Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Oshkosh's Holiday Beer Revival

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

On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 1998, Steve Lonsway went into the Oshkosh brewhouse of Fox River Brewing Company and did something no professional brewer had done here in 27 years. He made a special beer for the holiday season. The Vanilla Cream Ale he brewed that morning was pouring in time for Christmas. Lonsway, who had been named the brewmaster at Fox River earlier that year, didn’t realize it but he had just taken the first step in reviving a lost tradition that had long been honored here.

Holiday beer in Oshkosh dates back to at least 1913 when Peoples Brewing released a special beer in anticipation of Christmas. The Oshkosh Brewing Company would later follow suit with its Chief Oshkosh Holiday Brew. The seasonal specialities were somewhat stronger than the year-round beers but were offered at the regular price. It was a brewery's way of saying “thank you” to its customers. The highly anticipated beers usually appeared just before Thanksgiving and were often sold out by the first of the year.

Wilhelm Kohlhoff, who was a brewer at Peoples Brewing for much of the 1950s and 1960s, said that Peoples Holiday Beer was a couple of shades darker and slightly stronger than the brewery's flagship brand. “We used a 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."

The use of unique ingredients to distinguish these beers is still something Oshkosh brewers rely upon. The current iteration of Fox River's Vixen's Vanilla Cream Ale is a deep-golden, strong ale brewed with additions of Ceylon cinnamon, Madagascar vanilla bean, and California orange peel. At 5.9% ABV, the beer is creamy/sweet yet surprisingly drinkable. It's currently available on draft at the Fox River taproom in Oshkosh and in bottles at the brewery and area stores.

At Bare Bones Brewery in Oshkosh, they've brewed their annual holiday beer with ingredients those early Oshkosh brewers would never have dreamt of using. When the brewery's Cookies and Milk Stout was brewed for the first time in anticipation of the 2016 holiday season, the grist included more than 100 pounds of chocolate chip cookies. The milk in the title is a nod to the milk sugar that gets added to the kettle. This year's edition includes honey malt, flaked oats, chocolate, cinnamon, and vanilla to round out the cookie experience delivered by this chewy, 6.3% ABV ale. Cookies and Milk Stout is available in cans at Festival Foods and in cans and on draft in the Bare Bones taproom.

At Fifth Ward Brewing in Oshkosh, they'll release their first holiday-themed beer this year. It will arrive in time for Thanksgiving. "We thought we'd do something a little different and have a pie sour available for Thanksgiving time," says Zach Clark of Fifth Ward. They're calling it Key Lime Pie Frootenanny. Ian Wenger of Fifth Ward describes it as a pastry inspired kettle-soured beer made with lactose, key lime purée, vanilla bean, and graham cracker. "Pumpkin beers are great but there are a lot of great breweries that already make them," Wenger says. "We want to bring the Key Lime Pie to Thanksgiving dinner, instead of the classic pumpkin pie." The beer will be available exclusively at the Fifth Ward taproom.

Key Lime Pie Frootenanny.

When Peoples Brewing closed in 1972 it appeared as though the days of locally brewed holiday beer had come to an end in Oshkosh. But now, almost 50 years later, the tradition is as vibrant as it has ever been. Happy Holidays!

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