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.

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