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.

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