Thursday, September 20, 2018

Oshkosh Beer Seen #001: Can of the Year!

In 1992, Chief Oshkosh Red Lager won the Brewery Collectibles Club of America’s can of the Year award. Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was produced by the Mid-Coast Brewing Company of Oshkosh from 1991-1994. It was the first American craft beer packaged in cans.

There's much more on Chief Oshkosh Red Lager here.

Oshkosh Beer Seen will be an ongoing series featuring images related to beer and brewing in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The Beer Here: Farm Fresh Pale Ale from Bare Bones

Last week, Bare Bones Brewery released its third annual harvest ale. Farm Fresh Pale Ale was brewed with freshly picked cascade hops from Glacial Ridge Hops and Grain Farm in Deerfield, Wisconsin.

Glacial Ridge Hops and Grain Farm
The Beer
Farm Fresh Pale Ale is a fresh hop beer, or a wet hop beer if you prefer. These are beers brewed with raw, unprocessed hops. Most hops are dried and pelletized for brewing use. The hops in Farm Fresh went directly into the brew kettle just a few hours after they had been picked in Deerfield.

Glacial Ridge Hops and Grain Farm.
The thought of fresh hops tends to create certain expectations in the mind of the drinker. But often what’s anticipated is not what’s in the glass. The aromatics and flavors of fresh hops tend to be milder than that of processed hops. The flavors are softer and earthier. Farm Fresh Pale Ale captures that.

It's a golden beer that carries a formidable 6.7% ABV. The hops come up in the aroma with a spicy, herbal character that made me think of basil. I've noticed this before from Wisconsin-grown Cascades. They're much less citrusy than those grown in Oregon. They more closely resemble the spicy, floral aspect of something like Strisselspalt hops.

The beer is full bodied with a classic American pale ale malt structure. Notes of honey and toast play off the spicy flavor of the hops. The bitterness is firm and somewhat lingering. This will be a good beer for the cooler days ahead. It's also an instructive beer. Terroir (the flavor imparted by climate and soil) isn't much discussed in beer. But here you've got a good example of it.

The Backstory
Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones, was in Deerfield on August 20 for the hop harvest at Glacial Ridge Hops and Grain farm. Cleveland left for Bare Bones loaded up with 45 pounds of freshly picked cascades. Back in Oshkosh, he started brewing. These beers are an undertaking. The average American craft beer uses about 1.5 pounds of hops per barrel. But because fresh hops carry water weight, brewers typically quadruple their hop load when using them. For Farm Fresh, Cleveland used over six pounds of hops per barrel. In all, it was a 13-hour brew day ending at 10 p.m.

On Wednesday, September 12, the beer went on tap in the Bare Bones taproom. From farm to glass in 22 days. This is as fresh as beer gets.

Glacial Ridge Hops and Grain Farm
Fresh hop beers haven’t been around all that long, Sierra Nevada’s 1996 Harvest Ale is generally considered the point of origin for the style in America.

The first fresh hop beers made in Oshkosh that I'm aware of were the work of homebrewers. There were a few of them made here using homegrown hops in the early 2000s. Commercial brewers in Oshkosh got around to it for the first time in 2016. That year, both Bare Bones and Fox River released their first fresh hop beers.

But there were fresh hop beers available here well before any of that. In the summer of 1957, Tempo from Blatz became available in Oshkosh. This was an entirely different kind of fresh hop beer.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 10, 1957.
At Blatz, they weren't tossing freshly picked, whole-cone hops into their kettles. They were using fresh hops to make a hop extract. The goal was to reduce hop-derived bitterness. Or as Blatz put it, a brew "Freed from beer harshness." In Oshkosh, you paid a premium for that freedom. In 1957, s six-pack of Tempo sold for $1.10. A sixer of Chief Oshkosh or Peoples could be had for 89 cents.

One last thing about fresh hop beers. It's commonly believed these beers should be consumed at peak freshness. There’s something to that, but I don’t entirely agree with it. Something I’ve noticed when drinking these beers locally the last couple of years is that as they age they develop a depth of flavor that I like quite a bit. I’m looking forward to seeing how Farm Fresh develops in the coming weeks.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Beer Here: Fifth Ward’s Hazy IPA Pilot Batch

This past weekend Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh released its first New England-Style IPA. It’s also the first in a series of hazy IPAs Fifth Ward will produce in collaboration with McFleshman's Brewing of Appleton.

The Beer
It’s golden, opaque, and has such an intense hop aroma that you can smell the beer an arms-length away. The scent is all tropical fruit and citrus, somewhere between sweet orange and papaya. The hops are everything here with a palate of candied orange and succulent mango. Bitterness is almost non-existent – there’s just a slight aspirin-like bite at the end that vanishes quickly. This is an impressive beer, with none of the gritty, minerally texture that’s marred so many of the hazy IPAs I’ve had recently. This was a small batch and it may be gone by the time you read this, but hang in there; more is on the way.

The Backstory
In late May, McFleshman's Brewing opened in Appleton. Over the past few months, the brewery has had Fifth Ward's self-distributed beer in its line up of guest taps. This beer was born of that relationship. It was brewed in Oshkosh and will be the first in an ongoing series of hazy-IPA collaborations between the two breweries. Ian Wenger of Fifth Ward says they'll brew a larger batch this week, which should see release in late September / early October.

This is the third New England-style IPA produced by an Oshkosh brewery. HighHolder Brewing and Fox River Brewing have previously released their takes on the style. The Fifth Ward iteration is arguably the truest to style of those that have been brewed here. Its densely cloudy appearance and exaggerated aromatics are spot on.

From the Fifth Ward tap menu.
The approach taken was somewhat unorthodox. It’s come to be accepted that to get this style right a brewer needs to apply major adjustments to their water chemistry and ferment with yeast selected for its ability to produce an obdurate haze. But at Fifth Ward, they brewed their hazy with unadorned Oshkosh water and fermented it with a standard, American ale yeast. It worked. "I think it's really more about the process than anything else," Zach Clark of Fifth Ward said.

New England IPAs have been kicking around for about eight years. Until this year, though, the style hadn't gained much traction here. That’s not surprising. We’ve been a little slow to jump on any of the hoppy bandwagons. It was at least six years into the West-Coast IPA boom before that developed a substantial following in Oshkosh.

The axiom that Oshkosh drinkers prefer beer that leans towards sweet has been a given here for at least 60 years. That's changing, but to what degree is hard to say. This type of beer, with its low bitterness, may have an easier go of it here. Maybe we're turning another corner. Can a Brut IPA be far behind?

Monday, September 10, 2018

When Low-Alcohol Beer was All the Rage in Oshkosh

In Oshkosh brewery taprooms you'll find no shortage of beers that deliver a hefty punch of alcohol. Beers north of 6% ABV are the norm. There was a brief time, however, when breweries here sold nothing higher than 4% ABV. And people lined up to buy it.

Early 1933 Chief Oshkosh Beer label.

 In the eight months prior to the repeal of the 18th Amendment and the end of Prohibition, brewers were permitted to sell beer again for the first time since 1919. But there was a catch. The beer could be no higher than 3.2% alcohol by weight / 4% alcohol by volume.

On April 7, 1933, all three of Oshkosh's breweries began selling 4% beer. The Daily Northwestern reported that the initial demand was so great that, "It is doubtful whether it will be possible to make all the deliveries the first day that have been promised.”

Think about that for a moment. Rarely has there been beer so low in alcohol produced by Oshkosh breweries. Yet this was the most anticipated beer release the city has ever seen.

An ad for Rahr Brewing of Oshkosh, March 22, 1933.
The generic 1933 Chief Oshkosh label at the top of this post is indicative of the haste of local brewers. At the Oshkosh Brewing Company, they couldn't get enough labels printed to cover their initial release of bottled beer. They resorted to using the leftover stock of their pre-Prohibition labels. It was illegal, but the brewery got away with it.

Within a few weeks, OBC had its act together and had come up with something flashier. The new Chief Oshkosh label showed the requisite ABV limit and the brewery's Internal Revenue tax permit number.

Below is the initial 4% label used by Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh.

And here’s the more ornate 4% label Peoples was using by the end of spring 1933.

Courtesy of Steve Schrage.
Below is the 4% label from Rahr Brewing. Notice the punched out "NOT" from the phrase DOES NOT CONTAIN MORE THAN 4 PERCENTUM OF ALCOHOL BY VOLUME.

With the repeal of Prohibition, the 4% limit was lifted. Brewers were permitted to use up their stock of 4% labels. Rahr was one of those that did. At the same time, the brewery wanted customers to know that this wasn't more of that weak beer. The missing "NOT" tells that this label was applied sometime after December 5, 1933, the end of Prohibition and the 4% limit.

When Prohibition was repealed, the Oshkosh Brewing Company released a statement saying it saw no need to increase the alcohol content of its beer above 4%. But OBC soon changed its tune. By early 1934, strong beer was pouring into Oshkosh. The strongest among them was 12% Old Derby Ale from Ripon Brewing Company.

Courtesy of Steve Schrage.
Rahr Brewing and Peoples Brewing immediately ditched 4% beer. The first "strong" beer Peoples released came in December 1933, when the brewery released its "High-Test" Holiday Brew. That beer was in the neighborhood of 6% ABV.

December 16, 1933.

By the end of 1935, Oshkosh's breweries had settled back into a comfortable groove churning out beers that were, on average, just under 5% ABV. There were exceptions. Seasonal releases of holiday beers in November and bock beers in spring tended to creep up to around 6% ABV. But that was about as strong as any of it got.

All that, of course, has changed. Today you don’t see many Oshkosh beers that are less than 5%. But if you want something strong, well those are easy to come by...

Monday, September 3, 2018

The Beer Here: Foxtoberfest, Oshkosh’s Original Oktoberfest Beer

Foxtoberfest has been brewed in Oshkosh for more than 20 years now. It's Fox River Brewing's longest running fall-seasonal and it's pouring once again at the brewery's pub and taproom in Oshkosh.

The Beer
Foxtoberfest is a German-style Märzenbier (better known as an Oktoberfest beer). It looks the part, pouring brilliantly clear with a tight cap of white foam over an amber-hued beer that edges toward red. The aroma tells you everything. The smell of toffee and toasted bread cross over from nose to palate. It's medium bodied and yet rich, a touch lighter than the chewier examples of the style most American brewer's lean towards. The hopping here is perfect. The hops stay out of the way until the very end when just a bit of bitterness appears to balance the sweet maltiness. This is one of my favorite styles of beer and I'm an unabashed fan of this interpretation of it.

Over the past twenty years, I've drank this beer 100 times or more; sometimes draft, sometimes from a bottle. For reasons I don’t entirely understand, Foxtoberfest seems especially vulnerable when it passes through a tap line that's anything less than pristine. So, this is one of the rare cases where I tend to prefer the bottled version of a beer. That said, the beer is even better if you can get it from a well-maintained draft line.

The Backstory
Germans swarmed to Oshkosh in the mid-1800s and left an indelible mark on the city's beer culture. German-style lagers poured everywhere here where beer was poured. But until the latter half of the 1900s, there was one, prototypical style of German beer that went noticeably missing from tap lists here. Oktoberfest, beers were nowhere to be found in Oshkosh. Of the 16 breweries that operated in Oshkosh prior to 1990, not one of them produced an Oktoberfest beer.

It wasn't until the late 1960s that Oktoberfest beers began catching on here. Coincidently (or perhaps not), that occurred at a time when our local breweries were pumping out almost nothing but pale and increasingly bland lagers. The first Oktoberfest beer to reach Oshkosh in any significant way was Lowenbrau Oktoberfest, which was then still being brewed in Munich.

From the Oshkosh Advance-Titan, October 8, 1970.

But the true rise of Oktoberfest beer in Oshkosh began in the 1980s. Ground zero was Oblio's Lounge. Mark Schultz and Todd Cummings became co-owners of Oblio's in 1979. At the time, Cummings was dating a woman who worked for a Manitowoc beer distributorship. She introduced him to Hacker-Pschorr’s Oktoberfest. Cummings and Schultz decided they needed to bring the beer to Oblio’s. “It became my new favorite beer,” Schultz says. “You had to order it in spring to get it in fall. The first year we ordered 25 barrels and the next we ordered 50 and the year after that 75. Our distributor would have to go through other distributors to get the beer.”

Hacker-Pschorr’s Oktoberfest has been pouring at Oblio's every fall ever since. It's become a staple beer at Oblio's. They try to keep it on tap until St. Patrick's Day. I had a pint of it there this weekend. As always, it was wonderful.

The Hacker-Pschorr Oktoberfest Tap Handle at Oblio's.

Those pints of Oktoberfest poured at Oblio's inspired Oshkosh homebrewers to take up the style. The first Oktoberfest beers made in Oshkosh came out of brew systems cobbled together by homebrewers here in the 1980s.

Jeff Fulbright was also among those at Oblio's drinking Hacker-Pschorr’s Oktoberfest. In 1991 Fulbright launched the Mid-Coast Brewing Company of Oshkosh. “My favorite style of beer at the time was Oktoberfest,” Fulbright says. “I wanted to do a toned-down version of an Oktoberfest that people could drink throughout the year.” And with that, Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was born.

Finally, in 1997, an Oshkosh brewery produced a full-on Oktoberfest. Fox River Brewing's Foxtoberfest became the first Oktoberfest-style beer produced in Oshkosh by a commercial brewery.

This year, Bare Bones Brewery produced its first Oktoberfest-style lager. Bare Bones Oktoberfest will be released Wednesday, September 5th in the brewery's taproom.

For a style of lager beer that dates back to 1841, it's surprising that it took so long for Oktoberfest beers to be taken up here. We've certainly made up for lost time. These days, Oktoberfest is so ubiquitous in Oshkosh it seems like it couldn't ever have been any other way. But it was.