Monday, April 27, 2020

Pandemics and the Breweries of Oshkosh

For breweries in Oshkosh, the coronavirus pandemic has been crippling. The core of their business – selling beer to people gathered in their taproom – has been eliminated by the state's Safer At Home Order. With another month of shutdown ahead, the road to recovery for these breweries is going to be punishing. If, in fact, they manage to recover at all. It's bad. And it's not without precedent.

The 1918 influenza pandemic took a similar toll on Oshkosh's breweries. The three breweries here – Oshkosh Brewing, Peoples, and Rahr – were utterly dependent on local saloons. The saloon trade accounted for approximately 80% of their total beer sales. All three breweries either owned or were financially tied to many of the saloons that sold their beer. The scope was different, but the arrangement is comparable to the taproom model our current breweries rely upon.

The Nigl tavern in the 1940s at what is now 815 Ohio St.
It was tied to Peoples Brewing from 1913 until 1920.
The building is now home to DD's BBQ Company. 

During the 1918 pandemic, Oshkosh breweries had their main revenue stream reduced to a trickle. Saloons were placed under a strict mandate to prevent people from gathering. Their hours of operation were curtailed to a brief period of each day. It allowed enough time for folks to come in and pick up a growler or two of beer. But when 5:30 pm came, the taps had to be turned off. It wasn't so very different from what's occurring today.

Beer being prepped for takeout at Bare Bones Brewery.

What makes the current period somewhat more encouraging for brewers is that they're approaching an end date to the restrictions and the chance to resuscitate their businesses. The brewers of 1918 had no such hope. Their pandemic was merely a dark prelude to a future that appeared even more bleak.

The 1918 pandemic shut down the City of Oshkosh for most of October and November of that year. On November 29, the ban on public gatherings and the restrictions on saloons were finally lifted. That came too late for the brewers here.

The day after the shutdown ended, breweries were forced to stop making beer. The order came down from President Woodrow Wilson as part of an effort to conserve resources during WWI. This despite the war having come to an end weeks earlier. The following Monday, the Oshkosh Northwestern reported, "The manufacture of beer stopped in this city Saturday night, perhaps forever."

In the meantime, state legislatures across the country were voting on an amendment to the constitution that would ban the production, sale, and distribution of alcohol in the United States. The ratification of the 18th Amendment came on January 16, 1919. A year later, national Prohibition was imposed. Bad times were here to stay. For the breweries and saloons of Oshkosh, the pandemic of 1918 had been just the beginning of their nightmare.

The 18th Amendment.

Normalcy, if you could call it that, would not return until 1933. By then more than 25% of all the breweries in Wisconsin had permanently closed. The count would go on falling for the next 50 years. Oshkosh had the unusual distinction of seeing all three of its pre-Prohibition breweries return after the repeal of the dry law. But they, too, would eventually succumb.

The disruption we're seeing now is nowhere near as cataclysmic as that which began with the 1918 pandemic. Yet our current breweries are more vulnerable than the Oshkosh breweries of 1918. Each of the earlier breweries had far greater financial resources than any of the Oshkosh breweries now in operation. The real impact of what's happening today won't be realized for another six to nine months.

I keep thinking back to the Winter Beer Fest held at Bare Bones Brewery on March 7. I was there and didn't hear a single person mention the word Coronavirus. It was a great day for the beer scene here. All the local breweries were on hand. Hundreds of people had gathered on a cold, bright afternoon to kick off Oshkosh's first Craft Beer Week and celebrate the incredible revival of our beer culture. I remember thinking that it felt like a high point. I'm sure I’m not the only person who had that thought.

Just ten days later, Wisconsin began its shut down and social distancing became our mantra. That day in the parking lot at Bare Bones seems almost surreal now.

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