Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide (Gone Hunting For Beer)

The typing here will cease for a couple weeks while I do some summer beer hunting. And guiding my stumble will be Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide by Kevin Revolinski. This is the second edition of Revolinski’s field manual for beer drinking in our state. It has everything you could want in a barley-based travelogue.

Revolinski profiles almost 100 Wisconsin breweries, including a couple that have yet to open. The book features a good overview of each brewery or brew pub, along with beer lists, annual production and points of interest nearby. I especially like how he often illustrates the links these breweries have to the history and beer culture of their surrounding communities. You’ll have to get the book to see what he does in that regard with Oshkosh; it certainly put a smile on my face. The writing is smart and lively and the geekdom always takes a backseat to the primary aim – a good time with good beer. If you’ve ever seen any of the more typically British beer guides you know what an unsmiling affair these kinds of tomes can turn into. None of that, here.

Paging through this, I’m amazed by what has occurred in Wisconsin since 1985 when Randy Sprecher opened his microbrewery in Milwaukee and initiated the new wave of craft brewing here. The explosion of beer making in Wisconsin since then has been a great thing for us beer lovers. And the momentum seems to be gaining. There have been at least 20 new breweries launched in the state since the first edition of Revolinksi’s guide came out in 2010. And when you look at the quantities some of these places are producing – Courthouse Pub in Manitowoc, for example, with its annual production of just 48 barrels – it’s almost as if we’ve revived the neighborhood and farmhouse brewing culture of Wisconsin as it existed in the pre-Civil War period. Although I have to admit, that romantic notion goes to shit pretty quickly when you consider the 130,000 bbls or so New Glarus will likely produce this year.

One last thing: if you buy this book make sure you get the second edition, which was released last November and is still quite fresh. This LINK will take you to Amazon and that edition of the guide. For more info, go to Kevin Revolinski’s website about the book.

Have a great holiday, see you all in a couple weeks. Prost!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Pumpernickel Rye Now at Oblio's

Last week, I posted some notes about Oshkosh homebrewer Mike Engel and the beer he recently brewed at Stone Arch Brew House in Appleton. Mike’s Pumpernickel Rye made its debut this past weekend at Brews n’ Blues. But if you missed out on that, you can still get in on Mike’s beer. Oblio’s now has Pumpernickel Rye on tap and it’s tasting great. Just look at that happy homebrewer there tapping his own beer. Congratulations, Mike!
Mike Engel with his Pumpernickel Rye at Oblio's

Friday, June 21, 2013

Beer Ads in Oshkosh No. 13: One Hundred Years Ago Today – The Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh

From the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; June 21, 1913
Here’s a repost of a beauty that’s 100 years old today. It appeared in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern on June 21, 1913 upon the opening of the new Peoples Brewing Company at what is now 1506 South Main St. in Oshkosh. It’s a nice summation of what the new brewery was all about and includes an introduction to the first two beers the brewery offered. Asterweiss, was their pasteurized, light-bodied, low-alcohol, beer sold in clear bottles wrapped in paper. How elegant. More interesting was the “Standard” beer. This would eventually come to be known as Aristos. It was a full-bodied, unpasteurized draught beer aged in wooden barrels and served from brown, pint bottles or wooden kegs. This is the one that would be the big seller in Oshkosh and win over a large slice of the City’s saloon trade.

There’s also an interesting subtext to this ad. In the lower center portion of the ad are the words, “A Trial Is All We Ask.” It was the brewery’s way of asking the public to disregard the rumors being spread by its cross-street rival, the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC). In the months leading up to the opening of Peoples Brewing, OBC had done what it could to smear the reputation of the new brewery. OBC accused Peoples of making bad beer even before a drop of it had been sold out of the new brewery. At Peoples they shrugged off the slander. Early ads for Peoples asked Oshkoshers to decide for themselves if their beer was any good. The new brewery received the answer it wanted. Peoples Brewing was a success from the start and would outlast the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Beginnings of Brews n’ Blues

Crowd shot at an early Brews n' Blues
“Now we’re seeing a rebirth. Good beer is here to stay.” 
Janic Cieszynski was looking back upon the inaugural Brews n’ Blues. It had been the first significant beer festival in Oshkosh and Cieszynski, who co-chaired the event for the Oshkosh Jaycees, was feeling a sense of relief. In the days before the beer tasting, there had been some worry. Cieszynski had struggled to get brewers to commit to the new festival. By the time the taps began flowing at noon on Sunday, July 21, 1996, he had secured commitments from only 18 brewers who brought in just over 40 different beers. It wasn’t quite the banquet of lager and ale that Cieszynski had hoped to present. It didn’t matter. The crowd loved it. More than 600 people gathered at Riverside Park for that first festival. Tickets had sold for $15 in advance and $18 at the door and the big gate galvanized Cieszynski and the Jaycees. Brews n’ Blues became an annual event.

The following year things went even better. “A lot of brewers who didn’t come last year heard through the grapevine that it was a well-run event,” Cieszynski told the Northwestern during the run-up to the ‘97 festival. “The good feedback made it easier this year for us to sign up brewers.” The number of beers presented almost doubled and Brews n’ Blues took on a more recognizable shape. The event was moved to Saturday. The local homebrewing club, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers, made their first appearance.

Brews n’ Blues has since become a fixture on the Oshkosh beer scene. This year there’ll be over 40 breweries represented pouring well over 100 beers. And the local homebrewing presence will be greater than ever. The Society of Oshkosh Brewers along with homebrewers from Fond du Lac and Appleton, will bring in almost as many different beers, meads and wines as were offered in total at that first Brews n’ Blues in 1996. If you’re at this year’s festival on Saturday, take a moment to look around and recall what Janic Cieszynski had to say after that first beer fest by the river. “Good beer is here to stay.” Saturday afternoon at the Leach, will confirm it.

Update: the backstory on how Brews n' Blues was born is here.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Oshkosh Beer Sampler 028: Buffalo Mike's Pumpernickel Rye

A slanted and endless survey of what’s pouring in Oshkosh, tallied one beer at a time.

What: Buffalo Mike's Pumpernickel Rye, a rustic ale brewed with flaked rye, molasses and caraway seeds.

Where: Brews n’ Blues 2013 happening this Saturday, June 22 at the Leach Amphitheater, Oshkosh. For more info on the beer fest go HERE.

Why: Because aside from its unique flavor, this beer has a good story. But first, let’s taste. I don’t have one in front of me, but I’m pretty sure I’ve drank enough of this beer to get it right. It pours to a rich amber and as it curls into the glass you get the unmistakable aroma of fresh rye bread. This is one of those beers that’s so aromatically evocative of the thing that inspired it that you’ll want to spend a few moments just breathing it in. The aroma anticipates the flavor in every respect. It’s bready and soft with a gentle twist of sweet and sour from the molasses and flaked rye. The caraway seeds add just enough spice to make it a dead ringer for rye bread. This would go perfect with a Limburger cheese sandwich or a reuben piled with sauerkraut.

The Story: Mike Engel of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers has been brewing his Pumpernickel Rye for years. He’s also made a habit of sharing it at local beer festivals. Along the way, his humble homebrew managed to pick up a solid following. Then last April, Engel was pouring his beer at a Barley & Hops beer sampling. The featured brewery at the sampling was Stone Arch of Appleton. Three of the brewers from Stone Arch were on hand that night. After a few samples, they invited Engel over to their place to brew a big batch of his beer on their 7-barrel system. And so he did. The beer will have its launch at Brews n’ Blues where Engel will be serving his homebrewed Pumpernickel Rye alongside the commercially brewed version. If you’re at Brews n’ Blues on Saturday, stop by the Society of Oshkosh Brewers’ tent and get a few snorts of both. If you can’t make that, the commercial version of the beer will be available on draught at the Stone Cellar Brewpub in Appleton.

To see Mike Engel talk about his Pumpernickel Rye, go HERE for a quick video that we shot during his brew day Stone Arch.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A History of Hop Growing in Oshkosh

There are towering plants you’ll find growing in Oshkosh that smell of beer. They are hop plants and the cones that flower from them provide the distinctive aroma and tang of bitterness that is essential to beer. The hops growing in Oshkosh these days are often tended by homebrewers for use in their brewing. Unknown to many of these brewers, they’re also cultivating a connection to Oshkosh’s past.

It began more than 150 years ago. The Johnny Appleseed of hops in Oshkosh was a man named John Braley. Born in Vermont in 1819, Braley moved to Winnebago County in the early 1850s. He may have arrived with hop rhizomes in tow. During the 1840s, Braley worked as a farmer in the heart of Vermont’s hop belt at a time when hop production there was booming. Other Vermonters took their hops to California and, in turn, seeded the major hop growing regions of the Pacific Northwest. Braley came to Oshkosh.

In June 1850, John Braley purchased 53 acres of land from the estate of the recently deceased James Knaggs, the legendary Oshkosh ferryman. Braley continued buying property in what would become Oshkosh until he had amassed more than 100 acres. His land was shoulder to shoulder with what would become Riverside Cemetery. It was bounded on the south by what is now Murdock Ave.; on the east by Vinland St.; and ran as far north as Winchester Ave.

Braley’s first crop of hops were picked in the late summer of 1854. He wanted word to get out about his endeavor, so Braley took some of his cuttings into town. The editor of the Oshkosh Daily Courier was impressed.
HOPS.—We were shown on Saturday last some very fine samples of Hops which were raised on the farm of Mr. JOHN BRALEY, near this city. We are not aware that the cultivation of Hops has heretofore been attempted in this country, but should think from the success which has attended MR. BRALEY'S efforts this season, that our farmers would do well to direct their attention to this matter.
Oshkosh Daily Courier, September 11, 1854
The Hop Craze Hits Oshkosh
Wisconsin Hop Pickers in the 1860s
Braley’s timing was just about perfect. Oshkosh already had two breweries. Four more were on their way. And within 30 miles of Oshkosh, another nine breweries were either already in operation or soon to be. They all needed hops. Increased demand helped to cause a spike in hop prices, which more than doubled over the coming decade. By 1865, hops in Winnebago County were selling for as much as 65 cents a pound. It wasn’t long before Braley found himself just one of many hop farmers in the area. The
“hop craze” was on.

By the early 1860s, Wisconsin was growing 20 percent of the nation’s hops with Winnebago County becoming the fourth largest producer in the state. The county’s hop production grew prodigiously, going from 17,000 pounds in 1860 to 67,000 pounds by 1865. The production spike would continue as the decade progressed. Delhi, just west of Omro, grew into the epicenter of hop production in Winnebago County. Much of Delhi’s productive acreage was devoted to hop farming. The small village was home to three hop mills and a hop press and at harvest time armies of pickers would flow into Delhi. After drying and baling, the hops were sent by boat to Oshkosh for distribution to breweries here and beyond.

If you’re a drinker of hop-forward beers, you’ve probably begun to wonder what sort of hops were being grown here in the 1800s. Agricultural reports from the period rarely specify the type of hop being grown, but when names do arise the variety that tends to be mentioned is Cluster. Though there are no true landrace, or native, hops grown in America, Cluster is about as close as you’ll get to an indigenous strain. Its genetic make-up shows a mix American and European stock that resulted from cross-pollination of native plants with plants from Europe. The breed grows exceedingly well in this area and was a varietal that a grower such as Braley would have almost certainly been familiar with.

John Braley sold his farm in 1866 and moved to Fond du Lac, but  hop growing in this area was now firmly established. Hop farms were springing up even within the city limits of Oshkosh. Because hops grow vertically, often as high as 25 feet, it was possible for city dwellers to develop an urban plot into a somewhat lucrative piece of farmland. During the latter half of the 1860s, hop yards dotted the city. Hops were being grown on the east side of Oshkosh on Pearl Ave.; on the north side on Jackson St.; and west of the river on Punhoqua St. In 1865, the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern chimed in on the hop explosion. The paper foretold that, “Hereafter (hops) will constitute a very important item in the production of this county.”

That prediction was dead wrong. Overproduction led to a crash in hop prices and the subsequent disruption of hop growing here. In 1870, Winnebago County produced 175,000 pounds of hops. Within 10 years, hop production in the county had dwindled to less than 25,000 pounds. Compounding the drop in prices was the loss of the local market. Brewing in Oshkosh was being transformed during the period into an industrial enterprise. As that happened, the tie to local agriculture diminished. Brewers were now sourcing their ingredients from brokers who offered hops from as far away as Bohemia. The “hop craze” had ended and it took the hop yards of Oshkosh with it. It would be another 40 years before people in Oshkosh began growing hops again for brewing. It would take a strident, overreaching law to inspire the return of hop growing in the city.

A Second and Third Wave
Prohibition weaseled its way into Oshkosh in 1919 and found few friends upon its arrival. Beer may have suddenly become illegal, but that didn’t stop the people of Oshkosh from drinking it. And the new “near beers” being made here were no substitute for the real thing. Historian Inky Jungwirth grew up on the south side of Oshkosh and remembers the attitude of his elders. “The 6th ward had a big German population and those people demanded the best beer,” Jungwirth says. One way or another, they were going to have it.

Throughout the 1920s, homebrewing flourished in Oshkosh. On a larger scale, wildcat breweries were established that began producing beer in quantity. Local hops were again in demand and an underground market sprang up to supply them. “Hop production in this area took off like a jet stream,” Jungwirth says. But it appears to have almost as quickly been grounded. When Prohibition ended in 1933, legal beer returned. The wildcat brewers went out of business and homebrewing all but vanished. Once again, there was little call for hop growers in Oshkosh.

Hops growing in Oshkosh
The seed of the third wave of hop growing in Oshkosh was planted in 1978 when federal restrictions were removed on beer brewed at home for personal use. The homebrewing scene in Oshkosh gathered steam throughout the 1980s and in 1991 the city’s first homebrew club, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers, was established. As homebrewers grew adept at crafting quality beer, some began turning their attention to sourcing their own ingredients. Growing hops became a natural extension of their hobby. By the mid-1990s, several members of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers were growing their own hops for use in the beer they made.

Today you can again find hops growing in almost every section of the city. In terms of poundages produced we’re no match for the hop growers of the 1870s, but when it comes to variety we’ve far surpassed our forebears. This is my fourth summer growing hops and I find myself typical of other hop gardeners I’ve met. I grow six varieties of hops and usually produce more cones than I can possibly use in a year of homebrewing. The plants grow fast and tall and by July some have already reached a height of 20 feet. This summer looks to be an especially bountiful one. I’m expecting a yield of excellent quality when I harvest in early September. Perhaps they’ll be the equal of the “very fine samples” that John Braley first raised here in 1854.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The News on Brews n’ Blues

Oshkosh’s big, summer beer bash is coming up quick. The 18th annual Brews n’ Blues Festival is next Saturday, June 22 at the Leach Amphitheater. The folks from the Oshkosh Jaycees who throw this party have just posted a lineup of some of the beers that’ll be pouring. You can check that out HERE. A few that are on my short list are Southern Tier's Plum Noir, a plum infused Porter; Ommegang’s Fleur De Houblon, A Belgian Pale Ale that’s been getting great reviews; and New Holland’s mighty Dragon's Milk, a barrel-aged beast of an Imperial Stout that tastes better every time I try it. As you can see from the list, they’re also bringing in quite a few more Ciders this year. If you haven’t had the opportunity to discover how enjoyable a well-made Cider can be, this would be the time to dip in.

And that’s all very nice, but I’ve intentionally buried the lead. Let me clue you in on where the real action is going to be: the Society of Oshkosh Brewers tent. This year, the SOBs are bringing in a banquet of unique brews, meads and wines. Not to take anything away from the pro-brewers at the fest, but there’s just no way they can match the variety that’ll be flowing at the SOB table. The club will have at least 16 different homebrews pouring throughout the afternoon and evening, along with another half-dozen or so meads and wines. This is the kind of stuff, you just can’t buy.

One more thing; there’s going to be a couple of special brews at the SOB tent that haven’t been poured side-by-side in Oshkosh in more than 40 years. I’ve brewed a clone of Chief Oshkosh Beer and Jody Cleveland has brewed a clone of Peoples Beer. Both brews are based upon recipes of the original beers that were made in Oshkosh until the early 1970s. This is a rare chance to get a taste of our lost, local favorites.

Tickets for Brews n’ Blues are available at Oblios, O’Marro’s and at Festival Foods in Oshkosh, Fond du Lac and Appleton. They can also be purchased online HERE. Tickets are $35 in advance or $45 at the door. There’s also a limited VIP ticket available for $50 that includes food and other good stuff at the O’Marro’s tent. The fest runs from 4:00 – 8:00 p.m. See you there!

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Oshkosh Beer Sampler 027: New Glarus 20th Anniversary Strong Ale

A slanted and endless survey of what’s pouring in Oshkosh, tallied one beer at a time.

What: A beer that dances over the line between a Belgian Dubbel and a Belgian Strong Dark Ale. It was brewed in celebration of the 20th Anniversary of New Glarus Brewing Co.

Where: Limited supplies are available in Oshkosh at Gardina’s and Festival Foods. It’s being sold in single, 500ml bottles. They won’t be around long.

Why: Because a commemorative beer like this always raises expectations that are difficult to meet, but this one does it easily. It’s fantastic right from the start. It pours a deep, dark amber with a frothy head of large tan bubbles. The aroma is full of bubblegum (especially as it warms) and dark, candied fruit. The fruit character dominates the flavor with rich raisin and fig-like esters. It finishes with a peppery hop flavor that compliments everything that came before it. The ABV isn’t listed on the bottle, but I’m guessing it’s in the plus 9% range. It’ll definitely warm you up. This is a classic and one that could stand some cellering. It would be interesting to pull one of these out a year from now and see where she went.

What Else: Since we’re celebrating 20 years of brewing in New Glarus with this beer, how about a brief recap of where this brewery came from and where it’s headed. The New Glarus Brewing Company was launched in 1993 by husband and wife Dan and Deb Carey. Their first brew system came from Appleton’s defunct Fox Classic Brewery. Their first beer, Edel Pils, was released in October of 1993. In its first full year of operation the brewery produced 2,300 bbls of beer. The brewery’s best selling beer, Spotted Cow, was introduced in 1997. Spotted Cow now makes up more than half of the brewery’s total output and is the best selling craft beer in Wisconsin. In Oshkosh, Spotted Cow ranks second in overall draught beer sales. Despite limiting its distribution to Wisconsin since 2002, production at New Glarus has grown considerably over the last decade. In 2001, New Glarus produced 10,500 bbls of beer. By 2005, output had increased to over 40,000 bbls. Along the way, the brewery and its beers have taken numerous awards including Brewery of the Year awards from the Brewer’s Association in both 2002 and 2005. In 2008, New Glarus opened its new Hilltop Brewery and in 2011 its yearly output went over the 100,000 bbls mark for the first time. The brewery’s 2012 production was approximately 127,000 bbls, making it the largest craft brewery in Wisconsin and the 17th largest craft brewery nationally. Deb Carey has said that New Glarus Brewing has thus far turned down two offers of purchase from Anheuser-Busch. The brewery is currently undergoing another expansion that should bring its total capacity to 250,000 bbls annually.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Beer Ads in Oshkosh No. 12: Your Pappy's White Cap

Today’s exceedingly drab looking beer ad comes to us from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of June 13, 1956. It's a piece of a larger ad for the old Walter’s Food Towne, which used to be on New York Ave. And that’s not a bad price for a sixer of regional beer in those days. But that’s not the point of this. There’s a little story entwined around this one that may be of interest to geeks such as us. Here goes: Thursday last, I put up a shout out about Hinterland’s White Cap IPA, a recent arrival to the beer shelves here. Today, I thought I'd kill a little of your time by pointing out that this isn’t the first time a brew named White Cap has made its way to the beer depots of Oshkosh. There was a White Cap Beer sold here in the 1950s that was quite unlike the one we’re getting today. The old White Cap was a light-bodied, mild lager with nothing close to the hop bite of the current, ale model. The beer was brewed from 1939-1963 by the Two Rivers Beverage Company. In the Post-WWII period, White Cap was the brewery's flagship beer and the hometown favorite of Two Rivers, WI. Until everything went to hell.

In 1963, as sales lagged in the face of enormous competition from national and regional brewers alike, White Cap Beer was discontinued. Two Rivers Beverage Co. replaced White Cap with a new beer named Leibrau, a brau named in honor of the brewery’s owners; brothers George and Harold Liebich. It wasn’t enough to save them. In 1966, Two Rivers Beverage Co. closed up shop. That wasn’t the end of either White Cap or Leibrau, though. After the shuttering of the Two Rivers brewery, the Oshkosh Brewing Company acquired the label rights to Liebrau and began producing the beer here in Oshkosh. When OBC closed in 1971, Leibrau went into hiatus. But in 2007, both White Cap and Liebrau made a return when the Courthouse Pub in Manitowoc began brewing their versions of the original beers based upon recipes supplied by the Liebich family. So there you have it, the  backstory of White Cap. And if and when you drink a new White Cap, take a second to ponder what all this means. Then tell me, because I haven’t a clue.
The Liebich Bros. Introduce Liebrau
Label for Liebrau Brewed in Oshkosh

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Oshkosh Beer Sampler 026: Hinterland White Cap IPA

What: White Cap from Hinterland Brewing of Green Bay. The brewery calls it a White India Pale Ale; a mash-up of an American IPA and a Belgian Witbier.

Where: Festival Foods in Oshkosh, where they sell 6-packs of 12oz bottles (a new size for Hinterland) for $8.49.

Why: Because sometimes a good dose of hops is the only thing that will satisfy. Indulge me for a moment: for the past week, I’ve been working on a long piece about the history of hop growing in Oshkosh (that I’m hoping to post here next week). I’ve had hops on the brain for days, so when I went out scrounging for beer and saw this I grabbed it. And drank it. Glad I did. After the pour, you get a big peel of bright citrus aroma with some funky, Simcoe stink in the undertow. The Belgian aspect gets drowned out by the big shout of hops that the beer opens with. Lots of orange and pine in the initial draw, which quickly turns dry in the finish, where you get a hint of spiciness (coriander?). There’s supposed to be some wheat in here somewhere, but I can’t say I tasted it. There’s a sharp bitterness that lingers in the afterglow, but not so long as to be unpleasant. Overall, it’s a fine beer. There’s been a lot hubbub about session-able IPAs as of late and this one fits the category at just 4.2% ABV. But unlike a lot of the recent “light” IPAs, this one doesn’t grow tiresome half-way down the glass. A very nice beer for summer drinking. Hinterland continues to impress.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Homebrews n' Brews n' Blues

The June edition of the Oshkosh SCENE is now available online and at shops around town. Included is my Oshkosh Beer Garden column. This time it’s about the lead-up to this year’s Brews n’ Blues and how the Oshkosh homebrew community is helping to make it a truly local beer festival. Check it out HERE.