Monday, January 27, 2020

The Oshkosh Beer Blog, Ten Years In

The Oshkosh Beer Blog began 10 years ago today. This will be post number 1,021. I never would have guessed it would last this long.

The idea for the blog came to me in November 2009. The beer scene in Oshkosh was just starting to take off. Places like Oblio's, O'Marro's, and Peabody's were already putting on a wide range of beers, but those bars were unusual. When Becket's opened in 2008 followed by Dublin's in 2009 it seemed to signal a broader change. Both restaurants emphasized their beer options. More and more people here appeared interested in drinking something other than big-brewery pale lager. When 2010 began, there was a wider variety of beer available in Oshkosh than we had ever seen before.

My initial plan was to set up a web site that would have up-to-date tap lists for places in Oshkosh that had a decent draft-beer list. That idea had inflated considerably by the time the site was up and running. I decided I’d make it a blog and in addition to the tap lists, I’d post stories featuring bar owners, and beer geeks, and homebrewers. And every now and then, I’d post something about the history of beer in Oshkosh. It took a good year before I felt like I had figured out what I was trying to do. I committed a lot of lousy blogging during that time. Luckily, people were patient enough with me to keep visiting the site.

After that first year, the grind of keeping those tap lists up-to-date was getting to be too much. At the peak of that, I was keeping tap lists for nine different places in town. About half of the owners of those places would email updates to me when their list changed. The others I had to go out and update myself. Because of my job, I wasn't getting back to Oshkosh most nights until about 11 p.m. That's when I'd go around hitting the bars seeing what they had on tap. Of course, it was impossible for me to step into a tavern and not have a couple of beers. I’d get home late and then wake up early so I could get some writing done for the blog before I had to start dealing with my other responsibilities. I did that for more than a year. It was fun, but it wasn’t healthy. Something had to give.

I gradually eased out of tap listing and started giving more and more time to researching Oshkosh beer history. I've always loved doing that part of the blog. I was spending hours at a time down in the basement of the courthouse where they stored old documents having to do with property, and court cases, and death. None of that stuff had yet been digitized. You had to go plowing through shelves full of moldering indexes and ledgers to find what you were looking for. That basement was a goldmine. I was discovering things down there about Oshkosh brewers and saloon keepers that had been long ago forgotten.

Then in 2012, I met Ron Akin. Over the previous 30 years, Ron had assembled an amazing collection of Oshkosh breweriana. He wanted to do a book about the history of brewing in Oshkosh that would feature his collection. So, in April of 2012, I shut down the blog and went to work on the book with Ron.

I thought at that point that the blog was dead. The book was going to say everything there was to say about Oshkosh brewing and beer history. I figured the book would make any future blogging unnecessary. But after a couple of months of work on the book, I realized we'd never be able to cover all of the information I had accumulated. Some of the cuts we had to make were painful. But there was nowhere near enough space to fit it all in. I decided then that I was going to revive the blog.

In August 2012, the book was wrapped up and I returned to blogging. The first post was an announcement that The Breweries of Oshkosh; Their Rise and Fall was coming soon. The book was released on September 22, 2012. The release party was at Fox River Brewing. Kevin Bowen, who was the brewer then at Fox River, and I made Chief Oshkosh Beer for the book release. It was the first time in 40 years that Chief Oshkosh had been poured in Oshkosh. That alone made all the work worthwhile.

The blog was going along pretty well again, but by the end of 2013 I was getting frustrated. I didn't want to write any more about craft beer being sent into Oshkosh from other places. I wanted the blog to be about what was happening locally. But Fox River was still the only brewery in town. I liked Fox River, but historically the city had almost always had multiple breweries. Why not now? The beer scene here was certainly vibrant enough to support more than one brewery.

I thought about dropping all the other stuff and only writing about Oshkosh brewing history. But in 2014, something new began bubbling up. People were talking seriously about launching new breweries in Oshkosh.

You could hear that talk at almost every Society of Oshkosh Brewers meeting. Mike Schlosser and Shawn O'Marro were at those SOB meetings talking about their plans for what would become HighHolder Brewing. Ian Wenger and Zach Clark were there talking about starting what would become Fifth Ward Brewing. Jody Cleveland, now head brewer at Bare Bones, was there sharing his homebrew and trying to learn everything he could. I don't think you can overestimate the influence the SOBs have had on our current beer scene. So much of what is happening here now was incubated in that club of homebrewers.

In late 2014, I learned about what Dan Dringoli wanted to do. I met and interviewed Dan and his wife Patti for the first time on April 4, 2015. They didn't have brewing equipment yet, but they were definitely serious about launching Bare Bones Brewery. Their plan came together quickly. On July 16, 2015, former homebrewer Lyle Hari made the first batch of beer at Bare Bones. A couple of years, later Fifth Ward and HighHolder were up and running. In 2018, Oshkosh had four breweries again for the first time since 1894.

Seeing all this come into being was incredibly interesting to me. I had spent so much time researching, thinking, and wondering about those earlier periods when breweries were being established in Oshkosh. Now, here I was living in the midst of one of those times. Those events gave shape to a vague thought I began having shortly after starting this blog. It was about the person who I was writing all of this for.

I realized fairly early that everything I was writing about the history of brewing in Oshkosh was representational at best. I mean, what if there had been a beer-loving person living in Oshkosh in the 1860s who had kept a journal about the beer scene that was then blooming here. I'm sure their depiction of that time would have been altogether different and more accurate than mine has been.

So now when I'm writing about beer in Oshkosh, I tend to think about a person who might live here sometime in the future. A person who loves beer, and this city, and its history. I imagine that person stumbling upon all these words and wondering, what the hell was this guy trying to do? If that person ever exists and somehow manages to find this, here's their answer: I want you to understand that my time was strange and wonderful. I want to give you a sense, as best I can, of what it was like being here. And how fortunate I was to have been a part of it.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Oshkosh Beer Timeline

I began building the Oshkosh Beer Timeline website in 2011. Years later, I’m still adding content. There's more to come, but I can say without reservation that it’s now the most comprehensive overview of Oshkosh brewing and beer history available in any format. It begins in 1849 and carries forward through 2019, covering 170 years of Oshkosh beer history.

I’ve recently completed another set of updates to the timeline. It now contains more than 200 entries. Most of the timeline events are accompanied by a link leading to a deeper examination of the topic at hand. Have a look. Here’s the Oshkosh Beer Timeline. Prost!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Germans in Wisconsin

This week began a new exhibit at the Oshkosh Public Library titled Neighbors Past and Present: The Wisconsin German Experience. It's an excellent presentation about the Germans who migrated to this region and the enduring influence they have had on communities such as ours. If you're interested in understanding the culture of Oshkosh, this exhibit is essential. It's all on the second floor of the library and free and open to the Public.

Of course, when you're talking about Germans in Wisconsin, beer is going to have to be a part of the discussion. Local breweriana collector Steve Schrage was given a display case to show off part of his substantial collection of memorabilia related to German brewers and beer bottlers in Oshkosh. My picture doesn't begin to do that display justice...

A portion of that display is given over to Oshkosh's independent beer bottlers of the late 1800s. I've written about this crew before HERE and HERE. Like the breweries they worked on behalf of, these bottling operations were run almost exclusively by German immigrants. Some of their bottles now on display at the library are incredibly rare.  It's worth a trip over just to get a look at those. It's probably the only opportunity most of us will ever have to see these items in person.

Neighbors Past and Present will be on display at OPL until February 28. In addition to the displays, the library will host a series of related programs. And OPL has put together a nice set of online resources that add substantially to the experience. I can't recommend this exhibit highly enough for anyone fascinated by how we became what we are.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

A History of Beer Prices in Oshkosh

Beer became a staple product in Oshkosh even before the city was chartered in 1853. And its price has been rising ever since. But if you think you’re paying too much for beer today, you should see what those who came before us were paying. We have it pretty good.

A quick note before digging in. You’ll see numerous places where prices are presented like this: $2.75 ($40). The price in brackets is what the cost would be today when adjusted for inflation. Meaning what may have once cost $2.75 would today cost $40. Here we go...

Early Oshkosh
In 1849, Oshkosh's first newspaper appeared. Though the Oshkosh True Democrat backed Wisconsin's emergent temperance movement, the paper was larded with ads for booze and beer. Notices for London Porter and Detroit Ale were common in the pages of the True Democrat. What went missing from those ads was any mention of price. What were people in Oshkosh paying for London-brewed porter in 1849? I doubt we’ll ever know, but I’ll bet it didn’t come cheap.

In the summer of 1849, the Oshkosh True Democrat often contained ads featuring London porter. 

Oshkosh-brewed beer began appearing in the pages of the True Democrat in 1850 after Joseph Scheussler (more often spelled Schussler) and John Freund launched the Oshkosh Brewery on what is now Bay Shore Drive. But Scheussler and Freund also avoided any mention of a specific price in their advertising.

Oshkosh True Democrat, September 6, 1850

The reluctance to advertise beer prices in Oshkosh became ingrained. There are allusions from the early 1860s that a glass of beer in an Oshkosh saloon could be had for a couple of pennies, but nothing definitive is presented. Let's suppose that's accurate and that in 1865 you dropped two pennies on the bar for a schooner of beer. Adjusted for inflation, those two 1865 pennies would be worth about 32 cents today. That's a damned cheap beer.

In Mugs, Growlers, and Glass
Prior to the 1870s, bottled beer in Oshkosh was scarce. But by mid-decade, it was becoming somewhat more common. In 1877, Rahr Brewing in Oshkosh was selling 12-packs of its bottled beer for $1.20 ($29.40). Those would have been quart-sized bottles, so fluid-wise, it was the equivalent of a case of beer. Not a terrible price considering how novel bottled beer was at this point.

About this same time, the nickel ($1.25) mug of beer was on its way to becoming a hallowed tradition in Oshkosh. A 5-cent piece got you a hearty pour. About a pint's worth. That fixed price would come to haunt saloon keepers as the cost of kegged beer began to rise in the 1890s.

The War Revenue Act of 1898 increased the federal tax on beer and drove up the price on a barrel of beer in Oshkosh from $6.40 ($198.33) to $7.40 ($229.32). Even with the added tax it wasn't a bad price. A barrel of beer in most cities during this time averaged around $8.00 ($247.91). Today, a bar in Oshkosh will pay about $110.00 for a half-barrel of Miller Lite and about $150.00 for a half-barrel of Spotted Cow. Keep in mind, those are half barrels, so the actual cost is not all that different.

An 1898 tax stamp for a one-eight barrel of beer.

When keg prices rose, a shorter pour was the only way for a saloon keeper to make up the difference. Of course, the short pour was never popular on the customer's side of the bar. And with well over 100 saloons in Oshkosh, there was always plenty of competition for customers. Most saloon keepers here kept on serving up the large mugs. Here's a picture taken in the early 1900s at John Wawrzinski’s saloon, which used to stand on Oshkosh Avenue. Those hefty mugs are filled with the Oshkosh Brewing Company's lager.

The New Millennium
By the turn of the century, bottled beer had become widely available in Oshkosh. In 1900, the Oshkosh Brewing Company was selling its Gilt Edge Beer for 75 cents ($23) a case. Gilt Edge was the brewery’s premium lager, comparable to something like Coors Banquet, which you can now find in Oshkosh for $14.99 a case. The diminished price of premium lager reflects the diminished reputation of that sort of beer. But in 1900, pale lager was the fashionable thing. It was the hazy IPA of its day, but with a much larger audience.

Early 1900s hipsters drinking Gilt Edge Beer.

If the price of Gilt Edge was too steep for you, OBC offered a budget beer in bottles referred to as "Standard." This was the brewery's basic keg beer diverted into bottles. It sold for 45 cents ($14) a case. Although none of our current breweries produce a low-cost beer, the budget beers that are available here are much cheaper now than they were at the turn of the century. A 30-pack of Hamm’s, for example, regularly sells for less than $12 in Oshkosh.

Beer drinkers in the early 1900s paid dearly when they ventured beyond the realm of the hometown lagers. There were Oshkosh saloons at this point selling bottles of imported Burton Ale and White Label Bass Ale for 25 cents ($7.31). You won’t find either of those around anymore, but a pint of pale ale at an Oshkosh tavern or brewery taproom now goes for $4 or $5.

The cheapest stuff in the early 1900s was bucket beer. Most Oshkosh saloons charged between 5 cents ($1.50) and 10 cents ($3) to fill a half-gallon pail or "growler" with standard, keg lager. Let's compare: A half-gallon growler of something like 842 Pale Ale at Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh costs $10 today. And that's a very fair price compared to what most taprooms are charging for growler fills. It may have been cheaper back then, but keep in mind that you had to carry it out in something that looked like this...

Prices rose with the approach of Prohibition. In 1917, both the Oshkosh Brewing Company and Peoples Brewing were selling cases of their premium brands for $1.50 ($30). Each sold their budget beer at 90 cents ($18) a case. That's substantially more than you'd pay for comparable beers today. Unless, of course, that beer is coming from a craft brewery. In which case, a $30 case would be considered a bargain.

When Prohibition began in 1920, prices climbed fiercely. A bottle of bootleg beer cost 25 cents ($3.75) in an Oshkosh speakeasy. A full case went for $3 ($45). It's basic economics: make it illegal and you'll make somebody a lot of money.

Butch Youngwirth's Speakeasy at 6th and Ohio in Oshkosh, circa 1925.

Beer Can Blues
When Prohibition ended in 1933 prices dipped, but still remained rather high. In 1934, Oshkosh-brewed lagers were selling for $1.90 ($37.59) a case. That's more than double the price of a comparable beer today. Those prices gradually came down as more breweries came back online, but they remained well above the present going rate.

The new canned beers were especially expensive. Beer packaged in cans first hit Oshkosh in 1935 with the arrival of Pabst Export, which sold for $2.75 ($40) a case. At that time, it was the most expensive beer sold here.

The best deals were still when drinking beer poured from a faucet in a tavern. Oshkosh's persistent nickel-beer tradition survived into the early 1940s. A 5-cent beer at the Tip Top on N. Main Street would cost 92 cents in today’s money.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, November 16, 1940.

Prices stagnated and then dropped again in the 1940s after the launch of the Office of Price Administration (OPA). Established as part of a national defense program, the OPA set limits on beer prices. In 1946, for example, the highest legal price for a bottle of Chief Oshkosh or Peoples Beer was set at 10 cents ($1.32). Nationally distributed brands were awarded a higher upper limit. A bottle of Budweiser or Schlitz, for example, could go for as high as 14 cents ($1.85).

The OPA guidelines were arbitrary and worked against smaller breweries. Tavern owners didn’t like it either. In 1943, 26 taverns in Oshkosh were charged with violating established price ceilings. The OPA list shown below is from 1946 and covers most of the beers then sold in Northeast Wisconsin.

By the mid-1950s, such pricing tiers were essentially locked in. Customers came to expect that local beers were cheaper. Though the beer may have been the equal of nationally distributed brands, regional breweries were never again able to price their product on par with those of much larger breweries. The circumstance was especially frustrating for the smaller breweries. Due to economies of scale, it cost them more to produce their beer. Yet they had little choice, but to charge less for it.

Here's a sampling of how that played out in Oshkosh. These are 1954 prices from West End Beverage, which was located just west of the bridge on what is now Oshkosh Avenue.

1954 prices on cases of returnable 12-ounce bottles, deposit not included.
    Berliner Beer, Berlin, Wis.: $2.25 ($21.51)
    Budweiser, St. Louis: $3.95 ($37.77)
    Blatz, Milwaukee: $3.95 ($37.77)
    Chief Oshkosh, Oshkosh: $2.35 ($22.47)
    Gem Beer, Menasha, Wis.: $2.25 ($21.51)
    Golden Glow, Huber Brewing Monroe, Wis: $2.25 ($21.51)
    Knapstein, New London, Wis.: $2.15 ($20.56)
    Miller, Milwaukee: $3.95 ($37.77)
    Old Style, Lacrosse, Wis: $3.39 ($32.41)
    Peoples Beer, Oshkosh: $2.35 ($22.47)
    Rahr's Beer, Oshkosh: $2.35 ($22.47)
    Schlitz, Milwaukee: $3.95 ($37.77)
    Stork Beer, Slinger, Wis.: $1.95 ($18.65)

Even the lowest-priced beer, Stork from Slinger, is fairly high when adjusted for inflation and compared to budget brands selling in Oshkosh today. And check out the adjusted price on Budweiser. Today, you can easily find a case of Budweiser in Oshkosh for well under $20. Blatz? You can get a case of that in Oshkosh for about $13 now.

By the way, that pricing structure helped to kill off most of the small breweries on that list. By the end of 1964, the breweries in Berlin, Menasha, New London, Slinger, along with Rahr in Oshkosh were closed.
GEM from the Walter Bros. Brewing of Menasha, which closed in 1956.

The Beginning of the End
In the 1960s, America's largest breweries used cut-throat pricing to pummel the remaining smaller, regional breweries. Big-brewery budget brands were being sold at the same price point as locally made beers. The list below is from late 1963 and illustrates that point. At Ray's Beverage on New York Avenue, cases of Kingsbury, made by Heileman; Old Milwaukee, brewed by Schlitz, and Gettelman from Miller, were all selling for around $2.54 ($21.35). The same price as Chief Oshkosh and Peoples.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; September 20, 1963.

We all know who won the battle. The brewery’s here couldn’t compete. Near the end, Chief Oshkosh, the brand having been sold to Peoples, was selling for $2.60 ($16) a case. Peoples Beer went for $2.70 ($16.61) a case. Both brands died when Peoples Brewing closed in 1972. And with that, Oshkosh was without a brewery for the first time since 1849. What had happened here had already swept across the state.

By 1974, there were just eight breweries remaining in Wisconsin. It was the lowest count since 1840. Four of those breweries were large: Heileman, Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz. Four were small: Stevens Point Brewing, Huber in Monroe, Leinenkugel in Chippewa Falls, and Walter in Eau Claire. Stevens Point is the only brewery of that group of eight that remains as an independent entity. All the rest were either gobbled up by competitors or snuffed out.

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; December 18, 1974.

Crafty Beer
The beer that poured in Oshkosh in the 1970s and 1980s all came from somewhere else. And almost all of it was run-of-the-mill, pale lager. At the high end was Special Export, which in 1980 was selling in Oshkosh for $8.63 ($27) a case. Budweiser went for $7.63 ($23.82) a case. Cases of Pabst sold for $7.54 ($23.54). Miller and Miller Lite were $7.16 ($22.35) a case. At the other end of the spectrum was the lowly Bohemian Club at $4 ($12.50) a case, and the nearly undrinkable Fox Deluxe at $3.92 ($12.25) a case. I know whereof I speak when it comes to Bohemian Club and Fox Deluxe. I sent gallons of each down my neck in the 1980s.

Craft beer wasn’t entirely absent from Oshkosh prior to the 1990s, but it might as well have been. When Chief Oshkosh Red Lager came on the scene in 1991 many here didn’t quite know what to make of it. Jeff Fulbright, who launched Chief Oshkosh Red Lager as the flagship brand of Mid-Coast Brewing, met plenty of resistance. “I went to all the taverns in town,” Fulbright said. “I’d go in and have some old-geezer tavern owner yelling at me ‘I can’t sell that dark shit!’”

C’mon, it wasn't even that dark.

And it wasn’t just the color that shocked people. At $3.99 ($7.53) a six-pack, Chief Oshkosh Red Lager sold for about a dollar more than ultra-premium brands such as Augsburger or Michelob. But it was still cheaper than imported Heineken, Grolsch, or Beck’s Dark, which were priced from $4.75 - $4.99 ($8.97 - $9.42) for a six-pack. Most of the “micro” brews trickling into Oshkosh at that time – Capital’s Garten Brau beers, for example – were priced similarly to the imports. Others, like Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, were as high as $6.99 ($13.20) a six-pack. When you adjust for inflation, craft beer in Oshkosh today is, on average, cheaper than what folks here were paying for it in the 1990s.

When Fox River Brewing opened here in 1995, a pint of beer at the brewpub cost $2.50 ($4.22). Adjusted for inflation, that’s 50-75 cents cheaper than most pints offered in Oshkosh brewery taprooms today. The recent price creep we’ve seen in brewery taprooms here is largely made possible by the intensely-hopped, and adjunct-laden high-alcohol beers that breweries feature as specials. Pints of hazy IPA and beers that get into the 8% ABV and above range tend to sell anywhere from $6 to $10 a pint. That said, it’s still possible to get a $4 pint in a brewery taproom in Oshkosh. Those days are probably numbered. There are, however, still plenty of $4 pints of craft beer being sold in local bars that feature craft beer.

The price of craft beer in Oshkosh held fairly steady into the 2000s. As late as 2005 you could still pick up a six-pack of New Glarus' Hop Hearty IPA or Spotted Cow for $5.99 ($7.89). But Sam Adams Boston Lager was up to $6.99 ($9.21) a six-pack. At the same time, the price of big-brewery lager was tanking. In 2005, you could get a case of Budweiser, which for almost a century had been the highest priced domestic premium beer in Oshkosh, for $14.99 ($19.74). Miller Genuine Draft was just slightly cheaper. The big breweries had finally gotten their comeuppance. Their flagship brands are even cheaper today. Those beers aren’t going away anytime soon, but they’ll never again be anything more than second or third-shelf brands.

By 2010, the $4 ($4.72) pint of craft beer was well established in Oshkosh. A basic six-pack of craft beer in a grocery store was selling for about $6.99 ($8.25). Today's prices tend to be higher than that, but not by much. The $5 pint for a non-specialty craft beer is now the norm here. A six-pack of the same can usually be found for $8.49, though $8.99 is becoming more and more common. Sixers from local breweries tend to be around $9.99.

On average, our beer prices are lower now than they have been over most of this city's history. Of course, it doesn’t feel that way. A couple of things contribute to that perception.

First, locally made beer has never been as expensive as it is right now. Part of that has to do with the small size of our breweries. But mostly it's because what they sell is presented and approached as a specialty product that comes with the expectation of a higher price.

Second, there have never been so many different types of beer available here. That variety comes with an array of price points. At the high-end it's quite steep and at the low-end it's incredibly cheap. You’ll pay a premium to explore the outrĂ© fringe of that diversity. That’s been the case in every era, but even more so now.

The full gamut has never before presented such extremes. Enjoy it while you can. Because most likely it will not last.

Monday, January 6, 2020

The Beer Cranks in Oshkosh

Here we have an ad from June 5, 1940 that appeared in the Rhinelander Daily News. Notice the part about the beer “cranks” in Oshkosh. I especially like this part: “Folks down in Oshkosh think they are the most particular beer drinkers in the world. And they say, Chief OSHKOSH – is the finest beer brewed anywhere. ‘Milwaukee? St. Louis? Nix! They can’t touch Oshkosh.’ That’s what they’ll tell you.”