Thursday, June 3, 2010

Homebrewing in Oshkosh During the Prohibition Years

The popularity of homebrewing in Oshkosh is nothing new. In fact, the peak years for Oshkosh homebrewing probably took place during the prohibition years of the 1920s. When Prohibition went into full effect on January 16, 1920 the people of Oshkosh saw no need to go without their beloved brew. As Oshkosh author and historian Clarence “Inky” Jungwirth points out, “Many of the people who came to Oshkosh were from Europe. They came from a drinking culture. Beer was deeply engrained in the European culture.” And that meant they didn’t need to rely on the corner saloon to keep them in beer. They knew how to brew their own.
A  1919 Ad for Homebrewing Recipes
from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern

With the onset of Prohibition, the homebrewing scene in Oshkosh quickly became established. Four months after the dry law had been enacted the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern ran a story about the rise of homebrewing, pointing out that “effort is being made to brew beer, but it is mostly for home consumption and therefore the violation is not likely to get to the attention of the authorities, unless somebody ‘tips off’ the game.” An indication of how popular homebrewing rapidly became in Oshkosh was shown in 1921. In June of that year, when Wisconsin Governor John J. Blaine proposed a change to the enforcement of Prohibition law that would exclude the production of home made beer, the Northwestern ran a banner headline celebrating the proposal. Homebrewing had become big news in Oshkosh.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern June 7, 1921

There’s little, however, in the public record that addresses the actual beer of that time or how it was brewed. And there are few who recall those early days of homebrewing. Here in Oshkosh, though, we’re lucky to have someone who remembers it all quite well. And that brings us back to Clarence “Inky” Jungwirth. Inky was born in Oshkosh in 1919 and the first beer he tasted was homebrew. Inky, remembers that “My uncles got me drunk at the age of 12. Not falling down drunk, but I was feeling gay as hell.” The homebrew Inky remembers was a pale, German style brew. Most likely, this beer was fermented with lager yeast at cellar temperatures. He says “My Grandpa had a basement and he’d ferment his beer in big crock jars. My Grandpa had crocks upon crocks of beer at his house. They even had their own bottling process.”

During this period, the Oshkosh Brewing Company produced several malt extracts that were suited for making beer. Inky, though, recalls that most of the beer brewed in Oshkosh at the time was made from hops and grain supplied by area farmers. He says, “Hop production in this area took off like a jet stream. Selling grain to people living in the 6th ward was a booming business for those farmers.” In addition to the local hops and malt, Inky says the water used for homebrewing here was also of high quality. “Most of the people who were making beer were drawing their water from wells that were 40-50 feet deep. It was good water.” These brewers weren’t making the “rotgut” so often associated with Prohibition era liquors. Inky says, “It was good beer and some of it had a high kick. The 6th ward had a big German population and those people demanded the best beer.” The beer was certainly good enough to win Inky over. Though he no longer drinks, Inky says those early brews gave him an appreciation for beer. He says, “I was a beer drinker. I just loved beer.” Inky’s Grandpa must have thought the beer was something special, too. Inky says, “He always had that pail of beer by his chair. My grandpa died at the age of 65. I never once saw him take a drink of water.”

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