Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A 12-Pack Tour of Oshkosh Brewing History

I’ve always liked to think of this as an interactive blog. A place that might inspire someone to actually do something... such as drink beer. Or in the case of this post, go out and tour the sights of Oshkosh’s incredible brewing history.

Below you’ll find a couple of links. The first is a direct download of a PDF containing a five-page, self-guided tour of Oshkosh’s beer brewing past. The tour includes directions for finding the locations of all the old Oshkosh breweries and is loaded with images and interesting facts. Hopefully, you’ll want to print it out and take a tour of our city’s beer brewing past. If nothing else, you can use it as a concise roadmap to the history of commercial brewing in Oshkosh.

If you’d rather not download the file, you can use the second link to view the tour as a web page. It doesn’t look as nice as the PDF, but it’s good enough to give you an idea of what this is all about.

This sort of history can sometimes seem remote, but it comes alive when you’re able to get out and tromp around on the ground once occupied by the people who made that history. Here’s a guide to some good Oshkosh ground to go trompin’ around.
1) Direct download of the Oshkosh Beer Tour PDF 
2) Web Page view of the Oshkosh Beer Tour

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hopfen und Malz, Gott erhalt’s!

We’re smack-dab in the middle of one of those transitional gaps in the beer drinking year. The Bock season is winding down, but it’s still a little too early and damp for the beers of summer. That’s good. It’s during these lulls that you usually find a few interesting oddballs drifting in. With that in mind, here’s a triad of recent arrivals on the Oshkosh beer scene that’ll confuse and amuse your taster in a most pleasing way.

Let’s start with the oddest of the bunch. New Glarus is calling their new Two Women Lager a “Classic County Lager”. What exactly that means is beyond me. There’s an educational spiel on the label that mentions Christ, Sumerian women and Norse society that further confused me, until I finally just gave up and drank it. Best idea I had all day. This is a strange, little beer and I like it. It pours to a clear, deep bronze with a clean, bready aroma and a first draw that’s surprisingly fruity. Reminded me more of an Altbier than a traditional lager, but the flavors come along so soft and round that it makes all those esters seem about right. It finishes with a dry, cookie-like bit of malt and an exceptionally clean hit of light bitterness. It’s a subtle beer; a brew you can pay no mind to and drink like mad, if you so choose, but if you show it some attention, the reward will be worth it.

Now to the deep end of the pool to greet an altogether different breed of New Glarus, a beer they’ve named IIPA. Meaning double IPA; or DIPA, as the knobs call it. Anyway, this Imperial India Pale Ale is the first release under New Glarus’ new Thumbprint Series of beers. Apparently they’ve ditched their “Unplugged” thing for a label featuring a Bunyanesque thumbprint shaped like Wisconsin. Unfortunately, my ADD (Alcohol Deficit Disorder) prohibits me from giving a shit. On to the beer! Whoa... This thing smells like they just pulled the hops out. It pours hazy and golden with an enormous aroma of citrus, passion fruit and pine. The first thing that came to mind after I’d made it part of my inner being is that this brew is like an amplified version of Moon Man blasting from an amp that goes to 11. The hop flavors are bright and clean right up to the point where the bitterness consumes everything in its path leaving your ruined mouth to pucker on the residue of syrupy malt. That said, I can’t imagine a hop lover not going for this beer. I also can’t imagine drinking more than one of them (and at 9% I probably wouldn’t anyway). And I pity the beer that follows it, because your palate is going to be too wrecked to taste it. Go to it hop fiends!

Our last ride on this wave to oblivion is a new seasonal offering from Big Sky Brewing. Heavy Horse Scotch Ale hit town a couple weeks ago and since we don’t seem to get a lot of Scotch Ale around here, I nabbed it straight off. It’s an almost 7% Wee Heavy that arrives deep brown and reeking of caramelized sugars and the sightly metallic aroma of roasted malt. This is a chewy, near-sweet beer with a pleasant depth of malt flavor, that gets cut too short by an overabundance of bitterness in the finish. On the other hand, that bitterness clarifies the palate and keeps you coming back for the next sip. Maybe it’s a little too wee to really be a Wee Heavy, but that’s being fussy. A good beer for any malt lover and a fine warmer on cool Spring evening.

All three of these brews can be found at Festival Foods in Oshkosh, but to get at the New Glarus IIPA, you’ll need to dig a little. They’ve got it hidden behind the last of the New Glarus Unplugged beers that they’re trying to move out. They like to make things difficult, don’t they? Ein Prosit!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Looting the Old Brewhouse

The Final Days of the Brewhouse
Here’s an odd little tall-tale about coincidence, the decline of the American brewing industry, juvenile delinquency, and an Oshkosh Irishman named Shawn O’Marro.

Our story begins in the days of yore; or abouts 1984. A young Oshkosh man, who shall remain anonymous, was milling about in a condemned building on Doty Street engaged in the sort pillage and plunder that comes naturally to young men who locate themselves in such environments. This wasn’t just any condemned property, though. This was the once majestic brewhouse of the formally revered Oshkosh Brewing Company.

Unfortunately, our young hero had arrived somewhat late to the looting. The Oshkosh Brewing Company had been closed for more than a decade and in the intervening years it had been abused by scores of vandals, arsonists and delinquents who found it an easy and alluring target. There wasn’t much left of the place by 1984, but our young friend didn’t leave empty handed. Tucked away in a back room he found a stash of old receipts (in 1962 you could purchase a half-barrel of Chief Oshkosh for $12.00) and packs of 1960s beer labels from breweries big and small across the country. He grabbed all he could and fled. Back at home, he carefully arranged his swag into photo albums where the collection moldered away, forgotten and ignored for years.

Enter Shawn O’Marro.

Our young friend was now an adult with a problematic computer. Shawn offered to help the man out and as payment relieved him of the three books of stolen breweriana he had assembled years earlier. Coincidentally, this would be the first time Shawn actually received payment for repairing an ill computer and it dawned on him that perhaps he could employ his skills to earn more than just beer labels.

This led Shawn to a new and somewhat short career, which in turn provided him with the cash he needed to launch O’Marro’s Public House. So, Oshkosh may have lost a brewery, but if you twist the logic of it just right you’ll see that the loss resulted in the establishment of a great pub. And now I need a beer.

Here’s a slideshow of the spoils of our young man’s illicit adventure with musical accompaniment by Rocky Bill Ford & His Sunset Wranglers.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Flying Dog Act Wednesday Night at Barley & Hops

Time, once again, for the best damned beer deal in town. Every six weeks or so, Nate at Barley & Hops gives the floor over to a brewery of merit and let’s them show their stuff. This time the spotlight lands on the venerated Flying Dog Brewery of Frederick, Maryland. Just $10 gets you through the door and the chance to drink all the Flying Dog brew you care to from 7:00 - 10:00 Wednesday night (April, 6). Really, where else can you go and pay ten bucks to drink quality beer for three hours?

All your favorite Flying Dog beers will be on hand along with a few limited release surprises, I’m sure. As always, the evening’s list will also include an assortment of other brews, boozes and wines, so unless your completely adverse to the pleasures of alcohol, you’re sure to find plenty you’ll like.

As Nate says, “TEN BUCKS!!??!! That's F*@#!'n Crazy!!” Maybe, but sometimes crazy is good!

Monday, April 4, 2011

First Breweries of Oshkosh: Part 5 - The Fifth Ward Brewery

In the mid-1850s Oshkosh was coming into its own. What had been a backwater wilderness 20 years earlier was now a thriving city with more than 4,000 people and a burgeoning reputation for liquid indulgence. Beer was a central component in the lives of many who had come to Oshkosh and though the city already had two breweries, there was more than enough demand to support another. It was exactly the sort of place Tobias Fischer and August Weist were looking for.

Both Fischer and Weist were born in Germany and trained as brewers in their homeland before leaving for America. It appears Fischer was the driving force in the partnership. Fischer was 46 years old when he left Germany in 1854 and when he reached Oshkosh two years later he had the resources needed to finance the launch of the brewery. But when it came to the brewing aspect of the operation, Weist was certainly Fischer’s equal. Weist was a certified Brewmaster having served a full apprenticeship in Hirschberg, Germany undertaken at the age of 15. He came to America in 1856 and just eight days after his 27th birthday in October of that year, he and Fischer purchased a single acre of land at what is now the south west corner of High and New York Avenues. The developing and under-served north side of Oshkosh now had a brewery of its own, albeit one that would prove to be provisional.

Fischer and Weist were barely settled in when another young brewer named Christian Kaehler landed on the north end of town. Kaehler, who was born in Oldenburg, Germany in 1833, had emigrated to America in 1853 and may have come to Oshkosh at the behest of Tobias Fischer. If Fischer hadn’t invited Kaehler to Oshkosh, the two certainly didn’t waste any time finding common ground. In August of 1857, August Weist left Oshkosh for Princeton where he would establish the Tiger Brewery. A month later Fischer threw his lot in with Kaehler. The two consolidated their operations and in September of 1857 purchased land at what is now the south east corner of Algoma Boulevard and Vine Avenue. Here they established what came to be known as the Fifth Ward Brewery.

But Fischer’s partnership with Kaehler was as short lived as his collaboration with Weist. In February of 1858 Fischer began pulling out of Oshkosh. Over the course of the year, he sold his holdings to Kaehler and then left to brew beer in St. Louis, which then had the largest number of breweries in North America. Kaehler, meanwhile, was now 25 years old and had the Fifth Ward Brewery all to himself.

The Fifth Ward Brewery would be the last of the Oshkosh breweries to be established prior to 1860 and though it held its own for almost 25 years, the operation appears to have been wedded to the past. Kaehler had learned to brew at a time when the German brewing regimen had gone unchanged for several centuries, but with the coming of the 1860s, advances in brewing science and technology were revolutionizing commercial brewing. Kaehler, however, seemed to have little interest in reaping the benefits of such developments. The growth of the Fifth Ward Brewery would remain stunted over the years as its production lagged far behind that of other Oshkosh breweries. And in comparison to the encroaching breweries of Milwaukee, Kaehler’s output was minuscule. By 1879 the Fifth Ward Brewery was producing less than 200 barrels of beer a year, and though it was an increase over the brewery’s previous output, it was still less than half of what was being produced by Rahr Brewing, Oshkosh’s next smallest brewery.

Small as it was, the brewery seemed to hold a special place in the memories of early Oshkosh residents. Some fifty years after it closed, Kaehler's brewery became a topic at a gathering of “old settlers” held by the Winnebago County Archeological and Historical Society. They described the brewery as consisting of several buildings, some of which were sunk low into the ground. This would have been in keeping with a typical set-up for a lager brewer such as Kaehler who relied upon cooler temperatures to ferment and age his beer. The panel recalled that Kaehler’s entire plant was surrounded by a high, board fence and erroneously remembered it as being just one of two breweries then in Oshkosh. In fact, there were six Oshkosh breweries in operation during the period. That the group could only recall the largest and smallest breweries of the era says more about Kaehler’s position in the community than it does about the state of Oshkosh brewing during that time.

Though Kaehler’s brewery was modest, by the 1870s he had managed to parley his earnings into a larger success. As early as 1866 Kaehler began buying vacant parcels of land that surrounded his brewery. As the northern end of Algoma Boulevard became a destination point for the newly affluent, Kaehler found himself holding a portfolio of highly coveted deeds. Throughout the 1870s Kaehler subdivided and sold off the properties at a handsome profit and with the coming of the 1880s it appears the brewery had became something of an afterthought for him.

By 1882 Kaehler’s Fifth Ward Brewery had ceased production and the following year Kaehler used his new wealth to purchase land on an island off the coast of Washington. There he finished his days as a gentleman farmer.

The north side of Oshkosh would remain without a brewery for more than 100 years, until 1995 when the Fox River Brewing Company established its first brewpub just two blocks north of the Kaehler site.

What was once the Kaehler brewery is now a green space that falls within the grounds of the University of Wisconsin - Oshkosh. The land is crossed by a footpath and legend has it that if you stroll through the area on a cool autumn night when the breeze is light you can still draw the heady aroma of fermenting lager yeast... if you’re carrying a vial of it with you.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

The “Worst” Beers in Oshkosh

Most Thursdays this space is taken up with notes about notable beers currently pouring in our town. This Thursday is going to be different. Instead of harping about “Good” beer, today it’s going to be all about “Bad” beer. Or should that be “Popular” beer? Perhaps it’s no coincidence that some of the best selling beers in Oshkosh also happen to be some of the worst beers. That is, if you you believe the rankings compiled by the top two beer review sites, Beer Advocate and Rate Beer. And Oshkosh is hardly alone in it’s love for lousy beer. These are some of the best selling beers across America.

So here they are, the five “Worst” beers that you can currently purchase in Oshkosh ranked from the very worst to the somewhat less worse based upon amalgamated scores of the lowest rated beers on the Beer Advocate and Rate Beer websites.
  1. Michelob Ultra (BA-3/RB-5)
  2. Natural Light (BA6/RB-3)
  3. Natural Ice (BA-9/RB-2)
  4. Bud Light (BA-5/RB-11)
  5. Budweiser Select 55 (BA-10/RB-6)
Notice a theme here? Each these beers are made by Anheuser-Busch InBev, the foul monolith that earlier this week bought out Goose Island Brewing. Expect to see Honker’s Light Ice Ultra Ale coming soon.

For the sake of pure research I thought I ought to go out and actually give the worst beer you can purchase in Oshkosh a spin. Here’s what I found: Michelob Ultra is an innocuous waste of water that doesn’t even rise to the level of bad. It has a very light aroma of canned corn and tastes like seltzer water. The most notable sensory aspect of the beer is auditory. When you pour it out, the carbonation goes into a state of terminal flux and the beer sounds like a five-year-old with a mouthful of pop-rocks. I suppose what’s most offensive about this beer is its price. I paid $5.69 for a six-pack of Ultra and that’s about the going rate. For that kind of money you can get a six-pack of something pretty damned good from Point.

All right, so Michelob Ultra may be quite bad, but for my money, it’s just not bad enough. If you’re up for something really bad, I mean something harboring actual flavors that will offend and repulse, I’d suggest Axe Head Malt Liquor by the cunning Minhas Craft Brewery of lovely Monroe, Wisconsin. Here, my friends, is a bad beer you can literally sink your teeth into. This gummy, astringent syrup comes in a 24oz “King Can” and if you’re able to empty it you’ll achieve the royal glow usually reserved for inbreds and other genetically impaired types. If you want to have some April Fool’s fun, pour it into a goblet and pass it off on the nearest beer geek as a Belgian Triple. You’ll fool them until that moment when the piercing sting of caustic alcohol hits the back of their throat and then slices up their innards. Now that’s fun!

It’s time for us beer snobs to get out of our comfort zones and explore some of the truly “unique” flavors the beer world has to offer. Get off your high-horse, comrade, and take a stumble down the low road of flavor and liver damage. After all, there’s more to life than good beer... but not much more.

Monday, March 28, 2011

First Breweries of Oshkosh: Part 4 - From Konrad to Kuenzl, the Evolution of the Lake Brewery

1858 Map of Oshkosh Showing Location of Lake Brewery
The long-forgotten cradle of Oshkosh brewing is now occupied by an unassuming ranch-style home just south of Ceape Avenue at 74 Lake Street. Here is where a German immigrant named Jacob Konrad, who purchased the land in July of 1849, established Oshkosh’s first commercial brewery. And though Konrad would leave Oshkosh by the mid-1850s, the incredible lineage of his brewery would extend to 1972 and the closing of Oshkosh’s last full-scale, production brewery.

The earliest days of what came to be known as the Lake Brewery have been obscured by time, but the picture begins to clear in 1854 when Jacob Konrad sold his brewery to a lively German émigré named Anton Andrea. Born in Frankfurt in 1822 and educated in Switzerland, Andrea became a Major in the Hungarian Hussars and  was forced to fight against his native country when Hungary revolted against Austrian rule in 1848. Andrea turned fugitive, fled to Turkey and made his way to Constantinople where he embarked on a ship bound for America. In 1849 he arrived in Oshkosh.

Andrea’s 30 years in Oshkosh would prove to be as picaresque as his life in Europe. He was elected to the first Oshkosh City Council in 1853, made and lost several fortunes, was burned out on six occasions, and at one time or another sold everything from groceries to clothes to liquor to real-estate. Ironically, the one thing Andrea may not have done was brew beer. Andrea didn’t come from brewing background and unlike the Oshkosh brewmasters of the period, he didn’t live at the brewery. The 1857 Oshkosh city directory shows two other brewers, Casper Haberbusch and Louis Keller, working at the Lake Brewery during the time it was under Andrea’s name, indicating that this may have been the first brewery in Oshkosh where the beer was made by someone other than the man who owned the brewhouse.

What is certain is that by 1862 Andrea’s role at the brewery was tangential at best. That year, Andrea leased the Lake Brewery to a 35-year-old brewer trained in Saxony named Leonhardt Schwalm. Schwalm’s tenure at the brewery was even more brief than that of his predecessors. In September of 1865 his lease on the Lake Brewery expired and in October Schwalm bought a parcel of land on Doty Street where he and August Horn established Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery. Incidentally, that same tract would later be home to the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

Meanwhile, a new brewer had occupied the Lake Brewery. Immediately upon Schwalm’s removal, the brewery was taken over by a 30-year-old German-born butcher from Stevens Point named Gottlieb Ecke. With the backing of a short-term business partner named Edward Becker, Ecke assumed control of the brewery in September of 1865 and a month later purchased it outright from Andrea. Along with the purchase of the brewery, Ecke also acquired from Andrea several lots west of the brewery on Harney Avenue. Ecke was looking to the future.

An inventory of the brewery from 1865 reveals a dated facility geared to meet the the needs of an earlier era. Not only had brewing methods rapidly progressed in the intervening years, Oshkosh had as well. The Lake Brewery came into being at a time when Oshkosh’s population barely exceeded 2,000 people. By the end of the 1860s Oshkosh had over 12,000 residents and if Ecke was going to keep pace, he’d need an updated, more efficient brewhouse.

In 1868 Ecke began setting up a new brewery a block west of the original Lake Brewery on the additional lands he had purchased from Anton Andrea. The brewery was located in the area that now falls within the addresses of 1239-1247 Harney Avenue and was fully operational by 1869. Unfortunately, death would soon intervene. Just two years after the completion of his brewery, Gottlieb Ecke died on a Sunday night in November of 1871. He was 37 years old. Oddly, the circumstances of Ecke’s death went unreported in the three Oshkosh newspapers then in publication. The only notice of his passing appeared in the Oshkosh Times, which printed a two-line obituary that failed to even include his full name, listing him simply as G. Ecke.

Ecke left behind a wife, four young children and a mountain of debt taken to finance construction of the new brewery. A brewery which appears to have remained idle for the next year. Unable to keep the business running, Charlotte Ecke, the widow of Gottlieb Ecke, was forced to sign over possession of the brewery to her late husband’s principle creditor in March of 1874.

Lorenz Kuenzl
If there was any good that came from the rapid dissolution of the Ecke brewery, it was that the man who assumed Ecke’s place in the brewhouse would prove to be the most accomplished of the early Oshkosh brewers. Lorenz Kuenzl was born in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) in 1845 where, at an early age, he became an adept in the art and science of brewing beer. Kuenzl came to America in 1871 and made his way to Stevens Point where the 31-year-old brewer married a 21-year-old Barbara Walter. Kuenzl was probably in Oshkosh by the close of 1874 and the following year took over the Ecke brewery with the help of his brother-in-law, John Walter. 

The Oshkosh brewing scene of the mid-1870s was an embarrassment of riches. In 1875 there were six breweries in Oshkosh, four of them north of the river, and though the population of Oshkosh was rapidly gaining, a brewery looking to carve a niche for itself needed something special. Lorenz Kuenzl fit the bill.

Kuenzl christened his enterprise the Gambrinus Brewery in honor of King Gambrinus, the patron saint of brewers, and quickly established a reputation as a maker of quality beer. Although the Gambrinus Brewery would soon be outpaced in terms of production by the rapidly expanding Oshkosh breweries south of the Fox River, no other Oshkosh brewery could claim the variety of beer that Kuenzl produced. Kuenzl targeted his output to that segment of the Oshkosh populace longing for the lagers of their German homeland. Among the beers in the Gambrinus line-up were a malty Vienna lager; a Bohemian lager that emphasized hops; and a full-bodied, dark lager familiar to the Kulmbach region of Bavaria. Kuenzl knew his audience and confined the lion’s share of his advertising for the Gambrinus Brewery to the Wisconsin Telegraph, Oshkosh’s German language newspaper. The ads were simple and direct with Kuenzl’s name featured prominently beneath that of his brewery followed by a brief list of the current brews. Obviously, Kuenzl was addressing people well acquainted with stylistic differences among beers. No further explanation was required.

Though his ability as a brewer may have been a match for the quality he desired, Kuenzl’s funds were apparently not the equal of either. Kuenzl and Walter lacked the capital to purchase the brewery outright so instead leased the property from Henry Timm, a carpenter living at what is now 621 Ceape Avenue. Timm was a friend of the Ecke family and had purchased the brewery immediately after Charlotte Ecke had lost it to foreclosure. The relationship between Kuenzl and his landlord would prove to be sometimes contentious, but the atmosphere inside the brewery was familial, to say the least. Along with his brother-in-law John Walter, Keunzl’s brother Andrew also worked at the brewery and in 1879 Gottlieb Ecke’s now 16 year-old son, Otto, went to work alongside the Gambrinus crew in the brewhouse his father had built.

With the start of a new decade, though, things at the brewery began to change. In May of 1880, Kuenzl and John Walter dissolved their partnership, but more significantly, Kuenzl now found himself facing a competitive disadvantage. Although the Gambrinus Brewery was relatively new, its capacity was dwarfed by two new brewhouses on the South Side of Oshkosh. Both John Glatz’s Union Brewery and the Brooklyn Brewery of Horn & Schwalm had recently been rebuilt and each was capable of producing three times the quantity of beer Kuenzl could make. Worse yet was the new threat posed by the enormous breweries of Milwaukee now sending train cars full of beer into Oshkosh in an attempt to claim the market for their own.

As other small Oshkosh breweries began to fade, Kuenzl somehow managed to hold on. Although limited by the constraints of his brewery, Kuenzl continued brew to his own standards and in 1883, under threat of eviction, raised enough capital to purchase the brewery from Henry Timm. Lorenz Kuenzl had finally made The Gambrinus Brewery his own.

For the next 11 years things remained just that way. Then came 1894. Battered by a disastrous economic slump and their relentless adversaries from Milwaukee, Oshkosh’s three leading brewers - Horn & Schwalm, John Glatz, and Lorenz Kuenzl - joined forces to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The conglomeration would result in the largest, best-known brewery Oshkosh would ever know. Although, Kuenzl’s brewery was by far the smallest of the three, his influence on the new company would be disproportionate to his share of the firm’s assets. Kuenzl was named superintendent of the Oshkosh Brewing Company and it’s clear from the early roster of beers it produced that Lorenz Kuenzl was responsible for establishing the new company’s brewing regimen.

With the formation of the Oshkosh Brewing Company, the Gambrinus Brewery was converted into a bottling facility. Three years later, Lorenz Kuenzl died at the age of fifty-three due to complications of edema. Following the construction of the Oshkosh Brewing Company’s new brewery in 1911, The Gambrinus Brewery was dismantled and the surrounding property sold as residential lots.

What began as Oshkosh’s first brewery on Lake Street and later evolved into the breweries of Ecke and Kuenzl helped form the basis for what became Oshkosh’s premier brewery. When the Oshkosh Brewing Company folded in 1971, its signature brands were assumed by the Peoples Brewing Company, the last of Oshkosh’s large-scale breweries. A lineage that joins 123 years of brewing history in our city had reached its conclusion.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Trio of Midwestern IPAs

As the American craft beer scene continues its rise, it’ll be interesting to see if regional differences take hold among styles of beer. In a country such as Germany, where local beer never entirely lost its appeal, regional variations on style are taken for granted and though our beer culture is much younger, similar distinctions are already beginning to occur here.

Probably the best example of regional styles in America can be found among IPAs. In each part of the country these are extravagantly hopped beers, but a Midwestern IPA is something quite apart from an East Coast or a West Coast IPA. East Coast IPAs tend to be drier and have a more restrained hop aroma and usually feature a long, bitter finish (think Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPA or Smuttynose IPA). Typical West Coast varieties rely more on a billowing floral hop aroma and a burst of hop flavor with less malt underpinning (try Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo Extra IPA). And in the Midwest we’ve got a style all our own. Here the IPAs tends to be a bit more aromatic than the East Coast model with a creamier, full body and a finish that’s bitter and sweet.

You can parse this stuff all day, but it doesn't come to much if you're not going to drink-up so let’s get to some beer! Here are three Midwestern IPAs that fit just about perfectly into what is becoming our regional style.

We’ll start with the IPA closest to home. Fratello’s just put on their Hoppy Face IPA and it’s straight-out of the Midwest IPA recipe book. The aroma is a gentle blend of floral hops and sweet malt and those qualities carry over into the first draw. There’s a creamy, honey malt character that comes along that’s soon cut through by a substantial bitterness that lingers until the next drink. This is a fine beer and one to appreciate while it’s fresh.

Founders Centennial IPA was recently on tap at Oblio’s, but it’s been missing from the store shelves lately. Now it’s back at Festival Foods. This is a classic Midwestern IPA that pours to a dull gold with an aroma that any homebrewer will immediately recognize: it’s that smell of hops hitting the wort that rises up as you begin throwing your hops into the brew kettle. This is a big, chewy beer with plenty of caramel malt to balance the burst of hop bitterness that quickly presents itself. If you enjoy hops and malt employed to their utmost, you’ll love this beer.

Finally, we’ve got another beer that after a winter absence has made a return to Festival Foods. Three Floyd's Alpha King Pale Ale may not call itself an IPA, but then labels lie all the time (you think Miller Lite is a true Pilsner?). Whatever you call it, this is a beautiful beer and a great example of a Midwestern IPA. It’s a bronze, cloudy beer that looks like something real in comparison to most of today's sissified, filtered-to-death ales. The big beige head bubbles up the good stink of Cascade hops laced with sweet malt. It starts mellow and malty with a full compliment of fruit esters, but all that gets pushed to the side by a bitterness that builds into an almost spicy sort of heat. Neat trick, that one. It’s the perfect palate cleanser and a great beer with anything fried.

Now that Spring is in full flower (yes, I am delusional and in complete denial of the reality outside my window) it’s time to get back to the beers that reek of mother earth. I’ll take mine sticky and bitter.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The “Best” Beers in Oshkosh

In an effort to avoid everything I really ought to be doing, I’ll sometimes piss away an hour or so browsing the rantings of fellow beer geeks who inhabit Beer Advocate and Rate Beer, the titans of beer review websites. Both sites contain millions of beer reviews and each has its own special formula for aggregating all those reviews into neat lists that attempt to assign a ranking to the beers that get the highest marks. Each site’s top-100 list is loaded with brews that are impossibly obscure and few that are sold here. But if you merge the lists, there are a number of them we can get our hands on without having to leave town. So here they are, the “Best” beers that can currently be purchased in Oshkosh in order of their overall ranking.
  1. Bell's Hopslam Ale (BA-18/RB-21)
  2. North Coast Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout (RB-48)
  3. New Glarus Raspberry Tart(BA-65/RB-62)
  4. New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red (BA-62/RB-87)
  5. Unibroue La Fin Du Monde (BA-77)
  6. Bell's Two Hearted Ale (BA-97/RB-63)
  7. Duvel (BA-98)
  8. Bell's Kalamazoo Stout (RB-100)
There’s no denying these are all quality beers, but are they really the best beers available to us in Oshkosh? That’s for each beer lover to decide. Off hand, I can think of a few that I’d like to see in there, including Central Waters Brewhouse Coffee Stout (it won’t be available much longer), Chimay Première (the one with the red label), or maybe even Sprecher’s Black Bavarian (if you’re in the mood for something with a bit less alcohol). If nothing else, the list might give you an idea about what to grab the next time your wandering down the beer isle. You could do a lot worse.

Here’s the complete Beer Advocate Top 100 List.
Here’s the complete Rate Beer Top 100 List.

Monday, March 21, 2011

First Breweries of Oshkosh: Part 3 - George Loescher’s Oshkosh Brewery

By 1852 the village of Oshkosh was rising fast. There were now approximately 3,000 people living in the area that was soon to declare itself the City of Oshkosh and among the swell was a habitually thirsty assortment of wood workers who needed a brewer to meet their needs. Enter George Loescher.

George Loescher (sometimes spelled Loscher) was born in Bavaria in 1819. There’s scant record of his life in Europe, but it’s likely that Loescher was trained as a brewer from an early age. Both he and his brother Frederick established breweries shortly after emigrating to America and Loescher’s advertised proficiency as a maltster indicates that he was versed in the German brewing tradition prior to his arrival here.

1858 Map Showing Location Of the Oshkosh Brewery
It appears George Loescher came to America in 1851 and in September of 1852 he and Frederick Loescher purchased a modest parcel of land on Lake Winnebago where they established their new brewery. The brewery was located on the south side of Bay Shore Drive west of Eveline Street among land currently addressed as 1253 and 1283 Bay Shore Drive. It was the second brewery here to be named the Oshkosh Brewery and that name, along with the brewery’s location and time of its inception, raises a number of questions. In the summer of 1852 and just a block west of the Loescher’s Oshkosh Brewery, the Oshkosh Brewery of Joseph Schussler was nearing its end. Whether the Loescher’s appropriated anything more than the name of their brewery from Schussler isn’t clear, but the possibility that there was a more substantial connection between the two breweries remains.

In any case, George and Frederick Loescher’s new Oshkosh Brewery was probably up and running by the end of 1852, but it wouldn’t remain a brotherly operation for long. In August of 1853 Frederick Loescher moved to Menasha where he launched a brewery of his own and the following December sold his stake in the Oshkosh Brewery to his brother George.

What little information has survived from the period indicates that George Loescher was a versatile brewer. His background in Germany predicates that Loescher was trained as a lager brewer, but in the early years of the Oshkosh Brewery Loescher produced ales, as well as lagers. His adaptability served him well. Production and storage of cool-fermenting lager beer would have been next to impossible during Oshkosh’s sweltering summer months in the years before mechanical refrigeration was a viable option. Ales, which can be fermented at cellar temperatures, enabled Loescher to brew year round and had the added benefit of appealing to Oshkosh residents who had come from the East Coast and England and were accustomed to drinking porters and stouts. Loescher’s neighborhood in particular was a mix of English and German immigrants and meeting their expectations was no doubt essential to his success. The longevity of Loescher’s brewery bears this out. Each of the two brewers that had preceded him in Oshkosh were out of business within five years of their start. George Loscher’s Oshkosh Brewery produced beer for 38 years.

The era Loescher inhabited was a volatile one. Oshkosh was growing and changing rapidly and Loescher evolved with it. His success enabled him to buy up tracts of land surrounding the brewery and Loescher, who would prove to be something of a wheeler-dealer, seems to have had little reticence about mortgaging his holdings to the hilt. In 1859, he put the brewery in his wife’s name, perhaps employing the vagaries of Wisconsin’s marital property laws as a shield against his creditors, and continued adding to his holdings.

The Loescher family was moving up. George and Regina Loescher had lived at their brewery for 18 years, but after 1870 they and their seven children relocated to a new house across the street. The move was emblematic of Loescher’s success as he became the first Oshkosh brewer to live in a house separate from his brewery. But Loescher wasn’t the only brewer in Oshkosh doing well. By 1870 there were six breweries here and the most robust among them were on the other side of the Fox River. Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery and the Union Brewery of John Glatz were the first breweries located on the south side of Oshkosh and both were off to quick starts that threatened to leave their north-side competition in the dust.

Loescher may have been struggling with more than just the competition. His brewery was now the oldest in Oshkosh and by the late 1870s would have appeared antiquated in comparison to the brewhouses of his rivals. Loescher may have even ceased brewing for a time as the decade came to an end. The Oshkosh city directory of 1879 does not list the Oshkosh Brewery as active and surveys of brewing capacity in Oshkosh from 1878 and 1879 omit Loescher’s brewery, altogether.

Loescher wasn’t finished, yet, though. He began construction of a new brewery on property he had purchased 15 years earlier at what is now the north east corner of Frankfort Street and Bay Shore Drive. The new Oshkosh Brewery was fully operational by 1880, but it may have been too little too late. In the intervening years, the south-side breweries had expanded their capacity three-fold and were coming to dominate the market. Loscher was now in his 60s and nearing his end. In 1884, just four years after the completion of his new brewery, George Loescher died at the age of 65.

Following the death of George Loescher, the Oshkosh Brewery remained active for several more years. Loescher’s son William had assumed control of brewing operations, but the best days of the brewery were well behind it. William Loescher moved into the brewery and, sometimes helped by his brother Fred, but just as often going it alone, ushered the brewery into a new era that was less than hospitable for small operations such as his. It wasn’t just the south-side competition he had to contend with. Now Oshkosh was being targeted by Milwaukee breweries that could produce in a day what would take Loescher a year to brew. The Oshkosh Brewery didn’t stand a chance. By 1890 the brewhouse had gone dark.

After the close of the Oshkosh Brewery, William Loescher would work for Lorenz Kuenzl at the Gambrinus Brewery for a time, but soon left brewing behind him. There was one last flicker of hope for the Oshkosh Brewery, though. in 1898 a majority of Oshkosh’s saloon operators began toying with the idea of starting a brewery of their own to circumvent the taxes levied against the barreled beer they purchased for tap sales. Their plan was to re-equip Loescher’s Oshkosh Brewery and hire a brewer to make beer for them. Unfortunately, the scheme never came to fruition and the Oshkosh Brewery was dismantled. Today the quiet, upscale neighborhood along the lake that was once home to the Oshkosh Brewery betrays not a hint of its beer-soaked past.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

No Green Beer Here

The day has arrived to collectively attack our livers with black, Irish liquidation. But when the St. Patrick’s Day hangover has lost its grip, you may find yourself wanting something a bit more substantial in the way of malt and hops. Here’s a couple of brews to persue when you’re back on your feet again.

Let’s start with the dark one. Over at Dublin’s they’ve just added Goose Island’s Pepe Nero to their tap line-up. It’s a Saison and a breed apart from its straw-colored brethren. This Saison is black. The aroma is more typical with a good balance of sweet malt and peppery spice. Pepe Nero is brewed with peppercorns and as you drink it you’ll notice the spiciness they impart, but that aspect isn’t overdone. The beer is light bodied and refreshing with enough Belgian earthiness to keep it continually interesting. It finishes dry with a reserved, lemon-like sourness that’s just prominent enough to clean the palate. At 6% it’s very easy to enjoy a couple of these. I liked this beer quite a bit.

Meanwhile, at Festival Food in Oshkosh a recent brewing of something completely different has arrived. The 2011 batch of Central Waters Illumination Double IPA was brought in on Tuesday and it’s a beer geared for lupulin addicts in need of a heroic fix. Illumination is large in every respect with an ABV of 9% and well over 100 IBUs. But for all that, the beer is surprisingly approachable. Eventually, it’ll kick your ass, but it’ll shake your hand first. Illumination pours out bright and golden with a gust of clean, pine aromatics. The initial flavors are almost gentle. At the front end all those hops come in like peach, mango and tropical fruit with a near candy-like sweetness. It doesn’t stay sweet long, though. Soon enough, a huge wave of bitterness washes all that away and you’re left with a mouth that’s good for nothing other than more of this beer. Oh, and there’s malt in there somewhere, too. I’m sure of it. I just can’t taste it. After about the third pull you’ll feel the heat flushing your face and the world will be a brighter place. I suppose that’s the reason they call it Illumination. If this sounds like your brand of pain, you’ll want to get on this beer quick. Festival has a limited supply and it’s fresh as can be, with this first batch having been bottled in late February.

But all this is for later. Now’s the time for an ocean of black stout, corned beef & cabbage and plenty of good craic. Sláinte!

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Oshkosh Homebrew Grab Bag

Are You an SOB?
If you were at Hops & Props a couple Saturday’s ago you may have noticed that the stand drawing the most traffic was that of the Society Of Oshkosh Brewers. There’s good reason for that. Although there was plenty of great commercial beer in the offing, there’s really nothing quite like the taste of a well-made homebrew. The SOBs have been an integral part of the Oshkosh beer community for 20 years now and if you’d like to get an up-close and personal glimpse of what the club is all about, tomorrow night is your chance. The Society of Oshkosh Brewers will conduct their regular monthly meeting beginning at 7:00 p.m. Wednesday evening at O’Marro’s Public House. If you’re a homebrewer or thinking you might want to become a homebrewer (or even if you’re just interested in good beer), stop down at O’Marro’s and see what the club is all about. The public is always invited. If you sit in and decide the club is to your liking, you can join their ranks and become a card carrying SOB. And, yes, they do carry cards. For more SOB info check out their shiny new website where you can get an overview of the club and download their March newsletter.

More Grain at NDC
If you’re an Oshkosh homebrewer you’ll be glad to see that Nutrition Discount Center at 463 N. Main St. has expanded their homebrew section by adding six bulk-bins of different crystal malts. NDC may not have the largest selection of homebrew supply in the area (that would be the Cellar in Fond du Lac) but they have a good selection of starter kits and extracts and do a nice job of keeping all the basics on hand. They’re the place to go to when you get caught short on supplies and need a little something to rescue your brew day.
Sesquicentennial Ale

You can’t blather about homebrew without throwing in a recipe. At least, I can’t. Here’s a timely brew from Fox River Brewing that they first shared with Oshkosh homebrewers back in 1998 when they were putting out their short-lived “Brewspaper”. This recipe was intended to approximate the sort of beer that was popular here in 1853, the year Oshkosh became a city. I have this on tap at my house right now (I tweaked it a bit, making it a dark beer and fermented it as a lager instead of an ale) and if this is really the sort of stuff they were drinking in 1853, those folks were living pretty damned good! It beats hell out of the macro-swill that typifies our time. Better yet, if you brew it this weekend you’ll have it ready for April 1st, which will be 158 years to the day since Oshkosh voted in its charter and became a city. Prosit!

Sesquicentennial Ale
    Batch Size: 5 Gallons
    Based on 70% brewhouse efficiency
    Simple Infusion Mash @ 156º for 1 hour.

    Grain Bill
  • American 6-Row: 6.25 lb. (74.3%)
  • American Cara-Pils Malt .5 lb. (5.4%)
  • White Flaked Corn: 1.75 lb. (20%)
  • Fuggles .5 oz. (60 min boil)
  • East Kent Golding .25 oz. (30 min boil)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Public Service Announcement

As the shit storm rages, remember that it’s important to take frequent intermissions from the chaos and venom that color our days. And for those “special moments” there’s no companion like a very strong beer. May I suggest Sierra Nevada’s 2011 Bigfoot Barley Wine, a potent gem that recently arrived on the shelves of Festival Foods in Oshkosh.

This strong ale is the color of fresh blood on the pavement. The aroma is of caramel malt and citrus-like hops. The beer greets the mouth with malty sweetness and then delivers a heavy boot of alcohol. All that malt viscidity and ethyl alcohol, though, is soon cut to shreds by slash after slash of west-coast hop flavor. It all ends with a riotous bitterness that pairs very well with the rest of the god-damned day. Let it rage.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Gnectar of the Gnomes at O’Marro’s Public House

Here’s a new reason to get yourself to O’Marro’s sometime in the very near future: They’ve just tapped two Belgian style beers you won’t want to miss.

First, there’s the incredible La Chouffe from the Brasserie d'Achouffe of Achouffe, Belgium. Gesundheit! La Chouffe is a strong Belgian Blonde Ale that manages to easily work in an ABV of 8% without compromising any of its delicate flavors. It pours with a pillow of foam and delivers a gush of floral and light fruit aroma. That’s what the flavor is all about, too, along with a dash of spice playing in the background. The beer finishes with just the right amount bitterness. A great, complex Belgian ale that’s not the least bit overbearing.

This is the first time La Chouffe has been on tap in Oshkosh and it looks like we may have more of its kind coming our way. Shawn at O’Marro’s says he’s hoping to dedicate one of his tap lines to beer from Belgium. La Chouffe is an excellent start to the series.

There’s more... just a couple handles down from La Chouffe, O’Marro’s now has 3 French Hens, a Belgian Strong Dark Ale from The Bruery. This is a blended beer with 25% of it aged in French oak barrels. It’s another big one at 10%, but it has a wonderfully smooth and soft mouthfeel that belies the alcohol. The beer leads with layers of dark fruit and sweet malt, but the richness of it is kept in check by an undertow of oaky tartness. This shit is so elegant you may want to raise a pinky as you tip it in.

The Bruery, by the way, is a small, up-and-coming California brewery specializing in Belgian style beers. This is their first appearance in Oshkosh, so here’s your chance to check them out. Cheers!

Monday, March 7, 2011

First Breweries of Oshkosh: Part 2 - Joseph Schussler’s Oshkosh Brewery

In 1850 there were 431 breweries in the United States. Two of those were in Oshkosh.

In November of 1849 Joseph Schussler began setting up Oshkosh’s second brewery after purchasing more than an acre of land from Henry A. Gallup, an early Oshkosh settler. The plot was located on the south side of what is now Bay Shore Drive in the approximate area currently under the address of 1031 Bay Shore Drive.

Oshkosh Democrat September 6, 1850
By all indications, Schussler had ambitious plans for his new brewery. Shortly after purchasing the property from Gallup, Schussler and his business partner, John Freund, placed a series of advertisements in the Oshkosh Democrat announcing that they had “Erected a BREWERY in the village of Oshkosh” and were “prepared to supply the Tavern, Grocery, and Saloon keepers of the surrounding country with good Ale and Beer”. The advertisements end on a note that would be echoed by Oshkosh brewers for the next 120 years with Schussler and Freund promising that their beer was better than that “obtained from abroad under the title of ‘Detroit Ale’ or ‘Milwaukee Beer’”. Already the specter of Milwaukee lager was haunting the brewers of Oshkosh. Small-town anxiety aside, Schussler and Freund charged they were “confident in warranting a superior article”. 

Schussler had every right to feel confident. He had arrived in Oshkosh with an impressive set of skills. Born in Baden, Germany in 1819 he was trained as a brewer and cooper (barrel maker) in his homeland before coming to America. Prior to his arrival in Oshkosh at the age of 30, Schussler had worked for several years as a brewer in Milwaukee and eventually came to be known for his ability as a brewmaster and his singular approach to beer making. It was reported that “His brewing method is different from others, and known only to himself.”

Early on it appears that Schussler’s Oshkosh Brewery was a success. By the summer of 1850 local businesses were advertising that they carried Oshkosh Beer and Schussler’s notices in the paper stating that he and Freund would pay the highest market prices for any quantity of barley indicate the beer had gained a following. But it seems that Schussler’s early success didn’t hold.

At the close of 1850 Schussler’s business partner, John Freund,  appears to have encountered financial difficulties apart from the brewery. And on January 1, 1851 Schussler and Freund dissolved their partnership. Schussler acquired a new partner for the brewery, Francis Tillmans, and in June of 1851 took a second mortgage against the property. If Schussler was trying to leverage his holdings to finance his brewery, the strategy didn’t work. In June of 1852 Schussler signed his assets over to his creditors. The Oshkosh Brewery of Joseph Schussler would not be heard from again.

Schussler’s involvement with beer in Oshkosh doesn’t end there, though. He stayed on in Oshkosh, moving over to Wisconsin Street and putting his coopering skills to work to earn his living. It appears, though, that in 1860 he had returned to brewing beer in Oshkosh. In the census of 1860 Schussler, once again, identifies himself as a brewer. Where or what he was brewing is not revealed. There were three breweries operating in Oshkosh at this point. Schussler could have been pitching-in at any of them.

In 1861 Schussler’s story takes a tragic and somewhat odd turn. Following in his father’s footsteps, Schussler’s 12 year-old son August had gone to work at the Frey Brewery in Fond du Lac. On January 18, 1861 August Schussler was tending a machine probably used for milling grain at the brewery when he fell into the machinery and was instantly crushed to death. Within months of August Schussler’s death, Joseph Schussler moved his family to Fond du Lac and went to work at the brewery where his son had been killed.

1875 Advertisment for Schussler's Fond du Lac Brewery
Schussler remained at the Frey Brewery until 1865 and then returned to barrel making for several years before establishing his second brewery in 1872. That year Schussler opened the West Hill Brewery on Hickory Street in Fond du Lac. This time, things worked out better. The West Hill Brewery met with wide acceptance in Fond du Lac and by 1878 Schussler was brewing over 1,000 barrels of beer a year, an output that rivaled the larger breweries of Oshkosh. Schussler continued brewing into his 70s and in 1890 turned the brewery over to his sons. Soon thereafter, however, the West Hill Brewery faltered. Though Schussler would live to see the turn of the century, his Fond du Lac brewery folded in 1892. The beer career of Oshkosh’s second brewmaster had come to a close.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Flight Pattern for Hops & Props 2011

You know what it’s like... you crash through the gate at a beer festival and suddenly find yourself confronted by an ocean of delectable brew. The clock begins ticking. So much beer. So little time. What to do?

Easy. You find the stuff you haven’t tried before. You cruise past the brews you can get any damned day of the week and head straight for the beer that’s foreign to these parts. Beer festivals are all about trying something new and with that in mind, here are 10 beers that will be pouring at Hops & Props this weekend that you’ll have a hard time finding after the clock strikes 10 Saturday night.

We’ve got a long night ahead of us, so let’s warm-up our palates with something light bodied, crisp and German.

1) New Glarus’ Two Women Lager

Good luck finding this German style Pilsener anywhere else. Here’s a beer that’s developing a cult following based on its scarcity. Last I heard, it was going for $5 a bottle. Is it that good?

2) Potosi Czech Style Pilsener

The early word on this beer has been favorable. The only Potosi we’ve been getting around here has been of the ale variety, it’ll be interesting to see if they can pull off a lager.

        We’ll stay on the Wisconsin tip, but step things up a bit.

3) Capital Tett Doppelbock
We’re still in lager land, but miles from where we started. A big, malty, rich beer that will make the room glow.

        Time for some strange.

4) Dogfish Head’s Palo Santo
A 12% abv, roasty, brown ale aged on Palo Santo wood. What the hell is Palo Santo wood? I don’t know but I’m dying to taste it.

        Let’s wash away that malt.

5) Bear Republic Brewing
Doesn’t matter what you try, just get over there and drink. Most everything they brew is loaded with hops and great for stripping the dough from your tongue.

        It’s starting to feel like a beer fest, let’s bring on the Belgians.

6) Gnomegang

Here we go, a big Belgian Golden Strong Ale. This beer is the result of a collaboration between American Ommegang and Belgian Brasserie d 'Achouffe. Pull that snifter out of your back pocket and put it to work.

7) North Coast’s Brother Thelonius

A Belgian Dark Strong Ale that’s robust and rich as hell. Its easy 9.3% punch has a roofie-like demeanor.

        Utah? Beer? Yup!

8) Utah Brewers Cooperative

They’ll be pouring four beers - Polygamy Porter, White Label Belgian Wit, Hop Rising Double IPA, and Devastator Double Bock. We get none of them around here. Close your eyes and pick any two.

        We’re into the last leg of our journey. Time to go big... and black.

9) Oskar Blues’ Ten FIDY Imperial Stout

A huge (10.5%) Russian Imperial Stout. Tastes great until your head goes numb. You’ll need to rinse your cup after this syrup. Then again, at this point decorum won’t much matter. Get your tongue in there and lick that glass clean!

10) Founders Double Trouble Imperial IPA

This 9.4% hop bomb will be the last beer you’ll be tasting. You may drink other beers, but this will be the last one you’ll taste. The hop flavor and bitterness will cling to your mouth and even your Sunday morning coffee will seem to have been triple-hopped. It’s the beer that keeps on giving.

To hell, with my suggestions, chart a path of your own. HERE is the list of everything pouring at Hops & Props.

And if you’ve made it this far, I’ve got a secret just for you: There is going to be a beer named Bockscar Bock pouring at one of the stands (I’m not at liberty to mention the brewer) that is guaranteed to make you happy, wealthy, immortal and irresistible. This beer will change your life. It is the nectar of the Gods. Drink it... if you dare.

As of 9:05 a.m. tickets for Hops & Props were still available. Go HERE for details

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

First Breweries of Oshkosh: Part 1 - The Jacob Konrad Brewery

March is going to be old-brewery month at the Oshkosh Beer Blog. Over the coming weeks there will be stories here about the first breweries to establish operations in Oshkosh. These breweries, for the most part, have been forgotten, yet they played an essential role in the development of our city. These were the brewers who initiated Oshkosh’s beer culture and laid the groundwork for what would become one of the vital brewing centers of the Midwest.

By today’s standard, these earliest of Oshkosh breweries would be considered pre-modern. For them, brewing was part mystery and part art with little in the way of science to trouble the process. They knew they needed yeast to make beer, but they had no idea why or how it worked. Pasteurization had yet to be developed and the age of Pilsner beer had yet to arrive.

Most of these early brewers were German immigrants trying to make the cool-fermenting lagers of their homeland at a time when mechanical refrigeration was nowhere to be found. So they cooled their beer with blocks of ice carved out of Lake Winnebago or the Fox River. The result was a strictly local product with grain and hops grown at neighboring farms. Welcome to the world of the mid-1800s and beer in Oshkosh.

The first commercial brewery within what is now the City of Oshkosh has been escaping notice for more than 160 years. And judging by its short life-span, it may have been escaping notice even while it existed. Our first brewer’s name was Jacob Konrad. He was born in Prussia in 1823 and arrived in Oshkosh in 1849. The exact date that Konrad began brewing beer for sale here is not recorded, but since Konrad’s life seems to have revolved around making and serving beer, it’s probably safe to assume he was fermenting something soon after his arrival.

By the close of the 1840s, though, we know that Konrad’s brewing operation was expanding. In July of 1849, he leased property on the east side of Lake Street along the shore of Lake Winnebago and by the end of the year, Konrad was successful enough to make his living brewing beer. But just barely. In 1850 Konrad estimated the worth of his brewery to be $500 or the equivalent of what today would be about $14,000. It was a small brewery in a small town. And it didn’t last long. It appears that by the time Oshkosh became a city in 1853, Konrad was ready to move on. Maybe he wasn’t fond of the fourth article in the city charter, which allowed for the city to license and tax anyone “dealing in spirituous, fermented or vinous liquors”.

After leaving Oshkosh, Konrad settled in Weyauwega where he continued to brew beer and later established a distillery. In the last years of his life, Jacob Konrad ran a saloon in Sniderville, about 35 miles north of Oshkosh. Perhaps, Oshkosh’s first brewmaster was serving Oshkosh beer, once again.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Out and About on the Hunt For Stout

These days, the Oshkosh beer depots are being crowded with piles of Guinness Stout in advance of St. Patrick’s day. And that’s just fine. But if you crave a black beer that’s a little heartier than the Irish breed, there’s plenty of dark around town to sate your demon. The stout season has arrived, and the burnt-malt enthusiast will find no shortage of fine liquidation that’s black as the snow lining Jackson Street.

We’ll start out at Fratellos’ Fox River Brewing where they continue their tradition of bringing out a chocolate stout each February. Last year’s model was brewed with Seroogy's Chocolate. This year, they’ve gone a different route aging the beer on cocoa nibs. The result is an excellent, medium bodied stout with a reserved dark chocolate flavor. This is an exceptionally smooth stout and at 5.1% ABV it’s suitable for a few rounds. Check out Fox River brewmaster Kevin Bowen’s notes on the beer here.

Over at the north side Pick 'n Save they’ve brought in Milwaukee’s contribution to the shamrock season with Sprecher’s Irish Stout. As the bottle says, this beer is “Fire Brewed”, which means nothing and the fact that they call it an Irish Stout isn’t telling you anything, either. It lacks the dry, slightly bitter quality you look for in the style and instead comes across with a  delicious, creamy stream of coffee and chocolate flavors that have nothing in common with Ireland. They may have gotten the name wrong, but they sure got the beer right. This is a limited release so get yours now!

By this time, all but the hardcore beer freaks have stopped reading so here’s a nugget for the diehards: Festival Foods in Oshkosh is now stocking one of the best beers in the world. This week they added Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout to their line-up. This 9% stout is something of a cult classic and one of the main reasons winter still exists. Get yourself someplace quiet, dark and warm and take a half-hour or so to sip this in and notice all those incredible flavors of licorice, coffee, burnt pizza crust, chocolate... Who needs a thaw when you’ve got beer like this!

That’s enough to get started, but there’s plenty more to explore. There are barrels of great stout to be had in Oshkosh right now. At Festival you’ve got Bell’s Double Cream Stout; Bell’s Kalamazoo Stout; New Glarus’ Coffee Stout; Central Waters’ Brewhouse Coffee Stout along with their excellent imperial stout, Satin Solstice; and over at Becket’s they’re pouring a fine black named Lilja's Sasquatch Stout. If all that’s not enough fer ya, get thee to O’Marro’s where there’s always plenty of Guinness.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Mid-Century Oshkosh Brewmaster Charles Rahr III

Charles Rahr III
Charles Rahr III occupies a unique position in the pantheon of Oshkosh brewmasters. Though he came of age in the post-prohibition era, he first learned to brew from men who were steeped in the methods of nineteenth-century German brewing. Yet, Rahr was a modern brewer. As a graduate of the Seibel Institute of Technology he had learned the science behind the traditions he’d inherited. In the end, Rahr would be the last of the Oshkosh brewmasters to be versed in the science of brewing while still having a direct link to an earlier era of beer making.

Rahr’s brewing heritage recalls an age that seems especially distant now. His great-grandfather, Charles Rahr, was born in the Rhine Province of Prussia in 1836, years before the first Pilsner beer had been brewed or the discovery that yeast was responsible for fermentation had been made. After learning to brew, the elder Rahr emigrated to America in 1855 and in 1865 established The City Brewery in Oshkosh at what is now 1362 Rahr Ave. He operated the brewery until 1884 and was instrumental in the training of both his son, Charles Jr., and grandson, Carl. In 1917 Carl Rahr assumed control of brewing operations at the Rahr Brewery and in 1928 fathered a son he named Charles Rahr III.

For the young Charles Rahr III, brewing beer was part of everyday life. “I grew up across the street from the brewery,” Rahr recalls, “and from a very young age I helped out around the brewery. Even as a little kid I used to watch my dad brew the beer. It was our life.”

By the time he reached adulthood, Rahr was already well acquainted with the life of a practical brewer and after graduating from high-school, he balanced what he’d learned in the brewery with a more formal education in the business side of the operation. He attended the Oshkosh State College and later the Oshkosh Business College before taking brewing courses at the Seibel Institute in Chicago. By 1952 Rahr was back in Oshkosh and back at the brewery.

As the new brewmaster of the Rahr Brewing Company, Rahr picked up where his father had left off, brewing a distinctive beer that had a dedicated following in the Oshkosh area. In comparison to other lagers of the period, Rahr’s Elk’s Head Beer was something different. According to Rahr, the beer had changed little over the years and was essentially the same as that which the Rahr family had brewed prior to Prohibition. The composition of the beer confirms this. Four separate grains were used in the production of Elk’s Head Beer resulting in a lager that would have had less in common with its single-malt contemporaries than it would have with many of today’s craft beers.

At a time when most American breweries were doing all they could to make their product ever more bland and indistinguishable, Rahr’s Elk’s Head Beer harkened back to an earlier period. At the same time, Rahr Brewing was a precursor of things to come. Today we would recognize it as an artisanal brewery, making quality beer in small batches for a local audience. It was a neighborhood brewery surrounded by homes where much of the process was hands-on and Rahr remembers well the effort that went into brewing each batch. “We had a beautiful set-up for our brewhouse,” he says, “but making the beer took a lot of hard work.”

The process would typically begin a day before the actual brew day when Rahr would prepare the water for brewing and begin grinding the malt. The specially designed malt mill Rahr used came from the Gettleman Brewery of Milwaukee and was configured to tear apart the husk of the grain instead of crushing it, as was typically done. Rahr stresses that these seemingly small differences were important to the final product. “All of the brewers had access to the same or very similar ingredients,” he says. “What set you apart were the techniques you used to make the beer.”

Rahr usually brewed beer two or three days a week with brew days often beginning as early as 2:00 a.m. “It was a long day,” Rahr says and much of it was dedicated to an elaborate step mashing process that took place in a mash tun that could produce just over 100 barrels of wort. According to Rahr, “A large mash could take as long as five hours to complete.” Separating the wort from the grain and clearing it would often add another couple of hours as Rahr was a stickler for producing a clean wort. “That was an important part of it,” he says. “The wort had to be clear before it went into the brew kettle.”

After transfer into a steam-heated kettle acquired from Blatz Brewing, the wort would be brought to a boil. Rahr would then add the first of the beer’s three hop additions. Rahr Brewing used American grown hops from the Yakima Valley of Washington that would arrive at the brewery in bails. “We’d get bails and bails of those hops,” Rahr says, “and they had to be added to the kettle by hand. That part of it was strenuous.” After boiling for more than an hour, the wort was strained to remove the hops and passed over a chiller where it would cool to about 50º before being transferred to a fermentation vessel.

In the latter years of the Rahr brewery, the yeast used to ferment the beer was also supplied by Gettleman Brewery. “We’d go down to Milwaukee to get the yeast and bring it back in big, insulated milk cans to ensure that it stayed fresh,” Rahr says.
A typical fermentation would last about a week and when fermentation was complete the beer would be taken off the yeast and stored in a lagering tank in the cellar of the brewery where it would be held at a low temperature. Here the beer was given time to clarify, age and mellow before being carbonated with CO2 and packaged. If all went well, the beer could be ready for sale in about a month.

But it didn’t always go well. Rahr remembers a time when he missed one of the temperature raises while he was conducting the mash. The result would have been virtually unnoticeable to the average drinker. “We were very particular about our beer, though,” Rahr says. “I couldn’t let it go like that. We went back and blended that beer with another to be certain that the quality of the beer wouldn’t suffer.”

By the middle of the 1950s, though, quality beer was becoming a thing of the past. The age of industrial lager was here. Small Wisconsin breweries producing flavorful beer were forced to the margins by brewing corporations with inflated advertising budgets. Beer became less about flavor and more about image as the homogenization of taste was conflated with modernity and progress. The demand for quality beer rapidly shrank. Rahr Brewing faced the same bleak fate that beset countless other small brewers. From 1954 to 1955 sales at Rahr Brewing fell by 35%. When the brewery closed in 1956 Rahr was on course to produce less than 3,000 barrels for the year. The end of an era had arrived.

After the brewery closed, Charles Rahr III left brewing behind and eventually settled into a career as the director of Highland Memorial Park in Appleton where he worked for more than 20 years until his retirement. A half century later, though, he still often thinks about his family’s brewery. “You can’t help but think about it when you were there that many years,” he says. And the brewmaster in him still takes pride in his beer. “We were happy with our beer. We had a very good product. There was no horsing around. We purchased good ingredients and we knew how to use them!”

Monday, February 21, 2011

It’s Rhizome Time!

A brief message from another season...
This may seem absurd in the face of yesterday’s terrific snow dump, but now is the time to start thinking about planting hops. The Cellar homebrew supply shop in Fond du Lac has begun taking pre-orders for hop rhizomes. If you’re considering growing your own this summer, you’ll need to get the ball rolling now so that you’ll have something to put in the ground when the Spring planting season arrives.

The Cellar is making available Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Fuggle, Glacier, Goldings, Hallertau, Horizon, Magnum, Northern Brewer, Nugget, Tettnanger, and Willamette rhizomes. Each of these are well suited to our climate and odds are if you plant early you’ll be able to brew with them this fall. And at $5.99 they’re a steal.

To place your order contact Dave at The Cellar.

We now return to our regularly scheduled shoveling.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Climbing the IBU Ladder at Dublin’s

If you’re a lover of hops, you now have a golden opportunity to indulge your passion at Dublin’s in Oshkosh. Dublin’s currently has three American IPAs on tap that are practically begging for a vertical tasting that amounts to a running climb up the IBU ladder. Let’s get to it!

Start with Dogfish Head’s 60 Minute IPA
• IBU: 60
• ABV: 6%
The Northwestern hop goodness of this IPA is nicely balanced by a dry finish that makes it perfect for calibrating your palate and preparing you for the bitter indulgence to come.

Next, draw a pint of New Belgium's Ranger IPA.
• IBU: 70
• ABV: 6.6%
You’re first gulp of this will give you a feel for what 10 additional IBUs add to a beer. This ale has a beautiful melding of floral and citrus hop flavors with just enough malt lingering in the background to smooth things out.

Finish with Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale.
• IBU: 117 (estimated)
• ABV: 7.2%
If you love hops, here is a beer that has the potential to forever alter your sensibilities. After this, few beers will ever seem quite hoppy enough. Everything about it is outsized. The hop aroma and flavors are huge with a bitterness that quickly chisels away its very substantial malt base. You owe it to yourself to try this beer at least once.

All that aside, you might want to keep your eye on the Dublin’s Tap List. They’ve got a good line-up right now and Steve at Dublin’s says they have a great bunch of beers coming in including Tyranena’s Down 'N Dirty Chocolate Oatmeal Stout, Sprecher’s Abbey Triple, and Dogfish Head’s Raison D'Etre. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Beginning of the Oshkosh Brewing Company: The Brewery that Dared Not Speak its Name

On March 21, 1894 the Oshkosh Brewing Company was formed upon the merger of three Oshkosh breweries in danger of succumbing to a ruinous economy and a torrent of Milwaukee beer. The combine brought together Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery, located on the east side of the 1600 block of Doty Street; John Glatz and Son’s Union Brewery, at the foot of Doty Street; and the Gambrinus Brewery of Lorenz Kuenzl, situated in the area currently addressed as 1239 Harney Ave. The oldest brewery in Oshkosh, the Charles Rahr Brewery, remained the lone hold-out leaving it as the last family-owned brewery in Oshkosh.

1894 was a difficult year for the City of Oshkosh and the Oshkosh brewers in particular. Two of the nation’s largest breweries, Schlitz and Pabst, both of Milwaukee, were zeroing in on Oshkosh’s notoriously rapacious beer drinkers. Each company now had distribution centers in the city and were shipping beer in by the train load. Making matters worse was Oshkosh’s faltering economy. The depression that followed the panic of 1893 was exacerbated here as owners of the seven large Oshkosh millworks laid off workers and cut the wages of those they still employed. Faced with the prospect of a contracting market that was no longer strictly their own, the Oshkosh brewers were forced into a defensive posture. If they wished to survive, they had little choice but to join forces.

That the Oshkosh breweries should combine took nobody by surprise. The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern had earlier published a piece predicting the likely merger, but when the inevitable happened, the principals still attempted, in vain, to keep the matter private.

The Articles of Incorporation for the Oshkosh Brewing Company are entombed in the basement of the Winnebago County Courthouse and hand written in pencil at the top of the document are the fading words “Do not publish”. The admonition accomplished nothing. Within a week of the document being signed, the Oshkosh papers were reporting the details of the merger. Commenting on the new company’s lack of ebullience, the Oshkosh Times noted that the “interested parties are very reticent about the matter and for some reason have attempted to keep it out of the papers.”

From the Oshkosh Brewing Company's Articles of Incorporation.

Even after it had been outed, the Oshkosh Brewing Company maintained a reluctance to recognize its own existence. In the weeks that followed the merger, advertisements for the separate breweries continued to portray them as independent entities. 

Wisconsin Telegraph, April, 1894.

It would be almost two months after the company had formed before the Oshkosh Brewing Company finally owned up to itself. On May 18, 1894 the Oshkosh Brewing Company formally introduced itself through an advertisement in the Wisconsin Telegraph, a German language newspaper with offices just south of Main Street on Waugoo Ave. The advertisement goes well beyond the typical beer ad of the day. Framing a picture that is arranged as a composite of the three separate breweries, the advertisement lists all of the office holders of the new company, each of the six beers that it produced and the six bottlers of its product.

Wisconsin Telegraph, May 18, 1894.

Yet, it would take time for the Oshkosh Brewing Company to become completely comfortable within its own skin. Three years after the merger, the company was still running advertisements delineating  the Brooklyn Brewery and the Union Brewery. But by the late 1890s the old identities would give way to a more cohesive approach. And it would take a new threat to make that happen.

As the forces for Prohibition gathered steam, the Oshkosh Brewing Company took pains to point out all that it contributed to the community. From the 35 men it employed to the $40,000 it paid annually in taxes and insurance, the Oshkosh Brewing Company wanted it known that its survival was vital to the welfare of Oshkosh. The brewery that had taken its name from the city it called home had finally come into its own.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Gearing up for Hops & Props 2011

Our wait is nearly over. The 2011 edition of Hops & Props, Oshkosh’s premier beer festival, is just a few weeks away. If you’ve been thinking about attending, now is the time to make your plans.

Hops & Props 2011 will take place Saturday, March 5 at the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh from 6:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tickets for the tasting are $60; or if you’d like to go all-in, you can sign-up for the $100 VIP Beer School and Dinner hosted by Jamie Mastian of New Belgium Brewing and Becket’s Chef Mike Buckarma. The VIP ticket includes admission to the festival.

This year there will be more than 50 breweries pouring several hundred beers at Hops & Props. It’s more than you’ll ever be able to take in, so a little planning on that side of the gate won’t hurt either. To help you chart your course, here’s the Hops & Props 2011 beer list. I’m looking forward to checking out the Utah Brewers Cooperative, whose beers we’ve yet to see around here. They’ll be bringing in a couple I’m not going to miss.

Tickets for Hops & Props 2011 can be purchased online, over the phone or in person at the EAA AirVenture Museum. All the information you’ll need to get yours can be found here. Keep in mind, this is typically a sell-out event so don’t wait too long before moving on this one.