Monday, November 30, 2015

A History of Oshkosh's Holiday Beers

We'll start with a couple of beer bottles separated by about 50 years, but linked by tradition. On the left is a bottle of Chief Oshkosh Holiday Brew. Judging by the label, this bottle is from the mid-1960s. On the right, we have Bare Bones Christmas Tail Ale. This bottle was filled in the early morning hours of Friday, November 27.

Brewers in Oshkosh have been making special beers for the holiday season for more than 100 years. In all likelihood, the local take on that tradition probably goes back even further.

It would have been unusual for the brewers who arrived here from Germany in the late 1840s not to have carried on with the custom of making a heartier brew in celebration of the season. But if they did, they weren't spending money advertising their special brews. Perhaps they didn't need to.

The first evidence I've been able to find of an Oshkosh brewer touting its holiday beer comes from 1913 when Peoples Brewing announced its first seasonal beer in a half-page advertisement published in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern. The beer was made from "the richest grain grown in Wisconsin" and Saaz hops from Bohemia.  Here's that somewhat rough looking ad from December 20, 1913. As always, click the image to enlarge it.

Most often these holiday brews were simply amped versions of the brewery's flagship beer. The beers were made stronger from a heavier grist of malt and a corresponding increase in hops. They were more expensive to brew, but as a "thank you" to their customers, brewery's here would offer the seasonal specialty at the same price as their standard beer.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC) was a late comer to the Christmas beer tradition. The brewery didn't begin producing a winter seasonal until 1935. At OBC, they described their Holiday Brew as a strong pilsener "Brewed from an old, original, German formula." The beer was usually released a few days before Thanksgiving and was often sold out by January.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; November 22, 1955.

Here's a better look at the Holiday Brew label...

With the closing of Peoples Brewing in 1972, the Oshkosh holiday brews went into hiatus. It wasn't long, though, before the custom was revived by homebrewers. Among those who helped to resurrect the tradition was Oshkosh homebrewer Al Jacobson. A founding member of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers, Jacobson began brewing an annual Christmas beer in the early 1990s.

Like most homebrewers and craft brewers, Jacobson was more influenced by the English tradition than the German. The brewers of Medieval England made winter ales generously spiced with ingredients such as nutmeg and cinnamon. Jacobson, put his own spin on that practice. In 1995, beer writer Todd Haefer described Jacobson's holiday brew as, "A dark ale which contains a jalapeno or serrano pepper in each batch and cinnamon."

Jacobson in his native element sampling holiday beers.
After the 1995 opening of Fox River Brewing Company (FRBC), holiday beers began being brewed commercially again in Oshkosh. Over the years, the brewery has produced both English and German styles of christmas beer. Fox River's holiday seasonal from 2003 was a German-style lager, a nod to previous generations of Oshkosh brewers. Named High Octane, the beer was nearly 10% ABV.

In recent years, FRBC has taken more of an English approach. Its current holiday seasonal is Vixen’s Vanilla Cream Ale. At 5.9% ABV, this is a moderately robust winter seasonal flavored with Celyon cinnamon, Korintje Cassia cinnamon, Madagascar vanilla bean extract, whole bean Madagascar vanilla and California orange peel. It's a beer that reminds me of sweet, vanilla christmas cookies.

Oshkosh's newest brewery has now joined in the tradition. This past Friday, Bare Bones Brewery released Christmas Tail, its first seasonal beer. It also happens to be the first beer Bare Bones has bottled. In keeping with the local bent, they hired a student from UWO to design the label.

Bare Bones brewmaster Lyle Hari has created a dark ale that straddles English and Belgian styles of winter brew. Made with English malts, molasses and brown sugar, the beer is spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and ginger. The Belgian yeast it was fermented with accentuates the spicing. At 7.5% ABV, Christmas Tail is a true winter warmer.

Left for dead some 40 years ago, Oshkosh's holiday beer tradition is now as vital as it has ever been. For me it's one of the great pleasures of being a beer drinker in this city.

1 comment:

  1. I love that Al is wearing a Lutefisk shirt.....classic!