Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Oshkosh 2018

For the first time since 1894, we have four breweries in Oshkosh. But the beer scene here today is nothing like that of the earlier period. In fact, what's happening now bears little resemblance to any previous era of brewing in this city. The differences are stark.

Brewers at the Gambrinus Brewery in Oshkosh, 1893
In 1894, Oshkosh was home to Horn and Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery, John Glatz and Son’s Union Brewery, Lorenz Kuenzl's Gambrinus Brewery, and the Rahr Brewing Company. Today, we have Fox River Brewing, Bare Bones Brewery, Fifth Ward Brewing, and HighHolder Brewing.

Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones Brewery, Oshkosh, 2018.
Scale is the most obvious point of contrast. The older breweries were much larger. The combined output of the four 1894 breweries exceeded 15,000 barrels. Production was growing by leaps and bounds. Most of the beer consumed in this city came out of those four breweries.

The Glatz Brewery, Oshkosh.
This year, there will be about 2,000 barrels of beer produced in Oshkosh. At the moment, production growth is steady but limited. It's safe to say that less than 5% of the beer now consumed here is made by our local breweries. And the beer they produce is vastly different from that of the earlier period.

A transplant from 1894 would hardly recognize much of what we call beer today in Oshkosh’s brewery taprooms. The lagers that were standard here for more than 100 years are no longer made. Today, ale brewing is predominant. These beers tend to be more bitter and much stronger. The average lager produced in Oshkosh at the turn of the century was around 5% ABV. Last week, the average beer offered by an Oshkosh brewery in its taproom was 6.5% ABV. It used to be rare to see a beer north of 6% ABV here. Now, they're altogether common.

1917 Oshkosh Strong an 8.4% ABV Imperial Stout, Fox River Brewing.
What goes into the current beers also sets them apart. In the 1890s, most Oshkosh beer was made using five standard ingredients: water, malted barley, corn grits, hops, and yeast. With the exception of hops – hop farming had died out in Winnebago County by the 1890s – the ingredients were sourced locally. The six-row barley grown in the county then was altogether different from the barley grown today. Brewers here loved it. It lent their beer a characteristic flavor imparted by the soil, climate, and growing practices of area farmers. Typically, the brewers here did their own malting, which further contributed to the unique character of the local beer.

All of that is long gone. The basic ingredients used today are commoditized products and uniform to a degree that was impossible to achieve a century ago. That may explain, in part, why flavorants, spices, and other food products have come to play such a prominent role in the beer made in Oshkosh today. This has been a swift and dramatic break with the past.

The evolution Fox River Brewing is illustrative here. When Fox River opened in 1995, the brewery – like almost every other that launched in the 1990s –  made a selling point of the fact that its beer would be made using only "traditional" ingredients. That stance was typical. At the time, craft breweries were doing all they could to differentiate their beer from mass-produced lager. A decade later, Fox River came out with Blu Bobber, a beer made with Blueberry concentrate. Today, Blu Bobber is the best selling beer produced by an Oshkosh brewery. The idea of an American craft brewery rejecting the use of these non-traditional ingredients now seems quaint.

Today, almost anything goes. A wide array of adjuncts are used here. The following is an abbreviated list of food products that have found their way into Oshkosh-brewed beers in the last 6 months or so.

Lime Juice Concentrate. Chocolate. Sea Salt. Raspberry Juice Concentrate. Powdered JalapeƱo. Cinnamon. Cherry Juice Concentrate. Chili Peppers. Blueberry Juice Concentrate. Orange Zest. Milk Sugar. Saffron. Passion Fruit Concentrate. Mint. Strawberry Juice Concentrate. Vanilla. Honey...

HighHolder Brewing’s Screamsycle
If there's one aspect of the current scene that does recall the earlier period, it's in the way beer is dispensed. In 1894, beer packaged in bottles was a minor component. The vast majority of Oshkosh-brewed beer was served from kegs. It's a rather similar situation today, with most of the beer made locally served on draught. Again, though, a visitor from 1894 would be confused. Instead of walking into a taproom and finding people slugging down amber fluid from brimming schooners, they'd likely encounter a line of folks at the bar sniffing over a row of petite sampler cups and tapping obsessively at their phones.

Our engagement with beer is similarly constricted. The average 1890s beer drinker imbibed with more frequency than we do. Beer was less an event and more of a companion. For working people, a typical noon lunch break in Oshkosh entailed a trip to the saloon for a few mugs of fresh lager. No more. Show up at the job with beer on your breath these days and you'll be branded an addict. But there was a time when it wasn't beyond the pale to suggest that a nice glass of beer was an altogether sensible way to begin the day.

From an Oshkosh Brewing Company ad that appeared in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, September 24, 1913.
Is what’s happening now good? Is it bad? Do such judgments even matter? That's always and entirely for you to decide. Anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong. The one thing I can say for sure is that it will not last. Enjoy this moment. And if you don't like it, wait. It's going to change soon enough. It always does.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Beer Here: Independence Haze

Last Week, Fox River Brewing introduced Independence Haze, the brewery’s first New England-style IPA.

It looks about right: lemon-yellow and appropriately hazy. The aroma is intense, a plume of tangerine, pineapple, and kiwi. Those same juicy-fruit notes rule the palate, with a dab of cracker-like malt running in the background. My only quibble is the mouthfeel. I would have liked a creamier texture. The finish is dry, clean, and bright with a gentle smear of bitterness. At 6% ABV, it’s not too imposing. If you don't think of yourself as being into IPA, this might be the beer to revisit your assumptions with.

The New England IPA (NEIPA) came to prominence on the east coast; the first iterations being brewed in Vermont in 2010. In recent years, the style has become a national phenomenon. But not without controversy. These beers tend to be exceedingly hazy, a consequence of the process used to create them. That cloudy appearance and lack of bitterness doesn't sit well with some fans of American IPA. Yet its that soft bitterness coupled with lush hop flavor that makes converts of those who, in the past, steered clear of conventional IPAs.

In Oshkosh, the first commercial brewery to take on this style was HighHolder Brewing. Earlier this year, HighHolder released EWECO, a NEIPA, as a one-off for the Fox Valley Winter Beer Festival. Fox River's Independence Haze is the first NEIPA produced in Oshkosh that’s been released to the general public.

Fox River assistant brewer Cullen Dunn brewed Independence Haze on July 4, 2018. "We had an opening in the schedule we didn't think we'd have," Dunn says. "And we had a decent amount of really good hops on hand, so..."

It wasn't all happenstance. Dunn's been workshopping the beer for about a year. "It's loosely based on a beer I've been brewing at home, but I wanted something that would also seem familiar to customers at Fox River," he says. "I didn't want to go completely off the reservation."

Cullen Dunn

Part of what makes NEIPAs so different is the hopping regimen. Most of the hops are applied in bursts while the wort is cooling and again when the beer is in the fermentor. For Independence Haze, Fox River used Amarillo, Citra, and Mosaic hops.

"There's no original bittering addition on this,” Dunn says. “We did two separate whirlpool additions, then a dry hop at yeast pitch, and then another when fermentation was underway, and another at day two of fermentation." In all, 32 pounds of hops went into the 10-barrel batch of beer. "It's insane," Dunn says.

He's happy with the results. "I'd like to reduce the bitterness even more and make the haze even more significant, but I like it. It helps that it's so fresh."

The 29-year-old Dunn has been at Fox River since 2015. This was his first recipe produced by the brewery and probably his last. In August, Dunn begins work as a brewer at Karben4 Brewing in Madison.

Independence Haze is currently available on draft in the taproom at Fox River Brewing in Oshkosh.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Lost on Ceape

Forget Sawdust City, they should have called it Saloon City. From the jump, Oshkosh was crowded with beer joints. There have been hundreds of them. They all have their stories. Do a little poking around into any of the old places and all sorts of peculiar stuff comes oozing out.

On the north side of Ceape Avenue between Court and State, was a forgotten place that used to burst with local color. You’d never guess it was once so. What’s there now is nothing. It’s a parking lot. The red rectangle shows the location...

That lot was home to a series of saloons. The first of them was run by a Canadian expat named George Condie. He began slinging beer around there in the late 1860s. Condie lived at the saloon with his wife, Wilhelmine, and their four kids. They seemed to do okay. In 1874, Condie bought the bigger building next door and moved his saloon in there.

A. Ruger's 1867 Bird's Eye View of Oshkosh. The red dot is at the doorstep of Condie's Saloon

Condie's new saloon got burned out six months after he moved into it. The fifth and worst of Oshkosh's great fires ripped through the city on the windy Wednesday of April 28, 1875. The fire started at the Morgan Brothers mill on the Fox River. From there it ran east in a quarter-mile-wide column all the way to Bowen. Almost everything between Ceape and Washington was torched. Condie's Saloon was leveled.

The path of the 1875 fire.

The aftermath of the 1875 fire.

Condie rebuilt. Bigger and better. The new place was brick, two-stories with the saloon below and rooms above. It cost them $4,000. I've been hunting for a picture of the full building and haven't found a thing. That's not too surprising. Condie's saloon was not the sort of place that would have attracted photographers. In the 1870s, this was a gritty part of town. That stretch of Ceape was lined with cigar factories, saloons, and mills. Lots of smoke. Muddy streets decked with horse shit and plenty of drunks.

The rotten ambiance may have gotten the best of the Condies. George and Wilhelmine could not get along. George appears to have been something of a layabout. Wilhelmine was anything but. Born in Prussia in 1829, she was eight years older than her husband. Wilhelmine was independent. She sometimes used her maiden name - Gustavus. She had an outside job running the saloon at the International Hotel on 7th and South Main. Their marriage seems to have been on the skids even before the great fire. The relationship came permanently undone in the spring of 1877. The Daily Northwestern made a comedy of it.

There was a husky time in Justice Sarau's office in the afternoon. It seems that Mrs. Gustavus, who runs the International Hotel, had a falling out with her husband, Geo. Condie, and bounced him out of the house. George took possession of the horse, and the present case was brought on by a replevin sworn out for the return of the animal. Mrs. G. was exceedingly wrathy, and she applied to her liege lord and master all the invectives and scathing epithets that the female tongue is heir to — and it is sometimes a million-heir in such cases.
    - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, May 17, 1877

Wilhelmine meant business. For the next four months, she ran notices like this one in the Daily Northwestern.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, June 16, 1877.

The divorce of George and Wilhelmine Condie was finalized in 1879. Wilhelmine got the saloon. She and her daughter Amelia ran it through the remainder of the 1870s and into the 1880s. It was one of the few times before the turn of the century that an Oshkosh saloon was owned and operated by women. They presented it as a contrast to the crude barrelhouses commonplace in Oshkosh's old Second Ward.

An ad from the 1880 Oshkosh City Directory showing the old address.

It was all good until the winter of 1883. Around Christmastime, Wilhelmine became ill. She had cancer. She transferred ownership of the property to her children in April 1884 and died a month later in her room above the saloon. Wilhelmine Gustavus was 55 years old.

Her kids held onto the saloon, but now someone else was running it.

Wisconsin Telegraph, October 10, 1884.

Charles Maulick was a 26-year-old German immigrant with no prior saloon experience. He'd been working at an Oshkosh tannery before settling in on Ceape. He changed the name of the bar to Mechanic's Home, an homage of sorts to the laborers, often referred to as mechanics, working in the neighborhood. At the same time, Maulick maintained the upscale burnish. The Wisconsin Telegraph advert says something like, “The house is completely new and comfortable in the center of the city and offers all the modern conveniences.”

Maulick remained less than a year. He left in the Spring of 1885 for a new building on North Main Street designed by Oshkosh architect William Waters. Maulick, with the help of Schlitz Brewing, would create something of a minor empire based on beer there. Today we know that place as Oblio's Lounge.

After Maulick, the saloon at what was then 47 Ceape went through a couple proprietors and a couple years of flux. The upscale aspirations were discarded. There was no sense denying that this place, in the heart of an industrial district, was not much of a lure for free-spending business travelers. The furnished rooms above were converted into a cigar factory. An 1885 insurance map shows the saloon boxed in by large-scale manufacturing facilities. The red arrow points the way in...

Wilhelmine Gustavus' children decided to cash out. In July 1887, the saloon was sold to an Irish Immigrant named John O'Brien.

O'Brien arrived in Oshkosh in the early 1860s when he was in his 20s. He spent the next couple decades working as a drayman trucking freight around town on a horse-drawn wagon. He was 50-years old when he bought out the Gustavus family. John O'Brein's Saloon was a workingman's bar through and through. A train spur ran right past its front door. And contraptions like this one boomed and blew smoke next door...

In that image, you can see the east side of O'Brien's Saloon with an indecipherable beer sign hung on the corner of his brick building. The picture is from the early 1890s. No doubt, we're seeing a number of  O'Brien's clientele standing there.

John O'Brien's son Edward was 11 when the family moved in above the saloon. When he came of age, Edward began working the bar and when John O'Brien died in 1909, Edward took over. Shortly after, he was approached by the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC).

In 1909, OBC had a stranglehold on the beer business in Oshkosh. Its dominance was built on deals the brewery made with local saloonkeepers. In the case of the O'Brien Saloon, OBC proffered a series of low-interest loans. In return, "the occupant of the first story of the building upon said premises shall use exclusively the beer of the Oshkosh Brewing Co. for the purpose of running the saloon therein." The O'Brien saloon was now tied to OBC.

Signs like this one were often displayed in Oshkosh Brewing Company tied houses during this period.

When Prohibition arrived in1920, it killed the saloon George Condie had built. In the end, it was being run by a man named Bert Gough, who had a long and wonderfully odd career as a saloon man in Oshkosh. When Prohibition hit, Gough moved a couple doors east and opened a speakeasy in a place some may recall as the Court Tavern. Meanwhile, the old saloon at 47 Ceape was swallowed up and gutted by its neighbor, the Universal Motor Company. Later on, beginning in the 1940s, it became a soda bottling plant. By then Wilhelmine Gustavus had been in the ground for 50 years. It's all long gone.