hear him say it was a heartbreaking thing.

We went down to his basement so he could show me some of the memorabilia he still had from the brewery. I took pictures of him holding several of the pieces. I was happy to see that the picture of him accompanying his obituary in last week's Northwestern was from one of the pictures I took that day.

A couple weeks after that meeting, I posted the story I wrote about Chuck Rahr and his brewing career. I printed a copy of it and mailed it to him. Chuck never told me whether he liked it or not. And I never asked. I think if he had disliked it, I would have heard about it. He wasn't shy about telling you when he thought he’d been wronged.

Chuck Rahr lived a somewhat solitary existence in his latter years. After we met, I often wondered if others ever saw the side of him I was lucky enough to get to know when we talked about beer. I didn't have to wonder about that too long.

A few months after meeting Chuck, I was talking to a friend of mine, a fellow member of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers named Gary Fenrich. We were at an SOB meeting and Gary mentioned off hand that he had met Chuck Rahr, a year or so earlier. I was floored.

At the time, Gary was exploring the idea of starting a contract brewery and perhaps reviving one or more of the regional beer brands that once flourished in Wisconsin. His pursuit of that idea led him to Chuck Rahr and an experience much like my own.

After Chuck's death last week, Gary sent me a text asking if I'd heard the news. I had. We wound up talking on the phone sharing our memories of Chuck with one another.

"He was just a nice guy," Gary said. "When he started talking to me about the brewery, it was almost like he was living back at that time. He was so proud of what they had done. He walked me through the years of the brewery and all the camaraderie he had with all these other small brewers. It was incredible."

I told Gary again about the afternoon I spent at Chuck’s house. Gary remarked about the similarity to his meeting with Chuck. "That's almost exactly what it was like for me when I met him," he said. "It’s almost like we were together when we were talking to him. It’s not like it was scripted, but it was almost like he was waiting for us to get there."

I’d like to think he was. I'm glad we made it.


  1. Excellent story Lee. You are a gifted journalist.

  2. Loved the read. I have a Rahrs clock that sat above my grandma's jukebox in her tavern in the early 60's.. My cousin got a hold of it in the 80's brought it to Oshkosh on his move. Then was placed in downtown osh bar called the Sheick bar. The Sheick burnt down years later. The clock survived. My cousin had past and I acquired the clock from family friend the hung in my back room untill a month ago. My brother was building his garage into a mini barroom with lots of neon lights and signs. and I thought that would be a good fit for his garage. now it hangs there.

    1. Thanks. I'd love to see a picture of that clock.