Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Year in Local Beer, 2018 Edition

With 2018 about to close out, it’s time to look back upon a few of the noteworthy happenings that shaped our local beer scene. This was our year in beer...


The Last Repp...
The year begins on a down note with the closing of Repp’s Bar at 1202 Oshkosh Ave. There’s been a saloon there since 1903. It’s been operated by the Repp family since 1943. The closing of Repp’s is the latest manifestation of the unfortunate demise of the neighborhood tavern in Oshkosh.

The Repp Tavern in the 1940s.

Fox Valley Winter Beer Festival...
On January 13, Bare Bone Brewery hosts the Fox Valley Winter Beer Festival. It’s the first outdoor, winter beer fest In Oshkosh. The temps never make it out of the single digits. Every brewery in the county is on hand pouring beer from tap lines that only occasionally freeze solid.

Yours truly having a blast and freezing his ass off.

Fox River Beer in Cans...
At the end of the month, Fox River releases Hooked Golden Ale, the first beer the brewery has packaged in cans. The 16-ounce cans are filled at Hinterland Brewing in Green Bay. Fox River follows up later in the year by releasing BLÜ Bobber in 12-packs of 12-ounce cans. BLÜ Bobber remains the best-selling beer produced by an Oshkosh brewery.

Fifth Ward Bottles...
Fifth Ward Brewing begins selling six-packs of its beer in area stores. It’s the first time since 1956 that three Oshkosh breweries have packaged beer available through local retailers. Design work for the labels and six-pack carriers is by Quill Creative, an Oshkosh-based design firm. Quill picks up a couple of American Package Design Awards for the effort. By the way, Quill is located in the old Pabst bottling house built in 1896 at 136 Jackson Street.


The Sours of Fifth Ward...
Fifth Ward releases its first sour beer, a fruited, kettle-sour. Fifth Ward goes on to release a series of kettle sours over the course of the year. It’s the first time since the early 1900s that an Oshkosh brewery is regularly producing sour beers.

Blackberry Frootenanny, Fifth Ward's most recent sour.


HighHolder is Pouring...
On March 16, beer from HighHolder brewing goes on tap at O’Marro’s Public House and the Roxy Supper Club. It marks the “official” opening of the brewery, which received its Wisconsin brewery permit on February 8, 2018. HighHolder’s opening beer is an Irish Red Ale. The beer is named, Bloody Sixth, an homage to the brewery's south-side roots. HighHolder is Oshkosh’s first nano-brewery. For the first time since 1894, the city has four breweries.

Shawn O'Marro (left) and Mike Schlosser of HighHolder

Omega Brewing Opens Omro Taproom...
Omega Brewing Experience opens its taproom in Omro on April 7. Omega had received its state brewing license in July of 2017. The first kegs of Omega beer went on tap at the end of January at Pilora’s in Oshkosh. Omega becomes the first nano-brewery to operate in Winnebago County and the first brewery ever in Omro.

Steve Zink of Omega Brewing Experience.

The New Brewer at Bare Bones...
Jody Cleveland is named head brewer at Bare Bones. He replaces RJ Nordlund who leaves to open a brewery in his hometown of Montague, Michigan. Cleveland, long a part of the Oshkosh homebrewing community, had previously been an assistant brewer at both Bare Bones and Fox River.

Jody Cleveland

A New Beer Garden on Main...
The April snows have finally receded. With that, Fletch's Local Tap House opens its new beer garden at 566 North Main. There are now three beer gardens located directly on North Main. The other two are at Peabodys Ale House and Barley and Hops Pub.

The beer garden at Fletch's.


There’s a Brewery in Menasha...
Emprize Brew Mill in Menasha begins pouring its beer. The brewpub is located at 200 Main Street in downtown Menasha. Not a lot to report here. I met with owner Craig Zoltowski in January, but efforts to reach out to him since then have proven fruitless. In addition to beer, Emprize produces mead and cider. Emprize is the first brewery to operate in Menasha since the Walter Brothers Brewery closed in 1956. 

A flight of Emprize beer.

The Haze Craze...
Fox River releases Independence Haze, the brewery’s first New England style IPA. By year's end, all four Oshkosh breweries have produced hazy IPAs.


HighHolder’s grand opening...
August 11, HighHolder Brewing has its grand opening. HighHolder has five beers on tap for the event. It’s the first time the brewery has released multiple beers simultaneously. The crowd bears down and consumes all of it. HighHolder hasn’t had a beer on at O’Marro’s since.


Fresh Hops...
For the third year in a row, both Bare Bones and Fox River produce fresh-hop beers. Both breweries use Wisconsin grown hops. The Fox River hops come from a Winnebago County hop yard.

Fox River head brewer Kevin Bowen in the brewhouse with freshly picked hops.


Lion’s Tail Growing...
On October 16, Lion’s Tail Brewing expands adding a 20 barrel, double-batch fermenter to its facility in Neenah. Later in the month, Lion’s Tail releases Brut IPA, it’s the first Brut produced by a Winnebago County brewery. Here’s a short video from Alex Wenzel of Lion’s Tail explaining what a Brut IPA is.

Bare Bones Gets Canned...
Bare Bones installs a crowler machine allowing the brewery to package beer fresh from its taps in 16 ounce, take-away cans. Bare Bones is the first brewery in Oshkosh to have such a contraption.

The SOBs Come Up Big...
The Society of Oshkosh Brewer’s hosts it’s fourth Cask and Caskets Homebrew Event for Charity on October 27. The event raises $6,200 for the Oshkosh Hunger Network.

The SOBs presenting their big check.


And then there were eight...
Barrel 41 Brewing opens in Neenah on November 19. The head brewer is Nate Sharpless, a former assistant brewer at Bare Bones. Barrel 41 brings the brewery count in Winnebago County to eight. The last time the county had eight breweries was 1888.

Opening weekend at Barrel 41.

HighHolder Upgrades...
HighHolder Brewing upgrades its brew system and returns to production brewing. The plan is to make HighHolder beer available on a more regular basis. 

A Year in at Fifth Ward... 
Fifth Ward celebrates its one-year anniversary by tapping 20 of the breweries own beers. It’s the most beer the brewery has had available at one time.

Ian Wenger (left) and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward.


On December 11, Lion’s Tail releases its 20th new beer of 2018. Other breweries in the county are going along at a similar clip. Such a thing has never occurred here before. We’ve entered a new world when it comes to local beer. Here’s to a great 2019. Prost!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Wilhelm Kohlhoff, A German Brewer in Oshkosh

"I come from Germany," he said. His accent confirms that. And when he gets enthused, like when he speaks about brewing beer, he sometimes slips into his native tongue.

Wilhelm Kohlhoff
Wilhelm Ernst Kohlhoff is the end of the line. He’s the last of the German-born brewers to make beer in Oshkosh. The lineage he represents stretches back to the 1840s. Kohlhoff carried it forward into the 1960s. It ends with him.

Kohlhoff is now 91 years old. He lives in a retirement community on the west side of Oshkosh. It's a comfortable, quiet place. A world away from the breweries where he spent so much time. From 1953 until 1967 Kohlhoff was a lead brewer at Peoples Brewing Company in Oshkosh. His career as a brewer, though, began much earlier. The road that brought him to Oshkosh was anything but easy.

Wilhelm Kohlhoff was born in 1927 in the village of Schlawin in northern Germany. “In Pomerania on the Baltic Sea,” he says. His father was a cabinetmaker. If things had gone as planned, Wilhelm would have been a cabinetmaker too. Things didn't go as planned.

When Kohlhoff was 17, Pomerania became a WWII battlefield. The region fell under the Soviet military. "We lost our part of Germany," Kohlhoff says. "They gave it to Poland and we had to get out of the country. We lost all our business. We lost everything. A couple million people had to leave Pomerania. A lot of them died."

Kohlhoff was removed from Pomerania in January 1945. "They put me in an army truck," he says. "They took all of us bunch of kids and took us to Vienna. Then Czechoslovakia. They wanted to put me in the army. Then the war ended and everybody went their own way. I didn't know anybody. I had no home, I had no parents, I had no relatives. I was lost. I kept on walking. It was quite an experience. I was 18 years old. I had to learn fast."

His trek ended in Bavaria. Kohlhoff had found his way to Stettfeld, a small town near Bamberg in the south of Germany. He says "There was a brewery in a little tavern. Every town had their brewery. I went in to get something to eat. It was hard to get food at that time in 1945. I went in and there was a boss there, the owner. He said, 'Where you going?' I told him I didn't know. I told him I was looking for a job. I needed to get at least room and board so I could sleep and eat. He said, 'I got a brewery in the back. I need a helper.' So I stayed with him and learned how to brew beer."

The brewery in Stettfeld where Kohlhoff worked has changed significantly but is still in operation.

Kohlhoff settled in as best he could.  He married in 1948. That same year, he and his wife Wally had their first child, a boy they named Hans-Peter. But it was an uneasy existence. The Kohlhoff's were seen as refugees. "Bavaria that was all different there," he says. "We were the only Protestants in the whole town. I got along and got a job and everything, but I was different. When I opened my mouth they knew where I had come from."

The repudiation wasn't subtle. "They had in the papers that they wanted to get rid of us; all the displaced," Kohlhoff says. "There was a big ad in the paper that we should move to the U.S. That we should apply and move away and that's what we did."

It was 1952. Wilhelm and Wally Kohlhoff now had two children, three-year-old Hans-Peter, and Marlene, their one-year-old daughter. On May 3, the four of them boarded the General M.L. Hersey, a U.S. Naval ship. They arrived in New York City ten day later.

The Kohlhoffs on the May 1952 ship's manifest of the General M.L. Hersey.

It was another upheaval. Kohlhoff took it in stride. "We were young," he says. "We had lost everything before, all our parents and all that. We went through a lot of trouble before that."

The Kohlhoffs went by train to Appleton. The Wisconsin Commission for the Resettlement of Displaced Persons helped them locate a sponsor family in New London. There they lived on a farm owned by Stanley Ziemer. It was to be a temporary arrangement. Kohlhoff began looking toward Oshkosh where three, good-sized breweries operated.

"I had friends here in Oshkosh," Kohlhoff says. "Germans. They were helping each other. On the weekend everybody was driving around to find where they could help each other. What kind of job to get. The factories in Oshkosh were filled with Germans. Everybody was working there."

Kohlhoff wanted to get in at one of the breweries. "They paid a little more and all that," he says. He went to Peoples Brewing and asked to speak with the company's brewmaster, Dale Schoenrock. "I told him I come from Germany and worked in a brewery there," Kohlhoff says. "He gave me a job right away. And so I worked in the brewhouse and started brewing beer."

The Peoples Brewing Company of Oshkosh.
It was now November 1953. Kohlhoff moved his family to Oshkosh into a home at W. 7th and Minnesota. Life began to take on a sense of normalcy. In 1954, the Kohlhoffs had twin daughters, Margaret and Marianne. Though living in a foreign land, there was a sense of familiarity. "There was a lot of Germans here," Kohlhoff says. "All of the businesses on Main Street and on Oregon Street, they talked German." At home they spoke German, too.  "Oh, yes, I learned German before English," Kohloff's daughter Marianne says.

Kohlhoff with his daughters Marianne (left) and Margaret outside the home at 7th and Minnesota.
At Peoples, Kohlhoff was coming into a brewery quite unlike the old-world brewery he had left in Germany. Peoples was in the midst of a massive overhaul. Every aspect of production was being updated and modernized. Kohlhoff was introduced to making beer on an industrial scale. "That whole plant was modernized in my time," he says.

That included a new canning line and the transition from pitch-lined wooden kegs and fermentors to steel kegs and glass-lined tanks that could hold 160 barrels of beer. "We threw all those wooden tanks out," he says. The flavor of the beer changed, too, but not substantially says Kohlhoff. " It was a little more clean and a little bit different, yeah."

In 1954, Kohlhoff was one of  45 full-time employees at Peoples. His title was First Kettleman making about $75 a week. These were peak years at Peoples. Annual output was well over 30,000 barrels. Nearly all that beer was brewed by either Kohlhoff or George "Tuffy" Boeder, who had been at Peoples since the 1930s.  Kohlhoff remembers that time fondly. He still jokes about his old friend Tuffy. "Tuff didn't brew as much, he liked to walk around a lot and check everything out," Kohlhoff says grinning.

George "Tuffy" Boeder
Kohlhoff and Boeder worked in shifts producing two batches of beer a day. "You had to start at 10 o'clock at night one brew and the next brewer started at 8 o'clock in the morning," Kohlhoff says. "We changed around, sometimes you'd worked days sometimes you worked nights. We didn't have to punch in or nothing. You just come in and get started. We brewed four days a week. Day five was cleanup. It was always the same, summer or winter. The brewmaster we had, Shoenrcok, he never wanted anything changed. That was quite a job."

As Kohlohff talks about that period, it becomes clear that working at Peoples was something more than just a job for him. After his experiences in Germany, the comradery and friendships he made at the brewery were restorative. Kohlhoff still easily recalls people he worked with 50 years ago. His affection for them remains. One afternoon we went through a few old pictures of some of his coworkers at Peoples. He had kind words for all of them. When he'd tell stories about them he'd quickly revert to using their nicknames. "They all had funny names," he says. "They called me Bill. nobody ever called me Wilhelm."

"They all spoke German them guys," Kohlhoff says. He singles out photos of Joseph Beck, the brewery's secretary and head of sales; and brewmaster Dale Schoenrock. Beck died in 1963. Schoenrock passed a year later. "And if these two guys hadn't of died, that brewery would be still going today," Kohlhoff says.

Joseph Beck (left) and Dale Schoenrock.
Kohlhoff left Peoples in 1968. It was mostly a matter of necessity. He had gotten a better offer at Buckstaff. "They paid me a quarter an hour more and they gave me 48 hours a week with time and a half," he says. "I was married with four kids and so that helped. And I got back to my carpenter training. I'm a cabinet maker from the start. I learned it from my dad." Kohlhoff's career change came at the right time. Four years later, the brewery was closed.

He remained at Buckstaff for 10 years before moving to Arizona in 1978 on the advice of his doctor. "I had asthma and they didn't have any good medication then. The doctor said, 'You got to go to Arizona.'" Wilhelm and Wally Kohloff returned to Oshkosh in 1988.

Wilhelm and Wally Kohloff
When I first met Wilhelm Kohloff, I told him I planned to write about the things we were going to discuss. He said that was fine, but that I shouldn't use his name. After we had talked for almost an hour, I knew that was going to be impossible. There'd be no way to do him justice by keeping him anonymous. I interrupted him and told him I was going to have to be able to use his name.

"You don’t have to do that," he said, "I'm not important." Maybe he could tell by the look on my face what I thought about that. "OK," he said, "but don't make a big thing about it." He thought about it some more and said, "I was fortunate all my life. Whatever I wanted to do, I was able to find a way to do it. I don't know why if people liked me or not, but I always got that. I was lucky."

End Notes: This is the first of two posts about Wilhelm Kohlhoff. The next, which I hope to have ready in early 2019, will get into the specifics of brewing Peoples Beer during the time Kohlhoff worked there. Thanks to Kohlhoff's daughters Margaret and Marianne and son Hans-Peter for helping to make this possible. Thanks also to Ray Paulik, who called and asked if I had ever met Wilhelm Kohlhoff. Ray set all this in motion.

Monday, December 17, 2018

A Colorful Past #3

And here we have the old Gambrinus Brewery of Oshkosh brought to you in living color courtesy of Oshkosh artist Paul Nickolai.

Lorenz Kuenzl's Gambrinus Brewery was located at what is now 1235-1239 Harney Avenue. This shot was taken in 1893, just before Kuenzl merged his brewery with Glatz's Union and Brewery, and Horn & Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery. The merger gave birth to the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1894.

Here's how that picture looked before it was colorized.

To see more of Paul Nickolai's brewery work, go HERE and HERE.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Fifth Ward Revives the Oshkosh Sour

Oshkosh brewers have a much longer history with sour beer than you might expect. Beginning in the 1870s brewers here regularly produced sours. It began with a handful of small, southside breweries specializing in Berliner Weisse-style beers. It was carried into the early 1900s by the Oshkosh Brewing Company. But when OBC stopped production of its Berliner Weisse around 1910, it brought an end to the brewing of sours here. A century later, Fifth Ward Brewing is bringing it back.

Last Friday, Fifth Ward released its third in a sour series the brewery initiated at the end of February. The latest in that line is Blackberry Frootenanny, a sour ale conditioned on 126 pounds of blackberries and 84 pounds of raspberries.

Blackberry Frootenanny

It's a wonderful beer with a depth of flavor you rarely encounter in one so light and refreshing. The jammy sweetness from all that fruit pairs nicely with the tart snap of the base beer. Brewers Ian Wenger and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward built their sour base using a process known as kettle souring.  Like most brewing techniques, it's as much art as science.

The process begins like that of any beer: you make wort, the sweet liquid that results from the combination of warm water and malted barley. The wort is then run off into the boil kettle. This is where things get strange.

"Instead, of boiling it, we go up to just under a boil and then we drop the temperature back down to about 105 -108," says Clark.  At that point, the wort is spiked with a generous serving of lactobacillus.

Lactobacillus being added to the wort.
The lactobacillus goes to work chewing up sugars in the wort and producing lactic acid as a byproduct. The goal is to achieve a clean sour flavor that isn't bracing. Some brewers rely on taste to know when they've hit that sweet spot. Others use the PH of the wort as their guide. At Fifth Ward they do both.

"If the PH gets down to 3.6-3.8 that's when it gets extremely tart and sour," Clark says. "We don't want that. We shoot for a PH of about 4. The lacto we have works fast, so you really have to watch it."

Clark isn't a fan of tasting the wort at this point. "It weirds me out," he says. Wenger, on the other hand, gets right in there. "It smells kind of like tomato soup," Wenger says. "And it's like sweet still. It's sweet and sour. It is weird."

When they've got what they're looking for, the kettle is cranked back up, the boil begins and the brew day proceeds like most any other. The beer was fermented with the Fifth Wards house ale strain. The final product comes in at 6% ABV and 16 calculated IBUs.

The process Fifth Ward uses is sometimes referred to as the Francke method. It was developed in Germany about 1905 but has only recently been adopted by American brewers. It's very likely Clark and Wenger are the first commercial brewers in Oshkosh to have taken this approach to making sours. With Blackberry Frootenanny they've nailed the technique. It's a beer to seek out.

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide

If there’s a beer geek on your Christmas list... Kevin Revolinski will be at Fifth Ward Thursday night signing and selling copies of his newly updated Wisconsin’s Best Beer Guide. It’s definitely the ultimate guide to beer in Wisconsin. And with all the free pint offers inside, it easily pays for itself. Kevin will be on hand from  5:30 PM – 7:30 PM. See you there!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The "Official" Song of Oshkosh, Wis.

Which really had nothing to do with beer. Until now. I pasted a bunch of old images of beer, breweries, and taverns over this melodious nugget by By Don Shaw and his Orchestra. It's from a 78 that I'm guessing was recorded in the late 1930s/early 1940s. Now it's time to sing along.... “I am from Oshkosh, oh boy oh boy, that place is perfect, the real McCoy…”