Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Can Can and the Return of the Embedded Bar

Can Can, a boutique and bar at 584 N. Main Street, will have its official ribbon-cutting on Wednesday, June 19 at 11 am. The ceremony introduces the beginning of something Oshkosh hasn’t seen in over a century: a shop wrapped around a bar selling beer for on-premise consumption. Kate Voss, the owner of Can Can, is tapping into a way of doing business that was once commonplace here.

Kate Voss at Can Can. Photo by Michael Cooney.

Voss hit upon the idea of combining a boutique with a bar a few years ago after visiting a shop in Denver based on a similar premise. “I was like, what? This is my heaven,” Voss says. “Who doesn't want to have a drink while they shop? I got super inspired by this place.”

But when Can Can opened in February, the bar at the back of the boutique was bone dry. “It turned out to be really tricky getting the license we needed for the bar,” Voss says. “The city had a little bit of an issue. They didn’t know what to make of the idea. They didn’t know how to deal with it. We were kind of in this pickle.”

The confusion over licensing was, perhaps, predictable. Oshkosh city government hadn't dealt with someone like Kate Voss since the early 1900s. But in that earlier era, city officials had plenty of experience with business owners who combined their bars with diverging lines of trade. The practice was established before the name Oshkosh even appeared on a map.

When George Johnston opened his tavern in the 1830s on land that is now part of Riverside Cemetery, he coupled his hospitality trade with a ferry carrying travelers across the Fox River. At Philip Wright’s “Groceries and Provisions” store on Main Street in the 1840s, a cask of beer was kept on tap for shoppers seeking refreshment. Throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, Oshkosh was home to scores of grocery stores with embedded saloons. At the same time, Fred Zielke's bar on South Main Street doubled as a men’s clothing store. And what is now Bob's Trails End once operated as a barbershop/tavern.

By the time Prohibition arrived in 1920, Oshkosh’s combination bars were nearly extinct. They were officially extinguished in the 1930s by a stack of new laws regulating alcohol sales in the post-Prohibition era. Kate Voss wasn't setting out to revive the tradition when she opened Can Can. It was just a natural extension of her way of doing things.

Kate Voss with her newly minted beer license, May 25, 2024.

The bar at Can Can isn’t the first thing you notice when you enter the shop. What’s most prominent is the overriding aesthetic of the place. The mix of art, handmade gifts, and novelty items imbues the space with a distinctly vintage character. The retro aspect seems to color almost everything Voss is engaged in.

Outside of Can Can, Voss is an award-winning vocalist. She performs regularly with her husband, guitarist Jason Goessl, in the duo Sundae + Mr. Goessl; and with her band Kate Voss & The Hot Sauce. Both acts lean heavily into vintage jazz and pop styles. “The music is really at the core of all of this,” Voss says. “I'm very into things from the 1920s all the way to the 1960s. You know, the 70s and 80s, that’s a little too modern for me. I always feel like maybe I wasn’t born in the right decade.”

Kate Voss and Jason Goessl.

Which makes her arrival at 584 N. Main Street especially fitting. The building Voss leases for Can Can has a history that anticipated her vision for the shop. It was built about 1897 and became a saloon soon after. The tin ceiling shining above Can Can was once bathed in cigar smoke drifting up from a bar run by Richard Pommerening in the early 1900s. Pommerening and his wife, Josephine, lived in the rooms above. Their saloon, known as The Owl, was the anchor of the Pommerening’s business, but Josephine, who was also a performing musician, ran a series of side ventures in the building. At various times she taught piano, conducted an art school, and made and sold women’s hats there.

All those distant coincidences were news to Voss until after she had Can Can up and running. “You know, from the start there’s been this weird synchronicity going on here,” she says. “It's so funny how it just all worked out this way.”

A Deeper Dive on 584 North Main
The building at 584 N. Main Street was constructed sometime around 1897. The first tenants were the Roewekamp brothers, Carl and Henry. They ran a wholesale grocery business there for a couple of years. In 1900, they moved out and over to Washington Avenue where they went into the wholesale liquor and saloon supply business. The Roewekamps eventually built one of the largest wholesale liquor outlets in Northeast Wisconsin.

A Roewekamp brothers whiskey bottle from the early 1900s.

After the Roewekamps left, a psychic named Mrs. Dr. Nichols moved in for a short stay. The advertisement below mentions her address, “278 Main street, near Polk Street.” That address changed to 584 N. Main after a renumbering ordinance went into effect in 1958. The former Polk Street is now E. Parkway Avenue.

July 6, 1900; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

The first saloon at 584 N. Main opened in the summer of 1901. It was put there by Henry Zinn. Before launching his bar, Zinn lived and worked in the building one door north at what is now 586 N. Main. That property had been home to the Fourth Ward Bakery operated by Zinn’s father since the 1870s.

Zinn's Fourth Ward Bakery in 1902. A sliver of The Owl Sample Room can be seen at the extreme right edge of the photo.

Henry Zinn called his saloon The Owl. That name would remain attached to the bar for the next 20 years. The Owl was perched at the north end of what was often referred to as the Nickel Side of the street. It was composed of a thick congregation of saloons spanning the east side of Main from the Fox River to Parkway Avenue. The bars offered mugs of lager beer at a nickel a pop. The strip was also the source for much of the mayhem Oshkosh came to be known for in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Henry Zinn left Oshkosh in 1909 and headed for the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to open a pool hall. The Owl was taken over by a Southside bartender named Richard Pommerening. He and his wife Jospehine moved into the apartment above The Owl.

During his tenure there, Richard had a couple of partners helping run The Owl. The ad below is from 1910 when John Scheuer was working with him. Scheuer was regionally famous as a motorcyclist who raced, and regularly crashed, Indian Motorcycles.

Richard Pommerening was said to possess a fine singing voice. But that was about the only good thing said about him. His wife Josephine, as I’ve outlined above in the Can Can portion of this story, had a lot of interests and among them was an aspiration to rid herself of her husband.

Josephine filed for divorce from Richard on at least three occasions. In one of her petitions she said that Richard was a habitual drunkard, “a man of ungovernable temper, of an abusive and violent disposition, profane and vulgar.” It gets worse. She said Richard had repeatedly assaulted her and during one of his eruptions choked her and put a loaded revolver to her head promising to kill her.

Richard said that Josephine was insane and needed to be institutionalized. He claimed she was involved with a woman of “bad repute” who Josephine sometimes lived with on Division Street. The couple split up several times, but always reconciled. Luckily, they never had children.

In 1920, The Owl went dry with the start of Prohibition. Unlike most other Oshkosh saloon keepers, Richard didn’t immediately convert his place into a speakeasy. Instead he closed The Owl and the couple moved to a rented house on Merritt. Richard took a job at the Giant Grip horseshoe factory on Osceola Street.

But he immediately returned to slinging drinks when Prohibition ended in 1933. Richard became a bartender at the President Bar at 430 N. Main Street. Today that place is known as Bar 430.

Happy New Year from Richard “Dick” Pommerening. Hans and Fritz Merten were the owners of the tavern. Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, December 20, 1944.

In 1939, Richard and Josephine bought a home near the corner of Jefferson and Merritt. They remained in Oshkosh until 1946, when they relocated to Los Angeles, hoping the mild climate would improve Richard’s failing health. But California proved fatal to both of them. Josephine died on December 14, 1949. She was 69. Richard Died ten days later on Christmas Eve. He was 71.

Until Kate Voss and Can Can came along, the building at 584 N. Main Street hadn’t housed a bar since the Pommerenings left in 1920. In the intervening years it’s been home to shops selling truck parts, paint, radios, bikes… The image below is from the mid 1940s when it was a tire store.

The old place looks much better now.

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Beer Talk at OPL

I’ll be under the dome at the Oshkosh Public Library this Tuesday (June 4) talking about 175 years of brewing in Oshkosh and Winnebago County. The yapping begins at 6pm. Hope you can make it, and if you do step up and say hi. Prost! 

Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Oshkosh Helles Bock

As I’ve mentioned here before, this year marks the 175th year since brewing began in Oshkosh. And to celebrate that anniversary, each of the three Oshkosh breweries is releasing a different style of Bock beer packed in a commemorative can. The next beer in the series comes out this Saturday at Bare Bones.

Oshkosh Helles Bock is an amped up version of the brewery’s popular Oshkosh Lager. It’s a rich, malty beer that’s 6.8% ABV and deceptively easy drinking. Prost, to another 175 years of great beer from Oshkosh!

Thursday, April 25, 2024

Oshkosh Peculiar

All is not well in the world of beer. American beer sales are trending steadily downward, and craft breweries are failing at an unprecedented rate. Yet there’s little evidence of such withering here. Last year, Oshkosh's three breweries – Bare Bones, Fifth Ward, and Fox River – each saw their sales volume increase.

“Maybe it’s just that we’re a couple of years behind the trend,” says Ian Wenger, co-owner of Fifth Ward Brewing. Wenger may be half joking, but the concern is genuine. When it comes to beer, Oshkosh has a history of being slow to adopt national trends. If the local homebrewing scene is any indication, though, this may be one trend that skips the city altogether.

Homebrewing has been looked upon as a bellwether for the craft beer industry. In fact, the struggle that now besets craft brewers was preceded by a sharp downturn in homebrewing. Membership in the American Homebrewers Association has fallen by 35 percent since 2018, and the organization has canceled its annual conference for 2024. Over the past three years, however, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrewing club has increased its membership by 35 percent. The club now has 69 members.

Scott Westpfahl during a recent meeting of the SOBs at Fifth Ward Brewing. Photo by Staci Saunders.

Scott Westpfahl has been president of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers (the SOBs) since 2021. He has no doubts about what makes the Oshkosh club different. “We have a lot of people here who are truly invested in the club,” Westpfahl says. “It’s a very active membership. It makes all the difference. And we’re so tied into the community. The SOBs are engaged with every brewery, cidery, meadery, and distillery in the region.”

At Fifth Ward, brewery co-owner Zach Clark takes a similar view. “I go around to a lot of other towns on sales calls, and one thing you notice here is that the enthusiasm hasn’t died down the way it has in some places. We see it in our taproom. People want to go out and do things and be active. I mean, we have a pretty advanced crowd coming in here. They’ve evolved along with us. You don’t see that everywhere.”

Clark says it probably helped that the craft beer scene in Oshkosh didn’t grow as quickly as it did some larger cities. “It happened more gradually here, and I think that’s meant that we’ve never had the oversaturation that you see in other places where there might be too many breweries, and people kind of losing interest because it's just too much to keep up with. I think people around here have remained engaged with what’s going on.”

The engagement is an expression of social life in a city where tavern culture has been foundational. Wenger sees a shift taking place. “I know that some of our taproom regulars are people who used to spend more time in bars, but maybe they just wanted a different sort of atmosphere. We see a lot of the same faces, and they might be with their families and they're getting together, and they can all feel comfortable here. I don’t know if that kind of thing is happening in the bars so much anymore.”

The Fifth Ward's taproom in Oshkosh. Photo by Staci Saunders.

Fifth Ward is looking to build upon its taproom success. Clark and Wenger are currently exploring the possibility of opening a second taproom in the area. After doubling the capacity of its brewery over the past two years, Fifth Ward became the largest producer of beer in Oshkosh last year selling 1,480 barrels.

“We could already make twice as much beer here as we do now, so we absolutely have the capacity to supply another taproom,” Clark says. “The question we’re thinking about is how far do we want to go in that direction? We’re trying to figure out where the equilibrium is.”

For the Oshkosh homebrewers the future appears as promising, but far less complex. “I mean, for us it’s all about having fun,” Westpfahl says. “And right now we have such a great group that’s really invested in the overall experience of being an SOB. We’re in a good place.”

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers invites the community to get a taste of the SOB experience on Saturday, May 4, when the club will hold its annual Big Brew from 9am until 1pm at The Cellar homebrew shop at 465 N. Washburn Street. The event is open to the public and will feature brewing demonstrations.

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

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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Oshkosh Classics: The Story of Our City’s Beer in 12 Recipes

Here's the story of our beer culture told through recipes that span 175 years of brewing in Oshkosh.

Oshkosh Classics is a 32-page, magazine-sized booklet with full-color illustrations throughout. Beer recipes are the core of the booklet, but anyone with an interest in Oshkosh brewing history or the city’s social history will find it interesting. The story goes beyond beer. It’s about community.

Oshkosh Classics has been a long time coming. I began searching for recipes from old Oshkosh breweries about a dozen years ago. My sole intention was to replicate what were then lost Oshkosh beers. As I found recipes, I scaled them to homebrew batch size and got brewing. I wasn’t too surprised to find that some of the old recipes produced great beers. After all, people in Oshkosh once loved these beers.

Rolling another barrel of Gambrinus Brewery Beer into an Oshkosh saloon in the early 1890s. A recipe for the brewery’s black lager is included in Oshkosh Classics.

As it often is with homebrewers, I had a strong impulse to share what I was doing. It was easy finding people who understood my obsession. I’ve been a member of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrew club since 2010. This kind of thing is what the SOBs are all about.

In the spring of 2023, I suggested to the club’s board that we collect these recipes into a booklet. And off we went. I spent most of this past winter writing and designing the booklet, and thanks to SOB Rob Bearwald, we were able to have it professionally bound and printed on quality paper. Our humble, little beer book turned out better than any of us could have expected.

Some SOBs checking out their copies of Oshkosh Classics. Photos courtesy of Staci Saunders.

The SOBs’ release party for Oshkosh Classics will be at Bare Bones Brewery on Saturday, April 20, beginning at noon. In addition to the booklet release, SOB members will be sharing free samples of homebrew made from recipes included in the booklet.

Here’s a bonus: that same day, Bare Bones Brewery will release Peoples Bock made from the original recipe used at Peoples Brewing of Oshkosh in the 1950s and 1960s. Peoples Bock will be available on draft and in collectible cans.

There are only 300 copies of Oshkosh Classics, and I doubt that more will be printed. The SOBs are a non-profit organization and printing something like this is quite expensive. But the club wanted to keep the price of the booklet as low as possible. So, individual copies of Oshkosh Classics will be sold for $5 when purchased directly from a club member.

If you can’t make the release party at Bare Bones, here are a couple of other options…

Saturday, April 27
I’ll have copies of Oshkosh Classics for sale at the B'Gosh It's Good Breweriana Show from noon until 4pm.

Saturday, May 4
The SOBs will host their annual Big Brew behind the The Cellar brew shop at 465 N. Washburn from 9am until noon. This is always a fun, public event with lots of brewing, and food from the Ginger German food truck. This year, we’ll have a stack of Oshkosh Classics with us.

All of us SOBs hope to see you at one of these events. Prost!

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

175 Years of Beer in Oshkosh

The Oshkosh 175 celebration begins Thursday, April 4th at Fifth Ward Brewing with the release of 175 Bock.

All three Oshkosh breweries will release a bock beer this year to commemorate the 175th anniversary of brewing here. Each of the collectible cans for these beers will carry the “Oshkosh 175” emblem. This is the first time brewers in Oshkosh have collaborated on a series of beers that celebrate our city’s brewing heritage.

Each of the three beers in the series will be a different style of Bock. The Fifth Ward’s Bock is a traditional German Bock, dark and rich with a lush caramel note and just enough hop contribution to keep it from being too sweet. It's a surprisingly drinkable beer considering that it brings a solid 6.2% ABV. This is an excellent example of the style.

Now, here’s something I’ve been saving for the right occasion, and I think this is it... Back in 2017, Ian Wenger and Zach Clark were working to get their brewery launched. Fifth Ward would open later that year, in November. In the meantime, Zach and Ian continued to homebrew. In April of 2017, the three of us got together to drink some of their homemade Bock beer. For reasons I no longer recall, I shot some video while we quaffed Bock.

Here are the three of us from April 2017, six months before the opening of Fifth Ward, getting a taste of what was to come. Prost, guys!

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Talkin' Omro Saloon Wars

I’ll be talking this Thursday, April 4, about the Omro Saloon Wars of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Omro saloon scene was like something out of the Wild West. Unfortunately, this is a history that was left for dead. It’s time we bring it back to life.

The talk begins at 6:30 at the Carter Memorial Library in Omro. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, March 27, 2024

Oshkosh Brewers Celebrate 175 Years of Brewing in the City

In the summer of 1849, a German immigrant named Jacob Konrad established a brewery just south of Ceape Avenue on the shore of Lake Winnebago. Konrad’s brewery was the first in Oshkosh. The brewing culture he initiated here is still going strong 175 years later.

Brewers in Oshkosh are celebrating their heritage this year with beer releases and events that tap into the city’s history as a center for beer making. 

April 4: Fifth Ward's 175 Bock
The series begins at Fifth Ward Brewing on Thursday, April 4, with the start of Oshkosh Craft Beer Week. Fifth Ward will commemorate the anniversary with the release of 175 Bock, a strong German-style lager.

April 20: The SOB's Book Release at Bare Bones
On Saturday, April 20, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrew club will be at Bare Bones Brewery for the release of Oshkosh Classics, the club’s first recipe book. The collection includes twelve recipes that illustrate the history of Oshkosh’s beer and brewing culture. The SOBs will share free samples of homebrewed beer made from recipes included in the book. In addition to the book release, Bare Bones Brewery will release Peoples Bock, made from the original recipe used at Peoples Brewing of Oshkosh in the 1950s and 1960s.

June 1: Bare Bones' Helles Bock
On Saturday, June 1, Bare Bones Brewery will release a Helles Bock made from a recipe that amplifies the brewery’s popular Oshkosh Lager. 

Fox River's Pre-Prohibition Bock
Fox River Brewing Company will round out the series with the release of a pre-Prohibition style Bock later this year. Each special release will be available on draft and in a collectible can featuring a commemorative “175” emblem.

It’s especially fitting that the anniversary will be observed by an offering of Bock beers. This subcategory of lager beer was first brewed in Oshkosh in 1858. Over the next century, the robust Bocks became the most commonly produced specialty beer here. The annual spring releases were highly anticipated. Saloons and beer depots posted placards illustrated with a grinning goat in their windows to alert beer fans that the Bock was back. Aficionados on hoarding binges grabbed all they could afford, causing the Bocks to rapidly sell out.

The tradition survived well into the 20th century as Oshkosh’s small breweries grew into larger, more industrial concerns. By the early 1950s, Oshkosh was home to three breweries with a combined production of more than 90,000 barrels of beer annually. An astounding quantity considering that the city’s population was just 41,000 and that most of that beer was consumed locally. Last year, less than 3,500 barrels of beer were brewed in Oshkosh.

Industry consolidation led to the end of our large breweries in 1972 when Peoples Brewing Company closed. The city was without a brewery for the first time in 123 years. In response, a homebrewing movement developed in Oshkosh even though it was a crime to make beer in an unlicensed facility. Oshkosh Congressman William Steiger took care of that by introducing federal legislation legalizing homebrewing. Steiger’s bill was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

Our current breweries are a direct outgrowth of that early homebrewing movement. All three breweries here have brewhouses run by former homebrewers who came out of the local scene. The kinship with the city’s earliest breweries is no less tangible. After Jacob Konrad established his brewery in 1849, he began making hand-crafted, small-batch beer that he sold directly from his brewery to people living nearby. That description applies just as well to our current breweries.

There have been 21 breweries established in Oshkosh since Konrad came to town 175 years ago. That count doesn’t include the score of wildcat breweries that flourished, albeit illegally, in the city during Prohibition from 1920-1933. The beer and brewing culture here has been central to the identity of this place from the start. Oshkosh has always been a beer town. It’s time we celebrate that.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

A Beer By Any Other Name

The longest-lived craft beer made in Oshkosh has a fluid identity. It’s a Scottish Ale from Fox River Brewing Company, and it was first served to the public at Fratello's Italian Cafe on Friday, December 15, 1995. On that day, it was called Caber Tossing. In 2014, Caber Tossing became Marble Eye. This February, the name will change again, this time to Highland Fox Scottish Ale.

Drew Roth is the head brewer at Fox River. He knows what’s coming next. “It’s kind of a running joke around the brewery. People will insist that Caber Tossing and Marble Eye were completely different beers with different recipes,” he says. “I can pull out recipe sheets and show them that they’re the same beers. It doesn’t matter. They just tell me I’m wrong.”

Drew Roth

Roth has 29 years of brewing logs backing up his claim. The recipe he is using for Highland Fox adheres, in every important respect, to the recipe that former Fox River head Brewer Al Bundee entered into the logbook for the first batch of Caber Tossing on November 25, 1995. “It’s a different name, but the recipe is not changing in the slightest,” he says.

In the trend-riddled world of craft beer, that kind of longevity is practically unheard of. But then, this beer was an outlier from the start. When Caber Tossing was introduced it became the strongest year-round beer ever produced in Oshkosh. At 6.5% ABV, with its deep amber color and caramelized malt flavor, Fox River’s Scottish Ale was altogether different from the mild, pale lagers that had been dominant here for a century.

Beer connoisseur and brewer Mark Stanek was among the early adopters. He became acquainted with Caber Tossing after moving to Oshkosh from Madison in 1997. “That beer was outstanding,” Stanek says. “It was malty in flavor and aromatics. It was one of the great beers from that time frame and was really well respected.”

In 2001, Caber Tossing took the gold medal in the Scottish-style ale category at the Great American Beer Festival. By 2006, it was the best-selling beer in Fox River’s portfolio. Caber Tossing-cum-Marble Eye held that position until 2014 when BLU Bobber became a year-round beer and the brewery’s runaway bestseller. Ten years later, Marble Eye, soon to be Highland Fox, still holds its own.

“It just continues to be that beer that consistently sells,” Roth says. “We have discussions every year about what beers are going to get pulled to make room for new things, but Marble Eye has never been up for discussion. It just keeps going, and we’re going to keep brewing it.”

That’s a rare declaration to attach to an amber beer these days. Nationwide, the popularity of darker-hued brews has fallen significantly. The decline is illustrated by the recently diminished Fat Tire Amber Ale. Ten years ago, Fat Tire was among the most popular of all craft beers. But deflating sales led to Fat Tire's reformulation last year. Gone is the amber. Fat Tire now wobbles along, drained of its color.

“Wisconsin is kind of a weird market in that way,” Roth says. “A lot of people here still want those darker beers. It might be our climate, or some of the traditions around here, I’m not really sure. Marble Eye is often our second or third best seller on draft even in the summertime.”

It's a beer that has been bucking trends for so long that it has entered the pantheon of Oshkosh classics such as Chief Oshkosh, Peoples Beer, and Rahr’s Elk’s Head. At 29-years old, what is about to become Highland Fox is the youngster of that bunch. Yet it remains an old friend to those who discovered their love of flavorful beer through Caber Tossing. “I know I’m going to hear about it, but I like the new name,” Roth says. “Highland Fox embraces our identity and what the beer is about. We're getting back to our roots on that.”

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

Sunday, December 31, 2023

The Best to You!

Hey Gang, first off, thanks so much for checking out the blog in 2023. I truly appreciate it!

Second, there won’t be much new content here for the next couple months. I'm working on a short book (about historic Oshkosh beer recipes) that I need to complete by the end of February. And in March, I'm giving a presentation about the Omro Saloon Wars at the Omro Public Library. Combined, these two projects will absorb most of my free time until March. But after that, things will get rolling again. There's so much more to tell!

Until next time, Happy New Year!