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.

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I just knew that porter had come from England, but I didn't know it had a rollercoaster history. It makes you think of what might have happened to porter now, if it wasn't for the toil of the homebrewers. Now it's so common and easy to get by. You can purchase porter from the web just like most anything else, and it's one of the the most popular in the world. I'll definitely try porter from Oshkosh next time I'm in the area!

    Randy Steinberg @