Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A Novel Thought at Fifth Ward

Novel Thought is a dark ale that went on tap this past weekend at Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh. It’s a beer that captures the essence of the brewery.

The Beer
It's nearly black with a tan, creamy foam that hangs on the glass. The malty aroma is intense, immediately reminding me of malted milk. Behind that are notes of chocolate, tobacco and a touch of roast. Those malt flavors dominate the palate, yet the beer is quaffable with a clean, bright finish. At 5.5% ABV, it's light enough to be sessionable with just enough heft for these transitional days of spring.

The Backstory
Ian Wenger and Zach Clark, brewers at Fifth Ward, have been kicking around the idea of this beer for years. "This one goes back to our homebrew days," says Clark. "We saw this video where a brewer was doing something he was calling a dirty blonde ale and that stuck in my head for the longest time. We liked that idea of a light dark beer. Once we had the brewery going, we did a pilot batch and that became the original start for Nordheim (a Mild Ale the brewery released last April). "

But Novel Thought is not Nordheim. This is dark ale pared down to essentials. The base malt is Bairds Maris Otter from the 1823 Heritage collection, a low-protein malt that brims with character. Small additions of pale chocolate malt and carafa (a coloring malt) round out the grain bill for an ale that skirts conventional style guidelines. At Fifth Ward, they're calling it a Brunette Ale. That's not saying much. It's not a porter or stout. It's not a mild ale or brown ale. It's something onto itself. "It's those expensive European malts!" Clark says.

But it’s more than that. Over the past few of months, I've noticed a certain house flavor in several of Fifth Ward's beers. I can't describe it. It’s subtle, but I know it when I taste it, and I always like it. This beer has it in spades. It’s the mark of a brewery coming into its own and creating something unique unto itself. And that's what local beer is really all about.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Resurrection of Otto Villnow

Otto Villnow is dead. And this isn't the first time he's been that way.

Otto Villnow, Oshkosh beer bottler, and his wife Caroline, circa 1888.

Otto Villnow was born in 1849 in the north of Germany. He was 17 when the 1866 cholera pandemic visited his homeland. Villnow fell victim to the dread illness and, shortly after, was pronounced dead. They packed him into a coffin and placed him in a vault.

A day and a half later, an attendant discovered that young Villnow was not altogether deceased. He was taken from his crypt and eventually made a full recovery. A year later, Villnow got the hell out of Germany.

He reached Oshkosh by 1873 and took a job at a sawmill. Later, after he had gotten married, Villnow ran a shoe store from the home he and his wife Caroline purchased at what is now 1417 Oregon Street. But in the early 1880s, Villnow took an interest in beer. In particular, the bottling of beer. He converted his property on Oregon Street into a beer bottling plant.

The site of Villnow's bottling operation, formerly 212 Oregon Street.

Independent beer bottling plants became increasingly common in Oshkosh in the 1880s. Government regulation and the troublesome work of getting beer into bottles encouraged brewers to job out their bottling work to others. In Oshkosh, there were more than 20 independent bottlers like Villnow packaging beer in glass.

When I first wrote about Villnow here, I mentioned that he appeared not to have been affiliated with any particular brewery. But about a month ago, while doing research on an unrelated matter, I found that Villnow had worked at various times with two opposing Oshkosh breweries.

First, there was Lorenz Kuenzl's Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Avenue. Here’s an 1885 advertisement for the Gambrinus Brewery from the Wisconsin Telegraph, a German-language newspaper published in Oshkosh. The highlighted text translates into, "The bottles are filled by Otto Villnow."

Wisconsin Telegraph; August 28, 1885.

The Kuenzl/Villnow alliance appears to have soured not long after that ad appeared. In December 1886 Kuenzl sued Villnow for monies owed to the tune of $269.79 (worth about $7,500 today). Kuenzl won the suit and Villnow was forced to pay up. Whether or not that immediately ended the partnership isn't known, but by the end of the decade, both men had moved on. Kuenzl partnered with his neighbor, Oshkosh bottler John Sitter. Villnow, meanwhile, hooked up with brewer August Horn.

August Horn.
Horn was president of Horn and Schwalm's Brooklyn Brewery on Doty Street. Villnow's connection to Horn and the Brooklyn Brewery is confirmed in a brewery ledger from early 1894. It shows that Horn had supplied Villnow with beer pumps, a back bar and mirror, and chairs and tables.

Unfortunately, that ledger lists no address where Villnow might have put Horn’s fixtures to work. City directories during this period also lack any mention of Villnow running a saloon.  A possible explanation may be that Villnow was operating on behalf of a private club; he was affiliated with at least two of them in the early 1890s. 

In any case, Villnow's ties to the Brooklyn Brewery disintegrated when the brewery merged with the Glatz and Kuenzl breweries in 1894 to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. After that, Villnow was done with beer. He worked as a laborer and janitor in the years that followed until his retirement in 1910.

Otto Villnow was 64 when he died in his sleep at his home on the morning of November 5, 1913. This time it was for keeps.

Villnow's Grave in Riverside Cemetery.
Villnow's obituary mentions nothing of his days as an Oshkosh beer bottler or his narrow escape from death in 1866. It says he was a shoemaker by trade. If not for his years in beer, that would probably have been his altogether forgettable epitaph.

But a funny thing happened on Villnow's way to obscurity. The bottles he used in the late 1800s became highly sought after collector's items. Only a few of them have survived. His name is embossed on the faces of those bottles. The legacy of Otto Villnow lives on, captured in glass.

Thanks to Alan Lareau and Bob Bergman for help with German words and old, beer bottles...

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Bare Bones Pawsome Pilsner

This past weekend, Bare Bones Pawsome Pilsner emerged as the winner of the Brew Battles Craft Beer Bracket Challenge. It was an upset win for a pale lager in a bracket heavy with strong stouts and modern IPAs.

The Beer
Pawsome Pilsner starts with a light, bready aroma. If you really dig in you can pick up the faint scent of earthy hops. It's a medium bodied beer with a palate that leans towards clean malt flavors – think fresh bread with a dab of honey. The beer finishes clean and dry. By the time the glass is back on the table, you're ready for and wanting another pull.

The Backstory
Pawsome has been around for a while. It was first brewed at Bare Bones back in January of 2016. But the beer underwent a major overhaul last year after Jody Cleveland took over as head brewer at Bare Bones. Cleveland introduced Vienna malt into the mix giving  Pawsome a touch of sweetness and more malt complexity. He also changed the hops going from Michigan-grown Nugget and Chinook to Wisconsin-grown Ultra, a hop similar in flavor to German-grown Hallertau. The arrangement works beautifully. This sort of beer may appear simple, but it's a difficult one to brew. The flavors are so straightforward and uncluttered that any misstep comes immediately to the fore.

What's surprising to me is that an unassuming, lager somehow managed to win convincingly in a field of 24 beers that included just one other pale lager – Ahnapee Brewery’s Helles.

The single elimination, bracket tourney was put together by Justin Mitchell of the Oshkosh Independent. Beginning at the end of February, beers from six different Northeast Wisconsin breweries were judged over the ensuing weekends by tasters at local bars and taprooms until just two remained. Pawsome Pilsner faced Knuth Brewing’s Coffee Stout in the final round to take the title.

In a beer world that fetishizes adjunct-laden stouts and over-the-top hop bombs, it's heartening to see that a flavorful, well-made, lager can still hold its own.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

National Beer Day with the SOBs at Bare Bones

I couldn't let this go by without making note of it... This past Sunday, November 7, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers (SOBs) celebrated National Beer Day by helping brew a batch of beer at Bare Bones Brewery.

A panoramic shot of the SOBs at Bare Bones. Pardon the distortions.

National Beer Day sounds like one of those phony holiday's made up by an advocacy group, but it actually marks an important date.  On April 7, 1933, the Cullen–Harrison Act made beer legal again for the first time since the start of Prohibition in 1920. Prohibition hadn't yet ended, that wouldn't happen for another nine months, but at least you could get a legal beer – so long as it was 4% ABV or less. It was better than nothing.

The SOB/Bare Bones celebration ended with each of the homebrewers taking home a carboy of freshly made wort to ferment into beer.

Wort going into SOB carboys.

This was the first time since the end of Prohibition that an Oshkosh brewery has supplied homebrewers with wort. But prior to April 7, 1933, this kind of thing wasn't unusual at all.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company, in particular, was a main supplier of wort to Oshkosh area homebrewers during the dry years.  They sold it in the form of malt syrup, a condensed wort, used by Prohibition-era homebrewers in the same way the SOBs are using the Bare Bones wort to make beer.

I took my carboy of wort home from Bare Bones and dosed it with a thick slurry of lager yeast. It's now in my basement fermenting into beer. I'm thinking I might end up dry hopping it with Hallertau hops. Why not? Other SOBs are going to turn their wort into Belgian-style Saison and English-style ale. Some are going to condition their beer on vanilla beans, others on chocolate. No two will be the same. And that's what homebrew is all about!

Monday, April 8, 2019


A huge THANKS to everybody who came out for the Winnebago County Beer book release on Saturday. For me, getting to see so many of you all together in one place was the best part of it!

If you weren't able to make it, but would still like a book, you can get in touch with me at OshkoshBeer@Gmail.com and I'll send one your way. Prost!

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

Winnebago County Beer

My new book, Winnebago County Beer, tells the full history of beer and brewing in Winnebago County, Wisconsin. It's now available at Caramel Crisp Corner in Oshkosh, Bare Bones Brewery in Oshkosh, and at Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh. You can also pick it up online Here & Here.

Here’s a peek at what's inside the book.