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.


  1. Thanks for an another excellent blog post. I would add one similarity between breweries of the two eras that being the pre prohibition brewery ownership of saloons and the current proliferation of brewery taprooms. Both serve the different era breweries well.

    One source of concern for me is the constant experimentation and rotation of beers by today's crop of breweries most everywhere. Does this encourage brewery loyalty or are folks just parading from one taproom to the next for the latest release? So far this model seems to be working for small breweries, but in a way it must be exhausting to wake up every morning wondering what your next greatest offering will be. I personally think that a hybrid model that combines experimental brewing with a flagship beer or style offers hope of longterm success. An example would be Central Waters combination of solid consistently brewed beers like Mud Puppy or Satin Solitude side by side with their barrel aged beers. The now long out of business Schaefer Brewing Company of New York used the slogan "The Beer to Have When You are Having More Than One". The brewery taproom of today should have at least one consistently brewed beer that is available today as well as next month or year for the consumer who will try more than one.

    1. Thanks Leigh. That’s a good point about the taproom / tied house similarity. Most, if not all, of those breweries from 1888 were also selling beer directly out of the brewery. So long as that’s a viable option for the new breweries I think their chance of survival remains fairly good. It’s no coincidence that so many small breweries died off after tied houses were outlawed following the repeal of Prohibition.

      I too wonder how long this constant searching for the next new thing can last before it leads to burnout, not just for the brewers, but for drinkers. Personally, I still prefer beer that tastes like beer.