Monday, July 24, 2017

Brewers Behaving Badly: The 300-Pound Krall

Now for a dash of local color. Our tale is ripped from the pages of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of Wednesday, January 16, 1878.

Let’s set the stage. We’re visiting Horn & Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery on the east side of Doty St. just south of 16th Ave. At the time, the brewery appeared as you see it below. Here we go...

A police court drama was enacted in Justice Sarau's office yesterday.

C. F. Rogers, a farmer, took a load of barley to Horn's brewery to sell, and got into an altercation with Horn's foreman, a stout, 300-pound German named Krall, who pounced upon Mr. Rogers and pounded him somewhat.

Rogers had Krall arrested, and the latter was fined $2 and costs.

Krall was inconsolable and immediately had Rogers arrested for calling him names.

Rogers in turn was fined $2 and costs, which made the 300-pounder happy, and thus the matter ended.

Sparring outside of the Horn & Schwalm Brewery, 1885.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Fifth Ward Gets its Brewer’s Permit

Things are coming along quickly for Fifth Ward Brewing Company of Oshkosh. Yesterday, the soon-to-be brewery received its Federal Brewer’s Permit. Look for Fifth Ward to open in late October / early November.

Monday, July 17, 2017

A Beer By Any Other Name...

Spring, 1966. You grab a bottle of Chief Oshkosh. Out comes the churchkey. You apply it to this…

A year later, the Chief Oshkosh crown looked like this...

The inserted symbolism wasn’t meant to be cryptic. This new cap was about expediency. It was used on four different brands produced by the Oshkosh Brewing Company. We’ll get to that in a moment. First, some necessary background.

In 1966, the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC) went on a buying spree. It scooped up three defunct brands: Badger Brew of Baraboo, Liebrau of Two Rivers, and Rahr’s of Green Bay. Notice how the cap above is a blend of the labels below.

By late 1966, those left-for-dead brews had been revived. They were being produced by OBC in Oshkosh. To make things easier, OBC changed its bottle cap. The same cap could be used for each beer.

What distinguished the beers were their unique labels. Makes sense. Afterall, they were different beers, right? Well, maybe not.

I’ve been going through old brewing logs from OBC. Specifically, the years 1967 and 1968 when these brands were in production in Oshkosh. Looking at the logs, you’d never guess OBC was producing a number of different beers.

The logs show no variation. Aside from OBC’s seasonal beers – Bock and Holiday Brew –  the composition of each beer is identical. The same malts and adjuncts. The same hops. The same yeast. The same ratios. Here’s an example (click to enlarge it).

That’s the brewer's log from February 1967. This was when OBC was filling orders for the brands it had recently acquired. Yet, aside from the four bock beers brewed that month, the 12 other batches are indistinguishable. This log is typical. All of them from the period are like this. It leads me to suspect OBC was brewing one beer and putting four different labels on it.

I can’t say for certain OBC was playing this kind of game. But I also can’t find a shred of evidence from the brewing logs suggesting they weren’t. I suspect this sort of thing may have been occurring at a lot of breweries in the late 1960s.

The industry was contracting rapidly. The brands of belly-up breweries were being scavenged. The G. Heileman Brewery in La Crosse became notorious for collecting labels from the wreckage. Heileman produced beer under a dozen different labels during this time. Almost all were pale lager. There was piddling difference among them. How many would notice if there were no difference at all?

In 1971, the Oshkosh Brewing Company failed. Its brands were acquired by the neighboring Peoples Brewing Company. Peoples brewmaster Howard Ruff told the Daily Northwestern he would match as closely as he could the beers produced by OBC.

Had Ruff seen those brewer’s logs when he said that? His job may have turned out to be easier than he first expected.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

How We Get Our Beer

Monday morning Leoš Frank drove his small van across Wisconsin. It was loaded with beer he made. Frank is the brewmaster and co-owner, with his wife Theresa, of Lazy Monk Brewing in Eau Claire.

He reached Oshkosh a little after 10 a.m. His first stop was Gardina's. He immediately began unloading cases and kegs of beer from his van.

Leoš Frank

It's becoming more common for small, Wisconsin breweries to deliver their own beer. It was once the rule here. That ended with Prohibition.

When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, new restrictions were put in place. At their core was the three-tier system; a web of regulation intended to create a barrier between breweries and retail outlets.

More than 80 years after its implementation, the three-tier system remains. One outcome has been to stifle the direct contact small brewers once had with their customers. Leoš Frank doesn’t subscribe to that.

In Wisconsin, breweries producing less than 300,000 barrels of beer annually can circumvent the second tier. Frank, who brewed 648 barrels last year, has taken the alternate route. He distributes his own beer. Hence his Monday morning trip across the state.

“I wanted to do it this way because it gives me a connection to my customer,” Frank says. “And I thought this is a better way to represent myself. I might not have as much exposure as with a beer distributor, but this way there's no insulation between me and the customer.”

Frank, who launched Lazy Monk in 2011, has been delivering his beer to Oshkosh for almost two years. His first outlet here was Gardina’s. He’s since expanded to include The Ruby Owl, Oblio’s, and the Lion’s Tail Brewery Tap Room in Neenah. He also takes his beer to La Crosse, Madison, Milwaukee, and Waukesha. Still, the majority of his sales come from his brewery's tap room in Eau Claire.

Between the brewery and tap room, Frank struggles to find time to get out on the road. “There are plenty of times that I wish I didn't have to go pick up kegs, but if I didn’t think it was worth it, I wouldn't be doing it,” he says. “I think that it's worth it just because of the personal connection. The beer business is a personal business. Nothing else.”

Others have come to see it that way, too. Currently, four breweries self-distribute in Oshkosh. Black Husky Brewing of Milwaukee has been at it the longest. In the past year, Lion’s Tail Brewing of Neenah and Knuth Brewing of Ripon have also brought their beer to the Oshkosh market.

Of course, money plays a significant role in the decision to self-distribute. Distributors typically take a 25-30% cut on the gross margin. That money stays with a brewery that self-distributes. But that comes at a price.

A significant downside is access to market. Getting beer into larger outlets such as chain grocery stores and gas stations can be next to impossible for a brewery that goes it alone. Frank has had better luck than most. He’s been able to get his beer in Walgreens and Target stores in Eau Claire. But on his terms. “This way I can control the growth,” he says.

For a small brewer that element of control can be critical. Especially when distributors have been quick to fill their portfolios with beers they have little interest in promoting or selling. It’s a way to reduce competition. And a small brewery that finds itself buried at the back of a distributors book has little hope of extricating itself. The law is stacked heavily in favor of distributors.

Wisconsin's beer distributors aren’t taking the self-distribution trend lightly. In June, it was leaked that lobbyists for the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association are working on legislation aimed at making three-tier regulations more rigid. The plan would make it more difficult for a brewery to sell beer directly to its customers. The proposal has been roundly criticized by brewers.

Barring any sudden, reactionary moves by the state legislature, we’ll likely see more breweries going the self-distribution route. Most recently Bare Bones Brewery of Oshkosh began self-distributing its beer in the Green Bay market. And both  Fifth Ward Brewing and HighHolder Brewing plan to self-distribute when they open in Oshkosh in the coming year. Unfortunately, none of them will be rolling through the streets of Oshkosh in the thundering style of their predecessors.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Mary's Place

From cops to crooks, Prohibition was widely ignored in Oshkosh. Breaking the dry law became a habit here. But few were so bold about it as Mary Kollross. She had a brewery and speakeasy on Oregon Street, the Southside’s main artery.

The middle building with white siding was once the saloon of Mary Kollross at 1325 Oregon St.

There had been a saloon at what is now 1325 Oregon since at least 1880. The first bar there was run by Edward Koplitz, a former brewer for Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery. Koplitz died in 1897. A series of tavern keepers followed in his wake.

1917, when the saloon was owned by Louis Heinzl.
When Prohibition arrived in 1920, the saloon morphed into a soda parlor. At least that’s what the license said. In reality it probably operated as a speakeasy. If not, that changed when Mary Kollross entered the picture.

Mary Kollross was born in 1889. She was raised on 14th Street, just around the corner from the saloon. The old place always just a glance away.

1903 map showing the Kollross family home in relation to the saloon.

Her life was anything but easy. Mary’s parents were disabled and unable work. Mary and her siblings supported the family. After the eighth grade, she left school. Mary took a series of menial jobs. Sometimes she toiled in lumber mills. She never married. She lived in the family home until the family fell apart.

Mary’s father died in 1911. Her mother passed in 1924. With that came sweeping change. Mary took what money she had and bought the speakeasy on Oregon St.

Mary Kollross was 36 when she purchased the saloon in 1925. She had had never worked in a legal saloon, much less a speakeasy. That didn't mean she wasn’t familiar with Oshkosh’s illegal liquor trade.

Mary’s brother Joseph Kollross had run a speakeasy named The Tunnel Cafe on Main St. He’d been arrested there in 1922 for selling moonshine. Another brother, Eddie, also had ties to Oshkosh bootleggers and speakeasies. Mary Kollross knew what she was getting into.

When Mary took over the saloon, her brother Joseph came along with her. Early on, the business was under his name. That became a theme during the dry years. Though she was the owner, Mary usually kept a man fronting the operation. Perhaps she thought it necessary for appearance's sake. Or maybe she was attempting to diminish her own risk. There was plenty of risk.

In 1928, her saloon was raided by Prohibition agents. Mary’s brother Eddie Kollross took the fall for that one. In 1930, it happened again. This time, Albert Gomoll went down. Hard.

Albert Gomoll lived in Oshkosh all his life. Born in 1876, he was the son of German immigrants. He quit school after the fifth grade. Gomoll went to work in the lumber mills. He was still there in 1930, in the Gould lumberyard. Gomoll was 54 years old when he quit all that. He went to work for Mary Kollross.

By the time Gomoll arrived, the Kollross place had developed into something more than a speakeasy. There was now a brewery attached to it. It was an elaborate operation housed in a building – most likely the abandoned ice house – adjacent to the saloon. The ice house had been built in the 1880s when Koplitz still ran the place. It was an ideal space for a brewery.

1885 map showing the saloon and ice house.
By 1930, the Kollross brewery was among the largest illegal breweries in the area. It was a fully equipped production and packaging facility with a four-head bottling line. In today’s money, the equipment alone would have been worth approximately $100,000.

Considering Mary Kollross’ background, it’s difficult to see how she could have arranged such a brewery. The same goes for Albert Gomoll. Nothing in his past suggests he was capable of organizing or operating a brewery of this size. They wouldn't have had to look far for help.

There were dozens of ex-brewery workers living on the south side of Oshkosh. They’d been made redundant by Prohibition. Perhaps Mary Kollross tapped into that knowledge pool. In any case, the Kollross brewery was thriving. At least until February 14, 1930. On that Friday night it all came crashing down.

Federal agents from Milwaukee had come to town. As usual, the local cops had been kept in the dark. An undercover fed slipped into the Kollross bar. He asked to purchase liquor. Albert Gomoll obliged. With that, the raid was on. The feds seized whiskey, gin and beer. They arrested Gomoll. They headed for the brewery.

The Feds crashed through the doors of the brewhouse. Inside they found a large store of beer ready for packaging. In addition to the bottling equipment were scores of empty kegs ready to be filled. Just outside the brewery, they discovered an automobile loaded with packaged beer for delivery.

As the agents were busting up the equipment, a phone rang in the brewery. One of the Feds answered it. The voice on the other end wanted two kegs of beer right away. The cop told him to come and get it. Another call came in. And another. Each time the caller was told the beer was ready and waiting for them.

“Then the customers arrived in person,” reported the Daily Northwestern. “One after another they opened the door, viewed the havoc wrought by the agents and fled.” None were taken by the trap.

In all, some 5,000 gallons of finished beer was drained onto the ground. That’s more than 160 barrels of beer. Today, I doubt there’s a brewery within 30 miles of here with that much beer on hand. The illegal Kollross brewery was pumping out as much beer as any of our current, legal breweries.

As usual, all we know of this brewery comes from the event that shut it down. Which doesn't reveal much beyond that moment. The rest of the story is lost. But we know who took the fall.

It took almost a year for Albert Gomoll’s case to come to trial. He wound up in federal court in Milwaukee. The judge spared him nothing. Gomoll got six months in the house of correction and a $250 fine (about $4,000 in today’s money). His bootlegging days were over.

Mary Kollross kept right on going. Her “soft drink” parlor never lost its license despite its liquor violations. That what it was like in Oshkosh in 1931.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, July 7, 1931. The old street, 1320 Oregon, is now 1325 Oregon.

With Gomoll off in jail, Kollross set up an arrangement with a man named Leander Huse to run the bar. Huse had recently lost his job as a fireman on the Chicago & Northwestern railroad. Like Gomoll, Huse had no prior experience running a tavern of any kind. He soon made a fatal mistake.

On February 27, 1932, the 29-year-old Huse was tending the Kollross bar. He was drinking. Huse took a shot of liquor then reached for a bottle of soda to wash it down. He mistakenly grabbed a bottle filled with cleaning fluid. Down the hatch. It took him 12 days to die.

That was the end of Mary Kollross keeping a man at the front of the house. Times had changed. Prohibition permanently altered public drinking customs in Oshkosh. The pre-Prohibition saloon had been a man’s domain. Speakeasies were coed affairs. Mary made the most of it.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, Mary went legit. She renamed the bar the Marble Tavern, Mary Kollross proprietor.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, November 24, 1934.

It eventually came to be known simply as Mary’s Tavern. Kollross remained the mainstay behind the bar there until she retired 1957. The tavern continued on until 1964 when Mary Kollross died. She was 74 years old.

Kollross still owned the tavern at the time of her death. Four months after she died, the saloon was sold to Herbert L. Pollnow, owner of Acee Ducee, the neighboring tavern. Pollnow leased the building to a hair stylist. For the first time in more than 80 years there wasn’t a saloon at 1325 Oregon. And there hasn’t been one since.

Mary Kollross’ speakeasy and brewery were soon forgotten. But the building that was home to the old saloon still stands. It’s another of those places in Oshkosh with a concealed history. It offers no hint of its torrid past.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Keep Cool and Happy!

This week it’s all bikes, beers, and brats for me. I’ll get back to blogging next week with more beery tales of Oshkosh. Until then, here’s how Oshkoshers were celebrating the Fourth of July in 1935. Nothing better than dancing with a giant goblet of beer. Prost!