Sunday, March 17, 2019

When Wilhelm Kohlhoff Brewed Peoples Beer

Wilhelm Kohlhoff worked as a brewer at Peoples Brewing Company in Oshkosh from 1953 until 1968. This wasn't his first brewing job. Kohlhoff had come to Oshkosh from Germany where he worked at a small brewery in Stettfeld, Bavaria (more on Kohlhoff's background can be found here). The brewery in Stettfeld was nothing like what he encountered at Peoples. "Oh yeah, that was all different," Kohlhoff says shaking his head. "All different."

When Kohlhoff arrived in Oshkosh, Peoples was at its peak. The brewery's production had climbed to 35,000 barrels of beer annually. Kohlhoff became one of 41 full-time employees at Peoples. He was assigned to the brewhouse where his job was to see Peoples Beer through the first phase of production culminating in the delivery of wort to the beer cellars for fermentation.

Wilhelm Kohlhoff in the 1950s

Kohlhoff is now 91 years old. He still recalls details of the brewing process he followed at Peoples. He also still has the original, handwritten notes he made when he first went to work in the brewhouse. They form a step-by-step, minute-by-minute outline of his brew day. The notes are written in a mix of German and English and give temperatures in degrees Réaumur, a unit of measure favored by many brewers of the period.

The brewing process at Peoples was defined by the brewery itself. Built in 1913, it was a prototypical,  four-story, lager brewery with a detached bottling house. This was a gravity- or tower-style brewery. Gravity was a prime mover of solids and liquids through the system. Kohlhoff worked his way, from top to bottom, thousands of times. "Yeah, I know the whole building through and through," he says looking at a picture of the brewery that was demolished in 1974.

Peoples Brewing Company after it had closed in 1972.

Most of the raw materials that went into Peoples Beer were stored at or near the top of the brewery. They flowed down through the brewhouse being transformed along the way into wort, the sweet liquid that is fermented into beer.

The substrate was water that came from a 530-foot artesian well drilled at the brewery in 1949. "Before that, they had a well that was 300-feet deep and that was not perfect or not soft enough," Kohlhoff says. "Then they drilled another 200-feet deeper and then that water was perfect."

The water was pumped from the well up into a massive holding tank housed in a cupola above the brewhouse. From there, it was drained – as needed – into the hot-liquor tank on the fourth floor. There it would be heated prior to the start of brewing.

The cupola atop the brewery where the main water reservoir was housed. 

The recipe for Peoples Beer was classically simple. A 100-barrel batch required...
  • 3,200 pounds malted barley (73% of Grist)
  • 1,200 pounds corn grits (27% of Grist)
  • 50-65 pounds of American and German hops (0.5 to 0.625 pounds of hops per barrel)

Malted, six-row barley came from the Fleischmann Malting plant in Red Wing, Minnesota. It was sent to Oshkosh by train. A rail spur ran between the brewhouse and bottling house. The malt would go from the rail car into an elevator on the south side of the brewhouse and then up to the malt hopper on the fourth floor. The map below is from 1956 and shows the location of the rail spur that served the brewery.

The yellow highlights a rail car making a delivery to the brewery.
In the 1950s, nearly all American beer was made from a grist that included some form of either corn or rice.  At Peoples, they used corn grits and the American double-mash method, mashing the grits with 300 pounds of malt in 15 barrels of water. The malt was necessary to provide enzymes needed to convert the corn's starches into fermentable sugars. This cereal mash was performed in a steam-heated cooker fitted with rakes stirring the grist together as it slowly came to a boil. With that set in motion, Kohlhoff would head downstairs to the second floor where the primary mash tun resided.

Diagram of a typical cereal cooker.

The main mash began with an infusion of 2,900 pounds of malt in 30 barrels of hot water. The mash would settle in at 104ºF and rest at that temperature for 15 minutes. The mash tun was also fitted with a steam jacket and stirring rakes. After the rest, Kohlhoff would start the rakes and gradually raise the temperature to 140ºF for another 20-25 minutes. During this time, he would begin recirculating the wort through the mash to help draw out fermentable sugars and create a more uniform environment within the porridge-like mass of water and malt.

A mash tun similar to that used at Peoples.

About 90 minutes into the main mash, Kohlhoff would drop the now boiling contents of the cereal cooker into the main mash bringing its temperature up to 155ºF. He'd then allow the mash to rest for approximately 20 minutes before adding additional hot water and starting the lautering process. This separated the wort from the bed of spent grain and grits, which would later be taken by farmers in the area for use as livestock feed. The wort was run off through a grant, a smaller vessel that helped buffer the flow of liquid into the boil kettle.

The copper boil kettle was perched between the first and second floors of the brewhouse. It was steam-heated and had a 130-barrel capacity. Kohlhoff would add hops to the kettle as the wort was flowing into it and coming to boil. This technique, known as first-wort hopping, was a fairly common practice in American breweries before Prohibition, but much less utilized in the 1950s. Some brewers believed it helped to create a more complex hop-flavor and a less biting bitterness.

A small dose of salt (NaCl) was added to the kettle along with the first addition of hops. The salt was to help blunt bitterness while enhancing mouthfeel and the sensation of sweetness in the finished beer. They did the same thing across town at Rahr Brewing. Both breweries leaned towards the mellower, malty side with their beers. Despite that malt-driven flavor profile, hops were still a major consideration at Peoples.

When Kohlhoff speaks of hops he does so in terms of place of origin instead of breed. "We used German hops and American hops," Kohlhoff says. "Seventy percent of it was German."  That probably means Peoples was brewed with German Hallertau and American Cluster. In the 1950s, these were the most commonly derived hops from their respective countries. They were whole-flower hops stored in bales in a second-floor cold room directly behind the brewhouse.

Kohlhoff vaguely recalls that American hops were used for the first-wort addition. He doesn't remember the exact amount. He estimates it would have been about 15-20 pounds. After the wort had been boiling for an hour, a similar sized load of German hops was added. That was followed by two, smaller additions of German hops. Kohlhoff's thumbnail sketch of the hop schedule for the 105-minute boil comes out like so...
  • American Hops (~15 pounds) – First-Wort Addition.
  • German Hops (~15 pounds) –  Boiled for 45 minutes.
  • German Hops (~10 pounds) –  Boiled for 30 minutes.
  • German Hops (~10 pounds) –  Boiled for 15 minutes.

At the end of the boil, the wort was drained from the kettle and through a hop jack, a straining device to remove spent hops from the wort.

The flow of wort through the brewhouse from the cooker to the hop jack.

From the hop jack, the wort was pumped up to a collection tank on the fourth floor. From there it drained to the heat exchanger for cooling. Kohlhoff's description of the cooling process suggests Peoples used a Baudelot-type chiller with the hot wort cascading over a rack of refrigerated pipes. This quickly reduced the wort temperature to below 50ºF.

 A Baudelot-type chiller.

Kohlhoff’s job was done, but he wasn't shielded from the remainder of the process. Though the brewhouse was his primary concern, he sometimes helped out in other areas of the brewery. "Certain things you had to know, and not just be a brewer," he says.

The wort Kohlhoff made was bound for the cellars for fermentation and conditioning. The "cellars" were in the north half of the brewery on the second and third floors. The red line dividing the image below runs between the brewhouse on the right and the cellars and stock house on the left.

Peoples Beer was a lager beer. It underwent a cold, primary fermentation lasting eight to ten days at 47ºF. When Kohlhoff began working at Peoples the brewery was still in the process of replacing its old, wooden fermentation tubs with glass-lined, steel tanks. I asked him if that change impacted the flavor of the beer. Kohlhoff said, "No, I wouldn't say the flavor, it was a little more clean and a little bit different, yeah."

Kohlhoff would take his first sample of the beer near the end of fermentation. "We'd go in the cellar at 6 days or 7 days," he says. "There was a little valve on the tank where you'd take some off and see how clear it is and how it all tastes." Kohlhoff says everyone at the brewery regularly sampled the product they were making. "We always had a barrel of beer that was right there. All the guys working in the brewery were drinking that free beer."

From the fermenters, the beer would go into the aging tanks in the "Ruh" cellar for several weeks of cold conditioning (lagering). Here the beer would clear and the flavor would develop into something more refined. Kohlhoff doesn't remember the specific duration of the lagering process only that in the summer demand would sometimes have them turning out beer more rapidly than usual. Most lager breweries of this period aged their beer anywhere from three weeks to two months before packaging it.

Detail from a 1953 ad for "fully aged" Peoples Beer

After lagering, the beer was filtered and carbonated. At Peoples, they used a gas collection system to capture CO2 produced during carbonation. The CO2 was then forced back into the finished beer at 2.87-2.89 volumes, which would be at the high end of carbonation for an American lager.

The final product was pale, and medium-bodied, with a mildly sweet malt flavor. An analysis of the beer done by the J.E. Siebel Company in April 1971 may shed more light on the beer's exact properties. Though the report comes three years after Kohlhoff left Peoples, he maintains that the beer changed little if any during the intervening years. After leaving the brewery, Kohlhoff remained in Oshkosh and continued drinking Peoples Beer. He also remained in contact with former co-workers at the brewery. He believes they would have mentioned changes made to the recipe or brewing process. With that in mind, here's part of the 1971 analysis:

Clarity: Brilliant
Color: 3.4 SRM
ABV: 4.62%
IBUs: 18
Apparent Degree of Attenuation: 76.6
Real Degree of Attenuation: 62%
Original Extract: 11.34 (1.046)
Specific Gravity: 1.01035
A note attached to the report remarks, "The sample makes an exceedingly good impression in almost every respect."

Peoples Beer was packaged in kegs, bottles, and cans. The kegged beer was unpasteurized and the kegs were filled in the racking room built specifically to suit that purpose in 1948. This was on the north side of the facility directly behind the cellars and stock house. A portion of the racking and keg-washing rooms remains near the corner of East 15th and South Main streets. Kegs going into trucks for distribution to taverns were loaded off here. Peoples had a fleet of eight trucks delivering beer within a 60-mile radius of Oshkosh.

When Kohlhoff began working at Peoples, the brewery was just beginning its transition to steel kegs from wooden kegs. The wooden kegs were lined with pitch to protect the beer inside from bacteria and wild yeast that might lurk in the raw wood. Here's one of those wooden kegs of Peoples Beer in action at a 1950s house party in Oshkosh.

Photo courtesy of Dennis Hunt.

Beer for bottling and canning was delivered through a pipe running from the racking room to the bottling house. The detached bottling house was a hangover from the years before Prohibition when it was mandated by law that a bottling facility had to be distinct and separate from the brewhouse. The Peoples bottle house is the only piece of the original, 1913 construction that remains intact. It has been incorporated into the Blended Waxes building 1512 South Main.

The former bottling house of Peoples Brewing.

The Peoples bottling plant had undergone a series of substantial upgrades beginning in the 1940s. By the mid-1950s, the brewery had the capacity to fill 50,000 bottles a day. All of the bottled and canned beer was passed through a pasteurizer before being packed in cases. Oshkosh customers often purchased beer by the case off the back dock behind the bottle house.

The loading dock behind the bottling house.

The Seasonal Beers
When Kohlhoff was hired at Peoples, the brewery produced just two beers: the year-round Peoples Beer; and a winter-seasonal named Holiday Beer that was released just before Thanksgiving each year.

Kohlhoff says the recipe for Holiday Beer was similar to Peoples Beer with a couple of additions making the difference. Holiday Beer was brewed to be darker and stronger, with an ABV of just over 5.5%. About the recipe he says, "That was the same beer, but like I said we added all the special malt; it was darker, it was a brown color malt, and then what you used was brown sugar, 600 pounds of sugar in the kettle and that makes the beer a different color, too."

The addition of brown sugar surprised me. I haven't come across other references to lager brewers using it during this period. When I questioned him further, Kohlhoff said there was nothing unique about it, that it was ordinary brown sugar. The "special malt" was a dark Munich malt. Peoples often made mention of Munich malt in its advertising for Holiday Beer.

December 12, 1953; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

Both before and after Prohibition, Peoples had produced a bock beer that went on the market in either late-February or early-March. Peoples Bock was discontinued after the 1940 release and then reintroduced in February 1959. It appears the reintroduction had more to do with branding than anything else. Kohlhoff recalls that the recipes for Peoples Bock and Peoples Holiday Beer were identical.

February 20, 1959; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

The seasonal beers may have been special, but the beer that still holds a place in Kohlhoff's heart is Peoples Beer, the beer he made day in, day out for 15 years. "That was quite a job," he says. "That brewery was in number one shape. We had everything right on the clock. Everything. Peoples, that was a good beer."

Wilhelm Kohlhoff.

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