Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Todd’s Ale in Oshkosh

In the picture below is a storefront highlighted in yellow. Here may have been the place where IPA was first served in Oshkosh.

The year was 1885. There was a saloon in that storefront at the corner of Main and Market. It was run by William H. Englebright. In August 1885, Englebright had become sole proprietor of the place. He named it Star and Crescent Sample Rooms.

Englebright was anglophile. In fact, he was born in England in 1857. He reached Oshkosh at the age of 16. But he remained ever the English gent. Englebright and Bob, his full-blooded English pug, were familiar downtown characters.

Englebright maintained a love for the ales of his homeland. Star and Crescent became the “headquarters” for Bass Ale in Oshkosh. He imported it from England. He served it on draft from wooden kegs. And just a month after taking over Star and Crescent, Englebright brought in this...

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; September 5, 1885.

“Todd’s Ale and Porter and Schlitz’s Milwaukee Beer on draught at 5 Algoma street.”

Forget about the Schlitz. You had to pour some lager if you were going to run a saloon in Oshkosh. What’s of interest here is Todd’s Ale. There’s good evidence that meant IPA.

Todd’s Brewery was in Janesville. It was launched by John G. Todd in 1868. Wisconsin was in the midst of its great lager boom. All the breweries seemed to be making lager beer. Except Todd’s. Todd’s Brewery focused English-style ales. No wonder the brewery caught the eye of Englebright.

By 1880, Todd’s was the dominant ale brewery in Wisconsin. The Janesville brewery claimed it produced two-thirds of all the ale made in the state. Todd’s shipped its beer to Illinois, Michigan. It was sold throughout Wisconsin.

A year before Englebright brought Todd’s to Oshkosh, the brewery introduced its IPA.

Janesville Daily Gazette; June 2, 1884.
This was IPA in its elemental state. A distant cousin to the IPAs getting all the press today. Let’s compare. The most coveted IPAs today are hazy and flooded with hop aroma. The emphasis is on hop flavor as opposed to hop bitterness. They are meant to be consumed as fresh as possible. Not so in 1885.

Todd’s IPA would have been a stock ale – an aged beer. It would have been pale, brilliantly clear, and bracingly bitter. Notice in the ad where it says, “Will keep in any climate, and remain any length of time on draught.” Brewers today would consider that kind of talk heretical.

The two beers have a couple things in common.

Both are massively hopped. But the application was quite different. In the older beer, the hops would have been given a good, long boil to draw out the bitterness. In the modern IPA, the lion’s share of the hop load comes after the boil. The one thing these two truly agree on is strength. In 1885, IPAs were commonly in the 6-7% ABV range. Same goes today.

As good as Todd’s ale may have been, it never made much of a splash in Oshkosh. I haven’t found references to it being served here after 1886. The Todd family sold their ale brewery in 1890. In 1898 it was closed.

In 1900, William Englebright moved to Ripon where he ran The Hotel Englebright.

It was there that Englebright had his right ear torn off in a freak accident involving a kitchen door.

William Englebright returned to Oshkosh in the 1930s. He died here in 1940. He’s buried in Riverside Cemetery. His old ale house at Algoma and Market was demolished after a fire in 1996. The sundial is now there.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Roots of Big Ed's Hopyard Ale

Last fall, Fox River Brewing Company released Big Ed's Hopyard Ale. It was an unprecedented beer. It marked the first time a commercial brewery in Oshkosh made beer using fresh hops – hops that go directly from bine to brew kettle without being dried or processed. And it was the first time since the 1880s that a commercial brewery in Oshkosh made beer using hops grown in Winnebago County.

Big Ed's Hopyard
This year's version of Big Ed's Hopyard Ale has just been released. This time, the connection to place runs deeper. This is a beer with roots in the earliest days of Winnebago County's beer culture. To trace those roots you have to go back to the 1840s and a man named Silas Allen.

Silas Allen was said to have arrived in Winnebago County in 1846. It was also said that he came with a barrel of hop roots in tow. That seems entirely plausible. Allen migrated here from Madison County in mid-state New York. He'd lived and farmed there at a time when Madison County was the largest producer of hops in the nation.

Allen's migration was part of a westward diaspora of New York hop growers. Everywhere they went, they spread hops. Allen settled at what was then known as Ball Prairie. Today we know it as Allenville. He purchased land, cleared it, and began putting down roots.

By 1853, though possibly earlier, Allen's farm was producing hops suitable for brewing. By 1854, he had five acres of hops under cultivation. His yield that year was in excess of 6,000 pounds. This had grown into a significant hopyard.

Silas Allen died from sunstroke in 1859. He had been out tending to his field. His son Timothy took over the farm. The Allen's continued cultivating hops. It lasted until the late 1870s. By then the hop market had cratered due to overproduction.

The final blow for the Allens appears to have come in 1880. The Chicago & North Western Railway cut a track through the middle of their hopyard. Their hop farming days were over. That should have ended the story for those hops. It didn't.

Allenville Hops
Hops are tenacious. Once established, the plants can be nearly impossible to eradicate. They'll turn feral, sending out underground runners. The spread is often prolific. At the site of Silas Allen's farm hops still grow wild.

Those hops piqued the interest of Scott Clark and Steve Sobojinski. They cultivate the hopyard in Winnebago County that supplies the fresh hops used in Big Ed's Hopyard Ale. Last spring Clark and Sobojinski planted cuttings taken from roots of the hops growing wild at Silas Allen's old farm.

The plants flourished. This year’s version of Big Ed's Hopyard Ale includes hops grown on plants from the relocated Allenville cuttings. It’s the first time in almost 140 years that hops derived from those roots have been used in a commercial beer.

A bucket of the Silas Allen hops.
The Silas Allen hops are just part of the mix. This year’s Big Ed's Hopyard Ale also includes Columbus, Cascade, Sterling, Centennial, and Nugget hops. They were picked on the morning of September 13.

Brewers picking hops at Big Ed's Hopyard.
A few hours later those hops were in the kettle at Fox River Brewing in Oshkosh. The beer went on tap yesterday; Wednesday, October 11. It’s a wonderful beer.

Big Ed's Hopyard Ale 2017
The aroma showcases the hops. They’re bright and lemony. The flavor also favors the hops with more of that citrus fruit coming through. But the hops don’t entirely dominate. This year Kevin Bowen, brewmaster at Fox River, added locally harvested honey to the wort for Big Ed’s. The honey presence is subtle, but it sets a nice counterpoint to that brisk hop flavor. The bitterness is firm and clean and not at all oppressive. At 5.8% ABV, this beer is at the outer edge of being sessionable, but two or three go down easily.

Like all fresh hop beers this one is going to be at its best when it’s at its freshest. That’s right now. This is a rare beer in the truest sense. Don’t let it slip by.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Cask and Caskets 2017

Cask and Caskets is back. The Society of Oshkosh Brewer's fourth homebrewed beer fest takes place Saturday, November 4, 2017, at the Hilton Garden Inn Oshkosh from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m

Here's the kicker: this year, it's free. You do not have to pay to get in. No hitches, no bullshit. It's a free beer festival. But tickets are strictly limited. Right now, less than 150 remain. If you want to go, you’ll need to get moving. Here's how it works.

Click this link. Follow the instructions. Soon after, you'll receive confirmation that you're on the list. The next part couldn't be easier. Show up and immerse yourself in the wild world of homebrew.

Everything served at Casks is homemade. There won't be a commercial beer in sight. And it's not just beer. There will also be a bevy of ciders, meads, and wines. The homemade aspect means this won't be a "normal" fest. This fest takes rare and local to the extreme. At Casks, you'll get to try stuff you've never had before and will never have again.

Despite all the free liquid, Cask and Caskets is still a charity event. It costs nothing to get in and drink, but there are a number of ways to contribute. When you enter, you'll be able to make a donation. And if you want to upgrade from a regular cup to a "Casks" glass, you can do so for $35. There's also going to be a bucket raffle and silent auction items including a Gretsch guitar. All money raised will go to the Oshkosh Hunger Network.

The Gretsch
The list is still being populated, but here’s a handful of beers that’ll pour at casks: Telephone Pole Pale Ale, a fresh-hop beer made with hops grown in Oshkosh. Gin Barrel Saison. Georgia Peach IPA. Peanut Butter Ale. Sour Apple Saison. Vanilla Java Porter. Raven's Breath Black IPA. The Hulk, an aged Barleywine. They're not all stunt beers. The SOBs will be slinging plenty of traditional styles including ESB, Porter, Wit, Kolsch, Cream Ale, and more.

Fellow SOB Jody Cleveland and I are teaming up for a mini-fest within the fest. We're calling it Old World Oshkosh. We've cloned six beers from Oshkosh's past. An 1840s porter of the sort that was shipped to Oshkosh before there were breweries here. An 1850 dark lager brewed in Oshkosh at the Schussler Brewery. An 1874 Vienna Lager brewed at the Glatz Brewery. An 1876 Berliner Weisse brewed at the Schiffmann Brewery. The Oshkosh Brewing Company's 1894 Export Beer. And the original Peoples Beer from the 1950s.

And then, there’s this...

A costume contest. But you’ll need to find a better get up than a wiener suit to win it. There’ll be live music at the fest along with door prizes. If you want to spend Casks night at the Hilton Garden Inn, call the hotel and mention the festival. They’ll give you a deal on your room – $89 for the Saturday night stay.

If you have questions, plop them in the comments section or hit me up on Facebook. I'll answer as soon as I can. Hope to see you there!

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Brewing Beer with Oshkosh Water

If you make beer, it's important to know your water. In Oshkosh, we have good water for brewing. It has its limitations, but nothing you can't work with.

Here are three years of Oshkosh water reports focusing on properties important to brewers. The water tested was drawn in different parts of the city, at different times of the year.

The good news is that Oshkosh water is consistent. That makes things easier if you plan to adjust your water for brewing. Then there’s the bad news. Certain styles of beer don’t pair well with our water. If you aim to brew something pale and hoppy, you’re likely to struggle if you don’t adjust your water.

Oshkosh water is taken from Lake Winnebago. Like most surface water, ours has fairly low mineral content and fairly high alkalinity. Water like this works best for beers that are darker, maltier, and less bitter. I’ve tasted evidence of that.

Years ago, I joined the Society of Oshkosh Brewers. At meetings, members pass around beers they've made. Early on, I noticed that Oshkosh brewers excelled when it came to darker, malt-driven beers: stouts, porters, ambers. I wasn’t the only one struck by this.

Steve Rehfeldt moved to Oshkosh from Colorado in 1995. He promptly joined the SOBs. Shortly after, he became club president. Rehfeldt liked the SOBs' beers. He noted that “The Oshkosh folks brewed a lot of lagers and malty, dark ales. The beer they were making retained the influence of the Oshkosh brewers who preceded them."

What Rehfeldt says makes perfect sense when you consider our water. Those types of beers are what our water does best. That's not saying you can't brew pale, hoppy beers with Oshkosh water. It's just that you'll need to make adjustments if you hope to make consistently good beer. It's not too difficult. Here's what I do.

Let's say I'm brewing a pre-Prohibition style pilsner. This is a pale lager carrying about 40 IBUs. For this beer, I'll dilute my Oshkosh tap water with 40% distilled water. That helps reduce alkalinity. Then I'll add 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon of calcium chloride for every five gallons of brewing water. That helps compensate for mineral loss from the dilution. In the mash, I'll use acidulated malt to lower PH. The acidulated malt makes up 3-4% of the total grain bill. If you don't like acidulated malt, 1/2 teaspoon of lactic acid added to the mash would work equally well.

And that's it. There are other ways to do it. But this is simple and it works for me. I don't screw around with it much anymore. Obsessing about water is not my idea of fun. My idea of fun is more boring than that. For example...

Here's an insanely detailed water report from the Oshkosh Brewing Company. This is from 1958. The water was drawn from the brewery's own well. Some of the numbers are off the charts.

Click to enlarge

How did they deal with that? I'm not entirely sure. There's some decent evidence that OBC boiled its water before brewing with it. That’s an old trick for reducing hardness and alkalinity. That would have been a mandatory requirement for a brewery producing a pale, hop-forward lager as its flagship brand.

This stuff goes way back. Brewers in Oshkosh have been tampering with the local water for years. Back in the 1890s, Lorenz Kuenzl at the Gambrinus Brewery was doing it. Kuenzl was trained to brew in Bohemia. One of his specialties was a Bohemian-style pilsner. An 1893 inventory from his brewery shows Kuenzl kept an arsenal of organic acids on hand. Just the stuff for adjusting his water to produce his “celebrated” pale lager.

Of course, you could forget all this bunk and go au naturel. Stick with brewing beers that run from amber to dark and are malt-driven. You’re living in the right place for it. It’s the sort of beer Oshkosh was built on

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Every Knob Has a Story

Here we have five tap knobs. All from Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh. They span five decades of draft beer. Each has its story. The first of the bunch comes from the early 1930s.

Wurtzer beer was released at the end of Prohibition in 1933. This was also when the branded tap knob became commonplace. After Prohibition, taverns were required to clearly identify the draft beer they served. These ball knobs were what everybody used.

With the 1940s came WWII. The Germanic heft of Würtzer was too much to bear. Peoples dropped it. The beer became known simply as Peoples Beer.

Peoples redesigned its logo in 1951. They aimed for something modern and sleek. At the same time, Peoples introduced its new catchphrase, "HITS the SPOT!"

In the 1960s, those well-worn ball knobs were being phased out. Brewers sought to set their beer apart. Tap handles grew larger. More eye-catching. This is a Peoples handle from the 1960s.

Here's the end of the line. When first shown this, I thought it was counterfeit. A reliable source assures me it's not. This is purported to be from 1971. A year later, Peoples Brewing closed. They'd come a long way from Würtzer.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Wharrgarbl 2017

The first locally-brewed, fresh-hop beer of the year gets released today at Bare Bones Brewery. It’s named Wharrgarbl 2017. The beer was brewed 11 days ago. It’ll go on tap this afternoon.

Bare Bones head brewer RJ Nordlund with Wharrgarbl 2017.
It’s the second fresh hop beer Nordlund has made at Bare Bones. The hops for last year’s batch came from Michigan. This year’s cones are from Gorst Valley Hops in Nekoosa. The farm is about 80 miles west of Oshkosh.

Gorst Valley Hops
“We were out there on the Friday, the day they were picking them,” Nordlund says. “We got to see them feeding them through the harvester.”

“We brought them back that same day and brewed the next morning.”

More than 100 pounds of freshly picked cascade went into the 15-barrel batch. It all went into the kettle during the last 20 minutes of the boil.

I had a chance to try the beer yesterday as Nordlund was taking it from the fermentor into kegs. It tastes vibrant. Just as you’d expect from something so fresh. The flavor is unlike that of dried hops. It’s a full, rounded flavor with an earthiness I can’t put my finger on. That word “green” kept coming back to me. There are no sharp edges. The bitterness is mild. It has a ripe, soft character.

“Doing it this way where all the hops are backloaded towards the end of the boil worked pretty well,” Nordlund says. “You're not throwing any of the wet hops away for bitterness, you're just pulling all the flavor out of them.”

At 7.2% ABV, this year’s Wharrgarbl is stronger than last year’s batch. “I wanted a little more alcohol this year,” Nordlund says. “It balances out because there's no strong bitterness from the hops.”

Balance is the right word. Without balance this type of beer is wretched. I’ve had my share of those. They taste like swamp water.

For these to be good, that fresh-hop flavor has to work in tandem with the malt. But balance seems to trip people up. There's a misplaced expectation that fresh-hop beers should carry the same concentrated hop flavors as beers made from pelletized hops. That's not the case. Freshly picked hops are a different thing. They produce different flavors and aromas. Less intense, but when used right, more interesting.

Wharrgarbl is just what a good fresh-hop beer should be. And the best time to experience a beer such as this is at peak. That would be right now.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Juice Cloud

Last week, Lion’s Tail Brewing in Neenah released Juice Cloud, a New England Style IPA (NE IPA). It’s the first time a commercial brewery in Winnebago County has produced this style.

This is a golden, densely cloudy beer under creamy white foam. It’s powerfully aromatic. You can smell hops before your nose gets near it. The aroma is a swirl of sweet citrus fruits with grapefruit and some onion coming in at the back end. The flavor of Citra hops drives this beer. Clearly, there’s a lot of it in the dry hopping. I couldn’t help but think of orange juice when I was drinking it.

This is a beer that upends your expectations. The mouthfeel is soft and creamy, but with so much hop flavor you anticipate a punch of bitterness will follow. It never arrives. For a beer that appears anything but clean, it finishes exceptionally clean. What bitterness there is rapidly dissipates. People who aren't much into IPA might like this quite a bit. If you’re already into hops, Juice Cloud is a must. It’s one of the best examples of an NE IPA, I've had. Hands down the best version I’ve tried from a Wisconsin brewery.

Until now, the NE IPA has barely made a dent around here. But the style has been around for a while. Some trace it back to 2003. That’s when The Alchemist, a Vermont brewery, first brewed Heady Topper; arguably the first iteration of the style. It's developed over time. In the past three years, the style has gone from an obscure novelty to the most talked about American craft beer.

It’s also proven to be controversial. Much has been made of the extreme haze. Some find it off-putting. Others take it as a signifier of raw hop flavor. Others yet would say it’s just an unfiltered IPA. I don’t buy that. These beers are made in a way that sets them apart.

Alex Wenzel is the brewmaster and owner of Lion’s Tail Brewing. He dug deep before releasing his take on the NE IPA.

Alex Wenzel of Lion's Tail Brewing
After several trials, Wenzel found he could produce the flavors, texture, and appearance he wanted. He uses a combination of water adjustment, grist, yeast and dry hopping. Juice Cloud employs a fairly standard malt bill supplemented with starchy adjuncts – flaked oats and wheat. But Wenzel believes the haze has more to do with the hopping regimen.

“The trick to achieving sustainable haze is introducing a sizable charge of hops during active fermentation,” Wenzel says. “The so-called biotransformation is a reaction the yeast have to the hop oils during fermentation, it ruins their ability to flocculate and drop out of solution to dormancy. I did do quite a bit of experimenting with a centrifuge and found that this biotransformation thing is pretty legit. Even when you add bio fining or anionic chemistry like carrageenan, there's still a good portion of the haze that will not drop out of solution.”

It’s not just about haze, though. Juice Cloud’s low bitterness (15 calculated IBUs) is another point of deviation from conventionally hoppy beers. Because nearly all the hops are introduced on the cold side – during and after fermentation – little bitterness is produced. But hop flavor is still captured. At 6.3% ABV, Juice Cloud retains the strength of the modern IPA, but the gentle bitterness makes for a beer that’s easier drinking than the West Coast style IPAs that have been dominant in recent years.

Wenzel is still tinkering with the recipe, but appears happy with what he’s come up with. He should be. Juice Cloud recently did well at the inaugural Wisconsin IPA Fest in Milwaukee. It won the award for being the first keg to kick.

Right now you can get Juice Cloud at the Lion’s Tail taproom in Neenah. And in Oshkosh, it’s currently on the tap lists at Ruby Owl Taproom and Bare Bones Brewery.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

A Slack September

September will be slower than usual around here. Instead of the usual blogging, I’ll be off working on a chapter for a book that should see release in 2018. As you can probably guess, my contribution will have something to do with Oshkosh and beer.

I’ll try to squeeze in a blog post here and there. In the meantime, you can find me over at the Oshkosh Beer page on Facebook.

Here’s something pretty to look at until next time. One of my favorite beer labels. Isn't she lovely?

Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Year in The Cellar

In 2009, Dave Koepke opened The Cellar Brew Shop in Fond du Lac. A year ago, he moved his store to Oshkosh.

1921 S. Washburn St., Oshkosh.

Koepke decided to relocate the store for an obvious of reason. "The initial idea was all about reaching a larger population," Koepke says. But along the way, things changed. "It quickly became more about building a community."

That sense of community is becoming ever more crucial in Koepke's line of work. The rise of online retail has been devastating for some traditional homebrew suppliers. Local shops, once the cornerstone of the hobby, are being driven under. But The Cellar appears to be thriving.

Koepke's store is as well stocked as any homebrew shop you'll find. And he's been quick to pick up on what online retailers can't provide: direct contact with fellow homebrew enthusiasts. His own enthusiasm for the hobby is manifest.

"I'm an opinionated son of a bitch, I know that, "Koepke says. "But it's not about me. I love beer. This is such an awesome thing. It's giving people who aren't artists a chance to be artists. That's the way I look at it."

Dave Koepke
His zeal animates The Cellar. Homebrewers seem drawn to it. Koepke’s shop quickly became the hub for brewing activity here. Over the past year, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers has held a couple of their club events at the store. Local homebrewer Tim Pfeister has been teaching beer-making classes there. Koepke has even drawn in professionals from area breweries, wineries, and distilleries.

"That's the weird thing that kind of blows my mind," says Koepke. "I don't know how many other shops have people from breweries and meaderies coming in. They're just supplementing small amounts of minor stuff; bottle wax, a couple of mesh bags for dry hopping. It's just small stuff. We can't take care of everybody all the time, but we like that they're coming to us."

Part of the draw is Koepke's background. He’s been involved in nearly every aspect of craft beer. He’s a graduate of the Siebel Institute’s Diploma Course in Brewing. He brewed professionally at the former Appleton Brewing Company (which became Stone Arch Brewpub). He's run a bar and worked in beer distribution. "I'm not just a homebrewer,” he says. “But, am I a homebrewer first and foremost? Absolutely."

After more than 20 years in the profession, he still brews on a regular basis. "There aren't many who homebrew as much I do," he says. "I've brewed about 45 batches in the last two years."

Most are pilot batches. He's usually testing out a new kit or ingredient. He wants to know what he's selling. "When we get something new I have to try it," Koepke says. "For example, right now we have about 70 hop varieties in stock. I think there's only five of those that I haven't tried."

Much of what he brews he shares with customers. There's usually a few kegs on tap in the keezer at the back of the store. "The proper way to ask if you can have a beer is just to say 'Hey what do you guys have on tap?' It's that simple. As long as I'm stocked on glasses, sure, you can have a beer. The whole point is to brew with the stuff and test it out and let customers come in and try it."

The Cellar Keezer.
All of this a distinct change from what has long been the norm in Oshkosh. The modern homebrew movement arrived here in the early 1990s. Since then, the only local option for homebrewers has been stores selling a limited range of supplies as a sideline to another business.

The most recent of them was Nutrition Discount Center (NDC) on Main Street. Their dabbling came to an abrupt end in June. NDC is about to establish a second location on Witzel Ave. But they have no intention of getting back into selling homebrew supplies.

"There was no way they were going to keep up with what we can stock," Koepke says. "I'm not saying I had it all figured out. I'm a terrible businessman. We stock way too heavy and our prices are too low. But that's the game. You have to. Our biggest competitor is Amazon. And that's how we have to think. A lot of people don't want to leave their house. But when we get them to come here they find out they can get answers to their questions. Homebrew stores are different. People have relationships with the people in the store. It's not like going into a Walmart."

If you've been to The Cellar, you know it's nothing like that. In fact, it's not like any other store I've been in. Koepke is voluble. He'll talk beer with you all day. The discussions often range beyond methods or ingredients.

"The whole thing comes down to attitude," he says. "What are you here for? Are you here to make the best beer? I tell people, I can make some of the best beer in the world and I don't mean that as an ego thing. It's me and you and we share one thing in common. We own the brewery. We can tailor our beer to our own tastes. We control the freshness. You go to the store and almost everything there is three, four months old. My stuff has been in the keg 10 days. You can't get beer any fresher. I don't know, I'm not even talking about the shop. There are guys coming in here now that are going to have careers in brewing. I want to see them flourish. I want to see them make great stuff!"

No, that's definitely not Walmart. And it's definitely not a UPS driver dropping a brown box at your door. It's better than that. It's the way it should be.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Forgotten Oshkosh Beers: Schoen's Old Lager

Here's one nobody remembers. Schoen's Old Lager Beer. Brewed and bottled by The Peoples Brewing Co. Oshkosh Wisconsin.

Schoen's Old Lager wasn't native to Oshkosh. How it arrived here is something of a mystery. Here's what I know...

Schoen's Old Lager was named for Louis Schoen, born in  Bavaria in 1876. He came to the United States in 1892. Schoen went to La Crosse. He became brewmaster at G. Heileman Brewing.

Louis Schoen
Schoen was an old-world sort of brewer. He insisted his lager be aged nine weeks before it left the brewery. His exactitude was acceptable before Prohibition hit in 1920. But when the dry years were over, Schoen's meticulousness became problematic.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, G. Heileman Brewing came roaring out of the gate. It would grow to become the largest Wisconsin brewery outside of Milwaukee. That growth wasn't compatible with Schoen's ethos. At Heileman, they couldn't wait nine weeks for a batch of beer to be finished. Schoen had to go. They canned him at G. Heileman in 1934.

Schoen went to Wausau. In 1934, he helped launch Wausau Brewing Co. There he produced Louis Schoen's Old Lager Beer. It wasn't just his name on the label. His picture was there, too.

Louis Schoen died in 1965. By that time, the beer with his name on it was already in the hands of others.

Wausau Brewing Co. had closed in 1961. Its brands were immediately scooped up by Rhinelander Brewing Co. Rhinelander began producing its version Schoen's Old Lager Beer. You can bet your life they weren't aging it nine weeks in Rhinelander.

In 1967, Rhinelander Brewing Co. bit the dust. The Rhinelander labels were purchased by Huber Brewing of Monroe. But Schoen's Old Lager didn't end up in Monroe.

Here's a label said to be from 1972. What the hell was Schoen's doing in Eau Claire?

And why was this beer ever in Oshkosh? And when? I'm guessing it landed in Oshkosh sometime after the fall of Rhinelander Brewing Co. in 1967.

If that's the case, it wasn't here long. When Peoples Brewing was sold in 1970, the brewery's portfolio made no mention of Schoen's Old Lager Beer. I wonder, though, if the omission was an oversite.

Peoples Brewing closed in 1972. It seems a little too coincidental that Schoen's Old Lager Beer would surface that same year in Eau Claire. But that's sometimes how it goes with these vampire brands. Strange things happen when a beer won't stay dead.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Night They Raided Oblio's

August 26, 1921. It was a Friday. The night began like a low comedy.

At 7:50 p.m., a pack of Prohibition officers arrived in Oshkosh. There were nine of them in all. Five were federal agents. The other four were state cops.

They came by train. There were supposed to be two cars waiting for them at the Chicago & Northwestern depot on Broad Street. There were no cars. The nine agents scurried into a thicket of trees behind the train station. Grown men hiding behind trees.

Chicago & Northwestern Depot with trees in the background.
Prohibition began in 1920. By 1921, Oshkosh’s cops were already notorious for their lax enforcement of the dry law. The feds didn’t trust them. They didn't include Oshkosh police in their plan for the evening’s raids. Now that plan was in jeopardy. The cars still hadn’t arrived. The nine agents huddled in the brush trying to figure out what to do next.

An Oshkosh patrolman had spotted them sneaking off into woods. Something was wrong here. From the train depot, he called for support. The Prohibition agents were still hiding when the back-up arrived. The Oshkosh cops shagged them out.

After the Prohibition agents had explained themselves, their cars finally arrived. Off they went. There was no time to lose. Word would quickly spread that they were in town.

Minutes later the agents arrived downtown. They headed directly for one of Oshkosh’s most conspicuous speakeasies. A Main Street cafe with a sardonic name. The Annex Thirst Parlor.

Before Prohibition, before it had transformed into the Annex Thirst Parlor, it was the Annex Sample Room. Today we know it as Oblio’s Lounge.

In 1921, Albert H. Steuck was running the place. Steuck was born in Oshkosh in 1872. In 1900, he took over the Schlitz Beer Hall on Main St. He was 28. He’d recently quit his job working for the streetcar in Milwaukee. He’d recently gotten married. He’d recently moved back home to Oshkosh.

Right away, Steuck changed the name of the place. The old Schlitz Beer Hall became the Annex Sample Room.

1903 Oshkosh City Directory.

Wine was fine, but his butter and bread were the mugs of Schlitz he sent sliding down the bar. Steuck attracted a boisterous crowd. Young “sports” who liked to gamble and drink. They’d hang around waiting for the boxing results Steuck would announce as they came in over the phone. They'd hang out the front door and hurl insults at people walking down Main Street.

"A.H. Steuck was called before the (saloon) committee and notified that young men who frequented his place were accustomed to passing remarks concerning people who passed, particularly the policemen.”
  - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 20, 1908.

Steuck was warned to rein it in. If he didn’t, they’d pull his license.

In 1920, he did lose his license. Same as every other saloon keeper in town. Prohibition was on. But nobody went dry. Steuck bought a license to sell soft drinks. The pretense was laughable.

A license to serve non-intoxicating "liquors" in Oshkosh issued to Al Steuck.

On that August night in 1921, they weren’t drinking soda at the Annex Thirst Parlor. They were having whiskey. And then the Prohibition agents barged in. Steuck didn’t even try to hide it. There was nothing he could do. They arrested Steuck. The raiders moved on.

The agents had split into two groups. They quickly spread across town going after bars either owned by or connected to breweries. Steuck’s place was owned by Schlitz Brewing Company.

A few blocks south on Main they arrested Fred Rahr. His saloon had been tied to the Rahr Brewing Company

Fred Rahr's saloon at the corner of Ceape and N. Main streets.

On the south side, they busted August Witzke. Witzke’s saloon was owned by the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

The Witzke Saloon at 1700 Oregon St.

At 17th and Iowa, they arrested August Ziebell. Ziebell was another one connected to the Rahr Brewing Company.

The saloon run by August Ziebell at 17th and Iowa. Now the TNT Tap.

The agents hit a dozen suspected speakeasies that night. Most of the raids came to nothing. It may have had something to do with the botched start and being outed by the Oshkosh police.

“In a number of instances, they found the saloons closed and dark. The officers expressed surprise this morning, inquiring since when do the saloons close at 9 o’clock in this city?”
  - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; August 29, 1921.

By midnight, everything was done. The following morning the agents delivered their liquid evidence to city hall for safe keeping.

The old Oshkosh City Hall at the northwest corner of Otter and State streets. 

They were met at city hall by Oshkosh Mayor Arthur C. McHenry. The mayor wasn’t happy. He lit into the raiders. “Mayor McHenry quite forcibly stated that the ‘city of Oshkosh’ was not in sympathy with prohibition enforcement,” The Northwestern reported. Welcome to Oshkosh.

Most of those swept up in the raids paid their fines ($200-300) and went on their way. Not Al Steuck. He decided to take his chances in court. At first, that strategy worked.

District courts, like the one in Oshkosh, were often lenient in their treatment of dry-law violators. Steuck took advantage of the situation. He initially appears to have walked away from the charges against him without being punished. Then the feds stepped in again.

A month after Steuck had been busted, a federal grand jury was convened to address the non-prosecution of Prohibition violations occurring in Wisconsin's district courts. Steuck’s name was on the list when the grand jury handed down its first set of indictments.

On October 31, 1921, federal agents arrived in Oshkosh and arrested Steuck again. This time, they took him to Milwaukee. Now he was in deep. Steuck was arraigned in federal court. He pleaded not guilty and was released on a $1,000 bond.

There was no getting out of it this time. On November 15, Steuck changed his plea to guilty on all five counts against him. They threw the book at him. Rarely were first time violators given jail time. Steuck got three months in the house of corrections.

When he returned to Oshkosh in 1922, Steuck went back to the Annex Thirst Parlor. But things were never the same. Another violation would have put him away for years. He couldn’t chance it.

The Annex ground slowly to a halt. Steuck finally closed the doors in 1927. Steuck sold off the bar’s fixtures and moved on. A decade would pass before another bar went in what is now 432-434 N. Main Street.

In February 1928, the new Eagles Club opened on Washington Ave. Al Steuck became its first manager.

Oshkosh Eagle's Club brand cigar box, circa 1928.

Albert H. Steuck died in Oshkosh on December 4, 1947. He’s buried in Lake View Memorial Park.