Monday, September 19, 2016

Fox River Brewing Brings it All Back Home

Wednesday, August 24, 2016... Kevin Bowen spent the better part of the morning on a ladder picking hops on the west side of Oshkosh. After the harvest, he headed for the brewery where he works. Bowen is the brewmaster for Fox River Brewing Company.

Back at the brewery, Bowen made final edits to the recipe he’d written for the beer he was about to brew. It all must have seemed familiar enough. He’s been making beer here since 2002. He’s brewed hundreds of batches at Fox River’s Oshkosh brewhouse.

But this batch would be different. What Bowen was about to do hadn’t been done by a commercial brewery in Oshkosh in over 130 years. He was going to make beer with locally grown hops. The same hops he had just helped pick on the west side of Oshkosh.

Kevin Bowen picking hops, August 24, 2016
There was a time when Winnebago County grew hops in abundance. From the 1850s well into the 1870s hop farms flourished here. By 1870 the county had more than 140 acres dedicated to growing hops. At the same time, Winnebago County was home to 11 breweries, six of them in Oshkosh.

The symbiosis that existed between brewers and hop growers was central to the local beer culture. But falling prices and competition from both coasts compelled farmers here to abandon the crop. By 1880 hop farming here had come to an end.

When Scott Clark and Steve Sobojinski began growing hops last year they weren’t thinking about reviving a lost part of our beer culture. Their motivation was more fundamental than that.

“I have two daughters,” Sobojinski says. “One of them was taking a horticulture class over at Oshkosh West. My younger one, she's in fifth grade, is just kind of into growing things. They kind of got us started. Scotty and I got to talking about it. We decided we’d grow hops.”

In 2015, Clark and Sobojinski established a hop yard on an 11-acre parcel on the west side of Oshkosh that has been owned by the Sobojinski family for decades. “Last year we put the first 15 plants in,” Clark says. “We didn't even put all that much effort into it, but they just flourished.”

A cluster of hop cones grown by Clark and Sobojinski.
When Sobojinski ran into his boyhood friend Jay Supple, CEO of the Supple Group which operates Fox River Brewing, he shared what he and Clark were up to. Supple was thrilled by what he heard. “I was like a little kid,” Supple says. “I thought it would be awesome if we could do a beer with their hops.” It would be another year before that came to fruition, though.

“That first year was more of an experiment just to see how they would do,” Clark says. “We wanted them to develop well, let the root system grow, and get established. They all did well across the board.”

For year two, Clark and Sobojinski went into production mode. They beefed up the yard, expanding the trellis system and brought in another 60 some plants. By this time, Bowen had caught wind of their plans.

Sobojinski recalls, “Kevin came up to me one time, and I don't know if he'd been dipping into his beer, but he said, ‘Steve: centennials, that's what I want. Centennials!’ So we planted centennials. And we had production off the centennials in their first year, which is amazing.”

Steve Sobojinski in his hop yard.

As the cones ripened in late August, Bowen sized up the crop to see what he’d do with the harvest. Nothing from the yard had yet been used for brewing, but the potential was obvious. "They did a great job with the yard and the hops looked great," Bowen says. "The sterling and the cascade were right where we wanted them.”

Bowen began formulating a recipe around what Clark and Sobojinski had grown. “That week before the harvest was my time to develop what the beer was going to be,” Bowen says. "I got to size up how much we were going to potentially harvest, what sort of aromas they were giving and how we were going to work with them.”

The morning of August 24, they began picking. A few hours later they’d collected over 15 pounds of hops, a mix of columbus, cascade, sterling and centennial. Back at the brewery, Bowen assessed what they had. “I brought them back and went through some more sensory on them and then wrote the final hop bill,” he says. “We ended up doing three additions, two late in the boil and then another in the whirlpool.”

This is where Bowen parts with tradition. To get the most out of what he had, the hops were used without being dried. “There's just a different quality to wet hops,” Bowen says. “Some of those really delicate oils that we want get lost through drying. That's what we’re trying to get with these wet hops and I think that noticeable little difference comes through. There is a unique character to it. You can definitely tell that it's fresh hops. ”

From hop bine to brew kettle in under eight hours, making for a beer unlike any previously brewed by an Oshkosh brewery. Bowen describes it as a pale ale with a calculated IBU of 30 and an ABV of 5%. The beer is named Big Ed’s Hopyard Ale, in honor of Sobojinski’s father, Edward J. Sobojinski, who tended a large garden on the land where the hops were grown.

For Steve Sobojinski that legacy is a big part of the appeal of doing this. “I think the neat thing is that it comes from my Dad’s old garden,” he says. “It fell into place with my girls wanting to watch something grow and Kevin and Jay becoming interested. Now two years later we have 10 barrels of fresh hop beer.”

For Kevin Bowen it’s just the beginning. “I'm looking forward to next year,” he says. “Those centennial plants should be kicking out a decent harvest. We will certainly be looking to do it again.”

This year's edition of Big Ed’s Hopyard Ale will begin pouring at Fox River Brewing in Oshkosh this week. You can check for it here.

Big Ed's Hops.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed reading this work. I'll come back for more

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