Monday, June 12, 2017

Finding Yager and Remaking his Winneconne Beer

A couple years ago, I got curious about a forgotten brewery that opened in Winneconne after the Civil War. Almost nothing had been written about the place. I started researching. In the fall of 2015, I wrote a blog post that included everything I’d found about Theodore Yager’s Winneconne Brewery.

From the Winneconne Item; December 2, 1871.

Sometimes blog posts take on a life of their own. This one did. Not long after the Yager post went up I was contacted by Kelly Nelson, of the Winneconne Public Library. Kelly is into Winneconne history. She wanted to know if I'd come across any pictures of the Yagers. I hadn't. Kelly was going to try to locate one.

Kelly Nelson

Kelly’s enthusiasm is undeniable. I would have bet she’d find that elusive photo of Yager. Late last year she did. Here’s the picture Kelly unearthed of Theodore Yager with his wife Katharina. I suspect this was taken about the time Yager launched his brewery.

Kelly’s route to obtaining that picture was serpentine. It led her to a great, great niece of Katharina Yager. A woman named Linda Adams. It turned out Linda had the only known picture of Theodore and Katharina Yager. What are the chances?

Kelly was working in other directions as well. She came up with the idea of celebrating Yager’s old brewery during the 50th Sovereign State Days festivities this July in Winneconne. Momentum kept building. The Winneconne Sovereign State Days Planning Committee got involved. Dan and Patti Dringoli of Bare Bones Brewery signed on.

A planning meeting at Bare Bones.

Kelly wanted to know if it would be possible to make a beer like Yager was brewing in Winneconne in 1867. I thought we could. I didn’t have a recipe from Yager’s brewery. But I had come across inventories from his brewery and other information that shed light on Yager's process. And I knew what sort of beer he was making.

RJ Nordlund is the brewmaster at Bare Bones. Earlier this year, RJ and I began working up a recipe. We wanted to approximate one of the beers Yager was brewing 150 years ago in Winneconne. He had been brewing at least a couple different types of beers. One was a lager. Another was an ale. We decided we’d brew the ale.

Yager's ale would have been along the lines of a nearly extinct style known as Common or Present Use. Yager was one of several German-trained brewers in Winnebago County making such beers. These beers were brewed during warmer months. When temperatures within the brewer’s ice-cooled storage caves were on the rise. Unlike the aged, lager beers, Yager’s ale was meant to be consumed fresh.

Yager was brewing at a time before corn came into use by Winnebago County brewers. His would have been an all-malt beer. But the sort of malt Yager was using no longer exists. To get around that, we put together a grain bill that would approximate the character and body Yager’s malt would have produced. And as Yager would have done, we chose malt made locally. All the malt was sourced from Briess Malting in Chilton.

Similarly, Yager would probably have used hops grown in this region. In the late 1860s, hop farming in the Midwest was booming. We chose hops from a Michigan hopyard. But modern hops are quite different from those grown in Yager’s time. We settled on Centennial hops added at specific points in the brewing process to impart an aromatic, floral note. An aspect that likely would have also been present in Yager's ale.

With that worked out, the beer needed a name. The Winneconne Public Library staged a contest. The public submitted names. An online vote was taken. The winning name is Wolf River Revenge. RJ Nordlund designed the label for the beer.

RJ and I brewed the beer on Sunday, June 4, at Bare Bones. It went very well. Yager's eyes were on us. We put up his old picture on the tank where the beer would ferment.

While we were brewing, it occurred to me that RJ kind of resembles a younger version of old Yager.

Wolf River Revenge will be packaged in kegs and 22-ounce bottles. It will be a copper-hued beer with a clean, rich malt flavor backed by a mild hop note. It will be robust,  but easy drinking. Just the sort of beer they would have been enjoying during summer in Winneconne 150 years ago.

The first pouring of Wolf River Revenge will take place Friday, July 21 on the History Happy Hour River Boat Cruise. I'll be on the cruise talking about the Yager brewery and Wolf River Revenge.

Wolf River Revenge will also be available in Winneconne during Sovereign State Days 2017 taking place July 21 – July 23. The beer will find its way into the Bare Bones Tap Room, as well.

While RJ and I were brewing the beer, one thought kept returning to me: I wonder what old Yager would have made of all of this? I would hope he’d be pleased.


  1. Well done Lee Kelly And RJ

  2. Lee, this is a well-written article that resurrects the Yager brewery and brew recipe after 150 years, as well as celebrates the 50th anniversary of the "forgotten village on the Wolf River." Kelly, RJ, and 'company' have done a wonderful job of planning and pulling everything together for a fun-filled weekend. Thanks for contacting me a year ago, Kelly, and inviting me to participate in all the festivities. John and I look forward to that weekend and remembering Theodore and Katherina Yager and Lucy Yager, my great great aunt. Judean Wise

    1. Judean, I'm so glad you saw this. Thank you so much!

    2. Lee, you asked me in what census year did I find Lucy's last name as Yager. In the 1900 federal census, she is listed as Lucy Yager, servant to the Allen family who lived right in Winneconne. They had 4 children, so I think I know what occupied much of her time. This was prior to her marriage which took place in 1903 to Joseph Leicher; the Leicher family lived for many generations in Winneconne, and each summer some member of the family would have a family reunion. I found that information in newspaper articles. I enjoyed meeting you and learning more about the Yagers and their brewery. What an enjoyable weekend. Thank you for all of your contributions. Judean

    3. Thanks for the info Judean, that helps. And thanks for coming out to Winneconne. I was so glad you were there. It was great to finally meet you!