Monday, December 28, 2015

Oshkosh Beer: The Year in Review

It was another exceptional year for beer drinkers in Oshkosh. Here’s a look at where we are at the close of 2015.

Local Beer
For the first time in 20 years, a new brewery was launched here. The opening of Bare Bones Brewery in the Town of Oshkosh is undoubtedly the biggest news to come out of the Oshkosh beer scene this year.

Bare Bones opened its taproom on May 29. For much of the summer, the 12 draft lines there were occupied by the beer of other breweries. The brewery began pouring its own beer on August 6. By year's end, six different Bare Bones beers were available in its taproom. According to state tax records, the brewery's production averages just over 20 barrels of beer per month. That's slightly above the norm when compared to similar Wisconsin breweries. Output is bound to increase as Bare Bones beer becomes more widely available. In mid-August, the brewery began distributing kegs of its beer through Lee Beverage of Wisconsin. Oshkosh bars, including Becket's, Chester V's, Dublin's, Gardina's and Peabody's, have since had Bare Bones beer on draft. In late November, Bare Bones acquired a 4-head bottle filler, enabling the brewery to package its beer for retail sales. Bare Bones Christmas Tail Ale in 22 0z. bottles went on sale at Festival Foods in early December. The new brewery is off to a solid start.

Bare Bones Brewery; early June 2015

Fox River Brewing Company had its best year since the brewery's founding in 1995. Over the past year, the brewery experienced significant growth. In March, a bottling line was installed at Fox River Appleton. By early summer, Fox River beer was appearing on store shelves in bottles and on draft in bars throughout the Fox Valley and Northeastern Wisconsin. Beer production at Fox River's two brewpubs increased dramatically. Through October, Fox River Oshkosh had produced 707 barrels of beer; 126 barrels more than it produced in all of 2014. Production at Fox River Appleton at the end of October was up 317 barrels over the 2014 total. Combined production at Fox River will be over 2,000 barrels for the year, a record for the brewery. Within the brewpubs, the range of beers has been expanded. At Fox River Oshkosh there are now often 12 of the brewery's beers on draft. The renewed emphasis on beer was accompanied by the rebranding of the Oshkosh brewpub. In July, Fratellos Waterfront Restaurant & Brewery was renamed Fox River Brewing Company & Taproom. The brewery is nearing the limits of its production capacity. If production continues to grow at the current pace, some form of expansion will be necessary.

Beer in Bars
Chester V's opened on December 14 and appears poised to become the preeminent craft beer bar in Oshkosh. The 40 beers on tap at the gastropub represent the largest offering of craft beer on draft in the city. Included are 16, self-serve, table tenders. These are the first taps in Oshkosh that allow patrons to pour beer at their own behest in serving sizes of their choosing. People have been drinking beer in Oshkosh taverns for more than 170 years. Until now, there's been nothing here like this.

There's been no let up among the already established bars emphasizing craft beer in Oshkosh. Becket's, Dublin's, Gardina's, Oblio's and O'Marro's remain the most notable. Dublin's and Gardina's continue to take the lead in the way of beer events.  Dublin's hosted three beer dinners in addition to its annual Craft Beer Festival this year. Gardina's continued its monthly Beer Bar Series featuring rare cask beers and tap takeovers, each accompanied by a beer-pairing menu.

In 2016, we'll undoubtedly see more craft beer in Oshkosh bars. Some have begun to question whether we're reaching a saturation point. I doubt that. The potential for growth remains extreme, especially when you consider that craft beer is still less than 12% of the overall market. But that growth won't happen without a subsequent increase in venues willing to embrace the change occurring here. We're part of an evolving market still in its early stages of development.

Beer in Stores
Gardina’s and Ski’s continued to expand their beer offerings this year. At Gardina’s they installed a bank of three two-door beer coolers and added more shelf space dedicated to beer. At Ski’s they’ve grown their beer selection beyond their coolers into other areas of the store. Overlap between the two stores is modest. It makes for a local beer market unique to Oshkosh. With Gardina's and Ski's within a short walk of each another, Downtown Oshkosh has become one of the best places to buy good beer in the Fox Valley.

What has occurred in the beer aisle at Festival Foods in Oshkosh underscores the importance of independent retailers. At Gardina's and Ski's, the beer selection is made by local people in regular contact with their customers. At Festival such decisions are, for the most part, handed down from corporate headquarters in De Pere. It shows.

Take for example, the pell-mell scattering of craft beer between the cold and warm shelves at Festival. The segregation has nothing to do with preserving the quality of higher priced beers. At the same time, beers like Corona Light and Red Stripe are lumped into the craft beer coolers. The store plays on the dubious "import" status of these beers to suggest they are of a higher caliber. The notion is pathetically outdated and indicative of the stale approach Festival takes towards beer in general. Two years ago, Festival was the best place to buy packaged beer in Oshkosh. Not anymore. Not by a long shot. If price and convenience are your main concern, Festival still has its merits. Beyond that, there's little to recommend it.

Festival Foods Oshkosh

Beer Fests in Oshkosh
The EAA's Hops & Props was the most successful beer festival held here this year in Oshkosh. Its $75 entrance fee, however, continued to be a nonstarter for many. The cost may not be commensurate with the selection of beer offered, but the accompanying food, live music, and AirVenture Museum setting justified the price of admission for many. Attendance at Hops & Props was near capacity again this year.

Unfortunately the same can't be said about the Oshkosh Jaycees’ 20th Annual Brews n’ Blues festival. The 2015 event was poorly promoted, sparsely attended. At this time, the Jaycees appear to have little interest in continuing the event. That may be for the best considering the festival's damaged reputation. This was Oshkosh's first, modern, beer festival. It's likely end is saddening and would leave a gaping hole in the Oshkosh beer calendar.

The most unique beer festival of 2014 didn't return in 2015. The Society of Oshkosh Brewers' pulled the plug on their Cask and Caskets Homebrew Festival after warnings by state officials. After three years of the festival, Wisconsin Department of Revenue officials decided that the SOBs had strayed beyond the law by selling tickets to an event where all of the beer is homebrew (read: not subject to state tax). The SOBs are hoping to bring the festival back in 2016 using a different approach. The thousands of dollars the club earned for local charities through Cask and Caskets will, however, be lost.

Brewing Your Own
An overview of anything as private by nature as homebrewing is bound to be incomplete. That said, there are anecdotes that indicate trends. The trends aren't pointing in an especially positive direction.

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers has long been the standard-bearer for homebrewing here. The club struggled in 2015. The loss of its beer festival was coupled with a decline in SOB membership. The SOBs now have approximately 55 members, down from a high of more than 80 members two years ago. The SOBs public presence has also diminished. This year, the club participated in fewer community events. Perhaps none of this is problematic. The SOBs' board of directors recently signaled a desire to return the club to its core mission by focussing more on homebrewing. For some SOBs, it would be a welcome change.

It remains to be seen whether the contraction of the SOBs reflects a downward trend in homebrewing in Oshkosh. Our lack of a comprehensive homebrew store certainly doesn't help. The ever increasing availability of good beer may also be having a dampening effect. It's now rarely the case that people take up homebrewing because they can't acquire the sort of beer they want commercially. Despite all this, homebrewing remains a vital part of the Oshkosh beer scene. That's unlikely to change in the foreseeable future.

Looking Ahead
In all, the beer scene here is more vibrant than it's been in a century. A hundred years ago, Oshkosh was a regional hub for brewing and the city was awash in locally made beer. The likelihood of additional breweries launching here in the coming year is strong and may put us back on that path. On the pouring side, the scheduled opening of the Ruby Owl in late spring should bring another prime outlet for high-end draft beer in Downtown Oshkosh. The coming year is bound to increase our fortunes. We're living through a defining period in Oshkosh's storied beer history. Try to find a moment to appreciate that.

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