Monday, October 18, 2021

Fifty Years Ago...

The Oshkosh Brewing Company ceased production 50 years ago today on October 18, 1971. With that, Peoples Brewing became Oshkosh's sole brewery. It was the first time since 1849 that Oshkosh was home to just one brewery. Two weeks after the closing, it was announced that Peoples Brewing had purchased the brands of the Oshkosh Brewing Company and would continue producing Chief Oshkosh Beer. Peoples Brewing would close a year later in November 1972.

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Wildcat Breweries of Oshkosh | Librarian Learns

Prohibition was the law in the 1920s, but in Oshkosh the beer never stopped flowing. It was made by wildcat breweries in almost every part of the city. Here’s a video Michael McArthur of the Oshkosh Public Library and I made where we check out a few of Oshkosh’s wildcat brewery sites.

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Dringoli Pils

 Bare Bones just released Dringoli Pils. If you’re into lagers, you should get your hands on this one. 

This is an Italian-style Pils, which is a hop-forward sub-style that emerged in Milan, Italy in the mid-1990s. This is the first time the style has been made by an Oshkosh brewery. It was dry-hopped with German Saphir, giving it a wonderful, floral aroma. It’s out now, on draft and in cans.

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Barrel Sampling at Fifth Ward

Saturday, Ian Wenger and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward pulled samples from 38 barrels to get a handle on the different flavors being produced in those casks. It was the first step in coming up with blends that will present the best of those flavors. Some of the beer coming out of these barrels will be ready in time for Fifth Ward’s anniversary celebration in November. I'll have much more on that as the date approaches. In the meantime...

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Big Ed's Hop Yard Honey Bock

Last Thursday, Fox River Brewing released its 2021 version of Big Ed's Hopyard Ale. Big Ed’s is a wet hop beer using fresh hops that go directly from the hop bine to the brew kettle without being dried or processed. The hops used in Big Ed’s come from Steve Sobojinski’s hop yard in the Town of Nekimi.

Picking hops for the 2021 Big Ed's.

This year marks the sixth year that Fox River has produced Big Ed’s. When the beer was introduced in 2016, it became the first commercial beer made in Oshkosh in more than 130 years to use locally sourced hops. This year, Fox River was able to gather 41 pounds of hops from Sobojinski’s yard.

Big Ed’s changes from year to year. As Sobojinski’s hop yard has matured, the flavor coming out of the field has grown deeper, more complex. Over the last couple of years, those hops have settled into a nice groove. The flavor is bright and slightly lemony with a piney undertow.

The base beer has also changed. Big Ed’s began life as a pale ale. But since 2019, when Drew Roth took over as head brewer at Fox River, the beer has gone through different iterations. Last year, Big Ed’s was a Cascadian Dark Ale. This year, it’s an American Bock made with an addition of honey from Talbot's Apiary in Ripon.

The 2021 version of Big Ed's.

“We seem to get a consistent character from the wet hops,” says Roth. “We have been trying things out (with the base beer) to find what we like. By changing it up we keep it interesting.”

Roth may have finally found the sweet spot with this year’s version of Big Ed’s. “It is by far the best batch of Big Ed’s we have done,” he says. “It’s a damn tasty lager.”

Big Ed’s in on tap now at Fox River in Oshkosh and Appleton. It will also soon be available in bottles.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Adam Carlson, Ruby Owl, and a Decade of Craft Beer in Oshkosh

For a decade now, Adam Carlson has been putting his stamp on the Oshkosh beer scene. You've known his influence if you've ever purchased beer at Gardina's Kitchen & Bar or The Ruby Owl Tap Room; each located on North Main Street in Oshkosh. In addition to being part owner and manager of Ruby Owl, Carlson curates the beer line-up for both venues. The taplists at these places tend to stand apart from what you'll find in other taprooms in town. That's because Carlson is not your typical, Oshkosh beer purveyor.

Adam Carlson

Carlson came to beer from the wine world. His drinks career began in 2010 as bar manager for what was then called Gardina's Wine Bar & Cafe. There, his nascent interest in craft beer got the better of him. It led to Gardina's installing a draft-beer system that Carlson filled with an ever-rotating cast of hard-to-obtain specialty ales. “The focus from day one was to be all craft all the time,” Carlson says. The success of the endeavor led to the opening of the beer-centric Ruby Owl in 2016.

Since then, Ruby Owl has become the benchmark bar for craft beer in Oshkosh. When Ruby Owl was launched five years ago, craft beer here was still something of a niche product. It went mainstream in the interim. And with that has come a new type of consumer.

"The snobby seriousness attached to the early days of craft beer has fallen," Carlson says. "We see a lot of people now that just want to enjoy a beverage and if that beverage happens to be beer, well that's great. But they're not involved in the minutia or the provenance. They just want something that's going to taste really good, something that might even transcend beer."

Which has led to Carlson pouring beers of a sort that would have been unimaginable a decade ago. "There's now a lot of overlap with things like hard seltzer and cocktails," he says. "The distributors will come to us with beers that are so packed full of fruit purees, and milk sugars, and those sorts of adjuncts that they barely qualify as beer. That's not to denigrate those things, but if you're a beer purist, that's not going to appeal to you."

The point, he says, is to draw from a larger pool of consumers. "The breweries are marketing these beers to compete in other categories. In a way, that's brilliant. We see where it's engaging a segment of the market that in years past would not have been at all interested in traditional beer."

"I can see a similar arc with wine, where it was a trend started by vinophiles and it picked up steam and hit the mainstream and you had an explosion of mass-marketed wine. It's not traditionally acceptable to do to wine what is being done to beer, but similarly to beer, these are wines made to attract that mainstream consumer who just wants something fruity and fun to drink."

Carlson isn't judgmental about the direction the market has taken. "To point these things out is not an indictment of anything," he says. "It's not that a brewery is wrong for making something like a marshmallow pina colada sour. It's just the cycle of things." The current cycle may not end anytime soon, but Carlson is noticing that some consumers appear to have grown weary of it.

"We're seeing more people coming in looking for lagers and for some bitterness in their IPAs," he says. “We’re also seeing more people who want less alcohol. Eventually you come to the realization that it's as much about the people you're with as the beer, and that you'd rather have two or three 4.5 percent beers instead of one super-high alcohol beer. There's a growing demand for well-made beer that doesn't have anything to hide. It's reverting back to something that's clean and crisp and refreshing."

That's a segment that Carlson likes to encourage. "A lot of what I put on tap is driven by what I want to drink," he says. "There are a number of breweries I'm loyal to that make consistently good beer. Breweries like Lakefront, New Glarus, Lazy Monk. I find myself coming back to their beers. They may not be flashy, but everything is always well made and their prices are fair. Those aren't the breweries that are going to set us apart, but I always like to have them in the mix."

All of which hasn't made Carlson's job any easier. Curating a tap list that can satisfy such diverse expectations has grown increasingly challenging. "When I started, the options were so limited," he says. "But now there are so many vendors, distributors, and salespeople out there vying for your draft lines, and vying for your time, that it's become dizzying. Everything is moving at such a hyper-speed that it's kind of crazy. It's never been like this before."

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

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The Heritage Series: Rahr's Centennial Brew

In 1953, the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh made a beer that was rare for its time. Oshkosh was celebrating its Centennial that year. To mark the event, the Rahr family produced a beer that was a nod to the Oshkosh beers of 1853. Rahr's Oshkosh Centennial Brew was an all-malt lager beer. Released in June of 1953, Centennial Brew was one of the few American beers of the period made without cereal adjuncts such as corn or rice. That special beer is about to make a brief comeback.

On Saturday, October 2, Bare Bones Brewery will release a one-barrel batch of Rahr's Oshkosh Centennial Brew as part of the brewery's Heritage Series of historic Oshkosh beers. Centennial Brew is a 4.7% ABV golden lager. The Rahr's labelled it a Pilsner. The beer recalled the original iteration of the style. The color was deeper and the flavor more rounded and full than is found in most American Pilsners brewed today.

The recipe and process used at Bare Bones were provided by the original brewer. His name was Charles "Chuck" Rahr. Chuck was the fourth generation of Rahr-family brewmasters at the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh.

Chuck Rahr

Chuck was born in 1928. He grew up in and around the family brewery. "From a very young age I helped out around the brewery," he said. "Even as a little kid I used to watch my dad brew the beer. It was our life.” Chuck would be the last brewmaster at Rahr. Unable to compete with Oshkosh's larger breweries, the Rahr brewery closed in 1956.

The Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh.

The Bare Bones version of Rahr's Centennial Brew was made on August 6, 2021. It underwent a cold fermentation followed by six weeks of lagering (cold maturation). The Rahr's were always sticklers about those extended periods of lagering for their beer. As they noted in their advertising, "artificial aging never had a look-in at Rahr's. Old Father Time always did the aging at this brewery."

In the brewhouse on August 6 were Bare Bones head brewer Jody Cleveland, Gary Fenrich, and myself. Gary is an Oshkosh homebrewer. Gary had gotten to know Chuck Rahr and at one point explored the idea with him of relaunching the Rahr brand.

Jody Cleveland (left) and Gary Fenrich.

There was another reason it was fitting that Gary was there for the brew day. In 1953 his mother, Carol (Genal) Fenrich, was named Oshkosh's Centennial Queen. We're hoping she'll be able to join us at Bare Bones on Saturday.

From 1953, Oshkosh Centennial Queen Carol Genal.

Unfortunately, Chuck Rahr isn't around to see his beer revived. Chuck passed away in 2016. I once asked him if he had been much of a beer drinker back when he was still brewing. "I loved beer," Chuck said. I'll bet he would have liked this one.

The Bare Bones Brewery version of Rahr's Centennial Brew.

Rahr's Oshkosh Centennial Brew will begin pouring at noon on Saturday, October 2. The beer will be available only on draft. If you can make it to Bare Bones on Saturday for a pint, you'll also receive a commemorative postcard like those shown at the top of the post. Hope to see you there.

I've written a couple of pieces about Chuck Rahr for the blog. You can find those here and here.

A few years back I made a short video covering the history of Rahr Brewing of Oshkosh. You can see that here.

The recipe for the beer that was brewed at Bare Bones is very similar to the recipe for Rahr's Elk's Head. The basic difference being the exclusion of corn and a slight reduction of black malt to keep the color from drifting into the amber range. You can find that recipe here.

Monday, September 27, 2021

B’Gosh it’s Good at Fifth Ward on Sunday

The third B’Gosh it’s Good Brewery Collectables Trade Show is this Sunday at Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh. Stop by, grab a beer, and check out the incredible array of brewery memorabilia this event pulls in. The show begins at noon and it's free!

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

The Bier Hall at The Gibson this Thursday

This Thursday, September 23, the Gibson Social Club will open to the public for the first in an ongoing series of Thursday-night Bier Hall events. "We're going with an authentic German Bier Hall vibe," says Will Amacher, the Food & Beverage Director at the Gibson. "There's really nothing I like better than seeing big mugs of beer sliding around."

The Gibson Social Club opened in August after a year of extensive renovation to the historic building it occupies at 537 N. Main Street. Primarily a private event space, the venue will also host public events from time to time. Hence the Bier Hall.

"The place already kind of looks like a German Bier Hall, so that aspect of it won't be too difficult," Amacher says. "We'll have eight beers on tap, including at least a couple of Oktoberfest beers along with beers from local breweries like Fifth Ward and Lion's Tail. I'm a big fan of the malty stuff, so this is really my season."

Amacher behind the bar at The Gibson Social Club.

"We're kicking it off with Danny Jerabek from Copper Box playing," Amacher says. "My goal today is to hook up a Hammerschlagen source. That's about the last detail and we're good to go."

The Bier Hall at the Gibson opens at 6 p.m. Thursday. There's no cover. The event is open to the public. For more details visit The Gibson's Facebook event page.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Beer Production in Oshkosh Has Spiked

Last year was nearly a disaster for the breweries of Oshkosh. Slammed by the repercussions of COVID, overall beer production in the city fell by 18 percent. This year, it’s an entirely different story.

The Wisconsin Department of Revenue has released its beer production reports for the first seven month of 2021. They show a remarkable turnaround in the works.

Compared to the same period of a year ago, total beer production in Oshkosh is up a full 80 percent. Here’s how that’s playing out at each of our three breweries.

Click the graph to enlarge it.

Fox River leads the way with a 115 percent spike in production this year compared to the same period last year. Bare Bones is up 61 percent. Fifth Ward is up 44 percent. All three breweries are on pace to have a record breaking year.

Sustaining that pace, though, may become increasingly difficult in the weeks ahead. With COVID infection rates again on the rise in Oshkosh, the immediate future appears less promising. We’ll see. For now, at least, the momentum is heading in the right direction.