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.

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