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.