Monday, March 9, 2015

The Oshkosh Brewing Company Faces the Peoples Revolt

At some point I’m going to stop poking around in the early 1900s. But not today.

Last Monday’s post was about the Oshkosh Brewing Company’s (OBC's) brutish behavior during the first decade of the 20th Century and the discontent it fueled among Oshkosh saloon keepers. That discontent eventually triggered a revolt, which culminated in the formation of Peoples Brewing Company.

This week I want to get into OBC’s reaction to the saloon keeper’s mutiny. As you’d probably guess, the folks at the big brewery were none too happy.

The year 1912 was an epic one for the Oshkosh Beer scene. At Rahr Brewing they were busy expanding and renovating their brewery. Meanwhile, down on South Main two large breweries were being built across the street from one another.

On May 8, 1912 OBC placed an article in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern accessing the beer situation in the city. Beneath a drawing of its new brewery, OBC offered a dense, wordy write-up. The piece begins as a celebration of the brewery’s latest accomplishment and then devolves into an angry, bitter summation of the changing beer scene in Oshkosh.

The article was entitled A WORD TO THE PUBLIC. Sounds more like a warning than a celebration. I can’t confirm it, but I suspect the piece was penned by William Glatz, then president of OBC. I’ve read a number of letters and business reports that Glatz wrote and this piece shares the same stressed apprehension that characterizes his writings about the brewery.

The article is exceedingly long. You can read it in its entirety here. If you’re interested in the inner workings of a regional brewery in the early 1900s, it’s worth reading the entire thing. But if that’s more than you’re up for, here’s a few of my favorite clips from the piece (italicized) along with a bit of commentary (standard type).

As I mentioned, the article begins on a note of triumph with a look at OBC’s new brewery.

William Glatz
Our new plant is now in operation, and we’ve spared no money or pains in making this plant second to none in the northwest, and we believe that we can truthfully say there is not a Brewing Plant that is equipped with more modern and up-to-date machinery, sanitary vessels of the most approved make like ours, in this part of the country. 

Our brewhouse equipment consists of a 250 barrel copper steam kettle, iron inclosed mash tub with bronze false bottom, hydraulic raising and lowering machine, steel malt scale hoppers, hot and cold water tanks and rice tank all made of steel, also an all iron non-explosive malt mill with dust collector which collects every bit of dust from every part of the brewhouse.

A 250 barrel copper kettle. That’s huge. And it was probably a mistake to have installed one so large. Planning for this brewery had begun three years earlier, well before Peoples Brewing loomed as a reality.

With a kettle this large the brewery would have easily been able to put out well over 100,000 barrels of beer annually. Once Peoples came on the scene, there was no hope of OBC ever hitting that number. In comparison, Peoples Brewing would have a 135 barrel brew kettle. The Rahr brewery had a 45 barrel kettle.

Our barley is all bought direct from the farmers by our experienced brewmaster. Only the best grades are selected by him and is malted at our own plant. We are taking no chance of a mixture of inferior barley being malted and sold to us. Only "Wisconsin barley" is used, the best in the United States. The past year we were unable to malt enough for our use, but we bought the barley and had it malted at another malthouse under our supervision. 

No doubt about it, they had some hardcore talent at OBC. This was the only brewery in Oshkosh at this point still malting its own barley. Most American breweries of this era were purchased their malt from companies whose sole endeavor was malting.

Some brewers make two brands of keg beer, a brand of quality and a cheaper brand, where-quality is not considered. We make but one brand of keg beer and that is the kind made from the best materials to be had, and brewed by the best method known to the trade — "The Old German Style." Our bottled brands are our standard beers in bottles — "Gilt Edge," a specially brewed, high quality beer, and a new brand "Oshkosh Special Old Lager."

OBC had winnowed its brands down to just two. Both of these were relatively pale lagers. When the brewery had been launched in 1894, it produced six different beers, including a dark Kulmbach-style lager, a Vienna lager and a pilsener.

There’s a persistent misconception that Prohibition was the cause of America’s drift towards lighter beer. In fact, the trend was underway well before the advent of national Prohibition in 1920. It was happening in Oshkosh, too.

We are informed that the new brewing company, so-called People's Brewing Company, has brought into this city an outside beer which is offered for sale for less money than the actual cost of production of high grade beer, so do not be deceived. Your nickel will buy you the best glass of beer. No brewer or anybody else is in business for their health. They are in it for the money, a reasonable profit, and when you buy these cheap beers you are buying an inferior article.

Here’s where the thing begins to go downhill. The mood has shifted. The phrase “so-called People's Brewing Company” drips contempt. I’ve never found any proof of the allegation of Peoples “bringing in an outside beer.” It’s clear that the folks at OBC are pissed.

Our Company is composed of 120 Oshkosh Stockholders, every one of them an Oshkosh citizen, living here and patronizing Oshkosh Merchants.

This is an indirect swipe at Peoples. In the run-up to the launch of Peoples Brewing, the board members of the new company were making a point of letting people know that it would be a cooperative brewery with no single shareholder or aligned group allowed to hold a majority interest. OBC seems to be implying here that it operated on a similar model. Hardly. The majority of OBC stock was in the hands of just three parties – the families who had merged their breweries to form OBC.

We have lived here and have been in this business for forty years, and believe there is not a public or private institution for the betterment of Oshkosh that did not receive our financial, and moral aid. 

You get the sense that they’re feeling a bit betrayed? I do. Perhaps if they had reserved a bit more of their benevolence for the saloon keepers in Oshkosh, OBC wouldn’t have faced the predicament it was in.

The territory which can be profitably supplied from this city is pretty well provided with breweries and all additional competition will eventually have a tendency to lessen the quality of the goods to the disadvantage of the consumer.

More veiled allusions to Peoples. It’s interesting that the writer believes that increased competition will be bad for the consumer. Such is the logic of a monopolist.

The consumption of beer, although on a gradual increase, is already overproduced in this territory. The capacity of our Plant alone would be able to produce all the beer consumed in this city until the inhabitants have increased to 50,000 people.

They’re tripping over themselves here. If OBC truly believed that there was too much capacity and production going on in the territory, why go to the expense of building such a large brewery?

We wish every word of this article will be read by the consuming public, and stop and think it over. A glass of choicest brewed, pure and a best quality beer costs you no more than a glass of inferior brand. We also want you to consider that the profit made by the brewers on beer brewed up to our standard of quality is less to them than on the inferior brands. 

On the one hand OBC tells you it has built this incredible brewery, but then says it’s not as profitable as other breweries. The dissonance here is hard to miss. Then again, I’m sure they never dreamed someone would be picking through this stuff a hundred years later.

In conclusion, we herewith invite the public and trade to inspect our new Plant on Saturday Afternoons for the next four weeks and see how Oshkosh Beer is made. Ladies are especially invited, and a competent guide will be on hand.

Wouldn’t you have loved to tour that new brewery? The special invite OBC was extending to the ladies is telling. At OBC they knew that once Peoples went into full production mode, sales of OBC keg beer to saloons would take a major dip. Many of Oshkosh’s saloon keepers had invested in Peoples Brewing. It would be in their best interest to serve Peoples beer in their saloons.

Women didn’t buy beer in saloons. They purchased it in stores or ordered it over the phone directly from the brewery. Wooing female buyers was part of OBC’s strategy for offsetting the loss of business that was about to incur.

We therefore ask you to read this article, consider well and then decide whether it is not to your advantage to call for "Oshkosh Brewing Company's Beer."

For the past 15 years this brewery had owned the Oshkosh beer market. It had exerted its control with little regard for the people who served its beer to consumers. Now OBC was coming with hat in hand.

In a way, it’s almost poignantly sad. At least it is if an old, lost brewery has the ability to stir such emotions in you. It’s like our own, beery version of a minor Shakespeare play right here in Oshkosh.

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