Thursday, October 22, 2020

Big Ed's 2020

When the first batch of Big Ed's Hop Yard Ale was brewed in 2016 it marked the first time in more than 130 years that an Oshkosh brewery made beer from locally grown hops. This year's version is black and outstanding. The unprocessed, freshly picked hops shine through. It's pouring now at Fox River. And for the first time, Big Ed's will also be available in bottles.

The hops for this year's batch of Big Ed's were picked on September 11 at Steve Sobojinski's hop yard in the Town of Nekimi. They netted 50 pounds of hops. The beer was brewed later that day at Fox River's Oshkosh brewery using the raw hops. This was the only fresh-hop beer made this year by an Oshkosh brewery.

The September 11 hop harvest.

Here's Fox River brewmaster Drew Roth with his take on the beer: "This year's batch is a Cascadian Dark ale that utilized cold steeped roast malt and midnight wheat giving the base beer a smooth, lightly chocolaty note that the green characters of the wet hops layer over nicely. Overall I think this is the best version of Big Ed's we have done so far."

Here's a look under the hood.

Malt Bill
2row (base malt)
Briess Roast Malt - Midnight Wheat
Victory Carapils

Bittering Hops

Late addition fresh hops from Town of Nekimi harvest
Columbus - Cascade - Sterling
Centennial - Cluster

13.4° P Original Gravity
2.6° P Terminal Gravity
27.5° Lovibond
5.9 ABV
7.5 IBUs before wet hops

More on the Big Ed's back story can be found HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The Stevens Park Beer District

Oshkosh beer culture was born in the old Second Ward. Its cradle was bounded on the north by Washington Avenue, on the east by Lake Winnebago, on the south by the Fox River, and on the west by Bowen Street. Today it's called the Stevens Park Neighborhood.

An 1889 map of the Stevens Park Neighborhood.

This is where Oshkosh beer had its true beginning. The city’s first breweries were established here. Then came saloons and beer-bottling plants. And behind them all were scores of German immigrants who brought their love for beer along with them from the old world.

Workers at Lorenz Kuenzl’s Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Avenue, 1893.

The Breweries
The story of the Stevens Park Beer District begins with its breweries. The first three breweries established in Oshkosh were in the Stevens Park Neighborhood. In all, there have been five legal breweries in this part of town and at least one wildcat brewery. The earliest of those breweries began in 1849.

Konrad’s Lake Brewery
Oshkosh's first brewery was established by Jacob Konrad. He was born in 1823 in the ancient city of Koblenz in western Germany. After training as a brewer, he left for America arriving in Milwaukee in 1847. Konrad worked as a brewer there for a couple of years then headed off to Oshkosh.

In the summer of 1849, Konrad took possession of approximately two acres of land on the shore of Lake Winnebago. There he built what would come to be known as the Lake Brewery. The brewery stood on a parcel that's just south of Ceape. It wraps around what is now addressed as 74 Lake Street. The Lake Brewery would remain in operation there for the next 19 years.

A detail from an 1867 drawing depicting the modest Lake Brewery near the end of its run.

Schussler’s Oshkosh Brewery
It wasn’t long before Jacob Konrad had competition in the neighborhood. Like Konrad, Joseph Schussler was born and trained as a brewer in Germany. By 1846 he was making beer in Milwaukee. In the fall of 1849, Schussler moved to Oshkosh. He built the Oshkosh Brewery on the north bank of the Fox River between Bowen and Frankfort streets in the area of what is now 1031 Bay Shore Drive.

A drawing of Joseph Schussler from the 1890s alongside
an ad from 1850 for his Oshkosh Brewery (Schussler's name is misspelled in the ad).

Schussler's Oshkosh Brewery was short-lived. But following its failure in June of 1852 another German brewer came along and took up the Oshkosh Brewery mantle.

Loescher’s Oshkosh Brewery
Bavarian-born brothers George and Frederick Loescher traveled what was becoming a well-worn path to Oshkosh. After training as brewers in Germany they immigrated to America in 1851 and headed for Milwaukee. After a short time there, they walked to Oshkosh. Yes, they walked it… about 90 miles on foot.

In September of 1852, the brothers purchased land on Bay Shore Drive (it was then called River Street) just west of Eveline. Their plot was just a couple of blocks east of where Schussler's Oshkosh Brewery had been. The Loescher brothers began building the new Oshkosh Brewery.
Loescher's Oshkosh Brewery shown in an 1858 map.

Frederick would soon leave Oshkosh to take over a brewery in Menasha. Brother George would go on making beer at the Oshkosh Brewery until 1878 when he accidentally burned the place to the ground. George Loescher wasn’t done. We’ll hear more from him in a moment.

From the 1868 Oshkosh City Directory.

The Rahr Brewing Company
The end of the Civil War in 1865 triggered another burst of brewery activity in the Stevens Park Neighborhood. In 1856 Charles Rahr migrated to America from northern Germany. His family had been making beer there for generations. After Rahr landed in America he headed straight for Wisconsin where his uncle Wilhelm had a brewery in Manitowoc, and his brother Henry was about to open a brewery in Green Bay. Charles Rahr worked in both those breweries before going off to fight in the Civil War.

Charles Rahr

When the war ended, Rahr set his sites on Oshkosh. In July of 1865, he and his brother August purchased five acres of land at the end of what is now Rahr Avenue on the shore of Lake Winnebago. The Rahr Brewing Company of Oshkosh was born.

The Rahr Brewery, circa 1890.

The Rahr brewery would be Oshkosh's longest-lived, family-owned brewery. It had been in business 91 years when it closed in 1956. Old-time Oshkoshers used to say the Rahrs made the best beer in the city.

The Gambrinus Brewery
While the Rahr’s were getting their brewery up and running, the Lake Brewery was in the midst of a transformation. The keys to Jacob Konrad’s old brewery had changed hands a couple of times before they were handed to Gottlieb Ecke in 1865. Ecke was a German immigrant who had been making his living cutting meat in Stevens Point before removing to Sawdust City to pursue his fortune as a brewer.
Gottlieb Ecke and his wife, Charlotte.
Ecke had larger ambitions than the little brewery on the lake could accommodate. In 1868, he began building a more modern brewery two blocks west of the Lake Brewery at what is now 1239-1247 Harney Avenue. Upon its completion, Ecke’s new brewery became the largest in Oshkosh. But Ecke didn’t have long to enjoy it. He died in 1871, two years after the brewery's completion.

In 1875 Lorenz Kuenzl – a Bohemian-born immigrant who had just completed a stint as the brewmaster for the Stevens Point Brewery – moved to Oshkosh and took over the Ecke Brewery. Kuenzl branded it the Gambrinus Brewery. The massive facility in the heart of the Stevens Park Neighborhood would serve as a landmark for years to come.

The Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Ave.
Lorenz Kuenzl is seen leaning on the fence in white sleeves and hat.

In 1894, Kuenzl merged the Gambrinus Brewery with two other Oshkosh breweries to form the Oshkosh Brewing Company. Brewing operations were moved to the south side of town and thereafter the Gambrinus Brewery operated as a bottling plant. In 1914 the brewery was dismantled.

Loescher’s 2nd Oshkosh Brewery
After burning down his first brewery in 1878, George Loescher built a new one just up the street at the northeast corner of Frankfort Street and Bay Shore Drive.

Loescher's new brewery, completed in 1880, was bigger and better than the old one.

From Rascher's Fire Insurance Atlas of Oshkosh, 1885.

But it wasn't bigger and better enough. The breweries on the south side of Oshkosh were ramping up at a pace Loescher couldn't match. And Loescher, known to have an unhealthy exuberance for his own product, died just four years into the new brewery's production run. His wife, Regina, and their son William would keep the brewery going until 1890. The vacated brewery was still standing in 1903 but it appears to have been demolished sometime soon after.

Sitter’s Wildcat Brewery
The last brewery launched in the Stevens Park Neighborhood was supposed to be a secret. And for a time it was. Mathias Sitter had grown up on Harney Avenue in the shadow of the Gambrinus Brewery. His father, Johann, had worked at that brewery before going off on his own to become an independent beer bottler in the early 1890s (more on that just ahead). Matt Sitter followed in his father’s footsteps, working as a beer distributor and bottler. When Prohibition came in 1920 his livelihood was taken away. So he went underground. Literally.

Sitter established a bootleg beer brewery in the basement of his home at what is now 1255 Harney Avenue. In conjunction with his wildcat brewery, Sitter ran a soda distribution business. It was the perfect shield for all those clattering bottles of bootleg beer being hauled out of his basement.

The former home of Sitter's wildcat brewery at 1255 Harney Avenue.

Sitter’s brewery met its end when federal agents raided the Sitter home on August 24, 1927. The jaws of those agents must have dropped when they saw the full-scale production facility Sitter had squeezed into that modest basement. The feds also found more than 350 cases of bootleg beer on hand. Matt Sitter was arrested and his brewery was put out of commission. But he returned with the end of Prohibition and reopened the family’s beer distribution business. Sitter Beverage continued to operate from the Stevens Park Neighborhood well into the 1940s.

The Bottlers
Prior to the 1900s, small breweries like those in Oshkosh often avoided bottling their beer. It was just too much work. But people still wanted bottled beer. Independent beer bottlers stepped in to fill the gap.

During the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, Oshkosh had at least 21 independent beer bottlers. Many of them were clustered in the Stevens Park Beer District. The bottlers would buy wooden kegs full of beer from local breweries and cart them back to their bottling plants on horse-drawn wagons. The beer from those kegs was then drained into bottles that were usually embossed with the name of the bottler. The beer may have been made at the Rahr Brewery, but you wouldn’t find the Rahr name anywhere on the bottle.
A bottle used by the Neumueller Brothers, bottlers of Rahr Brewing Company beer.

August Rahr
August Rahr was the first of the independent bottlers in the Stevens Park Neighborhood. He had started out in Oshkosh in 1865 as a partner with his brother Charles in the Rahr Brewery.

August Rahr

In 1883, August went his own way and set up a bottling house. His first plant was near Lake Winnebago on the south side of what is now Rahr Avenue. He moved the operation to the southeast corner of Rahr and Rosalia sometime around 1887. In addition to his bottling business, Rahr ran a grocery store and saloon from this location. He and his family lived in the rooms above.

August Rahr's former bottling house, saloon, and grocery still stands at 320 Rosalia.

August Rahr was bottling beer there as late as 1894. At that time, he was putting beer from the Oshkosh Brewing Company into his bottles. Here's one of the very early and rare August Rahr beer bottles from the 1880s. It would have been filled with Rahr Beer.
Johann Sitter
Johann Sitter was an Austrian immigrant who arrived in Oshkosh in 1883. He worked at the Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Avenue. Sitter left there to become an indy beer bottler in the early 1890s.

The Johann Sitter Family, October 1910.
Johann is seated second from the right.
His son, and future wildcat brewer, Mathias Sitter, aged 9, is seated next to him.

Initially, Sitter bottled primarily for the Gambrinus Brewery, but later he bottled and distributed Oshkosh Brewing Company beer. The Sitter plant would be the longest-lasting bottle house in the Stevens Park Neighborhood. His operation, based at what is now 1255 Harney Avenue, would continue until the start of Prohibition in 1920. Here’s a 14-ounce bottle used by Sitter in the early 1900s.

The Neumueller Brothers
German immigrants Fred and Ludwig Neumueller were independent beer bottlers from about 1893 until 1915. Their bottle house was on the south side of Rahr Avenue, near the Rahr Brewery. Not surprisingly, most of the Neumueller's bottles were filled with Rahr Beer. Here's one of their bottles that was being used around the turn of the century.

Havemann and Priebe
Dietrich Havemann and Carl Priebe were German immigrants who ran a bottling plant from a barn that stood on the north side of Ceape Avenue between Rosalia and Eveline streets. Havemann had financial ties to the Rahr Brewery, so there's a good chance he was filling his bottles with Rahr Beer. Priebe, on the other hand, shows up in advertisements for Oshkosh’s Horn and Schwalm Brewery as a bottler of their beer. The Havemann/Priebe bottling operation was active through the first half of the 1890s. Bottles from this facility are now extremely rare and exceedingly valuable. The Havemann bottle shown below recently sold for $300.

Herzog and Ihbe
August Herzog and Robert Ihbe ran a bottling plant at what is now 1225 Waugoo during the early 1900s. It remained in operation until 1916. Both Herzog and Ihbe also worked for the Oshkosh Brewing Company, which was probably the source of the beer that filled their bottles. Here's one of those bottles with just Herzog's name appearing on it.

Charles Noe
Through much of the 1890s, there was a bottling plant at what is now 202 Rosalia Street. It was run by Charles Noe, a German immigrant and Civil War vet. Like a few of these bottlers in the Stevens Park Beer District, Noe treated his bottling plant as if it were a saloon. In 1892, his neighbors complained and Noe was arrested for selling beer for on-premise consumption. It didn’t seem to hinder him. His bottle house was still going in the late 1890s. Here's a picture from the mid-1880s of our man Noe.

The Saloons
Oshkosh is well known for its neighborhood taverns. But the corner-bar phenomenon didn’t begin to flourish here until the 1880s. Prior to that, nearly all of the city’s saloons were clustered around the commercial centers of North Main, South Main, and Oregon streets.

In the Stevens Park Neighborhood, things were different. Breweries there often operated as defacto saloons. They served beer directly to their customers in much the same way that our brewery taprooms do today. Both the Loescher and Rahr breweries had become well established as drinking spots prior to the 1880s. As the population of the neighborhood grew, though, saloons began setting up.

Bogk’s Pleasure Gardens
The first saloon in the Stevens Park Neighborhood was in the midst of a vast, 10-acre beer garden that sprawled along the shore of Lake Winnebago between Ceape and Waugoo. It was opened in 1869 by Gustavus Bogk. Bogk was an immigrant from Rossla, Germany where his family ran a brewery and inn. He transplanted that spirit of gem√ľtlichkeit to Oshkosh.
Gustavus Bogk

Bogk’s beer resort featured a dance hall, bathing houses, a restaurant, and a saloon. Sailboats were rented there in summer. In winter, there was skating. Bands played every Sunday all year long.

Too bad it didn’t last. Bogk was a serial entrepreneur with a singular talent for squandering capital. Bogk went broke causing the largest beer garden in the city to close after the summer of 1870. 

Jerry’s Bar
The oldest surviving saloon in the Stevens Park Neighborhood is Jerry’s Bar at 1210 Ceape Avenue. This tavern goes back to at least 1878 (I’m planning to write much more about this in the near future). It opened as both a saloon and bowling alley. Here's a photo taken in the early days when it was Jacob Wenzel’s place.

Wenzel was a German immigrant who came to Oshkosh in 1868. He started out here as a sign painter, but in the winter of 1883 he purchased the saloon and bowling alley on Ceape. After Wenzel’s death in 1910, the bar was leased to Gustav “Jerry” Wesenberg.

Jerry Wesenberg stands in front of his tavern, early 1960s.

Jerry’s Bar has been with the Wesenberg family ever since. It’s now owned and operated by Mike Koplitz and Scott Engel. Engel is Jerry’s Wesenberg’s great-grandson and the 4th Generation of Wesenbergs to work behind the bar at Jerry’s.

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

Mick & Sue’s
The tavern at the northeast corner of Ceape and Rosalia was launched in 1884. The first owner was Andreas Kuenzl. He was the brother of Lorenz Kuenzl, owner of the Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Avenue. Andreas was the foreman at his brother's brewery prior to launching his bar. After Andreas Kuenzl died in 1894, his wife Anna took over the bar. At the time, it was one of just three Oshkosh saloons run by women.

In 1904, the bar was sold to the Oshkosh Brewing Company. The saloon became an OBC tied house and remained so until Prohibition hit in 1920. The bar has gone through many ownership changes over the intervening years. It’s now run by Mick and Sue Falk.

Mick and Sue's.

Woodchuck's Bar & Grill
Here’s another Stevens Park Neighborhood tavern that originated in the 1880s. The first saloon at what is now 351 Rosalia opened in May of 1888. The proprietor was Peter Auler, who had come to America from Germany in the mid-1860s. He was working as a cabinetmaker in Oshkosh in 1876 when he purchased the property at the southwest corner of Winnebago and Rosalia streets. Auler lived there 12 years before converting the space into a grocery/saloon.
A drawing of Peter Auler made in the early 1900s.

After Auler died in 1902, the saloon was sold to Clements Luck, yet another German immigrant. Initially, Luck kept the grocery/saloon setup intact. When Prohibition arrived in 1920, he ran the saloon side of the business as a speakeasy. At least, that is, until 1931 when his bar was raided by federal agents. Luck continued there until his death at age 79 in 1948. Here’s a picture from 1953, when the bar was called Hanley’s with Harold Hanley as the tavern’s proprietor.

The tavern became Woodchucks in 2008 when David Krueger took over the bar. Here’s a recent shot of what used to be Peter Auler’s saloon/grocery.

Jansen's Bar and Restaurant
The lineage of Jansen's stretches back to 1892. The story is tangled up with a saloon that stood directly to the south of Jansen's across Winnebago Avenue. It all begins, once again, with a German immigrant. His name was Martin Gerth.

In the summer of 1880, the 40-year-old Gerth, his wife Emilie, and their seven children left their home in the north of Germany and came to Oshkosh. Gerth went into business for himself opening a saloon and pool hall on what is now South Main Street (it was called Kansas Street back then). Gerth left that bar in 1886 to launch a new business at what is now 336 Bowen. It was the typical saloon/grocery setup with the Gerth family living in the attached flat.

The original Gerth saloon is shown on the right at 336 Bowen.
Jansen's is on the left at 344 Bowen.
Winnebago Avenue runs between the two properties.

In 1892, Gerth sold his business at 336 Bowen and launched another new saloon/grocery just across the street. This was the beginning of what is now Jansen's. In 1896, Gerth sold the business to his son Robert. A year later, Robert sold it to August Horn, president of the recently formed Oshkosh Brewing Company. The saloon ran as a tied house for the Oshkosh Brewing Company for years to come.

Today if you step into Jansen's you'll see plenty of memorabilia from the brewery that used to own the bar. The place retains a sense of its history without any pretense. It's one of the surviving treasures of the Stevens Park Beer District.


The Parting Glass
The Stevens Park Neighborhood is where the history of beer and brewing in Oshkosh begins. Walk along those streets now and you'd never suspect that around almost every corner there once stood a brewery or bottling plant. There's not a trace of those places left. All that remains are the bars. They're the abiding reminder of the early days and ways of the Stevens Park Neighborhood.

The end of an era. After the 1956 closing of the Rahr Brewery,
the Rahr Beer sign was taken down from Jerry's Bar.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Temp Czech at Fox River

There's been a steady stream of good lagers coming out of Oshkosh lately. Here’s a new one, Temp Czech from Fox River Brewing. This was released on Friday. It’s a Polotmav√©; a Czech-style amber lager with a super toasty malt flavor. If you’re into lager beer, don’t miss this one.

Here's the spec sheet from Fox River...