Monday, June 9, 2014

1853: A Glass of Oshkosh Brewing History

Last week, Fratellos in Oshkosh put an American dark lager on draught named 1853. This is a beer that was first brewed by Fox River Brewing Company in 2003 to celebrate Oshkosh’s sesquicentennial. The brewmaster at that time was Brian Allen, who told the Oshkosh Northwestern that among his own brews, 1853 was his favorite beer. Allen went on to describe the beer as being similar to the kind of beer Germans were brewing when Oshkosh was settled.

With 1853 available again, I thought it might be worth a look to see just how closely this lager resembles the beers that Oshkoshers were brewing and drinking when the city was established. Let’s dig in.

In 1853, there were two breweries operating in Oshkosh: the Jacob Konrad Brewery on the east side of Lake Street just south of Ceape Ave.; and George Loescher’s Oshkosh Brewery on Bayshore Drive near Eveline St. Both of these breweries were founded by German immigrants and each was known to produce lager beer. So the assertion that the Oshkosh beers of 1853 were lagers does have merit, but it’s not the whole story. We know that, at times, Loescher also produced ale at his brewery. Konrad may have done so, as well. Lager beer was clearly becoming predominant in Oshkosh in 1853, but it certainly wasn’t the only type of beer people were drinking here and it may not have been the the only type of beer brewers were making here.

The color of Fox River’s 1853 is dark amber with ruby highlights. The Oshkosh lagers of 1853 would have been a similar hue and maybe even another shade darker. Prior to the 1870s, dark Bavarian-style beer was synonymous with lager beer in America. I’ve found no evidence to suggest that the lagers brewed in Oshkosh would have been any different. In fact, these dark lagers would remain quite popular in Oshkosh well into the 1900s. I’ve seen a number of pictures taken prior to Prohibition in Oshkosh saloons where lager beer was served. The beer in the glasses is almost always very dark.

The dominant flavor of 1853 is that of a bready Munich malt. At the same time the beer has a rather light mouthfeel. This is where the Fox River beer parts ways with the Oshkosh beers of 1853. Fox River uses an addition of corn in the production of 1853, which lightens the body of the beer. Corn would come to be a traditional ingredient of American lagers, but in 1853 that day had yet to arrive. In all likelihood, the Oshkosh lagers of 1853 were all-malt beers made with 6-row barley. The use of corn to lighten both the body and color of beer didn’t become widespread in American brewing until after the 1870s. Prior to that, American dark lagers were most often described with terms such as “dextrinous” and having a “full-mouthed taste.”

As for hop flavor, the 1853 at Fratellos is very mildly hopped with just the slightest bitterness in the finish. I’ve yet to find anything that specifically addresses the hopping rates of Oshkosh-made beers from this period, but American brewers from this time were known to be fairly liberal with their use of hops. Furthermore, hop growing in and around Oshkosh was commonplace in the 1850s, so there would have been plenty of good hops at the disposal of brewers here. I’d speculate the the lagers served in Oshkosh in 1853 would have had a bitterness that was quite firm.

All in all, 1853 at Fratellos is probably not too far off from the Oshkosh lagers of 1853, but probably more closely resembles the dark lagers that were brewed here in 1903. Either way, it’s an enjoyable beer and it’s good to see the local brewery reminding us of the rich brewing history we have in Oshkosh.

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