Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Start of a Long Road Back

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

The spring of 2020 will be remembered as among the worst of times for family-run businesses like Jerry's Bar and the Fox River Brewing Company. 

Scott Engel, whose family has operated Jerry's Bar at 1210 Ceape Ave. for more than a century, will never forget March 17. It was the day he learned that Wisconsin's Safer at Home order would force him to close his business. "It made me sick when I got the news," Engel said. "At the time Mike Koplitz, my partner in the business, was working. There were a few of our regulars already there. I came in to help Mike lock up the place. It was pretty upsetting. At one point, I had to leave. I walked out that back door. It had me so upset that I just had to leave."

MIke Koplitz (Left) and Scott Engel of Jerry's.

Engel took over Jerry's in 1988. He's the fourth generation of his family to operate the tavern that was purchased by his great-grandfather, Jerry "Gus" Wesenberg in 1911. The family has managed to keep the business alive through bad times before, including the 1918 Pandemic and the 13 years of Prohibition that began in 1922. "I heard all of those stories, but this gives me a whole new appreciation of what they went through," Engel says. "I never thought we'd see something like this. It makes you appreciate things that you sometimes took for granted."

The past couple of months have been similarly unsettling for Jay Supple. The Supple family has been in the restaurant business in Oshkosh since 1968. They launched Fox River Brewing in 1995. The Supples now operate three restaurants and two brewpubs in the Fox Valley. "To get that notice at quarter to two on March 17th that we'd be locking up in three hours was devastating," Supple says. "I literally got into my car and visited all five locations and explained to everyone that we were going to have to lock up. We had no idea how long it was going to be. We ended up having to lay off 239 of our 240 employees. The only guy that was still on the payroll was the brewmaster because we had all that beer to contend with."

As the shock wore off in the days that followed, both Engel and Supple began assessing their options. At Jerry's Bar, Engel and Koplitz began cleaning and remodeling in preparation for re-opening; whenever that would be. On weekends, they offered their homemade pizzas and beef jerky for curbside pickup. "The response to that was tremendous," Engel said. "We'd sell out every Saturday for those first few weekends. But then meat prices spiked and we had to cut back on that, too."

Fox River Brewing began offering curbside pick-up two weeks after the shut-down order was issued. In the interim, the Supples charted their next moves. "I said to my brother John, we can either turn off the lights and wait it out or we can put together a game plan and come back stronger than ever," Supple said. "So, we set out a plan for each location and brought back our management teams as well as some staff and went to work. Each location is coming back with a new strong vibe and new look, new menu, everything. In the last five weeks, there hasn't been a wall that hasn't been painted. Everything has been refinished, every location has been updated."

For both Engel and Supple, part of their work since March has been directed towards making people feel more at ease during a time of uncertainty. "We've tried to create more space and a fresh look with an emphasis on sanitation and cleanliness," Supple said. "We have a whole protocol that we've gone through with our management teams. We want our guests to feel comfortable and safe."

At Jerry's Bar, Engel worries that overcoming fear may be the biggest hurdle to any recovery. "I've thought about it a lot," he says. "There are things we're going to do, but there are people who are truly scared by this and some of those people are going to stay put for a while. There's no easy way to say this, and I don't want to sound selfish or irresponsible, but life has to go on. I know things can't go on much longer this way if small businesses like ours are going to survive. Our family has worked 109 years to make this place possible and I don't want to be the guy to screw it up. We're going to be good, but this is really becoming a stressor.”

Monday, May 25, 2020

A History of Bass Ale in Oshkosh

Oshkosh was a lager town. Beginning in the 1850s and flowing straight through to the 1980s, lager beer was almost synonymous with beer here. Almost. Every now and then an ale would find its way into the mix. And the ale that had the longest lifespan here was England’s Bass Pale Ale.

The first mention of Bass’s Ale in Oshkosh comes in September 1885. This is already some 60 years after Bass & Co’s Pale Ale was first brewed in Burton-on-Trent. It was brought to Oshkosh by English ex-pat William H. Englebright, keeper of the Star and Crescent Sample Room at the southwest corner of North Main and Algoma. Englebright advertised his saloon as the Oshkosh "Headquarters for Bass' English Ale on draught." A giant sundial now resides where Englebright's saloon once stood.

From the 1886 Oshkosh City Directory.
Near the corner of Main and Algoma in the late 1880s.
The red arrow points to the entrance of Englebright’s Star and Crescent Sample Room.
The sundial now at Main and Algoma. Notice the crescent. How’s that for a coincidence?

The 1885 draft version of Bass Ale that Englebright was pouring was unlike any Bass any of us are familiar with. Like most long-lived beers, Bass has changed considerably over the years. In 1885, it was an aged beer, dry and bitter as a classic IPA, with a Brettanomyces character. It also had an odor about it. Bass of this period was known to carry what was called the "Burton Snatch", a sulfury, eggy aroma peculiar to beers made from the sulfate-rich waters of Burton. It wasn't just the water. Bass' fermentation and conditioning practices must have played a major role in the creation of that odor.

The brewery yard at Bass where the beer was aged in casks for months
while exposed to the elements, from bitter cold to scorching heat.

The Bass on draft at the Star and Crescent in 1885 was about 7% ABV and unlike any other beer then available in Oshkosh. Bass would probably have not been here at all if not for Englebright. I've been searching for examples of Bass pouring in other Wisconsin cities during this time. There was very little of it outside of Oshkosh. The Burton beer appears to have been something of a pet project for the Anglophile Englebright. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm wasn't contagious. The Star and Crescent closed in 1890. Bass Ale went with it.

A 1908 sketch of Bass Ale. The color is about the only remnant of the earlier Bass

Bass returned to Oshkosh at the turn of the century. In 1905, you could get it at the Little Cozy Sample Room at what is now 216 N. Main Street. The Little Cozy was sort of like the Ruby Owl of its day; a downtown restaurant with a bar and a healthy list of specialty beers. Bass was among them. But not on draft. It was now a bottled beer packaged by Thomas McMullen & Co. of New York. It was known as Bass White Label. The beer appears to have held steady in the intervening years. It was still around 7% ABV and there are a number of reports from this period indicating that the Burton Snatch was still in play.

Bass White Label, McMullen's bottling.

Bottled Bass was, at that time, the most expensive beer available in Oshkosh. A seven-ounce "nip" sold for 15 cents; or about $4.50 in today's money. A pint of Bass went for 25 cents. The next most expensive beer was Budweiser selling for 15 cents a pint.

And you no longer had to head to Oshkosh if you wanted a Bass. The beer had grown considerably more common in Wisconsin. Bottles of Bass could be found across the state, especially in cities where breweries were prominent. Places like Eau Claire, La Crosse, Rhinelander, and of course, Milwaukee. But, once again, folks in Oshkosh were not seduced by the charms of the Burton Snatch. By 1910 Bass was gone again.

Prohibition came and went and what little interest there had been in outré beers was washed away in a flood of Oshkosh-brewed pale lager. It wasn't until the 1960s that Bass Pale Ale made its way back to town. Englebright would not have recognized it as the same beer he'd championed 80 years earlier. While it was away, Bass had been stripped of much of what had once made it so unique. The 1960s Bass was just over 5% ABV, far less bitter, and lacking the infamous odor prized by connoisseurs. The ad below from the Old Town tavern suggests Oshkosh was getting the Bass Pale Ale that was bottled in London.

March 20, 1969 Oshkosh Advance-Titan.
By the time that ad appeared Bass and Co.'s Pale Ale was well into its decline. It's the typical story. In the 1960s, Bass Brewers Limited went through a series of mergers and acquisitions. The beer took a back seat to branding and the bottom line. Bass Pale Ale ended up being picked up by Coors in 2002, but in America, it's now made by AB/InBev which now produces Bass at its Merrimack, New Hampshire brewery. You can get a sixer of that in Oshkosh for less than $7, making it one of the cheapest pale ales on the market here. It’s a dull beer hardly worth bothering with. Unless that is, you're feeling the pull of history. I wouldn't be surprised if Bass goes missing again in Oshkosh before too long.

The label lies. Definitely not the world's first pale ale.

Notes & Sources

I've touched on William H. Englebright and his saloons before. Those posts are here and here.

There's excellent information concerning the permutations of Bass Ale over the year's at Ron Pattinson's blog, Shut Up About Barclay Perkins.

Gary Gillman at his blog Beer Et Seq has delved into the Burton Snatch.

Here's Ron Pattinson again getting into the notorious brewing water of Burton.

Here's more on Oshkosh's Little Cozy Sample Room.

Here's more on the Old Town Tavern.

Beer writer Pete Brown gets into the sad decline of Bass Ale.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020


Bare Bones Brewery brought in its new canning line on Friday and began canning with it yesterday morning. It’s the first time since 1972 that an Oshkosh brewery has had its own canning line.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

And the Horse Ran Away with the Beer

A story from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; March 3, 1890. The barrel below came from the Horn and Schwalm Brewery during this same period.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A Butte des Morts Book

A book about the history of Butte des Morts has just been released and it includes a chapter that I wrote. My part is about the history of the Butte des Morts Brewery and the surprising saloon culture that thrived there in the late 1800s and early 1900s. That little hamlet has a rambunctious past thanks in no small part to all the beer that flowed through it. Butte des Morts, WI Its History and Its People is available for online purchase HERE.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Bill Steiger and the Bathtub Beer Bill

Considering the history of this place, it’s not too surprising that someone from Oshkosh would have played a central role in the legalization of homebrewing in America.

William A. Steiger.

On January 4, 1977, Congressman William A. Steiger of Oshkosh introduced House Resolution 1337. It was a sausage-like bill that, among other disparate parts, included a provision that would legalize the making of beer at home "for personal and family use." Just over two years later, the federal prohibition on homebrewing came to an end.

For his part, Steiger never professed any special love for the home craft of making beer. He was born in 1938, five years after Oshkosh's once-vibrant homebrewing scene had been made redundant by the repeal of Prohibition. The city was home to three breweries during Steiger's time, but young Bill was brought up about as far removed from all of that as was possible for any person living in Oshkosh.

Bill Steiger was born into a wealthy family. His father, Carl, was president of Oshkosh's Deltox Rug Company and heavily involved in politics on both the local and state levels. Bill grew up in a posh neighborhood on Algoma Boulevard in a mansion that had been built for lumber baron Edward Paine in 1860. Steiger probably never heard that there had once been a brewery run by a German named Kaehler just a few doors down from the family home. That part of the story was forgotten by the time the Steigers arrived.

The Steiger family home.

Bill Steiger quickly made a name for himself. Upon graduation from the University of Wisconsin in 1960, he ran for and won a seat in the Wisconsin State Assembly. In 1966, he was elected to Congress and at 28 became its youngest member. By 1977, Steiger was a rising star within the Republican Party and being groomed as a potential Senate or Vice‐Presidential candidate.

William Steiger and Richard Nixon, 1966.

William Steiger, 1968. At the far left is Steiger's intern, future Vice-President Dick Cheney.

So why would a guy like Bill Steiger bother to insert an unrelated clause legalizing homebrewing into a larger bill concerned with excise taxes on trucks and buses? The thanks goes to one of Steiger's colleagues on the House Ways and Means Committee. A Congressman from Rochester named Barber B. Conable.

Barber B. Conable

Conable had been trying to get homebrewing legalized since 1975. On September 27 that year, he introduced House Resolution 8643, a bill to authorize the home production of beer. Homebrewing was a federal crime punishable by a $5,000 fine and/or five years in jail. Conable’s bill would eliminate that penalty for a two-adult household making less than 200 gallons of beer a year. He later told a reporter from Copley News Service that the idea for legalization had come to him via a constituent who made kits for homemade beer and wine.

The man who had Conable’s ear was probably Jack Leonard, president of Rochester’s Vynox Industries. Vynox was then selling wine and beer making kits and equipment from the back pages of Popular Science magazine. Leonard was one of the early voices campaigning for legalization and had testified before Congress in December 1975 on behalf of Conable's bill. That bill never came to a vote.

Popular Science, October 1976. 

The legislation Steiger introduced in 1977 was a repackaging of the Conable bill. And as the new bill took shape, Conable became its chief advocate.

It took a year for the Steiger bill to come out of committee. The process left it significantly deformed. Officials from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF), had gotten into the mix. They managed to insert a provision requiring homebrewers to register with the federal government. It was a matter of bureaucratic quid pro quo.

At the time, home winemakers were required by law to register with the federal government before producing any wine. Many home winemakers simply didn’t bother. But some 21,000 others sent in Form 1541 each year to remain on the right side of the law. Steiger’s bill would eliminate that prerequisite. The BATF wanted something in return.

The grasping nature of the agency's argument was evident. “Unregulated homebrewing might facilitate evasion of taxes on distilled spirits,” a BATF official said. "The mash that is left after beer is brewed can be distilled into hard liquor." Of course, you could accomplish much the same by distilling wine. But at this point, the bill had garnered little attention. Perhaps the BATF was banking on others not noticing what it was up to.

The bastardized bill sailed through the House with little fanfare and no opposition. It passed on a voice vote on Monday, March 13, 1978. It then went to the Senate where it was named the Homebrew Beer Equality Act of 1978. Newspapers called it the Bath Tub Beer Bill. Homebrewers weren’t amused. Their annoyance turned to outrage when they learned of the onerous addendums the bill had been saddled with.

It wasn’t just the federal registration requirement. The bill allowed for 100 gallons of beer production per year for a single adult household, and 200 gallons for households that had two or more adults. But those limits came with the stipulation that no homebrewer could have more than 30 gallons of beer – either finished or under fermentation – on hand at any one time.

Homebrewers pushed back. California homebrewing clubs the Maltose Falcons and San Andreas Malts appealed to Senator Alan Cranston of their home state. They found a powerful ally in the Senate's second-ranking member. Cranston jeered the BATF's meddling, saying it was "beer-ocracy at its worst." He called it "white-collar leaf raking."

The Maltose Falcons, 1974.

Alan Cranston

When the bill hit the Senate floor, Cranston was waiting with an amendment of his own that stripped the extraneous provisions and restored the bill to something very much like those Conable and Steiger had proposed in 1975 and 1977. No federal registration. No 30-gallon limit. Cranston had already lined up all the support he needed. His revisions passed through both the House and the Senate and October 4, 1978, the finalized bill was sent to President Jimmy Carter.

On October 14, 1978, Carter signed H.R. 1337 into law. Public Law 95-458 ended the federal prohibition on homebrewing effective February 1, 1979. By then, Bill Steiger was gone.

On December 4, 1978, the 40-year-old congressman from Oshkosh died unexpectedly of a heart attack. The New York Times, in its obituary of Steiger, noted that "He was widely regarded as one of the most promising political figures in his party... known for his wit, sunny disposition and informal appearance."

Steiger had grown up in a small, "informal" city with three breweries. He saw each of those breweries fail during the consolidation of the industry that occurred during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.

Today, Bill Steiger's hometown has four breweries. And each of the brewhouses here is run by a former homebrewer who directly benefited from the legislation Steiger introduced in 1977. It was the trigger that set into motion the unanticipated transformation of America's beer culture.

Monday, May 4, 2020

The Longevity of Oshkosh Breweries

Breweries come and go. In Oshkosh, we have 171 years of brewing history that hammers that point home.

The demolition of Peoples Brewing, July 1974.

What follows is an illustrated list of every Oshkosh brewery ranked in order of their longevity. If you want to dig deeper, I've added links at the bottom of the post that will lead to much more information on all of the breweries mentioned here. Off we go...

1. Rahr Brewing Company, 1865–1956
The Rahr Brewing Company is Oshkosh’s longest-lived brewery having remained in operation for 91 years. Located at the end of Rahr Avenue on the shore of Lake Winnebago, Rahr remained a small, family-owned business throughout its history.

The Rahr Brewing Company, late 1800s.

2. Oshkosh Brewing Company, 1894–1971
Located at what is now 1642 Doty Street, Oshkosh Brewing was in business for 77 years. OBC was formed in 1894 by the merger of the Horn and Schwalm, Glatz, and Kuenzl (Gambrinus) breweries.

The Oshkosh Brewing Company, circa 1918.

3. Peoples Brewing Company, 1913–72
Peoples Brewing was initiated by a group of Oshkosh saloon keepers and lasted 59 years. The brewery was located at what is now 1512 South Main Street.

Peoples Brewing Company shortly after it closed in 1972.

4. Horn and Schwalm’s Brooklyn Brewery, 1866–94
This brewery was launched by German immigrants August Horn and Leonhardt Schwalm. It remained an independent entity for 28 years and was located at what is now 1630–70 Doty Street.

Horn & Schwalm's original Brooklyn Brewery; destroyed by fire in 1878.

5. Franz Wahle/ John Glatz Union Brewery, 1867–94
The brewery at the end of Doty Street was privately owned and operated for 27 years before becoming part of the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1894.

The John Glatz Union Brewery.

6. Loescher’s (First) Oshkosh Brewery, 1852–78
The first of two breweries George Loescher and his family operated in Oshkosh was in business for 26 years. It was located at what is now 1253–83 Bay Shore Drive.

Detail of an 1858 map showing the location of Loescher’s first Oshkosh Brewery.

7. The Gambrinus Brewery, 1868–94
The large brewery at what is now 1239–47 Harney Avenue lasted for 26 years. It was first run by Gottlieb Ecke and later by Lorenz Kuenzl. It merged into the Oshkosh Brewing Company in 1894.

The Gambrinus Brewery circa 1893.

8. Fox River Brewing Company, established 1995
Welcome to the modern era. Fox River is now in its 25th year of operation.

Fox River Brewing Company, Oshkosh.

9. Busch Brewery/Fifth Ward Brewery, 1858–1880
For 22 years, Christian Kaehler ran this brewery at the southeast corner of Algoma Boulevard and Vine Avenue. The land it occupied is now part of the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh campus.

Oshkosh City Directory, 1872.

10. The Lake Brewery, 1849–68
Oshkosh's first brewery was launched by German immigrant Jacob Konrad. It remained in operation for 19 years. The brewery stood on the east side of Lake Street, just south of Ceape Avenue.

1858 map showing location of the Lake Brewery.

11. Loescher’s (Second) Oshkosh Brewery, 1880–89
The second brewery operated by George Loescher and his family remained in business for nine years. This brewery was at the northeast corner of Frankfort Street and Bay Shore Drive.

Loescher’s second Oshkosh Brewery shown in an 1885 insurance map.

12. Bare Bones Brewery, established 2015
The brewery at 4362 County Highway S has been a going concern for five years now.

Bare Bones Brewery upon its opening in June of 2015.

13. Leonard Schiffmann’s White Beer Brewery, 1875-1879
This weiss-beer brewery was active for four years at what is now 1864 Doty Street.

A stoneware bottle used by the Schiffmann Brewery in the late 1870s.

14. Mid-Coast Brewing Company, 1991–95
The maker of Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was active for four years. The brewery's office was located at 35 Wisconsin Street in Oshkosh. Its beer was brewed on contract at the Stevens Point Brewery.

15. Joseph Schussler’s Oshkosh Brewery, 1849–52
Schussler opened Oshkosh's second brewery in the fall of 1849. Three years later he went bankrupt and the brewery closed. This brewery was on the south side of Bay Shore Drive, midway between Bowen and Frankfort Streets.

An 1890s drawing of Joseph Schussler.

16. Leonard Arnold Brewery, approximately 1875–78
Arnold ran this obscure beer and vinegar brewery for approximately three years. His plant was at the southeast corner of Sixteenth Avenue and South Main Street.

1600 South Main Street today. The former site of Leonard Arnold’s brewery.

17. Frederick Voelkel Brewery, late 1870s.
Voelkel was a saloon owner who ran a weiss beer brewery from his home for about three years. His base of operations was at the northwest corner of Doty Street and West Seventeenth Avenue.

The location of the Voelkel shown in blue on Doty Street near the Horn & Schwalm Brewery.

18. Fifth Ward Brewing Company, established 2017
A relative newcomer, Fifth Ward opened its brewery at 1009 South Main Street three years ago. 

September 2017. Zach Clark (left) and Ian Wenger of Fifth Ward in their new brewery.

19. Fischer and Weist, 1856–1858
This brewery, initiated by German immigrants Tobias Fischer and August Weist, remained active just two years. It was located near the southwest corner of High and New York Avenues.

The red dot indicates the approximate location of where the Fischer and Weist Brewery stood.

20. HighHolder Brewing Company, established 2018
HighHolder began distributing its beer two years ago. The brewery operates, albeit sporadically, from a suite behind O'Marro's Public House at 2211 Oregon Street.

Shawn O'Marro (left) and Mike Schlosser of HighHolder, shortly before the brewery opened.

21. Rudolph Otten Brewery, 1865
Almost nothing is known of Rudolph Otten's brewery. It appears to have lasted for less than a year. The brewery may have been located on Oxford Avenue.

An 1867 drawing showing what may have been the location of Otten’s brewery on Oxford Street.
To learn more about any of these breweries, visit the Oshkosh Beer Timeline. You can also search the individual breweries using the “Search The Oshkosh Beer Blog” tool that appears in the left-hand panel. If you’re on a phone, you’ll need to be in full website mode to access that feature.

If you want to pinpoint the exact location of any brewery mentioned here, this interactive map will show you the way. 

Finally, the above list doesn’t include the wildcat breweries that operated in Oshkosh during Prohibition. You can go here to tour that byway of Oshkosh brewing history.