Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Oshkosh's Lager-Beer Revival

Oshkosh began as a lager-beer town. Our first breweries were established in 1849 by German-born brewers who filled their barrels with the cool-fermenting lager beers they had learned to brew in their homeland. Those beers were embraced here. Lager styles of beer would remain predominant in Oshkosh until the end of the 20th century. Then craft beer came along. And that meant ale.

With the launch of Fox River Brewing in 1995, ale brewing supplanted Oshkosh's history as a center for lager-beer production. The difference between the two families of beer comes down to yeast, time, and flavor.

Ale is fermented with yeast that prefers warm temperatures; usually around 66º Fahrenheit. Ale is a quick brew often going from kettle to glass in 14 days or less. The process tends to produce a beer with a fruitier flavor profile. Lager, on the other hand, is made with yeast that thrives in a cooler environment; about 50º Fahrenheit. After fermentation, a lager is typically matured for a month or more at temperatures close to freezing. It leads to a beer with a “cleaner” taste allowing the more subtle aspects of the ingredients to shine through.

Lagers have earned a reputation for being more difficult to brew. That's one of the reasons it tends to be ignored by craft breweries. But that's beginning to change. According to Nielsen, a market research firm, the production of craft lagers grew by more than 9% last year, making it among the fastest-growing segments of the beer market. The primary contributors in Oshkosh to that increase have been Bare Bones Brewery and Fox River Brewing.

This month, the two breweries will underscore the trend with the release of a collaboration beer named The Fox and the Hound, a golden-hued, hop-forward lager that will be available at the taprooms of both breweries. For Drew Roth, head brewer at Fox River, and Jody Cleveland, head brewer at Bare Bones, the beer presents an opportunity to demonstrate how compelling a good lager can be.

"I think there's an expectation that lager is just one thing," says Cleveland. "A lot of customers think of it as something that's always light and not very flavorful. It's nice to show that this type of beer can be more than that."

Roth says that at Fox River, that realization is already taking place. "Our customer base is one that still very much gravitates towards darker beers and they tend to understand that a beer like our Oktoberfest is a lager," he says. "So, there's already some knowledge among our customers that lager doesn't necessarily have to be fizzy, yellow beer."

Drew Roth (on the left in dark shirt) and Jody Cleveland brewing The Fox and the Hound.

Cleveland and Roth took a decidedly craft-beer approach when they developed the recipe for The Fox and the Hound. It's an all-malt beer brewed with American malts and Grungeist hops, a proprietary hop grown in Germany. A post-fermentation "dry-hop" addition was used to highlight the notes of peach and passion fruit that Grungiest brings. It's a technique not usually associated with lager-beer brewing.

"We've learned that we really like to dry hop our lagers," Roth says "A little bit of dry hop goes a long way in this sort of beer and it really does amp it up a notch." The approach may be somewhat novel, but it's indicative of the evolution of lager brewing here. Both Roth and Cleveland began their careers brewing ales. That background informs their approach to making lager beers.

"I did not even like lager beer for a long time," says Roth. "I went into craft beer as an IPA hop head. At the time it was really hard to find good lagers. It wasn't until I was in Eau Claire and had Lazy Monk's beer that I started thinking, alright this is pretty good. After that, I went back to homebrewing for a while and immediately started brewing lagers."

Cleveland followed a similar path. "When I started homebrewing, all I wanted to brew was brown ale," he says. "But gradually I started doing lagers and then ended up brewing it quite a bit, mostly historic styles and beers that had been brewed in Oshkosh before craft came along. Now, it's my favorite type of beer, so I would prefer to brew that."

At Bare Bones, Cleveland makes the only year-round lager produced in Oshkosh. The brewery's Oshkosh Lager is an homage to the sort of lagers that were widely produced in Oshkosh for most of the 20th century. "The fact that these beers are selling well helps me justify brewing more of it," Cleveland says.

Roth shares that view. "I mean you have to brew what sells," he says, "and right now the lager beers are selling, so we're going to continue making them. I personally like them a lot, so I'm not disappointed about brewing more of them."

Sunday, November 21, 2021

The Signal

The Signal was a temperance newspaper launched by Byron E. Van Keuren in 1884. Van Keuren was an Oshkosh lawyer and an "unswerving prohibitionist." His newspaper was an eight-page weekly crammed full of complaints about drinking. That act didn't play well here. Yet, the Signal hung on for 13 years until it finally folded in 1897. In the end, it was being printed at the First Methodist Church at the corner of Merritt and North Main. 

That same space is now occupied by Wagner Market and enough beer to float those old readers of The Signal.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Ruby Owl 1908

Here's what 1908 looked like if you were in the place that’s now home to Ruby Owl Taproom at 421. N. Main Street.

In 1908, this was Peter Kolb's candy and ice cream shop. Kolb had been in the candy business with John Oaks (of Oaks Candies fame) before going solo in the summer of 1907. His shop was done up in red and white and described as "The most handsomely appointed confectionery in the Northwest... The store, with its opalescent lamps, its huge mirrors and its elegant marble fountain, has the atmosphere of a real Parisian bon bon shop."

The cabinetry and fixtures were made by Brand and Sons on Ceape. The dining areas, where Kolb served light lunches, had 24 tables with a total seating capacity of 120. The view in the shot above is looking west and you can see a few of those tables in the back beyond the arch.

Unfortunately for Kolb, things didn't work out. He went bankrupt in 1909 and skipped town shortly thereafter. There's an all together different vibe in that space these days...

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Two Brewers. Four Years. Five Pictures.

I don't remember how this started. I know there was no long-term plan. But here we are... 

About this time every year since 2017, I've been taking a picture of Ian Wenger and Zach Clark of Fifth Ward in front of the tap handles at their brewery. It's become a habit that coincides with Fifth Ward's annual anniversary party, which happens again this weekend. So we've added another round. Here's our little trip down memory loss lane.

This first one comes from Fifth Ward's opening night four years ago.

Ian Wenger (left) and Zach Clark; November 12, 2017.

November 7, 2018.

November 4, 2019.

November 10, 2020.

October 28, 2021.

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Those Barrels at Fifth Ward

Fifth Ward Brewing Company will celebrate its fourth anniversary on Saturday, November 13 at the brewery's South Main Street taproom. The annual event has grown into a showcase for Fifth Ward's barrel-aging program. This year will bring that into focus with the brewery releasing five barrel-aged beers over the anniversary weekend. They are among the most complex beers ever produced by an Oshkosh brewery.

"We got into barrel aging three years ago," says Zach Clark, who co-owns Fifth Ward with Ian Wenger, where they share the brewing duties. "We're at a point now where it's coming together in a really good way."

Zach Clark of Fifth Ward during a tour at the brewery.

In the world of craft beer, three years is an eternity. But there's no way to rush this sort of thing. The concept sounds simple. A finished beer is racked into a used spirits barrel where it matures and takes on qualities of the barrel and the liquor that had resided there. The actual execution, though, is much more involved.

It all starts with a recipe, or in this case several recipes. "It's never just brewing one batch of beer, putting it into a barrel, then coming back 12 months later and saying here's a barrel-aged beer," Wenger says. "We'll brew three or four completely different recipes, each with a specific quality in mind. One might be dryer and another sweeter. Another might be stronger with more bitterness."

"It's about trying to get the right balance," Clark chimes in. "We're always keeping in mind what we want the finished product to be. In the end, when we get to the blending, we have to have those different flavors to work with to get what we're looking for."

The recipes may be the least of it, though. These are process-driven beers. And it's a process unique to itself. The deviations begin upstream with the wort - the sugary liquid coaxed out of a mash of malted barley and water. For most beer, the wort is boiled for 60 to 90 minutes.

"With these beers, we'll go with a 13 or 14-hour boil," Clark says. "We're trying to thicken the wort, so we boil it down until it’s reduced to the volume we want."

"And you really need that super-long boil to caramelize some of those sugars," Wenger adds. "You need that for color, too. We want that dark-brown, cappuccino-like foam."

Fermenting a wort so thick with malt sugar is no less of a challenge. "With that kind of viscosity you need to pump in a lot of oxygen so the yeast can survive and stay healthy," Clark says. "Otherwise it will just quit on you. We literally have to pump oxygen into the tank during the fermentation to keep it going."

At the end of fermentation, the beers are dark behemoths that can be as strong as 14-percent alcohol by volume. Into the wooden barrels it goes. Over the past year, Clark and Wenger have been working with approximately 40 oak barrels. Their first use was in the production of spirits such as bourbon, rye whiskey, or tequila. About a third of those filled this year at Fifth Ward have been holding bourbon for the past 10 years. Each barrel is topped up with 53 gallons of beer. Then the waiting begins.

The back half of the brewery is the barrel cellar. Stacked four high, the barrels rest in an environment where the Wisconsin weather will add another layer of complexity. "In the summer the barrels up on top will get to be over 85 degrees," Wenger says. "And in winter it will get much colder back there than it does in the front of the building. They go through quite a range of temperatures."

Time is another influence. A full year of aging isn't unusual. "The youngest we've ever pulled was at five months, but that's not ideal," Clark says. "That's not enough time to create the flavors we're looking for."

At the end of September, the barrels employed for this year's batch of beers were brought out of the cellar for a tasting to determine the blends that will create the final beers. It's a heady art, akin to a painter mixing colors to create a specific hue. "We want to hit that right balance using the different qualities coming out of the individual barrels," Clark says.

Wenger pulling samples from the barrels.

"They're all components at that point," Wenger says. "You're looking for the best flavor and you have to build it out of those separate parts."

The extensive process produces a remarkably rich and nuanced beer. Big Willy Style – a blended, barrel-aged barley wine that will be released at the anniversary celebration – has booming notes of bourbon, vanilla, burnt sugar, oak, and raisin. At 16-percent alcohol by volume, it's stronger than most wines and has a depth of flavor that seems inexhaustible.

Until recently, that’s not the sort of beer you'd expect to find in a can. But this year, for the first time, Fifth Ward will release these beers in 16-ounce cans. "It's really what our customers are expecting now," says Wenger.

Both Clark and Wenger are intent on growing their barrel-aging program. "We could probably get this up to 200 barrels," says Clark. "But right now we just don't have the tank capacity to fill that many. We're working on that. This is still just the beginning."