Thursday, February 27, 2020

The SOB's Oyster Stout

Saturday morning, The Society of Oshkosh Brewers will be doing the sort of things those SOBs do. They’re brewing an Oyster Stout at The Cellar Brew Shop. And yes, that beer will include actual oysters. Brew day starts at 10am. Stop by The Cellar and check it out.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Wisconsin: The "Rotten" Spots

Here we have an ugly artifact with a strong upside. The map below is from 1918. It was prepared by the “hyper-patriots” of the Wisconsin Loyalty League. The shaded areas show the "rotten spotted" sections of Wisconsin "infected" with German immigrants. Oshkosh was rotten indeed. Just so happens those rotten spots were also where the breweries flourished. I'll take the shade any day.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Ask the Brewmaster Saturday at The Cellar

This Saturday, February 22, Fox River Brewing Company brewmaster Drew Roth will teach an Introduction to Brewing class at The Cellar Brew Shop, 465 N Washburn St, in Oshkosh. Class begins at 11 am. And it's free.

Drew is going to go through the basics of homebrewing using an extract kit to demonstrate all the steps along the way to making your own beer. He'll cover cleaning and sanitization, gravity readings, the fermentation process, and the basics of racking and bottling your beer.

If you're interested in getting started in homebrewing, this will set you on the right path. A class like this is helpful even if you're just into drinking beer. You'd be surprised how much the experience of beer is enhanced when you know how the fluid in your glass came into being.

All of which reminds me... In the 1950s, the Oshkosh Brewing Company ran a series of ads titled "Let's Ask the Brewmaster" featuring OBC brewer Wilbur Strottman. Each week, Strottman would answer basic questions about beer and brewing. I always liked that idea. A brewer ought to care enough about their customers to take a little time to help educate them. That’s something sorely lacking in the current scene. I’ll spare you my rant on that. Here’s a couple of those Ask the Brewmaster ads from 1957.

July 12, 1957; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

November 11, 1957; Oshkosh Daily Northwestern.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Oshkosh Craft Beer Week

Oshkosh will celebrate its first Craft Beer Week with nine days of beer-centric events beginning Saturday, March 7 and running through Sunday, March 15. It's all being organized by the Oshkosh Convention and Visitors Bureau with help from each of Oshkosh's four breweries.

Craft Beer Week will be bookended by a pair of beer fests. The week kicks off with the 3rd Annual Winter Beer Fest at Bare Bones beginning at 12 pm on Saturday, March 7. Tickets for that are still available and if you get them in advance you'll save $10. You can find tickets and more info on that fest HERE.

The week concludes with the EAA's Hops & Props beer tasting on Saturday, March 14. The beer dinner portion of that fest is already sold out, but tickets are still available for the beer sampling. More on that HERE.

Finally, O'Marro's will host an afterglow sort of event on the bloody Sunday morning of March 15 with a "St. Paddy's Season Sunday Service" at the pub beginning at 10 am. You don't want to go cold turkey, after all.

Throughout the week, there'll be a host of new beer releases, special offers, and prizes available in Oshkosh's brewery taprooms. The best place to keep up with all of that is HERE. You might want to bookmark that site. The Convention and Visitors Bureau continues to update it as new events are added.

The Convention and Visitors Bureau would like to make Oshkosh Craft Beer Week an annual event and expand it to include more venues in Oshkosh. Let's make this a success and get out and enjoy our local beer scene!

All right, one last thing... would you like a sticker like this one?

Go to the Oshkosh Craft Beer Week Facebook Page and message them your address. They'll mail it to you. Prost!

Monday, February 17, 2020

Back in Bock

This week in 1959, Peoples Brewing reintroduced a beer that the brewery hadn't made in 19 years. It was the return of Peoples Bock Beer.

Peoples’ 1959 Bock Beer arrived 45 years to the day after the brewery had released its very first bock on February 20, 1914. That was an important beer for Peoples. The brewery had opened just eight months earlier. It was a direct outgrowth of the German immigrant community in Oshkosh. Bock was the first beer from Peoples that spoke explicitly to the heritage of those folks. The list of Oshkosh saloon keepers who put it on tap was full of names with a distinctly Germanic ring.

Most of that 1914 bock was served on draft in saloons. But Peoples also offered the beer in pint-sized bottles. You could get a dozen of them for 80 cents. That would be about $20.70 in today's money. The next year, Peoples came out with 12-ounce bottles of its bock for 90 cents a case.  Here's the label used on those 12-ounce bottles.

The bock beer season in Oshkosh usually ran from late February until mid-April. It was a celebrated event. A sign that spring was on its way. Each of the city's three breweries would bring out their own version of bock beer.

When Prohibition came in 1920 all of that was put on hold. For the next  dozen years, folks in Oshkosh had to go looking for robins to remind them that someday spring would come.

Beer became legal again on April 7, 1933; eight months before the full repeal of Prohibition. The beer produced during the interim period could contain no more than 3.2% alcohol by weight, which is 4% alcohol by volume. The bock-beer season had nearly passed, But Peoples released one anyway. It was more of a symbolic gesture than anything else. At a mere 4% ABV, Peoples’ 1933 Bock lacked the kick that veteran drinkers of bock beer were accustomed to. Perhaps that's why the goat was left off the label.

Image courtesy of Bob Bergman.

Peoples 1934 bock was back to the brewery's standard: dark and strong, rich and malty. The goat was back, too.

"Every Winter Peoples Brewing Co. brews and ages a superb Bock Beer," began the 1940 announcement. It would be another 19 years before they could say that again. After the 1940 release, Peoples stopped making its bock beer. The brewery never explained why.

The drought ended on February 20, 1959 when Peoples trotted the old goat back out.

In the 1950s and '60s, Wilhelm Kohlhoff was one of two principal brewers at Peoples. He recalled making Peoples Bock after its reintroduction. "We added all the 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." Kohlhoff said.

That's a lot of sugar for a 100-barrel batch of beer. The use of sugars in American beers of this period isn't unknown, but I haven't come across another example of its use in bock beers during that time.

Peoples Bock never regained its former popularity. The last mention I've found of the beer is from 1963. Bock beers in general had fallen out of fashion. What had been an anticipated sign of spring was now a specialty brew indulged in by the older crowd. Like the people who drank it, bock beer faded away.

Unfortunately, bock hasn’t undergone a revival like some other styles have in the new era of smaller breweries. But the old goat still kicks. Within the next few weeks, Bare Bones, Fifth Ward, and HighHolder will all release a bock beer. It will be the first time in 80 years that three Oshkosh breweries will have a bock pouring in the run-up to spring. No need to look for robins this year.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Red Bread Redemption

This one just went on tap this afternoon at Fox River Brewing in Oshkosh...

It's called Red Bread Redemption and it may be the lowest-alcohol beer from an Oshkosh brewery since the end of Prohibition. It’s 3.8% ABV but drinks bigger with good malt flavor and fruit-like esters. Just the thing when you’re in the mood for a couple of mid-day beers.

Here's the run down from Fox River brewmaster Andrew Roth....

"An easy drinking Session Ale.
The malt varieties create a sweet malty backbone, while producing a beautiful deep amber color. Sterling hops were added to help make the beer balanced, but we made sure not to steal the show from the Vienna base Malt. Expect a Pleasant flavor that resembles fresh baked bread. The bready malt character and low IBUs make for a crisp beer that easily glides on your palate with every sip."

10.8° P Original Gravity
3.7° P Terminal Gravity
13.3° Lovibond
3.8% ABV
17.1 IBUs

Monday, February 10, 2020

The Oshkosh Brewing Company, 1911

Here's a picture from a time when the Oshkosh beer scene was on the cusp of epic change. The photo below is believed to have been taken in the autumn of 1911. The photographer is standing on the west side of Doty Street just south of 16th Ave. The camera points east towards the new brewery of the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

The car in the foreground is a symbol of the change afoot. Automobiles were becoming increasingly common in Oshkosh. The horse and buggy now shared space with motorized vehicles. The horse-drawn "beer rolls" were being replaced by trucks. The old Oshkosh was giving way. A new city was being born.

Just beyond the car is a courtyard packed with tanks waiting to be installed in the new brewery of the Oshkosh Brewing Company (OBC). They were glass-enameled steel tanks made by the Pfaudler Company of Rochester, NY. Here's a closer look.

There were 38 of those tanks in all. Each of them had a 250-barrel (7,750-gallon) capacity. They were used as conditioning tanks for OBC's lager beer. They were the first of their kind in Oshkosh. Before this, the city’s breweries aged their beer in wooden barrels. It had been that way for more than 60 years. The Pfaudler tanks were state of the art and considered a significant step forward. They helped to produce a more consistent and refined product. Or, as some would say, a beer with less character.

From the American Handy-Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades, 1901.

Beyond the field of tanks is the old Horn and Schwalm brewery. It was built in 1879 and became part of the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1894. In 1911, the former Horn and Schwalm plant was in the process of being converted into a bottling house. When it was new, it had been considered the most advanced brewery in this part of the state with annual capacity of 40,000 barrels. Here's how it looked in its prime in the 1880s when it was Oshkosh’s largest brewery and malting facility.

And here's the brewery that replaced it. It was designed by Chicago architect Richard Griesser. In May 1912, a year after construction had started, the new brewery of the Oshkosh Brewing Company was up and running. It had the capacity to produce 90,000 barrels of beer a year.

With the exception of its annual bock beer, OBC's new brewery would produce nothing but pale lager in the years that followed 1912. Oshkosh’s other breweries – Rahr Brewing, and the soon to be launched Peoples Brewing – followed suit. Modernization put an end to the older styles of beer that were made here. It also took a toll on variety. When OBC began in 1894, the brewery offered six different beers. Among them were a Vienna lager, and a dark Kulmbacher-style beer. Not long after, the brewery added a Berliner Weisse to its line-up. But all of that was gone by 1912. At the new brewery, they made just three year-round beers. Each of them was pale and light.

Big breweries thrive on uniformity. Everything at OBC was dialed in and buttoned down. Quality improved year after year. By the 1950s, OBC's Chief Oshkosh was like most other beers in America: pale, light, and unremarkable. And when breweries larger yet began vigorously competing for the Oshkosh market, OBC could offer little to distinguish itself. There was no other way. The brewery failed in 1971. Its fate had been sealed in glass-enameled steel tanks.

The site of the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The top photo is circa 1915. The photo below it was recently taken.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Homebrew #350

I’m calling this one Oshkosh. It’s a dark lager sort of like those made here in the 1860s. Using homegrown hops sourced from Winnebago County rootstock that dates back to that same era. A couple months of lagering in our root cellar is as close as I can get to the old beer-cellar aging they used to do here. Now if I only had a wooden barrel to serve it from.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Oshkosh Breweriana Collector Steve Schrage

The Oshkosh Public Library is hosting an exhibit titled Neighbors Past and Present: The Wisconsin German Experience. It illustrates the history of German immigrants who settled in Wisconsin in the 19th century. Part of the exhibit's local flair is a display curated by Steve Schrage. He's a collector of memorabilia related to Oshkosh's early brewing industry, itself an outgrowth of German migration here. The items Schrage contributed to the exhibit are part of a collection he's been building for the past 15 years. It began with a few hundred unwanted beer cans.

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

"My uncle was cleaning out his basement and he had this collection of beer cans he was trying to get rid of, so he gave them to me," Schrage says. "Most of them were in rough shape, but there were a few cans from Oshkosh breweries in there and that caught my interest. I grew up in Oshkosh, but I didn't know much about there being breweries here. So I started doing research, and found out, wow, Oshkosh had several breweries. I thought that was really cool. After that, I began searching for anything related to the old breweries."

He found plenty. Beer trays and beer signs and cans and labels and bottles bearing names like Kuenzl, Glatz, and Rahr – all of them German immigrants who came to Oshkosh and helped to establish the city's early beer culture. But as Schrage's collection grew, he found himself particularly drawn to the most elusive and fragile pieces of breweriana. He began focusing almost entirely on embossed bottles issued by Oshkosh's independent beer bottlers in the late 1800s.

Beginning in the 1870s, a subthread of the brewing industry in Oshkosh developed around the growing popularity of bottled beer. Prior to this, nearly all of the beer served here came out of wooden kegs. But as the production of glass bottles became more common, a handful of saloon keepers and brewery workers noticed an opportunity. They would purchase glass bottles in bulk and fill them with beer made at one of the local breweries. The novelty of bottled beer fetched a handsome price. Soon there were bottling operations in every ward.

At their peak in the late 1880s, there were no fewer than a dozen beer bottling houses operating in Oshkosh. Each of their owners would have his name embossed on his bottles in hopes they would be returned. But often they were simply discarded. What was then viewed as little more than an empty package is now a highly sought after collector's item. Schrage's sees a story in every one of them.

"I like to think about the people who drank from those bottles," he says. "How hard they worked and what life for them must have been like. And the people who filled them, one bottle at a time. They didn't have bottling machines, this was all done by hand. Some of them are even hand blown. Some are more than 130 years old. It's just amazing that something so fragile could last that long."

Finding those bottles is like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. If only it was hay they were hidden in. A number of Schrage's bottles were excavated from the filled-in reservoirs of former outhouses. "Yep, a lot of them ended up in the privy," Schrage says. He was introduced to bottle digging by fellow Oshkosh collector Bob Bergman, who has built much of his collection by digging and diving for rare bottles.

"The first time I went diving with Bob, I found a Frank Thielen bottle," Schrage says. "That was it, I was hooked." Thielen was an Oshkosh saloon owner who in the 1880s was also bottling beer. His bottles are now considered extremely rare.

"They're gone," Schrage says. "What has survived is already in the collections of other people like me who wouldn't think of giving them up. The only way to get them now is to find the ones that haven't been discovered. That Thielein bottle had probably been underwater for more than 100 years. It's incredible to think of. There are some treasures down in that river."

A generous selection of Schrage's treasures, including some of his rare bottles, will remain on display at the Oshkosh Public Library until February 28th.

This article also appeared in the February 5, 2020 edition of the Oshkosh Herald.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Charlotte Ecke’s Brewery

In 1871 Charlotte Ecke became the first woman in Oshkosh to take sole ownership of a brewery. It was probably the last thing she wanted.

Charlotte Ecke

Charlotte Maria Timm was born in 1836 in Langenhagen, a Prussian city now part of northwest Germany. She was 17 in 1854 when her family left Germany for America. The Timms settled in Stevens Point where Charlotte met another young German immigrant named Gottlieb Ecke. The two were married in December 1858. Nine months later Charlotte gave birth to Amanda, the first of their five children. They were up to three kids by the time they moved to Oshkosh in 1865.

Gottlieb Ecke

Gottlieb Ecke had been working as a butcher in Stevens Point. But when they came to Oshkosh, he switched careers and began making beer at the Lake Brewery. It had been Oshkosh's first brewery when it was built by Jacob Konrad in 1849. It stood near the shore of Lake Winnebago, about a block down from the southeast corner of Ceape and Lake streets. Gottlieb Ecke became the brewery's third owner when he purchased it in October of 1865.

In 1867, Charlotte gave birth to Carl, her fourth child. He died shortly after birth. The following year, Gottlieb began building a new brewery. The old brewery on the shore of the lake was already outdated by the time the Eckes had arrived here. The brewery that would replace it was going to be a more modern and much larger facility. It was built on Harney Avenue less than a quarter-mile west of the Lake Brewery. Upon its completion in 1869, it became the largest brewery in Oshkosh. It would later come to be known as the Gambrinus Brewery.

The brewery Ecke built on Harney Avenue.

The Ecke's thrived. The business grew rapidly and by 1870 Gottlieb Ecke was producing 600 barrels of beer a year. And then it all fell apart. Gottlieb Ecke died unexpectedly on the Sunday night of November 19, 1871. He was 37-years old. The official cause of Ecke's death went unreported. He appears to have committed suicide. His will, written the day of his death, left everything in the hands of his "beloved wife Charlotte Ecke."

The transcription of Gottlieb Ecke's will filed at the Winnebago County Courthouse six days after his death.

Charlotte Ecke was left with four children between the ages of three and twelve years old. And the brewery. And the pile of debt her late husband had acquired in making that brewery a reality. Production at the Ecke Brewery ceased for several months after Gottlieb's death. The cash flow required to support the facility dwindled to a trickle. The creditors came calling.

Charlotte began to reorganize the operation in 1872. She was at a considerable disadvantage. The Ecke Brewery was almost entirely dependent upon the sale of kegged beer to saloons. But in 1870s Oshkosh, it was unheard of for a woman to enter a saloon to broker deals and sell beer.

She took on Philip Neumann as a partner in the business. Neumann was a German immigrant and was married to Charlotte's younger sister Amanda. He was a Civil War vet who had been working in Stevens Point as a butcher. But unlike Gottlieb Ecke, Neuman wasn’t able to make the successful leap from butcher to brewer.

Charlotte was facing a market that had grown intensely competitive. When the Eckes had arrived in Oshkosh, their brewery was one of three in the city. Now there were six with more on the way. And the balance of power had shifted to the south side where the Horn & Schwalm Brewery and the Glatz & Elser Brewery were ramping up production and beginning to outpace the others.

By the summer of 1874, Charlotte could no longer keep the brewery's creditors at bay. The property went into foreclosure. At the last moment, her brother Henry Timm, saved the brewery from being taken by purchasing it at Sheriff's Sale.

Charlotte Ecke and Phillip Neuman dissolved their partnership and Charlotte put the brewery up for sale. Below is the announcement she ran in the Wisconsin Telegraph, a German-language newspaper published in Oshkosh.

Here’s a translation of that...

Dissolution of Business Ownership
The company previously known as "Ecke and Neumann," whose ownership was shared between Philipp Neumann and the undersigned, has been dissolved. All those who may have demands for the company should contact the undersigned with the nature of such demands. I am also offering to sell or lease the brewery.

Oshkosh, the 28th of July 1875
Charlotte Ecke

A couple of months later, Charlotte was free of all of it. Louis Ecke, Gottlieb's brother, had pointed Lorenz Kuenzl in the direction of Oshkosh. Kuenzl was brewmaster for the Stevens Point Brewery. He left that position and took over the Ecke brewery in September 1875. Kuenzl would later merge the brewery with two others to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The last Ecke to work in the brewery Gottlieb built was Otto Ecke, the son of Charlotte and Gottlieb. At age 13, he quit school and went to work for Lorenz Kuenzl in the Gambrinus Brewery. Otto was 41 and living in Michigan when he committed suicide.

Otto Ecke

Charlotte Ecke remained in Oshkosh. In the early 1880s, she moved the family away from Harney Avenue and the brewery and into a home on 12th Avenue just west of South Main Street. Charlotte was there until her death in 1893. She was 57-years old when she died of complications caused by bronchitis and a weakened heart. Charlotte Ecke was buried in Riverside Cemetery alongside the grave of her husband.