Thursday, November 29, 2018

A Tale of Two Eras: Winnebago County Breweries, 1888 and 2018

When Barrel 41 Brewing opened last week, it brought the brewery count in Winnebago County to eight. The last time there were that many breweries here was 1888.

Barrel 41 Brewing.
Today’s breweries, though, share little in common with their counterparts of 130 years ago. Before breaking that down, here's a list of the breweries from each period. First up are the current breweries and their year of origin.
Fox River Brewing Company (Oshkosh) – 1995
Bare Bones Brewery (Oshkosh) – 2015
Lion's Tail Brewing  (Neenah) – 2015
Fifth Ward Brewing  (Oshkosh) – 2017
Omega Brewing (Omro) – 2017
Emprize Brew Mill (Menasha) – 2018
HighHolder Brewing (Oshkosh) – 2018
Barrel 41 Brewing (Neenah) – 2018
Next is the class of 1888 breweries and their start dates (some of these breweries had multiple owners and locations so their original names may vary from those listed below).
Lorenz Kuenzl's Gambrinus Brewery (Oshkosh) – 1849
Menasha Brewing Company (Menasha) – 1850
Regina Loescher's Oshkosh Brewery (Oshkosh) – 1852
The Neenah Brewery (Neenah)  – 1856
Charles Rahr's City Brewery (Oshkosh) – 1865
Horn and Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery (Oshkosh) – 1866
The Island Brewery (Menasha) – 1866
John Glatz Union Brewery  (Oshkosh) – 1867
The most obvious point of differentiation is the age of the breweries. In 1888, the youngest of the Winnebago County breweries was already more than 20 years old. The average age of those breweries was 29.5 years. We're looking here at a mature set of breweries operating in a stable beer market. This was a beer scene with well-established norms defined by a customer base that wanted something very specific: German-style lagers. And that’s what the brewers made.

1888-89 Wisconsin State Gazetteer.
Today, the oldest brewery in Winnebago County is Fox River Brewing. It's been in operation for 23 years. But Fox River is an outlier. The average age of the current breweries is just 4.5 years. Take Fox River out of the mix and the average age of those remaining is less than two years. Five of our eight breweries weren't even in operation prior to 2017. Not coincidentally, their customer base is less anchored. They place a premium on novelty and variety. Their pursuit of something new is constant.

From a recent Bare Bones Facebook Post: “Our latest Puppy Love variant. We took our American Wheat - Puppy Love, and added cherries.”

Not surprisingly, the brewers working in each period are a reflection of the scene they work(ed) within. Each group of brewers shares much in common with those within their respective group.

All but one of the breweries of 1888 were under the guidance of a brewer born in either Germany or Bohemia. Those brewers had undergone formal training in their homeland and had been plying their trade for decades. Expertise was a given. Consistency was a prime objective.

Our current crop of head brewers has little formal training. All but one of them began with homebrewing, a culture that encourages innovation and experimentation. They come from a place where creativity is more highly regarded than consistency.

To read that as a value judgment would be wrong. Brewers are always of their time. Different times value different skill sets. The brewers of 2018 would have had a tough go of it in 1888. For one, they'd have to learn how to malt barley. The brewers of 1888, on the other hand, would be bewildered by the way things are done in 2018. Especially so when it comes to modern hopping methods and the array of malts and adjuncts that are being used.

Alex Wenzel, owner and head brewer, Lion's Tail Brewing.
The breweries of each period similarly reflect the demands of their era. Today, Bare Bones has the largest brewhouse, in terms of capacity, in Winnebago County. It can produce over 2,500 barrels of beer annually. But in 1888, Bare Bones would have been among the smallest breweries in the county. Several of the breweries from the earlier period had the ability to produce over 20,000 barrels annually.

The business of brewing in 1888 was increasingly about scale and capacity. Brewers were striving to boost their output, gain the advantage of scale, and use it to drive out the competition. It worked. By the time Prohibition arrived in 1920, five of the breweries on the 1888 list were gone. Consequently, the beer became paler and more uniform than it had ever been before.

It's nothing like that now. Today it’s about variety and pumping out unique beers that can catch the attention of a fickle customer base. The size of the modern breweries mirrors that ethos.

The smallest breweries that have existed in this county belong to the current period. We have three nano-breweries (breweries that produce beer in batch sizes of three barrels or less): Omega Brewing, Emprize Brew Mill, and HighHolder Brewing. And with the exception of Fox River, the other current breweries frequently employ pilot systems used to produce similarly small batches. It’s an entirely new approach here.

The original one-barrel system in the brewhouse at HighHolder Brewing.

This all plays out against an inverse relationship to population. In 1888, Winnebago County had 50,000 residents. Or about one brewery for every 6,250 people. Today the county’s population exceeds 170,000. That’s about one brewery for every 21,250 people. Here's a more sober view of that ratio: to match the per capita brewery count of 1888, we'd currently have to have 27 breweries in Winnebago County.

That observation would lead you to think there’s plenty of room for growth. Perhaps there is, but the salient numbers are less encouraging. Beer production is up this year in Winnebago County, but not to a significant degree. The audience for local beer is undoubtedly expanding, but the pace of that expansion is incremental. Local beer remains something of a niche market.

That wasn’t the case in 1888. Beer production in the county was steadily increasing and continued doing so for the next 60 years (save for the years marred by the debacle of Prohibition). The downside to that expansion was homogenization and consolidation. With each leap in output, beer variety and the number of breweries decreased. I doubt anyone who appreciates the current beer scene would want to relive that.

A sampler tray at Fifth Ward Brewing.

A durable thread of consistency once ran through Winnebago County’s brewing culture. It began in 1849 with the first brewery established here and ended with the close of Peoples Brewing in 1972. The European roots of that culture were always in evidence. That’s no longer so. What's occurring here now is a break with the past. When Fox River opened in 1995, it signaled the beginning of something entirely new. Something that continues to evolve.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Fox River’s 1917 Noir

A year ago, Fox River Brewing landed a freshly drained pinot noir barrel and filled it with an imperial stout. After maturing for a year in that barrel, the beer is now ready to go. The brewery is releasing 22-ounce bombers of 1917 Noir this morning at its brewpubs in Oshkosh and Appleton.

The Beer
It’s just as black as you’d expect from a beer named Noir. The pour builds a deep-tan, almost brown head that’s more substantial than you usually see in a barrel-aged beer. The aroma is a swirl of jammy, dark fruit over toasted oak with notes of vanilla and roast coming through. On the palate, the wine aspect integrates with the stout qualities of the base beer in a way that seems completely natural. This barrel was a good fit for this beer. Let that bottle sit at room temperature for a good 20 minutes before starting in on it and you’ll be rewarded. This would go great with some leftover roasted turkey and gravy.

The Backstory
“A lot of times when barrels come my way, it's not really planned out,” says Kevin Bowen, head brewer at Fox River. “But this worked out really well. The barrel was super fresh and we happened to have some Oshkosh Strong still available so we were able to fill it right away.”

The barrel in question is made of French oak and came from Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac. “We serve their wine here at the restaurant and we had been out there to visit with them,” Bowen said. “It’s a good relationship.”

In Prairie du Sac, the barrel had been aging Wollersheim’s Pinot Noir. At Fox River, it was filled with 2017 Oshkosh Strong, an 8.4% ABV imperial stout. The beer proved to be a good match for the assertive flavors of the wine-soaked barrel. 

“You definitely get a nice blend of beer and wine,” Bowen said. “That essence of imperial stout as the base beer is still there, but you also get the juicy, fruity character of the wine with a little bit of that oak that you want out of a barrel aged beer. It's enough of each of those components to be a nice, balanced beer that represents all those aspects.”

In all, Fox River produced 108 bottles of 1917 Noir. Sixty bottles have been allocated to Fox River Appleton. The rest are available here in Oshkosh. There's a two-bottle, per-person limit. Bottles are priced at $20 and are available beginning at 10:30 this morning.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Barrel 41’s Opening Set

At 3 pm on Monday, November 19, Barrel 41 Brewing in Neenah will open to the public for the first time.

The Beer
Winnebago County’s newest brewery will get underway with five of its own beers on tap. Here's Nate Sharpless, head brewer and co-owner of Barrel 41, with the brewery’s starting lineup...

White Mustang
“That's my Saison. It’s 7.2% ABV, but it’s a pretty simple beer actually. We used the Belle Saison yeast which plays really well with the temperature we fermented at. It brings out all those awesome characters that people love in a saison. I think that's honestly my favorite right now.”

All Day Breakfast
“It's a New England Pale Ale of sorts. We did add some bittering hops, which kind of goes against the grain, but I still like some bitterness in my pale ales and IPAs. We used a lot of (Wisconsin-grown) hops from Tenacious Badger in there; including Bitter Gold and Columbia. I love the combination of those two. That turned out really good.”

Lance Slide
“That's our Imperial Brown Ale. Lance (Goodman) is one of our co-owners. Kind of an inside joke, but he kept playing that song Landslide over and over by the Dixie Chicks, Fleetwood Mac, everyone who did it... So Matt (co-owner Matt Stubbing) said we need to call this one Lance Slide, ‘It's gotta be Lance Slide.’ That was kind of a kitchen sink recipe I put together when we were homebrewing. It turned out to be Lance's favorite beer. It's really unique.”

Dullmore Quad
“I guess that's my beer. It's the opposite of my last name (Sharpless). That one is kind of my baby. It's a straight-up Belgian Quad. I used 55 pounds of Belgian rock candy sugar in there. We even maxed out the mash tun with that one. We're also using a newer strain of Belgian yeast that just kicks ass. It ended up being 10.3% ABV. Maybe that’s my favorite.”

Birthday Suit Blonde
“That’s our beer beer. Just an easy drinking blonde ale. We thought we needed something like that, not just to please ourselves, but for people who might be looking for a gateway beer. I brewed it once at homebrew scale and then tweaked the recipe for the seven-barrel batch. I think it turned out really well.”

The Backstory
The space Barrel 41 Brewing inhabits at 1132 South Commercial Street in Neenah was a cluttered, wreck of a place six weeks ago. Since then it's been transformed into a stylish taproom and brewery mixing modern, industrial design with warmer, natural elements. The wood-pile wall, for example...

Matt Stubing (left) and Nate Sharpless

"We've been working night and day," says Matt Stubing, who co-owns Barrel 41 along with fellow Neenah-natives Sharpless and Lance Goodman. "It's been a lot of late nights. We were still painting and doing touch ups last week. But we love it, it's all worth it. We've had a lot of fun putting it together."

The taproom enters into a lounge area that leads to a bar topped with thick slabs of white oak. Adjacent to the bar is the brewery, which forms a backdrop to the entire space.

Fermentation tanks in the Barrel 41 brewhouse.

Barrel 41 will have its grand opening at the end of the week on Saturday, November 24. The taproom will open at 10 a.m. with a couple additional beers on tap, both of them barrel-aged: Rye Whiskey Brown and Rye Whiskey Quad.

It's not often breweries feature barrel-aged beers as part of their grand opening. Sharpless managed to acquire a couple of barrels just in time to make it work. "We were able to get two Fort Hamilton Rye Whiskey barrels," he says. "They were just soaking wet when we got them. We brewed those beers on the 1 -barrel system, the day after we got our permits."

The grand opening will also include food. "Some of the brewery moms are going to put together some post-thanksgiving food," says Stubing. "Some turkey and gravy sliders and some cookies and stuff. So along with all the beer, we'll have some good home cooking. It should be a day full of fun and good beer and good food."

For more info on taproom hours and Barrel 41's grand opening, check out the brewery's website or Facebook page.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Beer Here: The Return of Braver Hund

After nearly a three-year absence, Braver Hund ale is back on the tap list at Bare Bones Brewery.

The Beer
Braver Hund is just what it’s supposed to be: a straight-up Altbier – no gimmicks, no embellishments, no bullshit. It pours to a deep mahogany with pretty, red highlights. Then comes a nutty malt aroma backed by a light, floral hop note. The beer is medium bodied and firmly bitter. The flavor seesaws between those nut-like malt flavors and herbal hops with a dab of roast mingling in. This one is all about balance and drinkability. At 4.7% ABV it’s an ideal session beer and flavorful enough to make you want more than one. I can see this being my go-to at Bare Bones for the foreseeable future.

The Backstory
Altbier is one of the few styles of German ale that managed to survive into the 20th century. The “Alt” part is derived from the German word for old. That’s a reference to the older, ale family of German beers. Most of those were washed away when the “new” lager styles began flooding continental Europe in the mid-1800s. Altbier just barely survived. Same goes for Braver Hund.

Braver Hund was introduced at Bare Bones in September 2015 when Lyle Hari was head brewer there. It was the first Bare Bones beer to make a noticeable splash among the set of regulars beginning to coalesce at what was then Oshkosh’s newest brewery. But after Hari departed Bare Bones in February 2016, Braver Hund was brewed no more.

Lyle Hari

Fast forward to May of this year. Jody Cleveland becomes head brewer at Bare Bones. He’s one of those who had been a fan of Braver Hund back in 2015. “I loved the beer and wanted to bring it back,” Cleveland says. “And people have been asking for it pretty consistently ever since I came in.”

Jody Cleveland 
Aside from some tweaks, Cleveland’s Braver Hund is consistent with the beer Hari was making in 2015. “I changed the water profile a little and wanted to use 100% German malts and hops, but getting to that point required only a couple of minor changes. There’s not much difference.”

But this time, Braver Hund won’t be a “one-and-done” beer. “I’ll definitely be making it again, Cleveland says. “It’ll be a yearly seasonal.”

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

An Illustrated History of the Brewing Industry in Fond du Lac

The other day, I mentioned on Facebook that Fond du Lac is the largest city in Wisconsin without a brewery. That’s strange when you consider the city’s long history of beer making. With that in mind, I thought it would be good time to share a bit on the history of brewing in Fond du Lac.

Courtesy of John Steiner.

The text below is excerpted from a piece written by John W. Iwanski that appeared in History by the Lake, a collection of historical essays published in 2005. Iwanski has written the most comprehensive overview of Fond du Lac’s beer history I know of. His original article is sprawling and often deviates from its main subject. What follows are those portions of Iwanski’s history that deal directly with brewing in Fond du Lac. I’ve also included several images to illustrate the story Iwanski tells. Here we go...

The Brewing Industry in Fond du Lac
By John W. Iwanski

In Fond du Lac, the history of brewing is primarily a German story. Natives from places such as Bavaria, Saxony, Baden, and Hessen all arrived in Fond du Lac and worked in the brewing industry. Many such firms sprang into being over the years. The brewers are all gone today, but to anyone who has taken an interest in Fond du Lac’s brewing history, their names easily come to mind: Frey, Bechaud, Engel, Hauser, Dix, Schussler, Sander, and Chapman are among the most notable.

The first to arrive and begin a commercial brewery in Fond du Lac were the Frey Brothers. Charles and Jacob Frey arrived in Fond du Lac in the spring of 1849. That summer, the brothers opened their brewing and grain-dealing firm, J. & C. Frey, three years before Fond du Lac was officially incorporated as a city. The combination of the brewing and grain business was a common pairing, then and now. The Frey brewery was successful enough to keep them in business for parts of five decades. In later years, their beer was even bottled and exported. In 1866, the Freys were able to purchase a grain elevator that gave them a capacity of 30,000 bushels.

Detail of an 1884 Sanborn Insurance Map showing the remains of the Frey Brewery near the southeast corner of W. Division and S. Macy. It’s now a parking lot behind Chase Bank.

At no time during the life of their business did the Freys dominate the beer market in Fond du Lac. Outside competition was intense from brewers in Oshkosh, Madison, Green Bay, Sheboygan, Racine, the already-growing breweries at La Crosse, and the giant among brewing cities, Milwaukee.

By 1855 another major brewing firm was started in Fond du Lac. Hauser and Dix was located at the corner of Portland and Division Streets, a mere stone’s throw from the Freys. Hauser and Dix hoped to move their brewery to Taycheedah, where they could use natural spring water to brew their beer. They began constructing a facility there. However, the firm experienced low profits, and this forced them out of business before they could finish construction of their new brewery in the early 1870s.

By 1865 even Ripon had the sizable Haas-Ripon City Brewery. John Haas, a native of Hessen, in Germany, a former employee of the Hauser and Dix and Frey Breweries, opened his business near the Jefferson Street Sheboygan and Fond du Lac railroad depot. His 1880 average production amounted to about 1200 barrels of beer.

John Haas of Ripon.
By the late 1860s, Moritz Krembz was brewing beer in his facility on Taycheedah Road. In 1865, August Richter also began brewing commercially in Fond du Lac from his business at Main and Eighth Streets. In 1868, Andrew Schenkle began his brewing business near the west branch of the Fond du Lac River at 46 Grove Street. The Lackman Brewery on First Street was opened in 1865, although it closed the following year. Some of Fond du Lac’s larger, more notable brewing companies followed these early openings.

Brewery listing in the 1868 Fond du Lac County Gazetteer.

In 1872, Joseph Schussler, a former employee at the Frey brewery, opened his “West Hill Brewery” at 172 Hickory Street.

An 1875 advertisement for Schussler's Fond du Lac Brewery.
Schussler was born in the German state of Baden in June, 1819. There, at the age of fifteen, he began to learn the cooper trade. He also studied the art of brewing in his native land. When Schussler came to Milwaukee, he married Fannie Newkirch and continued to brew beer there until 1850. That year, he moved to Oshkosh and worked once again as a cooper for eleven years (Note: Schussler also operated a brewery in Oshkosh). In 1861, he became a brewery worker for the Frey brothers. He held this job until 1865, when he once again became a cooper. Thus, Joseph Schussler was a man with two valuable skills, both of them related to the brewing industry. Finally, in 1872, he became involved with brewing beer for the third and final time, when he opened his own brewing company.

Joseph Schussler

Schussler’s unique brewing craftsmanship was respected locally. In 1880, a book of Fond du Lac historical profiles contained this critique of Schussler’s beer: “His brewing method is different from others, and known only to himself.” After six years in business, in 1878, Schussler was selling over one thousand barrels of beer annually. Schussler stayed in business until 1890, when his sons took over and the company became known as “Schussler Brothers.” The younger Schusslers, however, did not stay in the beer business for long, for their West Hill Brewery finally closed its doors in 1892.

Adam Sander began production of his beers from his plant on eleven acres of land one mile south of the city on the Fond du Lac and Milwaukee Road. Sander’s brewery, under different names, remained in business for almost fifty years. Sander was born in Germany in March 1832. As a young man, he married Gertrude Gaubenheimer and moved first to Baltimore, Maryland, and then to Wisconsin, living briefly in Milwaukee and Plymouth before finally settling in Fond du Lac in 1864. Late that year, he began a modest brewing enterprise.

During the following decades, Sander’s brewing company grew into a family business. When they were teenagers, his sons Edwin and Albert began working at the brewery. By 1880, the enterprise was producing 750 barrels per year. In 1898, at the age of sixty-six, Adam Sander decided to retire and handed over the brewing operations to his sons.

A Sander Brothers' pint bottle, courtesy of

As new brewery owners, Edwin and Albert decided to institute major improvements to their facility. These changes included physical plant additions, state of the art bottling equipment, and a modern ice plant. The improvements paid off, and by 1912, Sander Brothers Brewing was selling six thousand barrels annually. At the top of their game, the brothers were finally forced out of business when alcohol prohibition came to America.

In 1871, Fond du Lac’s most successful brewery was opened at 515 Main Street by the brothers Frank, John and Capt. A.G. Bechaud. Formed during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, their brewing company also set the standard for longevity among Fond du Lac beer makers, surviving until 1941, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt began his third term in office.

Adolph G. Bechaud, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.

John Baptiste Bechaud, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.

The Bechaud brothers, all born in Bavaria, started brewing at their Main Street location but they also bought lakeshore property on Lake Winnebago just northwest of the city limits, where they envisioned locating their permanent brewing empire. However, the beachfront brew-house was not to be. Instead, in 1873, the Bechauds opened their new large brewery on Eleventh Street, just west of Hickory Street.

Bechaud Brewing Company, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.
Detail of a 1915 Sanborn Insurance Map.

An ad from 1887, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.

The Bechauds also maintained a Main Street address. Their “sample room” gave people a chance to enjoy the freshest beer the company had to offer. The most popular brand produced by Bechaud, “Empire” was bottled and sold in various cities. Their other beers included “Műnchner” and “Pilsener.” In all, the company sold an average of 15,000 barrels of their beers annually.

Courtesy of John Steiner.

Courtesy of John Steiner
Jacob and Charles Frey managed to keep their business strong, despite all of the competition that had grown around them. Like the Bechauds, the Freys owned a Main Street saloon in addition to their brewing and grain dealing business.

Barrels of beer produced in Fond du Lac in 1879.

By 1880, the Freys were considered to be the city’s oldest living original German residents. The next year, the Freys’ brewing business fell apart. It was not competition or lack of sales that destroyed their brewing enterprise. Late in the fall of 1880, the brothers showed no signs that they would soon be out of business. However, within a few months they were both dead.

The end of the Frey Brewery is a tragic story. On New Year’s Eve, 1880, Jacob Frey succumbed to Bright’s Disease. Although both Jacob and Charles were married and had children, the brothers were very close and relied on each other for advice and support. Charles was left to run both his life and the business by himself, and his mental state deteriorated as a result of the strain. He was said to have told acquaintances that he was incapable of handling his responsibilities, although he showed little in the way of outward signs of his torment.

On the morning of Saturday, May 14, 1881, Charles arrived at his saloon as usual at seven a.m. but told his bartender John Pulse he was not feeling well. Taking the grain elevator key, he then exited and quietly entered Pritz’s grocery store and purchased a rope. Pritz asked Frey if he planned to use the rope at his home. “Yes, over there,” he replied, motioning out the door as he left.

At two p.m., Frey was seen walking along the Forest Avenue railroad crossing and then walking to his elevator building. Later that afternoon, John Wolff, a worried business acquaintance whom Charles was supposed to meet earlier in the day, contacted the police, and Officer Commo arrived at the elevator building. The two men struggled to enter the elevator building, and there they found Charles hanging by the neck from the rope he had purchased that morning. He had a chair next to him and a knife in his pocket, perhaps in case he changed his mind, or if the pain from the rope was too great.

A pair of notes were found on Frey’s body. In one, he stated that he wanted to be buried quickly. In the other he wrote to his daughters. “I cannot stay with you much longer. I have no rest day or night. I cannot express my feelings. Regards to all and tell them to forgive me . . . . Give John Pulse [his bartender] the saloon . . . . Tell everybody to stand by me. Dear children, I must close. Enclosed you will find some money. I cannot write anymore. Your unfortunate . . . Papa.”

An inquest was held and the death was officially ruled a suicide. Contrary to the wishes of the deceased, Frey’s corpse was taken home, and a wake was held before burial at Rienzi Cemetary. And that’s how John Pulse woke up one day as a tavern worker and went to sleep a tavern owner. The brewery went out of operation, and Frey’s children sold the property. Thus ended the story of the first brewing family in Fond du Lac.

Unfortunately for beer makers, temperance movements grew right alongside the brewing industry. The movement for legally enforced prohibition had its first victory when the United States Senate voted in favor of the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution on August 17, 1917. Four months later, the House of Representatives also passed the amendment. The next step, ratification by the states, was completed on January 29, 1919. The amendment officially took effect on January 16, 1920. However, prohibition actually arrived even before the amendment became official, and even before the October 1919 Volstead Act was passed. Even though the First World War had officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919, the U.S. Senate did not ratify the Treaty, and wartime legislation passed in November 1918, establishing prohibition on the sale of alcohol during the war went into effect on July 1, 1919.

Sander Brothers Brewing, like other breweries in Fond du Lac, had already stopped brewing on May 1, and the company was selling off its beer inventory in order to use up stocks prior to July 1. This firm indicated on June 23 that they were contemplating the option of brewing near-beer in their plant after prohibition took effect. On June 28, The Daily Commonwealth ran an editorial wishing good luck to all the soon-to-be unemployed bartenders in Fond du Lac. The paper’s editors expressed hope that the period of adjustment after July 1 would make all the saloonkeepers better off in the long run.

On June 30, Prohibition Eve, local brewers, saloons and dealers were selling off the last of their inventory. The Kummerow & Menge dealership had sold out its complete stock of liquor by ten a.m. A.F. Watke sold over thirty cases of hard spirits and filled several hundred jugs for customers. That night, revelers from all over the city went wild. The Daily Commonwealth observed, “The last days of the Babylonian Era had nothing on June 30, 1919.” Saloons were packed for one last night of mayhem. A party at the Fond du Lac Elks’ Club was awash with liquor. Most notably, a gang of drunken men and boys paraded screaming through town, swinging beer bottles and singing, “I’ve got the blues, I’ve got the blues, I’ve got the alcoholic blues” and “Hail, hail, the gang’s all here.” Right up to the last moment, Fond du Lac’s drinkers insisted on going out with a bang.

The Eighteenth Amendment took effect on midnight, January 16, 1920. After that time, any production of alcoholic beverages was prohibited constitutionally. The Daily Commonwealth reminded local citizens that “zero hour is 12:01 tonight.” To clear up any confusion, the paper also warned, “Alcohol, brandy, whiskey, rum, gin, beer, ale, porter, wine, or any spirituous, vinous, malt or fermented liquor, liquids and compounds, whether medicated, proprietary, patented or not, and by whatever name called, which contains one-half of one percent or more of alcohol by volume and which are fit for beverage purposes may not be manufactured.”

Ultimately, most Americans came to view the Eighteenth Amendment as a failed social experiment. People found their way around the law, and the level of criminalized activity was so extensive that it was an impossible task for the Federal government to control it. Finally, on December 5, 1933, the entire “Noble Experiment” was brought to a close. The Twenty-First Amendment was ratified, repealing prohibition nationally. Celebrations commenced all over the nation, not the least in Wisconsin.

A rare, post-Prohibition label for Fond du Lac brewed porter. Courtesy of John Steiner.

Franklin Farvour tells of the night that the news of the official repeal of prohibition reached the town of Ripon, in Fond du Lac County. A peculiar, yet familiar noise rose from the old Haas Brewhouse: “Steam was up in the brewery. The brewery whistle sounded and it didn’t quit. Irate citizens called the police department and the one night-duty man, my grandfather, went to the brewery to get things quiet. When he got there, much to his chagrin he found the mayor, J. Harold Bumby, pulling the whistle rope. The noise didn’t stop for some time.”

For the next four years, John Haas’ old brewery was back in operation under new ownership and known as the Ripon Brewing Company. Under two different presidents, brew-master Jack Wittstock was able to produce 6,000 barrels each year. The brewery obtained a copyright on its main brand “Old Derby,” but unfortunately the brewing industry became a different ball game after prohibition: the smaller brewery became, for the time being, a thing of the past. The Ripon Brewing Company ceased operations in 1937.

Amid the celebration in Fond du Lac, Bechaud brewery reopened. One new, if ephemeral, entrant into the Fond du Lac array of brewing concerns was announced, too. The “Pioneer Brewery” is said to have produced only one barrel of beer before it disappeared. Pioneer’s location and proprietors are not known. An idea, an announcement, a supposed barrel of beer, and a mystery are all that remain of the firm.

Sadly, most of the brewing companies in Fond du Lac never reopened. The Star Brewing Company, Adolph Engel & Son, Excelsior, and the Sander Bros. Brewery were among the many brewers across the nation who shut down forever as a result of a decade of Prohibition under the Eighteenth Amendment. Many of the brewing companies who did manage to re-open closed shortly thereafter.

By the end of 1933, Bechaud Brewing was the only commercial beer maker left in Fond du Lac, and they, too, were on the ropes. Companies like Pabst and Anheuser-Busch were moving to nationalize their products and push local competitors out, small brewers like Bechaud just tried to stay afloat and keep their local sales comparable to those of the nationally-advertised beers.

Bechaud Brewing, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.
The Bechauds halted production in 1937, but they kept the business intact until 1941, when the brewery officially closed. Bechaud, like all the others, became a piece of Fond du Lac’s brewing history. The building still stands, although it has remained empty for years at a time (note: it has since been demolished). For a time it housed the city’s buses during the 1960s. The lakeshore property once platted by the company as a potential brewing site never saw any brewery built there, and it is now known as Bechaud Beach.

In the 1990s, the Eleventh Street brewery building was a grain co-op, but the words “BREW HOUSE,” AND “[B]ECHAUD BREWING CO.” could still be seen on the façade, a visible reminder of the building’s almost seventy year stint as the cornerstone of Fond du Lac’s largest brewing company. The brewing industry in Fond du Lac persisted for eighty-eight years after the Freys began brewing their beer at Macy and Division, but since 1941, Fond du Lac was without a commercial brewery.

The abandoned Bechaud Brewery, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.

The old Bechaud brewery from 1974, courtesy of Michael “MJ” Shady.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Beer Here: A Year Later at Fifth Ward

No Oshkosh brewery has presented a tap list like the one Fifth Ward will offer for its First Anniversary Party on Saturday, November 10. Fifth Ward is marking the event by tapping 20 of their own beers. Most of those will be small-batch one-offs that show the range brewers Ian Wenger and Zach Clark have developed over the past year.

The Beer
At the core of Saturday's line-up is Two Man Job, a 10.6% ABV, double-mashed, stout that was introduced by the brewery earlier this year. Working off that base will be six variations on the Two Man theme. Foster the Banana Job (with banana, vanilla, and Ceylon cinnamon) Almond Job (with almond, coconut, and cocoa nibs); Barista Job (with Ethiopian coffee roasted by Fifth Ward, vanilla, and cocoa nibs); Maple Barrel Job (aged in a maple-syrup barrel); Inferno Job (with Carolina Reaper and Ghost peppers); and Nitro Job (the nitro-pour version of Two Man).

Other notables will be Rye and Shine, an 8.4% ABV Imperial Rye IPA; Primordial Soup, an English-style barleywine that comes in at 10.1% ABV; and Chocolate Milk Stout, which is as the name would lead you to believe.

“The goal is to fill up all of our draft lines with our beer,” says Zach Clark of Fifth Ward. “We’ve never done that before.”

The full line-up will begin pouring at noon on Saturday in the Fifth Ward Taproom.

The Backstory
Ian Wenger and Zach Clark began making beer for Fifth Ward Brewing on the Friday afternoon of October 20, 2017. But getting to that point had taken years.

Clark (left) and Wenger during Fifth Ward’s first brew.

The idea for Fifth Ward was born in 2012. At the time, Clark and Wenger were living in a rented house near the UW Oshkosh campus. Both were going to UW-O and working in the kitchen at Dublin’s Irish Pub. Clark suggested they start homebrewing. The idea quickly inflated. Even before they had made that first batch of homebrew, Clark and Wenger began planning on opening a brewery. Clark was 22. Wenger had just turned 21.

Basement Brewing in 2013. Wenger at the kettle. Clark in the foreground.

By spring 2015, things were taking shape. Clark and Wenger had written their business plan and were looking for a building that could house the brewery. They put a bid in on a property at 611 Oregon Street. But money was an issue. The deal fell through.

In the meantime, Clark and Wenger had met Maurice Berglund. Berglund also wanted to see a new brewery launched in Oshkosh. He got to know Clark and Wenger by making beer with them in the basement of the home where they continued to homebrew. “I was impressed right away,” Berglund says. “Watching and helping them brew and getting to know them better, tasting their beer, observing their work ethic… I kind of fell in love with them, so to speak. Next thing you know, we were working on business plans!”

Maurice Berglund in early 2016.

In 2016 the pieces began falling into place. Clark and Wenger had partnered with Berglund and were on the verge of acquiring the additional financing they’d need. They had also located a property at 1009 South Main. The building had formerly been occupied by Canteen Vending Services. It needed plenty of work. The better part of 2017 was spent gutting the space and remaking it into the Fifth Ward brewery and taproom.

1009 South Main, May 2016.

Demolition underway, May 2017.

The taproom, August 2017.
Installation of the brewhouse began on September 26, 2017.

Clark and Wenger in the new brewhouse, September 2017.
Less than a month later, they were making beer. The first batch was Hades Secret, a robust porter with additions of chocolate and mint. It was a recipe they had developed during their homebrew sessions. On November 8, 2017, the Fifth Ward taproom opened to the public.

For the past year, Fifth Ward’s core line-up has consisted of 842, a hop-forward pale ale; Burl Brown, a brown ale with additions of cinnamon and molasses; and their best-selling beer Comb & Crocus, a wheat ale brewed with honey and saffron. All three beers were built up from recipes Clark and Wenger wrote in their home brewery. The core beers have been supported by a host of one-offs and specialty beers including hazy IPAs and fruited sours.

Most of Fifth Ward’s beer is sold on-premise in the brewery’s taproom. But increasingly it’s finding its way into area taverns and restaurants as well. Clark and Wenger distribute the beer themselves. In addition to the Oshkosh area, the brewery’s current distribution reaches into Fond du Lac, Outagamie, and Sheboygan counties. In tandem with that, production has risen steadily. Fifth Ward’s output now averages approximately 35 barrels a month.

“I think what we’ve done in the past year puts us in a pretty good position for growth,” Wenger says. “There’s a lot more we can do, there’s a lot more we’re going to do, but I think it’s been a good start.”

 Clark and Wenger, November 2017.

Wenger and Clark, November 2018.