Tuesday, July 14, 2020

100% Pure

Lee Beverage of Wisconsin is one of the largest beer distributors in the state, but the company got its start in the beer business by selling malt extract to homebrewers in Oshkosh. Here's an ad from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of July 9, 1926, when Harry Lee and William Precour were owners of the company. They had launched their business in 1925 selling coffee they roasted.

More on the early years of what became Lee Beverage can be found here.

The Changing Flavor of Beer in Oshkosh

A slightly different version of this article appears in the July 15, 2020 edition of the Oshkosh Herald.

It might not look like beer. It certainly doesn't taste like beer. And the way it's made raises the question if it should be called beer at all. But none of this matters to those who relish the novel flavor combinations area brewers are creating as they redefine beer in an effort to attract customers who wouldn't otherwise consider themselves beer drinkers.

The idea is simple. A brewer makes a beer, usually a light or dark ale, and then flavors it with an array of ingredients more common to the grocery store or kitchen than the brewhouse. Most anything goes: candy bars, fruit puree, milk sugar, vanilla, peanut butter flavoring, coconut... The list of potential ingredients is endless. As are the permutations that result.

Tangerine Dream Frootenanny, a kettle-soured blonde ale made with
tangerine purée and Madagascar bourbon vanilla paste.

The darker beers in this vein are flavored with sweet, dessert-type ingredients and are generally referred to as pastry stouts. The beers that begin with a light-ale base primarily rely on pureed fruit for flavoring. And there's nothing discreet about the flavors these ingredients impart. These "adjuncts", as they're called, are not used to accentuate the flavor of the beer. They are the flavor of the beer. If you order a stout that has the words peanut butter in its name, you can rest assured that the flavor of peanut butter is going to be front and center.

The popularity of such beers has been building for the last couple of years. All the breweries in Oshkosh have dabbled with the trend, but at Fifth Ward Brewing, at 1009 S. Main St., such beers have become commonplace on the brewery's tap list. For Ian Wenger and Zach Clark, the brewers and co-founders of Fifth Ward, these beers are entirely consistent with their brewery's mission. 

"We always had this idea in our business plan to bridge the gaps to wine drinkers and cocktail drinkers that don't think about drinking beer," Clark says. "We constantly get people who say they don't like drinking beer, so part of the program of fruited beers and adjunct beers is to try and reach those people."

The most popular of these beers at Fifth Ward fall under the banner of the brewery's Frootenanny series. It's an ongoing cycle of beers that begin as light, tart ales and are then flavored with various combinations of processed fruit and other adjuncts. "What we're doing has changed the way we brew," Wenger says. "With our fruited sours, that base beer is brewed to be fruited." 

The flavors that result are familiar and easily identifiable. That's part of the appeal. "The customer has an easier time understanding these beers," Wenger says. "They know what they're getting. Like with our Tangerine Dream, people expect that it's going to taste like tangerine and vanilla. We get people in here who wouldn't normally drink beer, but they'll drink Tangerine Dream. Some of them aren't beer drinkers at all. These are beers that open doors for them."

"We'd hear that from people," Clark adds. "I remember this one guy telling me he couldn't bring his wife here because she won't drink beer. That doesn't really happen anymore." But it's not just a niche audience that's gravitating towards these beers. A casual scroll through Fifth Ward's social media pages makes it immediately clear that these are the beers that generate the most excitement among the brewery's customers. At the same time, Clark is quick to point out that he and Wenger haven't abandoned their commitment to the brewery's more traditional offerings.

"We put a lot of time and energy and passion into our traditional beers," Clark says. "I'd like it if they got more attention, but we have a lot of people who come in here that will only drink those fruited beers. We do run a business and those beers make money. People keep buying them. You can't ignore that. And we put a lot of work into them. The biggest thing is we try to be diverse in a lot of ways. We want to always have something for everybody. That's always the focus."