Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Andrew Roth Takes Over at Fox River

For the first time in a decade, there's a new brewmaster at Fox River Brewing Company. He's 29-year-old Andrew Roth.

Andrew Roth in Fox River’s Oshkosh brewhouse.
Roth becomes the sixth brewmaster at Fox River since the brewery opened in 1995. He replaces Kevin Bowen, who left Fox River earlier this month. Although Roth may be new as brewmaster, he isn't new to Fox River. He's been the lead brewer there for the past 10 months. Before coming to Fox River, Roth had worked as an assistant brewer at Pearl Street Brewery in La Crosse.

Roth will be leading a brewery that has seen its fortunes rise significantly over the past four years. Production has more than doubled in that time. Much of that growth is attributable to the popularity of BLÜ Bobber, Fox River's flagship beer. Roth doesn't have any intention of tinkering with that success. "I think I'd be fired if I went to change BLÜ Bobber," Roth says. "The Bago Brews are not going anywhere, that won't be changing."

But there will be plenty of other changes. "You're going to start seeing a lot of new stuff coming through," Roth says. "I'm still figuring out the schedule, but we're going to introduce a series of new beers in the taprooms with new releases coming out on Thursdays. We’re going to have a more planned release schedule and give people advance notice when new beers go on. We need to get better about that."

Among the first of the new beers will be Hoppy Otter, a hop-forward lager that defies easy categorization. It's made from English malts, German yeast, and American hops. "I can't think of a style for it in all honesty," Roth says. "It doesn't fit most of the guidelines. It's one I've done at home a few times and it’s always gone over well."

Though he began brewing professionally in 2015, Roth's approach is still very much rooted in the homebrew ethos of experimentation and creativity. He began making mead in 2010 and then stepped into beer after his father gave him a homebrewing kit for Christmas. "I kind of just got sucked into it," he says. "It consumes you. After a year or two of homebrewing, I realized I was sticking inordinate amounts of my time and energy into it. I hit kind of a wall in what I could do. I mean, it's hard to afford things like a lab or filtration when you're brewing at home. So I figured, if I'm going to keep brewing this much, somebody is going to need to start paying me for it."

Roth was making plans to launch a nano-brewery when he was hired by Pearl Street in 2015 as an apprentice brewer. He moved from Fond du Lac, where he had grown up, to La Crosse, but still maintained his ties to the local homebrewing community. Since 2016 he's been teaching a series of weekend brewing classes at The Cellar Brew Shop in Oshkosh. He's also remained active in the Central Wisconsin Vintners & Brewers, a homebrew club based out of Fond du Lac. Roth says now he'll need to begin drawing back from some of those activities.

As brewmaster at Fox River, Roth will have five brewers working under him and breweries in Appleton and Oshkosh to oversee. He's already begun making changes in the brewhouse. "We have a very manual system and we operate it off a lot of old school methods," Roth says. "I'm looking to bring modernization and more modern techniques to the brewhouse. And we are definitely looking at getting a deeper amount of lab work done."

All of this signals something of a new direction for Fox River. The continuity of the brewery's approach has been one of its strong points. But it's also left Fox River behind the curve when it comes to attracting the attention of drinkers seeking something other than the tried and true styles. That should begin to change under Roth. “I'm enjoying bringing some modernity to the brewery,” he says.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Happy John’s Happy Tap

Here's a quirky cul de sac of Oshkosh beer history. We're going back to 1907 when Oshkosh saloon keeper "Happy" John Wawrzinski came up with a better way of pouring kegged beer.

Wawrzinski ran Happy John’s Algoma Liquor House and Sample Room at the southwest corner of Oshkosh Avenue and Sawyer streets. The best picture I have of the place is from the early 1950s when it was Gordy's Bar. Here you go...

All that is long gone. It was wiped away by the City of Oshkosh after it purchased the property in 1974. The city knocked it down, paved it over, and made the land part of the street.

Let’s get back to that happier time with Happy John in 1907. Wawrzinski was serving up the Oshkosh Brewing Company's beer when he hatched an idea for a beer tap that would pour less foam and more beer.

The “novel construction” of the Wawrzinski tap prevented pressure within the beer keg from entering into the tap line. And that helped to eliminate excessive foaming when pouring a mug of nickel beer (the going rate at all Oshkosh saloons in 1907). It was also supposed to help keep contaminants in the tap from entering into the keg and spoiling the beer. Sounds great.

It was a complicated piece of work. Here is the design Wawrzinski submitted when he applied for a patent on his improved beer tap.

“Be it known that I, John Wawrzinski, residing in Oshkosh, in the county of Winnebago and State of Wisconsin, have invented new and useful Improvements in Beer-Taps.”

Wawrzinski's application was filed on April 12, 1907, by Benedict, Morsell, and Caldwell; a Milwaukee law firm specializing in patents, trademarks, and copyrights. On February 18, 1908, Wawrzinski was granted US Patent 879604 A. His patent expired in 1925. By that time, he was no longer pouring the Oshkosh Brewing Company's beer. OBC had halted production. Prohibition was on.

One of these days I need to get something posted here about the history of Wawrzinski’s saloon. It was quite the place in its day. A beer palace! I'll get to it... some day.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

I’m Talkin’ Prohibition...

This Saturday, August 17, I’ll be at the Oshkosh Public Museum telling the story of Prohibition in Oshkosh. As you’ve probably already gathered by skimming this blog, this town went wild during the “dry” years.

The talk starts at 1pm. And after the talk, we’ll sample a few beers courtesy of Fifth Ward Brewing. FYI: The Museum charges an $8 admission fee for non-members ($6 for seniors). OPM members get in free. Hope to see you there!

For more info, CLICK THIS, or checkout the Facebook event page.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Kevin Bowen's Career at Fox River Brewing Comes to an End

Kevin Bowen is leaving Fox River Brewing Company. He’s moving to France and ending his 10-year run as the brewmaster for Oshkosh’s largest brewery.

Kevin Bowen in the Fox River Brewhouse in Oshkosh, 2016.

Bowen's tenure at Fox River is notable for several reasons, not the least of which is the dramatic growth he oversaw while running the brewery’s facilities in Oshkosh and Appleton. Since becoming brewmaster in 2009, Fox River's production has increased by more than 250 percent. The brewery went from limited distribution to sending beer into nearly every part of the state. Along the way, Bowen has picked up his share of awards while hueing to an approach that has informed his brewing from the start. "I just wanted to make balanced, clean, flavorful beers," he says. "We had some successes doing that."

Charlie Papazian presenting Bowen with a World Beer Cup award in 2012.

Bowen began his career with Fox River in 1998 bussing tables at the brewery's Appleton brewpub. He was 16 years old. "It was really my first job," he says.

The beer-making side of the operation immediately caught his attention. Before long he was helping out on the brewery's makeshift bottling line. "I went from the bottom up," Bowen says. "It was like an apprenticeship and I was bursting at the seams. I was in love with what I was learning."

By 2002, he was working full time in the brewery under Fox River brewmaster Brian Allen. “Brian took me under his wing,” Bowen says. “We wound up having a great mentor/protégé relationship. I learned the ropes by doing grunt work.”

In 2005, Bowen attended the Siebel Institute on a brewing scholarship. A year later he became brewmaster at the Hereford and Hops brewpub in Wausau. Bowen took over the position from Kevin Eichelberger, who went on to launch Red Eye Brewing.

Bowen was all of 24 years old and in his element. "It was an oversized brewing system, with plenty of capacity, so I could put a lager into a fermentor and not have to worry about it tying things up," he says. "That's where I really started getting passionate about lager beer and really figuring out how to brew them."

Bowen returned to Fox River in 2008, just prior to the departure of Brian Allen. "Brian and I worked together for a few months again before he left and I took over as the brewmaster," Bowen says. "Brian had been brewing mostly ales, and I brought back that lager flair that I was doing up at Hereford and Hops. I wanted to bring my own flavor to the brewery."

Bowen had re-entered Fox River at the beginning of its most subdued period. Following the financial crisis of 2007/2008, the brewery had retrenched; abandoning its forays into Green Bay, Madison, and Milwaukee and discontinuing most of its distribution. "Things were kind of at their quietest right then," Bowen says. "It gave me intimate time at the brewery to work it myself. That's also when the hop shortages of 2010 and 2011 hit."

The shortages forced Bowen to rework Fox River’s recipes. One of those he remade was Fox Light, a Kolsch-style beer that was among the brewery's top sellers. In 2010, he submitted his reformulated Kolsch to the biennial World Beer Cup and took a bronze medal. "It was the first brewer’s conference I had been to and it was for a German-style,” he says. “The panel was made up of German judges and I was going against several German brewers. To win that award at that time was huge for me.”

With that, came change. Production at Fox River began inching upwards and as the hop shortage eased Bowen brewed a series of hop-forward beers that challenged the brewery's norms. He became the first brewer in Oshkosh to produce modern, American-style IPAs. "It was crazy," said Jay Supple, CEO of Fox River Brewing. "All of a sudden, we were bringing IPAs out and they'd be gone in six days."

As production climbed, the brewery re-entered distribution and in 2015 installed a new bottling line at its Appleton location. "That led to us really building the brand," Bowen says. "It was that bottler that really got us out there." Much of what went into those bottles was BLU Bobber, a fruit beer introduced at Fox River by Brian Allen in 2004 and reshaped by Bowen over the ensuing years. Under Bowen, BLU grew into Fox River's best-selling beer.

"Retailers were continually asking us for more, but we had hit our absolute maximum capacity," Bowen says. "It was stressful for sure, but it was exciting, too. To get that embrace from ownership to go into this with me and for me to lead this thing for them was great. It was what I wanted for sure."

To circumvent the capacity issue, Fox River contracted with Hinterland Brewing in 2018 to produce BLU Bobber at its new facility in Green Bay. "We wouldn’t have been able to go statewide and continue to develop the relationships we already had if we hadn't done that," Bowen says. "It took us a good six months to get the recipe into their system and really dialed in so that it was the same as the beer we produce here."

Last year, between the breweries in Oshkosh and Appleton and the production he oversaw in Green Bay, Bowen pushed 3,587 barrels of beer through the Fox River pipeline. That's over 600 barrels of beer more than the brewery produced in its previous peak year of 2017.

"I guess that's what I'm most proud of," Bowen says. "The growth has been fantastic to see. It boils down to the beer being well received and the demand for it consistently growing 20 to 30 percent a year. I hope it continues to grow. Right now a lot of that is about servicing parts of the state we're just now hitting."

But that’s no longer going to be Bowen's concern. He leaves the brewery August 16th. On September 1st, he will be on his way to France.

"I had a bit of a milestone," Bowen says. "I'm not old enough to call it a mid-life anything, but I've been here for 10 years and I'm really proud of what we've done, but a lot of the hustle here is maybe more of a young guy's thing to wrestle with."

That's not entirely why he's going to France, though. "Well, on top of that I'm chasing a girl," he says. "We met a year ago, and it's really good. Her primary residence is in France. We had to decide if she would come back here or if I would go there."

"It was tough to make the decision, but I'm ready for that next step," Bowen says. "I'm ready to explore some different opportunities. I guess I'm a traditional brewer and I'm still passionate about traditional beers. Not that I'm really against or fed up with anything, but a part of why I'm going to Europe is because I've been enamored with that tradition that I learned through beer. Moving there is literally living out my beer-geek dream.”

“I looked at myself at 37 and said if I don't do this now… I don't know how to describe it really. Right now, I just want to immerse myself in that culture and see if I can get a job at a brewery there. I want to keep growing myself into a better brewer. I have these ambitions. I want to build a brewery, eventually. Partly, this is about learning how to take risks. I'm risking a lot. I'm letting go of something very stable that I've been a part of for a long time. Hopefully, it's the right thing to do and proves that risk is worth taking."

Monday, August 5, 2019

Introducing the Oshkosh Heritage Series

On Tuesday, August 6, at 5 pm, Bare Bones Brewery will release the first beer in its new Heritage Series, a collection of beers celebrating Oshkosh's enduring history as a center for brewing. The series begins with Wilhelm's Beer. It’s a classic, American lager brewed from the recipe used to make Peoples Beer in the 1950s and '60s. The recipe was supplied by the late Wilhelm Kohlhoff, a brewer at Peoples Brewing in Oshkosh from 1953 until 1968.
Wilhelm Kohlhoff
The Heritage Series beers will be available in the taproom at Bare Bones and each pint sold will be accompanied by a commemorative postcard such as the one seen above. The flipside of each card will detail the backstory of the beer and its place within our local beer history.

The Heritage Series
Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones, and I will be collaborating on this series of beers over the coming months. We have approximately 18 beers queued up. The oldest of them has its roots in the early 1850s. Our goal is to present beers that showcase the breadth of Oshkosh brewing history from the mid-1800s to the late 1960s.

The recipes for these beers are derived from research I've done over the past 10 years. In some cases, we'll be working from comprehensive recipes that came directly from the brewhouse where the beer was originally made. For other beers, we'll be building up recipes based upon brewery inventories, brewer's notes, brewing practices employed by the brewery, descriptions of the beer, and analysis of the style from the period when the beer was made. In each case, we're confident we'll be able to create a valid representation of the beers we intend to recreate.

That said, there are certain limiting factors that need to be acknowledged in any historical recreation of a beer. Malts changed significantly over the time span we intend to cover and have continued to evolve in the years since. Hops have undergone a similar transformation. For example, cluster hops – a hop favored by 19th and 20th century Oshkosh brewers – is today a much stronger hop in terms of its bittering potential than the cluster hops used by the Horn and Schwalm Brewery of Oshkosh in the 1870s. Equipment is another factor. We won't be fermenting these beers in pitch-lined wooden tubs like Jacob Konrad did in Oshkosh in 1849. But there are ways to work within these constraints. And our beacon will always be flavor. We're striving to recreate the flavors of these earlier beers.

The plan is to produce these beers in small batches. Most, if not all of them, will be draft only offerings available exclusively in the Bare Bones taproom.

In advance of each beer, I'll have a post here exploring the background of the beer and how we approached the recipe. For Wilhelm's Beer, that information is already available HERE.

The story of our local brewing history is one thing, but actually getting to taste that history can make it come alive in a way no retelling can accomplish. Jody and I are hoping to reanimate that history one pint at a time.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Rahr Special Malts

Post-Prohibition lager-beer color and grists. This is from the 1934 book A Century of Progress in Malting and Brewing from Rahr Malting Co. of Manitowoc, WI. I’ve reset the type to make it easier to read...