Tuesday, December 20, 2016

2016: Oshkosh’s Year in Beer

This has been a good year. In 2016, our breweries grew, the variety of beer available to us was unprecedented, and the city’s beer community expanded. The beer culture here hasn’t been this vital since the mid-1950s when Oshkosh was home to three breweries. Things are changing rapidly. And in interesting ways. Here’s a review of what 2016 brought to the Oshkosh beer scene.

The year began with announcements that progress was being made by two groups planning to launch breweries here.

In early January, The HighHolder Brewing Company shared the word that fabrication of its brewhouse was underway at 2211 Oregon St. The 40-gallon brewery they've installed would make this the first nano-brewery in Winnebago County.  Problems related to the permitting process slowed their progress, but now the project is back on track. Of the three breweries currently in planning for Oshkosh, HighHolder Brewing is the closest to producing beer. There's a good chance that will begin happening in 2017.

The beginning of the HighHolder brewhouse.
Later in January came word that another startup, Fifth Ward Brewing Company, was seeking authorization from the city to open a brewery on South Main Street.  By spring, Ian Wenger and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward had secured a building at 1009 S. Main St. and the permits needed to move ahead with their plans for the property. It initially appeared that Fifth Ward could possibly open by the end of the year. But the project ran into financing issues. Clark and Wenger have made significant progress on that front and hope to have an announcement about their impending brewery in early 2017.

The proposed home of Fifth Ward Brewing at 1009 S. Main St.
February brought major change to Bare Bones Brewery. Lyle Hari, brewmaster at Bare Bones, left the brewery to take a job with a Florida brewery. By the end of the month, Hari had been replaced by RJ Nordlund, who had previously worked for Founders, Harmony and Fetch breweries in Michigan.

RJ Nordlund
Nordlund’s beers have been a departure from those produced at the brewery prior to his arrival. His beers often showcase hops and deliver a  robust charge of alcohol.

The change appears to have been invigorating. The effect was most noticeable in the tap room at Bare Bones. The draught lines there had previously been divided between the brewery’s own beer and that of other Wisconsin breweries. But by early summer nearly all the handles had been taken over by Bare Bones’ beer. The point was driven home with new packaging and distribution emphasizing the brewery’s IPAs. At the end of 2016, Bare Bones is not the same brewery it was a year ago.

A new sign being installed at Bare Bones Brewery, November 7, 2016.
Talk of another new brewery flared in May when Jeff Fulbright announced his plan for establishing the Oshkosh Bier & Brewing Company. Fulbright had previously operated Mid-Coast Brewing Company in the early 1990s. His flagship brand was the well-known Chief Oshkosh Red Lager.

Fulbright’s new plan would establish a tap room and 40-barrel brewhouse in the heart of the city. By the end of summer, he had secured a 12-month, option-to-purchase agreement on property at the corner of Jackson and Pearl streets. Fulbright continues to make progress on the project. He is currently negotiating a partnership with a local developer for construction of the brewery.

The proposed Oshkosh Bier & Brewing Company brewery and tap room.
On June 27, Ruby Owl Tap Room opened at 421 N. Main St. After more than a year in development, the Ruby had an immediate impact on the downtown beer scene. The tap room opened with 30 beers on draft, without a light beer or macro in sight.

In July, Ruby Owl installed Oshkosh’s first crowler machine for take-away sales of draft beer in cans. In early fall, manager Adam Carlson began regularly featuring beer events at the Ruby completing his transition from Gardina’s, the Ruby’s sister restaurant on N. Main Street.

If the opening of the Ruby Owl marks the beginning of a new phase, then the death of Brews n’ Blues surely marks the end of the first wave of Oshkosh’s beer revival.

For the first summer in 20 years, the Brews n’ Blues Festival did not take place. When the festival launched in 1996, it represented what was new and exciting about beer in Oshkosh. For many here, the fest provided their entrée to craft beer, or as it was called then microbrew.

But Brews n’ Blues failed to keep pace with the evolution of beer drinkers here. In a city where diverse beer events now take place on an almost weekly basis, the Brews n’ Blues model of beer fest was no longer the novel event it had been. Its demise was the result, in part, of its success at introducing so many people in this area to good beer.

Better news arrived in August. The Cellar, Dave Koepke's homebrew shop, relocated from Fond du Lac to Oshkosh. The Cellar opened at 1921 S. Washburn St. on August 30. It became the first full-scale homebrew shop to operate in Oshkosh since 1933.

The store fills a gap that was begging to be occupied. Oshkosh has had a vibrant homebrewing community for more than two decades. The lack of a local resource for materials the hobby requires was always a hindrance. No more. As a homebrewer, I can attest we sorely needed something like this.

Dave Koepke at The Cellar in Oshkosh.
At the end of August, both Bare Bones Brewery and Fox River Brewing produced beers using wet hops (hops that go directly from bine to brew kettle without being dried or processed). Beers like these had never been brewed here before.

Fox River made its wet hop beer on August 24. Perhaps more important than it being brewed with wet hops was the source of those hops: they were grown at a small hop yard in Oshkosh. It was the first time in more than 130 years that a beer had been produced by an Oshkosh brewery using locally sourced hops. Big Ed’s Hopyard Ale went on tap at Fox River Brewing in mid-September.

Kevin Bowen, brewmaster at Fox River Brewing, picking hops for his August 24 brew day.
Bare Bones brewed its wet hop beer on August 29. This was the first beer from an Oshkosh brewery to be brewed with wet hops exclusively. Bare Bones brewers RJ Nordlund and Jody Cleveland made a day trip to Michigan to source freshly picked hops for the brew. The beer, named WHARRGARBL, went on tap in early September.

Nordlund with WHARRGARBL wet hops.
September was also noteworthy for the formation of Oshkosh Girl’s Pint Out, a group whose goal is to build a local community of women who appreciate good beer. Organized by Erin Peyer, GPO had its first gathering on Sunday, October 2 at Bare Bones Brewery. They followed with a series of events through the remainder of the year. The organization is a signifier of the maturing, more inclusive beer culture developing here.

October 2, the first get together of Oshkosh Girl's Pint Out. Bare Bones Brewery.
This year brought a torrent of reports on the declining fortunes of craft brewers. Often left unreported was that the slowdown was predominantly restricted to large breweries losing ground to smaller, local producers.

In 2016, Fox River Brewing became a prime example of one of those small, local producers on the rise. By the end of October, Fox River had already broken its previous production record set over the whole of 2015. Fox River is now at full capacity and exploring options to increase production. In the near term, that may mean contract brewing some of its bottled beer.

Bottling beer at Fox River Brewing.

Nationally, the brewery count is now over 5,000. With that has come the return of breweries to nearby cities where brewing once flourished. This year we’ve seen beer in Oshkosh from breweries in Ripon, Neenah, and Appleton. You’d have to go back to the 1940s, to find as many breweries in our immediate area sending their beer here.

You’d have to go even further back to find a comparison point for our two breweries. Although Bare Bones and Fox River both distribute their beer, each is reliant upon people coming to their tap room to drink beer they produce on site. This is a model that was prevalent in Oshkosh from the 1850s into the 1870s. It died off as the city’s breweries grew larger in the 1880s. Now it’s being revived as small brewery’s become commonplace again. Each of the three breweries in planning also intends to work this model.

Big breweries aren’t going away. The renaissance occurring here is taking place in spite of that. What we’re seeing is a return to form. For much of Oshkosh’s history, beer was synonymous with local. At the close of 2016, that perspective is undergoing a renewal.

1 comment:

  1. Oshkosh waited awhile to get going,but it is very exciting to see the brew scene so vibrant. From the breweries to the local establishments that have embraced good beer. Oblio's was always there for us, but now we can go out for a meal any night and have a choice of good beers.