Monday, July 12, 2010

PEP and the Prohibition Solution in Oshkosh

On this day in 1919 the Oshkosh Brewing Company announced that it had solved the problem of Prohibition. Their solution was something called PEP, a non-alcoholic, beer-like brew that was aimed to sate the appetites of Oshkosh beer drinkers. On July 12, 1919 – twelve days after the onset of the Wartime Prohibition Act made beer illegal – Oshkosh Brewing took a half-page in the Daily Northwestern to introduce their new product with the promise that it had “Real Merit” and “SOME Pep to it.” They weren’t fooling anybody. By most accounts PEP was an awful brew and aside from vague references inferring that the beverage may have been something more than another dull near beer, the best Oshkosh Brewing could say about their new drink was that it was sanitary. Not exactly the sort of appeal that would win over the saloon crowd.

PEP was abandoned just as soon as beer returned in 1933, but more than 60 years later one Oshkosh man could still remember the impression the brew made on him. In November of 1980 Myles Strasser of the Northwestern wrote an article about Oshkosh’s prohibition era bootleggers. A man identified only as “Dick” was quoted in the article saying that PEP “was a kind of near beer with a lousy taste, but nobody drank that stuff. Everybody wanted something with a wallop.”

PEP solved nothing. But it wasn’t as though the people of Oshkosh were relying on the local breweries to come up with a solution to the problem of Prohibition. In Decade Of Despair, a terrific book by Werner Braatz and Thomas Rowland about Winnebago County during the Great Depression, Oshkosh is portrayed as a city that roundly thumbed its nose at the new liquor law. Braatz and Rowland write, “Beer flats abounded. These were single family homes in which a room was set aside for the purposes of selling beer, moonshine and playing cards. So much booze was produced that city sewers were often clogged because home-brewers dumped their mash down the drain. Indeed, in Oshkosh’s Sixth Ward fermenting hops could be smelled on any street. Police did very little to stop it because they often drank themselves.” Seems the people of Oshkosh had come up with their own solution to the problem.
From July 12, 1919


  1. My great-grandfather was a policeman in Oshkosh -- hired in 1919. He lived at 914 Michigan St., so I believe that put him in the Sixth Ward.

    His family had lived on the South side of Oshkosh since the 1880's. He was of Polish-German descent and beer was most CERTAINLY a part of his culture. And I'm sure he grew up drinking with all of his buddies.

    I've always wondered how he navigated his way, as a policeman, through prohibition without alienating his friends and family. It must have put him in an awkward position.

    He may have made at least one enemy in the process. He eventually lost his job because someone accused him of stealing a gun out of a car while on duty. (The family said he vehemently denied it and none of them believed it to be true.) You wonder if someone he arrested for drinking, (or for some other offense), got their revenge?

  2. Anonymous - thanks for sharing that. Very interesting. I'll bet your great-grandfather had a ton great stories.

  3. I'll have to ask my mother if she remembers any stories about his police-work during Prohibition. I'll report back!

  4. Well, I asked my mother about this. She talked to my great-aunt who's in her 90's.

    My aunt said that drinking and beer-making in Oshkosh's Southside during Prohibition was such a non-issue -- everybody did it in their homes, and the authorities looked the other way. She said her father had some kind of tubes or pipes going from the upstairs of their house to his beer-making operation downstairs.

    It doesn't sound like anyone quit drinking beer!

    I can understand the reasoning behind Prohibition -- especially from the point of view of Sufragettes and advocates for women. There were men who would take their paychecks and spend the entire amount in the bars, leaving nothing for the wife and kids to live on. It was certainly a hardship for those women.

    So I can understand the reasoning -- but, as usual, these sweeping laws that prohibit something for all people just didn't and don't work.

  5. Thanks for digging into this. Sounds like your great uncle had quite an operation going. Wish I could have met him.