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.