Monday, February 13, 2017

An Illustrated History of Oshkosh Beer Cans

Last week Bare Bones Brewery packaged two batches of beer in cans. It was the first time in 45 years that a brewery canned its beer here in Oshkosh. With that in mind, I think now would be a good time to take a look back at the history of canning beer in Oshkosh...

Early Chief Oshkosh Cans
The story begins in 1949 when the Oshkosh Brewing Company began packaging beer in aluminum Crowntainer cans. This was the first time an Oshkosh brewery sold its beer in cans.

A couple years later, OBC scrapped that can in favor of the more commonplace Cone-Top style can.

There was one main benefit to these funnel-shaped cans: they could be filled on a bottling line. It meant the brewery didn't have to shell out for an expensive, dedicated canning line. The downside was that these were difficult to work with and bulkier than flat-top cans. Cone tops didn't go over well in Oshkosh. Only about 5% of OBC's beer ever found its way into these cans.

The Flat Tops ‘50s
In 1955, OBC scrapped the cone top. The brewery purchased a canning line and began packaging beer in flat-top cans. Aside from the missing cone, the new can looked much like its predecessor.

Here’s a stream of those cans going through the OBC canning line in 1956.

Shortly after the new canning line was installed, OBC changed its can’s design. Below is the Chief Oshkosh can as it appeared from 1957 until 1961.

Peoples Brewing Company joined the game late. The earliest Peoples can I've come across is from 1959. But when Peoples found the design it liked, the brewery stuck with it. The Peoples can remained essentially the same until 1972 when the brewery closed.

Here's an ad from 1963 when you still needed a churchkey to open a can of Peoples Beer.

The 1960s
At OBC, they continued fiddling with things. In 1961, the design of the Chief Oshkosh can was changed again. David Uihlein, the brewery's new owner and president, wanted the can to reflect his idyllic notion of Oshkosh. Here's what he came up with...

There would be minor changes, but the can's basic look remained the same until OBC closed in 1971. That same year, Peoples Brewing bought the Chief Oshkosh brand and continued to produce the beer until 1972. The brewer changed, the can didn’t.

Here are a couple 1960s cans most people wouldn't associate with Oshkosh. In 1966, The Oshkosh Brewing Company purchased the brands of the defunct Rahr Green Bay Brewing Company. Oshkosh had also been home to a Rahr Brewing Company, though the two businesses were not affiliated. Rahr Oshkosh closed in 1956 having never canned its beer. Nevertheless, confusion reigned when people began seeing cans of Rahr beer with an Oshkosh imprint.

From 1972 until 1991, the only cans you were likely to see with Oshkosh on the label were in the possession of collectors. There was, however, this oddball from 1980.

That can was a one-off made by the Walter Brewing Company of Eau Claire. It was to commemorate the Fox Valley Beer Can Collector's 1st Canvention held at the Acee Deucee Tavern in October 1980. The main image is a mash-up of the Peoples, Chief Oshkosh, and Adler Brau of Appleton labels.

Chief Oshkosh Red Lager
Here’s the most historically significant can associated with an Oshkosh brewery. The first American craft beer packaged in a can was Chief Oshkosh Red Lager. The beer was produced and packaged at Stevens Point Brewery for the Mid-Coast Brewing Company of Oshkosh. At the time, nobody involved realized they were blazing a trail many would follow.

Jeff Fulbright, president of Mid-Coast Brewing Company,  made a point of extolling the virtues of cans.  His 1991 message became the mantra craft brewers were reciting some 15 years later when canned craft beer came into vogue. Here's an ad from 1991. The discourse on canned beer was years ahead of its time.

Bare Bones
And that brings us around to what happened last week. On February 7, 2017, Bare Bones Brewery canned Double Dog Dazed IPA and became the first commercial brewery to can its beer in Oshkosh since 1972.

That's a milestone in itself, but there are other aspects that make this unique. It's the first time an Oshkosh brewery has canned a beer in 16-ounce cans. It's the first time an IPA was canned in Oshkosh. It's the first time a double-digit ABV beer has been canned in Oshkosh. The brewer, RJ Nordlund, designed the label and the canning was done on a mobile unit owned by Midwest Mobile Canning.

If the guys from the Oshkosh Brewing Company of 1949 could have sat in when this was being canned they'd have been shaking their heads wondering what the hell was going on. They never saw a beer or a can like this one.

After Double Dog Dazed was packaged, they canned a second beer at Bare Bones. Sander Vitreus Pils is something the OBC folks would have immediately recognized. It's a pale, light-bodied lager. The beer was made for the Oshkosh Southwest Rotarians Battle on Bago fishing tournament and celebration taking place February 24 and 25 in Menomonee Park.

The Ruby Owl Crowler
There's an outlier I can't fail to mention. Last year Ruby Owl Tap Room installed a crowler machine that allows the gastropub to package draught beer in 32-ounce cans. The first can of beer filled at the Ruby went out the door on July 26, 2016. This is not the same as the canning operation of a brewery, but it is characteristic of our time. And a good time it is.

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