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 50ยบ 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.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Have a Beer with Jim Lundstrom this Sunday at O'Marro's

Let’s give this another go... Back in December there was to be a benefit for the Real Beer Man, Jim Lundstrom, who last year was run over by a ¾-ton truck while riding his bike. Lundstrom was uninsured at the time of the accident and was left with a smashed hand, a fractured knee and an overwhelming pile of medical bills. Unfortunately, the original benefit was scrubbed thanks to the first big snowstorm of the season, but now the time has come to give it another shot.

This Sunday (Feb. 13) beginning at 4 p.m. the Real Beer Man Needs Rehab Benefit will take place at O’Marro’s Public House in Oshkosh. There will be live music from Bobby Evans, The Mad Polecats, Mike Engle, Iggy Rae Vicious and Ryan Mahoney & the Man Grenade Explosion; along with beer specials, food, raffles and more. Best of all, you get to have a real beer with the Real Beer Man.

Over the years, Lundstrom has done plenty for the Oshkosh beer scene. He was a founding member of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers and while working for the Oshkosh Northwestern was one of the first reporters here to write about quality beer, a mission that he continues with his Real Beer Man column in The Scene. This Sunday, let’s show Jim our appreciation and have a great time doing it.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Central Waters Has an Answer to February

Here’s the best antidote I can think of for our currently frigid state: If you can get your car started, crank it up and steer it to Festival Foods in Oshkosh where they now have the 2011 models of Central Waters’ Peruvian Morning and Bourbon Barrel Barley Wine. If these two behemoths don’t warm you up, consider yourself ready for the worms.

The Peruvian Morning is an 8.5% imperial stout made with fresh roasted coffee and aged in bourbon barrels. It’s an incredible beer. Outsized chocolate and bourbon fumes lead you to a delicious swirl of boozed-up coffee flavors that melt into a nice and easy landing that’s full of sweet vanilla. This is the best beer I’ve had since Saturday.

If Peruvian Morning isn’t big enough for you, go straight to the 11.5% Bourbon Barrel Barleywine. There’s so much going on with this one that it’s nearly overwhelming. The barrel aging produces a somewhat piercing bourbon aroma, but the flavor of the beer is much more settled. It starts like a liquid dose of turbinado sugar giving way to a jolt of alcoholic sweetness that makes your face glow. The hefty blush of caramelized dark fruit flavors that follow will coat your mouth and grip your insides. This beer is a physical experience! It’s quite good right now, but I’m really looking forward to seeing what it tastes like in a few more months (and if I can hold out, a couple more years).

Festival Foods in Oshkosh has a very limited supply of both of these beers. Four packs are going for $10.99 and they’re worth every penny.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Oshkosh’s Contribution to Great American Craft Beer

Our own Fox River Brewing finds itself rubbing shoulders with the heavyweights of American craft beer in Andy Crouch’s recently released book, Great American Craft Beer. Crouch’s book is a panoramic snapshot of the American Craft beer scene with more than 300 profiles of noteworthy beers and he’s selected Fox River’s Winnebago Wheat as one of four American-brewed Hefeweizens for inclusion, calling it an “excellent” example of the style.

Good enough for me. It’s been a while since I’d had a Winnebago Wheat so seeing the Crouch book prompted me to go pick up a growler of it. I’d forgotten how good this beer can be. It’s light bodied and extremely easy to drink, but its billowing flavors of banana and clove make it continually interesting. And it reminded me of summer. We could all use a little of that.

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Book on the Breweries of Oshkosh

In the early 1970s, Ron Akin and his son David were hunting for partridge in Forest County when they spotted a few cone-top beer cans that had been discarded alongside the trail they were walking. For David, the discovery was the start to a beer can collection that would eventually number over 1,200 and for Ron it triggered a lifelong passion for the history and memorabilia of the breweries of Wisconsin and those of Oshkosh in particular. Now, his fascination will culminate in a book.

Ron Akin is currently at work putting together a book that will tell the story of Oshkosh’s brewing past. His intention is to produce a richly illustrated volume that will give an overview of the history of commercial brewing in Oshkosh supported by a prodigious collection of photographs of Oshkosh brewery advertising from the pre-phobition era though the early 1970s.

Most of Ron’s initial research has been completed, but he’s at a point where he he’d like to collect stories from people who were associated with the breweries of Oshkosh. Here’s where we can help. If you are aware of a person who may have had a connection with any of the Oshkosh breweries, please contact Ron Akin via email at Ron hopes to finish this project within the year, so if you have a lead, he’d appreciate hearing from you as soon as possible.

In the meantime, you can get a glimpse into what Ron has in the works, by stopping by the Oshkosh Public Library and checking out the DVD entitled The History and Advertising of the Oshkosh Brewing Co. (go to the Oshkosh Public Library website and search Akin, Ron). The DVD captures the lecture Ron gave about the Oshkosh Brewing Company at the Grand Opera House in 2003 as part of the Oshkosh Sesquicentennial speakers series.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Of Beer and Busses and Hatchets Buried

Smoked beer is a fairly rare bird. There aren’t many of them produced and those that are can’t seem to find their way to Oshkosh. But that’s all changed, now... at least for the time being. New Glarus Brewing recently released their Smoked Rye Ale and, for the moment, it’s readily available here in town. If you’ve never indulged in the fuming pleasure of a beer that smells like it spent all night hanging around a campfire, here’s your chance.

Smoked Rye Ale is brewed with smoked malts from Chilton, Wisconsin and Bamberg, Germany and the charred aromatics of those malts are what makes this beer. The nose is so overtly smokey that it’s influence on the taste is nearly overwhelming and if you take this beer in anything other than sips you’re going to feel as if you’re being asphyxiated. Take it slow, though, and you’ll get a nice range of flavors from sweet, dark fruit to barbecue sauce with a finish that’s somewhat sour and a little boozy. It’s an excellent beer, but to take the most from it, pair it with a food that can stand up to its strong flavors. Go with a good smoked cheddar or smoked salmon. Pickled herring makes for a nice match, too. Smoked Rye Ale is available at Festival Foods in Oshkosh and should be making its way to all the other good beer outlets in town soon.

Fond du Lac Brewfest
The big Brewfest in Fondy is this Saturday from 3 to 7pm. There are still a few tickets available at O’Marro’s Public House, so if you’ve been sitting on the fence about this one, it’s time to get off that fence and get on the bus. Shawn at O’Marro’s says he’s added a second bus to the junket that will depart from O’Marro’s Public House 2:00 pm Saturday. It’s shaping up to be a good festival featuring beers from a number of Wisconsin brewers such as Riverside (West Bend), Black Husky (Pembine) and  The Grumpy Troll (Mount Horeb) that you won’t find outside of the small regions they serve. More info here.

Beer Mend
Back in the early 90s, Oshkosh was fortunate to have a couple of newspaper men named Todd Haefer and Jim Lundstrom who were dedicated beer enthusiasts. Lucky for Oshkosh, neither was shy about sharing their passion for good beer in the local paper. Unfortunately, Haefer and Lundstrom had a somewhat public falling out, but all that’s in the past. Well, maybe not all of it. Check out this new article by Lundstrom on the Scene website where Lundstrom gives his side of the story and tells of the recent reunion the two had at O’Marro’s Public House. And take a look at that picture on the left. That’s Lundstrom on the left and Haeffer on the right. But who’s the too-happy guy in the middle wearing the Pabst shirt? They’ll let any kind of freak run loose in this town, won’t they?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Barley’s Wednesday Night Beer Festival

To hell with this snow, let’s drink some beer! And tomorrow night Barley and Hops will be the place to do it. Barley’s will be staging another of their Wednesday night beer festivals and this time the featured brewery is the Samuel Adams Boston Beer Company. Nate from Barley’s says they’ll have about two-dozen Sam Adams brews to try, along with about 25 other beers, boozes and wines for your sampling pleasure. If you go, be sure to check out the Sam Adams Imperial Series. These beer have been pretty much absent from our area for the past year, which is a shame because the series includes a couple of the best beers Sam Adams makes (the Double Bock and Imperial Stout especially stand-out).

The tasting runs Wednesday, February 2 from 7:00 - 10:00pm. At $15 it’s easily the best beer deal in town and if you slide in and get your ticket before hand it’s just $10. It’s a great deal. We, the beer freaks of Oshkosh, are lucky to have Nate at Barley’s keeping the good suds flowing.