Monday, December 22, 2014

2014: A Year of Beer in Oshkosh

It’s been a good year for beer in Oshkosh. The beer scene here has continued to expand and improve. Things may not be perfect, but they’re heading in the right direction. Let’s take a look at what the 2014 Oshkosh beer atmosphere was all about.

Shopping for Beer in Oshkosh
The news here was the opening of Ski’s Meat Market in October. With its beer coolers given over entirely to craft beer, Ski’s became an immediate destination point for Oshkosh beer aficionados. Meanwhile, Gardina’s continued to grow the retail side of its beer business. With an emphasis on rare and highly sought after beers, the selection at Gardina’s remains the most distinctive in the city. The proximity of these two stores is important. Ski’s and Gardina’s being just a block apart has created an axis that now makes N. Main St. the best location for beer shopping in Oshkosh. That’s a change I would have never anticipated two years ago.

In March, the Oshkosh Festival Foods added eight feet of shelf space dedicated to craft beer. But as the year wore on more of their cooler space was being given over to mass-produced imports and “crafty” beers from Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors. The buyers for Festival are located in Green Bay and they seem reluctant to keep stride with the pace of change here. If you live on the west side of town, the convenience of Festival would continue to make it appealing, but for the first time in nearly a decade this is no longer the “go-to” place when shopping for good beer in Oshkosh.

The Pick n’ Save stores are hardly worth mentioning. If you want to see how multi-national brewing corporations are able to influence distribution and diminish selection, take a walk through the south-side Pick n’ Save store. The beer ghetto there is a pathetic site.

Craft Beer in Bars
The big five craft-beer bars remain the same: Becket’s, Dublin’s, Gardina’s, Oblio’s, and O'Marro's. They’re still your best bets if you’re looking for craft beer or unusual imports. Where the change has come is in places like Bar 430, which opened at the end of February. The emphasis at Bar 430 isn’t beer, but they always have a handful of craft beers on tap. Same goes for places like Mahoney’s, The Bar, Dockside or The Varsity Club. As part of The Varsity Club’s renovation this past fall they added 10 new draught lines, boosting their total to 16. Most of those are dedicated to craft beer. We’re seeing this occur across Oshkosh. It’s become a given that you need to have something other than Bud-Miller-Coors product on tap. The places that don’t are also the places that appear to have little, if any, growth in their business.

Beer Events in Oshkosh
Hardly a month went by this year where there wasn’t some sort of beer event taking place in the city. Whether it was special tappings, beer festivals or beer dinners there seemed to always be something on the horizon.

It was a break-out year for beer dinners. Becket’s, Dublin’s, Fratellos, Gardina’s, and O’Marro’s all staged events where beer was paired with food. Dublin’s was the leader on this front with three beer dinners in 2014.

Firkin tappings also came on strong. Dublin’s, Fratellos, Gardina’s and O’Marro’s all tapped into casks this year. Gardina’s outpaced the others with nine firkin tappings over the course of 2014.

And it was another good year for beer festivals. In March, the EAA’s Hops & Props festival sold-out, while the Brews n’ Blues festival in June saw a boost in its attendance. Barley & Hops held three of its “mini” beer fests in 2014 and for the third year in a row, Dublin’s held a well-attended craft-beer festival. The Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrew festival in November also drew a large crowd and featured the most unique selection of beers poured in Oshkosh this year.

The Fox River Brewing Company and Fratellos
The news here was the brewery’s return to distributing its beer beyond the Fratellos restaurants. The distribution program was announced in June and coincided with the release of the Bago Brew series of beers. The first beer in this series was 2 Dams, an unfiltered blonde ale. 2 Dams was joined in the series by two rebranded beers: Caber Tossing Scottish Ale became Marble Eye; and BLÜ, their blueberry fruit beer, was renamed BLÜ Bobber.

The distribution program hasn’t yet corresponded with a spike in production at Fox River. Through October of this year, Fox River Brewing had produced 1090 barrels of beer (545 in Oshkosh / 545 in Appleton). That’s down just slightly from last year’s total through October of 1105 barrels. It’ll be interesting to see in the coming months if production begins to rise as their distribution grows. Actually, I’m surprised we aren’t seeing that already.

Fox River continued to expand it’s barrel-aging program this year releasing a number of different beers aged in wine, brandy and bourbon barrels. And at Fratellos this past July, they installed a new draught system in the restaurant portion of the complex where they also added four additional taps.

Homebrewing in Oshkosh
Perhaps the best indicator of the vibrancy of the Oshkosh beer scene is the thriving homebrewing community that exists here. Much of its vigor is fueled by the Society of Oshkosh Brewers. SOB membership swelled again this year. There are now over 80 members in the club making it one of Wisconsin’s largest homebrewing clubs.

With regular public appearances this year at the Oshkosh Farmer’s Market and at charity events such as the Oshkosh Chili Cook-off, the SOBs brought homebrewing into the Oshkosh mainstream. The club’s Cask & Caskets homebrew tasting drew a crowd of more than 400 people and raised $12,000 for charity. At this year’s Brews n’ Blues festival, beers brewed by SOB members beat out more than 100 commercial beers to take the top two prizes at the event. The club also re-established its link to our local brewery this year when SOB members brewed a beer at the Fox River Brewing Company in October. It was the first time in years that Oshkosh’s homebrewers and pro brewers came together to make beer.

But the new year will find the SOBs facing a daunting challenge. In the wake of Casks & Caskets, state officials gave notice that it will now be considered a violation of Wisconsin liquor laws to serve homebrew at festivals where an admission fee is charged. How this will impact the way the club shares its beer with people in Oshkosh will become clear in 2015.

What We Lack
There are two areas where the beer community in Oshkosh is significantly underserved.

First, a single brewery is not enough. Historically, the city has been able to support multiple breweries at any given time. The time has come for Oshkosh to revive that part of its heritage. Over the past year, I’ve heard from a number of people who appear to have a strong interest in doing just that. I’ll be surprised if within the next two years there hasn’t come the announcement of a new brewery or brewpub planned for Oshkosh.

Second, we need a dedicated outlet for homebrewing supplies . NDC is fine for what it is, but for most homebrewers in Oshkosh the store is inadequate. There are a large number of advanced homebrewers here that would virtually guarantee the success of a decent homebrew shop. If it’s true that capitalism abhors a vacuum, Oshkosh will have a store dedicated to homebrewing before too long.

A Word of Thanks
I want to say thank you to everyone who has found time to visit this blog over the past year. Far and away, the best part of doing this has been the opportunity it’s given me to meet so many interesting beer lovers, publicans and brewers. That alone has made the time I pour into this site worthwhile.

There are going to be some changes here over the coming year. I’ll be writing about beer for a new Oshkosh publication that should come online by February. Some of the content that normally gets posted here will probably migrate to that site. We’ll see.

I’m looking forward to 2015. I believe it’s going to be an exciting year for all of us beer freaks here in Oshkosh. Prost!


  1. Lee thanks for all you do in educating and entertaining us. You also provide a needed service in a vacuum of information, and you encourage those in Oshkosh that stock and sell us beer.

  2. Great timing of this as I just found your blogspot. My wife is from Oshkosh so we travel back a handful of times each year. My usual stop is at Festival Foods as that's all I knew of. This year while in town for Christmas I decided to do a little research and see if there were any better options...which led me to your blog.

    I just got back from a stop at Ski's and Gardina's. My haul:

    Toppling Goliath PseudoSue
    Toppling Goliath Zeelander
    Goose Island Matilda
    Goose Island Kentucky Bourbon Brand Stout
    Dogfish Head Beer Thousand
    Dogfish Head Rosabi
    New Belgium Lips Of Faith - Salted Belgian Chocolate Stout

    Throw in some beef stick purchased at Ski's and I'd say I'm set for the at least tonight :)