Monday, November 16, 2015

Let's Ask the Brewmaster

Beginning in 1957, The Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC) presented a sequence of ads in the Daily Northwestern aimed at educating its customers about the basics of beer. The ads featured OBC brewmaster Wilbur Strottman answering simple questions about various aspects of beer and brewing. Perhaps most striking about the series is its rudimentary nature. It's clear that much of the tribal knowledge about beer that had once existed in Oshkosh had been lost.

The Brewmaster ads ran at the dawn of a dark age for beer in America. By 1957, the overwhelming majority of beers produced and consumed in the U.S. were of a single type - lightly hopped, pale lager brewed with a percentage of corn. The same held true In Oshkosh. Though the city's breweries were producing more beer than ever, there was little variety among the beers they made.

In 1957, Oshkosh's two breweries, OBC and Peoples, each produced just three types of beer. In Spring, the breweries would release a bock beer that remained on the market for no more than two or three months. With winter would come the strong, holiday seasonal beer that saw a similarly limited release. For the remainder of the year it was back to the pale, light lager that had come to dominate the palate of beer drinkers.

Of course, it hadn't always been this way. Prior to the 1900s, breweries in Oshkosh typically produced a range of beers throughout the year. For example, when the Oshkosh Brewing Company formed in 1894, its first ads, often in German, showed the brewery producing six types of beer. And there was no need to explain to the consumer that a Weiner beer was an easy drinking amber or that Culmbacher was a black, rich lager. In 1894 beer drinkers in Oshkosh new these things.

An 1894 ad for the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The brewery's six brands of beer are in highlight.

The narrowing of variety had been gradual. In the early 1900s breweries here began focusing ever-more intently on pale lager. The beer was a symbol of modernity, progress and purity. And beer drinkers flocked to it. With the arrival of Prohibition in 1920, the trajectory was fixed. A generation came of age with beer no longer a part of everyday life.

When beer became legal again in 1933, the connection to the past had been effectively severed. The appreciation for various styles of beer had been lost. Beer increasingly came to mean one thing: pale, light lager. In 1957, that meant the answers to questions such as "What is Bock Beer?" were no longer common knowledge.

Which brings us to these ads. Here's one from November 1957, answering the question just asked.

Here's Strottman explaining what makes a beer a Lager Beer.

Here's one made more interesting by what it doesn't say. Notice how there's no mention of corn being used in the production of Chief Oshkosh. Like Strottman, most brewers of the era preferred not to mention their use of corn as an ingredient.

I like this next one. Strottman clues us in on why draft beer is superior to bottled beer.

This one kills me. It's about beer freshness. Notice the complete disregard for the consumer. They don't need to know how damned old the beer is!

It's almost 60 years since these ads appeared and we're more confused than ever. The incredible variety of beer that's now available has left the majority of consumers utterly bewildered. I see it all the time at beer depots in Oshkosh. I tend to notice it at Festival more than at other places here. You see these people standing in front of that open cooler with a stunned look as they gaze up and down the rows of IPAs, stouts, wheat beers, etc... Then they go grab a sixer of Spotted  Cow.


  1. But instead of ask the brewmaster we have Ask the Blogger!

  2. Sounds good Randy. Here goes........

    Lee - What was the first beer you remember drinking/tasting, and at what age?

    As an aside. My wife and I recently hosted a couple of gentlemen visiting the U.S. from Germany. They were "jealous" of the abundance of fine beers available in this area. We served them Capital Brewing's Mutiny IPA with dinner, which they thoroughly enjoyed.

    1. Dave, the first beer I remember was Bohemian Club. I was about 6. More than likely I had Schlitz and Pabst before that, but for whatever reason Bohemian Club is the one that stuck. What about you?

  3. Bohemian Club! I would keep that under wraps if I were you.

    My first memory of tasting beer was at age 5 or 6 in the mid 1960s. A holiday gathering at my maternal grandparents (Stratz) house on otter street in oshkosh. One of the adults let me sip some of his beer. I'm not sure what the brand was, but my grandpa was pretty loyal to Peoples, so that's probably what it was.

    1. Excellent! Hey, I wish they still made Bohemian Club. That beer was terrible, but I'd like to taste it again.