Thursday, December 31, 2020

Oshkosh 2020: The Year in Beer

It's been a hell of a year. Some parts were just hell. But the beer scene in Oshkosh still managed to provide a few bright spots amid all the bad news that 2020 brought us. Here's a look back at Oshkosh's year in beer.

Gardening in a Drought
The 20th year of the 21st century got off to a start that looked promising. In January, the Oshkosh Common Council passed a resolution to hold a series of summer beer gardens in Menominee Park. They'd feature locally made beer, live music, and food trucks. The council's only dissenting vote came from Oshkosh Mayor Lori Palmeri who vacantly wondered "Why everything in Wisconsin has to revolve around drinking." Go figure. Anyway, it was all for naught. Like most public events scheduled for the summer of 2020, the planned beer gardens never happened.

Craft Beer Week
Late in January, the Oshkosh Convention and Visitors Bureau announced it would act as the coordinating sponsor for Oshkosh's first Craft Beer Week. The week would consist of a series of events held in brewery taprooms and beer bars.

An Oshkosh Craft Beer Week sticker.

Craft Beer Week began On March 7 with the 3rd Annual Winter Beer Fest at Bare Bones Brewery. All four Oshkosh breweries, among other area breweries, were on-site pouring their beer. The weather was fine and the turnout was excellent. That afternoon felt like the realization of something that has been building here for the past five years or so. It was a high-water mark for the beer scene in Oshkosh.

Winter Beer Fest, March 7, 2020.

The festive mood changed a couple of days later. The spread of COVID-19 triggered waves of public-event cancellations. The EAA's Hops and Props beer tasting scheduled for March 14 was supposed to be the culmination of Craft Beer Week. But the event was called off. Craft Beer Week ended on a low note.

The Pandemic Comes to Oshkosh
On Tuesday, March 17, Governor Tony Evers issued an emergency order prohibiting drinking and dining in Wisconsin bars, taprooms, and restaurants. By the end of the month, each of the Oshkosh breweries was selling beer on a to-go basis. People showed up at the taprooms, but instead of sitting down and ordering a beer they were picking up packaged beer and walking back out the door.
Beer being prepped for takeout at Bare Bones.

Taverns and restaurants were hit hardest. Most struggled through the spring selling take-out. Sales plummeted. The support these businesses received from their patrons would prove to be crucial. The support they received from every level of government was feeble. One of the most highly taxed sectors of the local economy was left to sink.

Barley and Hops Pub, Oshkosh; late March 2020.

The shutdown order stood until May 13 when it was invalidated by the Wisconsin Supreme Court. A number of Oshkosh taverns re-opened within minutes of the court's ruling. People flooded into the open bars. The story was picked up by state and national news outlets. The customary social life of Oshkosh was presented as an aberration.

Andy's Pub and Grub in Oshkosh, May 13, 2020.

On March 14, Winnebago County attempted to institute its own shutdown. Hours later, the county's order was rescinded after it had been reviewed by legal counsel. All businesses could now fully open without the government threat of legal action.

Despite the lifting of restrictions, 2020 remained bleak for anyone making their living in bars, breweries, or restaurants. The crowds never fully returned. Things picked up somewhat in summer with the re-opening of beer gardens and outdoor dining, but there has yet to be a recovery from the drop-off that occurred in March.

A sense of what's happening can be gleaned by looking at beer production. By the end of October 2020, total beer production in Oshkosh was down by more than 18 percent compared to the same time last year. It doesn't appear as if that trend will be reversed in the near term. This is a perilous time for any business that relies on beer sales to sustain it.

The Varsity Club on N. Main, late March, 2020.

A series of restrictions and executive orders have been issued by the governor's office since the lifting of the shutdown order. Among them is a mandate to wear face masks and limits on the size of public gatherings. But there's been little enforcement. Some bars, brewery taprooms, and restaurants in Oshkosh have followed the orders. Others disregard them.

This past fall, the metropolitan area that includes Oshkosh became site of the most rapid spread of COVID-19 in America. That again put the city into the national news.

From the New York Times; October 2, 2020.

A story that became part of that thread centered around Mark Schultz, co-owner of Oblio's Lounge in Oshkosh. In early October, Schultz gained national attention with a series of YouTube videos he posted from his hospital bed while suffering from COVID-19. Schultz pleaded with his viewers to take the disease more seriously. Oblio’s closed at the beginning of October. It has yet to reopen.

Mark Schultz, October 9, 2020.

The Beer
In spite of everything, the beer never stops flowing. All together, Oshkosh's four breweries released over 150 unique beers this year. There's never been a period when breweries in this city have had such a constant flow of specialty beer coming out. Fifth Ward accounts for approximately half of those new releases.

Fruited Beers
Fruited beers continued to be highly popular in Oshkosh in 2020. Fox River’s Blü Bobber, a blueberry-flavored ale, was again the best selling beer produced by an Oshkosh brewery. It’s held that position since 2014.

Fifth Ward's heavily-fruited, “Frootenanny” sours came strongly to the fore this year. Throughout 2020, Fifth Ward has released beers in this series on an almost weekly basis. These are frequently the best selling beers in the brewery's line-up.

Lager Beers
Lager beer saw a significant revival this year. It's part of a trend among small breweries that’s occurring nationally. All four Oshkosh breweries released a lager this year. This is the first time that's happened here since 1894. Bare Bones' Oshkosh Lager remains the only year-round lager in production in Oshkosh. It's the brewery's second-best-selling beer.

Oktoberfest and Bock beers were among the notable lager styles brewed in Oshkosh in 2020. Each Oshkosh brewery released a bock beer this year. That's the first time that's ever happened. Bare Bones, Fifth Ward, and Fox River each released an Oktoberfest in late summer. It was the first time there have been three Oshkosh-brewed Oktoberfests on the market concurrently.

Oshkosh brewed Oktoberfest beers of 2020.

Collab Beer
Another first was the collaboration beer brewed in August by Bare Bones and Fifth Ward. New Top Dog Golden Ale was the first beer produced by Oshkosh breweries working in tandem. The beer was released in September as part of a fundraiser in benefit of the Oshkosh Area Humane Society and the Oshkosh Mid-Morning Kiwanis Club.

From left to right: Ian Wenger and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward
with Jody Cleveland of Bare Bones during the New Top Dog brew.

Barrel-Aged Beers
Fifth Ward continues leading the way in barrel-aged stouts. The brewery released 14 barrel-aged stouts this year along with five other barrel-aged ales conditioned in repurposed spirits barrels.

Barrel Aging at Fifth Ward.

Fox River launched Oshkosh's first ongoing, barrel-aged sour program this year. The initial beer in the Foxxine series came out in September. It was fermented with a mixed-culture of lactic bacteria, pediococcus bacteria, and Brettanomyces yeast. By the end of the year, Fox River had released seven beers in this series.

Brewmaster Drew Roth of Fox River.

The Canning Comeback
Consumption patterns changed radically this year in response to the spread of COVID-19. It’s caused draft beer sales to crash. Brewers increasingly came to rely on sales of packaged beer to make up for the loss. The packaging also changed profoundly this year. For the first time, canned beer is now favored by Oshkosh breweries.

In May, Bare Bones brought in a new canning line. It became the first Oshkosh brewery since 1972 to have its own automated canning machine. Bare Bones has since discontinued bottling its beer.

Canning beer at Bare Bones.

Fifth Ward also acquired an automated canning machine this year. The brewery’s canner went into production in mid-December. Going forward, most of Fifth Ward’s packaged beer will be in cans.

Canned beer from Fifth Ward.

Fox River continues to package in bottles while also canning significant quantities of its beer. This year, Fox River has used a leased, mobile canner along with the canner at Bare Bones. It’s the first time an Oshkosh brewery has used the equipment of another Oshkosh brewery to package its beer.

The homebrewing scene in Oshkosh remained vibrant in 2020. In fact, the Pandemic seems to have benefitted homebrewing here. The Cellar Brew Shop in Oshkosh reported that it saw an increase in sales that began with the March shutdown. That uptick has been echoed by homebrewers I've talked to; most of whom say their output increased this year.

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers (SOBs) homebrewing club continues to be active, though many of the club's meetings had to be conducted online. Among the SOB highlights this year was the wort exchange that took place at Fifth Ward in July. The brewery produced extra wort for an Oktoberfest beer that SOB members took away in carboys to ferment at home.

Zach Clark of Fifth Ward (left) and Logan Anderson
of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers during the July wort share.

The link between local homebrewers and pro-brewers was also apparent later in the year. In October, Fox River brewed a porter using the recipe of the beer that won the SOB's annual club competition in July. Dick Waltenberry's Bedford Porter went on tap at Fox River in November.

Dick Waltenberry at the Fox River brew kettle on October 2, 2020.

The interest in Oshkosh brewing history continues to grow as was shown by the increased visibility of Oshkosh breweriana in 2020. Collector Steve Schrage had a portion of his Oshkosh collection on display at the Oshkosh Public Library. The exhibit ran through most of January and February.

Steve Schrage with his son Smith and daughter Kennedy
at the Oshkosh Public Library Exhibit.

There was also a breweriana show in Oshkosh this year. The last time that happened was some 40 years ago. The B’Gosh it’s Good Brewery Collectables Trade Show was organized by Jared Sanchez. It took place on October 4th at Fifth Ward. The event proved so popular that Sanchez is now looking at making it an annual occurrence.

A part of the beer show in the beer garden at Fifth Ward.

A Recovery in Waiting
It's been a punishing year for local bars and breweries. At the moment, there’s no relief in sight. We're not likely to know how bad the damage will be until about this time next year.

Missing for most of the year has been HighHolder Brewing, Oshkosh's only nano-brewery. HighHolder ceased production in March after the lockdown order made its business model nearly impossible to execute. But because of that model, HighHolder is also one of the few breweries in the state that can afford to weather such a long-term interruption. Mike Schlosser of HighHolder says he plans to reopen the brewery and get back to full production in the first part of 2021.

This year marks 171 years of commercial brewing in Oshkosh. In all that time, there's been just one other year like this one. The Pandemic of 1918 caused disruptions similar to those we're seeing now. That period was even more cataclysmic in that the brief recovery that followed was snuffed by National Prohibition. Still, the beer culture in Oshkosh endured. In 2021, we may get to see the beginning of another comeback.

Friday, December 25, 2020

Merry Christmas!

It's Christmas... Oshkosh style, 1914 with Rahr's Special Brew!

Click to enlarge.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Southside Brewing District Part II

Here’s the second of two videos exploring former brewery sites on the south side of Oshkosh. The first video in this series can be viewed here. Thanks to Mike McArthur of the Oshkosh Public Library for letting me be part of his Librarian Learns series of videos about Oshkosh history.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Beer for Christmas, by Clarence "Inky" Jungwirth

Clarence "Inky" Jungwirth

During World War II, I was a beer drinker and also a member of the 24th Infantry Division. On Oct. 20th, 1944, the 24th Infantry was involved in the Liberation of the Philippine Islands and the initial landing on the Island of Leyte. Fighting the Japanese on that island was fierce and there were many American casualties.

Inky in 1944.

Initially, supplies were scarce due to the large force of Americans engaged in the fighting, but by Christmas of 1944 equipment and supplies had been increased considerably and we were able to meet the enemy on a superior basis. Supplies had increased so that by Christmas Day every G.I, including all those in actual combat, were given a Christmas present by the U.S. Army. It was a case of Beer! The beer was warm as there was no way it could be refrigerated in the tropical climate of the Philippine Islands and though I don't remember the brand of beer, it was the best present a G.I. could receive.

Our beer was stored on trucks, away from the combat areas, with each man’s name attached to his case. There were times, during combat, when we were relieved for rest after days without any sleep and during these periods each man was allowed a bottle of beer from his case. Only one beer was permitted, though, to eliminate the temptation to become drunk and escape the horrors of combat. Although the beer was warm, we beer lovers were in seventh heaven to have the taste of even a warm bottle of beer.

Inky, circa 1941.

Each man’s small allotment of beer was highly valued. While we were in the Philippines, we were given our monthly army pay in Pesos, but there was nothing to buy and, in a sense, the money you were paid was considered almost useless. Most of us were single men who figured our days were numbered. You might be killed tomorrow or next week. Gambling was a relief from the stress of combat and it was nothing for expert crap shooters to make thousands of dollars in Pesos in a night of gambling.

What to do with that money? It was not unheard of for a beer loving gambler to pay a thousand dollars in Pesos for another soldier’s case of beer. Non-beer drinkers took a chance that they might survive the war and sent the money home to a bank account. Both the non-beer drinker and the gambler were happy.

Somewhere on the Island of Leyte, today, there must be thousands of beer bottles left behind by American G.I.s. All of them empty of beer, of course, as not a drop of beer was ever wasted or absorbed into the air. We G.I.s who survived the Philippine Island Liberation and the war in Leyte will remember the taste of that "Liquid Gold" and the Christmas of 1944 forever.

A note about Inky’s beer story….
I first met Oshkosh historian and author Clarence “Inky” Jungwirth in 2010. We became fast friends over our mutual love of beer. Later that year, Inky called me and told me a story from 1944 when he was in the Army and received beer for Christmas. I told Inky that if he'd write that story up, I'd publish it on my blog. This story first appeared on the Oshkosh Beer Blog on January 20, 2010. Inky passed away in 2018. He would have been 100 years old this year, so I thought this would be an appropriate time to share his story again.

For more of Inky’s beer stories, click HERE and HERE.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

A Beer History of Oshkosh’s Fox River Brewing Company

The foundation for craft beer in Oshkosh was built by the Fox River Brewing Company. For many people in this city, this brewery provided their first encounter with non-industrial beer. Over the past 25 years, no other Oshkosh brewery or tavern has broadened the beer culture here to the extent that Fox River has. It could be argued that this is the most important Oshkosh brewery of the past 100 years.

Fox River Brewing Company Oshkosh, circa 1997.

Oshkosh has been home to 20 licensed breweries since 1849. Fox River holds the distinction of having produced more types of beer than any other brewery in the city's history. There are 154 beer styles recognized by the Brewers Association, an industry trade group. Over the years, breweries here have produced 96 of the categorized styles. Of that group, 71 of them - or 74% - were first brewed in Oshkosh by Fox River.

Well, what of it?

It's this: hidden within that exceptional burst of new beer is a story about beer drinkers in Oshkosh. It tells how they've evolved over the past quarter-century while maintaining some of the same biases that beer drinkers here first embraced in the 1800s. As we’ll see, the beer culture that continues to develop in Oshkosh is unique to this place.

A brewhouse transfer sheet from July 2003 showing beer leaving fermentation tanks for packaging.

For the past four months, I've been allowed access to the complete set of brewing logs and production reports for Fox River's Oshkosh brewery. These records form an unexpurgated diary of the brewery. Among other things, they report the materials and processes used to make every barrel of beer that Fox River Oshkosh has produced since 1995. The production logs show clearly which beers drinkers in Oshkosh embraced and those which they did not.

As I collected the information within these logs, sets of distinct patterns began to emerge. Conveniently, they cycle in five-year increments. The story begins at 11:25 AM on the Saturday of November 18, 1995, when Al Bunde began brewing Fox River’s first beer. For beer drinkers in Oshkosh, things would never be quite the same.

What follows pertains only to Fox River's Oshkosh brewery. Fox River opened a second location, in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1997. The production counts and beers made at that brewery are not included in this survey.

The Hard Core: 1995-1999
Total Brewery Production for the Period: 3,796 Barrels.

The top five selling beers: their percentage of the total production.
1) Winnebago Wheat: 17%
2) Fox Tail Amber Ale: 16%
3) Golden Ale: 14.4%
4) Caber Tossing Scottish Ale: 13.8%
5) Paine's Lumberyard Pilsner: 11%

The first beer made at Fox River was an American interpretation of a Czech-style Pilsner. It was a beer that bore a distinct similarity to the last beer that had been produced by a commercial brewery in Oshkosh. That was also an American interpretation of a Czech-style Pilsner. It had been made at Peoples Brewing just before it closed in 1972.

Fox River brewmaster Al Bunde didn't know anything about any of that. He wasn't trying to pay homage to the city's brewing history. He was hedging his bets. He was going to give Oshkosh drinkers something that at least looked familiar. Something that might entice them into the deeper end of the beer pool.

At Fox River, they soon learned that Oshkosh drinkers weren't coming to the brewpub to drink the sort of beers that looked like those poured at their corner taverns. They were arriving to try something different. The first breakout beer at Fox River was nothing like those pale lagers that had dominated the city's beer scene for so long.

Winnebago Wheat was a German-style hefeweizen. It was gold in color, hazy, and it smelled like cloves and bananas. The taste was sweet and bready. Looking back, it's not surprising that this most conspicuously German of beers would be the one that attracted so much early attention. Oshkosh's food and drink culture were marked by the German heritage of many of its residents. The expression of that influence could be seen in local taverns and restaurants. Winnebago Wheat fit comfortably into that setting. It remained the best selling beer at Fox River until 2000.

Fox Tail Amber Ale came in a close second every one of those years. This, too, was a sweetish beer, but with a bronze glow that immediately set it apart. There may have been some signaling going on here. In 1996, a glass of Winnebago Wheat or Fox Tail Amber on the table or bar was an easy-to-read indicator of beer-drinking sophistication. A symbol anyone could see from across the room. The best-selling beer in Oshkosh at this time was the ubiquitous Miller Lite. These beers looked nothing like that.

The symbolic aspect of Fox River's beer extended beyond the brewpub. By mid-1996, Fox River was distributing its beer to about 20 bars and restaurants in the Oshkosh area. Having the "home-brewed" beer pouring side-by-side with well-known craft brands helped to raise the brewery's stature. The effect was enhanced at places like Oblio's and the Lizard Lounge where Oshkosh's more dedicated craft-beer drinkers tended to congregate.

Throughout this period, the beers that sold the best for Fox River shared a common theme. They were malt-forward and gently hopped. Drinkers in Oshkosh had shown themselves to be partial to that sort of flavor profile more than 100 years earlier and their preference had been thoroughly documented in a marketing survey commissioned by the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1957. At Fox River, they came to that realization one beer at a time.

The average hopping rate of Fox River's top three selling beers during this period was less than half a pound of hops per barrel. That was identical to the approach brewers in Oshkosh had been taking since at least the turn of the century. Fox River's more heavily hopped beers, such as Paine's Lumberyard Pilsner, with well over 1.6 pounds of hops per barrel, never made it into the upper tier of the brewery's sales charts. The first IPA brewed in Oshkosh (in August of 1996), delivered a bold bitterness from its more than two pounds of hops per-barrel hopping rate. It would be two years after that one finally came off the tap line before Fox River bothered making another IPA.

It wasn't that the brewers at Fox River had signed off on a pre-ordained approach. They were simply figuring out what worked. Early on in that process, most batches of beer they made broke new ground. In its first full year of operation, Fox River produced 20 different styles of beer. The previous 16 Oshkosh breweries – with a combined history that spanned more than 120 years – had just barely made half as many different types of beer.

Despite all the variety, drinkers in Oshkosh tended to stick to a subset of beers that came to form the brewery's core brands. In addition to the beers listed above, that line-up at various times included an oatmeal stout, a porter, and later a honey-wheat beer. The core beers accounted for 88% of the brewery's production through this period. But the one-offs and seasonals were having an impact. They were helping to re-shape the palates of Oshkosh beer drinkers and laying the groundwork for the change that was to come.
1990s tap handles from Fox River Brewing.
Electric Streetcar Oatmeal Stout was later re-named Trolly Car Stout.

Buzzed: 2000-2004
Total Brewery Production for the Period: 3,891 Barrels.

The top five selling beers: their percentage of the total production.
1) Buzzin’ Honey Ale: 19%
2) Caber Tossing Scottish Ale: 14%
3) Fox Light Lager: 12.4%
4) Winnebago Wheat: 11.7%
5) Fox Tail Amber: 10%

Beginning in the latter half of the 1800s, American beer became an increasingly homogenized and commodified product made on an industrial scale. Along with that, the imprint of individual brewmasters faded. Brand consistency became the important thing. By the 1960s, few of the people who drank Chief Oshkosh Beer, for example, could have named the individual responsible for its production. In the year 2000, it's safe to say that most of Fox River’s regular customers could have told you that Steve Lonsway was the person brewing the beer they drank.

Lonsway had replaced Al Bunde as the Fox River brewmaster in 1997. Lonsway was replaced, in turn, by Brian Allen in 2002. The beers tended to change with the brewers. Bunde's Winnebago Wheat was not exactly the same as Lonsway's. And Allen's Winnebago Wheat was not quite like that of either of the others. Less discerning drinkers may not have noticed the difference. But as sales showed, the changes had consequences.

The best selling beer of this period, Buzzin’ Honey Ale, was an American-style wheat ale made with, of course, honey. It was first brewed by Bunde in February of 1996. In 1998, Lonsway revamped the recipe, adding 5% caramel malt to the grist which deepened the color and accentuated the beer's sweetness. Buzzin’ Honey was an immediate hit when it went on tap in the early summer of 1998. It became a core beer and remained in the Fox River line-up for the next 16 years.

The success of Buzzin’ Honey Ale may have been bittersweet for Lonsway, a self-described hop head. But his love of hoppy beer was not shared by Fox River drinkers. They continued to seek beers with a malt-driven, sweeter profile. From 2000 through 2004, Fox River produced just four IPAs. This at a time when IPA was on its way to becoming the hottest trend in craft beer. Not in Oshkosh. Here, old preferences still held sway.

There was no more obvious representation of that than Fox Light, which began its life as a bland, 4% ABV, lager brewed with flaked corn. It had replaced the light-bodied Golden Ale in 2000. This was lighter yet, a beer made to appease the dinner crowd who were coming to the brewpub because they liked the food, but had little interest in more flavorful beers. The beer geeks may have grumbled, but the punters drank it up. Fox Light grew in popularity, year after year.

The use of adjuncts such as flaked corn was not new at Fox River, but this period saw their use increase substantially. In 1995 Bunde had claimed he brewed beer according to the Reinheitsgebott, the German-purity law that prohibits the use of any ingredient other than water, malt, hops, and yeast. Bunde wasn't telling the truth then, but now there wasn't even the pretense.

Adjuncts had been part of brewing in Oshkosh since at least the 1870s, but what Fox River was doing was different. The brewery was using adjuncts to create flavors that had never been present in any previously brewed Oshkosh beers. In the early 2000s, both Lonsway and Allen leaned into the practice, using things like raisins, vanilla, lemon juice, cherries, raspberries, pumpkin, and spices of all sorts.

Most of these beers were diversions; one-offs brewed to maintain the interests of aficionados in an endless quest to drink something they'd never had before. One of those beers, first brewed by Brian Allen in April of 2004, was named BLÜ. It came and went that spring with little notice. It would turn out to be a sleeping giant.

Tossing Back Cabers: 2005-2009
Total Brewery Production for the Period: 3,838 barrels.

The top five selling beers: their percentage of the total production.
1) Caber Tossing Scottish Ale: 19%
2) Buzzin’ Honey Ale: 16%
3) Fox Light Lager: 12%
4) Winnebago Wheat: 11.9%
5) Fox Tail Pale Ale: 7%

On October 27, 2005, Brian Allen began an afternoon of brewing that would stretch well into the evening. He was making a barleywine to celebrate Fox Rivers's upcoming 10th Anniversary. At 10.5% ABV, it would become the strongest beer that had been made up to that point in Oshkosh. Fox River had been working its way up to something like this for some time now.

In the mid-2000s, the brewery began to rely more and more heavily on seasonals and one-off beers to sustain the interest of craft beer drinkers. With the increase in specialty beers came a boost of alcohol. Part of what could make a beer "special" was its strength. Imperial stouts, hefty Maibocks, and strong Belgian ales were beers that Fox River patrons were coming to expect at various points in the year.

Whereas beers north of 6.5% ABV had once been rare at the brewpub, it was now becoming increasingly rare to not find a beer that strong on the list. And as Oshkosh drinkers become acclimated to the stronger beers, their thirst for them grew. With that came more calls for Caber Tossing Scottish Ale.

The first batch of Caber Tossing had been brewed in November of 1995 as a 5.8% ABV Scotch Wee Heavy. It was the strongest beer in the Fox River year-round line-up and it sold fairly well from the start. The beer had been awarded a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 2000 and won a gold medal there in 2001. Both awards had helped to boost sales.

When the alcohol content began to climb, though, people began taking serious notice. By 2006, some batches of Caber were coming in as strong as 6.5% ABV and the beer was selling like never before. Its day had come. A beer that had been lurking in Fox River's portfolio for a decade was now the brewery's best-seller.

Other old standbys fared less well. Fox Tail Amber Ale bit the dust in 2005 and was replaced with Fox Tail Pale Ale that same year. While Fox Light – remade into a Kolsch in 2005 – proved to be the doom of Paine's Lumberyard Pilsner, which was benched in 2003. All the while, people continued tossing back Caber Tossing. From 2007 through 2013, Caber was the brewpub’s runaway bestseller.

To Every Season: 2010-2014
Total Brewery Production for the Period: 3,066 barrels.

The top five selling beers: their percentage of the total production.
1) Caber Tossing Scottish Ale: 18%
2) BLÜ 16%
3) Winnebago Wheat: 13%
4) Buzzin’ Honey Ale: 11%
5) Fox Light 8%

By 2010, fifteen years since the brewery's launch, Fox River had fallen into a steady groove. Each year saw five-to-six core beers that remained on tap throughout the year. They were supported by one-offs and seasonal specialties released every couple of weeks or so. But the steady groove was grinding a rut.

The brand loyalty the brewery had established was being undone by the change taking place among beer drinkers in Oshkosh. It used to be they would come to Fox River with the idea of having a few pints of the beer they liked best. Maybe that was Caber Tossing or Winnebago Wheat. But now they weren't doing that as much. Now, they were coming with the idea that they wanted to try whatever the new thing happened to be. And if there was nothing new on tap, they weren't bothering to come at all.

For the first time, Fox River's production slumped. Beer sales fell by 20% during this period. There were at least a couple of reasons for this. First, the brewery had almost entirely ceased distributing its beer, which diminished the brewery's presence and the attention of locals to it. The only place you were likely to see Fox River handles was at the brewpub. Second, interest in craft beer was surging in Oshkosh and there were now other players competing in the space that Fox River had owned for the previous 15 years.

New restaurants such as Becket's, Dublin's Irish Pub, and Gardina's had opened that paired large selections of craft beer on draft with a full dining menu. And these places always offered something that Fox River often didn't: IPA.

By 2012, IPA was the fastest-growing style of beer in America. It accounted for more than 15% of all craft beer sales. But you would have never suspected that if all your beer-drinking was done at Fox River. In 2010, Fox River didn't brew an IPA in Oshkosh. In 2011 and 2012, the brewery made just one IPA each year. They just didn't sell well enough to bother with. Not even slightly bitter pale ales did well. The only pale ale that had made its way into Fox River's core line-up, Fox Tail Pale Ale, was snuffed in 2012.

Meanwhile, Fox River continued catering to the more traditional Oshkosh beer drinker. The folks who preferred a maltier, less bitter beer. But that received preference was being rejected by scores of local beer drinkers. There were now significant numbers of Oshkosh drinkers who wanted a beer with profuse hop flavor and aroma. They were a new breed and they weren't going to Fox River to drink beer.

There was a bright spot, however. The growth of one-offs and seasonal specialties at Fox River continued to increase. Those beers now accounted for 34% of the brewery's output. One of the seasonals, a blueberry infused beer named BLÜ, grew so quickly that it began to propel the entire brewery forward.

Although it didn't become a year-round beer until 2013, BLÜ already accounted for 16% of the brewery's production during this period. It was another one of those "sweet" beers that Oshkosh beer drinkers had long favored. BLÜ, re-named BLÜ Bobber in 2014, was about to take Fox River to heights that had once seemed totally out of reach.

Peak BLÜ: 2015-2019
Total Brewery Production for the Period: 5,625 barrels.

The top five selling beers: their percentage of the total production.
1) BLÜ Bobber: 46%
2) Caber Tossing/Marble Eye Scottish Ale: 9%
3) 2 Dams Blonde Ale: 7%
4) Red Bobber: 6.8%
5) Reel It In IPA: 3%

The early 2010s had been an awkward time for Fox River. But there were seeds planted there that would grow into abundance. In 2015, the 20-year-old brewery was entering into what would become its most successful period. It started with the brewmaster. When Kevin Bown took over for Brian Allen in 2009, he had inherited an approach that had worked well but was on the verge of being played out. Early on, Bowen had run the brewhouse in much the same way his mentor had. But he seemed to realize that wasn't going to work much longer.

"I’ve really been working to hone my skills and nail the styles and flavors I’m setting out to achieve," he said in 2012. "For me, it’s always a progression." The work Bowen was putting in began paying off. In 2013 production began to tick upward. That continued in 2014. You could taste the difference in beers that were now selling that had sold so poorly before. In particular, there were the IPAs.

In August of 2013, Fox River released a new IPA named Optic. It was 8.2% ABV and brewed in the modern way with plenty of hops added after the boil and in the fermenter. Bowen described it as having a "super stinky hop aroma." This was not the sort of beer Fox River was known for. But in a couple of weeks, the serving tanks had been drained. After that, came one IPA after another. At the end of the summer of 2014 Fox River co-owner Jay Supple remarked to his surprise, "We were bringing IPAs out and they'd be gone in six days. It was crazy."

Fox River had entered a new era. By the end of 2015, the change was solidified. In 2016, Fox River introduced Reel It In, a session IPA that became the first year-round IPA produced by an Oshkosh brewery. The transformation wasn't just about IPA. It was also about the broadening of the Oshkosh palate in a substantive way. Fox River began putting out dark beers – bold-flavored stouts and porters – at a pace the brewery hadn't been able to before. "For years we tried to sell those sorts of beers, but they just wouldn't move," Supple said. Now they moved.

But nothing moved like BLÜ. A decade after the first 10 barrels of BLÜ had been brewed it emerged as one of those rare beers that changes everything for a brewery. Now a year-round beer, Fox River produced 339 barrels of BLÜ at the Oshkosh brewery in 2015. In 2016 that increased to 518 barrels. By 2018 it was up to 686 barrels; a full 57% of the brewery's total output. BLÜ continued growing and so quickly that it outgrew Fox River's capacity, resulting in some of its production being outsourced to Green Bay's Hinterland Brewing.

All of the change was wrapped in new packaging. Fox River re-entered distribution in 2014 and revamped its core line-up around the "Bago Brew" brand. The rebranding resulted in the loss of longtime core beers Winnebago Wheat and Fox Light; both of which became seasonals. The new line-up included a light, blonde ale named 2 Dams. The only core-beer holdover was Caber Tossing Scottish Ale. But even that was given a new name. The beer was the same but now it was called Marble Eye Scottish Ale. It's the only beer that has poured without stop throughout Fox River's entire 25-year history.

This year, of course, has been like no other in Fox River's history. The COVID-19 pandemic struck at a time when the brewery was at its absolute peak. Though things have slowed, Fox River continues to innovate. Andrew Roth, who became brewmaster in August of 2019, introduced a barrel-aged sour program in September of this year. It's the first program of its type in Oshkosh.

At the end of 2020, Fox River remains Oshkosh's most successful brewery in terms of sales and overall production. The 1,200 barrels of beer the brewery produced in Oshkosh in 2019 was yet another record in an ongoing string of record years. Because of the current predicament, that string will come to an end this year.

Fox River ranks eighth in terms of longevity among all the breweries that have operated in Oshkosh. It will begin moving up that list in the next couple of years. But no matter what comes next, Fox River's pivotal role in the history of brewing in Oshkosh has already been secured.

The Oshkosh brewhouse at Fox River Brewing.

The Fox River Brew Logs
About five years ago I was in the Oshkosh brewhouse at Fox River talking with Kevin Bowen when I spotted a set of binders on a shelf. Each binder had a year written on the spine. I pulled one down and there was every recipe, all the process notes; basically, everything that went into the making of each beer made that year.

From that moment on, I wanted to write a blog post like this one. I contacted Jay Supple this past summer asking if I could borrow all of those binders. He sent one of his notoriously rapid responses: No Problem! Both Jay and his brother John Supple have been incredibly generous in allowing me such complete access to so much internal information. I appreciate their trust greatly.

Thanks also to Drew Roth who arranged to get these logs into my hands. Drew is one of the few people I've discussed this project with who didn't think my intense interest in them was strange. That probably says as much about him as it does about me.

By September, I had the binders here at my house where I began attempting to get my head around everything they contain. I can't say I've been entirely successful. The logs contain thousands of pages of documents filled with amazing amounts of detail. I am grateful to all of the Fox River brewers over the years who have been so diligent in capturing the essence of their work.

The brewery's log books.

Monday, November 30, 2020

The Year of the Doppelbock

Totes Ma Goats Doppelbock went on draft late last week at Fox River Brewing in Oshkosh.

This looks and tastes like a classic, German doppelbock, but there's a twist. "It features absolutely no imported malts or hops," says Andrew Roth, head brewer at Fox River.  "It is a part of an ongoing side project of mine to find local and US produced ingredients to make European style beers without sacrificing quality." It certainly worked for this one. At 7.3% it's an ideal warmer as we head into winter.

Totes Ma Goats is the fifth doppelbock released by an Oshkosh brewery this year. That’s a record for doppelbock here. Every Oshkosh brewery put out a doppelbock this year. The first three came in March and were poured at the Winter Beer Fest. Bare Bones Brewing, Fifth Ward Brewing, and HighHolder Brewing all had doppelbocks there.

Bare Bones Salvatore, released in March as part of the breweries Heritage Series.

Fifth Ward Struck again in September with a big doppelbock made from with reiterated mash.

And now there's Totes Ma Goats at Fox River. The bocks are back!

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Oshkosh's Holiday Beer Revival

A slightly different version of this article appears in today's Oshkosh Herald.

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1998, Steve Lonsway went into the Oshkosh brewhouse of Fox River Brewing Company and did something no professional brewer had done here in 27 years. He made a special beer for the holiday season. The Vanilla Cream Ale he brewed that morning was pouring in time for Christmas. Lonsway, who had been named the brewmaster at Fox River earlier that year, didn’t realize it but he had just taken the first step in reviving a lost tradition that had long been honored here.

Holiday beer in Oshkosh dates back to at least 1913 when Peoples Brewing released a special beer in anticipation of Christmas. The Oshkosh Brewing Company would later follow suit with its Chief Oshkosh Holiday Brew. The seasonal specialities were somewhat stronger than the year-round beers but were offered at the regular price. It was a brewery's way of saying “thank you” to its customers. The highly anticipated beers usually appeared just before Thanksgiving and were often sold out by the first of the year.

Wilhelm Kohlhoff, who was a brewer at Peoples Brewing for much of the 1950s and 1960s, said that Peoples Holiday Beer was a couple of shades darker and slightly stronger than the brewery's flagship brand. “We used a 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 use of unique ingredients to distinguish these beers is still something Oshkosh brewers rely upon. The current iteration of Fox River's Vixen's Vanilla Cream Ale is a deep-golden, strong ale brewed with additions of Ceylon cinnamon, Madagascar vanilla bean, and California orange peel. At 5.9% ABV, the beer is creamy/sweet yet surprisingly drinkable. It's currently available on draft at the Fox River taproom in Oshkosh and in bottles at the brewery and area stores.

At Bare Bones Brewery in Oshkosh, they've brewed their annual holiday beer with ingredients those early Oshkosh brewers would never have dreamt of using. When the brewery's Cookies and Milk Stout was brewed for the first time in anticipation of the 2016 holiday season, the grist included more than 100 pounds of chocolate chip cookies. The milk in the title is a nod to the milk sugar that gets added to the kettle. This year's edition includes honey malt, flaked oats, chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla to round out the cookie experience delivered by this chewy, 6.3% ABV ale. Cookies and Milk Stout is available in cans at Festival Foods and in cans and on draft in the Bare Bones taproom.

At Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh, they'll release their first holiday-themed beer this year. It will arrive in time for Thanksgiving. "We thought we'd do something a little different and have a pie sour available for Thanksgiving time," says Zach Clark of Fifth Ward. They're calling it Key Lime Pie Frootenanny. Ian Wenger of Fifth Ward describes it as a pastry inspired kettle-soured beer made with lactose, key lime purée, vanilla bean, and graham cracker. "Pumpkin beers are great but there are a lot of great breweries that already make them," Wenger says. "We want to bring the Key Lime Pie to Thanksgiving dinner, instead of the classic pumpkin pie." The beer will be available exclusively at the Fifth Ward taproom.

Key Lime Pie Frootenanny.

When Peoples Brewing closed in 1972 it appeared as though the days of locally brewed holiday beer had come to an end in Oshkosh. But now, almost 50 years later, the tradition is as vibrant as it has ever been. Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Southside Brewing District Part I

Mike McArthur of the Oshkosh Public Library and I are making a couple of videos that cover a few of the main spots of the brewing district that once thrived on the "Brooklyn" side of Oshkosh. I should say, Mike is doing most of the work. As you'll see, I just stand around and yammer.

Part one of this series is now live. Part two will be out in early December. Here's the first installment.

This video is part of a series that Mike has done concerning Oshkosh history. They've all been wonderful. You can find the entire series here.

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Plight of the Posted

The photo below was given to me by a friend who thought it was taken in an Oshkosh saloon. Judging by the signs on the back bar, I'm guessing it dates to sometime around 1914. What jumped out to me was the white sign at the upper right with a warning set in bold type: NO MINORS OR POSTED MEN Allowed Here.

To be "posted" meant that a person had been deemed to be a habitual drunkard. Posted individuals in Wisconsin were put on par with minors. They were forbidden from purchasing or consuming alcohol. It was illegal for such a person to even step foot into a saloon. It became, in essence, a form of selective prohibition.

December 25, 1913; Eau Claire Leader.

The posting law was an outgrowth of an 1872 Wisconsin statute making it illegal to sell alcohol to "minors, spendthrifts, habitual drunkards, (or) persons intoxicated or bordering on intoxication." The provision relating to minors was broadly accepted. The other restrictions were not. Many local officials complained that the broad scope of the law made it unenforceable. The Oshkosh common council's response at the time had been to say that the law simply did not apply here.

But the statute was given new life in the early 1900s after the Wisconsin branch of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) began badgering municipalities to use it to go after saloon keepers. The ASL also helped to ram through amendments in 1909 and 1913 that made the law more punitive and its application more arbitrary. No hearing or trial was required to post an individual. No complaint had to be filed. A person could be posted upon the whim of almost any city, town, or county official. It was just a part of the ASL's ongoing attack on individual rights, saloons, and the liquor trade.

A poster railing against the Anti-Saloon League.
It was displayed in many Wisconsin saloons in the years immediately before Prohibition.

In cities where local officials favored the ASL, postings went unchecked. It devolved into an ugly experiment in behavior modification by humiliation. In Fond du Lac, pictures of posted individuals were hung on the walls of saloons. In Manitowoc, they sought to have each of the posted be required to wear a mark; a red button. In Racine, their names were printed in large black type on placards mounted where liquor was sold. "Everybody has noticed, no doubt, what a host of 'posted men' have their portraits adorning telephone poles, windows, and fence posts all over the state," a dry advocate happily observed in a letter published in the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern in August of 1913.

It wasn't just men who were posted. Though the majority of them were men, a woman who liked to drink was just as likely to be tarred with posting. And by 1915, a backlash was well underway.

In Stevens Point, where more than 100 people had been posted, there sprung up an underground club catering specifically to their needs. It grew into a movement called The Independent Order of the Black List. "The revolt of posted men furnishes a situation unique in Stevens Point and perhaps in any city," the Stevens Point Daily Journal reported in 1916. "The posted men have raised the time-worn cry of personal liberty."

Stevens Point wasn't the only place. In Appleton, where temperance advocates held sway, posted men and women organized with the aim of taking their fight to the courts to challenge the constitutionality of the law. Similar efforts occurred in other Wisconsin cities, but the most common resistance tactic was also the simplest: catch a ride to a city where you hadn't been posted and drink to your heart's content.

The conflict never amounted to much more than grumbling in Oshkosh. Here, local officials applied posting measures sparingly. So sparingly in fact that by 1917 the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern was blooming with fuming letters and editorials about what a shameful place this had become. One of the screeds reported that saloon keepers were routinely "selling to minors, selling to men already intoxicated, to posted men, or in fact to anyone who could produce the necessary price of a drink.”

Their vexation was to little effect. Oshkosh remained as soaking wet as ever. It did, however, starkly illustrate the division. The most vocal supporters of the law, the people who had a vicious appetite for its application, were those who considered themselves part of the upper crust. The complaints came bellowing from the folks who lived in big houses on boulevards named Algoma and Washington. They seemed to think it only fitting that they should be allowed to regulate the social life of the working-class saloon goers who toiled in their factories. It was the people who accumulated wealth versus those who created it.

Case in point: Florence Griswold Buckstaff.

Florence Griswold Buckstaff

In a lengthy, self-serving letter to the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern published in March of 1918, Mrs. Buckstaff congratulated herself for having lived in Oshkosh for 30 years and for having devoted so much of her energy to charity. Then she dipped her pen in the well of her bleeding heart and wrote, "I can recall vividly the misery I have known in Oshkosh homes, those in which hunger and cold and immorality were due to drinking habits." She went on to say, of course, that it was the poor children she was really concerned for. Her solution was to post everyone by abolishing all saloons and making liquor illegal.

It was no skin off her ass. Florence Griswold Buckstaff was the wealthy wife of George Angus Buckstaff, president of Oshkosh's Buckstaff Company. The Buckstaffs had built their fortune here selling caskets made by a workforce, which included scores of children, paid subsistence-level wages. Her high-minded rectitude apparently didn't extend into that bleak realm.

The Buckstaff Company, circa 1915.

In the end, it was people like Florence Buckstaff who carried the day. In 1920 everybody became posted with the arrival of national Prohibition. It would take 13 years to put a halt to that disastrous experiment. And to this day its consequences remain with us in the patchwork of reactionary liquor laws that linger on in the aftermath. Few of those of Buckstaff's ilk would ever admit to how recklessly wrong they were.

Enough about that. Let's go back to the picture that started this. Here it is again.

As I mentioned, the person who gave that to me thought it was an Oshkosh saloon. I hadn't seen a shot of an Oshkosh saloon that included a "Posted Men" sign before, so naturally, I tried to figure out which saloon this was. I failed. But I suspect now that this place wasn't in Oshkosh. Look to the right side of that picture where there hangs a banner for Eulberg's Crown Select Beer.

Eulberg Brewing was in Portage, Wisconsin. I've been digging and I have yet to find anything suggesting that Eulberg beer was available in Oshkosh before Prohibition. This saloon was probably in the southern part of the state. And that makes sense when you consider how those Oshkosh dries croaked about the welcome mat being out for anyone with a nickel for beer. No minors allowed? Bosh!

End Note
I know I'm being harsh towards Florence Griswold Buckstaff here. To be fair, she wasn't entirely terrible. She was also an advocate for Women's rights. If you're looking for a more balanced portrayal of her, you could begin here. Otherwise, a simple Google search of her name will turn up plenty.