Monday, March 31, 2014

A History of Bock Beer in Oshkosh

“Oshkosh’s beer-thirsty souls will soon rejoice... We invite all Oshkoshers to visit us on Saturday and the following days in our brewery, and we promise to give them a pleasure like never before. Come, come all to Fischer and Köhler.”
– Oshkosh Deutsche Zeitung; April 28, 1858

The pleasure that Tobias Fischer and Christian (Kaehler) Köhler promised “Oshkosh’s beer-thirsty souls” was in the form of a beer they had made named Salvator. The German immigrants had brewed it on the coldest day of winter at their Busch Brewery near the southeast corner of Algoma and Vine streets in Oshkosh. After months of aging, it was now ready. On Saturday, May 1, 1858 they opened their brewery to the public and tapped the beer. Oshkosh’s love affair with the strong, brown lager known as bock was underway.

Fischer and Kaehler’s Salvator was probably not the first bock served in Oshkosh, but its very public unveiling would help set the tone here for what would become an annual ritual: the spring release of bock beer. Today we would recognize the Busch Brewery’s Salvator as a doppelbock or double bock, a dark and very malty lager that is especially potent at 7-10% ABV. It was a German specialty beer offered for a brief time each spring and as German brewers made their way to Oshkosh they brought their spring-tonic tradition with them.

Early on, bock beer in Oshkosh remained something of an open secret shared among those with more than a passing interest in beer, i.e, persons of German extraction. The 1858 advertisement that Fischer and Kaehler placed in the German-language newspaper  the Oshkosh Deutsche Zeitung was a rarity. Throughout the 1850s and 1860s most brewers in Oshkosh were not so forward in their promotion of the small batch of special beer they offered each spring. News of the brew usually spread by word of mouth or by saloon keepers who placed signs in their windows featuring a goat’s head, the customary symbol of bock beer.

But by the 1880s, this liquid rite of spring was no longer the exclusive provenance of Oshkosh’s German immigrants. The Deutsch beer habit had bled over into all segments of the city’s population. As Oshkosh’s thirst for beer grew, so did its breweries. Small neighborhood brewhouses like that of Kaehler and Fisher gave way to larger enterprises such as Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery and John Glatz’s Union Brewery. With increases in production came an emphasis upon advertising. Brewers here saw bock beer as an opportunity to boost business during a time of year when sales typically lagged. A cryptic sign in a saloon window was no longer enough to get the job done. An 1892 newspaper advertisement for the new bock of the Glatz brewery shows the characteristic pomp that now often accompanied the release of the strong, spring lager.
J. Glatz & Sons' Munich Bock beer, the finest beer of the season equal to any in the state for age, strength and purity. Will be delivered to our customers May 7, 8 and 9 only. This beer is brewed from the best malt made in the United States, and the finest hops grown in the world.
– Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; May 6, 1892
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; February 27, 1896
John Glatz’s claim that his bock was the equal of any in the state was something beer drinkers in Oshkosh could now put to the test. In the early 1890s, bocks from beyond Oshkosh were flowing into the city. Schlitz, Pabst, Miller and other brewers were shipping bock in by train and the “foreign beer” began to influence the hometown brews.

Traditionally, the bocks of Oshkosh were served from wooden kegs made of white oak. But as brewers from outside the city began bringing bottled bock to Oshkosh, local brewers followed suit. During the first decade of the 1900s, Oshkosh’s two remaining breweries - Rahr and the Oshkosh Brewing Company – began selling bottled versions of their bock. After the Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh began production in 1913, their annual bock was released in both kegs and bottles with the glass-package label featuring the familiar goat’s head.

The Milwaukee brewers were also influencing the release date of bock in Oshkosh. Prior to the 1900s, it was unusual to see an Oshkosh-brewed bock appear before the latter half of March. By the late 1890s, though, Pabst’s bock was arriving in Oshkosh sometimes as early as February. Ever wary of their big-city competition, Oshkosh brewers began to move up their release dates. By 1910, both Rahr and the Oshkosh Brewing Company were making their bock available by late February.

No matter the date, the arrival of bock was still seen as harbinger of warmer days just ahead. Each spring, the beer was omnipresent in Oshkosh and its coming was ripe fodder for the local press. During the bock season of 1905 the Daily Northwestern reported on March 5 that, “The early spring robin may be a trifle late in arriving, but the joyous bock
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; February 23, 1914
beer has already put in its appearance.” Two weeks later the paper included a limerick that spoke to the popularity of the beer.
"Of May the gentle poet sings, the month of blossoms and of roses. 
Likewise, the month that always brings the bock beer blossoms on our noses."

The bock tradition in Oshkosh appeared as if it were unimpeachable, but the celebration came to a screeching halt with the onset of Prohibition in 1920. Though the production of beer was made illegal, there was no shortage of it in Oshkosh. Homebrewing was widespread in the city and it’s highly likely that Oshkosh’s homebrewers kept the bock flowing during the dry years. In fact, the Oshkosh Brewing Company released a series of hopped, dark-malt extracts during the period that were ideally suited for homebrewers unwilling to give up their traditional spring repast in observance of an ill-conceived law.

But the loss of locally produced, commercial bock was lamented by many. When spring would roll in, the Daily Northwestern often reminded its readers that something was missing. On March 25, 1926 the paper reported that Oshkosh had spring fever, but that, “One old sign of spring is lacking, the bock beer sign which brought a glint of gladness to the eyes of many thirsty souls in pre-prohibiton days.”

The happy glint returned when Prohibition ended in 1933. And the brewers of Oshkosh, picked up exactly where they had left off. Peoples Brewing celebrated the return of bock with a party at Clute’s Tavern, next door to the brewery, where they served 5¢ draughts of the beer in the traditional manner, “Drawn direct from the wood.”

But there was now an entire generation of beer drinkers in Oshkosh who Prohibition had deprived of the authentic bock experience. Brewers here sought to remedy that through advertising that explained that this was a more robust and darker beer that went through an extended aging period. The Oshkosh Brewing Company said of its Chief Oshkosh Bock, “It's got that Old-Fashioned full body, full flavor and zip.” That may have appealed to those old enough to remember the pre-Prohibition brews, but with each passing year younger drinkers were showing less and less interest in any beer that a brewer might be proud of describing as “old-fashioned.” Still, bock remained a reliable spring treat in Oshkosh well into the 1960s.

The undoing of the bock tradition here occurred gradually. The customs of an earlier era began to fade as drinkers who came of age after Prohibition became the dominant consumers. To younger generations, beer implied one thing: pale, highly carbonated, light lager. A hearty, dark bock aged in a wooden barrel would never fit within that narrow framework.

Though bock limped along through the 1960s, it had become a relic of the past. The March 1971 beer list for Ray’s Beverage on New York Ave. tells of the sorry condition bock had reached in Oshkosh. The only bock on the ledger is that of Chicago’s Meister Bräu, which was on the verge of bankruptcy and would be taken over by Miller Brewing in 1972. Though the beers of the Oshkosh Brewing Company and Peoples Brewing were included on Ray’s list, neither brewery offered a bock. The Oshkosh Brewing Company would cease operations later in 1971. The demise of Peoples came the following year.

Other Wisconsin breweries would continue to pay homage to the bock tradition, most notably Monroe’s Huber Brewing, but it would be years before locally brewed bock would return to Oshkosh. As it has been with most other aspects of the beer culture here, bock was revived by the city’s homebrewers.

After Steve Rehfeldt moved to Oshkosh from Colorado in 1995 he joined the local homebrew club, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers. Rehfeldt was struck by the local taste for rich lagers. “I was in a club in Colorado that seemed to have more of a California influence, with very hoppy beers,” Rehfeldt said. “The Oshkosh folks brewed a lot of lagers and malty, dark beers.”

The torch was picked up by the Fox River Brewing Company after its launch in December 1995. The Oshkosh brew pub did not include a bock among its first flight of beers, but bocks of different stripes eventually made their way into the line-up. Fox River continues to produce seasonal bocks in addition to Tanjanator, a doppelbock it produces throughout the year for the Old Bavarian Brewing Company of Appleton.

Today bock is easy to come by in Oshkosh. If you wish, you can drink it year round. But that convenience has rendered the brew less special. The annual bock was a warming promise of brighter days just ahead. That has been lost.

Imagine yourself a beer lover living in Oshkosh in late March of 1890. As you walk into the wind pushing down Main, you can feel its bite, but there’s something different about it, too. It’s telling you that winter has ebbed. As you cross over Ceape and head for the bridge you see the sign with the goat head in the window of Charles Raasch’s saloon. Lorenz Kuenzl’s celebrated Bock beer has arrived. You step inside. Raasch draws you a foaming goblet of the dark lager. A delicious anticipation builds. You raise the beer to your lips. You drink. It will never be like that again.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Six-Pack of Bock to Drink this Weekend in Oshkosh

Monday, when I posted that old ad for Rahr's Bock Beer, I bitched about the lack of bock we've been getting around here lately compared to back in the day when Oshkosh's breweries were spilling it all over town. Turns out, there was nothing to complain about. Over the last couple of days I took a random survey of our local beer depots and unearthed all sorts of choice bock. Here’s a six pack of the goat beer currently available in Oshkosh. We’ll start local and wind our way out.

A bock by any other name... Fox River 2x4 Imperial Pilsner. Call it what you will, I know a maibock when I taste one. As with most beer styles born of the craft beer movement, the only thing new about this one is its name. Sure it may be hopped a bit more aggressively than a standard maibock, but if you’ve ever had a Czech maibock, you know these can be hop-forward beers. This beer fits firmly into the Bohemian camp. Czech hops and Bohemian style malts, result in a bold lager with a chewy malt character balanced by a very firm bitterness. Clean and crisp, you’d never guess the fluid rolling into your innards is 8% ABV. Available at Fratellos in Oshkosh in bottles, growlers and on draught.

O’so Dominator Doppelbock. This 8.5% beer warms my heart... and everything else. An honest, unfiltered, deep-brown lager with lots of pretty red highlights shimmering through its haze. It vents a big, caramel aroma wrapped around raisins and plums. The beer loads the palate with rich malt and stone fruits leading to a mildly bitter and dry finish. The carbonation is fairly subdued allowing the beer to wrap around your tongue. This lager has a rustic quality that I thoroughly enjoy. Available in 4-packs in the packaged beer section at Gardina’s.

Hinterland Bourbon Barrel Doppelbock. A deep-red beer with a fluffy, tan head, you’ll get a snoot full of toffee and bourbon drifting up from the pour. The flavor is shaped by a fat note of caramel cut through by the booziness of bourbon and the mild astringency of oak. Hinterland says they age this for 10 months in bourbon barrels giving the beer a silkiness you don’t normally encounter in lagers. Right about 7.5% ABV it tastes a bit stronger than it is. Take it in slowly to allow its complexity to unfold. Available in pint bottles at Festival Foods.

New Glarus Back 40 Bock. This is closer to the sort of bock they were drinking in Oshkosh 50 years ago. Subtitled Wisconsin Bock, this is a traditional, brown bock that’s unassuming and delicious. A clean, malt aroma flecked with caramel and biscuit leads to a slightly sweet and bready flavor. The hops are hidden, but do just enough to balance the beer. Ridiculously drinkable, this is a great beer to pair with something spicy, say a chicken burrito with a few jalapenos tucked inside. They don’t list the ABV, but I’d guess this is just a bit over 5% ABV. Back 40 Bock is available all over town, including the big-box grocery stores.

Dark Horse Perkulator Coffee Doppelbock. If you don’t care for coffee, skip ahead. If you do like coffee, get this beer. A brown lager that smells like coffee grounds, this may be what you’ll need in your Sunday morning coffee cup. A smooth, creamy mouthfeel with toasted bread and mocha flavors melding into the coffee. They haven’t forgotten that this is a beer first. Though the coffee flavor is there, they don’t beat you over the head with it. The beer finishes with an unusual spiciness that seems more and more appropriate after you grow acquainted with it. At 7% ABV there’s enough heft to make it worth your while without it being overbearing. Available in 4-packs in the packaged beer section at Gardina’s.

Paulaner Salvator. Here’s the grandaddy of  doppelbock. Coming in all the way from Munich, the birthplace of the double bock, this beauty pours to a burnt amber with a thick, ivory head. This has the prototypical aroma of doppelbock: burnt sugar, molasses rich malt and plums. It’s a sweet, nourishing beer that’s substantial enough to be filling. Flavors of plum, honey on toasted bread and even some tobacco pop up. I’ve loved this beer for years. At just under 8%, it’s a great way to end a chilly night.

And if six ain’t enough, check out the maibocks from Capital and Sprecher that they’re selling at the North Side Pick n’ Save. They’re both right on the mark.

I'm not done with this bock thing. Come Monday, I'll be digging into Oshkosh's bock-drenched past. I can feel your excitement!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

New Glarus Brewing Coming to Barley's Beer Sampling Series

Damn, this year is sliding by quickly. The fourth and final installment of Barley's Beer Sampling Series for 2013/2014 is nearly upon us. The beer begins pouring at 7:00pm next Wednesday, April 2 at Barley and Hops in Oshkosh.

This time the featured brewery will be the mighty New Glarus Brewing Company, which will be serving its full line-up. Also in the spotlight will be hop-head favorite Lagunita's Brewing. The Society of Oshkosh Brewers will be on hand pouring homebrew and rounding out the fest will be another 40-50 craft brews and a selection of liquor and wine for the tasting. If you’ve never been to one of these, you ought to check it out. The Barley's tastings have grown into a nearly full-on beer fest.

If you pick-up your ticket at the pub before next Wednesday, the price is just $20. Get your ticket at the door and you’ll pay $25 (if they’re still available). I wouldn’t dally too much on this one; judging by the turn-out at the last couple of these I think there’s a decent chance that it may sell out. The sampling runs from 7:00pm - 10:00pm. Visit the Facebook event page for more info.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Beer Ads in Oshkosh No. 23: Rahr’s Bock, the Treat of the Season

Click to enlarge
You’d never guess it, but this is spring, the time of year when you ought to be working some bock beer into the mix. Typically, a bock beer is a strong, brown lager – although there are pale and ale variants – and it’s the perfect beer to take you from the cold days of winter through the cool days of spring as you travel towards the warm weather ahead. Unfortunately, good bocks can be somewhat difficult to come by these days. American craft brewers, with their ale-centric leanings, haven’t repurposed the style as they have with so many other traditional brews. That’s sad. If ever there was a brew with some tradition dying to be toyed with, it’s bock.

The story of bock beer dates back to the Middle Ages and it’s shot through with all sorts of fabulous crap. But the most credible telling of it’s rise involves the German town Einbeck in Lower Saxony. By the 13th century, Einbeck was becoming well known as a brewing center thanks to the hearty ales it exported across Germany and as far as Russia, Sweden, Belgium and England. But by the 1600s, Einbeck’s trading partnerships had begun to breakdown and to fill the void, brewers in other regions began producing their own take on the Einbeck brew. The lager brewers of Munich were especially successful in imitating the beer, which was now being called simply bock, most likely, a corruption of Einbeck.

I guess at some point, I should actually mention the ad we have here. This is from 1937, a time when Oshkosh would see a flood of bock pouring from her breweries each spring. This ad appeared in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern on March 15, 1937 and it’s for the newly released bock from our old friends at the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh. I like the look of this one. The beer looks delicious and it’s nice to see the Easter bunny having a drink. The goat’s head down at the bottom is the traditional symbol of bock, which in German translates to male goat.

Here’s the hard-to-read type near the bottom:
That sensational full-bodied, full-flavored Spring brew
that you expect from Rahr's each Easter season. If it
were possible for any beer to be better than good—
well — that's the way to describe this year's Rahr's
Bock Beer. Since only a limited quantity of this rich
beer has been brewed, may we suggest that you phone
now for a case.

I’m curious about something in there. It’s that line that includes “this year's Rahr's Bock Beer.” I wonder if they used a different recipe for their bock each spring; or did they just grind out the same damned beer year after year? I’d love to know. I’ve seen some ads for Peoples Brewing, that seem to indicate that their spring bock varied from one year to the next. Oh, and that phone number at the bottom. Don’t bother. I already called. Nobody answered.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Oshkosh Beer Sampler: St. Bernardus Pater 6

A slanted and endless survey of what’s pouring in Oshkosh, tallied one beer at a time.

What: St. Bernardus Pater 6. This is a 6.7% Belgian Dubbel packaged in a 750ml caged and corked bottles. It’s the wee sibling among a trio of beers that includes Prior 8, an 8% ABV Dubbel; and Abt 12, a Quadrupel that comes in at 10% ABV. The St. Bernardus brewery is located in Watou, Belgium.

Where: From the Epic Cooler at O’Marro’s Public House. Let’s take a moment to poke around in this thing. It’s a new glass-doored refrigerator in the main barroom at O’Marro’s that has the Epic Brewing logo plastered all over it. The beer inside is available for retail sale, or you can decant and enjoy it right there in the pub. It’s not a huge cooler, but it’s loaded with bomber-sized bottles of interesting beer. As you might expect, Epic Brewing is well represented with a half dozen of the brewery’s more sought-after beers including Big Bad Baptist Imperial Stout, Epic Smoked Porter, and Rio's Rompin’ Rye Beer. On the shelves below stand a crop of Belgian’s: the incredible Grand Cru by Val-Dieu; Oud Beersel’s Oude Kriek and Framboise; and then the big three from St. Bernardus - Pater 6, Prior 8 and Abt 12. Things are rounded out with a smattering of craft from Bear Republic, Moylan’s and Abita.

Why: For so many reasons, not the least of which is that Pater 6 pairs well with prunes. Bear with me. For some odd reason, this beer has always escaped me, so I immediately grabbed it when I saw it at O’Marro’s last Saturday. The following afternoon, my wife started talking about dipping some fruits (including prunes) into melted dark chocolate... a plan emerged. This might be just the beer to pair with chocolate-dipped fruit. And it was.

The beer pours hazy and deep, dark red with much effervescence and a thin lid of cream-colored foam. The aroma is of candied fruit, raisins and banana with some caramel lingering behind it. This is a light-bodied beer that’s highly carbonated and very lively in the mouth. Flavors of dark fruit – dates and cherry – are prominent and surrounded by a mellow, toffee sweetness. The finish surprised me. It’s dry and somewhat bitter, but in a spicy way. Pair this with some dark fruit (prunes!) and dark chocolate and, for a while at least, you’ll have it made.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh, 1865-1956

Here's 91 years of Oshkosh brewing history condensed into a four-minute video. This one is all about the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh, 1865-1956.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A Tuesday Firkin at Gardina's

The eighth chapter of Gardina’s Beer Bar Series kicks off tomorrow evening (Tuesday, March 18) with a 6 p.m. firkin tapping. The beer in the cask will be Hinterland’s Saison infused with raspberries. I haven’t tasted it yet, but the press release describes it as having “aromas of raspberry jam, white pepper and red wine and flavors of prickly raspberry, coriander and a slight herbaceous note.” Nice timing. With the first day of spring arriving this week, this sounds like a good transitional beer. It’s also a one-off cask, so Tuesday night will likely be your one and only chance to get in on it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

35 Stouts to Drink This Weekend in Oshkosh

All right, it’s St. Patrick’s Day Weekend and at some point you’re going find yourself with a mug of inky, black suds in your hand. Don’t let the irish Mafia fool you, there’s more to stout than Guinness and Murphy’s. Nothing wrong with those, but there is a feast of extraordinary stouts floating around this town. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the list below. When I started doing this blog four years ago, I never thought we’d see this sort of variety in Oshkosh. And this doesn't even include stouts on draught.

Here’s how it works: after the beer name and brewery, you’ll see F, G, P or a combination thereof. That tells you where you can get the beer. F = Festival; G = Gardina’s; P = Pick n’ Save. Following that is the BeerAdvocate rating, which is also linked to reviews of the beer on the BeerAdvocate site. Have at ‘er...

Bourbon / Barrel-Aged Stouts

1) Brewer's Reserve Bourbon Barrel Stout | Central Waters Brewing Co | F/G | BA-94

2) Dragon's Milk | New Holland Brewing | F | BA-88

3) Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout | Anderson Valley Brewing Company | G | BA-85

4) Bourbon Stout | Hinterland Brewery | G | BA-82

5) Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Stout | Alltech's Lexington Brewing | F | BA-81

Chocolate Stouts

6) Choklat | Southern Tier Brewing | F | BA-95

7) Chocolate Stout | Rogue Ales | F | BA-93

8) Organic Chocolate Stout | Samuel Smith | F | BA-93

9) Double Chocolate Stout | Wells & Young's Ltd. | F | BA-90

Coffee Stouts

10) Brewhouse Coffee Stout | Central Waters Brewing Co  | G | BA-94

11) Coffee Stout | New Glarus Brewing Company  | F/P | BA-88

12) Java Stout | Bell's Brewery  | F | BA-88

13) Luna Coffee Stout | Hinterland Brewery  | F | BA-82

14) Fuel Café | Lakefront Brewery  | F | BA-76

Imperial Stouts

15) Breakfast Stout | Founders Brewing  | F | BA-100

16) Speedway Stout | AleSmith Brewing  | F | BA-98

17) Ten FIDY | Oskar Blues Brewing  | G | BA-97

18) Beer Geek Brunch Weasel | Mikkeller  | G | BA-96

19) Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout | North Coast Brewing  | F | BA-96

20) DORIS The Destroyer Double Imperial Stout | Hoppin' Frog Brewery  | G | BA-94

21) Imperial Stout | Nøgne Ø | G | BA-92

22) Narwhal Imperial Stout | Sierra Nevada Brewing | F | BA-92

23) Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout | Leinenkugel Brewing Co  | F/P | BA-86

24) Whole Hog Russian Imperial Stout | Stevens Point Brewery | F/P | BA-78

25) Goat Parade | Door County Brewing  | F | BA-Not Yet Rated

Milk / Oatmeal & Other Stouts

26) Oatmeal Stout | Samuel Smith | F | BA-94

27) Milk Stout | Mikkeller  | G | BA-91

28) Kalamazoo Stout | Bell's Brewery | F | BA-90

29) Milk Stout | Left Hand Brewing | F/G | BA-89

30) Creme Brulee (Imperial Milk Stout) | Southern Tier Brewing | F | BA-87

31) Buffalo Sweat | Tallgrass Brewing | F | BA-86

32) Extra Stout | Guinness Ltd. | F | BA-84

33) Polish Moon | Milwaukee Brewing Co  | F | BA-78

34) Rolled Oat Stout | Pearl Street Brewery  | F | BA-68

35) Ewephoria | 3 Sheeps Brewing  | G | BA-Not Yet Rated

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Still Special After All These Years

1973 was a lousy year to be a beer drinker in Oshkosh. Peoples Brewing had closed a year earlier and for the first time since 1849 Oshkosh found itself without a brewery.

The same mess prevailed almost everywhere. Of the more than 750 breweries that re-opened after Prohibition just over 100 remained by the 1970s. Most small, regional breweries had been annihilated. Not everyone took the decline in stride. Some began to vent their disgust. On May 22, 1973, Chicago Daily New columnist Mike Royko wrote of the beer pouring out of America’s big breweries: “It all tastes as if the secret brewing process involved running it through a horse.”

When Michael Weiner’s Taster’s Guide to Beer came out in 1977, his reviews of American-made beers were, for the most part, equally unfavorable. His review of Schlitz was concise and dead on: “Just awful. Sour, weak. A poor, computerized lager.” But Weiner also discovered a few buried gems among the dreck. He especially liked the beer from Stevens Point.
“Point Special, Like Leinenkugel’s, is a local beer holding out against the giant national producers. This brewery is even smaller, and all of the production (45,000 barrels per year) is consumed within a seventy-five mile radius of the brewery... A light beer, with a distinctive smell of hops. No aftertaste; an easy beer to drink in quantity. Highly recommended.”
The Men from Point, circa 1973
Weiner gave Point Special a “near perfect” rating of six-mugs (out of a possible seven). Of the dozens of beers Weiner reviewed, the only other American beers to receive such a score were Anchor Steam, McSorley's Ale and Rolling Rock.

Back in Chicago, Royko had also been singing the praises of Point Special. He had taken a lot of flack for his column about the sorry state of American brewing, so to answer his critics, Royko conducted a blind tasting that put his words to the test. In July, 1973 he assembled a panel of 11 taster who sampled 22 beers; a mix of domestics and imports. The top three beers were German-brewed Wurzburger; Bass Ale from England; and Point Special. The bottom three were Old Milwaukee, Schlitz, and Budweiser. Some consider the Royko tasting the seed that led to the rebirth of small and regional brewing in America.

How quickly things have changed. We’re as far from Royko’s tasting as Royko was from Prohibition, but in that span American brewing has undergone a revitalization that wasn’t even being hinted at 1973. There are now 2,538 U.S. breweries in operation. There haven’t been this many American breweries since the early 1880s. In addition, there are more than 1,000 pending breweries that have acquired permits, but are not yet operational. You no longer have to look hard to find flavorful American beer. The tough part is deciding what to drink among all that is being offered.

Meanwhile Point Special is still there tasting much like it always has – pretty damned good. It’s about as unfashionable as a beer can be these days. The Stevens Point Brewery seems happy to embrace that. They’ve recently incorporated their 1950s label in the can design for Point Special. I guess, they’re shooting for the retro look; something they already had.

Now, if you need a light lager that looks a bit more haute, then go over and grab a Longboard Island Lager made by Kona Brewing. At Festival in Oshkosh, Longboard is normally priced at $7.99-8.49 for a six-pack. A 12-pack of Point Special is typically around $9. Is Longboard worth the extra cost? Not even close.

I thought I’d try my own little Royko taste trial and put it to the test. My wife and I did a blind tasting at our house that pitted Point Special against Longboard Island Lager. It wound up a dead heat. She chose Longboard; I preferred Point. Both were good. Neither of us thought one beer was vastly superior to the other.

But considering that Longboard is almost twice as expensive as Point, it would seem there’d be little reason to bother with the pricier beer. Unless, of course, you think it looks better to have that fancy bottle in your hand. I’d rather have the money in my pocket.

There’s another reason – when I’m drinking this type of beer – that I’d rather drink Point: it’s local. Back in 1973, when Royko and his tasters selected Point Special as the best American beer, Oshkosh was part of the envied territory that Point called home. While Schlitz, Budweiser and their ilk doing all they could to destroy regional beer scenes like the one we had in Oshkosh, Point was right here fighting the good fight.

That part hasn’t changed. Kona Brewing, the makers of Longboard Island Lager, is owned by a consortium called the Craft Brew Alliance. They, in turn, are partially owned (32%) by AB/InBev, the makers of Budweiser. You won’t find a word of that mentioned on their flashy packaging or among the liquid-aloha bullshit on their website. Just as it was in 1973, it remains a David and Goliath story. And Point is still coming out on top.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Beer Ads in Oshkosh: Scotch Ale by the Cask at Evans & Co.

Click for a better view.
London porter* wasn’t the only beer of foreign origin flowing into Oshkosh in the 1850s. Ale from Scotland was also pouring over the lips of discerning beer drinkers in the Sawdust City. Take a look at this one...

This is an ad for Evans & Co. that appeared in the Oshkosh Daily Courier on Friday, October 13, 1854. Among other accessories of the good life, Evans is hawking Scotch Ale “by the cask or dozen” to wholesalers or anyone else interested in getting their hands on some strong beer.

The Evans of Evans & Co. was John Evans who operated a saloon and liquor shop in the mid-1850s at the corner of Ferry (now Main) and Otter streets. The Scotch Ale Evans was selling must have done all right for him. He kept it in stock for the next two years. At the time, Scottish beer was in vogue.

By the 1850s, Scotland had become an important brewing center. The Scots were making all sorts of beers, from blistering IPAs to low-gravity milds, but the style that became synonyms with Scotland was, of course, Scotch Ale. Scottish brewers were exporting their eponymous brew just about everywhere during the 1850s and Oshkosh got her share.

So what was the Scotch Ale at the Evans stand like? Well, if it was a typical Scotch Ale of the period - and it very probably was - it would have been quite strong; probably around 7-9% ABV. It would have been mildly hopped, relatively pale, and a rather heavy beer with a low degree of attenuation. Basically, a rich, malty brew with plenty of heft. Sounds good to me.

Come to think of it, that description isn’t too far off from Caber Tossing Scottish Ale; one of the mainstay Fox River Brewing beers at Fratellos in Oshkosh. Caber Tossing, though, would be a shade darker and less alcoholic at 6.2% ABV. Apparently, we’ve had a taste for this sort of brew in Oshkosh for ages.

*For the porter side of the story in Oshkosh, go HERE.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Beering Up For The Weekend

A few ports of call to consider during your weekend roaming.

Festival Foods in Oshkosh. The store has just finished putting in another 8-feet of shelf space dedicated to craft beer. It’s easy to miss down at the end of the warm-beer section, but there’s some good stuff there, including a slew of brews Festival hasn’t carried here before. There’s a lot of Moylan’s and Alesmith beer and a few, new canned-craft selections, such as All Day IPA from Founders and Big Axe, a well-regarded double IPA from Minnesota’s Big Wood Brewery. I’ve been thinking a lot about Scottish Ales lately (more to come on Monday) so I went with Moylan’s Kilt Lifter, which I picked up for $5.49 (22 oz. bomber). It’s a Scotch-style ale with a huge aroma of biscuit and caramel malt that delivers the same in flavor. It’s 8% ABV and so easy to drink that you can easily take down a bomber by your lonesome. If you’re into the malt, get this beer.

Hops & Props. It’s happening Saturday night and, according to their website, tickets are still available. If you’re on the fence about this one, I posted the pertinent links and info (including the brewery list) about the event HERE last week.

O’Marro’s Public House. If Hops and Props just isn’t your thing, they have some goings on at O’Marro’s this weekend that might work better for you. On Friday (March 7) they’ll have a special tapping of Jobu, a rum-barrel-aged brown ale from Capital Brewing. They’ll follow that on Saturday with another special beer; this time it’s a 9 p.m. tapping of Abita’s Imperial Stout aged in 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle Bourbon barrels. Get it while you can, folks.

Dublin’s Irish Pub. If you are going to Hops and Props and craving more when it ends, Dublin’s will be hosting an after party. They’ll have a number of special beers on tap including Alaskan Brewing’s Taku Red River Ale, part of the brewery’s small-batch Rough Draft Export series. Alaskan calls it “a sessionable salute to the Alaskan Imperial Red Ale.” More on that beer HERE. Keep an eye on Dublin’s Facebook page for more info on the after-party.
Quick update: On Friday (March 7) beginning at 6 p.m. Dublin’s will also have a Tallgrass Brewing takover that will include a firkin tapping and a hop-rocketed beer made especially for Dublin’s.

Becket’s. The March edition of the Oshkosh SCENE is now available all over town and in it I have an article about the beer scene at Beckets. Saturday (March 8) would be a good time to check the place out for yourself. Tin Sandwich Blues Band will be playing (with the Society of Oshkosh Brewers own Mike Engel on base and IPA) and, of course, there’s always plenty of good beer on draught. I’d suggest the Louie's Reserve Scotch Ale from Lake Louie Brewery of Arena, WI. This is a 10% ABV, chewy, malt-bomb of a beer that’s been getting raves on Beer Advocate. I had one yesterday and thoroughly agree with the consensus.

New Glarus Coffee Stout. I gotta throw this one in. NG’s Coffee Stout started flowing into town last week and this year’s iteration is as tasty as ever. Just like the title says, a good hit of coffee comes through in the aroma and flavor - with some sweet milk underneath - leading to a silky, almost slick mouthfeel that’s kept in check with a modest bittering. I also like the smoked-malt character of this one quite a bit. An unassuming beer that’s fairly exceptional when you stop to think about it. You can find this beer just about anywhere you care to look for it. Oh, the things we take for granted around here. Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Look Inside Bar 430

Been hearing so much hype about the recently opened Bar 430 (at 430 N. Main St. in Oshkosh), that I had to check it out for myself. The place looks great and it’s comfortable, though the tap selection is a little thin for my liking. So what. Stop by and grab a couple beers and spend some time admiring the incredible murals in the main bar room. Two, large replicas of classic Oshkosh beer labels are painted over exposed brick. One of them is a rendering of the 1960s Peoples label, the other is a Rahr’s from the 1950s. They look fantastic. And it pleases me to no end that they went through the effort of paying homage to a couple of Oshkosh’s brewing greats. Here’s a few snaps from inside (click the pics for a better view).

Oshkosh Breweriana Above a Unisex Bathroom

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Beer Run: Badger State Brewing Co.

Head Brewer Sam Yanda
Here’s a new brewery just an hour north of Oshkosh that’s worth checking out. Badger State Brewing is a Green Bay nanobrewery launched by former homebrewers Andrew Fabry, Michael Servi and Sam Yanda. They began selling their beer in early December 2013. Their brewery is now open weekdays with growler sales on premise. The place is something to see.... and smell.

I stopped in last Friday just as head brewer Sam Yanda was adding cinnamon and cocoa nibs to an oatmeal stout he was making. The aroma was incredible. The brewery is located in a good-sized open space in the back of a manufacturing building near Lambeau Field. Yanda brews on a 15-gallon Sabco system that feeds 42-gallon Blichmann Conical Fermenators. The set-up is getting plenty of use. Yanda says he’s brewing almost daily to keep up.

They had three beers available when I was there – New Green Chop Session IPA; Waloon Belgian Wit Beer; and Bunyan Badger Brown Ale. All three of the beers were quite good. I wound up taking a growler of the brown home.

At the moment, Badger State beers are available at the brewery and at Adams St. Pub and The Libertine, both in Green Bay. But the best way to see what they’re about is to stop in at the brewery, get a tour and pick up a growler or two. It’s rare that you get to see this kind of small-batch brewing taking place on a professional level. We need more of it.

For more on Badger State Brewing, see their webpage and their Facebook page.

Monday, March 3, 2014

A History of Porter in Oshkosh

The dark, English style of beer known as porter has been flowing into Oshkosh for well over 160 years. In fact, porter may have been the first style of commercial beer served here. The Yankee settlers who began arriving in this area in the latter half of the 1830s came from a region where porter was a well-known article. With the establishment of Webster Stanley’s tavern here in 1836, these Yankees had a watering hole to call their own. If they were calling for a familiar beer in Stanley’s tavern, it may very well have been porter.

By the late eighteenth century, porter had become the first style of beer to go global; thanks largely to the enormous London breweries that produced and exported it on a massive scale. The beer took hold in Colonial America and by the mid-1840s was being brewed as far west as Detroit. Some of that beer was reaching Oshkosh. Newspaper advertisements confirm that Detroit beer and London-brewed porters were being imported into Oshkosh prior to the establishment of breweries here in 1849.

An 1849 ad for porter in Oshkosh
Porter definitely had its place in the early days Oshkosh, but I’ve yet to find evidence that it was actually brewed here at that time. That’s not to say that it wasn’t. One early Oshkosh brewer in particular may have dabbled in porter. When German immigrant George Loescher established his Oshkosh Brewery near the corner of Bayshore and Eveline streets in 1852, he was setting up shop in an area where Yankee settlers had preceded him. Also among his neighbors were immigrants from England and Ireland, nations where porter had a deep history. Loescher was known to brew ale in addition to lager beer and operated a saloon at the site of his brewery. Did Loescher brew porter to serve his neighboring patrons? I haven’t found advertisements for porter brewed by Loescher, but it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that he did brew this beer, at least on occasion.

In any case, most Yankee, Irish and English beer drinkers living in Oshkosh soon adopted a taste for the beer the Germans were bringing to town. By 1865, there were five breweries operating in Oshkosh; all of them run by German immigrants and all of them making lager beer. The home-town brewed lagers were soon predominant. In the 1870s, the flow of porter in Oshkosh began to dry up and in the 1880s you find little and then no mention of the beer being available in the city. It would take more than 50 years, but porter would return.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, a brewery 20 miles southwest of Oshkosh attempted to revive porter in our area. German-born John Haas had launched his brewery in Ripon in 1865. It was brought down by Prohibition in 1920, but when the dry law was withdrawn in 1933 it reemerged as the Ripon Brewing Company. And in a rare move for a post-prohibition brewery in Wisconsin, it included a porter in its portfolio. Thanks to a distribution agreement with Oshkosh’s Peoples Brewing, Ripon beer began making its way to Oshkosh. But that arrangement would be short-lived due to the financial failure of the Ripon Brewing Company in 1937. Peoples Brewing assumed label rights and began brewing Ripon’s Old Derby Ale, but didn’t revive the Ripon porter. Once again, porter had lost its way to Oshkosh.

Oshkosh wasn’t the only place where porter had been abandoned. After WWII, production of porter went into near terminal decline. In its English homeland, brewers gave up on the style entirely. In America, porter hung on by a thread. Most of what remained was produced by a handful of breweries in the Northeast that did not distribute their beer in Wisconsin.

But in the 1970s, porter crawled back from the brink one more time. Like the revitalization of American beer in general, the revival of porter in this country was driven by homebrewers and craft brewers. In 1974, Anchor released its Anchor porter. It was the first “craft” porter and it signaled the renewal of the style in America. As craft brewers gained traction in the 1980s, many of them included a porter among their core beers. The style was becoming available again nationwide.

A selection of porters available in Oshkosh
By this time, homebrewers in Oshkosh were already brewing porters on a regular basis. After the Society of Oshkosh Brewers formed in 1991, porter was one of the first styles the homebrewing club selected for inter-club brewing competition.

What may be the first commercial example of porter brewed in Oshkosh was made by the Fox River Brewing Company in the fall of 1992. When the brewpub began serving its beer in December 1995 the brewery had a porter among its opening day line-up of beers. Fox River now regularly brews a variety of porters with its Titan Porter returning to its tap list most often.

Today, porters are abundant in Oshkosh. At this time of year it’s not difficult to find a dozen different porters being sold in the city with Wisconsin-brewed porters from Central Waters, O’so and the Wisconsin Brewing Co. available throughout the year. The inky ale that may have started Oshkosh on its beery way is thriving here.