Thursday, January 29, 2015

Ballast Point Arrives in Oshkosh

Last month, Ballast Point Brewing & Spirits signed a distribution deal with Wirtz Beverage to bring the San Diego brewery’s beer to Wisconsin. And now.... it’s here in Oshkosh.

Where to Get It
Dublin’s will have a special tapping beginning Friday afternoon, pouring from a keg of Ballast Point Sculpin IPA. On the retail side, Gardina’s has brought in a nice selection of Ballast Point’s beer. Right now, Gardina’s is selling 6-packs of Ballast Point’s Sculpin IPA, Big Eye IPA, and the brewery’s Original Pale Ale. They also have bombers of Ballast Point’s Dorado Double IPA, Sea Monster Imperial Stout, and Victory At Sea Coffee Vanilla Porter.

Lot’s to choose from. Notice that lean towards the IPA side? It’s what this brewery is best known for. Their IPAs get gushing reviews on the ratings sites. The style is what has driven Ballast Point’s fast rise.

The Brewery
Ballast Point was launched in 1996 by Yuseff Cherney and Jack White from the back of a San Diego homebrew shop. Ever since, the brewery has grown at a blistering pace. From 2012-2013 Ballast Point was the fastest growing craft brewery in America. At the end of 2013, it was 29th largest American craft brewery producing over 86,000 barrels of beer annually.

A Couple of Their Beers
I’d heard so much about their IPAs, that I went straight for those.

Sculpin IPA. This is the one you hear the most about. I see why. The aroma is prototypical West Coast. Lots of citrus, mango and peach. The beer is medium bodied and – considering that it’s 7% ABV – incredibly easy to drink. There’s some malt going on in the background, but not enough to get in the way of the hop flavors. Voluminous tropical fruit and lemon-like citrus flavors lead to an assertive bitterness that accumulates as you drink. I like that it’s not shy about its bitter quality. Lately, brewers of West-Coast style IPAs seem bent on emphasizing hop flavor and forgetting that an IPA ought to be bitter. This beer brings it. Gardina’s has Sculpin in 6-packs for $15.99. Sculpin will make its first draught appearance in Oshkosh Friday at Dublin’s.

Big Eye IPA. An amber beer with a beige head, you’d swear this was an Oktoberfest as it slides into the glass. Then come those hops. The aroma is a pleasing mix of bready malt, lavender and the big-pine scent of American hops. The malt flavor surprised me. I wasn’t expecting it to be so prominent. It’s biscuity and has a fresh-bread sort of warmth about it. Those piney notes of the aroma carry over into the taste where it meets a distinct pineapple note. It’s certainly a hoppy beer, but not in a syrupy, hop-bomb way. There’s balance here you don’t often find in American IPAs. Its a 7% ABV beer with a slight booziness that compliments the warmth of the malt flavor. There’s a lot going on in this ale. I’m looking forward to drinking it again. Gardina’s is selling 6-packs of Big Eye for $10.99.

To the folks at McKnight & Carlson / Gardina’s. This week the Oshkosh Common Council approved their liquor license application. This gives McKnight & Carlson the green light to proceed with its plan to put a restaurant / taproom into the space formerly occupied by Soirée at 421 N. Main St. The backstory on that is here. And there’ll be more to come on...

Monday, January 26, 2015

Oshkosh’s Wildcat Breweries and the Raids of 1931 - Part 2

Five months after the raid on the Noe brewery, Prohibition enforcement agents were back in Oshkosh. This time they were snooping on the south side. The feds hit pay dirt on 20th Ave.

Federal prohibition agents dumped 11,000 gallons of alleged fermenting beer, smashed 120 cases bottled for shipment, broke 13 half barrels filled with the brew, and smashed 72 cans of wort, used for beer manufacture, at a farm on the Twentieth street road near the city, Tuesday evening.
     Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Wednesday, August 26, 1931

That’s a large brewery. For context, consider the brewhouse of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. It was the largest in Oshkosh both before and after Prohibition. OBC’s typical batch size was around 230 barrels. The farmhouse brewery here had more than 350 barrels of fermenting beer on hand and another 15 barrels of packaged beer ready to go out the door. This is brewing on a commercial scale.

That bit about the “72 cans of wort” is fascinating. It would suggest this brewery was making its beer from malt extract. Is it coincidence that the nearby Oshkosh Brewing Company was churning out malt extract at this time? Here’s something that suggests a link: In 1930, OBC, earned $35,132 on the sale of canned malt extract (wort). In 1931, earnings dipped to $18,567. Perhaps the summer raid on this brewery was a factor in that steep decline.

Like most stories about these wildcat breweries, what we learn only leads to more questions. Most of them will never be answered. Here’s one I’d like to know the answer to: Whose farm was this? The Oshkosh Daily Northwestern ran a single story on the incident and never mentioned the exact location of the property or its owner. In any case, the owner didn’t have to wait for their punishment. The feds immediately wrecked the place.

The destruction of the brewery south of the city puts out of business what the federal men stated was a most elaborate plant. The basement of the house was filled with large vats, they said, and this morning there was more than eight inches of alleged beer on the floor.
     Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Wednesday, August 26, 1931

If the brewery had been as “elaborate” as claimed, the two men captured in the raid were probably not its engineers. Prior to their arrests, Hubert “Hub” Molitor and Fred “Fernie” Heinzl, both of Oshkosh, appeared to be completely unconnected to anything involving beer or the brewing industry. Molitor was 30 years old and worked at the Deltox Rug Company. Heinzel was 32 and worked at Paine Lumber.

Following their arrests, Molitor and Heinzl were taken to Milwaukee, formally charged and released on a $500 bond. Their eventual punishment couldn’t have been too jarring. In November 1931, Molitor was seen celebrating his parent’s 50th wedding anniversary in Fond du Lac. Heinzl went on to work for the City of Oshkosh. The dry law was wildly unpopular here. Being arrested for breaking it didn’t leave one stigmatized.

A couple years after their arrests, Prohibition ended and the wildcat breweries were gone. Molitor and Heinzl were already out of the game by then. But for the rest of their lives they lived within three blocks of each other in the old Sixth Ward. Surely they must have run into one another from time to time. I like to think of them accidentally meeting on the street and sharing a laugh over their outlaw days as wildcat brewers.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

A Double Dose of Bitter Beer

And now it’s time for some IPA... If you’re looking to get your hops on this weekend, may I suggest a couple lovely bombers of bitter.

New Belgium Hop the Pond Double IPA
Yeezus, this one surprised me. With a heavy, resinous aroma of citrus and spruce, I was all set for this thing to screw bitterness into my jowls with a vengeance. Not so. For all it’s aromatic roar, the damned thing was gentle as a kitten. A wonderfully soft mouthfeel with a fruity, lemon/lime sorta hop flavor that immediately reminded me of Sprite® soda. The bitterness comes on stronger in the finish, but never quite reaches the punishing climax I kept expecting. I’m not complaining. Rare is the DIPA that makes me want another. This one did.

Hop the Pond Fact Sheet
The Brewery: New Belgium Brewing was launched in 1991. It is an employee-owned brewery with production facilities in Fort Collins, CO. This year the brewery plans to open a second production brewery in Asheville, N.C. New Belgium Produced 792,292 bbls of beer in 2013. It is the third largest craft brewery in the United States.
The Name: Hop the Pond is a reference to the sourcing of the beer’s ingredients, which were grown in Australlia Canada, Chile, England, Germany and the U.S.
Hops: Admiral, Citra, Galaxy, Styrian Dana.
IBUs: 80
ABV: 8.0%
Package: 22oz bottle
Where: Ski’s Meat Market
Price: $5.99

Toppling Goliath ZeeLander IPA
I’ve had several bottles of this over the past three weeks. The last bottle, I jotted down some notes. When I looked at them just now, I thought, well that doesn’t sound very good. But it is. Here’s most of what I scribbled: Gold. Hazy. Pillow white foam. Smells vegetal. Oniony. Light bodied. Fucking creamy! Smells like marijuana. Lots of lacing. Odd flavor. Celery. Grassy. Dandelion? Bitter. Not too bitter. Articulate, ain’t I? Just be happy I left out the crap about my back hurting. I think it’s a brilliant beer. Adam at Gardina’s says people seem to either love it or hate it. Aren’t those usually the best kind?

ZeeLander Fact Sheet
The Brewery: Toppling Goliath Brewing is located in Decorah, IA. The brewery was launched in 2009. This is a small, highly-rated brewery that currently produces approximately 5,000 bbls of beer annually. Oshkosh is one of just a handful of Wisconsin cities that receives Toppling Goliath’s beer.
The Name: ZeeLander is in reference to New Zeeland, where the hops for this beer were grown.
Hops: Nelson Sauvin, Nelson Sauvin and then some more Nelson Sauvin.
IBUs: 80
ABV: 5.5%
Package: 22oz bottle
Where: Gardina’s
Price: $8.99

A Final Word of Encouragement
Bell’s Hopslam began shipping last Monday. We ought to see it hitting the shelves here in town within the next few days. Here’s to your embittered existence!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A Ruby Owl on Main Street

Oshkosh has four “Class B” liquor licenses currently available. Six parties are vying for them. There’s one contender in the pack worth keeping an eye on. McKnight & Carlson, the owner of Gardina's Wine Bar & Cafe, is seeking one of the open licenses. If they obtain it, we’ll see another substantial boost to the craft-beer scene in downtown Oshkosh.

The McKnight & Carlson plan is to put a new restaurant into the space at 421 N. Main St., formerly occupied by Soirée Urban Gifts. Gardina’s, meanwhile, would remain just as it is; this would be a separate entity with an identity of its own.

According to Julie Wolk and Adam Carlson of McKnight & Carlson and Gardina’s, the tentative name for the planned restaurant is The Ruby Owl. In addition to the restaurant would be a full bar with an extensive selection of craft beer.

Nothing has been finalized, but if the plan comes to fruition this spot may feature the largest selection of craft beer on draught in Oshkosh. At the moment, the entire project is contingent upon the granting of that license. The McKnight & Carlson group will present its case at the next Common Council meeting Tuesday, January 27.

City Manager Mark Rohloff said last September that the council was interested in hearing from applicants offering projects that would help drive community development. The McKnight & Carlson plan certainly fits that criteria. Should it go through, it would be a significant step forward in the renewal of downtown.

About the building: The drawing that accompanies this post is from Harney's City Directory of Oshkosh, 1876. The illustration shows the building at 421 N. Main as it appeared shortly after its construction in 1875. It was a part of the rebuilding of downtown Oshkosh that took place after the ruinous fire of July 1874.

The original owner was George Mayer, a jeweler (hence the ruby of Ruby Owl) and watch repairman who also sold musical instruments. Mayer was born in Germany in 1826 and came to Oshkosh in 1850. In 1884 he went bankrupt after having been swindled by his son, Max. Lotsa history in this place. It would be great to see it come back to life.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Firkin Tonight at Gardina's

The 16th chapter of Gardina’s Beer Bar series cracks open tonight (Tuesday, January 20) with a special firkin tapping.

This time, they’ll hammer the faucet into a firkin of Hinterland Vienna lager that’s been cask conditioned with fresh raspberries. Expect a smooth, malty brew amplified by the sweet/tart kick of, you guessed it, raspberries. Good job!

In addition to the cask, Gardina’s will also feature a special dinner menu – in addition to their regular menu – inspired by Tuesday’s firkin.

The firkin starts pouring at 6 p.m. Partim iubentium!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Oshkosh’s Wildcat Breweries and the Raids of 1931 - Part 1

Oshkosh is the center of a large number of wildcat breweries... Local police in Oshkosh are active and efficient with respect to all law violation, except, of course, those connected with the liquor traffic.
     - Frank Buckley, Bureau of Prohibition, from his 1929 report on Prohibition enforcement in Wisconsin.

Frank Buckley wasn’t adding anything new with his description of Oshkosh as a wet town. It was well known that wildcat brewing thrived here during Prohibition. But when Prohibition ended in 1933 these breweries were immediately made redundant. They were swept away and forgotten.

Such breweries were, of course, secretive affairs. As a result, most details of their operations have been lost. But from 1931 comes a couple of brief glimpses into the workings of two illicit Oshkosh breweries. Today and again next Monday we’ll look at outlaw brewing in our city during the dry years.

The Raid on the Noe Brewery
Just before midnight on the Saturday evening of March 21, 1931, federal agents arrested Henry Noe of Oshkosh. He was charged with the manufacture and possession of intoxicants, along with possession of implements designed to manufacture intoxicants. Noe was running a brewery.

Henry Noe’s brewery was located on an abandoned farm just west of what is now State Road 76; near to where Highway 41 crosses over it. The raid on Noe’s brewery lasted nearly three hours. They caught the young man red-handed.

The raiders found 100 gallons of alleged brew in vats, three half barrels of alleged beer, a bottling machine, a complete sterilization outfit and other paraphernalia. The farmhouse and barns, supposedly deserted for some time, had housed the brewery for a considerable period, it is believed.
     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern March 23, 1931

Not a bad setup for a bootlegger. A hundred gallons of fermenting beer is a considerable amount. It’s enough to produce more than 40 cases of beer. That volume, coupled with the fact that Noe was in possession of a bottling machine, indicates that this was outfitted to be a production brewery. That he was also kegging beer suggests he was supplying beer to taverns or clubs. It also tells you that Noe probably wasn’t working alone.

At the time of his arrest, Henry Noe was just 24 years old. He hardly strikes you as the sort of guy who would be running a bootleg brewery on his own. Noe had an 8th grade education and made his living as an electrician. His past and familial ties suggest no previous background in brewing beer.

A year before his arrest, Noe had been living at his parents home at what is now 528 W 10th Ave. But he had recently married Anne Lichtenwald, an 18-year-old Russian-born woman who had just given birth to their first son. If the Noe brewery was a one-man operation, Henry Noe must have been a hustling young man. In any case, Noe was alone in taking the fall when the farm brewery was raided that night in March.

When the raid occurred, neighbors said they were alarmed by the scene, but not surprised by it. Like the Oshkosh Police Frank Buckley had observed, the neighbors of Noe’s brewery knew exactly what was going on there.

They stated they presumed a raid was in progress since they had observed previously that it appeared the farm buildings were being used for either a brewery or distillery.
     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern March 23, 1931

Following his arrest, Noe was taken to Milwaukee, charged with various infractions of the Prohibition law and held over on $500 bond. But the ordeal wasn’t too damaging for him. Soon he was back in Oshkosh with his young family again, working as an electrician and going about his life. Noe eventually left Oshkosh, moving his family moved to Peoria, IL in 1940. He remained there until his death at age 84 in 1991. The secrets of his brewery, more than likely, went with him.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Beer v. Wine Dinner at TJ's Harbor Restaurant

Just a few clicks south of town, TJ's Harbor Restaurant will host a beer versus wine dinner next Thursday, January 22.

They’ll have a four-course dinner, each course paired with a beer and a wine. At the end of the night, you get to decide that beer is the winner. Or, if you want to be wrong, you can choose wine. It’s your call.

The gastro experience starts at 6:30 pm. Tickets are $45, which includes tax and gratuity. For more info, contact the always friendly folks at TJ's. You can reach them at (920) 688-9047. Their website is HERE and their Facebook page is HERE.

I don’t have the beverage list for the event, but here’s the meal plan....

Course One
Duck stuffed portabella mushrooms.

Course Two
Warm brussels sprout, thyme and apple salad.

Course Three
Pork tenderloin with cauliflower cheddar potatoes.

Course Four
Mango cream cheese ice cream

Thursday, January 15, 2015

A Helles of a Beer

Back to the January reset… Bring on the helles....
A fine helles is a thing of understated beauty. The German word for light or bright, helles is a relatively young style of lager beer that originated in Munich at the end of the 19th Century. They range in color from blonde to gold and should be medium bodied and easy drinking. Often featuring a balanced, bread-like malt character these beers are significantly less hop-driven than the European pilsners that inspired them. Low in alcohol, the best examples come across soft and refreshing. It’s a perfect beer for reconditioning your palate over extended sessions of beering.

Right now, we have a few excellent helles up for grabs in Oshkosh. Here’s a trio that I like. We’ll start with a classic.

Augustiner Brau Edelstoff
Straight from the teat, as they say: Augustiner is the oldest brewery in Munich. The brewery can trace its roots back to the 1300s and it still relies on traditional methods such as floor malting and conditioning in wooden casks. Can you taste those things? Maybe.

Pale gold and crystal clear, Edelstoff settles under a blindingly white foam that rapidly collapses into itself. The cracker and fresh grain aroma of pilsner malt leads to a light biscuit flavor that’s mild and pleasing. Slight notes of pepper and lemon come up at the end as the beer eases to a clean, crisp finish. Wonderful! This is an export strength helles, so it’s stronger than most at 5.6% ABV. Get it in 6-packs at Gardina’s for $14.99

Wisconsin Brewing Company Ol' Reliable
You don’t see many American craft brewers producing a helles. In the current climate, I suppose that makes some sense. It’s a difficult style to pull off and it’s not the sort of beer that gets the RateBeer crowd regurgitating piles of hype. But if you can still appreciate the taste of a beer that hasn’t been torqued into a caricature of itself, grab this one.

Ol' Reliable pours deep gold and brilliantly clear with a clinging, creamy head. It has a unique - almost honey-like - malt aroma that leads you to believe the beer will be sweeter than it is. It’s medium-bodied and anchored by malt flavor that reminds me of lightly toasted bread. That bready note gets rounded out by a delicate, fruity bitterness that gathers strength in the finish. I can’t think of a better American-brewed helles. I’m hoping this will become part of WBC’s regular line-up and start showing up around here in cans. It’s 4.8% ABV and you can get it in sixers of bottles at Festival Foods for $7.49.

Hacker-Pschorr Munich Gold
Back to Bavaria. I think I was 13 when I first tasted this beer. I walked off with a bottle of it from a neighbor’s campsite. I loved it then, I love it now. Like the Edelstoff, this comes to us in export strength of 5.5% ABV. It’s a straw-colored lager with a dense cap of foam that holds together nicely. This has the most prominent hop aroma of the three. It gives off a mellow, earthy scent. There’s that signature bready malt flavor again followed by a pepper-like bitterness that quickly dissolves from the tongue, making for an exceptionally clean finish. Kind of like magic. It’s a beer that’ll make you understand why some consider helles to be the ultimate expression of the brewer’s art. It’s on exhibit now at Festival where they sell it in 6-packs for $8.49

Make it a Six Pack
Three more you can check out in Oshkosh… Two of the Kings of this style are Hofbräu Original and Spaten Münchner Premium Lager. Both are exceptional. Problem is, they’re packaged in green bottles, so you run a good chance of getting a dose of skunk embedded in your suds. Both of these beers are sold at Festival where they aren’t helping things any by putting them near the top shelf where panels of fluorescent light can more easily wreak their havoc. Selecting from the back of the shelf sometimes helps.

Then there’s Leinenkugel's Helles Yeah, which you’ll find all over the place. Is this a helles? Helles No. I like this beer quite a bit, but the muddled corporate marketers who pin names on this shit are too clueless to know what they have. Actually, this is the second time they fritzed the name. First time out, it was called Hoppin’ Helles. They had to drop that because folks were bitching about it not being hoppy enough. That despite the fact that it has a hop profile very much like an American Pale Ale. I don’t care what they name it, but they shouldn’t have referred to it as a helles. Modern American Pilsener is more like it. It has that pilsener malt profile, but then it gets the American hopping treatment with a bunch of simcoe and citra dumped in. Tell me, doesn’t that resemble an Americanized version of a Bohemian pilsener? That’s a rhetorical question, of course it does. See what just happened? I invented a beer style. I’m calling it Modern American Pilsener (or MAP, if you’re part of the in-crowd). A few months from now it’ll be all the rage. Or not. I gotta go. I feel a homebrew coming on...

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Blitzkrieg at Fratellos

Perhaps you’re entertaining thoughts of a mid-week mood adjustment. If so, there’s a trio of bombastic beers currently pouring at Fratellos in Oshkosh that’ll do the trick.

Die Triple Sticke
Old Bavarian Triple Sticke Altbier
It's a German-style ale brewed by Fox River Brewing for the Old Bavarian Brewing Company in Appleton. Fortunately, we’re getting a dose of it in Oshkosh.

A Sticke (pronounced Shtick-ah) Alt is an amped up version of a traditional Altbier that’s usually released as a fall or winter seasonal. Literally meaning “Secret Alt” it’s meant to be something of a special treat for a brewery’s more faithful customers.

They’re working the “secret” part of it pretty hard at Fratellos. Their beer list describes it as a “special reserve Altbier" with a “snappy bitterness" and "pleasant malt flavors.” It has all that, but it also tastes as if it’s been barrel aged. Check out the thundering notes of brandy, plum and oak that come booming through and tell me what you think. At 9.4% ABV and 45 IBUs, this beer is a surprising mouthful. If you go, you may want to make this the last beer of the night because (along with your memory) it’ll blot out anything that comes after.

Defibrillator Doppelbock
It’s been almost a year since I last had this beer. That’s too long. This is one of my favorite American-made doppelbocks. DD is a full-bodied, dark lager with a bold, caramel aroma and a wonderfully creamy mouthfeel. The beer leans slightly to the sweet side, but there’s enough hop bitterness in the finish to keep it from turning gummy on you. At just over 8% ABV, it’s definitely a warmer.

Vader’s Imperial Stout
A lovely Russian Imperial Stout, this one checks in at 7% ABV. The snifter comes to you pitch black with a cap of brown foam and a roasty aroma that smells like a small campfire. This is a mouth-coating, rich ale with chocolate, molasses and a good deal of black licorice flavors presenting themselves. The finishing bitterness is very firm, the equal of all that lush malt flavor that precedes it. A nice beer to spend some time with as you sit at the dining room bar at Fratellos and stare at that big, frozen river (insert sigh). A beer to keep in mind. Remember, we still have February ahead of us.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015


Coming Soon...
The January edition of the Oshkosh SCENE is out and for the first time in three years you won’t find the Oshkosh Beer Garden column inside. In December, I decided to stop writing for the paper. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this over the past couple of weeks, so I thought I’d lay it all out here.

The Oshkosh edition of the SCENE was launched in February 2012. It was part of a general expansion of the SCENE. The paper had started with a single edition based in Appleton, but was looking to produce local editions in a number of Northeast Wisconsin communities. Oshkosh was one of those cities that would have a local SCENE. Justin Mitchell became its editor.

I was fairly typical of the sort of person Justin asked to contribute to the new SCENE. Prior to the paper being launched, I had been writing regularly on this blog about a slice of Oshkosh culture that was largely ignored by media here. The other contributors Justin recruited were less idiosyncratic, but were similar in the sense that they were interested in reporting Oshkosh stories that weren’t being told anywhere else.

It seemed to work well. Once the Oshkosh SCENE gained its footing, it became a much more interesting paper than the one previously sent to us from Appleton. Those editions typically contained little or no Oshkosh content. The new paper was dominated by Oshkosh news.

From the outside it looked as though things were going well. From the start, though, there were problems. The tipping point came last fall when Justin Mitchell resigned as editor. In an email sent to contributors Justin wrote, “The direction of the paper as directed by ownership, and the lack of follow-through in many areas by ownership, has continued to worsen.” When Justin left, most of the Oshkosh SCENE’s contributors went with him.

Shortly after Justin’s resignation I received an email from James Moran, publisher of the SCENE newspapers. He informed me that the SCENE was interested in “promoting” my column by running it in all of the paper’s publications starting in January. That sealed the deal for me. The last thing I wanted was to write a generic beer column aimed at communities I have little knowledge of. I want to write about the peculiar culture of beer as it exists in Oshkosh. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to do with any of this.

January’s “Greater Oshkosh Edition” of the SCENE is now available. The paper looks much like it did prior to 2012. Aside from a few local ads and a threadbare events calendar, it’s nearly devoid of Oshkosh content. That void won’t remain for long.

Beginning in February, a new Oshkosh publication named the Oshkosh Independent will go online. Launched by Justin Mitchell, many of the former writers for the Oshkosh SCENE, myself included, will be a part of it. The emphasis will be on community-based journalism with Oshkosh as its focus.

When we go live, I’ll make mention of it here. Until then you can visit the Oshkosh Independent Facebook page HERE and the splash page for the coming website HERE. Stay tuned, I think this could be good...

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Herbst Bros. Lion Brewery

This one is going to take us off into the weeds. Let’s go...

The piece of breweriana you’ll see below recently went on sale at Folklore on Main St. It’s a cardboard hand fan imprinted with a beer advertisement. At first glance, you’d assume the piece was issued by a brewery located in Oshkosh. Click the images below to enlarge them and you’ll see what I mean.

I first saw this in October 2012. Dan Radig spotted it on Ebay and directed me towards it. The seller was the Ye Olde Breweriana Shoppe from Cincinnati, Ohio. Their description of the item began with, “Extremely rare is this hand fan for the Herbst Bros Lion Brewery out of Oshkosh, Wisconsin.”

Rare is right. But the part about the Herbst brothers having a brewery in Oshkosh isn’t. There was never a Lion Brewery in Oshkosh owned by any persons named Herbst. So what then is this? I have a theory, but let’s get the basics out of the way first.

The piece is from the early 1930s. The wording on the back side of the fan is a dead giveaway: “Lion Brew has returned and thousands are welcoming it back as an old dear friend.” That’s exactly the sort of thing breweries were saying in their ads immediately after Prohibition ended in 1933.

For example, take a look at the stunner below. It’s from the Daily Northwestern on March 22, 1933 for the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh. This appeared just a couple weeks prior to the modification of the Volstead Act that went into effect on April 7 legalizing beer at or below 4% ABV.

Click image to enlarge it
The small type may be hard to read, but in there it says, “Yes, Rahr's Elk's Head will soon be here again... the same Rahr's Elk's Head Beer brewed in the same old fashioned way that made it the favorite of thousands.” Sounds familiar.

Back to the Lion Brewery. When I first saw the hand fan, I thought that perhaps the Herbst Bros. were working as beer distributors selling beer for the Lion Brewery. It wasn’t at all unusual for distributors to add the name of the city they were working in to the name of the brewery they were selling for. For example, here’s a portion of a 1912 Pabst ad that makes it look as though the Pabst Brewery was located in Oshkosh. Obviously it wasn’t, but the local distributor who placed the ad was.

When the hand fan was issued there were three breweries in America using the Lion Brewery moniker. They were in New York City, Wilkes-Barre, PA. and Cincinnati, Ohio. The Ohio brewery is probably the one being referenced here. That brewery specifically referred to its beer as “Lion Brew.” For example, here’s an ad from October 4, 1933 from the Mansfield News-Journal of Mansfield, Ohio.

So it looks like there were a couple of brothers named Herbst in Oshkosh who were distributing this Cincinnati beer. But I don’t think that’s the case, either. There were two men named Herbst living in Oshkosh at this time (Charles and George), but they weren’t brothers. They both worked as laborers and I can’t find any evidence of either of them holding a liquor license. They would have needed that license to distribute beer in Oshkosh. And after much digging, I haven’t been able to find a single mention of them being involved with beer in Oshkosh in any way. Furthermore, The Lion Brewery of Ohio closed in 1934. It doesn’t appear that their beer was ever distributed in Wisconsin. Dead end.

If I had to venture a guess, then, I’d say this is probably a prototype of some sort. Perhaps a merchandising company used this as a demonstration piece to show potential customer’s their wares. It’s a guess, but it’s the best one I have.

When I was at Folklore last Thursday, the fan was still there. There’s a $90 tag on it. The starting bid for it on Ebay a couple years ago was $39. Hard to say what it’s really worth. It may be a one-of-a-kind piece.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Quartet of Thrilling Pils

Reset. After a holiday season spent wallowing in pools of weighty, winter brews, it’s time to take a break. Allow your palate to recover its equilibrium. This month I’m going for beers that are easier going. Basic drinkers where the flavors are produced by the unadorned quartet of malt, hops, yeast and water. Pilsener fits that bill.

A true pilsener is a pale, medium-to-light bodied lager that showcases the earthy, bitter flavor of hops. There are a number of variants on the style, but a distinct hop flavor is central to all of them. At the moment in Oshkosh, we have a good selection of genuine pilseners available. Here are four that I like.

Wernesgrüner Pils Legend
This pilsener comes to us all the way from Saxony, Germany and it’s as good a German-style pilsener as you’ll find anywhere. Straw colored with a snow white cap it gives off a lovely, floral hop aroma. The beer is incredibly smooth and easy drinking with a prominent bitterness that lingers and refreshes. Less dry than most German pils, it still encourages you to return to the glass again and agin. At 4.90% ABV you can sink a few of these without too much trouble. A great beer and here’s the kicker: they sell it at Aldi’s in Oshkosh for $5.99 a six-pack. Better yet, it’s fresh. This is one of the best beer deals in town.

Victory Prima Pils
From Downingtown, PA comes what is probably the most highly regarded American-brewed pilsener. A couple glasses of it will tell you why. Yellow/gold with an off-white head, the aroma is of malt flour and lemony, German hops. This beer is several degrees more substantial than your average pils. The beer is full-bodied and malt-rich with a notable bitterness. I love the hop flavor of this beer. At turns grassy and tart, there’s a wonderful complexity to it that culminates in a long, slow bitter finish. Craft beer IPA addicts looking to extend their range should check this beer out. At 5.3% ABV it’s certainly sessionable. And it’s one of those beers that improves the more familiar you become with it. I picked up a six-pack of Prima Pils at Ski’s last weekend for $9.99.

Lakefront Brewery’s Klisch Pilsner
This is a pretty, Milwaukee lager. Golden and hazy it develops a thick head of foam when you pour it down the center of the glass (as you should with a pilsener). Like American craft beer pilseners tend to be, this is more full bodied than most European examples of the style. There’s a pleasant note of fermentation derived sulfur that comes up beside the grassy aroma of Czech hops. The hop aroma carries over into the flavor where it becomes slightly lemony. The finish is clean, yet satisfying. At 5.6% ABV and about 20 IBUs it’s right on the money for an American-style pils. I was impressed by this. I’ve usually enjoyed Lakefront’s beers, but lately everything I’ve had from them has shined. Festival Foods has Klisch Pilsner in sixers for $7.49

New Belgium Blue Paddle Pilsner
Pale gold, with a sticky white head of froth, this beer has just a light haze. I like seeing that. It means they haven’t filtered the thing to death. The scent of Saaz hops comes up like a breeze. It’s a green, new-growth sort of smell that’ll make you forget about winter for a moment. On the draw you immediately get that New Belgium biscuit note that seems to be present in most of their beers. It goes well with the herbal character of the hops. The bitterness is substantial and lingers long after the dry finish. It’s 4.8% ABV and absolutely lovely. I'll buy this beer again, the next time I see it. Blue Paddle is available at a number places around town. I picked up mine at Festival Foods where I paid $7.99 for a six pack.

A Few More Pils
There’s a pack of very good pilseners available around Oshkosh right now. If you’re hopelessly hooked on big beers, check out the  Breckenridge Regal Pilsner at Gardina’s. This one clocks in at 7% ABV and takes all the classic pilsener notes and cranks them up. Probably the best “imperial” pils I’ve tasted.

For the more classically minded, head to Festy. They’re selling Bitburger Pilsner and König Pilsener in 4-packs of pint cans. Both are excellent examples of the style. Festy also has good prices on 6 and 12 packs of Warsteiner Premium Verum, an excellent German pilsener. Prost!

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Resolved: Learn to Homebrew in 2015

To hell with all those ascetic New Year’s resolutions that only promise to make you enjoy life less. How about resolving to acquire a new skill this year that’ll pay off in something tangible: Beer.

If you’re into good beer, you owe it to yourself to take a stab at making your own. There’s no better way to learn about the essence of beer than brewing it yourself. It’s not difficult, it’s not too expensive and your efforts won’t go to waste. Basically, if you can make soup, you can make good beer. And there’s few things quite as satisfying as draining a mug of delicious beer that you brewed.

Here’s how to get started...

Gather Your Equipment
The best way to start putting your brewery together is to buy a basic starter kit that includes everything other than a thermometer (which you probably already have), a boil kettle (a 3-gallon stock pot works fine) and empty beer bottles (collect those by saving your empties). Good starter kits can be purchased for under $100.

In Oshkosh, you can find starter kits at NDC. Their prices are good, but there isn’t a person on staff to answer homebrewing questions. Then again, there are enough resources available on the web that you may not need that.

The Cellar in Fond du Lac is the most complete homebrew shop in the area. I think it’s the best homebrew shop north of Milwaukee. Their prices are good, the selection is excellent and the staff is extremely knowledgeable. I’d recommend starting at The Cellar.

RiteBrew is a mail-order homebrew shop about 25 miles north of Oshkosh in Little Chute. They do allow local pick, however, and their prices are fantastic. Right now they have a basic starter kit on sale for $74.99.

You can find a full list of all the equipment you’ll need HERE.

Gather Your Ingredients
Now that you’ve assembled your brewery, you’ll need collect the ingredients needed for making beer. Most homebrewers start with malt extracts. And with good reason. The most complicated aspect of making beer is producing the wort: the sweet liquid created by steeping malted barley. With extract brewing the wort has already been produced making your job easier.

The best way to begin is to buy an extract kit that includes all of the ingredients you’ll need to produce five gallons (about two cases) of beer.

NDC in Oshkosh, The Cellar in Fond du Lac, and RiteBrew in Little Chute each sell extract kits. These kits include instructions that will take you step-by-step through the brewing process (HERE is a glimpse at what the process looks like). I’d recommend starting with an ale kit since their fermentation is much easier to manage. Something fairly robust like a stout or an IPA would be good beers to begin with.

• You can view a list of The Cellars kits HERE under the Store link.
• RiteBrews kits are listed HERE.

Get To Know Some Brewers
I began brewing eight years ago. I started by reading books about how to brew. That worked out OK, but my beer definitely improved after I fell in with other homebrewers and saw how they approached beer making. There are a lot of great resources out there, but there’s just no substitute for talking to other brewers.

In Oshkosh we have it good. The Society of Oshkosh Brewers is a community of brewers happy to welcome beer-minded folks into their fold. They’re a friendly and easy going bunch made up of homebrewers of all levels, from absolute beginners to award winners. Their next meeting will be January 15 at 7:00 pm at O’Marro’s Public House. The meeting is open to the public and there’s no obligation to join the club.

One thing every homebrewer should have at the ready is a good reference book. The Oshkosh Public Library has a few you can dip into. My favorite is How To Brew by John Palmer. This is the only book most homebrewers will ever need. It’ll take you from beginner to advanced.  It’s the most complete resource out there.

Get Started
Really, it’s easy. Just dive in. If you started brewing this weekend, you’d have homebrew ready to serve by mid-February. Just a word of warning: this is one of those hobbies that people tend to get obsessive about. But as a very strange and wise man once said, “Life is nothing if you're not obsessed.”

Monday, January 5, 2015

Sunday Beer Parties in Oshkosh

Gottlieb Luhm and other Oshkosh Saloonists are bringing down upon the heads of their state saloons all the concentrated wrath of a mighty host of women by being not only bad, but bold.
     - St. Paul Daily Globe; June 07, 1887

What bad and bold thing had Luhm done? He had offended prohibitionists in Washington D.C. who were “horrified by the report that the saloon keepers of Oshkosh have organized baseball clubs for the purpose of playing on Sunday for five kegs of beer.”

Aside from the enormous amount of beer at stake, what Luhm and his cohorts were up to sounds innocent enough. At least these days it does. But in the 1880s, it was exactly the sort of thing guaranteed to drive the anti-fun crowd into full hiss. Luhm was circumventing the law. They wanted him punished.

Luhm’s ball game for beer was a way to get around Wisconsin’s so called “blue laws” which, among other things, ordered the closing of saloons on Sunday. It was part of an 1849 relic of a statute that was only sporadically enforced. In some places, such as Milwaukee, it was altogether ignored. In Oshkosh, enforcement of the blue laws was intermittent at best. In 1887, though, Oshkosh Mayor Dr. Harvey B. Dale was going by the books.

Mayor Dale and his predecessor, Carlton Foster, had been pressed by Oshkosh religious leaders to enforce the antiquated Sunday laws. Both mayors gave in and the saloons were closed. One way or another, though, people in Oshkosh were going to have their beer. An unnamed Oshkosh saloon keeper described one of the popular work arounds.

A Beer Wagon at the Glatz Brewery, late 1880s
He claims that a number of families club together and buy a keg or more of beer from some of the beer wagons on Sunday and that the purchasers take turns each week and assemble at the house of some one out of their number and drink the beer. If the saloons are to be kept shut up Sundays he thinks that no beer should be sold on that day from the wagons.
     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; April 17, 1886

Saloon men like Luhm weren’t going to be left out. Their Sunday games became popular events where the beer flowed freely. Luhm raised the ire of the Prohibitionists after the Northwestern published a story about one of his slapstick ball games.

Gottlieb Luhm, who keeps a saloon on the south side of the river, was the captain of a ball team that defeated a nine at Fitzgerald's Corners yesterday. The game was played for four kegs of beer and was won by Luhm's nine. Mr. Luhm caught behind the bat with yarn mittens and made a very acceptable backstop, though at one time he was knocked out for fifteen minutes by a foul tip which struck him in the head and made his face resemble a barrel. Mr. Luhm's face still bears the relics of the contest. It is proposed to have another game for five kegs of beer one week from Sunday.
     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; May 31, 1887

You have to admire a guy that’ll play catcher with “yarn mittens” and who after being knocked-out cold for 15 minutes wants to play for even more beer the following Sunday.

Luhm had celebrated his 37th birthday just a couple weeks before the performance that made him the villain of the prohibitionists. At the time, he operated a saloon at the corner of Sixth and Nebraska streets. He was born in Germany in 1851 and came to America in 1860. Gottlieb Luhm died in Oshkosh in 1903.

Luhm and his fellow Oshkosh saloonists wouldn’t have to keep the Sunday charade going too much longer. The blue laws would be sporadically enforced into the 1890s, but by the end of the century it was, for the most part, a dead issue in Oshkosh.

It wasn’t until 1933 that the blue laws were finally taken off the books. But by then, Oshkosh’s saloon keepers had faced 13 years of all-out Prohibition. In comparison, the old Sunday law would have seemed like a harmless opportunity for fun.