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.

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