Monday, August 10, 2020

Oshkosh Saloons of 1902: The Opera Buffet

Opera Buffet, Opera House Square.
William Bedward, Proprietor.

William Bedward was born in Wales in 1852. He was in his early 20s when he came to Oshkosh and found work as a railroad brakeman. In 1899, or thereabouts, he left that and took over a posh, little saloon that was just a short stroll from the famous Athearn Hotel. Here’s the look of Bedward’s place in 1902.

The Opera Buffet; page 126 Oshkosh Up to Date, 1902.

Check out that U.S. flag with just 45 stars. Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska, and Hawaii had yet to become states. More importantly, look to the lower right portion of the picture. You can see the corner of a table and part of a serving tray. Bedward was a proponent of what was called the saloon lunch. That's the start of his “buffet” there. 

At the turn of the century, the saloon lunch was a feature of many Oshkosh bars. Saloon keepers would put up a free buffet, starting at 10 or 11 in the morning, in hopes of luring in folks for a bout of day drinking. This wasn't just pretzels and popcorn. You could make a meal out of this. They’d serve things like roast beef, ham, turkey, venison, limburger cheese, oysters, soup...

The customers loved it. The saloon keepers came to hate it. They croaked about the expense of providing all that free food. But none who offered it dared be the first to quit. At one point, the saloonists even attempted to impose a collective ban on the free saloon lunch in Oshkosh. When word of that got out, the Daily Northwestern reported that "the retailers of wet goods have been pelted by a perfect hailstorm of abuse." The free lunch gradually dwindled away and died entirely in 1920 with the arrival of Prohibition.

Bedward's bar perished just like those free lunches. Opera House Square is now devoid of saloons. It once teemed with them. Here's a photo taken outside the Opera Buffet, circa 1913. The red arrow indicates the site of Bedward's old stand.

The Crawl Continues...
I’ll have the next stop on the 1902 Saloon Crawl posted later this week. 
To return to the start of the crawl, click here.
For links to all of the stops on the crawl that are currently available, click here.

If you’re curious about the “saloon lunch” I’ll be writing more about it in the not-too-distant future. If you can’t wait, check out the December 5, 1898 edition of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. There’s a fun story in there about it. You can get your hands on that via the Oshkosh Public Library.

If you’re curious about Oshkosh’s famous Aethern Hotel, here’s a brief primer.

Bedward’s saloon was part of a cluster of businesses located in Opera House Square. That little, and now grass filled, plot of land has an interesting history. Michael McArthur of the Oshkosh Public Library explored that history in one of his recent Librarian Learns videos. You can see that here

Oshkosh Up to Date is a book from 1902 that forms the basis for this series of saloon stories. For some background on Oshkosh Up to Dateclick here. To see a digitized version of Oshkosh Up to Dateclick here.

Oshkosh Saloons of 1902: The Meentzen Saloon on High

The Meentzen Saloon, 141 High Street.
John Meentzen, Proprietor.

John Meentzen was born in Germany in 1846. When he turned 21 he lit out and headed straight for Oshkosh. He spent his first few years here scuffling by, making shoes, selling cigars, and tending bar. By 1883 he had saved enough money to launch his own saloon on High Street. He’d call that place home for the next 27 years. Here's how it was 1902.

John Meentzen’s Saloon; page 104 Oshkosh Up to Date, 1902.

And that right there is a classic, turn of the century saloon: mustache towels, spittoons, gob-stained floors, the brass rail, the boxy wooden partition... Most of that finery was probably financed by the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Meentzen's place was a tied house with OBC as its sponsor. The brewery footed the bill for the operation with the understanding that Meentzen would sell no other beer than that of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. This sort of arrangement was common before Prohibition. Now it's illegal (sort of). It was a sweet deal for Meentzen. He lived above the saloon rent-free.

I want to direct your attention to the middle of the mirror behind Meentzen's bar. Can you see the little hatchet hanging there (click the picture to enlarge it)? I might know the story behind that.

In the summer of 1902, Carrie Nation – the saloon-smashing prohibitionist from Kansas – paid a visit to Oshkosh. During her visit here, Nation stopped by Meentzen's saloon threatening to bust the place up. But Meentzen wouldn’t let her through the door.

While Nation was in Oshkosh, she went around selling souvenir hatchets like the one seen behind Meentzen's bar. It was how she financed her roving madness. I suspect the hatchet in the picture above might have been Meentzen’s mock tribute to the time Carrie Nation paid him a visit. The 1902 picture would have been taken not long after Nation's trip to Oshkosh.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; July 21, 1902.

John Meentzen as he appeared in 1900.

The beer still flows at Meentzen’s old place. Of course, the name has changed many times over the years. Today it's called The Reptile Palace. The general layout there is still pretty much as it was when Meentzen was working the bar.

141 High Street.

The Crawl Continues...
Our next stop on the 1902 Saloon Crawl is The Opera Buffet
To return to the start of the crawl, click here.
For links to all of the stops on the crawl that are currently available, click here.

Carrie Nation’s visit to Oshkosh was one for the ages. You can find out all about that here.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Oshkosh Saloons of 1902: The Zayat

The Zayat, 224 N. Main Street.
A.G Cone, Proprietor.

Almer G. Cone was born in Wisconsin in 1864 and had his own saloon in Oshkosh by the time he'd reached his mid-20s. He had a flair for the exotic right from the jump. His first bar, at 412 N. Main Street, was a swank joint called the Monte Cristo Club. It was billed as the "headquarters for theatrical people... where expert and distinguished dispensers of palatable decoctions are ever ready to accommodate customers with the best plain, bottled, or fancy drinks known to the profession." Try making sense of that after you've had a few.

In 1902, Cone moved down the block to 224 N. Main and opened The Zayat. Cone claimed it was "the swellest sample room" in all of Oshkosh. The name reflected his penchant for the eccentric. Zayat is a Burmese word for a type of refuge used by traveling worshipers. I'll bet that whatever was being worshiped at The Zayat had nothing to do with the Buddha. Here we are...

The Zayat; page 174 Oshkosh Up to Date, 1902. 

Several of the images that appear in Oshkosh Up to Date were airbrushed. The photo of The Zayat received an especially heavy treatment. The mirror behind the bar has been all but blotted out. I suspect there may have been some racy illustrations attached to it. That doesn't matter. The thing to notice in this shot is the wooden partition with the classic swinging doors at the entrance to the barroom (you can always click on any of these pictures to enlarge them).

That barrier was there to prevent the prying eyes on Main Street from looking in. Most saloons of this era had large, plate glass windows facing the street. The partition and swinging doors were usually placed about six-feet back from the street entrance. The barrier made it impossible for passersby to see who was at the bar or what they might be doing there. The anti-saloon gang had mixed feelings about this setup.

Some of the prudes considered the barriers necessary to save the innocent from being corrupted by the spectacle of vice playing out in the bowels of a saloon. Other killjoys thought the privacy only served to inflame the debauchery. In some Wisconsin cities, the latter band of bluenoses won out and persuaded local governments to make such partitions illegal. That didn't happen in Oshkosh. Here, at least, the sober folks had enough sense to realize they were probably better off not seeing the sights on the other side of those swinging doors.

What was A.G. Cone’s Zayat is now Market Boutique On Main. The building was known as the Weisbrod Block when it was built in 1875. Here's how it looks today.

224 N. Main Street.

If you go there, check out the impressive ceiling. It looks much like it did when Almer Cone was slinging drinks there.

The 1902 Saloon Crawl Continues.
The next stop on the crawl is the John Meentzen Saloon at 141 High Street
To return to the start of the crawl, click here.
For links to all of the stops on the crawl that are currently available, click here.

There are some recent photos of the interior of the former Zayat that you can view here.
For more on the Weisbrod Block, go here.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Oshkosh Saloons of 1902: The Oasis Sample Rooms

The Oasis Sample Rooms, 416 N. Main Street.
Harry Maxwell, Proprietor.

Harry Maxwell was born in New York in 1855 and was five when his family moved to Jefferson, Wisconsin. The Maxwells arrived in Oshkosh in the mid-1870s. Harry worked in his father's painting business until 1892 when he abandoned the brush for the bar. Maxwell's very popular Main Street saloon was allocated two frames in Oshkosh Up to Date. The first shot shows his saloon's foyer where Maxwell sold accessories to the sporting life: liquor, wine, and cigars.

The Oasis Sample Rooms; page 128 Oshkosh Up to Date, 1902.

After passing through Maxwell's pleasure shop, you arrived at the bar where it was always time for a Schlitz.

If you look closely in the back bar mirror you can see reflected a painting inside a draped frame of a nude sprawled across a bed. Class. Maxwell's saloon was known as a sporting house. Photos of boxers hang from the partition at the end of the bar. Here you could place bets and get up-to-the minute results for important boxing matches, horse races, or elections. It didn't matter where the event was taking place. Maxwell had a phone (his number was 351) installed so he could have the action called in. Totally illegal. Totally permitted. Maxwell was so well known as a handicapper that, on the eve of an important boxing match or election, the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern would sometimes print blurbs telling who Maxwell was putting his money on.

As a sideline to his saloon, Maxwell also ran the Maxwell Novelty Co., which made and sold slot machines.  A couple of years before the pictures above were taken, Maxwell caught a man feeding slugs into one of his slots. Maxwell made an example of the man, beating him "into insensibility" in the middle of Main Street. The performance was so brutal and ugly that it was followed by calls to have Maxwell prosecuted. The police shrugged. Chief of Police Weisbrod said it wouldn't be worth the effort without a complaining witness. The beaten man, who wished to remain anonymous, wanted nothing more to do with anything involving Maxwell.

The building that housed Maxwell’s saloon remains at 416 N. Main Street. It was built in 1884 from a plan by famed Oshkosh architect William Waters.

416 N. Main Street.

The Crawl Continues...
Our next stop on the 1902 Oshkosh Saloon Crawl is The Zayat at 224 N. Main.
To return to the start of the crawl, click here.
For links to all of the stops on the crawl that are currently available, click here.

The story about Maxwell pounding that man on Main Street appears in the August 13, 1900 edition of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

For more on the William Waters designed building that Maxwell occupied, go here and here.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Oshkosh Saloons of 1902: The Baebler Saloon

The Baebler Saloon, Opera House Square. 
Jacob Baebler, Proprietor.

Jacob Baebler was born in Switzerland in 1858. He and his brother Casper came to America in 1876 and settled in Hustisford where Jacob plied his trade as a (Swiss) cheesemaker. A couple of years later Jacob left for Oshkosh. He got a house on the south side and continued making cheese. Right around 1890, Baebler ditched all that and began slinging drinks. He partnered with Herman Head and together they launched a saloon on what is now Parkway Ave. There's a bar still going at that location, it's called the Electric Lounge. That’s a story for another day. In 1900, Baebler struck out on his own, taking over the saloon at the southwest corner of Main and Algoma. Here’s how Baebler's bar looked in 1902.

The Baebler Saloon; page 126 Oshkosh Up to Date, 1902.

Our man Baebler is the fellow with the mustache. The clean-cut kid might be his son Fred, who sometimes worked in his father's saloon. 

Here’s something to make you queasy in the time of Coronavirus. See those towels hanging from the front of the bar? Those were called mustache towels. They were used for wiping beer suds and various effluvia from the mouths of saloon goers. These were community rags shared by anyone whose gob needed wiping. Think of that. It would be like going to a restaurant and using the same napkin that had been used by the five people who had previously occupied your seat. 

Just to the left of the bar, you can see a slot machine. These were illegal and utterly commonplace in Oshkosh saloons of this period. The flagrancy with which Oshkosh bars violated gambling laws caused repeated outbursts of outrage from the anti-saloon crowd. But their complaints were ignored as thoroughly as the law was. Oshkosh Up to Date must have given those folks a jolt. Here you have a book published in part by the police department showing a fine sample room that openly offers a gambling option. So much for law and order.

Unfortunately, Baebler's place no longer stands. The building was destroyed by fire in 1996. The giant sundial in Opera House Square now looms from about where the back end of Baebler's bar was. 

Below, we have another glimpse of Baebler. He's in the black coat and bowler standing not far from the entrance of his saloon. The "Bauman's" sign you see in the background is over the front entrance of what is now New Moon Cafe. 

To return to the start of the 1902 Saloon Crawl, click here.
For links to all of the stops on the crawl that are currently available, click here.

I've written a few things about this saloon before. Early on, it was run by an Englishman named Englebright, who in the 1870s may have been the first saloon keeper in Oshkosh to serve an IPA. You can dig into all of that by clicking here and here and here.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Oshkosh Saloons of 1902: The Cabinet

The Oshkosh City Directory of 1903 lists more than 120 saloons. That means there was one bar for every 220 people living here. The ratio today is approximately one bar for every 1,500 people in the Oshkosh metro area. We still like our social drinking, but we're no match for those earlier Oshkosh quaffers.

Beers at an unidentified Oshkosh saloon in the early 1900s.

Those early-1900s saloons were not only numerous, they were also lovely. At least some of them. And thanks to the Oshkosh Fire and Police departments, we get to take a virtual crawl through a few of Oshkosh's lavish "drinking-hells" (as the prudes used to call them). But before we start the tour, let's set the stage for how this slice of history came to be.

Oshkosh Up to Date
In 1902, Oshkosh's cops and firefighters were trying to drum up money for their relief association; a kind of insurance program that paid benefits to members in need. One of their efforts resulted in a book published in December 1902 titled Oshkosh Up To Date.

Oshkosh Up to Date Cover.

Oshkosh Up to Date was presented as a souvenir guidebook. It was filled with images of the city at its best. The 186 glossy pages were printed by Castle-Pierce of Oshkosh and had pictures of street scenes, stately homes, stores full of goods, churches, schools, headshots of cops, firefighters, politicos… And, of course, saloons. It wouldn’t have been Oshkosh or Up to Date without saloons. To be in the book, you had to offer a donation to the Firemen's and Policemen's Relief Association. This is where it gets a little sticky.

This type of publication was common at the turn of the century and they were commonly seen as shakedown operations. If you wanted to be treated well by folks carrying badges, well then it was probably in your best interest to show them your support in the form of a donation. And as we'll see, some of the saloon keepers who paid to present their establishment in Oshkosh Up to Date were dabbling in things that depended upon the leniency of the police. For example...

The Cabinet, 206 N. Main Street.
William Grady, Proprietor.

William "Billy" Grady was born in Canada in 1864. He was the son of Irish immigrants. Grady moved to Oshkosh when he was 20 to work in the lumber mills here. A few years later, he began bartending. By 1900 he was running his own place. The Cabinet was his jewel.

The Cabinet, 206 N. Main Street.

See what I mean about lovely? There are a few things in that picture that we’ll see more of in the saloons to come. First, there's the complete lack of bar stools. If you were taking your drink at the bar you were standing. Prior to 1920, that's how it worked in most places. The brass foot rail was the sole aid to repose. Tucked inside the foot rail you'll see four, large brass spittoons. Or if you prefer, cuspidors. There was a lot of spit flying in these places. Think of the poor soul who had to clean those out.

Would you have guessed that this place also operated as a brothel? It did. Maybe that's why Grady ponied up the money to have this picture included in Oshkosh Up to Date. His saloon was notorious. Grady needed to have the cops on his side.

The Cabinet was known as a stall saloon. These were saloons with back-room booths - stalls really - where a customer could privately engage in "disgraceful scenes" with a woman whose favors were available for purchase. Unfortunately, none of the Cabinets cabinets can be seen in this shot. The picture here shows the front half of the space looking towards the Main Street entrance. 

At the time this picture was taken there was an ongoing chorus of calls from local religious leaders to have Grady's license revoked. It would have solved nothing. As Rev. Anderson of the First Methodist Church remarked, "When Grady's license is revoked and the offenders punished, the old iniquity will go on just the same. This is like purifying the Fox River by dipping out a few pails of dirty water at the Main street bridge.”

The building that was home to Grady’s place still stands. But long gone are the fancy bar, the flying spit, the stalls, and the whores. Grady’s pleasure temple has been given over to a pursuit much more mundane.

The Hennig brokerage firm, current occupant of 206 N. Main Street.

The next stop on the crawl is The Baebler Saloon, on Opera House Square. . 
Links to each of the stops on the crawl will be posted here as they become available.

Notes & Sources
Oshkosh Up to Date can be viewed online here.

The controversy surrounding the revocation of Grady's license was covered in the December 19, 1900 edition of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

More info on the 206 N. Main Street site is available here via the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

A 1902 Oshkosh Saloon Crawl

You've arrived at the point of entry for a virtual bar crawl through nine saloons that were doing business in Oshkosh in 1902. Each link below leads to a specific saloon along the crawl. To get into the bar-crawl spirit of things, I suggest taking a drink each time the word saloon is used in this series. Let's go!

The White Seal Buffet, 300 Block of N. Main Street (coming soon).

The Little Cozy Sample Room, 216 N. Main Street (coming soon).

Schlitz Hall, Southwest Corner of Washington and State (coming soon).

This saloon crawl is based upon the 1902 book Oshkosh Up to Date. To view a digitized version of the book click here.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

100% Pure

Lee Beverage of Wisconsin is one of the largest beer distributors in the state, but the company got its start in the beer business by selling malt extract to homebrewers in Oshkosh. Here's an ad from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of July 9, 1926, when Harry Lee and William Precour were owners of the company. They had launched their business in 1925 selling coffee they roasted.

More on the early years of what became Lee Beverage can be found here.

The Changing Flavor of Beer in Oshkosh

A slightly different version of this article appears in the July 15, 2020 edition of the Oshkosh Herald.

It might not look like beer. It certainly doesn't taste like beer. And the way it's made raises the question if it should be called beer at all. But none of this matters to those who relish the novel flavor combinations area brewers are creating as they redefine beer in an effort to attract customers who wouldn't otherwise consider themselves beer drinkers.

The idea is simple. A brewer makes a beer, usually a light or dark ale, and then flavors it with an array of ingredients more common to the grocery store or kitchen than the brewhouse. Most anything goes: candy bars, fruit puree, milk sugar, vanilla, peanut butter flavoring, coconut... The list of potential ingredients is endless. As are the permutations that result.

Tangerine Dream Frootenanny, a kettle-soured blonde ale made with
tangerine purée and Madagascar bourbon vanilla paste.

The darker beers in this vein are flavored with sweet, dessert-type ingredients and are generally referred to as pastry stouts. The beers that begin with a light-ale base primarily rely on pureed fruit for flavoring. And there's nothing discreet about the flavors these ingredients impart. These "adjuncts", as they're called, are not used to accentuate the flavor of the beer. They are the flavor of the beer. If you order a stout that has the words peanut butter in its name, you can rest assured that the flavor of peanut butter is going to be front and center.

The popularity of such beers has been building for the last couple of years. All the breweries in Oshkosh have dabbled with the trend, but at Fifth Ward Brewing, at 1009 S. Main St., such beers have become commonplace on the brewery's tap list. For Ian Wenger and Zach Clark, the brewers and co-founders of Fifth Ward, these beers are entirely consistent with their brewery's mission. 

"We always had this idea in our business plan to bridge the gaps to wine drinkers and cocktail drinkers that don't think about drinking beer," Clark says. "We constantly get people who say they don't like drinking beer, so part of the program of fruited beers and adjunct beers is to try and reach those people."

The most popular of these beers at Fifth Ward fall under the banner of the brewery's Frootenanny series. It's an ongoing cycle of beers that begin as light, tart ales and are then flavored with various combinations of processed fruit and other adjuncts. "What we're doing has changed the way we brew," Wenger says. "With our fruited sours, that base beer is brewed to be fruited." 

The flavors that result are familiar and easily identifiable. That's part of the appeal. "The customer has an easier time understanding these beers," Wenger says. "They know what they're getting. Like with our Tangerine Dream, people expect that it's going to taste like tangerine and vanilla. We get people in here who wouldn't normally drink beer, but they'll drink Tangerine Dream. Some of them aren't beer drinkers at all. These are beers that open doors for them."

"We'd hear that from people," Clark adds. "I remember this one guy telling me he couldn't bring his wife here because she won't drink beer. That doesn't really happen anymore." But it's not just a niche audience that's gravitating towards these beers. A casual scroll through Fifth Ward's social media pages makes it immediately clear that these are the beers that generate the most excitement among the brewery's customers. At the same time, Clark is quick to point out that he and Wenger haven't abandoned their commitment to the brewery's more traditional offerings.

"We put a lot of time and energy and passion into our traditional beers," Clark says. "I'd like it if they got more attention, but we have a lot of people who come in here that will only drink those fruited beers. We do run a business and those beers make money. People keep buying them. You can't ignore that. And we put a lot of work into them. The biggest thing is we try to be diverse in a lot of ways. We want to always have something for everybody. That's always the focus."

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Slushees, Pastry Stouts, and Fruit Bombs. What's Become of Beer?

Why do some breweries make beer and then pump it full of fruit puree, candy, and sugar to create something that tastes nothing at all like beer? The answer becomes obvious if you scroll through the social media pages of breweries that do this type of thing. There's an enthused cohort of drinkers who are aroused by these beers and will pay dearly for them. 

Lion’s Tail Aloha Punch Slushee made with apple, apricot, guava, orange,
papaya, passion fruit, and pineapple. 4-packs were sold for $22.

Over the past year, beers like this have become increasingly common in Winnebago County. At one end of the spectrum are the fluorescent, juice-like beers that are made from light ales blended with fruit puree and other flavorings, such as milk sugar or vanilla. At the opposite end is the pastry stout: a black ale that gets aged upon or blended with dessert-like extracts or ingredients. Chocolate, cookies, brownies, coconut, peanut butter flavoring... Pretty much anything goes.

In either case, you start with something that begins as beer and then gets manipulated with post-fermentation flavoring additions to taste like something else entirely. This isn't altogether new. There's a long history of brewers adding flavoring agents to finished beer. What makes these beers different is their total reliance upon added flavorings. Perhaps more important is that the main flavors of these beers are not made at the brewery where the beer is made. 

The primary flavor of a heavily fruited beer or a pastry stout comes from a food processing plant. The brewer plays no role in the creation or composition of the flavoring agent. It gets delivered to the brewery in jugs, bags, or buckets and then gets added to a pre-existing beer. The point is not the flavor base the brewer made. The point is the flavor of the processed ingredients the brewer purchased from someone else. 

It's an approach that stands in contrast to what has traditionally been considered the brewer's art or craft; that being the ability to create a desirable range of flavors through the transformation of a common set of raw materials. The irony is that these beers, which have so little to do with the actual craft of brewing, are most often the product of so-called craft breweries.

That's not to say that making a palatable fruit-packed beer or pastry stout doesn't require skill. But it's a different, less exacting skill than that of a brewer. The skill is being able to combine those pre-processed flavors in a way that customers find desirable. It has more to do with blending or mixology than brewing. 

Equally important is the marketing. Since these are usually one-off beers there's no need for a brewer to create a product that will have enduring appeal. In fact, it's just the opposite. Novelty is crucial here. The important thing is to induce a sense of excitement that will bring people into the taproom. And to do that you need a name and an image that will arrest the attention of folks scrolling through their Facebook and Instagram feeds. Here's a laser-sharp example of just that.

All the breweries in Winnebago County engage in this to a greater or lesser degree. But three local breweries, in particular, have made these sorts of beers central to their identity: Barrel 41 in Neenah, which produces a steady stream of pastry stouts; Fifth Ward in Oshkosh, which makes both heavily fruited ales and pastry stouts; and Lion's Tail in Neenah, which has been successful with its densely fruited "Slushee" beers.

The first Lion's Tail Slushee was released just over a year ago. The style came to the attention of Alex Wenzel, owner and head brewer at Lion's Tail in early 2019.  It appeared to be a tailor-made solution to a problem Wenzel was then wrestling with.

"There's a lot of new local breweries, but it doesn't seem like the customer base has grown a ton," Wenzel said when I interviewed him in February of 2019. "When you go to a beer event, you see largely the same population at each of the different places." 

One way to expand that community is to lure people who don't much care for the taste of beer by making beer that doesn't taste like beer. This approach to broadening the audience for beer is also not new. It's been going on for decades and finds its ultimate expression in beer-like beverages such as Bud Select 55 and MGD 64. Fruit-thick beers and pastry stouts take a new approach to that project by standing it on its head. Instead of stripping away beer flavor, these beers bury it under a dense blanket of flavors that recall sweet fruit drinks and sugary junk foods.

At first glance, all of this may appear painfully contrived. But this trend didn't just come out of the blue. All of the head brewers in Winnebago County came to their profession from home brewing where the unbridled use of novel ingredients has long been part of the culture. If you've been to a beer festival where home brew was being poured then you know how idiosyncratic the beers can be. For a brewer who learned to make beer in that scene, it's not much of a leap to heavily fruited beers and pastry stouts.

Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh is illustrative in this regard. Five years ago, when Ian Wenger and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward began talking of their plans to launch a brewery, they had already settled on the idea that they would make "culinary" beers that employed ingredients more commonly found in cooking. When Fifth Ward opened in 2017 they made good on that promise by using ingredients like saffron and cinnamon to accentuate the flavor of a particular beer. About a year later, Clark and Wenger began to move away from that approach. That shift has led to the flavored and fruited ales they make today as part of the brewery's Frootenanny series.

"With those initial beers we were using those ingredients more as an accent than as a primary flavor," Wenger says. "But trying to explain that to people was always difficult. And at the time, even that was considered kind of out there. What we're doing now changed the way we brew. Like with our fruited sours, that base beer is brewed to be fruited. The customer has an easier time understanding these beers. When they see these fruited sours they know what they're getting. Like with Tangerine Dream, people expect that it's going to taste like tangerine and vanilla."

That goes to the heart of this entire trend. It doesn't take much knowledge, experience, or effort to process the flavor your tasting in a beer loaded with fruit or chocolate. The taste is familiar, affirming, comforting even. These are beers that promise not to leave you guessing or struggling to identify what it is your tasting. There's no need to develop your palate to enjoy this stuff. The experience is simple and exciting and asks nothing of you. It's the sort of pleasure that would satisfy a child. With alcohol on top.

That level of simplicity permeates the craft beer scene. "When we go out into the market it's much more difficult to sell just a regular beer," Clark says. "It's not what beer buyers are looking for. The flashy beers, the fruited sours, the hazy IPAs, the flavored stouts; that's what they're asking for. Some accounts that's all they're looking for." 
For a brewery owner, the choice is stark. Because unless you have the patience, time, and ability to educate your customers about the complexities of beer flavor, you're going to have to give the market what it demands. Small breweries live day-to-day. And they need to sell as much beer as they can right now. Especially now.

That’s not to say the decision doesn't entail risk. Brewer’s who pursue this path grow dependent on the most fickle type of consumer. People who have no special love for beer, but are triggered by sensation and novelty. Holding their interest requires an endless stream of amusements. That’s a shaky foundation to build a business upon. The high attrition rate within the restaurant industry, where this sort of approach is even more common, illustrates how difficult it is to continually drum up that kind of interest.

I won’t try to guess how this will play out locally. But there's a signal amongst all the noise that's probably worth tracking. A number of small breweries in this area appear to be headed to a place somewhere beyond beer. The beers I've mentioned here really have more in common with flavored malt beverages than anything that people historically have considered beer. When a brewery goes in this direction, it's hard to see a path back to where they can maintain a business based on more traditional types of beer. 

None of this is welcome news if traditional beer styles are what ignited and sustain your interest as a beer drinker. If that's the case, you're likely to find that local brewery taprooms will increasingly not be where you go to find what you're after. You may not be the customer they are trying to reach. If you haven't already, you might want to consider home brewing.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Chief Oshkosh and Beer

It wouldn't happen today. A brewery wouldn't build its brand around a dead man with a reputation for abusing alcohol. Especially if alcohol had played a role in that man's violent death. And especially if that man was a Menominee Indian. But that's just what the Oshkosh Brewing Company did. At the time, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. 

Chief Oshkosh

Chief Oshkosh had been dead 36 years when the Oshkosh Brewing Company put its hooks into him. Born in 1795, Oshkosh died in 1858 at Keshena from injuries he'd taken in a drunken brawl with two of his sons. That part of his story wasn't getting much play anymore when the Oshkosh Brewing Company came around. By then, the Chief had entered the realm of myth.

Oshkosh's fascination with the deceased Chief began in earnest in the early 1880s. A grassroots movement was afoot to have his remains moved from the Menominee Reservation and reinterred in Oshkosh. Decades passed before that happened. In the meantime, the Chief was being re-made into a talisman for the city that bore his name. Chief Oshkosh was showing up everywhere.

A souvenir spoon issued by the Birely & Son jewelry of Oshkosh in 1891.

Oshkosh cigar makers Derksen & Peek brought out their Chief Oshkosh cigar in the fall of 1892.

When there came to be a brewery named Oshkosh, the symbol that would identify it seemed preordained. The Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC) was created on March 21, 1894 from the merger of three existing breweries. The final arrangements were hastily made with a few of the finishing touches left undone. Among them was the brewery's trademark. The first letterhead employed by OBC looked like something a bread factory might use.

Within a matter of weeks, though, OBC had set in place the image that would be its symbol. On April 15, 1894, the brewery began using an already familiar rendering of Chief Oshkosh that was based upon an 1855 daguerreotype. When OBC went to register the trademark, it described the image as "The representation of a North American Indian grotesquely attired, associated with the words ‘Chief Oshkosh.’"

OBC plastered that image and variations of it on any surface that could take it. Over the coming years, the Chief's visage became inescapable in Oshkosh. It hung from signs on Main Street and appeared daily in the pages of newspapers. Behind it was always the promise of beer.

Chief Oshkosh signs at Leonard Michels saloon on North Main Street, circa 1909.

Chief Oshkosh had been co-opted by a beer company. Surely there were people who didn’t like it. But their voices were not made public in any significant way. Those with a legitimate claim to the Chief's heritage had been forced out of the Oshkosh area some 40 years earlier. They’d been deposited on a reservation 70 miles to the north. The way was clear for OBC to reimagine the Chief in any way it cared to. 

Most of OBC's early advertising and promotional materials employed the Chief Oshkosh image in some manner. Often it was the focal point. It was used as an overarching symbol and not representative of any specific product of the brewery. For the first 30 years, OBC’s Chief Oshkosh remained relatively true to its original form. 

But the reverence with which OBC treated its trademark began waning as the brewery came undone during Prohibition. After the dry law took hold in 1920, OBC lurched from one year to the next narrowly avoiding dissolution. The business came under new management. It was now run by a younger generation that had come of age in Oshkosh after the Menominee population had vacated the area. The degree of separation led to more fanciful representations of the Chief. The drift was clearly on display in the 1929 label applied to a malt syrup OBC produced for homebrewers. Chief Oshkosh had never attired himself like this.

It was also during Prohibition, that the brewery first applied the name Chief Oshkosh to a specific product. In 1928, OBC introduced Chief Oshkosh Special, a non-alcoholic cereal beverage. It wasn't quite beer and its label didn’t look like any that OBC had used in the past. The original Chief Oshkosh trademark was still there, but now it played a bit part.

It wasn't just OBC that appeared to have grown weary of authenticity. In 1911, the City of Oshkosh placed a statue of Chief Oshkosh in Menominee Park. Sculpted in Italy, it depicted a young, idealized Chief with European facial features. The remains of Chief Oshkosh were reinterred at the foot of that statue in 1926. The celebration that marked the event included members of the Menominee Tribe; some of whom came to play the part expected of them. Instead of wearing the ceremonial attire of their ancestors, they dressed as if they had come off the set of a Hollywood movie. 

Menominee Park, Oshkosh.

Chief Oshkosh Day Parade, May 25, 1926.

Prohibition ended in 1933. The non-alcoholic Chief Oshkosh Special was reformulated and made into a real beer. Chief Oshkosh became the most popular beer ever produced by an Oshkosh brewery. Within a decade, the brand had subsumed the brewery. People began referring to OBC as the Chief Oshkosh brewery. But the actual Chief Oshkosh was getting phased out. His implacable gaze was replaced with cartoons and clichés.

Early 1940s.

The Chief in cans. From left to right: 1949, 1950, 1958.

Along with that, the folks at OBC had succumbed to the delusion that the hard-drinking Chief was one of their early customers. Several of OBC's promotional pieces from the 1950s mentioned that Chief Oshkosh had often visited the brewery, and on one occasion "Was persuaded to let the boys at the brewery dress him up in a coat and "Beaver" hat, and take his picture. This picture is used in our trademark." There wasn't a drip of truth to any of it. Chief Oshkosh had died nearly a decade before any of the breweries that merged to form OBC had opened. 

The 1855 daguerreotype that was the basis for the OBC trademark.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company closed in 1971, but the Chief Oshkosh brand was picked up by Peoples Brewing and survived for another year. Peoples carried on with the same sort of balderdash OBC had resorted to. 

In 1972, Peoples Brewing closed and Chief Oshkosh Beer was left for dead. The end coincided with a rising chorus of protest against the "mascotting" of American Indians and the poaching of their culture to sell things like beer. That didn’t keep Jeff Fulbright from picking up the Chief Oshkosh name and running with it.

Fulbright launched the Mid-Coast Brewing of Oshkosh in 1991. He named his flagship beer Chief Oshkosh Red Lager. Like OBC and Peoples, Fulbright used American Indian imagery that bore no relation to the individual his beer had been named after. But at the same time, Fulbright was careful to point out that his re-imagining of the Chief was meant as a tribute. Sometimes that message got lost. As part of the launch of the brand, Fulbright placed five billboards in and around Oshkosh that brought precisely the sort of attention he was hoping to avoid.

“My idea was to suggest that this was the return of Chief Oshkosh,” Fulbright said. “It's the wording (Indian Uprising) that made it edgy. Those words pissed some people off. I even got letters from a priest of some sort. But the only people who contacted me were white people. That's the sworn truth. No Native Americans complained about it.”

It wasn't the last scrap Fulbright would get into over Chief Oshkosh. In 1993, Fulbright was pulled into the fray when a Minnesota-based group attempted to ban the sale of alcoholic beverages that used American Indian names or related images as part of their brand identity. The group's efforts were eventually rebuffed, but by then Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was no longer an issue. Mid-Coast Brewing ceased operations in 1995.

The Chief was reincarnated again in the summer of 2010 when then Oshkosh Mayor Paul Esslinger put a new name on the tavern he had acquired at 216 North Main Street. 

Esslinger, a longtime collector of breweriana with a focus on memorabilia related to Chief Oshkosh Beer, planned to feature his collection in what was to become the Chief Oshkosh Saloon. The new name would reflect the tavern's motif. That never happened. Shortly before opening, Esslinger dropped the Chief Oshkosh name after concerns were expressed by members of the Menominee Indian Tribe. Instead, Esslinger's tavern became the Old Oshkosh Saloon. Today, that bar is named Screwballs.

The most enduring connection between Chief Oshkosh and beer began in 1911 when the Oshkosh Brewing Company commissioned the Northwestern Terra Cotta Company of Chicago to create an emblem for the front of its new brewery. The completed piece weighed 800 pounds and was more than five feet in width. It was the brewery's original trademark, a faithfully rendered image of Chief Oshkosh. The Chief looked down over Doty Street for the next 75 years.

In 1986, the main facility of the Oshkosh Brewing Company was demolished. Fifteen years of neglect had transformed it into a towering eyesore. The massive Chief Oshkosh emblem was spared. It was taken down and sold at auction.

The dismantling of OBC’s emblem, 1986.

Breweriana collector Paul Winter, who had grown up near the brewery, placed the winning bid of $9,240. He later sold the emblem back to the City of Oshkosh. The city mounted the emblem on the river-facing side of the Oshkosh Convention Center. It remained there until 2008 when the Convention Center was expanded and remodeled.

The emblem then moved to the Oshkosh Public Museum. It resides there in an elevated case near the museum entrance. Below it is a granite plaque inscribed with a brief history of the brewery and its enduring symbol. It’s the last stand of Chief Oshkosh.

Notes and links to further reading.

Much of what's been written about Chief Oshkosh amounts to little more than hearsay. For an accurate portrayal of his life see Scott Cross' book Like a Deer Chased by Dogs: The Life of Chief Oshkosh. Cross is the archivist at the Oshkosh Public Museum.

The Oshkosh Times of June 6, 1888, provides a good example of the city’s 1880s fascination with Chief Oshkosh. 

I didn't address the various claims made that the body reinterred in Oshkosh was not actually that of Chief Oshkosh. I’m skeptical of those claims. This document raises doubts.

The story of Mid-Coast Brewing and Chief Oshkosh Red Lager is here. The fight over the use of American Indian names attached to beer is here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Start of a Long Road Back

A slightly different version of this story appears in today's Oshkosh Herald

The spring of 2020 will be remembered as among the worst of times for family-run businesses like Jerry's Bar and the Fox River Brewing Company. 

Scott Engel, whose family has operated Jerry's Bar at 1210 Ceape Ave. for more than a century, will never forget March 17. It was the day he learned that Wisconsin's Safer at Home order would force him to close his business. "It made me sick when I got the news," Engel said. "At the time Mike Koplitz, my partner in the business, was working. There were a few of our regulars already there. I came in to help Mike lock up the place. It was pretty upsetting. At one point, I had to leave. I walked out that back door. It had me so upset that I just had to leave."

MIke Koplitz (Left) and Scott Engel of Jerry's.

Engel took over Jerry's in 1988. He's the fourth generation of his family to operate the tavern that was purchased by his great-grandfather, Jerry "Gus" Wesenberg in 1911. The family has managed to keep the business alive through bad times before, including the 1918 Pandemic and the 13 years of Prohibition that began in 1922. "I heard all of those stories, but this gives me a whole new appreciation of what they went through," Engel says. "I never thought we'd see something like this. It makes you appreciate things that you sometimes took for granted."

The past couple of months have been similarly unsettling for Jay Supple. The Supple family has been in the restaurant business in Oshkosh since 1968. They launched Fox River Brewing in 1995. The Supples now operate three restaurants and two brewpubs in the Fox Valley. "To get that notice at quarter to two on March 17th that we'd be locking up in three hours was devastating," Supple says. "I literally got into my car and visited all five locations and explained to everyone that we were going to have to lock up. We had no idea how long it was going to be. We ended up having to lay off 239 of our 240 employees. The only guy that was still on the payroll was the brewmaster because we had all that beer to contend with."

As the shock wore off in the days that followed, both Engel and Supple began assessing their options. At Jerry's Bar, Engel and Koplitz began cleaning and remodeling in preparation for re-opening; whenever that would be. On weekends, they offered their homemade pizzas and beef jerky for curbside pickup. "The response to that was tremendous," Engel said. "We'd sell out every Saturday for those first few weekends. But then meat prices spiked and we had to cut back on that, too."

Fox River Brewing began offering curbside pick-up two weeks after the shut-down order was issued. In the interim, the Supples charted their next moves. "I said to my brother John, we can either turn off the lights and wait it out or we can put together a game plan and come back stronger than ever," Supple said. "So, we set out a plan for each location and brought back our management teams as well as some staff and went to work. Each location is coming back with a new strong vibe and new look, new menu, everything. In the last five weeks, there hasn't been a wall that hasn't been painted. Everything has been refinished, every location has been updated."

For both Engel and Supple, part of their work since March has been directed towards making people feel more at ease during a time of uncertainty. "We've tried to create more space and a fresh look with an emphasis on sanitation and cleanliness," Supple said. "We have a whole protocol that we've gone through with our management teams. We want our guests to feel comfortable and safe."

At Jerry's Bar, Engel worries that overcoming fear may be the biggest hurdle to any recovery. "I've thought about it a lot," he says. "There are things we're going to do, but there are people who are truly scared by this and some of those people are going to stay put for a while. There's no easy way to say this, and I don't want to sound selfish or irresponsible, but life has to go on. I know things can't go on much longer this way if small businesses like ours are going to survive. Our family has worked 109 years to make this place possible and I don't want to be the guy to screw it up. We're going to be good, but this is really becoming a stressor.”

Monday, May 25, 2020

A History of Bass Ale in Oshkosh

Oshkosh was a lager town. Beginning in the 1850s and flowing straight through to the 1980s, lager beer was almost synonymous with beer here. Almost. Every now and then an ale would find its way into the mix. And the ale that had the longest lifespan here was England’s Bass Pale Ale.

The first mention of Bass’s Ale in Oshkosh comes in September 1885. This is already some 60 years after Bass & Co’s Pale Ale was first brewed in Burton-on-Trent. It was brought to Oshkosh by English ex-pat William H. Englebright, keeper of the Star and Crescent Sample Room at the southwest corner of North Main and Algoma. Englebright advertised his saloon as the Oshkosh "Headquarters for Bass' English Ale on draught." A giant sundial now resides where Englebright's saloon once stood.

From the 1886 Oshkosh City Directory.
Near the corner of Main and Algoma in the late 1880s.
The red arrow points to the entrance of Englebright’s Star and Crescent Sample Room.
The sundial now at Main and Algoma. Notice the crescent. How’s that for a coincidence?

The 1885 draft version of Bass Ale that Englebright was pouring was unlike any Bass any of us are familiar with. Like most long-lived beers, Bass has changed considerably over the years. In 1885, it was an aged beer, dry and bitter as a classic IPA, with a Brettanomyces character. It also had an odor about it. Bass of this period was known to carry what was called the "Burton Snatch", a sulfury, eggy aroma peculiar to beers made from the sulfate-rich waters of Burton. It wasn't just the water. Bass' fermentation and conditioning practices must have played a major role in the creation of that odor.

The brewery yard at Bass where the beer was aged in casks for months
while exposed to the elements, from bitter cold to scorching heat.

The Bass on draft at the Star and Crescent in 1885 was about 7% ABV and unlike any other beer then available in Oshkosh. Bass would probably have not been here at all if not for Englebright. I've been searching for examples of Bass pouring in other Wisconsin cities during this time. There was very little of it outside of Oshkosh. The Burton beer appears to have been something of a pet project for the Anglophile Englebright. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm wasn't contagious. The Star and Crescent closed in 1890. Bass Ale went with it.

A 1908 sketch of Bass Ale. The color is about the only remnant of the earlier Bass

Bass returned to Oshkosh at the turn of the century. In 1905, you could get it at the Little Cozy Sample Room at what is now 216 N. Main Street. The Little Cozy was sort of like the Ruby Owl of its day; a downtown restaurant with a bar and a healthy list of specialty beers. Bass was among them. But not on draft. It was now a bottled beer packaged by Thomas McMullen & Co. of New York. It was known as Bass White Label. The beer appears to have held steady in the intervening years. It was still around 7% ABV and there are a number of reports from this period indicating that the Burton Snatch was still in play.

Bass White Label, McMullen's bottling.

Bottled Bass was, at that time, the most expensive beer available in Oshkosh. A seven-ounce "nip" sold for 15 cents; or about $4.50 in today's money. A pint of Bass went for 25 cents. The next most expensive beer was Budweiser selling for 15 cents a pint.

And you no longer had to head to Oshkosh if you wanted a Bass. The beer had grown considerably more common in Wisconsin. Bottles of Bass could be found across the state, especially in cities where breweries were prominent. Places like Eau Claire, La Crosse, Rhinelander, and of course, Milwaukee. But, once again, folks in Oshkosh were not seduced by the charms of the Burton Snatch. By 1910 Bass was gone again.

Prohibition came and went and what little interest there had been in outré beers was washed away in a flood of Oshkosh-brewed pale lager. It wasn't until the 1960s that Bass Pale Ale made its way back to town. Englebright would not have recognized it as the same beer he'd championed 80 years earlier. While it was away, Bass had been stripped of much of what had once made it so unique. The 1960s Bass was just over 5% ABV, far less bitter, and lacking the infamous odor prized by connoisseurs. The ad below from the Old Town tavern suggests Oshkosh was getting the Bass Pale Ale that was bottled in London.

March 20, 1969 Oshkosh Advance-Titan.
By the time that ad appeared Bass and Co.'s Pale Ale was well into its decline. It's the typical story. In the 1960s, Bass Brewers Limited went through a series of mergers and acquisitions. The beer took a back seat to branding and the bottom line. Bass Pale Ale ended up being picked up by Coors in 2002, but in America, it's now made by AB/InBev which now produces Bass at its Merrimack, New Hampshire brewery. You can get a sixer of that in Oshkosh for less than $7, making it one of the cheapest pale ales on the market here. It’s a dull beer hardly worth bothering with. Unless that is, you're feeling the pull of history. I wouldn't be surprised if Bass goes missing again in Oshkosh before too long.

The label lies. Definitely not the world's first pale ale.

Notes & Sources

I've touched on William H. Englebright and his saloons before. Those posts are here and here.

There's excellent information concerning the permutations of Bass Ale over the year's at Ron Pattinson's blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

Gary Gillman at his blog Beer Et Seq has delved into the Burton Snatch.

Here's Ron Pattinson again getting into the notorious brewing water of Burton.

Here's more on Oshkosh's Little Cozy Sample Room.

Here's more on the Old Town Tavern.

Beer writer Pete Brown gets into the sad decline of Bass Ale.