Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Resurrection of Otto Villnow

Otto Villnow is dead. And this isn't the first time he's been that way.

Otto Villnow, Oshkosh beer bottler, and his wife Caroline, circa 1888.

Otto Villnow was born in 1849 in the north of Germany. He was 17 when the 1866 cholera pandemic visited his homeland. Villnow fell victim to the dread illness and, shortly after, was pronounced dead. They packed him into a coffin and placed him in a vault.

A day and a half later, an attendant discovered that young Villnow was not altogether deceased. He was taken from his crypt and eventually made a full recovery. A year later, Villnow got the hell out of Germany.

He reached Oshkosh by 1873 and took a job at a sawmill. Later, after he had gotten married, Villnow ran a shoe store from the home he and his wife Caroline purchased at what is now 1417 Oregon Street. But in the early 1880s, Villnow took an interest in beer. In particular, the bottling of beer. He converted his property on Oregon Street into a beer bottling plant.

The site of Villnow's bottling operation, formerly 212 Oregon Street.

Independent beer bottling plants became increasingly common in Oshkosh in the 1880s. Government regulation and the troublesome work of getting beer into bottles encouraged brewers to job out their bottling work to others. In Oshkosh, there were more than 20 independent bottlers like Villnow packaging beer in glass.

When I first wrote about Villnow here, I mentioned that he appeared not to have been affiliated with any particular brewery. But about a month ago, while doing research on an unrelated matter, I found that Villnow had worked at various times with two opposing Oshkosh breweries.

First, there was Lorenz Kuenzl's Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Avenue. Here’s an 1885 advertisement for the Gambrinus Brewery from the Wisconsin Telegraph, a German-language newspaper published in Oshkosh. The highlighted text translates into, "The bottles are filled by Otto Villnow."

Wisconsin Telegraph; August 28, 1885.

The Kuenzl/Villnow alliance appears to have soured not long after that ad appeared. In December 1886 Kuenzl sued Villnow for monies owed to the tune of $269.79 (worth about $7,500 today). Kuenzl won the suit and Villnow was forced to pay up. Whether or not that immediately ended the partnership isn't known, but by the end of the decade, both men had moved on. Kuenzl partnered with his neighbor, Oshkosh bottler John Sitter. Villnow, meanwhile, hooked up with brewer August Horn.

August Horn.
Horn was president of Horn and Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery on Doty Street. Villnow's connection to Horn and the Brooklyn Brewery is confirmed in a brewery ledger from early 1894. It shows that Horn had supplied Villnow with beer pumps, a back bar and mirror, and chairs and tables.

Unfortunately, that ledger lists no address where Villnow might have put Horn’s fixtures to work. City directories during this period also lack any mention of Villnow running a saloon.  A possible explanation may be that Villnow was operating on behalf of a private club; he was affiliated with at least two of them in the early 1890s. 

In any case, Villnow's ties to the Brooklyn Brewery disintegrated when the brewery merged with the Glatz and Kuenzl breweries in 1894 to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. After that, Villnow was done with beer. He worked as a laborer and janitor in the years that followed until his retirement in 1910.

Otto Villnow was 64 when he died in his sleep at his home on the morning of November 5, 1913. This time it was for keeps.

Villnow's Grave in Riverside Cemetery.
Villnow's obituary mentions nothing of his days as an Oshkosh beer bottler or his narrow escape from death in 1866. It says he was a shoemaker by trade. If not for his years in beer, that would probably have been his altogether forgettable epitaph.

But a funny thing happened on Villnow's way to obscurity. The bottles he used in the late 1800s became highly sought after collector's items. Only a few of them have survived. His name is embossed on the faces of those bottles. The legacy of Otto Villnow lives on, captured in glass.

Thanks to Alan Lareau and Bob Bergman for help with German words and old, beer bottles...

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Bare Bones Pawsome Pilsner

This past weekend, Bare Bones Pawsome Pilsner emerged as the winner of the Brew Battles Craft Beer Bracket Challenge. It was an upset win for a pale lager in a bracket heavy with strong stouts and modern IPAs.

The Beer
Pawsome Pilsner starts with a light, bready aroma. If you really dig in you can pick up the faint scent of earthy hops. It's a medium bodied beer with a palate that leans towards clean malt flavors – think fresh bread with a dab of honey. The beer finishes clean and dry. By the time the glass is back on the table, you're ready for and wanting another pull.

The Backstory
Pawsome has been around for a while. It was first brewed at Bare Bones back in January of 2016. But the beer underwent a major overhaul last year after Jody Cleveland took over as head brewer at Bare Bones. Cleveland introduced Vienna malt into the mix giving  Pawsome a touch of sweetness and more malt complexity. He also changed the hops going from Michigan-grown Nugget and Chinook to Wisconsin-grown Ultra, a hop similar in flavor to German-grown Hallertau. The arrangement works beautifully. This sort of beer may appear simple, but it's a difficult one to brew. The flavors are so straightforward and uncluttered that any misstep comes immediately to the fore.

What's surprising to me is that an unassuming, lager somehow managed to win convincingly in a field of 24 beers that included just one other pale lager – Ahnapee Brewery’s Helles.

The single elimination, bracket tourney was put together by Justin Mitchell of the Oshkosh Independent. Beginning at the end of February, beers from six different Northeast Wisconsin breweries were judged over the ensuing weekends by tasters at local bars and taprooms until just two remained. Pawsome Pilsner faced Knuth Brewing’s Coffee Stout in the final round to take the title.

In a beer world that fetishizes adjunct-laden stouts and over-the-top hop bombs, it's heartening to see that a flavorful, well-made, lager can still hold its own.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

National Beer Day with the SOBs at Bare Bones

I couldn't let this go by without making note of it... This past Sunday, November 7, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers (SOBs) celebrated National Beer Day by helping brew a batch of beer at Bare Bones Brewery.

A panoramic shot of the SOBs at Bare Bones. Pardon the distortions.

National Beer Day sounds like one of those phony holiday's made up by an advocacy group, but it actually marks an important date.  On April 7, 1933, the Cullen–Harrison Act made beer legal again for the first time since the start of Prohibition in 1920. Prohibition hadn't yet ended, that wouldn't happen for another nine months, but at least you could get a legal beer – so long as it was 4% ABV or less. It was better than nothing.

The SOB/Bare Bones celebration ended with each of the homebrewers taking home a carboy of freshly made wort to ferment into beer.

Wort going into SOB carboys.

This was the first time since the end of Prohibition that an Oshkosh brewery has supplied homebrewers with wort. But prior to April 7, 1933, this kind of thing wasn't unusual at all.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company, in particular, was a main supplier of wort to Oshkosh area homebrewers during the dry years.  They sold it in the form of malt syrup, a condensed wort, used by Prohibition-era homebrewers in the same way the SOBs are using the Bare Bones wort to make beer.

I took my carboy of wort home from Bare Bones and dosed it with a thick slurry of lager yeast. It's now in my basement fermenting into beer. I'm thinking I might end up dry hopping it with Hallertau hops. Why not? Other SOBs are going to turn their wort into Belgian-style Saison and English-style ale. Some are going to condition their beer on vanilla beans, others on chocolate. No two will be the same. And that's what homebrew is all about!

Monday, April 8, 2019


A huge THANKS to everybody who came out for the Winnebago County Beer book release on Saturday. For me, getting to see so many of you all together in one place was the best part of it!

If you weren't able to make it, but would still like a book, you can get in touch with me at and I'll send one your way. Prost!

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Winnebago County Beer

My new book, Winnebago County Beer, tells the full history of beer and brewing in Winnebago County, Wisconsin. It's now available at Caramel Crisp Corner in Oshkosh, Bare Bones Brewery in Oshkosh, and at Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh. You can also pick it up online Here & Here.

Here’s a peek at what's inside the book.

Friday, March 29, 2019

The Maibock at Fox River

Oshkosh has a long – more than 160 year – history of making bock beers. There's one pouring right now at Fox River in Oshkosh that does that tradition proud.

The Beer
It's named, simply enough, Maibock and it's a terrific example that style. This is a golden beer with a stark-white head lacing down the glass as you drink. It begins with a cookie-like malt aroma intermingled with a zesty, floral hop scent. The initial impression is medium-bodied, fairly rich and toasty, but that gives way to peppery, earthy hop flavors leading to a crisp, clean finish. This is where Maibock truly shines. The hop flavor is upfront, but not overdone and creates a delicious balance. At just over 6% ABV, Maibock is nicely warming and pairs well with these coolish days of early spring.

The Backstory
It seems everything you hear these days about Fox River Brewing has something to do with either Blu Bobber or its new affiliate, Red Bobber. But the beers now pouring in the taproom and restaurant in Oshkosh show another side of the brewery. The current list has a quartet of lagers including three different bock beers. They're all quite good and about as far removed from "Bobber" territory as can be. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who's been following Fox River for the past decade.

Head brewer Kevin Bown has been in charge of the Fox River brewhouses in Appleton and Oshkosh since 2009. He's been there long enough to see one hot "new" beer style after another come blazing in and go flaming out. He's made those beers, too. But at the same time, Bowen has kept a steady stream of more traditional styles flowing from the Fox River brewhouses. Among those have been German-style beers that, to me at least, include some of the best lagers being made in Wisconsin.

That German influence began early for Bowen. When he was 16, he visited Germany where he had his first formidable experience with beer. "I was able to drink in German beer gardens," he told me in a 2012 interview. "The beer tasted phenomenal. It was so flavorful. It was nothing like the beer I had had before. That made a lasting impression on me."

It's been more than 20 years since Bowen had that first drink of German beer. Judging by some of the beers he's making these days, the influence is as strong as ever.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

An Educational Tasting at Fifth Ward Brewing

It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the best ways to improve your palate and enhance your appreciation of beer is to develop the ability to identify what's gone wrong in a beer when it's not so good. Here's your chance to acquire that skill.

This Sunday, March 31 and then again on Sunday, April 14, Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh will host off-flavor tasting panels using sensory training kits from the Siebel Institute of Technology. Each of the sessions begins at 5:30 pm and will last approximately two hours. There are just 15 seats available at each session, so you'll need to sign up in advance (at the taproom) to secure a seat. Admission is $15. The taproom will be closed during the sensory panels. Here's how it works...

The panels will be led by Ian Wenger and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward. They'll provide a few ounces of a pale, light-bodied beer that's been spiked with a flavor compound from the Siebel kit. Each spike mimics a common off-flavor found in beer. There'll be 12 rounds in all, each representing a different off flavor. At each of the Sunday tastings, a unique line-up of flavors will be presented.

As the beers are sampled, Clark and Wenger will lead a discussion on the particular flavor and its causes. They'll help you put words to what your tasting so you can identify it in the future. This last part is one of the real benefits of doing this type of training. Being able to identify flavors is something many craft beer drinkers struggle with. It's complicated stuff, but with a little help, it's not all that difficult. If you're a homebrewer, this training can prove invaluable. You can't fix an issue with your beer if you can't identify the problem.

"This is the kind of thing we've been wanting to do for a while," Clark says. "It's a way to help give back to the craft beer community around here. There's a lot of knowledge about beer in this area and we want to encourage that and help support it."

For more information, check out the Facebook event page or stop by the Fifth Ward Taproom and talk to your server.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Untangling the History of Ted Mack and Peoples Brewing

Theodore Mack, Sr. of Fairburn, Georgia passed away on February 4, 2019. He was 88 years old. Ted Mack lived in Oshkosh from 1970 until 1982. For two of those years, he was president of Peoples Brewing Company. During that time, it was widely publicized that Mack was the first black man to head an American brewery. But like so much of what's been said and written about Mack's association with Peoples, that statement wasn't quite right.

Theodore Mack, Sr.

In April 1970, Mack led a group of Milwaukee investors in the purchase of Peoples Brewing. In October 1969,  six months before Mack and his group announced their plan to purchase Peoples, a group of black entrepreneurs acquired the Sunshine Brewing Company of Reading, Pennsylvania. The news from Reading attracted little fanfare and Sunshine Brewing closed a year later. Its place in history as the first black-owned brewery in the U.S. was almost immediately forgotten.

That distinction was only recently restored by brewery historian Douglas Hoverson after he unearthed a profile of Sunshine Brewing in the November 1970 issue of Brewers Digest. It was part of a feature titled Blacks and Breweries. Ted Mack was also profiled in the piece.

But in April 1970, nobody cared about any of that. It was reported in dozens of newspapers across the U.S. that Peoples Brewing would be the first American brewery to be owned by blacks. That error had already been preceded by another; one that would leave an indelible mark and prove much more damaging.

On the evening of April 14, 1970, the stockholders of Peoples Brewing voted to sell the brewery. Earlier that day, the Milwaukee Sentinal ran a story suggesting that, if the sale went through, white employees of the brewery would be replaced by blacks. Later that day, Mack assured Peoples shareholders that nothing of the sort would happen. The sale was overwhelmingly approved. But by morning, the Sentinal story had already morphed into an ugly set of rumors that the white employees of Peoples would be promptly fired and replaced with blacks from Milwaukee, and that the brewery's name and beer would be changed.

The reaction was as predictable as it was harsh. A host of taverns in Oshkosh immediately stopped selling Peoples Beer. In some cases, the animosity directed towards Mack was full-throated. James Mather, who would later become Oshkosh's Mayor, recalled being in a Main Street restaurant the morning the Sentinal article came out and hearing a "well-dressed gentleman" say, "Well, we better beef up, the niggers are coming to town."

That was just the beginning of it. And unfortunately, for both Mack and Oshkosh, it's the part of the story that has, more recently, come to dominate the narrative of Mack's tenure at Peoples Brewing. It's not an accurate portrayal. To say that what happened in April 1970 was defining of Mack's experience in Oshkosh is as misleading as the rumors that triggered the initial mess.

Peoples Brewing closed in 1972. In the three decades that followed, there was little interest shown in the brewery's history. That began to change in February 2008 with a cover story written by Jim Lundstrom for SCENE, a now-defunct monthly newspaper. It was the first substantial piece published on Peoples and Mack in over 20 years. Lundstrom's article was part of a Black History Month feature and presented the April 1970 incident as an exemplar of race relations in Wisconsin. It’s an excellent, well-researched piece, but it left some readers with the impression that racism played a central role in the downfall of Peoples.

Lundstrom’s article was ripe for conjecture and has incited its share of it. UW Oshkosh Professor Tony Palmeri gave the article his "Required Reading" award adding that, “The piece pulls no punches and delves into the ugly racism existing in the Fox Valley circa 1970-72.” In the August 2012 edition of the SCENE, UW Oshkosh Associate Professor Paul Van Auken used the failure of the brewery to suggest that "certain groups of people have not met the local definition of acceptable."  And in the 2012 book Bottoms Up: A Toast to Wisconsin's Historic Bars and Breweries, author Jim Draeger, citing Lundstrum, writes that the demise of Peoples was due, in part, to the “continuing bigotry among white drinkers.”

I love Draeger’s book, but that line is rubbish. White bigotry had nothing to do with the failure of Peoples Brewing.

Let’s pick-up where we left Mack back in April of 1970.

The week after the sale had been agreed upon, Mack returned to Oshkosh to try to quell the rumors. On April 27, he held a press conference at the Oshkosh Chamber of Commerce. With City Council President Byron Murken seated next to him, Mack began setting the story straight.

"I've said from the beginning that we're going to continue to produce Peoples beer under that label and that the brewery will, without question, continue with the current 21 white employees," Mack said. "The name is going to stay the same, the beer is going to stay the same, and the personnel is going to stay. I can't understand why all these lies are coming out. Myself and Oshkosh are going to be very much on the spot. If sales are down it would be a blot on all of us... If some think if they don't drink the beer that Ted Mack and his group are going to turn tail, the answer is "No, sir." I grew up in Alabama where they threw rocks at me and called me nigger... I don't scare easily... I will not run, no sir. I want to be happy here making beer."

Mack would spend much of the next two weeks meeting with local groups including the Tavern League, which included some of the people who had stopped selling Peoples Beer. His efforts were undeniably effective. Sales rebounded and Mack began encouraging local investors to buy the stock he would soon issue to help raise additional monies needed to complete the purchase of the brewery. The response was greater than he had hoped for.

On October 10, 1970, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the brewery to commemorate the change in ownership. Speaking before a crowd of approximately 2,000, Mack expressed his thanks for the outpouring of support. “In these days of confrontation, you make a pretty picture standing there, black, white and brown,” he said. "All the stockbrokers said it wasn't possible to sell this stock... Five weeks after the sale started, you made it possible to buy this brewery."

Mack preparing to speak at the October 10, 1970 ribbon-cutting ceremony.

On January 5, 1971, Mack purchased a home at 1225 Devonshire Drive in Oshkosh where he and his family would live for the next 12 years. He had already become something of a local celebrity. Mack said he received more offers for speaking engagements than he could possibly accept. He was embraced by workers at the brewery. A letter written by Florian Kotloski and published in the Daily Northwestern lays the praise on thick. "My boss, Mr. Ted Mack... Look how well he's used his name to his advantage. Since he's been at the People's Brewery he's accomplished more than the previous regime here had done in all their business years."

There's no question that Mack was doing well in Oshkosh. If he had done as well in places like Milwaukee, Peoples Brewing might still be open today. His plan was to dramatically increase sales of Peoples Beer by creating new markets for the brewery in urban areas. He would use his backstory to attract customers interested in supporting a black-owned business. The plan required building up an expensive infrastructure of advertising and distribution to make headway in places like Milwaukee, Chicago, Memphis. It was a risky venture.

Mack lacked the budget needed to get his message across in places where Peoples Beer was a complete unknown. The new markets he was relying upon knew nothing of the new beer on the shelf, much less the man behind it. A year after Mack had come to Oshkosh, Peoples Brewing was in free fall. Bills were going unpaid and Mack's partners in the business were accusing him of fiscal negligence. The one bright spot was the continued support Mack received locally. It seemed to even surprise him.

“It just doesn’t make sense the way the markets are polarizing and where our sales are getting a good reception,” Mack said. “I’ve been studying human behavior all my life, but since I have been in the brewery business I have found out I don’t know a damned thing about it.”

But the local trade was nowhere near lucrative enough to support the debt Mack had incurred in purchasing the brewery. Production of Peoples Beer was halted in the last week of September 1972. On November 3, 1972, the employees of Peoples Brewing were permanently laid off. The beer in the lagering tanks was dumped.

“It hurt me deeply," Mack would later say. "It looked so beautiful when we came here, although the system tried to mess us up. They told me I couldn’t move to Oshkosh. They told you I was going to replace whites with blacks. We worked like the devil trying to put this together and it made us feel good when we came here to sell stock and white people came through the door all day to buy stock."

Mack remained in Oshkosh until 1982. After the brewery closed, he worked as an insurance agent for New York Life. In 1978, he began working in Milwaukee as director of Crispus Attucks, Inc. His wife,  Pearlie, worked as a cashier for the City of Oshkosh Department of Administration. Their four children attended Oshkosh schools.

After it was over, Mack didn't often speak publicly about what had happened at Peoples. But in 1978, while being interviewed about Woody Hayes, his former football coach at Ohio State, Mack touched on how being part of that team had helped him deal with the hardships he faced in Oshkosh.

"The lessons I learned helped me when the brewery closed," Mack told Myles Strasser of the Northwestern. "When I was flying high as president of Peoples Brewery and speaking everywhere and being very successful, it was like playing for a winning program. When I lost everything, I was able to handle that; it didn't destroy me... My only regret is that I don't have time to work for Oshkosh because my job is in Milwaukee now... Oshkosh is a nice quiet town. I've had no problems here."

Sunday, March 17, 2019

When Wilhelm Kohlhoff Brewed Peoples Beer

Wilhelm Kohlhoff worked as a brewer at Peoples Brewing Company in Oshkosh from 1953 until 1968. This wasn't his first brewing job. Kohlhoff had come to Oshkosh from Germany where he worked at a small brewery in Stettfeld, Bavaria (more on Kohlhoff's background can be found here). The brewery in Stettfeld was nothing like what he encountered at Peoples. "Oh yeah, that was all different," Kohlhoff says shaking his head. "All different."

When Kohlhoff arrived in Oshkosh, Peoples was at its peak. The brewery's production had climbed to 35,000 barrels of beer annually. Kohlhoff became one of 41 full-time employees at Peoples. He was assigned to the brewhouse where his job was to see Peoples Beer through the first phase of production culminating in the delivery of wort to the beer cellars for fermentation.

Wilhelm Kohlhoff in the 1950s

Kohlhoff is now 91 years old. He still recalls details of the brewing process he followed at Peoples. He also still has the original, handwritten notes he made when he first went to work in the brewhouse. They form a step-by-step, minute-by-minute outline of his brew day. The notes are written in a mix of German and English and give temperatures in degrees Réaumur, a unit of measure favored by many brewers of the period.

The brewing process at Peoples was defined by the brewery itself. Built in 1913, it was a prototypical,  four-story, lager brewery with a detached bottling house. This was a gravity- or tower-style brewery. Gravity was a prime mover of solids and liquids through the system. Kohlhoff worked his way, from top to bottom, thousands of times. "Yeah, I know the whole building through and through," he says looking at a picture of the brewery that was demolished in 1974.

Peoples Brewing Company after it had closed in 1972.

Most of the raw materials that went into Peoples Beer were stored at or near the top of the brewery. They flowed down through the brewhouse being transformed along the way into wort, the sweet liquid that is fermented into beer.

The substrate was water that came from a 530-foot artesian well drilled at the brewery in 1949. "Before that, they had a well that was 300-feet deep and that was not perfect or not soft enough," Kohlhoff says. "Then they drilled another 200-feet deeper and then that water was perfect."

The water was pumped from the well up into a massive holding tank housed in a cupola above the brewhouse. From there, it was drained – as needed – into the hot-liquor tank on the fourth floor. There it would be heated prior to the start of brewing.

The cupola atop the brewery where the main water reservoir was housed. 

The recipe for Peoples Beer was classically simple. A 100-barrel batch required...
  • 3,200 pounds malted barley (73% of Grist)
  • 1,200 pounds corn grits (27% of Grist)
  • 50-65 pounds of American and German hops (0.5 to 0.625 pounds of hops per barrel)

Malted, six-row barley came from the Fleischmann Malting plant in Red Wing, Minnesota. It was sent to Oshkosh by train. A rail spur ran between the brewhouse and bottling house. The malt would go from the rail car into an elevator on the south side of the brewhouse and then up to the malt hopper on the fourth floor. The map below is from 1956 and shows the location of the rail spur that served the brewery.

The yellow highlights a rail car making a delivery to the brewery.
In the 1950s, nearly all American beer was made from a grist that included some form of either corn or rice.  At Peoples, they used corn grits and the American double-mash method, mashing the grits with 300 pounds of malt in 15 barrels of water. The malt was necessary to provide enzymes needed to convert the corn's starches into fermentable sugars. This cereal mash was performed in a steam-heated cooker fitted with rakes stirring the grist together as it slowly came to a boil. With that set in motion, Kohlhoff would head downstairs to the second floor where the primary mash tun resided.

Diagram of a typical cereal cooker.

The main mash began with an infusion of 2,900 pounds of malt in 30 barrels of hot water. The mash would settle in at 104ºF and rest at that temperature for 15 minutes. The mash tun was also fitted with a steam jacket and stirring rakes. After the rest, Kohlhoff would start the rakes and gradually raise the temperature to 140ºF for another 20-25 minutes. During this time, he would begin recirculating the wort through the mash to help draw out fermentable sugars and create a more uniform environment within the porridge-like mass of water and malt.

A mash tun similar to that used at Peoples.

About 90 minutes into the main mash, Kohlhoff would drop the now boiling contents of the cereal cooker into the main mash bringing its temperature up to 155ºF. He'd then allow the mash to rest for approximately 20 minutes before adding additional hot water and starting the lautering process. This separated the wort from the bed of spent grain and grits, which would later be taken by farmers in the area for use as livestock feed. The wort was run off through a grant, a smaller vessel that helped buffer the flow of liquid into the boil kettle.

The copper boil kettle was perched between the first and second floors of the brewhouse. It was steam-heated and had a 130-barrel capacity. Kohlhoff would add hops to the kettle as the wort was flowing into it and coming to boil. This technique, known as first-wort hopping, was a fairly common practice in American breweries before Prohibition, but much less utilized in the 1950s. Some brewers believed it helped to create a more complex hop-flavor and a less biting bitterness.

A small dose of salt (NaCl) was added to the kettle along with the first addition of hops. The salt was to help blunt bitterness while enhancing mouthfeel and the sensation of sweetness in the finished beer. They did the same thing across town at Rahr Brewing. Both breweries leaned towards the mellower, malty side with their beers. Despite that malt-driven flavor profile, hops were still a major consideration at Peoples.

When Kohlhoff speaks of hops he does so in terms of place of origin instead of breed. "We used German hops and American hops," Kohlhoff says. "Seventy percent of it was German."  That probably means Peoples was brewed with German Hallertau and American Cluster. In the 1950s, these were the most commonly derived hops from their respective countries. They were whole-flower hops stored in bales in a second-floor cold room directly behind the brewhouse.

Kohlhoff vaguely recalls that American hops were used for the first-wort addition. He doesn't remember the exact amount. He estimates it would have been about 15-20 pounds. After the wort had been boiling for an hour, a similar sized load of German hops was added. That was followed by two, smaller additions of German hops. Kohlhoff's thumbnail sketch of the hop schedule for the 105-minute boil comes out like so...
  • American Hops (~15 pounds) – First-Wort Addition.
  • German Hops (~15 pounds) –  Boiled for 45 minutes.
  • German Hops (~10 pounds) –  Boiled for 30 minutes.
  • German Hops (~10 pounds) –  Boiled for 15 minutes.

At the end of the boil, the wort was drained from the kettle and through a hop jack, a straining device to remove spent hops from the wort.

The flow of wort through the brewhouse from the cooker to the hop jack.

From the hop jack, the wort was pumped up to a collection tank on the fourth floor. From there it drained to the heat exchanger for cooling. Kohlhoff's description of the cooling process suggests Peoples used a Baudelot-type chiller with the hot wort cascading over a rack of refrigerated pipes. This quickly reduced the wort temperature to below 50ºF.

 A Baudelot-type chiller.

Kohlhoff’s job was done, but he wasn't shielded from the remainder of the process. Though the brewhouse was his primary concern, he sometimes helped out in other areas of the brewery. "Certain things you had to know, and not just be a brewer," he says.

The wort Kohlhoff made was bound for the cellars for fermentation and conditioning. The "cellars" were in the north half of the brewery on the second and third floors. The red line dividing the image below runs between the brewhouse on the right and the cellars and stock house on the left.

Peoples Beer was a lager beer. It underwent a cold, primary fermentation lasting eight to ten days at 47ºF. When Kohlhoff began working at Peoples the brewery was still in the process of replacing its old, wooden fermentation tubs with glass-lined, steel tanks. I asked him if that change impacted the flavor of the beer. Kohlhoff said, "No, I wouldn't say the flavor, it was a little more clean and a little bit different, yeah."

Kohlhoff would take his first sample of the beer near the end of fermentation. "We'd go in the cellar at 6 days or 7 days," he says. "There was a little valve on the tank where you'd take some off and see how clear it is and how it all tastes." Kohlhoff says everyone at the brewery regularly sampled the product they were making. "We always had a barrel of beer that was right there. All the guys working in the brewery were drinking that free beer."

From the fermenters, the beer would go into the aging tanks in the "Ruh" cellar for several weeks of cold conditioning (lagering). Here the beer would clear and the flavor would develop into something more refined. Kohlhoff doesn't remember the specific duration of the lagering process only that in the summer demand would sometimes have them turning out beer more rapidly than usual. Most lager breweries of this period aged their beer anywhere from three weeks to two months before packaging it.

Detail from a 1953 ad for "fully aged" Peoples Beer

After lagering, the beer was filtered and carbonated. At Peoples, they used a gas collection system to capture CO2 produced during carbonation. The CO2 was then forced back into the finished beer at 2.87-2.89 volumes, which would be at the high end of carbonation for an American lager.

The final product was pale, and medium-bodied, with a mildly sweet malt flavor. An analysis of the beer done by the J.E. Siebel Company in April 1971 may shed more light on the beer's exact properties. Though the report comes three years after Kohlhoff left Peoples, he maintains that the beer changed little if any during the intervening years. After leaving the brewery, Kohlhoff remained in Oshkosh and continued drinking Peoples Beer. He also remained in contact with former co-workers at the brewery. He believes they would have mentioned changes made to the recipe or brewing process. With that in mind, here's part of the 1971 analysis:

Clarity: Brilliant
Color: 3.4 SRM
ABV: 4.62%
IBUs: 18
Apparent Degree of Attenuation: 76.6
Real Degree of Attenuation: 62%
Original Extract: 11.34 (1.046)
Specific Gravity: 1.01035
A note attached to the report remarks, "The sample makes an exceedingly good impression in almost every respect."

Peoples Beer was packaged in kegs, bottles, and cans. The kegged beer was unpasteurized and the kegs were filled in the racking room built specifically to suit that purpose in 1948. This was on the north side of the facility directly behind the cellars and stock house. A portion of the racking and keg-washing rooms remains near the corner of East 15th and South Main streets. Kegs going into trucks for distribution to taverns were loaded off here. Peoples had a fleet of eight trucks delivering beer within a 60-mile radius of Oshkosh.

When Kohlhoff began working at Peoples, the brewery was just beginning its transition to steel kegs from wooden kegs. The wooden kegs were lined with pitch to protect the beer inside from bacteria and wild yeast that might lurk in the raw wood. Here's one of those wooden kegs of Peoples Beer in action at a 1950s house party in Oshkosh.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Hunt.

Beer for bottling and canning was delivered through a pipe running from the racking room to the bottling house. The detached bottling house was a hangover from the years before Prohibition when it was mandated by law that a bottling facility had to be distinct and separate from the brewhouse. The Peoples bottle house is the only piece of the original, 1913 construction that remains intact. It has been incorporated into the Blended Waxes building 1512 South Main.

The former bottling house of Peoples Brewing.

The Peoples bottling plant had undergone a series of substantial upgrades beginning in the 1940s. By the mid-1950s, the brewery had the capacity to fill 50,000 bottles a day. All of the bottled and canned beer was passed through a pasteurizer before being packed in cases. Oshkosh customers often purchased beer by the case off the back dock behind the bottle house.

The loading dock behind the bottling house.

The Seasonal Beers
When Kohlhoff was hired at Peoples, the brewery produced just two beers: the year-round Peoples Beer; and a winter-seasonal named Holiday Beer that was released just before Thanksgiving each year.

Kohlhoff says the recipe for Holiday Beer was similar to Peoples Beer with a couple of additions making the difference. Holiday Beer was brewed to be darker and stronger, with an ABV of just over 5.5%. About the recipe he says, "That was the same beer, but like I said we added all the special malt; it was darker, it was a brown color malt, and then what you used was brown sugar, 600 pounds of sugar in the kettle and that makes the beer a different color, too."

The addition of brown sugar surprised me. I haven't come across other references to lager brewers using it during this period. When I questioned him further, Kohlhoff said there was nothing unique about it, that it was ordinary brown sugar. The "special malt" was a dark Munich malt. Peoples often made mention of Munich malt in its advertising for Holiday Beer.

December 12, 1953; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

Both before and after Prohibition, Peoples had produced a bock beer that went on the market in either late-February or early-March. Peoples Bock was discontinued after the 1940 release and then reintroduced in February 1959. It appears the reintroduction had more to do with branding than anything else. Kohlhoff recalls that the recipes for Peoples Bock and Peoples Holiday Beer were identical.

February 20, 1959; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

The seasonal beers may have been special, but the beer that still holds a place in Kohlhoff's heart is Peoples Beer, the beer he made day in, day out for 15 years. "That was quite a job," he says. "That brewery was in number one shape. We had everything right on the clock. Everything. Peoples, that was a good beer."

Wilhelm Kohlhoff.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

The Cellar is For Sale

Dave Koepke plans to start a brewery. That’s created a dilemma for him. Koepke is owner of The Cellar Homebrew shop, which he moved to Oshkosh from Fond du Lac three years ago. At the time of the move, Koepke was already entertaining the idea of launching a brewery. Initially, he thought he could operate both businesses in tandem. His view on that has since changed.

“I realized that I can't manage this and get a brewery off the ground at the same time,” Koepke says. “The shop is one of those businesses where the owner has to be here and know the customers. The brewery isn't going to leave me enough time to run this business the way it needs to be run.”

Inside The Cellar.

Koepke now has The Cellar up for sale. "I'd like to find somebody in the next couple of months to begin taking over and train them," he says. "I'm basically going to be available until December 31. I'm going to be doing other things, but the person who takes over will have me until the end of the year to walk them through the transition."

Koepke opened The Cellar in Fond du Lac in 2009. He moved the business to Oshkosh in 2016 to be more centrally located among homebrewers in the Appleton - Oshkosh - Fond du Lac corridor. His current location at 465 N. Washburn Street, is just off Highway 41 and includes a warehouse along with the retail space.

"I've priced it very reasonably," Koepke says. "You couldn't buy all this, put it in here, and start this business for what I'm asking. Everything is in place. This is going to be a turnkey business when I sell it."

As for his brewery in planning, Koepke is currently exploring his options. "I don't have a spot yet," he says. "Right now I'm looking at Fond du Lac or Oshkosh. More than likely, it will be a brewpub, not just a brewery and taproom."

In the meantime, Koepke is still at The Cellar helping area homebrewers with their beer. "I just want everyone to know that I’m not closing the store," he says. "I’m not going to abandon the customers who have built this business. I've been doing this 10 years. I've put a lot of time in building the clientele and the reputation. It's not like the business is capped. It's still growing. It's been great, I've really enjoyed it, but I just can't do this and do a brewery build-up at the same time."

Koepke says he’s open to talking with anybody who may have questions or an interest in what running a business such as The Cellar entails. He can be reached using the contact information on The Cellar's website.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Winnebago County Beer

Finally! The book I wrote last year about the history of brewing in our fine county is about to be released.

The official launch of Winnebago County Beer will happen Saturday, April 6 at Fox River Brewing Company in Oshkosh. I'll be there from 1-3 pm with plenty of books in tow. If you can't be there (or can't wait), the book is currently available for pre-order at Amazon. In the meantime, check out the Facebook event page. Hope to see you on April 6!

Monday, March 4, 2019

Sour Beer in Bottles

Here’s a couple of bottles with 140 years between them.

The clay bottle is from the 1870s when Leonard Schiffmann was bottling his sour, Berliner-style Weissbier at his brewery on Doty Street. The glass bottle is from Fifth Ward, which recently began packaging its sours in bottles. Fifth Ward becomes the first Oshkosh brewery in more than 100 years to bottle this sort of beer.

For a deeper dive on sour beer in Oshkosh, check out this post covering the older breweries, and this post that explores Fifth Ward’s sour program.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Winnebago County's 2018 Beer Production

Brewery production reports for 2018 have now been released in full by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. The monthly reports list how many barrels of taxable beer each Wisconsin brewery produced during the past year. A barrel of beer, by the way, contains 31 gallons or the equivalent of 6.8 cases of beer.

The numbers within the production records tell only part of the story, so I'll include some additional info after the charts. Here's what we're seeing in Winnebago County (click the chart to enlarge it)...

And here are the numbers for 2018 compared to 2017 (Fifth Ward, HighHolder, and Omega are not included; they did not have a full year’s worth of production in 2017).

Production is down 10% at Bare Bones and 12% at Fox River. That may be an easy takeaway, but it's nowhere near so alarming as it first may appear.

Bare Bones got off to a rocky start last year. Through the first five months, production was down by almost 19%. A contributor to that was overproduction at the end of 2017, creating a surplus of beer that lingered through the first quarter of 2018. By spring, Bare Bones was back on track. The brewery's production levels for the remainder of 2018 were on par with its 2017 output. Still, Bare Bones appears to have reached a plateau, at least for the time being.

The Fox River story is entirely different. In 2017, Fox River reached capacity in terms of how much beer it could produce at its own breweries. So in 2018, the brewery moved part of its BLU Bobber production to the new Hinterland Facility in Green Bay. The beer produced in Green Bay doesn't get included in Fox River's production reports. If it did, Fox River's would have seen an increase in output for the year.

Fox River's combined output for its Appleton and Oshkosh facilities was 2,627 barrels, making it the largest brewery in the Fox Cities area for the second year in a row. Appleton's Stone Arch, which held that title previously, remains second but has fallen further behind. Stone Arch's 2018 production of 2,074 barrels is down 10% from its 2017 output of 2,783 barrels.

Lion's Tail in Neenah had a banner year with production up 16% to 547 barrels. Juice Cloud, the brewery's popular New England style IPA, has had plenty to do with that. Production at Lion's Tail has risen steadily ever since the introduction of Juice Cloud in the summer of 2017.

Fifth Ward also had a good year, producing 433 barrels. That’s a significant amount of beer for a self-distributing brewery in its first, full year of production. Output at Fifth Ward during the last six months of 2018 was up 23% compared to the first six months of the year.

Omega and HighHolder, the two nano breweries in Winnebago County, appear to be doing well. But it’s difficult to draw a bead on new breweries of this size. HighHolder only reported for nine months of the year, so its numbers aren't indicative of a marked trend. Omega, averaging about two barrels a month during its first full year of production, will almost certainly see its output increase in 2019.

Oshkosh alone produced 2,186 barrels of beer in 2018, an increase of 11% over 2017. That's healthy growth, but for a brewing scene as young as this one is, I would expect it to be somewhat higher. One of the local brewers recently expressed his concern to me that not enough new craft beer drinkers are being cultivated in this part of the state. He mentioned that you seem to see a lot of the same faces in brewery taprooms and at beer events. I've noticed that too and it's not a good sign. If there's a weak point here, it's that all the breweries seem to be mining the same, narrow craft-beer demographic.

Infinite growth is definitely not the end all and be all when it comes to beer, but it does tell you something about the condition of a local beer scene. We're in good shape here, but the 2018 numbers present a somewhat muddled picture. In that respect, they’re fairly reflective of the state of American craft beer as a whole.

On a final note, you may have noticed that Barrel 41 of Neenah and Emprize Brew Mill of Menasha are not accounted for here. Barrel 41, which opened in November, has yet to enter the Wisconsin production reports. I suspect that will change when the first of the 2019 reports are released. Emprize, which has been selling its beer since at least July of 2018, has never been listed. The how or why of that remains a mystery beyond my knowing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Beer Here: Oshkosh Lager

Here's the latest from Bare Bones, it’s named Oshkosh Lager

The Beer
Stylewise, this is a classic American lager and it absolutely looks the part. The beer pours pale yellow and almost brilliantly clear with a tight cap of white foam. There’s a light, grainy aroma here accompanied by a subtle note of sulfur. The flavor is well-balanced, leaning slightly towards the malt side. A gentle bitterness lingers in the background, creating a clean, snappy finish that's very refreshing. Oshkosh Lager is not a sipping beer, it's a beer to quaff. It's a model example of the style.

The Backstory
For such a seemingly simple beer, there's a lot going on here. Oshkosh Lager grew out of a series of pilot batches made by Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones. For the past few years, Cleveland has been brewing small batches on his home system of historic Oshkosh lagers such as Chief Oshkosh and Peoples Beer. He’s continued to tinker with those recipes and those trials culminated in Oshkosh Lager.

"I wanted to make a contemporary version of these classic Oshkosh beers," Cleveland says. "Something that anyone who wants a more balanced, straightforward beer flavor can really get into. I'm super proud of this beer, and I'm glad I finally get to share it with everyone."

The recipe Cleveland developed bears a distinct resemblance to the 1950s recipes that produced Chief Oshkosh and Peoples Beer. It starts with a blended grist of malted barley with a minor addition of corn to lighten the body and bring up that crisp, dry character essential to the style. Cleveland hopped the beer with Cluster, the elemental American hop used by all of the Oshkosh brewers from the mid-1800s until the 1970s.

There isn't another beer like this currently being produced by an Oshkosh brewery. It's a beer that goes against the grain in a craft-beer world dominated by high-alcohol, palate slammers that rely on novel or extreme flavors. Who knows, maybe now the time is right for something less contrived.

Currently, Oshkosh Lager is only available on draft in the tap room at Bare Bones. You can also get it there in growlers and 16-ounce-crowler cans for takeaway. Within the next couple of weeks, the beer should begin appearing in area taverns. I’d like to see this go on at a place like Witzke's – a tavern built by the Oshkosh Brewing Company. A beer like this deserves another run in its native environment.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

When BLÜ Turned Red

Last week, Fox River's Red Bobber was released at the brewery's pubs in Oshkosh and Appleton. This Friday, February 15, bottles of Red Bobber will become available at Festival Foods stores. Red Bobber is a raspberry ale. It's the companion to Fox River's popular BLÜ Bobber, a blueberry ale. That association alone guarantees a degree of immediate success for the new beer. And then there's the label. The colorless face of the woman on the Red Bobber label blushes red when the beer is chilled.

A label that turns colors isn't the sort of thing you see from small breweries. Then again, most small breweries don't have a beer with the sort of mass appeal that allows them to engage in this kind of marketing. It all stems from the success of Fox River’s BLÜ Bobber. And as an extension of that brand, Red Bobber is as much about branding and marketing as it is about beer. The marketing is clearly working.

The first batch of Red Bobber sold out at Fox River's Oshkosh taproom four days after it was released (it's back on again). One of the bartenders told me they'd been pouring it constantly since the beer was released. The beer received widespread coverage on social media and from Gannett newspapers. The Gannett article is almost entirely about the color-changing label and branding. There's little mention of the actual beer. And here I am, four paragraphs in, having also said almost nothing about the beer.

Red Bobber is exactly what you'd expect it to be. It's mild, and easy drinking, with a light accent of fruit flavor. It's a well-made beer and not one you need to spend a lot of time thinking about. Just as advertised, it's the raspberry version of BLÜ. If you like BLÜ, it's a good bet you'll like Red. And there are a lot of people who like BLÜ.

BLÜ Bobber is the best selling beer made in Oshkosh. In fact, it may be the best selling beer produced in northeast Wisconsin. It's the one Oshkosh beer you'll see in neighborhood bars where everything else being poured is made by MillerCoors or AB/InBev. You can find BLÜ in cans and bottles in almost every grocery store and mini-mart in Winnebago County. But BLÜ's reach extends well beyond that.

Fox River began distribution of BLÜ in 2014. The beer is now sold across the state. Within Wisconsin, BLÜ is the Most widely distributed Oshkosh-brewed beer since the 1950s heydey of Chief Oshkosh.  Fox River is currently exploring options for distribution outside of Wisconsin. BLÜ will achieve another milestone this spring when it will be sold at Milwaukee Brewers games in Miller Park. There hasn't been an Oshkosh beer sold at Brewers games since Peoples Beer in 1971.

It's rare that a small brewery hits on a beer that gains that kind of momentum. The smart thing as a business is to make the most of it. That's just what Fox River is doing with Red Bobber. If Red Bobber works out the way Fox River hopes it will, I suspect you'll see a series of "Bobber" beers follow in its path.

For now, bottles of Red Bobber will be sold exclusively at Festival Foods stores in Wisconsin until the end of February when it will become more widely available. At the end of February, Red will also begin being packaged in cans. In March, it will be Festival Foods’ craft beer of the month. You're going to be seeing a lot of this beer.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Picture of Beer

Here's a lovely Oshkosh Brewing Company lithograph circa 1901.

And here's the real thing.

Not long after that lithograph came out, OBC abandoned those clunky, porcelain bottlers stoppers. The brewery switched over to bottles that fit crown-style caps, similar to those you see today. Those new caps may be more convenient, but the old plugs have an undeniable romance about them.