Thursday, November 28, 2013

Beer Ads in Oshkosh No. 20: Something to Be Thankful For

Click to Enlarge
Here’s a tasty ad that appeared in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern on November 26, 1935. The country was in the middle of the Great Depression when along comes the Oshkosh Brewing Company with something to be thankful for. The small type in the middle section of the ad is a little dodgy, but the words are worth repeating:

Chief Oshkosh
Pale Beer
(Pilsner Type)

Makes good food taste better. Blends.
It's brewed to bring out the the really delicious
flavor. After dinner settle back
for a whole day of peaceful enjoyment.
This Glass of Glowing Goodness (Chief
Oshkosh Pale Beer) will lead the way
to Thanksgiving and Good Cheer.

Have a happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The SOBs Come Up Big

Last Wednesday night the Society of Oshkosh Brewers presented a check for $7,000 to the Oshkosh Hunger Task Force. The money was the proceeds from the SOBs all-homebrew beer festival, Casks & Caskets, which took place on November 2 at the Oshkosh Convention Center. It was a great night for a great cause with over 300 people in attendance enjoying home-made beers, wines, ciders and meads. If you missed it, don’t fret; the SOBs are already talking about doing it all over again next fall.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Kulmbacher Beer in Oshkosh

1888-89 Wisconsin Gazeteer
One of the maddening things about digging into the history of brewing in Oshkosh (or most other American cities for that matter) is how little information survives concerning what the beers of the past may have tasted like or what went into their making. This is especially true of beers brewed by small, regional breweries before Prohibition. Among the crimes of Prohibition is that it effectively erased much of the detail concerning the vibrant brewing scene that existed in America during the latter half of the 1800s. The loss of continuity caused by that 13-year interruption of legal brewing disrupted the flow of information from the past. The beer returned, but much of its history was lost.

Kulmbacher is among those beers that was once brewed in Oshkosh that we know relatively little about today. The beer takes its name from its place of origin, the German town of Kulmbach, in northern Franconia, Bavaria. Kulmbach’s importance as a brewing center dates back to at least 1349 when monks made beer there. But its reputation was built on the dark lagers it began exporting in the mid-1800s. The lager that became synonymous with Kulmbach was heavy, rich and fairly well hopped. It was brewed using a specially prepared dark and dextrinous malt that made for a full-bodied beer. As the Kulmbacher style grew in popularity, brewers outside of Franconia began producing it; but in their own way. Other than color, Kulmbachers brewed outside of Kulmbach often had little in common with the Bavarian original.
1891-92 Wisconsin Gazeteer

In Oshkosh, the popularity of Kulmbacher reached its peak during the 1880s and 1890s. The style was brewed here at Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery, the Oshkosh Brewing Company and by Lorenz Kuenzl at his Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Ave. Kuenzl was the most persistent advocate of Kulmbacher in Oshkosh. His take on the style was probably more in line with the American interpretation than the Bavarian beer that inspired it. In place of a dark base malt, American brewers typically used pale malt with an addition of caramel and black malt (10-15% of the total grist) to reach the desired flavor and color. Kuenzl may have had another trick for producing his Kulmbacher. In the brewhouse, he was known to keep licorice root, an ingredient not entirely uncommon among brewers of Stout, the black-ale, older brother of Kulmbacher.

It’s unknown just how far Kuenzl and the other Kulmbacher brewers in Oshkosh may have strayed from the original style. Considering that a significant portion of their audience were recent arrivals from Germany, they might not have been able to get away with simply brewing a dark lager and calling it a Kulmbacher. There were scores of beer drinkers in Oshkosh who would have been familiar with the authentic Kulmbacher. They would have expected the Oshkosh Kulmbachers to bear more than a passing resemblance to the brew they had enjoyed in their homeland. Lacking the actual recipes, though, makes it impossible to draw definite conclusions about these beers. We’re left with mere speculation. But that’s half the damned fun of this stuff!

The other half of the fun is in brewing and/or drinking a beer that harkens back to this lost style of lager. I recently brewed a batch of Kulmbacher based upon what I know of the original, the American interpretation of it, and a whole lot of speculation concerning Brewmaster Kuenzl. The beer is black with a thick and creamy tan head. It’s a malty beer with just enough hops to keep it from being sweet. And it reminds me of a commercial beer that’s still easy to get in Oshkosh. Sprecher’s Black Bavarian is as close to a true Kulmbacher as you’re likely to find from an American brewer. When beer writer Michael Jackson sampled the beer he decided, “Perhaps it is a true example of the old Kulmbacher style. That was the note I made when I tasted the first batch, out of the lagering tank. More recent tastings have not changed my mind” Maybe this isn’t such a lost style, after all.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

December Brew Sessions at O'Marro's Public House

Here’s a first for Oshkosh: Brew School. Or how you can get your foot through the homebrew door without buying a bunch of equipment and making a mess of the kitchen.

O’Marro’s Public House will host two how-to brew sessions in December. Trained brewer Kyle Cooper will teach you how to brew all-grain beer from start to finish. The brew session will later be followed up with an exclusive release party when the beer is ready to be tapped.

The first brew session begins at noon on Sunday, December 8 where they’ll tackle Pilsner beer. That will be followed on Sunday, December 15, with a Pale Ale brewing.

The cost is $35, about what you’d expect to pay for a beer kit. A limited number of spots available for each session. To get in on the brewing, sign up at the pub or give them a call at 920-410-7735.

Check out the Facebook page HERE.
A bit more background on Brews Sessions at O’Marro’s HERE.
Let the brewing begin....

Monday, November 18, 2013

Beer Ads in Oshkosh No. 19: West End Beverage’s 50 Brands of Beer

Here’s an ad for COLD BEER that appeared in the the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern on May 28, 1954. This was for West End Beverage, which used to stand between what is now 1226 and 1236 Oshkosh Ave.  The ad isn’t much to look at, but it contains an interesting tidbit. Under that bold COLD BEER header, it says that West End was offering 50 Different Brands of beer. The thing is that in 1954 just about every one of those 50 beers would have been the same style: pale, American lager. There was probably an ale or two in the mix, but even those would have been closer to the neutral flavor profile of an American Pilsner than anything resembling the sort of ales we’re used to drinking these days. It would be like going into Festival Foods today and finding 50 different IPAs to choose from, but not a single Stout or Bock beer. That would be unthinkable to the average beer geek now, but in 1954 beer connoisseurs would have taken the situation for granted.

Those folks may have been deprived of the variety we enjoy, but they were also probably more exacting in their tastes. I’ve seen tasting notes from beer drinkers of this period and it’s clear that not all of them were just plowing the stuff down. In his book Breweries of Wisconsin, Jerry Apps provides a good glimpse into the form beer appreciation took prior to the 1960s and the decimation of Wisconsin’s regional breweries.
During threshing season in our second generation German and Polish neighborhood, the host farmer usually provided beer for the threshing crew at day’s end. A debate always ensued as to which were the better beers. Most of us could tell the difference between Point, Berliner, Blatz, Chief Oshkosh, Rahr and Fauerbach without even looking at the labels.
You think the average beer geek of today could pull that off? I doubt it. I also doubt that West End Beverage would have bothered to stock 50 different brands of beer if they didn’t have customers who expected such a selection.

Which brings me back to an axe I can’t keep from grinding. Now that we no longer have independent liquor stores in Oshkosh, we get what central command decides to give us. Try going into Festival Foods or Pick 'n Save and asking them to bring in a particular beer you’d like to have available to you. I (and others I know) have tried it at both stores and the run around you get amounts to a politely phrased “Go to hell.” I’ll bet you wouldn’t have gotten that at West End Beverage. There and at that time, the people behind the counter actually had a hand in selecting the beer they were selling. With the exception of Gardina’s, the retail beer we’re offered in Oshkosh is selected in corporate offices in Green Bay and Milwaukee. Sure, the local distributors play a role, but they’re no more accessible than the corporate folks. And so long as most of our retail beer continues to be filtered through large grocery store chains, that’s not going to change. This town could use an updated version of the old West End Beverage.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Wisconsin Brewing Co. Arrives in Oshkosh

The Wisconsin Brewing Co. is now up an running and this week its beers landed on stores shelves in Oshkosh. In case you missed it, WBC is the first Wisconsin craft brewer to start big. From its new, $11 million brewery in Verona, WI. the company is aiming to produce 20,000 barrels of beer in its first year of operation with an eye towards eventually outputting 250,000 barrels annually. Let’s put that in perspective: Wisconsin’s largest craft brewer, New Glarus Brewing, produced approximately 127,000 barrels of beer last year; while Central Waters Brewing – a mid-sized Wisconsin craft brewer – produced less than 15,000 barrels... and they’ve been in business 15 years.

Size isn’t the only thing WBC has going for it. Two of its principals, WBC president, Carl Nolan, along with Kirby Nelson, the brewery’s vice president and brewmaster, were a major part of the team responsible for building Capital Brewery into one of Wisconsin’s largest and most respected craft breweries. So when Nolan announced the launch of WBC last year, the start-up immediately gained a lot of attention.

Big deal. Is the beer any good? Depends what you’re looking for. A brewery that leaps out of the gate the way this one has needs to produce beers that will appeal to a wide base. And that’s what they’ve done. The four beers they’re leading with – Brown & Robust Porter, Amber Lager, Session IPA and American IPA –  are all familiar tasting brews. They may not be life altering, but they are well made, flavorful beers and there’s never anything wrong with that.

My favorite of the bunch is the porter. It has a chocolatey nose with a full-bodied, rounded malt flavor that sports plenty of roast and a nicely bitter finish. The American IPA is good, too. It’s a sturdy, Midwestern IPA with a chewy malt base that almost balances its wallop of hoppy pine and grapefruit flavors. The Amber Lager isn’t doing it for me. I wish that wasn’t the case. I'm a lager lover and this isn’t bad, but it has a little too much butter at the start and a little too much bitter at the end. As for the Session IPA... meh. I have no use for this style. If you want an IPA, drink an IPA, not some Shirley Temple version of a venerated ale. That said, this is as good as any of the other half-way IPAs I've tasted. If you'd like to try them all, Festival Foods is carrying the full flight.

Overall, I'd say it’s a decent start, I just wish they would have gone a little further out on a limb with one of their initial offerings. Shit, how about a good old Kellerbier or a Grätzer? I’ll bet Kirby Nelson could brew the hell out of either of those. Here's to hoping we find out.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Tuesday Night Firkin Tapping at Gardina’s

Just like the title says, they’re going to hammer the tap into another lovely keg of beer at Gardina’s on Tuesday night.

Here’s the plan straight from Gardina’s beer man, Adam Carlson:
Gardina's Beer Bar Series Installment #4 is:
Tuesday, November 19th @ 6 pm
We will be tapping a firkin of Tall Grass Brewing Co. 8-Bit Pale Ale brewed with Blackberries, Orange Peel and dry-hopped with Centennial Hops
Sure to be FABULOUS!
Don’t know what this Firkin stuff is all about? The little video below will clue you in.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Old-School IPA at Fratellos in Oshkosh

Once upon a time (about 8 years ago or so) you’d order an IPA around these parts and they’d hand you a glass of amber, nearly opaque beer with a head of creamy froth that would cling to your face like an albino mustache. It was strong and rough beer made from a pile of malt and an even larger pile of Cascade hops that would bite your tongue - hard - with every drink. This was back before brewers and drinkers began name checking boutique hops with la-di-da names such as Citra, Simcoe and Amarillo (with silent “LL”). This was back before the rise of the so-called West-Coast IPA where the malt is asked to stand back and shut up while the hops go dancing around screaming “look at me!” I’m not bitching (too much) about the transformation of the American IPA; I like some of those West Coast beers. But lately when I think IPA, I’ve been yearning for those old-school Midwestern IPAs like Hop Hearty (retired) from New Glarus that were not quite so dainty as beers such as Moon Man (thriving) from New Glarus.

Anyway, before I wander too far into my dotage, lets get to the beer in question. Foxylicious IPA is now on tap at Fratellos in Oshkosh and it’s one of those decidedly old-school IPAs. It lumbers up with a big belly full of fuming malt and hops. The aroma tells you you’re gonna drink a beer and not some overrefined hop tea. The malt coats your tongue for a moment and then the Cascade kicks in and does it’s work. This is an unapologetically bitter ale with a bold, citrusy flavor that would go perfectly with a big, greasy burger and a plate of fries. And at 7% ABV, giving it a cushion of food to land on might not be a bad idea. If you want to look under the hood and see how this thing runs, go HERE for the specs.

Monday, November 11, 2013

An Update on the Allenville Hops

Allenville Hops
A couple months ago I posted about the wild hops I found growing in Allenville and how they may have gotten there. That story is HERE. When I wrote that, I had yet to brew with these hops and was uncertain about what breed they might be. But now that I’ve actually made beer with them, I know a little more.

I believe these hops belong to the Cluster family. Since they’ve been growing wild for so long, it’s possible that they’ve cross pollinated with some other wild strain, but the flavor they produced in the beer I made had the flavor components I associate with American Cluster. I used to brew with Cluster quite often and grew familiar with the hop. I find its aroma fruity and floral. Its flavor is hard to pinpoint, but I always think of it as earthy. They can be a little on the rough side, but in a good way. To me, it’s the flavor of how beer used to taste in the 1970s. Many of the beers I’ve brewed with Cluster have reminded me of the beers I would sneak off and drink when I was too young to drink legally. It’s a taste memory that’s embedded in my palate.

If the Allenville hops are, in fact, Cluster it would come as no surprise. Cluster is as close to a native hop as America has. When Silas Allen arrived in our area from New York in 1846, he was said to have brought a barrel of hop roots with him. Since Cluster was coming to dominate the hop growing regions of New York during this period, it’s very likely that the hops Allen transported were of this variety. During the 1860s and 1870s – the period when the Allenville hop farms were at their peak – Cluster was the primary hop grown in Wisconsin and becoming synonymous with American hop production in general. By the turn of the century, 80% of all hops grown in the U.S. were Cluster.

A note about the beer: I used these hops in a strong (7.9% ABV) lager brewed along the lines of a Bière de Garde. I served it at last week’s Casks & Caskets tasting and it went over pretty well. I was happy with it. I had enough of the Allenville hops to brew a second beer, so I recently made an American-style Steam Beer or California Common with what was left of the September pickings. That beer is fermenting away nicely.

When I picked these hops I also took a healthy root from the Allenville site. It looks to be in good shape and I’m hoping that next spring it will take root and produce a decent amount of growth. If all goes well, I should be able to start sharing cuttings from this plant in the spring of 2015. I'd love to see Silas Allen’s old hops revived in Oshkosh.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Changing Times of Brewmaster Gertsch

Felix Gertsch
Felix Gertsch looked like a brewer. At 5’8” and 208 pounds he had the round aspect that typified the German brewmasters of old. But Gertsch wasn’t an old-world brewer. Nor was he entirely of the new world. Gertsch had a foot in both. And over the course of his 36-year career he helped to usher out the old-world ways of brewing in Oshkosh and supplant them with those of the new.

Felix Ulrich Gertsch was born on the South Side of Oshkosh on March 25, 1893. He was the oldest son of Ulrich Gertsch, a Swiss immigrant who settled in Oshkosh in the mid-1880s. Upon his arrival, the elder Gertsch took a job at Horn & Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery where he worked as the barn boss tending the dray horses that pulled the brewery’s beer wagons. His son Felix grew enamored with the horses and the amiable atmosphere at the brewery. Upon completing the 8th grade, Felix Gertsch quit school and by the age of 15 his career in the beer making business was underway.

Gertsch began as a laborer at the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1908 and worked his way up the brewing ladder. It appears that for Gertsch, making beer grew into an all-consuming endeavor. Outside of the brewery, he led a quiet life. Gertsch never married and never moved from the family home, which still stands at 413 W. 17th Ave. His work at the brewery may have left him time for little else. It wasn’t unusual for Gertsch to work more than 70 hours a week.

The constancy of his life was undone, though, with the onset of Prohibition in 1919. Gertsch saw his world turned upside down. For men like him living in a community like Oshkosh, Prohibition was considered a senseless assault upon their way of life. But Gertsch carried on. When real beer became illegal, the Oshkosh Brewing Company turned to malt extract and near beer. Felix Gertsch learned to make both. And he continued to rise within the now struggling company. In 1925, during the depths of Prohibition, he was appointed brewmaster of OBC. Gertsch became the first American-born brewmaster at the brewery and was charged with overseeing every facet of production. He responded by formulating the brew that came to be synonymous with beer made in Oshkosh.

Near Beer
The first iteration of Gertsch’s Chief Oshkosh wasn’t quite beer at all. It was a nearly alcohol-free “near beer” made to conform to the strictures of Prohibition. But with the death of the dry law, Gertsch was finally able to get back to doing things his way. The first barrels of full-strength Chief Oshkosh Beer rolled out of the brewery in late 1933. The lager would be the OBC’s standard bearer for almost 40 years and the most well-known brand of beer ever produced in Oshkosh.

But Chief Oshkosh also represented a permanent break with the past. The beer finalized a trend that had begun at OBC even before Gertsch had started working there. Like many American breweries in the early 1900s, OBC had whittled the traditional German brews from its portfolio in favor of the emergent American Pilsner. In a quest to draw in the largest consumer base, the post-Prohibition Pilsners became less distinctive and increasingly neutral in flavor. Chief Oshkosh Beer was a model of the style and extremely popular. It was good for business. Not so good for beer.

What did Gertsch make of such changes? I’ll leave it for him to explain himself, but it’s clear he had mixed feelings about the evolution of the brewers art in America. Gertsch died in 1944 at the age of 51 after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage (I’ve heard, but have not been able to confirm that his stroke occurred at the brewery). But just a few years before his death, he penned a long article about how his craft had changed over the course of his career. The piece appeared in The Chief’s Beer Whoop, a promotional newspaper that was issued irregularly by OBC during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Gertsch’s words are revealing, especially when you consider that he was writing, in essence, an advertisement. Apart from the requisite boosterism of the piece, his reflections are tinged with nostalgia and a moody ambivalence over what had been lost to the march of progress. Let’s hear it from the man himself:

I feel sorry for folks who can’t look back with pleasure to things that happened “in the good old days.” They miss a lot of fun in life because pleasant memories of the past make up a good part of the joy of living. So it’s the most natural thing in the world for a man who was old enough to enjoy his beer before 1919 to brag about how good beer used to be “in the good old days.”

Well, I’m no youngster myself. I made beer a long time before 1919 and I’m making beer today, so I have my own ideas on the subject – and they’re founded on something a lot more concrete than a memory of how good a glass of beer tasted on a certain hot 4th of July back in 1915.

Every once in a while I hear people say that the brew masters of the old days were a lot more skillful than those of today. And when I agree with them, folks may think that’s just because I belong to the “old timer” class.

Yes, I agree that the old time brew masters were more skillful on average than those of today – but I also say that the beer is a lot better than the beer of the “the good old days.” Probably that calls for an explanation, so here it is: 

The brewer of 30 years ago had to depend almost entirely on his “skill” to produce good beer. He had little or no scientific assistance in doing his job. So the brewer who turned out good beer time after time, must have been a really skillful man.

The facts are that 30 or more years ago no brewery was able to produce a uniform brew. Those that had skillful brew masters and tried very, very hard to keep equipment clean and sterile – those who were very methodical in their processes did a better job than the average and built up a reputation for quality. But even the best of them couldn’t maintain the uniform high quality that we do today in making Chief Oshkosh Beer.

Yes sir, Scientific Control is the one big secret in making modern beer the perfect quality product it is. And Scientific Control is a rather different thing from “skill.”

Since legal beer came back, the science of brewing has seen a big development. Brewing today is vastly more of a scientific process than it was in 1918. Today we subject every lot of malt to a chemical analysis. We never did that years ago. Today we have scientific instruments for checking every material and every step in the brewing process. We keep our alcohol, our solids, our carbonization so perfectly uniform that every bottle of Chief Oshkosh is almost identical with every other bottle. And the Chief Oshkosh of three years ago was just the same as the lot we made yesterday.

Today our beer is PURE. I don’t mean to imply that the old-time beer was impure in that it was injurious to health. Rather that beer is a very delicate liquid and it must be free from bacteria that would easily spoil its flavor. Today’s pure beer will keep two or three times as long as the beer we used to make before we knew how to prevent bacteria from getting into our beer from the water, the yeast and even the air. 

To make Chief Oshkosh the exceptionally good beer it is, requires all of the very latest scientific methods plus all of the brewing skill and experience we have been building up in this organization for three generations. I should say Four Generations because Art Schwalm’s (President of OBC) son, Tom, is my first class assistant. Tom is the fourth generation of Schwalms in this business – a college man and a graduate of a leading technical school where the modern science of brewing is taught to the young fellows who will soon have to replace the old-timers like myself.

Then in addition to our own technical staff, we employ a firm of outside “policemen” to keep everything going straight. We couldn’t get shiftless even if we tried, for this laboratory checks us up every single day. Their vast laboratories employ the last word in chemical science to make beer uniformly good, so you see, the quality you like in Chief Oshkosh Beer is well guarded. 

I myself like to look back on the “good old days.” The fine big horses that pulled our beer trucks were all personal friends of mine. I used to love to pet them. I also got a lot of pleasure out of visiting with our good customers who dropped by to pass the time of day over a foaming glass when they came to visit the brewery. But the times have changed. Our horses have been replaced by impersonal motor trucks and everybody is too busy to do much visiting now-a-days. Yes, there are a lot of reasons why I like to look back on the “good old days.” But when it comes to good beer, I must admit that scientific methods of control do a far better job than I used to do when I had to depend entirely on the “skill” that I used to be so proud of.
-- Felix Gertsch, ca 1940