Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Oshkosh 2018

For the first time since 1894, we have four breweries in Oshkosh. But the beer scene here today is nothing like that of the earlier period. In fact, what's happening now bears little resemblance to any previous era of brewing in this city. The differences are stark.

Brewers at the Gambrinus Brewery in Oshkosh, 1893
In 1894, Oshkosh was home to Horn and Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery, John Glatz and Son’s Union Brewery, Lorenz Kuenzl's Gambrinus Brewery, and the Rahr Brewing Company. Today, we have Fox River Brewing, Bare Bones Brewery, Fifth Ward Brewing, and HighHolder Brewing.

Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones Brewery, Oshkosh, 2018.
Scale is the most obvious point of contrast. The older breweries were much larger. The combined output of the four 1894 breweries exceeded 15,000 barrels. Production was growing by leaps and bounds. Most of the beer consumed in this city came out of those four breweries.

The Glatz Brewery, Oshkosh.
This year, there will be about 2,000 barrels of beer produced in Oshkosh. At the moment, production growth is steady but limited. It's safe to say that less than 5% of the beer now consumed here is made by our local breweries. And the beer they produce is vastly different from that of the earlier period.

A transplant from 1894 would hardly recognize much of what we call beer today in Oshkosh’s brewery taprooms. The lagers that were standard here for more than 100 years are no longer made. Today, ale brewing is predominant. These beers tend to be more bitter and much stronger. The average lager produced in Oshkosh at the turn of the century was around 5% ABV. Last week, the average beer offered by an Oshkosh brewery in its taproom was 6.5% ABV. It used to be rare to see a beer north of 6% ABV here. Now, they're altogether common.

1917 Oshkosh Strong an 8.4% ABV Imperial Stout, Fox River Brewing.
What goes into the current beers also sets them apart. In the 1890s, most Oshkosh beer was made using five standard ingredients: water, malted barley, corn grits, hops, and yeast. With the exception of hops – hop farming had died out in Winnebago County by the 1890s – the ingredients were sourced locally. The six-row barley grown in the county then was altogether different from the barley grown today. Brewers here loved it. It lent their beer a characteristic flavor imparted by the soil, climate, and growing practices of area farmers. Typically, the brewers here did their own malting, which further contributed to the unique character of the local beer.

All of that is long gone. The basic ingredients used today are commoditized products and uniform to a degree that was impossible to achieve a century ago. That may explain, in part, why flavorants, spices, and other food products have come to play such a prominent role in the beer made in Oshkosh today. This has been a swift and dramatic break with the past.

The evolution Fox River Brewing is illustrative here. When Fox River opened in 1995, the brewery – like almost every other that launched in the 1990s –  made a selling point of the fact that its beer would be made using only "traditional" ingredients. That stance was typical. At the time, craft breweries were doing all they could to differentiate their beer from mass-produced lager. A decade later, Fox River came out with Blu Bobber, a beer made with Blueberry concentrate. Today, Blu Bobber is the best selling beer produced by an Oshkosh brewery. The idea of an American craft brewery rejecting the use of these non-traditional ingredients now seems quaint.

Today, almost anything goes. A wide array of adjuncts are used here. The following is an abbreviated list of food products that have found their way into Oshkosh-brewed beers in the last 6 months or so.

Lime Juice Concentrate. Chocolate. Sea Salt. Raspberry Juice Concentrate. Powdered JalapeƱo. Cinnamon. Cherry Juice Concentrate. Chili Peppers. Blueberry Juice Concentrate. Orange Zest. Milk Sugar. Saffron. Passion Fruit Concentrate. Mint. Strawberry Juice Concentrate. Vanilla. Honey...

HighHolder Brewing’s Screamsycle
If there's one aspect of the current scene that does recall the earlier period, it's in the way beer is dispensed. In 1894, beer packaged in bottles was a minor component. The vast majority of Oshkosh-brewed beer was served from kegs. It's a rather similar situation today, with most of the beer made locally served on draught. Again, though, a visitor from 1894 would be confused. Instead of walking into a taproom and finding people slugging down amber fluid from brimming schooners, they'd likely encounter a line of folks at the bar sniffing over a row of petite sampler cups and tapping obsessively at their phones.

Our engagement with beer is similarly constricted. The average 1890s beer drinker imbibed with more frequency than we do. Beer was less an event and more of a companion. For working people, a typical noon lunch break in Oshkosh entailed a trip to the saloon for a few mugs of fresh lager. No more. Show up at the job with beer on your breath these days and you'll be branded an addict. But there was a time when it wasn't beyond the pale to suggest that a nice glass of beer was an altogether sensible way to begin the day.

From an Oshkosh Brewing Company ad that appeared in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, September 24, 1913.
Is what’s happening now good? Is it bad? Do such judgments even matter? That's always and entirely for you to decide. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. The one thing I can say for sure is that it will not last. Enjoy this moment. And if you don't like it, wait. It's going to change soon enough. It always does.

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