Monday, November 23, 2015

Wilbur Strottman and the Ruin That Became Chief Oshkosh Beer

Wilbur Strottman
If Wilbur Strottman were alive, I'm sure he'd resent the title of this post. The last thing any brewmaster would want to be associated with is the trashing of a beer. And to be fair, the blame for the deterioration of Chief Oshkosh Beer wasn't entirely Strottman's doing. He may have been steering the ship when Chief Oshkosh crashed, but he wasn't charting its course. That responsibility fell to his boss, Oshkosh Brewing Company president, David Uihlein.

In any case, the degrading of Chief Oshkosh Beer began under Strottman's watch. When he left Oshkosh in 1967, the best-selling beer Strottman had been given stewardship of was in ruins. It was an unexpectedly bad end to what had been an unlikely beginning.

Wilbur Strottman was born on October 27, 1913 in Readlyn, Iowa. The son of a blacksmith, he was the second generation of his family born in America; his grandparents having emigrated from Germany. Strottman was six years old when Prohibition began and 20 when it ended. His formative years occurred at a time when beer was illegal. Yet as a young man, he developed the itch to become a brewmaster.

In 1933, the 19-year-old Strottman left Iowa for Chicago where he attended the Siebel Institute of Technology. With the repeal of prohibition in 1933, the school was again focusing on brewing sciences. Strottman must have done well. He was eventually hired by Siebel as an instructor teaching chemistry, biology and practical brewing to aspiring brewers.

Strottman's credentials weren't solely academic. In the mid-1940s he returned to Iowa to work as a chemist for the Blackhawk Brewery in Davenport. In 1953, Strottman was named brewmaster and plant superintendent of the brewery. A year later, he left Iowa and moved to Oshkosh.

The home at Oak and Tennessee street in Oshkosh where Strottman lived

On August 17, 1954, Strottman became the brewmaster for the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC). The position had to have seemed a golden opportunity to him. Unlike most regional breweries in 1954, OBC was growing prodigiously. Its success hinged on a single beer known throughout Wisconsin: Chief Oshkosh.

The recipe for Chief Oshkosh Beer had been developed in 1950 by A. Thomas Schwalm, OBC's brewmaster and the son of the brewery's president Arthur L. Schwalm. It was a 4.5% ABV Classic American Pilsener made from an ingredient list simple enough to scratch out on a napkin – malted barley, corn grits, hops, water and yeast. The beer was an immediate success.

The 1950s label for the Oshkosh Brewing Company's new pilsener

Sales of Chief Oshkosh spiked. Production at the brewery increased by nearly 50% within four years of the recipe being introduced. OBC parlayed its increased revenue into investments in the brewery. When Strottman arrived he entered a brewhouse that was state of the art to make beer for a brewery nearing its peak.

He did well. Production at OBC continued to climb during the early years of Strottman's tenure. By 1959 output at OBC reached an all-time high of 63,165 barrels. Strottman was given his due. He was the highest paid employee of the brewery earning $8,000 in 1960 (the equivalent of approximately $64,000 today).  But change was in the wind.

In 1961, the Horn and Schwalm families sold their controlling interest in OBC to David Uihlein, a member of the family holding controlling interest in Schlitz Brewing. Uihlein was a trained brewer and his influence was felt immediately. He changed the label for Chief Oshkosh, but more importantly directed Strottman to change the beer behind it.

The 1960s Chief Oshkosh label

The Chief Oshkosh Beer of the 1960s was a prototype of the sort of beers micro-brewers of the 1980s would denounce when lamenting the pitiful state of American lager. Like many American beers of the period, Chief Oshkosh was laced with adulterants to be brewed on the cheap.

The recipe Strottman formulated was a convoluted stew heavily reliant on pre-processed adjuncts. It was anything but the traditional lager the brewery purported it to be. Hop extracts, corn syrup, powdered dextrins, and soy flakes all eventually found their way into the Chief Oshkosh recipe. This wasn’t a phenomenon unique to OBC. Countless American breweries were treading this same, dismal path.

A portion of Strottman's brewer's log from 1964

The reformulation of OBC's flagship brand was born out of Uihlein's desire to slash costs. Nothing escaped his scrutiny including the beer OBC's reputation and existence depended upon. Chief Oshkosh fell victim to Uihlein's cost cutting. Sales fell in tandem. By the end of 1961 production was off by nearly 3,000 barrels.

The brewmaster appears to have shared Uihlein's vision. A 1963 Brewers Digest article described Strottman as a "sales" type of brewmaster. It was an approach that gained him the absolute confidence of his boss. Their relationship reached its culmination in 1963 when Uihlein appointed Strottman vice president of the brewery. The new VP maintained his brewmaster position and continued tinkering with his recipe for Chief Oshkosh.

Strottman (left) and Uihlein in the OBC brewhouse

To counter the falling sales of Chief Oshkosh, OBC expanded its distribution network and began producing three other brands of beer – Badger Brew, Liebrau and Rahr's Beer of Green Bay. It was to little effect. In 1966, production fell below 50,000 barrels, the lowest output at the brewery in 15 years. Uihlein, concentrating on his business interests in Milwaukee, was spending less and less time in Oshkosh. The decline accelerated. Strottman wanted out.

His exit came in 1967. In April that year Strottman resigned as brewmaster of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. He moved to Milwaukee and took a position with Pabst Brewing. Six months later he was dead. Wilbur Strottman passed away unexpectedly on October 13, 1967. His death occurred two weeks shy of his 54th birthday.

A well-worn pocket reference published in 1933 and used by Strottman during his brewing career

Uihlein left OBC in 1969, selling his majority stake in the company to a coterie of brewery employees. The decline of Chief Oshkosh Beer continued unabated. A series of brewmasters rotated through the brewhouse. Each of them adhering to the basic composition of Strottman's reformulation of the beer.

Chief Oshkosh Beer tanked. In 1969 production fell to 33,613 barrels. In 1970, less than 30,000 barrels were brewed. In 1971, the Oshkosh Brewing Company closed. The brand was purchased by Peoples Brewing and continued to be brewed until 1972 when Peoples went out of business. It was the last, shallow gasp of what had once been an iconic Wisconsin beer.

No comments:

Post a Comment