Thursday, February 28, 2019

Winnebago County's 2018 Beer Production

Brewery production reports for 2018 have now been released in full by the Wisconsin Department of Revenue. The monthly reports list how many barrels of taxable beer each Wisconsin brewery produced during the past year. A barrel of beer, by the way, contains 31 gallons or the equivalent of 6.8 cases of beer.

The numbers within the production records tell only part of the story, so I'll include some additional info after the charts. Here's what we're seeing in Winnebago County (click the chart to enlarge it)...

And here are the numbers for 2018 compared to 2017 (Fifth Ward, HighHolder, and Omega are not included; they did not have a full year’s worth of production in 2017).

Production is down 10% at Bare Bones and 12% at Fox River. That may be an easy takeaway, but it's nowhere near so alarming as it first may appear.

Bare Bones got off to a rocky start last year. Through the first five months, production was down by almost 19%. A contributor to that was overproduction at the end of 2017, creating a surplus of beer that lingered through the first quarter of 2018. By spring, Bare Bones was back on track. The brewery's production levels for the remainder of 2018 were on par with its 2017 output. Still, Bare Bones appears to have reached a plateau, at least for the time being.

The Fox River story is entirely different. In 2017, Fox River reached capacity in terms of how much beer it could produce at its own breweries. So in 2018, the brewery moved part of its BLU Bobber production to the new Hinterland Facility in Green Bay. The beer produced in Green Bay doesn't get included in Fox River's production reports. If it did, Fox River's would have seen an increase in output for the year.

Fox River's combined output for its Appleton and Oshkosh facilities was 2,627 barrels, making it the largest brewery in the Fox Cities area for the second year in a row. Appleton's Stone Arch, which held that title previously, remains second but has fallen further behind. Stone Arch's 2018 production of 2,074 barrels is down 10% from its 2017 output of 2,783 barrels.

Lion's Tail in Neenah had a banner year with production up 16% to 547 barrels. Juice Cloud, the brewery's popular New England style IPA, has had plenty to do with that. Production at Lion's Tail has risen steadily ever since the introduction of Juice Cloud in the summer of 2017.

Fifth Ward also had a good year, producing 433 barrels. That’s a significant amount of beer for a self-distributing brewery in its first, full year of production. Output at Fifth Ward during the last six months of 2018 was up 23% compared to the first six months of the year.

Omega and HighHolder, the two nano breweries in Winnebago County, appear to be doing well. But it’s difficult to draw a bead on new breweries of this size. HighHolder only reported for nine months of the year, so its numbers aren't indicative of a marked trend. Omega, averaging about two barrels a month during its first full year of production, will almost certainly see its output increase in 2019.

Oshkosh alone produced 2,186 barrels of beer in 2018, an increase of 11% over 2017. That's healthy growth, but for a brewing scene as young as this one is, I would expect it to be somewhat higher. One of the local brewers recently expressed his concern to me that not enough new craft beer drinkers are being cultivated in this part of the state. He mentioned that you seem to see a lot of the same faces in brewery taprooms and at beer events. I've noticed that too and it's not a good sign. If there's a weak point here, it's that all the breweries seem to be mining the same, narrow craft-beer demographic.

Infinite growth is definitely not the end all and be all when it comes to beer, but it does tell you something about the condition of a local beer scene. We're in good shape here, but the 2018 numbers present a somewhat muddled picture. In that respect, they’re fairly reflective of the state of American craft beer as a whole.

On a final note, you may have noticed that Barrel 41 of Neenah and Emprize Brew Mill of Menasha are not accounted for here. Barrel 41, which opened in November, has yet to enter the Wisconsin production reports. I suspect that will change when the first of the 2019 reports are released. Emprize, which has been selling its beer since at least July of 2018, has never been listed. The how or why of that remains a mystery beyond my knowing.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The Beer Here: Oshkosh Lager

Here's the latest from Bare Bones, it’s named Oshkosh Lager

The Beer
Stylewise, this is a classic American lager and it absolutely looks the part. The beer pours pale yellow and almost brilliantly clear with a tight cap of white foam. There’s a light, grainy aroma here accompanied by a subtle note of sulfur. The flavor is well-balanced, leaning slightly towards the malt side. A gentle bitterness lingers in the background, creating a clean, snappy finish that's very refreshing. Oshkosh Lager is not a sipping beer, it's a beer to quaff. It's a model example of the style.

The Backstory
For such a seemingly simple beer, there's a lot going on here. Oshkosh Lager grew out of a series of pilot batches made by Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones. For the past few years, Cleveland has been brewing small batches on his home system of historic Oshkosh lagers such as Chief Oshkosh and Peoples Beer. He’s continued to tinker with those recipes and those trials culminated in Oshkosh Lager.

"I wanted to make a contemporary version of these classic Oshkosh beers," Cleveland says. "Something that anyone who wants a more balanced, straightforward beer flavor can really get into. I'm super proud of this beer, and I'm glad I finally get to share it with everyone."

The recipe Cleveland developed bears a distinct resemblance to the 1950s recipes that produced Chief Oshkosh and Peoples Beer. It starts with a blended grist of malted barley with a minor addition of corn to lighten the body and bring up that crisp, dry character essential to the style. Cleveland hopped the beer with Cluster, the elemental American hop used by all of the Oshkosh brewers from the mid-1800s until the 1970s.

There isn't another beer like this currently being produced by an Oshkosh brewery. It's a beer that goes against the grain in a craft-beer world dominated by high-alcohol, palate slammers that rely on novel or extreme flavors. Who knows, maybe now the time is right for something less contrived.

Currently, Oshkosh Lager is only available on draft in the tap room at Bare Bones. You can also get it there in growlers and 16-ounce-crowler cans for takeaway. Within the next couple of weeks, the beer should begin appearing in area taverns. I’d like to see this go on at a place like Witzke's – a tavern built by the Oshkosh Brewing Company. A beer like this deserves another run in its native environment.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

When BLÜ Turned Red

Last week, Fox River's Red Bobber was released at the brewery's pubs in Oshkosh and Appleton. This Friday, February 15, bottles of Red Bobber will become available at Festival Foods stores. Red Bobber is a raspberry ale. It's the companion to Fox River's popular BLÜ Bobber, a blueberry ale. That association alone guarantees a degree of immediate success for the new beer. And then there's the label. The colorless face of the woman on the Red Bobber label blushes red when the beer is chilled.

A label that turns colors isn't the sort of thing you see from small breweries. Then again, most small breweries don't have a beer with the sort of mass appeal that allows them to engage in this kind of marketing. It all stems from the success of Fox River’s BLÜ Bobber. And as an extension of that brand, Red Bobber is as much about branding and marketing as it is about beer. The marketing is clearly working.

The first batch of Red Bobber sold out at Fox River's Oshkosh taproom four days after it was released (it's back on again). One of the bartenders told me they'd been pouring it constantly since the beer was released. The beer received widespread coverage on social media and from Gannett newspapers. The Gannett article is almost entirely about the color-changing label and branding. There's little mention of the actual beer. And here I am, four paragraphs in, having also said almost nothing about the beer.

Red Bobber is exactly what you'd expect it to be. It's mild, and easy drinking, with a light accent of fruit flavor. It's a well-made beer and not one you need to spend a lot of time thinking about. Just as advertised, it's the raspberry version of BLÜ. If you like BLÜ, it's a good bet you'll like Red. And there are a lot of people who like BLÜ.

BLÜ Bobber is the best selling beer made in Oshkosh. In fact, it may be the best selling beer produced in northeast Wisconsin. It's the one Oshkosh beer you'll see in neighborhood bars where everything else being poured is made by MillerCoors or AB/InBev. You can find BLÜ in cans and bottles in almost every grocery store and mini-mart in Winnebago County. But BLÜ's reach extends well beyond that.

Fox River began distribution of BLÜ in 2014. The beer is now sold across the state. Within Wisconsin, BLÜ is the Most widely distributed Oshkosh-brewed beer since the 1950s heydey of Chief Oshkosh.  Fox River is currently exploring options for distribution outside of Wisconsin. BLÜ will achieve another milestone this spring when it will be sold at Milwaukee Brewers games in Miller Park. There hasn't been an Oshkosh beer sold at Brewers games since Peoples Beer in 1971.

It's rare that a small brewery hits on a beer that gains that kind of momentum. The smart thing as a business is to make the most of it. That's just what Fox River is doing with Red Bobber. If Red Bobber works out the way Fox River hopes it will, I suspect you'll see a series of "Bobber" beers follow in its path.

For now, bottles of Red Bobber will be sold exclusively at Festival Foods stores in Wisconsin until the end of February when it will become more widely available. At the end of February, Red will also begin being packaged in cans. In March, it will be Festival Foods’ craft beer of the month. You're going to be seeing a lot of this beer.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Picture of Beer

Here's a lovely Oshkosh Brewing Company lithograph circa 1901.

And here's the real thing.

Not long after that lithograph came out, OBC abandoned those clunky, porcelain bottlers stoppers. The brewery switched over to bottles that fit crown-style caps, similar to those you see today. Those new caps may be more convenient, but the old plugs have an undeniable romance about them.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Beer Here: Rebel Beist

Rebel Beist is a Norwegian dark ale that's now pouring in Oshkosh in the taprooms at Bare Bones and Fifth Ward...

The Beer
This one is definitely different and in a good way. It starts with a wine-like aroma; juniper, mingled with dark cherry, orange, and plum. That aromatic complexity carries into the palate with a slight tartness that accentuates those fruity esters. There's a bedrock of toasty malt underneath it all (they used Ashburne Mild Malt for the base), but the star here is the dry, wine-like complexity that makes the beer light on the palate and quaffable. This was fermented with Kveik, a Norwegian farmhouse yeast. We haven't had many Kveik fermented beers appear in Oshkosh. This beer is an excellent point of entry if you're curious to see what this yeast can do. Rebel Beist is 8% ABV and just right for warming you during this sloppy freeze we're locked in.

The Backstory
Rebel Beist was brought here by Oshkosh-area homebrewer Tim Pfeister. Last fall, Pfeister enrolled in the Milwaukee Barley to Barrel program, a 10-week crash course in what it takes to launch a brewery. Part of that program entails seeing a beer through from recipe formulation to marketing and sales. Rebel Beist, which was produced at Gathering Place Brewing in Milwaukee, is the result of that effort.

The Barley to Barrel 2018 fall class. Pfeister is in the middle with plaid shirt and holding a flyer.

"I was on Team Gathering Place," Pfeister says. "We all generally agreed on a belly-warmer being a good beer to bring to market for winter. Corey Blodgett, the head brewer for Gathering Place, started talking about how they're using this new strain of yeast, Kviek, and that's when the whole thing got tied together into a Norwegian dark ale."

When the beer was completed, Pfeister reached out to some of his local friends in the Oshkosh beer community. "That's when I contacted Jody and Zach and Ian (Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones; and Zach Clark and Ian Wenger, of Fifth Ward). They each committed to purchasing a keg and I purchased a keg of my own. I put the kids in the van, drove down to Milwaukee, and muled it on back to Oshkosh. And I feel pretty good about doing such." He should. And it's always good seeing local brewers – homebrewers and pro-brewers – supporting one another. Skål!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Lion’s Tail and the New-Model Brewery

In the spring of 2015, Alex Wenzel was busy planning the brewery he would open later that year in Neenah. At the time, there had never been a brewery in Winnebago County like the one Wenzel had in mind. Unlike the recently established breweries in the area, Wenzel's wouldn't be attached to a restaurant. There'd be no flagship brand or fixed set of beers. There would be no reliance on outside distribution or retail sales. If you wanted Wenzel's beer, you were going to have to come to his brewery.

Alex Wenzel in the taproom at Lion's Tail Brewing.

"I'd seen this taproom model work in other places and loved it," Wenzel says. "You go and you try different beers and that's it, that's what it's about. We knew we'd have to have really good beer and always be offering different experiences because we wouldn't have a restaurant as a draw. And it couldn't be a stable of four to six beers that we always have. We'd need to do twelve to twenty new beers every year to continue to be interesting and give people reasons to come back."

When Lion's Tail Brewing opened in November 2015, Wenzel was still trying to figure out how he'd make it all work. "The plan was to continually create new beers," he says, "but did I have any idea what that would mean? No chance."

Wenzel made it up as he went along. During the brewery's first full year, he made 19 different beers. "We had a few that stayed on all year, he says, "but the rest continually changed." It was a scattershot list of familiar styles. There was a Pilsner, a dark lager, a fruited wheat beer, a couple of IPAs and pale ales, a stout...  It looked like the kind of thing a homebrewer might do. That was no coincidence.

"I started homebrewing three or four years before we opened," he says. "During that whole time, I was trying new things and constantly experimenting. I figured that course would continue once the brewery opened. I wanted to maintain the spirit of a homebrewer as a professional."

But now instead of five-gallons at a time, he was brewing 310-gallon batches. The inevitable mistakes would be far more costly. Wenzel had readied himself for it. "It is scary, but I'm not afraid to send beer to the waste treatment plant if I have to and we've done a fair amount of that," he says. "If you don't get what you want and you're not proud of it, then it can't go on tap."

Wenzel in the brewhouse at Lion's Tail.

To mitigate the risk, he began relying on smaller, pilot batches to work up his new beers. "I got a little, 10-gallon system that I try to get the recipes dialed in on before I throw it on the 10-barrel," Wenzel says. Not all of them make it. "I usually don't tell people about the really horrible failures," he says and laughs. "There's some fun stuff I've tried, but a lot of beer has gone down the drain."

He'll often brew a recipe as many as five times on the smaller system, tweaking it as he goes, before it's ready for his 10-barrel brewhouse. "The most extreme example was Juice Cloud, our New England IPA," Wenzel says. "That one took 13 different batches from when I started."

The effort paid. Juice Cloud has become one of those rare beers that alters the trajectory of a brewery. Today, it's hard to envision Lion's Tail without Juice Cloud. To a certain extent, it defines the brewery.

A glass of Juice Cloud on the bar in the taproom at Lion’s Tail.

Juice Cloud was first released in August 2017 for the inaugural Wisconsin IPA Fest in Milwaukee. It was the only New England Style IPA entered that year. "I think we turned some heads down there with it," Wenzel says. "Hardly anybody in Wisconsin was making New Englands yet." At the time, the style was polarizing. The beer's dense haze and low bitterness set it apart from what had come to be expected from an IPA. "The judges didn't like it," Wenzel says. "It didn't even make it out of the first round." But festival attendees loved it. Juice Cloud won the award for being the first keg to kick.

A month later, Juice Cloud went on tap at Lion's Tail. It soon became the brewery's best selling beer. "That was a noticeable bump," Wenzel says. "We ended up getting blurbs in OnMilwaukee magazine and some other beer blogs and then we won a People's Choice Award with it at Hops and Props last year. Its really helped put us on the map in the state beer scene."

The success of Juice Cloud led Wenzel to make a series of hazy IPAs using an array of American hops and sometimes adjuncts like lactose or vanilla. Each new release seemed to generate a buzz. At the end of 2017, Lion's Tail was still the only brewery in Winnebago County to have released a New England Style IPA. The style helped set Lion’s Tail apart and became an essential feature of the brewery’s identity.

It wasn't all hazy. In 2017, Lion's Tail released 20 different beers, six of them were barrel aged, and about half employed flavoring adjuncts in a variety of forms including blackberry tea, blood orange, blueberries, and pineapple. And then there was Number 90 Red, a straight-up Vienna lager that became surprisingly successful. It grew into one of Lion's Tail's best-selling beers despite it going against the grain of what the brewery was becoming best known for.

20-barrel fermentor about to be squeezed through a window at Lion's Tail.

In October 2018, Wenzel added a 20-barrel, double-batch fermentor to his brewery. Even with that, he'll soon be running up against the limits of his brewery. His target for 2019 is to produce about 750 barrels of beer, which is near the brewery's total capacity. There's little room left within his current space for further expansion. "We would either have to expand within the building somewhere or maybe have an off-site production facility," Wenzel says. "But I don't want to grow for the sake of growing or to put out numbers. I don't see us making 3,000 barrels a year. I just don't think that will be our model, but who knows. I won't say never."

The great majority of Lion's Tail beer continues to be sold over the bar in the brewery's taproom. But increasingly Wenzel's beer finds its way into area restaurants and craft-beer bars in Milwaukee and Madison. The distribution is handled entirely by Wenzel and Eric Henzel, who became the brewery's general manager in 2017. "I like doing our own distribution," says Wenzel. "You meet the customers and you're out making those relationships. That feels right to me."

He'd still rather be selling the beer over his own bar. "Here, we get to serve our beer how we think it should be served," he says. "The more successful small breweries don't distribute a lot. They sell most of it themselves. It's almost impossible to compete at the retail level and maybe you shouldn't want to. There are so many reasons to try and keep it in-house as much as possible."

Evening in the taproom.

Last year, Lion's Tail again produced another 20 beers that the brewery hadn't offered before. Wenzel doesn't show any signs of creative burnout. "I like working on new things," he says. "As a brewer, it's not as fun being shackled to a certain beer. If we ever got to a point where we had seven or eight beers that we always had to have on tap, that I think would be more of a burnout to me. I mean, just the amount of commercially available malts, hops, and yeast...  Each year there's another five or ten experimental hop varieties that come out. The possibilities are unlimited."

The constant experimentation makes for an evergreen brewery. But now in its fourth year, Lion's Tail isn't the only Winnebago County brewery taking such an approach. Since Lion's Tail opened, five more breweries have been launched within the county and another in nearby Appleton. All of them were started by homebrewers. Most of them adhere to a taproom model similar to Wenzel's. He’s not exactly sure yet what to make of that.

"There's a lot of new local breweries, but it doesn't seem like the customer base has grown a ton," Wenzel says. "When you go to a beer event, you see largely the same population at each of the different places. It has to be growing some. That's the hope with having new competitors that, in the long run, it expands the customer base. We've seen nice steady growth, so things have to be growing somewhat."

Back in 2015, Alex Wenzel had a plan for a new kind of brewery in Winnebago County. That type of brewery has since become the norm here. In a local brewing culture that now spans 170 years, there's never been a transformation come so swiftly. It all happened so quickly that it's difficult to fully appreciate how sweeping the change has been.

Wenzel tapping a firkin at Lion's Tail's third-anniversary party.