Thursday, June 6, 2019

Understanding HighHolder Brewing

HighHolder Brewing Company has been a going concern for almost two years now. It's the smallest of Oshkosh's four breweries. It's also the most misunderstood, which is not altogether surprising. HighHolder is unlike any other brewery in Wisconsin that I'm aware of.

HighHolder was co-founded in 2017 by Mike Schlosser and Shawn O'Marro. But HighHolder is now a one-man operation with Schlosser being the sole owner. He handles everything related to the business of the brewery and makes all of its beer. He does that in a space he sublets from O'Marro in back of O'Marro's Public House.

The relationship with O'Marro's has been a source of confusion. It leads people to assume the brewery and pub are tied together. They are not. Still, you can understand why people might think otherwise. O'Marro's is where HighHolder beer has most frequently appeared.

"Originally, we thought we'd be able to have three or four beers consistently on tap there, but that didn't happen," Schlosser says. "Now, less than half of my beer goes on tap at O'Marro's."

It's been showing up at places like Fin 'n' Feather in Winneconne, and in Oshkosh locations such as Pete's Garage and The Roxy. The one thing Schlosser doesn't have to do himself is go around hand selling the beer. "They've been coming to me," he says. In fact, he's had to turn down some requests. "I've been approached by people to have a permanent line in their bar, but then I'm obligated," he says. "Thank you, but I can't do that. Not at this size."

Schlosser at work in the brewery.

Which leads to the other piece that makes HighHolder complicated. How do you get to know a brewery if you can't get its beer? There have been month-long stretches with no HighHolder product available. And it doesn't last long when it does come around. HighHolder's Fisherman's Tail IPA lasted all of two days when it recently went on tap at Fin 'n' Feather. That duration has pretty much become the norm.  "It just doesn't stay," Schlosser says. "Once it's on, it's gone. It's one of those things where you put it out there and it just goes."

That may be a testament to HighHolder beer, but at the moment Schlosser can't make it work to his advantage. He’s brewing on a system of his own design that can produce just over 3 barrels of beer at a turn. It's an upgrade from the one-barrel system HighHolder started with, but it hasn't remedied the brewery's habit of running dry. "It bugs me a little bit because there are people who are fans of the beer and want to be able to get it," Schlosser says. "I'm a fan of some beers, too, and it does kind of suck when you want something and it's not available."

He's come to realize, though, that the cost of keeping other people happy can be too high. "You have to understand, I work a job full time in addition to this, and then it's not just the brewing part; it's the accounting, the taxes, the cleaning, the maintenance.  Last year and the year before, I worked seven days a week straight. For two years I did that and it landed me in the hospital last December. Now, I've got a whole different outlook on what's important."

He sits back and explains what that means when it comes to brewing. "I make beer when I want and I make what I want when I want. That's the way it's got to be at this size where most of what I do profits other people more than it profits the brewery."

So far this year, HighHolder has released at least one new beer each month. That string will come to an end this summer. "I just did my production reports today and this is the first time in HighHolder history that I've reported zero production for two straight months," Schlosser says. "In a way, I'm kind of proud of that. But June is going to be a big one, so I'll have all the tanks full again by the end of the month."

That doesn't mean Schlosser has any intention of rushing anything to market. Actually, he's doing just the opposite. His brewing schedule is filled with beers that are slow to reach completion. Among them is a fruit beer that will be fermented with Brettanomyces and aged for a year; a Russian Imperial Stout named Troll Slayer that was one of his favorites from his days as a homebrewer; and a Helles that will undergo a cold and lengthy fermentation.

He’s in no hurry. And while the beer does its thing, Schlosser has time to think about what the future holds for HighHolder. His current brewhouse is maxed out. He needs more space and has started looking for it. "I wouldn't say it's the top priority just yet, but I'm putting feelers out there," he says. "It needs to be a place where I can handle the whole thing. It doesn't even necessarily have to be a taproom, but eventually, that'll be the plan; to have a taproom of my own where I'll be able to have five to eight beers available all the time."

That would certainly make things more convenient for folks seeking HighHolder beer. It would also mean the loss of something unique to this place and time. I can only explain that by example.

This past February, I heard that HighHolder was going to release a Grisette, a nearly extinct style of rustic Belgian ale. It was the first time an Oshkosh brewery had brewed a Grisette. I had never tasted one. The beer went on tap at O'Marro's and I made a point of getting there before it was gone. It turned out to be everything I had hoped it would be: mellow, slightly funky, and delicious. More than that, it was memorable. And part of what made it so was that I had to go out of my way for it. You don’t get that kind of experience with things that come easily.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

The Star and Crescent Sample Room

I recently came across this ad from the 1886 Oshkosh City Directory for William H. Englebright's Star and Crescent Sample Room.

I wonder if old Bill noticed the misspelling of Crescent.

Englebright's saloon was at the corner of Main and Algoma (where the sundial is at Opera House Square). The red arrow in the photo below points to the saloon's door facing Algoma Blvd.

Photo courtesy of Dan Radig.

Englebright was born in England and served Bass Ale on draught at his bar. He was one of the few Oshkosh saloon keepers of this period still pushing ale. Most others had succumbed to the flood of lager.

Bass Ale was an altogether different beer at that time. It was around 6% ABV with a hopping rate more like an IPA. Here's a sketch of the old beer, circa 1908.

If you'd like to dig deeper on Englebright, you can find more on him HERE. Cheers!