Monday, November 29, 2010

Barley & Hess

We have a couple beer-inspired happenings on the agenda this week in Oshkosh that are worth noting, one very wet and the other quite dry.

First, there’s the Beer & Booze Tasting at Barley and Hops this Wednesday night. As usual, $10 gets you through the door and the opportunity to dip into a wide range of beer and spirits. This time the event will be hosted by Point Brewery and their famous Brewmaster, John Zappa. We tend to take Point for granted in these parts, but they’ve been turning out great beer for years, especially under their recent Whole Hog series. Zappa loves talking beer so if you’ve got an interest in the brewing arts here’s your chance to pick the brain of a master. The event runs from 7:00pm - 10:00pm and you can find find out more here.

Then on Thursday night, we’ve got something that’ll even suit the teetotalers among us (if there are any). At 6:30pm the Oshkosh Public Library will feature a presentation on the Frank J. Hess & Sons Cooperage of Madison which supplied many of Wisconsin’s breweries with white oak barrels during the first half of the 1900s. Gary and Jim Hess, grandsons of Frank, will be on hand to tell the story of the family business with barrels and cooper’s tools in tow. It’s amazing what these people were able to do with wooden staves and metal hoops. Gary Hess and Jim Hess have been touring the state with this presentation and their story is one any beer-inclined individual will find interesting. Oh, if we could only sample a bit of beer from those white oak barrels. More info here.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Lineage of Oblio's – Part 2

For Part 1 of the Lineage of Oblio’s, go here.
Oshkosh street names and numberings have undergone sweeping changes over the years. The street names and numberings in this post reflect the current addresses of the properties and buildings mentioned.
By the end of Prohibition in 1933, the life had been knocked out of the Dichmann Block. For decades, the building at 432-434 N. Main Street had been known to the residents of Oshkosh as a pleasure center, but those days were over. The Beer Hall had been run dry and the companion dining rooms, which occupied the north half of the space, had gone out of business. The new occupancy was far less convivial. Where there once was a Beer Hall there was now a failing clothes store. The dining rooms had given way to an appliance repair shop. Upstairs was a dentist pulling teeth. None of it would hold. The Great Depression was especially harsh on Oshkosh. For the first time in the city’s history the population had begun to shrink and the number of people working fell by more than 40%. After a disastrous 1933, the worst year of the Great Depression for Oshkosh, the building at 432-434 N. Main was listed as vacant.

The malaise would linger for several more years, but at the close of 1936 Oshkosh was slowly beginning to emerge from the depths of its slump. That year a Greek immigrant operating a pool hall on Main Street saw opportunity in the vacancy one door to his south. John Konstantine Kuchubas was born in Greece in 1884, the year the Dichmann Block was constructed, and had served in the Grecian Army before coming to America at the age of 18. Eventually settling in Oshkosh, Kuchubas married a local woman named Elsie Zwickey in 1916. Just prior to his marriage, Kuchubas had opened the Pastime Billiard Parlor at 440 N. Main Street, but when the bowling alley next door went under, Kuchubas moved his business to 436 N. Main Street, changed the hall’s name and took his brother-in-law, John Zwickey as a business partner. The Grand Billiard Parlor would become a fixture on Main Street, operating for more than 25 years and though Kuchubas would maintain his stake in the business he wanted something more. The pool hall didn’t hold a liquor license and now that Prohibition had been repealed there was money to be made from the revived saloon culture of Oshkosh. When the appliance shop at 434 N. Main moved out, Kuchubas saw his opening.

John K. Kuchubas
The next time you enter Oblio’s from Main Street look to the wall at your right. There you will find a picture of John Kuchubas sitting behind the bar he had installed for the grand opening of his new saloon on November 27, 1936. To your left will be that same bar, which was built by the Robert Brand & Sons Company at their shop on the corner of Ceape and Court and hauled to Kuchubas’ saloon on a horse drawn wagon. But it wasn’t being called Kuchubas’ saloon, just yet. During the Great Depression America suffered an upsurge of xenophobia and perhaps for this reason the Greek-born Kuchubas decided to leave his name off the marquee. Instead, he tagged his saloon with the most typical of American names, calling it John Brown’s Bar. In fact, Kuchubas and his wife Elsie even went so far as to begin identifying themselves as Mr. and Mrs. John Brown. The innocuous name, though, was no reflection of his new business. From the very beginning, Kuchubas worked to establish a tavern that would stand out among the others along Main Street. He had the interior of the barroom completely re-done and made a point in his early announcements of describing the tavern as a “gentleman's headquarters” where “quality is stressed.” The wording could have been lifted directly from advertisements for the Schlitz Beer Hall 50 years earlier and the similarities didn’t end there. The building was still owned by Schlitz Brewing and Schlitz was, once again, the first beer to go on tap in the new saloon. But it wasn’t just a Schlitz bar, anymore. Kuchubas’ was the first Oshkosh bar in the post-Prohibition era to try and hinge its reputation on the quality and variety of the beer being served. While other taverns of the period were luring customers with sheephead tournaments, cheap liquor and frog legs, Kuchubas distinguished his saloon by pouring the premium beers of the era such as Drury’s Ale and Blatz Old Heidelberg Lager (“Beer of the Year!”).

Kuchubas was obviously proud of his new place and within a year of its opening he was running ads in the Daily Northwestern identifying it as “Oshkosh’s Finest Bar and Taproom”. If anybody in Oshkosh objected to the boast they were uniformly quiet in their disagreement. Though Kuchubas was known as a friendly man, running a respectable saloon, he had a volatile side, demonstrated by an incident that occurred in late 1939. On a Tuesday morning at 1 a.m., after a night working at the bar, Kuchubas returned to his home at 131 Church Ave. where he was jumped by a young man and told to “stick ‘em up.” The 55-year-old Kuchubas did no such thing. Instead, he produced an automatic revolver. As his would-be assailant fled, Kuchubas chased after him, firing two wild shots before abandoning pursuit and calling police. Kuchubas had come by his the hard way. He wasn’t going to let it go easily.

Over the course of the next 16 years, Kuchubas would establish a profitable niche within the center of Oshkosh’s thriving downtown business district. His approach remained consistent over the years; always stressing the quality of the beer and liquor he served and the clean, friendly environment of his room looking out on Main Street. And towards the end of his career his success seemed to have confirmed his sense of belonging to his adopted home. In the last years of the 1940s the tavern was being referred to less often as John Brown’s Bar. Kuchubas had begun using his own name to identify the saloon. Though he would never entirely abandon the original moniker, by the time of his retirement in 1955 the comfortable saloon at 434 N. Main had come to be known by all its patrons as John Kuchubas’ Bar.

After Kuchubas’ departure, little changed at the tavern. The bar was now helmed by an affable Canadian immigrant named John Morrison, who, at 64-years-old, had a lifetime of experience in the tavern business and saw little need to upset the formula established by his predecessor. He changed the tavern’s name to the Morrison Bar, but retained Kuchubas theme of running a “friendly” bar geared towards an increasingly older crowd. Morrison, though, wasn’t around long. Two years after purchasing the business, he passed away and the bar fell to his son, Neal. The younger Morrison would continue on in much the same vein until selling the bar four years later. From 1961 until 1973 the tavern was named The Overflow and was managed by a series of owners, each of whom ran the bar with an almost dogged constancy. The tumult of the era seemed to have little impact on what had become a rather staid tavern.

Over the course of the 1960s Oshkosh had gained a reputation for being a conservative town that showed a different face after dark. Popular night spots such as the Hoo-Hoo Club, the Red Carpet and the Jockey Club were making a direct appeal to a more libertine clientele with strippers, Go-Go dancers and rock bands. There remained, however, a large contingent of less notorious places catering to the traditional Oshkosh bar crowd and The Overflow fell squarely into this division. Throughout the latter part of the 1960s the contrast between Oshkosh bars became glaringly evident in the advertisements that were appearing in the Daily Northwestern. While The Hoo-Hoo Club was filling their space with Rock-House Annie and Katina the Greek Belly Dancer, advertisements for the Overflow featured a caricature of a distinctly middle-aged bartender who, in one quintessential spot from 1968, poses the somber question “So who needs entertainment? When you have a fun-loving group, warm hospitality, pleasant surroundings and good drinks, you don't even miss it!” The cultural divide had arrived in Oshkosh.

The Overflow may have seemed like a hold-out from a bygone era, but its obstinacy was no match for the changes that were afoot. In 1972 Schlitz Brewing, owner of the building at 432-434 N. Main for the past 85 years, sold the property to Charles Lukas, who had been running his Lukas Auto Supply in the south half of the space since 1957. Lukas became just the third owner of the property and within a year the Overflow was gone, to be replaced briefly by a bar named Alfi’s Lounge. In a span of just 14 years, the tavern had run through seven different owners and the upheaval wasn’t over yet.

In 1974 the bar was taken over by Mike Hottinger and Jon Voss who christened their tavern with the name that would stick longer than any that had come before it. Oblio was a round-headed boy living in Pointed Village and was first introduced by Harry Nilsson in his 1971 album The Point! Nilsson said the fable was inspired by an acid trip and the counter-culture reference would not be lost on the new breed of patrons who were increasingly finding their way to Oblio’s. Hottinger and Voss remained just long enough to remodel the game room at the rear of the bar before turning the tavern over to Mark D. Madison, a hard-partying Oshkosher who liked the idea of mixing business with pleasure.

Mooka “J” Today
In the summer of 1975 Mark Madison was 24 years old, recently out of college and living near the corner of Evans and Parkway just down the road from the bar where he liked to hang out. It wasn’t just his hangout anymore, though. It may have been hard to tell at times, but Madison was running the place. “I wanted to make my living having fun,” he would later say. For a time, he did. Madison, or “Mooka J” as he was known to his buddies, liked to party and for the next four years Oblio’s would be a funhouse for he and his friends. And Madison had plenty of friends. The bar still had a mix of patrons, but the crowd Madison attracted was younger, many of them college students who came downtown looking for something a little different from the beer bars around campus. Madison gave it to them. The days of Schlitz were over, now there were two Heineken faucets pouring beer into mugs that often didn’t find their way back to the bar. “I had to buy cases and cases of those mugs,” Madison said, “they’d walk right out the door with them.” Oblio’s was now the only spot in town offering beer of a different variety from the indistinguishable light American lagers that had conquered the post-prohibition era. Madison said, “At the time I brought Heineken in there was no good beer at Oblio’s.” Or anywhere else in Oshkosh, for that matter. Madison’s other hot-selling import was Elephant Malt Liquor, a potent Nordic pilsner. “I’ve never seen anybody finish more than a six-pack of it,” Madison said. The wisdom of featuring a beer that quickly renders your customers inert remains to be seen, but it was all in keeping with the spirit of the times and the bar. A bar where Madison sometimes ended the night on the floor. He’d had a good time, but by 1979 Madison knew he needed to move on. “I had to get out of the business,” Madison would say later. “It would have killed me if I hadn’t.”

Mark Schultz and Todd Cummings
Oblio’s Lounge was now as well known as any tavern in Oshkosh, but its best days were ahead of it. When two college students took over the bar in 1979 they weren’t exactly sure what they had gotten themselves into, but it wouldn’t take long for them to figure it out and turn Oblio’s Lounge into Oshkosh’s premier saloon.

Mark Schultz and Todd Cummings were no strangers to Oblio’s. “We used to hang out here,” Cummings says. “This was a college haunt for us.” Looking back on it Schultz says, “We turned a drinking hobby into a profession.” When they began, though, they were both rank amateurs. Schultz was 23, Cummings 22 and neither of them had worked in a bar before. But the college roommates living at 1308 Reed Avenue made up for their lack of experience by hiring bartenders from the B & B and the Calhoun Beach Club and it quickly became evident that they were onto something good. “We saw the potential of what this could be,” Cummings said. “We were college students and we had a lot of connections to the University and that gave us a good base to start with.” The first change they made was to install a sound system followed soon after by a change in the beer line-up. “There were four tap lines when we came in,” Schultz says, “Two were Stroh’s and two were Heineken.” Not for long. Cummings was dating a woman who worked for a Manitowoc beer distributor and after she introduced him to Hacker-Pschorr’s Oktoberfest it became a mission for Cummings and Schultz to bring the beer to Oblio’s. “It became my new favorite beer,” Schultz says. “You had to order it in Spring to get it in fall. The first year we ordered 25 barrels and the next we ordered 50 and the year after that 75. Our distributor would have to go through other distributors to get the beer.”

With that, they were off and running. “We could see a certain niche,” Cummings says. “There was a crowd here that liked these beers and that was the beginning of us expanding our beer line-up.” In the 1980s, no other bar in Oshkosh was doing anything like it and Schultz and Cummings had the benefit of an adventurous group of regulars who were interested trying something new. “We had the luxury of trying different beers to see what would sell,” Cummings says. By the late 1980s Cummings and Schultz were looking into installing a micro-brewery in the bar, but shelved the idea due to a lack of availability of good equipment at the time. “We don’t like doing things half-assed,” Schultz said, so they settled on bringing in a rotating selection of American craft beers. “At the time there were a lot of microbrewers making one or two good beers,” Cummings said, “so we thought, what if we bring in the best of these micros instead.” They had hit upon their model for the future. The original four-handle tap box was converted to accomdate 13 beer lines and would later expand to 24 and then again to the current 27 taps. Cummings and Schultz complemented their growing selection with a remodel of the bar wherein they ripped out the drop ceiling to reveal the engraved tin that had been a striking feature of the original Dichmann Block. The legendary tavern at 434 N. Main had returned to and surpassed its former glory.

Schultz and Cummings were now the owners of the building and in 2005 they’d bring the Dichmann Block full circle. When Rudy's Shoe Rebuilders closed in the summer of 2005, Cummings and Schultz opened the wall between the two rooms that had housed the great taverns of Maulick and Kuchubas. It effectively doubled the size of Oblio’s Lounge and in the process created one of the most historically significant public spaces in Oshkosh. Their timing couldn’t have been better. In 2008, Schlitz, the wayward beer that had started it all, made its highly symbolic return from exile to take its place in the Oblio’s tap line. The beer that inaugurated the Dichmann Block 123 years earlier had returned to its Oshkosh home.

That’s a lot of history, but it weighs lightly on Cummings and Schultz who day in, day out usher their bar into the future. As Todd says “It’s happening, it’s just going to get better and better.“

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Oshkosh Beer of the Week: Central Waters Brewhouse Coffee Stout

Is Central Waters the best Stout brewery in America? If you can think of a better one let me know because I can’t come up with another American brewery that bests them in this category. Over the course of the past year they’ve put out five different Stouts (four of them limited releases) and each has been superior. And now comes this, Central Waters Brewhouse Coffee Stout, which hit the shelves in 4-packs at Festival Foods in Oshkosh last week. Once again, Central Waters delivers with an exceptional Stout. Bring on the black liquidation!

This beer pours jet black with a chewy head of thick froth that’ll leave a nice mustache on your lip if you dive straight into it. That’s exactly what you ought to do, because what’s there in your cup is going to make you very happy. The coffee aroma is fresh and intense and completely dominates the nose of the beer. This batch was brewed and infused with the worlds second best beverage just over a month ago and that, no doubt, accounts for the especially vivid coffee profile. It’s the first flavor you encounter once you start gulping it in and it’s what sticks in your mouth after you’ve set the cup down. In between you get a nice bit of roasted malt and a nudge of vanilla, but this beer is really all about the coffee. And unlike many coffee stouts, this one avoids that astringent oiliness that tends to mar beers of this sort. Instead, you get a smooth, creamy brew that’s rich, but wonderfully drinkable. It would make a great breakfast beer, but at over 8% ABV it might get your day off to an unnaturally slow start. For dessert, though, it would be perfect and a great match for a huge chunk of German chocolate cake.

By the way, the coffee in this beer was roasted by Emy J's, a coffee shop in Steven’s Point that’s worth a visit next time you’re up there. It’s a good place to sober up after a few too many at Guu's On Main where they’re usually hosting several CW beers on tap. A road trip might be just the thing for the cool and cloudy weekend we’ve got coming our way.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Lineage of Oblio's – Part 1

Oshkosh street names and numberings have undergone sweeping changes over the years. The street names and numberings in this post reflect the current addresses of the properties and buildings mentioned.
Outside the Schlitz Beer Hall 1887
At Oblio’s there are 27 beers on tap from some of the finest breweries in the world, but there’s one tap near the beginning of their line that's more than just a beer faucet. The Schlitz handle at Oblio’s draws a direct link to the distant past. In 1885 Schlitz became the first beer poured in the building that is now home to Oblio’s, a tavern with a lineage that can be traced back 125 years. And like many Oshkosh beginnings it all started with a great fire.

On July 14, 1874 a fire ignited in a stable near the intersection of Main and Washington and tore north through the downtown business district consuming every building in its path. Reconstruction began almost immediately and at the close of 1874 the greater portion of upper Main had been recast with buildings made of brick. But the 38 foot-wide lot where Oblio’s resides remained in flux until 1884. That year William Dichmann, a wealthy grocer and soon to be Oshkosh Mayor, enlisted architect William Waters to design a building for his property at what is now 432-434 N. Main Street. Waters hired James N. Ruby, a carpenter living at the corner of Irving and Central, to build his two-story, red-brick design, which was Waters take on the Queen Anne style. The building priced out at $5,000 and by December of 1884 the new “Dichmann Block” was ready for tenancy.

Meanwhile, a 26-year-old former currier named Charles Maulick was learning the saloon trade in a rough area of town near the blacksmith shops along the western end of Ceape Street. Maulick started out at an old tavern and inn named the Mechanics' Home, but he wasn’t there long. Just a year after he’d taken over the business, Maulick left Ceape Street and moved uptown to establish his new stand at the Dichmann building in the heart of downtown Oshkosh.

If you were to visit Oblio’s tonight you’d immediately be able to define the space where Maulick operated his Schlitz Beer Hall. Entering Oblio’s from Main Street, the north half of the room is occupied by the main bar. Opposite that is a bisecting wall cut by an archway that opens to the room where in the Spring of 1885 Maulick began offering his customers “imported” Milwaukee beer. Maulick’s saloon quickly gained a reputation for being something more than the typical beer dive. He served sandwiches and oysters along with a free daily lunch that sometimes featured the wild goose, turkey and other game Maulick was fond of hunting. A review of the tavern from the period described it as “one of the largest sample rooms... stocked with the finest goods in the market” and ended with the extraordinary promise that “no better place can be found in the city to refresh the inner man.” If that wasn’t enough to distinguish Maulick’s tavern, his association with Schlitz surely was. Of the more than 80 saloons doing business in Oshkosh at the time, Maulick’s room was just one of six selling Milwaukee beer.

Maulick’s relationship with Schlitz Brewing developed rapidly. August Uihlein, the head of Schlitz, realized early on that he had a good thing going with Maulick in Oshkosh and in the summer of 1886, a year into Maulick’s residence at the Dichmann Block, Uihlein bought the building. The backing of Schlitz assured Maulick of a permanent home for his thriving tavern. It was now Maulick’s home as well. He lived above the bar with his family in an arrangement that was mirrored by his neighbor in the building. The portion of Oblio’s that now contains the main bar was then occupied by Gus Eilers who operated a grocery store and saloon in the space. Like Maulick, Eilers and his family lived in an apartment above their business. The bustling Dichmann Block had become a downtown centerpiece.

From 1889
As the venture continued to grow, Maulick took on a partner. Frank Wahle had a pedigree in the beer business few could match. His father had been a brewer and brewery builder and his family had owned the brewery on Doty Street where John Glatz began making his Oshkosh lager. Wahle was 26 years old when he joined with Maulick in 1888 and together they made the Schlitz Beer Hall into one of the most popular and highly regarded saloons in the city. It wasn’t just a beer hall anymore, either. It had grown into a “gentlemen's establishment”. Fine wine and Kentucky whiskey were available as well as cigars from Key West and, of course, fresh lager beer. The sample room was thriving, but like many Americans in the late 1800s, Wahle had the itch to go west. His brother had moved to Montana where he was running a wholesale liquor business and at the end of 1889 Wahle left Oshkosh to join him in Boulder, Montana. Things didn’t work out as planned for Wahle, though. He found Montana a little too rough to suit him and by April of 1890 he was back in town. Wahle quickly established a new saloon in Oshkosh called the Glee Club a few doors to the south of The Schlitz Beer Hall, where Maulick was now running the bar with the help of Frank H. Kitz.

Unlike Wahle, Kitz had no experience in the saloon trade. He was a trunk maker living on Otter Street, but Maulick and Kitz made a good team and they quickly put together an ambitious plan to expand into the bottled beer business. Many of the Oshkosh saloons ran small bottling operations, but Maulick and Kitz wanted more than a mom and pop bottle shop. In 1890 Pabst Brewing had set up its first branch in Oshkosh (at what is now the intersection of Commerce and Pearl) where they shipped in beer by train for bottling and keg sales in the area. Maulick and Kitz sought to do the same with Schlitz. In 1891 they made an agreement with Schlitz Brewing to run the Oshkosh branch for the brewery and that summer Schlitz hired William Waters to design and contract the building of a bottling plant, ice house and barn along a railroad spur just to the north of where Commerce St. now joins Ceape. The bottling operation grew rapidly and before long Maulick and Kitz were bottling as much as four train car loads of beer a week. The success of the operation would have a profound effect on the beer business in Oshkosh. In fact, Oshkosh’s largest brewery, may not have formed had it not been for Maulick and Kitz. In 1894, the Oshkosh Brewing Company was established by the merger of three local breweries in an effort to stave off the competition brought by Maulick, Kitz and Milwaukee beer.

From 1891
Maulick and Kitz were now the sole agents for Schlitz in Oshkosh and their quick rise afforded them a status few saloon keepers in the city enjoyed. By the mid-1890s both men had become fixtures on the Oshkosh scene. In addition to managing the bar, Kitz was a working musician. He was a member of the musician’s union and played with the Crescent Band, a popular Oshkosh parade and dance band of the period. Charles Maulick had become something of a minor celebrity in Oshkosh. He was looked upon as a prominent businessman and his hunting adventures and marksmanship skills were frequently reported upon in the pages of the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. The pair were riding high, but their business was a volatile one with a unique set of risks and a gaggle of readymade enemies whose stated aim was to destroy them. By the mid-1890s the temperance movement was running full throttle and though the Oshkosh contingent was small they were strident and eager to seize any issue that would boost their profile. On a cold November night in the alley behind the Schlitz Beer Hall, the movement found just what they were looking for - a martyr.

On November 2, 1897 John Webster, Jr. came to the Maulick and Kitz saloon for a night of drinking. Webster was a 38-year-old street car driver living in a tenement at the 200 block of Merritt Avenue, just east the saloon. Nicknamed "Cooney", he was described as “simple” and “weak-minded” and easily manipulated. That night at the Beer Hall, Webster met up with Abe Muench, an old friend who lived on Evans Street. Muench was already drunk and thought it would be fun to see how much liquor Webster could hold, so he began buying him glasses of seven-year-old whiskey. After the eighth brimming glass Webster pleaded that he’d had enough and wanted to go home, but Muench urged him on. After the 11th glass, Webster couldn’t stand. He had drank more than a quart of whiskey and when Muench couldn’t get him to drink anymore, Webster was helped out through the back door and dumped on a work bench in the alley behind the bar. Several hours later he was found lying motionless by police. Webster was put on a gurney and carted to the jail where he died without regaining consciousness.

The incident was front-page news and set off a furor. Supporters of the temperance movement used the tragedy as a cudgel, decrying that if this could happen in the best of Oshkosh’s saloons what were the others capable of? They demanded retribution. And they got it. Nine days after Webster died, Frank Kitz was arrested and charged with manslaughter. Also charged were Muench and Nick Marx, the bartender on duty the evening Webster drank himself to death.

For Charles Maulick, the event signaled the end of his saloon years. Two months after Webster’s death, Maulick and Kitz dissolved their partnership. Maulick moved out of the apartment above the saloon to a new flat at 413 Merritt Ave. and the business was divided. Kitz took over the saloon while Maulick assumed control of the lucrative wholesale keg and bottled beer business. The brief notice that Maulick and Kitz published to announce the dissolution of their partnership closed with a note that Kitz would continue to be “pleased to accommodate his friends and patrons with his usual suavity and promptness.” But the bright pledge was snuffed by the dark days which followed.

The manslaughter case against Kitz was one of the first of its kind and prosecuting it proved to be a wrenching affair for all concerned. It took more than a year to bring the defendants to trial and when the proceedings finally did begin the effect on Kitz was devastating. His health began to fail almost immediately and during testimony he broke down and wept. “He pressed his hands to his face but the tears would not be held back, and trickled through his fingers,” reported the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. In the end Kitz was found not guilty. Only Nick Marx, the bartender who had served Webster the whiskey, was convicted. The jury found him guilty of fourth-degree manslaughter and fined him $282.44. The jury couldn’t agree on a verdict for Muench. Temperance supporters announced they were “gratified” with the result. Kitz, though, found little solace in the outcome. His health continued to decline and the following year he died at his home on Otter Street from hemorrhages of the lungs. Frank H. Kitz was forty-three years old. He left a wife and five children.

If the temperance supporters of Oshkosh were happy about taking down the Schlitz Beer Hall their celebration must have been short lived because the man who came to fill the void left by Maulick and Kitz was the embodiment of prohibitionist dread. Jesse Gokey was 36 and well schooled in the art of mayhem when he took over the Schlitz Beer Hall at the turn of the century. He had been a solider in the Spanish-American War and after contracting malaria came back to Oshkosh fifty pounds lighter, looking thin and pale and ready to raise hell. Gokey opened a gut-bucket saloon near the river (in the area where the City Center is now located) in a building covered with sheet metal called the Ozark Flats. It was there that Gokey established his reputation for running the sort of dive where thugs, criminals, whores and minors were always welcome. Gokey had a long and storied career as a tavern man in and around Oshkosh and was hounded by the law for most of it. His one, brief respite of relative peace occurred during the time he spent running the Schlitz Beer Hall. Gokey toned down his act when he moved it to Main Street and it may have been that the polite society of downtown was not to his liking. A few months after occupying the saloon, Gokey moved out and almost immediately returned to hosting the sort of alcoholic bedlam that he and his taverns would be remembered for.

The Main Barroom at Oblio's Circa 1902
With the dawn of the 20th century, the bar at 462 North Main Street underwent a series of fundamental changes that reflected the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the American century. The new owner was Al Steuck, who in all likelihood had begun working at the Beer Hall while Frank Kitz was running it. But it was Steuck’s bar now and he quickly went about putting his own stamp on the place. The Beer Hall days were over. Now the saloon was called the Annex Sample Room, which would in turn give way to the Annex Bar. Steuck was an avid baseball and boxing fan and his stand took on the atmosphere of an early sports bar where the results from each round of important boxing matches were cabled in and announced to the patrons. The clientele had changed also. The crowd was younger. Like the 27-year-old Steuck, most of them had been born in Oshkosh to parents who had come to Wisconsin in a massive wave of German migration. They were developing customs and identities of their own and it was reflected in the character of the tavern. The place had become rowdier. The door that opened onto Main Street came to be known as a spot to be avoided if you weren’t in the mood for rough fun. The sports that inhabited Steuck’s place made a habit of passing remarks to passers-by and more often than not the comments were less than charitable. They especially like to taunt the police and eventually the practice grew so out of hand that in 1908 the Common Council stepped in and told Steuck that if he allowed it to continue, he’d have his license revoked.

For the most part, though, the early 1900s were good times for the saloon. Gas lamps gave way to electric bulbs and the horses that used to pull beer wagons to the bar were gradually replaced by trucks. Steuck was having fun and making a nice living. He moved his family to an expensive house at 907 Washington Ave. and though the modern era was treating him well the ghosts of the past were lurking. The temperance movement that had been the bane of Maulick and Kitz had fizzled in Oshkosh, but nationally it was stronger than ever. In 1919 what many in Oshkosh considered to be unthinkable became a reality. Liquor, in all its forms, was outlawed. Prohibition was the law of the land.

With his livelihood having suddenly become illegal, Al Steuck adapted as most of the other saloon keepers in Oshkosh had. He became an outlaw. The Annex Bar was now the Annex Soft Drink parlor, but there wasn’t much soft in the drinks Steuck was serving. An amazingly efficient network of distilleries and wildcat breweries developed seemingly overnight in Winnebago County and the beer and whiskey continued to flow. An official from the Bureau of Prohibition would later call Wisconsin “a Gibraltar of the wets - sort of a Utopia where everyone drinks their fill and John Barleycorn still holds forth in splendor." If Wisconsin was the Gibraltar of the wets then Oshkosh was its shining city on the hill. Prohibition enforcers reported that Oshkosh was a thoroughly “wet” city of 33,000 people and as many as 120 speakeasies. A federal assessment of the conditions in Oshkosh noted, “Oshkosh is the center of a large number of wildcat breweries... Local police in Oshkosh are active and efficient with respect to all law violation, except, of course, those connected with the liquor traffic.”

Throughout the roaring 1920s the relaxed atmosphere of Oshkosh, where ordinary people were eager to break the law, made it easy for men like Steuck to go right on doing as they always had. But it also worked to create a false sense of security. The wide-open circumstance here made it especially easy for federal officials to drop in and pick-up a few quick arrests anytime it suited them. Their targets would often be the more prominent and well known taverns in the city. On the South Side of town August Witzke’s Hall was singled out, but the easiest pickings for the feds were found in the cluster of highly visible bars doing business along Main Street. In 1921 Al Steuck fell victim to just such a sweep. On October 31, 1921 Steuck and four other Oshkosh men (including the son of Oshkosh’s Assistant Police Chief) were served warrants of arrest by Federal Marshal William J. McCormack. Steuck was charged with five counts of selling intoxicating liquor and taken to Milwaukee where he was arraigned at the United States District Court. Steuck pleaded not guilty and hired Oshkosh attorney Earl P. Finch to defend him. It didn’t help. Steuck eventually changed his plea to guilty and was convicted on all five counts. His sentence was three months in the house of corrections.

The most damaging aspect of the penalty, though, was the prospect of another arrest. Steuck was well aware that a second conviction for selling liquor would result in prison time and he was left with no choice, but to reign in his activities. Things at the Annex changed. They had to. Steuck had already tried to buoy his operation by turning the bar into a lunch counter selling hot, short order lunches, but business continued to fall off and by the mid 1920s the Annex was a shadow of its former self. Steuck felt the pinch. Gone was the handsome house on Washington Ave. He began selling off the bar's fixtures and would eventually take a job managing the Eagles Club. By 1927 the Annex Bar was no more. The last call had been served at 462 North Main Street.

To continue reading the Lineage of Oblio’s go here.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Oshkosh Beer of the Week: Capital’s Winter Skal

All week long they’ve been stringing up the Christmas lights in Menominee Park and tonight Oshkosh will have its annual Holiday Parade, but to me these are seemingly random and unrelated events. I know we're on the cusp of winter and the holiday season because last week the shelves of the liquor departments suddenly grew heavy with winter brews wrapped in cozy labels that tell me the season is changing. Winter is here!

I look forward to the rich, strong beers that come flowing into Oshkosh around this time, but the one I like to grab first is Capital Brewing's Winter Skal. This is a tasty, early winter lager helpful for easing you into the short days of the dark season. It has more heft than an Oktoberfest, but less of the chewy malt and alcoholic punch of the brews that make February bearable. It’s a November beer. Skal (a Scandinavian toast to friendship and goodwill) pours a deep copper with a short, tenacious head. The aroma is all sweet malt and bread crust and when the beer is introduced into your being via the largest hole in your face it produces a wonderful sensation. The mouthfeel is just a little bit thick, but not in a burdensome way. The flavor is two parts caramel malt and one part spiced fruit and and it finishes so clean and dry that it makes the next draw inevitable. Good beer!

You can pick up Winter Skal just about everywhere in Oshkosh... grocery stores, gas stations, laundromats (have you visited JT's Wash and Mart on Wisconsin Street?). And while you’re out there doing your week-end beer shopping take a look at all the holiday beers that have arrived. The other day I was doing my usual milling around in the liquor isles and saw Bell's Winter White Ale, Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, Big Sky’s Powder Horn Winter Ale, Lakefront’s Holiday Spice Lager, Point’s St. Benedict's Winter Ale, Samuel Adams’ Winter Lager, Goose Island’s Mild Winter, New Belgium’s 2ยบ Below Winter Ale and Redhook’s Winterhook Ale. Shit, on Tuesday I even saw a 12-pack of Huber Bock. If that doesn’t make you smile, you just don’t know how to have fun.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

It’s Not the Same, Old IPA

Drinkers of good beer tend to be a fairly agreeable lot, but there’s one area of the beer landscape where they have trouble finding common ground. When it comes to the American IPA, you find little consensus among people who like quality beer. There are those who love and crave the massively hopped and bitter beers that have fueled a good part of the craft beer movement in this country and then there’s the other crowd who find these beers unbalanced, uninviting and ultimately undrinkable. I admit, I’m a hop lover, but I think the anti-IPA people have a point. Almost every brewery makes an IPA these days and too many of them are one dimensional and dull and are more about delivering a bracing shock of bitterness than they are about good brewing.

The IPA may have fallen into a rut, but it ain’t dead yet and for proof of that we’ve got a couple of hop-forward beers currently pouring in Oshkosh that put a unique twist on the old bitterness.

First there’s the Komodo Dragon Fly Black IPA from the great Upland Brewing Company that O’Marro’s has had on tap for a few weeks now. Some people call this a Black IPA, others refer to it as a Cascadian Dark Ale, but whatever name suits you it’s the first beer of its type to go on tap here in Oshkosh. In the glass it looks more like a porter than an IPA, but a quick whiff tells you the beer has plenty of hop to it. This is a hybrid brew - part stout, part IPA, but neither facet is so overt as to blot out the other. That balance makes for an exceedingly drinkable ale that’s probably unlike any hoppy beer you’ve had before. If you’ve never tried a Black IPA/Cascadian Dark Ale now is your chance.

And over at Becket’s they’re pouring Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch, a golden, American IPA brewed with a Belgian Ale yeast that takes the hops in an entirely unexpected direction. It pours out like a Belgian Golden Strong Ale, but instead of the fruity sweetness that typically wafts off that style the aromatics of this beer are dominated by piney, Amarillo hops. The citrus-like bitterness of the hops goes surprisingly well with the peppery yeast character and best of all it has the easy drinking quality that makes those big, Belgian beers such a treat. This is no small beer, either. You’d never guess it, but it clocks in at 8.5%.

If you’re a hop lover, you owe it to yourself to check these beers out. Both of them are the first of their kinds to go on tap in Oshkosh and it might be a while before we see either of them here again. And let your server know that you appreciate having these beers available. We’ve got to support this stuff if we hope to see our options continue to grow.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Oshkosh Beer of the Week: New Glarus Back 40 Bock

In May of 1885 the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern ran a weird little article complaining that Bock beer isn’t supposed to go on tap until May, but that “Americans force the season in everything, and so each year it gets on the market a little earlier.” I’d like to take the author of the article for a visit to Barley & Hops and see how he’d react to the two Bock’s that are pouring here in the early days of November. One is the trusty Shiner Bock and the other is the new lager from New Glarus named Back 40 Bock, which made its way into Oshkosh last week.

Back 40 replaces Uff-da as New Glarus’ fall seasonal bock and it’s quite a switch. New Glarus is calling Back 40 a “Wisconsin Bock” and though that may not exactly be a recognized style, it tells you what they’re shooting for. They’ve taken their cues from the long history of Bock brewing in Wisconsin, where Bocks were brewed with an eye towards balance and drinkability in comparison to the traditional German Bocks (such as Uff-da), which are heftier and marked by a rich melanoidin character. If you prefer your beer to be big, bold and boozy, Back 40 Bock isn’t going to make much of an impression on you, but if subtlety is more your style, then this mild-mannered beauty is going hit you where you live.

The beer pours to a dark brown with a nice creamy head and if you can let it sit for a minute or two the foam will settle into a beautiful, off-white meringue. The aroma is fairly rich, with caramel and some raisin leading you to believe the beer is going to be bigger than it is. The mouth feel, at first, seems somewhat slight and if there’s an argument to made against this beer it may be its lack of depth, but complexity isn’t what this brew is about. This is a phenomenally balanced and drinkable beer and though you’ll get light notes of bread crust and toffee coming through, that’s just background to the bright, clean flavor of malt. There’s a slight balancing bitterness that comes in near the end before an incredibly clean finish. This is a beer that begs you to drink three or four (or five or six) of them in a sitting. It gets better with each glass.

You ought to be able to pick up Back 40 Bock at all of the usual Oshkosh beer depots, but you’d probably have a lot more fun trying it out at Barley’s this weekend. This Saturday is the Main Street Grand Re-Opening (info Here and Here) and amidst the festivities you might want to slip into Barley’s for a beer... or four.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Cheap Beer No. 4: La Crosse Lager

It’s been four months since we last visited the land of cheap beer here and that’s exactly how long it has taken me to clear the cellar of the first three batches of crap that started off this series. That’s one of the problems with the cheap-beer thing. They don’t seem to want to sell this stuff in any quantity less than a case, so each time you invest in a dud you wind up with a whole lot of bad beer lingering around, mocking your frugality. Now that the cellar is open, though, the quest for a cheap, decent beer must continue. And this time, we’ve got a beer that isn’t going to taunt me every time I go downstairs to visit my stash.

La Crosse Lager is all right. What more could you want from a beer that comes in 30-packs for under 13 bucks? You don’t buy this kind of beer expecting to discover your next favorite brew, but you also don’t buy it hoping to land two-dozen tins of gut-churning bilge water, either. That’s where La Crosse Lager wins out. There’s nothing too offensive going on here. The beer has a slight, malty sweetness and less than a hint of hops and that’s about it. It doesn’t taste great, but it doesn’t taste bad and that’s the important thing when you’re going the cheap route. The beer has a bit more body and color than your typical macro-swill and happily lacks the tongue-burning carbonation that often accompanies American light lagers. I’d take it over Budweiser any day. Overall, it’s a fairly pleasing beer to guzzle in the quantities its pricing inspires (and it goes great with a huge mound of extra-spicy nachos). The beer gains nothing by pouring it into a glass so take it straight from the can and save yourself some clean-up.

One interesting side note about this beer: There’s a rumor floating around that La Crosse Lager is made from the same recipe used to brew Old Style in the 1960s. It’s probably bullshit, but who knows? Here’s a link to the site where that rumor may have started. Something to keep in mind if you decide to try this one.

Final verdict: Would I buy this again? You bet!

Monday, November 1, 2010

1972: The Year Brewing Died in Oshkosh

During the first week of November in 1972 the Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh stopped making beer. For the first time in more than 120 years Oshkosh was without a brewery.

Theodore Mack
Peoples Brewery 1512 S. Main St.
The turbulent year that preceded the collapse of Peoples Brewing began on November 5, 1971 when Theodore Mack, president of the brewery, announced that Peoples had purchased the surviving brands of the newly defunct Oshkosh Brewing Company. Mack told reporters that his company had paid cash for the Chief Oshkosh, Rahr and Badger labels - though he wouldn't say how much - and deferred to his Brewmaster Howard Ruff who promised to "match as closely as possible the beers that were produced at the other firm." Also left unsaid was that Ruff had already begun making his version of Chief Oshkosh. The beer had gone into production at the Peoples brewery just days after the Oshkosh Brewing Company had ceased operations. By the end of November Peoples was distributing both the Chief Oshkosh and Rahr brands throughout the Fox Valley and into Green Bay.

Being head of the only brewery in town, though, wasn't Mack’s ambition. He had bigger plans. His goal was to make Peoples Beer a national brand. “To stay in one locale, that’s how you get killed quickly,” he said. Before Mack's arrival in April 1970, The sale of Peoples Beer had been predominantly confined to the Oshkosh area, but Mack had managed to extend the brewery's reach. Peoples was now being sold in Indiana and Tennessee and in January 1972 Mack landed a deal to distribute the beer in California. While most of the nations remaining regional brewers were hunkering down, desperately trying to protect their bits of turf, Mack was taking the opposite approach. He had decided to go toe-to-toe with the big brewers that were set on driving out breweries like his. Peoples became the only non-Milwaukee beer available at Milwaukee Brewers and Bucks games and Mack even secured a license to distribute his beer in Missouri, the home state of Budweiser. He wanted to establish a television presence for Peoples Beer, as well. Mack told his shareholders, “I see everybody on TV but Peoples. We have to get the money for more advertising." A tall order considering the brewery was already $100,000 in debt.
But Mack was flying high. Sales of his beer were up and in the year and a half since coming to Oshkosh he had risen from rank outsider to being the savior of Oshkosh's namesake brew. He had also become the city's most visible resident. As president of the only minority run brewery in the country, Mack had gained considerable attention and later said, "After I was contacted by CBS, NBC and ABC I went from 'Hey you, boy' to 'Mr. Mack' in 20 minutes." The notoriety helped to raise the profile of the small brewery, but it was no cure for the company's financial troubles. By February 1972 Peoples Brewing was so strapped for cash that Mack couldn’t pay the federal excise taxes owed on the beer he was making. Then on February 28th Howard Ruff, the longtime brewmaster of Peoples Beer, suddenly died. Mack was in a hole, but he had a plan.

He found a new Brewmaster in Ronald Papenfuss, who had brewed for Lithia in West Bend and Huber in Monroe, and Mack began to zero in on lucrative government contracts for supplying beer to the armed forces. Mack's intention was to take advantage of the affirmative action legislation of 1965 that called for equal representation of minorities in the awarding of government contracts. Since Mack ran the only minority owned brewery in the nation, he suggested his brewery ought to be supplying 10% of the government's purchase of beer. Mack estimated the potential value of such contracts to be in excess of $100 million and had he been able to secure the orders the fate of Peoples Brewery might have been much different.

It was too late, though. By the end of the summer, the brewery was out of ready capital. The fatal blow was delivered on September 26, 1972 when the Internal Revenue Service filed a $35,809 tax lien against Peoples Brewing for failure to pay excise and withholding taxes. Within a month, brewery operations came to a stand still. Initially, Mack claimed the production decline was due to the slack winter months, but this was no ordinary slowdown.

In a last ditch effort to keep the brewery afloat, Mack filed a $100 million lawsuit against the Small Business Administration and the Department of Defense claiming he had been denied the right to sell beer to the government under contract. That didn't pan-out, either. On November 14, 1972 Mack held a press conference at Jabbers, a tavern next door to the brewery and confirmed that his company was no longer brewing beer. The 30 employees of the Peoples Brewing Company were laid off. Oshkosh's long history of beer making had come to an abrupt end.

“It hurt me deeply," Mack would later say. "It looked so beautiful when we came here, although the system tried to mess us up. They told me I couldn’t move to Oshkosh. They told you I was going to replace whites with blacks. We worked like the devil trying to put this together and it made us feel good when we came here to sell stock and white people came through the door all day to buy stock, but every time the newspapers came out it was ‘the black brewery.’ Maybe a few of us got educated on the way things really are in America."
Thanks to John Marx for the photos of Peoples Brewery