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When Prohibition was repealed, the Oshkosh Brewing Company released a statement saying it saw no need to increase the alcohol content of its beer above 4%.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...


  1. when will you do an Old Derby clone?

    1. Cask & Caskets 2018. Actually, Steve W. is brewing it. But not the 12% version!