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

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