Monday, August 31, 2015

Hops and the Changing Nature of Beer in Oshkosh

Here’s a sweet little ad from the Oshkosh Brewing Company that appeared in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern on June 25, 1907. It comes with a hefty dose of the brewery’s standard hokum, but hidden amongst the tripe is a nugget of info about hops that’s revealing. If you click the ad it will enlarge, making it an easier read.

Did you catch that part about OBC using hops from the “celebrated Oregon fields”? That’s a telling comment. It’s an indication of the brewery transitioning away from its German roots to make beer that was more in keeping with the emergent style of American lager.

I mentioned in last Monday’s post that many of the German-born brewers who drove the American brewing industry in the 19th century weren’t exactly in love with American hops. They considered them “catty” and coarse. But American-grown hops were often the only hops at their disposal. Brewers made do with them. Locally, that began to change in the 1880s.

The decade brought the collapse of hop farming in Winnebago County, forcing brewers here to look elsewhere for their hops. At the same time, the importation of hops from Germany and Bohemia increased substantially.

Brewers who could afford the pricier continental hops began brewing with a mix of both European and American hops. They would typically use American-grown hops for bittering, driving off much of the hop flavor and aroma during a long boil of the wort. The continental hops were employed as flavor and aroma additions late in the boil, preserving their delicate attributes, giving the beer the “old-world” character brewers were after.

This was certainly the case locally. At OBC, the mix of American and Bohemian hops became standard. But that began to change during the first decade of the 20th century. As late as 1908, OBC was still using Bohemian hops in its beer. By 1910, though, that practice had all but ended. Pricing was certainly a factor in the change, but other forces were at work as well.

German-born immigrants were no longer the largest group of beer consumers in Oshkosh. By 1910, most beer drinker here were American-born and had little, if any, experience with European beer. That same shift was occurring within the brewery.

OBC’s first brewmaster, Lorenz Kuenzl, had been born in Bohemia and had used Bohemian and German beer styles as his template when formulating OBC’s beers. After Kuenzl’s death in 1897, he was replaced by Frank Menzel. Though Menzel had been born in Germany, he had come to America while still a teenager and gained the bulk of his brewing experience using American ingredients.

While Menzel had a foot in both the old and new worlds, he was part of a generation that was more intent on assimilation than in preserving the traditions of their parents. That shift was reflected in the beer Menzel brewed. It was a transition that continued to play out over the coming decade until it was eclipsed by the advent of Prohibition in 1920. Though brewers in Oshkosh would continue to use their German lineage as a selling point, the references were mostly puffery. They now made an American beer increasingly detached from the heritage it had grown out of.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #12: The IPA Challenge

For this episode, we’re joined by Oshkosh Hop Head Mike Engel as we do a blind tasting of three American IPAs currently available in Oshskosh: Toppling Goliath Golden Nugget IPA, Sierra Nevada Hop Hunter IPA, And Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA. We find ourselves somewhat surprised, when the identities of the beers are revealed.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Season at Tim Pfeister’s Hop Yard

Tim Pfeister has spent the summer coaxing his now towering plants up from the earth. He's established a hop yard just west of Oshkosh in the Town of Algoma. It may be the only plot of its kind currently under cultivation in Winnebago County. "I know of nobody else doing this around here," Pfeister says. At the same time, he's reviving a type of agriculture that was once deeply rooted in our area.

During the latter half of the 1800s, hop farms were scattered across Winnebago County. As the local brewing industry grew, more than 130 acres of farm land here were claimed by hop production. At less than an acre, Pfeister's hop yard is small by those standards. His timing, however, is much the same. With local breweries again on the rise, Pfeister's first-year hop yard has come into full flower.

But Pfeister hasn’t taken his inspiration from the past. His project is more akin to the small-batch segment of the modern craft brewing movement. His fractional acre is the agricultural equivalent of a nano-brewery. Unlike artisanal brewing, though, the model for growing hops at this scale has yet to be established. Pfeister is figuring it out as he goes along.

Early May. Plotting the Hop Yard

"I've been stopped out here by a few curious individuals," Pfeister says. "Sometimes they look at me like I'm crazy." The reaction is understandable. This isn't the kind of thing people are used to seeing around here anymore.

What used to be a pumpkin patch is now spiked by nine 20-foot poles. They form the basis for a trellis that stands in three rows strung with 66 hop plants, nearly all of them more than 16 feet high. "Originally, I was going to go 99 plants in three rows," he says. It's probably for the best he didn't. "Sixty-six plants has kept me very busy," Pfeister says.

His project began with a search. "I was all over Craig's list looking for land," he says. The field he eventually located and now rents is a short drive from his home. That proximity would turn out to be important. Pfeister has had to tend to the field on a daily basis.

But first he had to transform the plot into a hop yard. False starts were inevitable. "I wasted $57 renting a post-hole digger," he says. "You start getting into the clay down there and all it does is chatter," he says. "It was a colossal waste of energy and time. My stepson and I came back out here with a clam shell digger. Turns out you can dig a hole pretty fast that way."

They planted each of the nine poles 3.5 feet into the ground. "That was the deepest we could get down," he says. It proved to be deep enough. "We get ridiculous winds out here, but the poles don't sway." With the trellis in place, he added a drip-irrigation system fed from 55-barrel drums filled with water. Lacking an available water source at the site, the metal drums act as a reservoir.

Mid-May. Pfeister with the completed trellis and irrigation system

Meanwhile, he had already started growing three different hop varieties in planters. Pfeister settled on Centennial, Chinook and Cascade hops for his field. Most of the rootstock he acquired from RiteBrew, a mail-order homebrew shop in Little Chute. With the trellis in place, he planted the yard. "I spent a tedious number of hours putting them in the ground," Pfeister says.

That's a theme that comes up again and again when Pfeister talks about his hop yard: the sheer amount of hands-on, time-consuming labor that went into starting it and then sustaining it. "The worst thing for me is that there's only 24 hours in a day," he says. "I work a full time job and after my full time job, this becomes a full-time, part-time job." He also has a wife and family competing for his time. A family that includes a two-month old baby girl. "That kid is so cute," he says. "She gobbles up all my time."

By early summer he had worked out a routine that managed to address all his commitments. A portion of most evenings is spent doing the recurrent work of hop farming. "There's definitely redeeming things to doing this, but there's also a lot of bullshit work," Pfeister says. "It turns into weeds and watering, weeds and watering... and then mowing."

But the bullshit work was paying dividends. By early June the hop yard had taken shape. The plants adapted to the soil quickly. They began rapidly climbing the trellis.

As the season progressed, Pfeister developed a better understanding of what he had gotten into. "Part of the fun about doing it on a large scale like this is that it becomes less about growing hops and more about field management," he says. "It's agriculture at this point. Very small agriculture, but I still have to be more concerned about the overall health of the field rather than the health of any one individual plant."

A good portion of that management has come down to keeping the soil hydrated through an unusually dry summer. It was a problem compounded by the fact that Pfeister had to haul water from his house to the field. He came up with a novel solution. He fills a 55 gallon drum with water at his home. "It costs me 27 cents a fill." Then transports the water in his mini-van to the hop yard. There he transfers the water to his irrigation drums using a pump powered by his car's battery.

"This part is hugely boring," Pfeister admits. But it works. He gets about an hour's worth of watering from each fill. "During the really dry spells I'll run them a half an hour a night," he says. "I'd love to run them in the mornings and at night, but I'm not a morning person. They get their water at night."

And then came the pests. "My biggest enemy has been caterpillars," he says. "They do a lot of leaf damage that the plants just can't sustain. I had to spray them. I use organic practices when and where I can, but the long and short of it is that when you've got pests that are destroying your yard, you don't have much choice."

Mid-June. A hop leaf damaged by caterpillars.

By the first week of July, it was already becoming clear that the season was going to be far more productive than Pfeister had anticipated. Many of the plants had crested the trellis. The flowers that would become cones were sprouting and in abundance.

"This year wasn't supposed to be about the harvest," he says. "It was supposed to be about root establishment. That I'm going to get this big harvest is just a bonus.” Large cones now hang heavy from the bines. They signal the end of the growing season. With that comes a new set of unknowns.

"I'm a little intimidated by harvest time," Pfeister says. "They say it takes one man an hour to harvest one established plant. It will be a very inexperienced process, so we're looking at quite a few man hours out here." After the hops have been picked, they'll need to be dried. Pfeister is building an oast – a kiln for drying hops – to accomplish that. Again, he's venturing into new territory. "I don't know, yet, what to anticipate for volume so that's got me a little nervous."

Pfeister sampling the fruit of his labor.

If he can navigate the harvest successfully, Pfeister will have arrived at another question he didn't anticipate having to answer this year: what to do with all these hops?

"I'd like to send some out for analysis," he says. "That way I can go to a brewer and show them just what I have. Either way, I want to have the analytics done, so that I have some accurate numbers to work from. Unless out of the blue somebody says I want to buy your hops, the odds are I'll be giving them away. Or putting them in my own brews."

After spending time with Pfeister in his hop yard and seeing all that he's done to get to this point, I wanted to know if in hindsight he would have done things differently. Would he have even attempted this? "You mean If I had it all to do over again and I didn't have to worry about my wife yelling at me?" He says laughing. Then he quickly says, yes, he would.

"I'm glad I did exactly what I did here," Pfeister says. "Sometimes, it's a love/hate relationship, but I'm having a lot of fun with it. But it's something I'm doing in the anticipation of greater results. My big thing is, one way or another I belong in this (brewing) industry. I just haven't found my corner yet, my niche. In the meantime, I'm bored and I like growing hops. When the work is done, this is my zen garden. I get to come out here and walk down between these rows of hops. There's nothing else like that."

Monday, August 24, 2015

The Winnebago County Hops Farms of 1870

To travel through Winnebago County at this time of year in 1870 would have been wonderful. Nearly everywhere you went you would have encountered towering poles draped with thick vines sending out broad, green leaves and plump hop cones.

Hop farms were omnipresent here. By the end of the 1860s, Winnebago County was the fourth largest producer of hops in the State of Wisconsin, which was then growing 20 percent of the nation’s hops. During the peak years of the 1860s and 1870s, nearly 140 acres of land in Winnebago County was given over to the cultivation of hops, with an acre producing more than 1,000 pounds of hops on average.

The map below illustrates the extent of hop farming in Winnebago County in 1870. This is adapted from a map compiled from United States Census of Agriculture data and published in The Wisconsin Geographer. Each large green dot represents 10,000 pounds of hop production (approximately 180,000 pounds in total).

Though commercial hop farming was conducted throughout much of Wisconsin, the majority of it was based in the south-central portion of the state. Sauk County was the epicenter. Winnebago County represented something of an outlier. In comparison to Winnebago, hop farming in neighboring counties ranged from limited to almost non-existent. The hop boom here was partly the result of the unique mix of settlers who began arriving to the area in the 1840s.

Yankee settlers such as Silas Allen and John Braley migrated from the hop growing regions of the east and began seeding a hop culture in Winnebago County soon after their arrival. Coupled with the arrival of the Yankees was a torrent of German immigrants. They brought their beer culture with them and immediately began establishing breweries.

By 1870, there were 10 breweries operating within Winnebago County alone and that many again making beer in neighboring counties. With breweries of this period using approximately 1.5-2 pounds of hops per barrel of beer, hops were in high demand locally (for comparison, most modern craft breweries use about 1.2 pounds of hops per barrel. Macro brewers average 0.2 pounds per barrel).

Some of the larger breweries in the area were capable of consuming nearly 3,000 pounds of hops annually. And what wasn't used locally was sent to Oshkosh for distribution. One New York hop buyer took up residence in the city. Meanwhile some local businesses found it profitable to play supporting roles in the growing hop trade.

An ad from the 1868 Oshkosh City Directory for plow maker James H. Ward. Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1811, the Yankee transplant arrived in Oshkosh in 1852 where he made implements for hop farmers.

The predominant type of hop grown here was almost surely cluster. With its mixed heritage of European and native wild strains, cluster is as near to an indigenous hop that is grown commercially in America. German-born brewers, however, tended not to favor the hop. Acclimated to the gentle aromatics and flavors of European hops, they often described the more aggressive American hops as "catty" and coarse. 
Despite their apparent misgivings, brewers here used cluster prodigiously. They had little choice. Importation of German hops was sporadic at best prior to the 1880s. Even if they'd had other options, the bounty of locally grown hops would have likely proved irresistible.

But the bounty was short lived. The decline in hop farming here occurred rapidly. After the the great harvests of 1867 and 1868, hop prices fell sharply. In the latter half of the 1870s, farmers here began digging up their hop yards to put their land to more lucrative use. In 1876, there were 138 acres of land devoted to growing hops in Winnebago County. By 1880, that had been reduced just 33 acres. At the close of the 1880s commercial hop farming in Winnebago County reached its end.

There's little that remains of the hop growing boom that occurred here more than a century ago. But among the scarce remnants are the cluster hops that grow wild in some areas where hop farms once resided. At this time of year, they're reaching their annual maturity. They are a perennial reminder of what once was in Winnebago County.
Cluster hops cultivated from rootstock found at the location of a former hop yard in Winnebago County.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #11: What's Doing at Dublin's

This week Adam and I are back on the road. We stop in at Dublin’s Irish Pub in Oshkosh to meet up with Ian, Jon, Logan and Zach of Dublin’s and drink Increase Wheat, a Berliner weissbier from Milwaukee Brewing Company. 

There’s some good stuff coming up at Dublin’s. Among the things we talk about is their upcoming beer dinner on Wednesday, August 26 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $30 and are available at the pub. Below the video, is the menu. On with the show...

Here’s the full menu for the beer dinner featuring the beers of Milwaukee Brewing Company.

Course 1
Increase Wheat Berliner Weissbier paired with shrimp and caper rangoons with cranberry sweet and Sour Sauce.

Course 2
Louie's Demise Amber Ale paired with mussels and chorizo sausage with a tomato braise.

Course 3
O-Gii Imperial Wit paired with cilantro chili pepper chicken pinwheel served over couscous.

Course 4
Hop Freak Imperial IPA paired with wasabi brined agave BBQ ribs with wild mushroom risotto croquettes.

Course 5
Snake Oil Stout paired with banana cream filled doughnuts topped with chocolate ganache.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

On Tap for Tonight: Gardina's Beer Bar Volume 21.

Tonight – as in the evening of Tuesday, August 18 – Gardina's in Oshkosh will crack open another cask of rare beer. This time it's a firkin of Happy Summer IPA from Sheboygan's 3 Sheeps Brewing Co.

Happy Summer starts with a base of Amarillio, citra, and mosaic hops. The brewers at 3 Sheeps then dry-hopped this particular cask with another coveted dose of citra. Sounds juicy. At 7% ABV and 70+ IBUs, it's an IPA that's big where it ought to be.

In addition to the cask beer, Gardina's will have three additional 3 Sheeps brews on tap: Rebel Kent the First Belgian-style Amber Ale, Really Cool Waterslides IPA with gin-soaked white birch barrel staves and dry hop additions, and Paid Time Off Imperial Black Wheat Ale with cocoa nibs, coconut and walnuts. For $10, you can try a flight of all four 3 Sheeps beers.

And as they've been doing lately at these tastings, Gardina's will offer a separate, four-course dinner to pair with the 3 Sheeps lineup of beers. Come hungry.

It all starts at 6 p.m. with James Owen of 3 Sheeps on hand to answer your questions about the beer and the brewery. See you there!

Monday, August 17, 2015

The Beer Trucks of Oshkosh

Last Monday we took a look at the horse drawn wagons that used to roll through Oshkosh toting beer around the city. Today, let’s see what replaced all those beasts of burden and the wagons they pulled.

Motor vehicles began being used by breweries in Oshkosh in the decade prior to the start of national Prohibition in 1920. By 1911, both the Oshkosh Brewing Company and Rahr Brewing were hauling at least some of their beer around with trucks. When Peoples Brewing opened in 1913, the brewery delivered its beer by horse and wagon, but eventually transitioned to trucks.

The first picture here illustrates the gradual changeover from horse power to motor power. This photo was taken circa 1915 in front of the Oshkosh Brewing Company on Doty St. Notice the mix of both horse drawn wagons and motor trucks.

Here’s another truck with OBC beer. This appears to be from the 1930s. Those are some nice, wooden barrels. Like the horses, those wooden barrels wouldn’t be around much longer, either.

The next couple of pictures shows beer trucks in front of the Rahr Brewing Company on Rahr Ave. I’m guessing these were taken sometime during the mid-to-late 1940s.

This one shows Carl Rahr, president of Rahr Brewing, and his sister Blanche Rahr, the brewery’s secretary and treasurer.

Next up, a trio of trucks from Peoples Brewing Company. These pictures were taken at the brewery on South Main St. sometime during the late 1940s/early 1950s.

Here’s a good look at an OBC truck from the same period. As the brewery grew, its trucks also became larger.
And here’s the OBC fleet parked outside the brewery circa 1950.

A 1960s truck from Peoples. The brewery’s delivery trucks were serviced by Nick Hubertus at Nick’s Standard Station across the street from the brewery. His son John Hubertus says “My very first job was washing the Peoples trucks on Saturday mornings. There were eight or ten of them and at one dollar a truck that wasn’t bad for a ten-year-old kid.”

A 1960s OBC truck. This one is looking the worse for wear. The brewery was also in decline.

A couple of novelty trucks from OBC. These pictures are from the 1960s. This first shows “Old Hank.” David Uihlein, the president of OBC, was a collector of vintage vehicles. Uihlein used this Model A Ford truck that he found in a junkyard and restored. The truck was used for local deliveries and promotions.

OBC gave away this truck as a prize to the winner of a sturgeon spearing competition the brewery sponsored in 1964.

OBC, Peoples and Rahr have all bit the dust, but we still have beer trucks hauling Oshkosh-brewed beer. Here’s a picture taken last week of the Fox River Brewing Company’s truck.

We’ll end on an historical note. Last Friday, August 14, Bare Bones Brewery loaded its first batch of beer for distribution onto a van owned by Oshkosh’s Lee Beverage. I can tell you from experience, the beer going into that van is a hell of a lot better than the beer that comes from the bottle you see on the side of the van.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #10: A Tale of Two IPAs

This week, Adam and I are drinking a couple of IPAs that illustrate the development of the style. First, we crack open a bottle of Tom, a new-style American IPA brewed at Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery. Then we go back in time with Ballantine India Pale Ale, an interpretation of what the style was like when it was being brewed in America in the 1870s.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Couple of Brews & Some Other News

A couple of brews and a few other tidbits to share from the local beer scene

Bare Bones Coaster
Bare Bones Amber
Let’s start with the first beer from Bare Bones Brewery. Brewmaster Lyle Hari fired-up the Bare Bones brewhouse for the first time on July 16 by brewing an American-style brown ale. Last week, August 6 to be exact, that beer went on tap. Named simply Bare Bones Amber, it’s a 6% ABV, copper ale that reminded me of Düsseldorf altbiers I’ve had. Amber features a clean, moderately rich malt flavor punctuctated by a firm hop bitterness. Creamy and sessionable, I had to have a couple mugs of it. Next up for Bare Bones is an American pale ale. That one will probably hit the tap lines later this week. They’re off to a promising start.

Fox River English Xtra Pale Ale
This one is only available in the tap room at Fox River Brewing Company Oshkosh and I doubt it’ll be there long. This is a beauty of a beer. Hazy and pale red, Xtra has a bright hop aroma and flavor that made me think of orange marmalade. There’s a slight sweetness to the malt (honey malt?) that makes a wonderful compliment to that juicy hop flavor. If you want to get in on this one, don’t wait. FRBC is going through their beer at a record clip these days. The last IPA they had on (Cluster Bomb) was tapped and gone within two weeks.

Tap Hunter
Here’s something to keep your eye on: Tap Hunter is a website that allows bars and tap rooms to list their offerings online. At the moment, just Bare Bones and Dublin’s in Oshkosh are using it to publish their tap lists. You can check those out here. The lists are sleek and give you all the pertinent info you'd like to have before selecting a beer. I wish more places in Oshkosh that serve good beer would start using this or something like it. It would only benefit them. Tap Hunter also provides apps for your mobile devices.

Dublin’s Pairing of the Week
I mentioned a few weeks back, that Dublin’s is now doing a weekly beer and food pairing special. I think it’s a great idea, so I’ve started including those pairings in the sidebar there on the left under the "Oshkosh Area Beer Events” header (if you’re on a phone, you’ll need to use the web view). This weeks special is Fruli Strawberry Belgian Ale paired with Irish cream cheesecake with a Strawberry drizzle.

Green Dragon Brew Pub
This won’t come as too much of a surprise, but it looks like the Green Dragon Brew Pub in Fond du Lac, will remain a restaurant and not become an actual brew pub after all. When it opened last summer, Dave Koepke at Green Dragon had hoped to have a nano brewery up and running within the restaurant before the close of 2014. That never happened. Koepke announced yesterday that he has parted company with Green Dragon and has no plans to begin brewing commercially any time soon. Oh, well. The Green Dragon continues on, though, and is still worth the trip to Fond du Lac.

I want to close with a picture I took about 15 minutes ago of some young, fresh hops hanging around in my backyard. If these don’t make you feel good, you have no soul!

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Beer Wagons of Oshkosh

In the years before Prohibition, beer deliveries in Oshkosh were made by horse drawn wagons. They were called beer rolls and all of the breweries here had them. In Oshkosh it was common to hear the thunder of dray horses tugging heavy wagons loaded with wooden kegs full of beer through the streets of the city.

Here’s a look at some of the old beer rolls of Oshkosh. As always, you can enlarge any of the images by clicking on them.

We'll start with a wagon from the 1880s used by Horn & Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery. This wagon was made in Oshkosh by carriage maker Gabriel Streich.

Another one from Horn & Schwalm. More horse than wagon this time. This picture was taken sometime between 1891 and 1894. It shows a beer delivery to the Josef Fenzl saloon, which is now Jeff's On Rugby.

Here’s a few wagons that hailed from John Glatz’s Union Brewery.

This picture is from the late 1880s. That’s a lot of beer on that wagon on the left.

I like this one. The picture is circa 1890. In front of a wagon loaded down with quarter barrels, are brewery workers. Looks like an interesting crew.

This is a shot from the backside of the Glatz brewery. In the middle, you can see the pulley system used to load those heavy barrels onto the wagon. A wooden-keg half barrel full of beer weighed around 180 pounds. Quarter barrels weighed about 100 pounds.

A couple from Lorenz Kuenzl’s Gambrinus Brewery.

This picture is from the early 1890s. Notice the wagon on the left. It’s loaded with cases of beer bottles. I’ll bet that made a hell of a racket as it went charging down Oshkosh’s unpaved streets.

In this picture, notice the barrels hanging from the underside of the wagon. They tried to pack as much as they could onto these things.

Here’s one from the Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh. I wish I had more pictures of Rahr’s beer wagons. Sadly, this is the only one I have. And it’s not even a wagon. It’s a sleigh for hauling beer around Oshkosh when the streets were full of snow. Wouldn’t you love to see this gliding down your street in winter?

Here’s a group of wagons from the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

The first wagon was in use in the early 1900s. Just to the right of the driver, you can see the Oshkosh Brewing Company’s emblem featuring an image of Chief Oshkosh.

I believe this picture is from the late 1890s. This was take after the Glatz, Horn & Schwalm, and Kunezl breweries merged to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. This was taken in front of what had formerly been the Glatz brewery.

Another Oshkosh Brewing Company wagon at what had been the Glatz brewery. Looks like most of these kegs are empty, the bungs are missing.

Notice on the back of the wagon where it says WEISS BEER. In the early 1900s, that was a popular beer for OBC. This wagon was made by Oshkosh brothers, August and Gabriel Streich.

Here’s a couple that were taken after Prohibition. Though the beer rolls were no longer in use, the Oshkosh Brewing Company would bring out its old wagons from time to time for promotions and parades.

In this first picture you’ll see OBC treasurer Earl Horn, president Arthur Schwalm, and secretary Lorenz “Shorty” Kuenzl standing in front a wagon driven by John Pahlow.

Last one and this time in glorious color. Here’s Pahlow again in 1944 with the OBC wagon at the corner of 8th and Nebraska streets. Gaffney’s Tavern, shown in the background, no longer stands.

After Prohibition ended in 1933, the horse drawn wagons were replaced by beer trucks. And the wooden kegs were gradually discontinued as steel and then aluminum kegs became the norm.

Progress is nice, but it’s no match for the romantic images that come to mind when you think of horse-drawn wagons packed with wooden barrels full of beer rolling through Oshkosh.

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Highholder Brewing Company of Oshkosh

A quick update on an Oshkosh brewery to be...

Shawn O'Marro (left) and Mike Schlosser
About a month ago, I mentioned that the proposed Sawdust City Brewing Company had run into a legal snag over the use of the Sawdust City name. Mike Schlosser and Shawn O'Marro, the duo behind the brewery, decided not to waste time and resources in a fight over naming rights. Instead, they'd come up with a new name.

They picked a good one. O'Marro and Schlosser's project is now known as Highholder Brewing Company. The new name is a direct nod to their venture’s Southside Oshkosh roots. Or as Schlosser puts it, "A little Southside loving."

Though not much used these days, the Highholder appellation goes back a long way here. The original Highholders were immigrants from Bavaria and Bohemia. They came to Oshkosh en masse during the second half of the 1800s and established a close-knit community south of the Fox River. These were the people who populated Oshkosh's "Bloody Sixth" Ward.

The name is fitting not just for the Southside connotation, but for the fact that the Highholders were an essential component of Oshkosh's early beer culture. The clearest expression of that was Peoples Brewing Company. Peoples was essentially an outgrowth of the Highholder community. In fact, the brewery's first president, Joseph Nigl, was a Highholder.

I'll bet Nigl would be tickled to know that, thanks to a brewery, the Highholder name is going to be on people's lips again.

Here's much, much more on the Highholders of Oshkosh.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Oshkosh Beer Show #009

After a couple of weeks on location, we return to our home base, Gardina’s in Oshkosh. This time we’re drinking Counter ClockWeisse, a surprisingly tart Berliner weisse from DESTIHL Brewery of Bloomington, IL.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Joseph Schussler’s Road to Oshkosh

Joseph Schussler came to Oshkosh in the autumn of 1849 to launch a brewery. He had spent the previous three years making beer in Milwaukee. There, Schussler had left behind ground-floor opportunities at two breweries that would soon be among the largest, most successful in the nation.

Joseph Schussler
Of course, Schussler had no way of knowing the value of the prospects he had abandoned. He also couldn’t foresee that his plans for building a prosperous life in Oshkosh would be crushed. Or that his time here would be marked by one setback after another.

In the end, Schussler would prevail. But when you look back upon his life, it’s almost impossible not speculate about what might have been.

Johann Joseph Schüßler was born on June 24, 1819 in Baden within the modern state of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany. When he was 15 years old, Schussler began training as a brewer and cooper (barrel maker). He came of age, though, at a time when Baden was beset with political unrest, overpopulation and a stifling economic depression. Seeking a brighter future, Schussler left his homeland for America.

He reached Milwaukee by 1846 and went into business with a fellow German émigré named Johann Braun. Together they launched the City Brewery on the northeast side of what has become downtown Milwaukee. Some 50 years later a Milwaukee journalist described the modest beginning of Braun and Schussler’s brewery.

“A small stack of barley was purchased together with some hops and for a starter several barrels of beer was made which was pronounced equal to that which these gentlemen had manufactured in Germany before coming to this country.”(1)

But the partnership didn’t last. By the close of 1846, Schussler was off in pursuit of another opportunity.

Johann Braun stayed the course. The City Brewery grew precipitously after Schussler’s departure. By 1850,it was the second largest brewery in Milwaukee producing 4,000 barrels of beer annually. Filling Schussler’s old role in the brewhouse was a young Bavarian named Valentin Blatz, whose timing was providential. In 1851, Johann Braun was killed in an accident. Shortly thereafter Blatz married Braun’s widow. Blatz took over the brewery and Braun’s assets. The brewery Schussler had helped to found became part of the Valentin Blatz Brewing Company. During Schussler’s lifetime it would grow into one of the largest producers of beer in America.

Meanwhile, Schussler had moved to the near south side of Milwaukee where he took up with a former partner of his former partner. Johann Braun and Franz Neukirch had worked together prior to Braun and Schussler starting the City Brewery. It appears very likely that Schussler had also known Neukirch for several years.

Franz Neukirch
The brewery that Neukirch owned was the second brewery established in Milwaukee and probably the first there to produce lager beer. It was launched in 1841 by Herman Reuthlisberger, who made the mistake of placing too much trust in John B. Meyer, a son-in-law of Franz Neukirch (as we’ll see, Neukirch’s daughters tended to marry stridently ambitious men.)

Reuthlisberger was essentially swindled out of his brewery by Meyer, who soon after sold the brewery to his father in law. The 27-year-old Schussler would have been just the sort of man Franz Neukirch needed for his brewery.

Beer making wasn’t the only activity occupying Schussler’s time at Neukirch’s brewery. Schussler fell in love with one of the bosses daughters. And on January 17, 1848, Joseph Schussler married Fannie Neukirch. There must have been something in the air at the Neukirch brewery. Two other Neukirch sisters, Dora and Marie, also married brewers during this period.

In the year following their marriage, Joseph and Fannie Schussler left Milwaukee for Oshkosh. On November 16, 1849, they took possession of an acre of land on what is now Bay Shore Drive. Schussler was ready to start his own brewery.

Back in Milwaukee, the brewery he most recently left behind developed into a behemoth. Charles T. Melms married Marie Neukirch and in the year before Schussler’s leaving had joined his father-in-law’s brewery. When Franz Neukirch died in 1865, ownership of the brewery, then the largest in Milwaukee, was assumed by Melms.

After Melms died in 1869, the South Side brewery was purchased by Jacob Frey, the husband of Dora Neukirch and Schussler’s brother-in-law by marriage. Frey, who had his own brewery in Fond du Lac, almost immediately sold the South Side brewery to the Phillip Best Empire Brewery, making Best the dominant brewery in the Midwest. That brewery would eventually change its name to the Pabst Brewing Company. By 1895 Pabst was the largest brewery in the nation. Blatz was the 7th largest.

By then Joseph Schussler was a retired widower living in Fond du Lac. Schussler’s Oshkosh Brewery failed in 1852. Twenty years later Schussler tried again, launching a second brewery – the West Hill Brewery, in Fond du Lac. This one succeeded, though on smaller scale. An 1880 account describes Schussler’s Fond du Lac brewery as being “less extensive of those of the other city brewers.”

Perhaps that’s just how Schussler wanted it. Did he realize in 1849 that the life of a big city brewer was not for him? Or did he watch with regret from Oshkosh and Fond du Lac as breweries he had once been instrumental in went from success to success?

In 1891, a year after Schussler retired and turned the business over to his sons, the West Hill Brewery was gutted by fire. It was not rebuilt. Schussler died in Fond du Lac in 1904 at the age of 85. His contribution to the early history of brewing in Wisconsin had already been forgotten.

(1) This excerpt is from a Milwaukee newspaper clipping that does not include the masthead or publication date. Other articles in the clipping make it possible to date the piece as being published in either January or February 1898.

Thanks to Susan Meister and Tom Schuessler for providing additional information about Joseph Schussler and the Franz Neukirch family.