Monday, January 13, 2014

The Story of Chief Oshkosh Beer and How to Brew It

With The Chief currently on tap at Fratellos in Oshkosh, I thought now might be a good time to look under the hood of the storied beer that inspired it. Let’s dig in.

A History of Chief Oshkosh Beer
Chief Oshkosh Lager Beer was the best selling beer ever produced in the City of Oshkosh. Over the course of its 44-year production run, the beer underwent several reformulations as its brewers strove to satisfy the changing expectations of consumers. But it started out not even being beer at all.

Chief Oshkosh Prohibition Brew
The Chief Oshkosh brand was introduced during Prohibition in 1928 as a non-alcoholic “near beer.” The recipe was developed by Felix Gertsch, brewmaster of the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC). According to OBC advertising, Chief Oshkosh was “a regular brew, made and aged in the old way, but the alcohol has been removed by a special vacuum process – not boiled out.” But getting people to buy the stuff was always an uphill battle. In Oshkosh during Prohibition, there was little need for those with a thirst for beer to settle for the something with a “Beer-like character” when the real thing was so readily available. The city was awash in full-strength homebrew and bootleg beer.

In 1933, the first Chief Oshkosh that could truly be called beer was released. The Cullen–Harrison Act, signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on March 22, 1933, subverted the Prohibition Amendment by reinterpreting the meaning of the term “intoxicating liquors.” Now brewers were able to make beer that contained alcohol levels of 3.2 percent alcohol by weight (4% ABV). Brewmaster Gertsch retooled his recipe and Chief Oshkosh Beer was born. It was a mild, pale-gold lager, made of 6-row barley, corn and hops and immediately became the brewery’s flagship brand.

After the full repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933, Chief Oshkosh was given another boost. Though OBC had contended it saw no reason to increase the strength of it’s beer, OBC quickly followed the lead of other brewers and increased the alcohol content of Chief Oshkosh to just over 4.5%. The beer was immediately popular and by the end of 1934, OBC had produced more than 45,000 barrels of Chief Oshkosh Beer.

Chief Oshkosh Lager Beer, circa 1940s
For the next 17 years, Chief Oshkosh would be brewed according to Gertsch’s 1934 formulation. I’ve yet to come across the brewers logs for this period, but there is enough existing information to get a fair idea of what the beer may have been like. Though  fuller in body, slightly darker and somewhat more hop-driven than the premium American lagers that exist today, the beer would immediately be recognizable to most modern beer drinkers. Capital’s Supper Club would be perhaps the most comparable of the beers that are currently available, though it too would be less substantial than the Chief Oshkosh of the 1930s and 1940s.

American beer styles had begun growing less robust even before Prohibition and the trend towards lighter beer accelerated after repeal. Chief Oshkosh Beer was swept along in the pale wave. In 1950, Chief Oshkosh was redesigned again to make the beer lighter. OBC Treasurer Lorenz “Shorty” Kuenzl described it as a “Pilsener beer that would appeal to all kinds of beer tastes in people.” Analysis of the beer by Chicago’s Siebel Labs returned this report:
The sample submitted can be judged most favorably in every respect... The product pours with a creamy, stable foam showing attractive volume and texture. The beer is clean, smooth on the palate, fairly aromatic with a bare touch of wininess, yet mild, as well as pleasingly hopped... The sample was given a very good rating in blindfold taste trials.
A 1951 Advertisement for Chief Oshkosh
The folks at Siebel weren’t the only people impressed by the new Chief. The beer’s popularity grew immensely. By 1953, OBC was regularly producing over 60,000 barrels of Chief Oshkosh Beer annually. I’ve come across numerous brewers logs, tasting notes and other materials related to the production of this version of Chief Oshkosh. These are the basis for the recipe presented below.

Chief Oshkosh Beer changed again in 1961 after David Uihlein purchased the brewery. The new recipe substituted corn syrup for corn grits and the brewery began using hop extracts. The changes didn’t go over well with Chief Oshkosh drinkers. Sales of Chief Oshkosh went into a steady and prolonged decline. By the late 1960s, the beer was a shadow of its former self. It had become an adulterated brew, sold cheap. Its reputation destroyed.

In 1971, the Oshkosh Brewing Company closed. Its brands were sold to the neighboring Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh. And for a brief period spanning 1971 and into 1972, Chief Oshkosh Beer was produced by Peoples Brewing. When Peoples closed in 1972, the brewing of Chief Oshkosh Beer came to an end.

Brewing Chief Oshkosh Beer
This is a homebrew version of the 1950's Chief Oshkosh Beer. This recipe is based on information that originated at the brewery.

Style: Premium American Lager
Boil Volume: 7.5 Gallons
Batch Size: 5.5 Gallons
Efficiency: 75%
Boil Gravity: 1.034
Original Gravity: 1.046
Final Gravity: 1.012
A 1971 Chief Brewed at
Peoples Brewing, Oshkosh
Alcohol By Volume: 4.52%
IBUs: 20-25
Color: 2.5-3 SRM

6-Row Pale Malt: 6.5 pounds (70%)
Flaked Corn: 2.75 pounds (30%)
Extract brewers would need to perform a mini-mash and then supplant the remaining grist with either Light or Pilsen malt extract.

.7oz Cluster boiled for 60 mins to achieve approximately 19 IBUs
.3oz Cluster boiled for 10 mins to achieve approximately 3 IBUs

Wyeast 2035 American Lager / Average Attenuation: 75%
Ferment at 50º F

Mash in at 154º F / Rest for 60 minutes
Boil for 90 minutes
At OBC, they used corn grits that they gelatinized by boiling. They also employed a step mash to break down the bullish protein content of 6-row malt. Neither method is required for the recipe presented here.

Primary Fermentation: 10-14 days @ 50º F
Secondary Fermentation: 4-6 weeks @ 36º F

Carbonate the beer to 2.5-3 volumes

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