Monday, May 11, 2015

From Near Beer to Nearer to Beer

Oshkosh in the 1920s was a city crowded with outlaws. Thanks to Prohibition, criminal pursuit was rampant. The do-gooders dreamed of creating a more sober, orderly society. But their overreach inspired utter contempt for the law among otherwise ordinary citizens. The crime du jour was the production and distribution of alcohol.

In Oshkosh, wildcat breweries and distilleries arrived hand-in-hand with Prohibition in 1920. Beer flats – private homes where homebrew and moonshine were sold – became common. Amidst the lawlessness, dispirited breweries like the Oshkosh Brewing Company worked within the law while abetting those who operated outside it. Here’s an ad from from October 1930 hinting at how convoluted the situation became.

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Tommy Thirst (“That’s Me!”) was an impish character introduced by OBC to push the brewery’s near beer in the waning years of Prohibition. There’s a line in this ad that’s perhaps more revealing than it first appears: “Our Near Beer doesn't start anything it can't finish.” That’s because the illegal “finish” was left to people outside of the brewery.

OBC’s near beer contained less than 1/2 of 1% alcohol by volume. For all practical purposes, it was alcohol free. It was usually produced by taking an already fermented beer and heating it to about 173º, the boiling point of alcohol. As the beer cooked, the alcohol would be drawn off.

The folks at OBC were certainly aware that their near beer would not necessarily remain an alcohol-free drink. After leaving the brewery, these brews were often spiked with alcohol to bring the beer back to its original strength or even stronger. The practice was referred to as “needling” or “spiking” and though it was illegal, it was so common in Oshkosh that the city sought to regulate it rather then try to eliminate it.

The City of Oshkosh required dealers in near beer to be licensed if the beverage was being consumed on premise. In 1929, Oshkosh Corporation Counsel Lloyd D. Mitchell explained why such an ordinance was needed.

"It has been shown that it is absolutely necessary that some local authority, state or municipal, have some regulatory power over places where drinks are dispensed. They are places where men congregate in large numbers and are idle and if the places are not operated by a proper person many things may take place that are detrimental to the community. Women complain to the authorities that their husbands are spending all of their money in a certain place or are coming home and abusing their families.”
  - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; June 14, 1929

The “places” Mitchell was referring to had been saloons before Prohibition. When Prohibition arrived, nearly all of these Oshkosh saloons suddenly became “soda parlors.” But only those soda parlors selling near beer were required to apply for the special license. Places like Nigl’s, Steckbauer’s, Utecht’s and Witzke’s. All the same places that OBC had been selling real beer to before the dry law. In fact, a number of them were still owned by the brewery.

The licensing requirement was nearly as big a charade as the soda parlors it was invoked to regulate. An amendment to the ordinance strictly limited police enforcement of it. Only select members of the Oshkosh force were allowed to inspect soda parlors that sold near beer. The result was the continuance of local non-enforcement of the dry law here. In Oshkosh, near beer went on being “needled” beer. And Little Tommy Thirst went right on smiling.

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