Sunday, January 30, 2022

Thielen's Oshkosh Whiskey

Once upon a time, there was a whiskey distillery at the northern edge of Oshkosh in an area called Keenville.

Keenville came about as a locale in the late 1800s. The name was a corruption of Kien, the surname of the family that had settled there in the early 1850s. John Kien had brought his family to Winnebago County after failing to strike it rich in the California Gold Rush of 1849. He bought 40 acres of land that stretched along the shore of Lake Winnebago south of Asylum Bay. The Kien family established a farm there. And on that farm, John Thielen established a distillery.

The location of Thielen's distillery indicated by the red star east of County Road A and north of Driftwood Lane.

John Thielen was born in Germany in 1849. He was 15 when he sailed across the Atlantic with his parents and siblings. They landed in New York and went straight to Oshkosh. Thielen's father, Peter, opened a saloon on the east side of Main Street just north of Washington. John Thielen and his brothers Frank and Paul came of age working in that saloon. The Thielen boys would be a force in the Oshkosh business trade for the next 50 years.

John Thielen

At 25, Thielen went out on his own. Over the next two decades, he was involved in five separate Downton Oshkosh saloons. He also became a wholesaler. Thielen imported whiskey, brandy, gin, porter, and wine into Oshkosh and distributed it to saloons throughout the area. He made a small fortune. To the friends of Temperance, Thielen was evil incarnate. To the saloon keepers, he was the hub around which the booze scene spun.

The John Thielen family home built in 1889 still stands at what is now 319 E. Irving.

In 1891, Thielen moved his base of operations into a new building at the southwest corner of Washington and State. The construction had been initiated by August Uihlein, president of Schlitz Brewing Company. Local prohibitionists had been protesting it ever since discovering that Schlitz had purchased the land and had hired William Waters to design what would come to be known as the Uihlein Block.

Uihlein responded with a lavish beer hall that he put in the corner unit of the building. Then came Thielen. He announced he would fill the two most westerly storefronts wall-to-wall with booze. The Daily Northwestern reported that "Mr. Thielen intends to enlarge his business and to fit up the finest wholesale liquor store in the west."
The Uihlein Block at the southwest corner of Washington and State as drawn by Richard Nebel. Thielen’s portion of the building was addressed as 26 and 28 Washington Ave. Courtesy of the William Water Oshkosh Architect Blog.

Silver Spring Whiskey
And then came the distillery. The plan for it was formalized in the winter and spring of 1892. Thielen had brought the idea to John Kien, the son of the namesake of Keenville. Thielen wanted to build a distillery on the Kien family farm. By the end of May, the deal was sealed. The Silver Spring Distillery was born.

At least that's what it was called in the articles of incorporation. Thielen, president of the company, and Kien, vice-president, were casual about the name. Early on, it was referred to as the Silver Spring Distillery, the Oshkosh Distilling Company, and the Thielen and Kien Distillery. They later changed it to the John Thielen Distilling Company. No matter the moniker, by June of 1892 They were making whiskey in Keenville.

A, circa 1900, drawing of the distillery.

This was not a boutique distillery. It was a farm-based whiskey factory said to be able to pump out 700 gallons of hot liquor a day. The grain used to make that alcohol was grown by area farmers and malted at the Horn and Schwalm Brewery on Doty Street. The distillery's production resulted in so much spent mash that 50 head of cattle were kept on-premise to devour it. When the calves grew fat enough, they were sold off for meat and replaced with a new herd.

Thielen and Kien had whiskey on the market in a matter of months (not uncommon for the period). The flagship brand was Silver Spring Pure Rye Malt Whisky. It sold well. The first of several expansions to the distillery was initiated just a year after the operation had gotten underway. A malting facility was also added. At the close of 1892, Thielen told the Daily Northwestern that the distillery would begin running day and night to meet demand.

A late 1800s farm distillery typical of its period.

The early success caught the attention of a predator.

For some weeks past, a New York whisky trust has been trying to buy up all the distilleries in this section, and a report has been current that the Oshkosh Distilling company would join the trust. John Thielen, one of the officers of the company, said the trust had made a great attempt to gain control of the local distillery, but that the company would not sell under any circumstance.
     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; December 13, 1892.

Thielen said he had turned down "a large amount of money" for the distillery and that he planned to take the New Yorkers head on. There would be days to come when he must have regretted that set of decisions.

Still Life
For all its apparent success, Thielen's distillery was beset with problems almost from the start. In the late summer of 1893, the still collapsed halting production for a time. Thielen blamed the accident on the plant's distiller, Herman Wraas. Thielen fired him. Wraas sued. Thielen was vindicated, but now he had neither a functioning still nor anyone capable of running his distillery.

A more serious issue followed. The Panic of 1893 triggered an economic depression that pummeled Oshkosh. Thielen, caught short in the midst of it, was unable to pay the federal taxes he owed on the liquor he was making. By year’s end, the US Government had placed a series of liens on the distillery that brought the battered business to its knees. It would take Thielen and Kien years to work through their tax issues. In the meantime, the distillery went dry.

There are conflicting reports as to when production at the distillery ceased. One source puts the date at 1896. Another indicates the distillery was producing at least some liquor as late as 1897. In any case, the distillery was completely idle for no less than two years.

Thielen’s notoriety continued to grow while the distillery lay in wait. He was the sole U.S. agent of a popular (and probably alcohol-based) tonic named Dr. Mampes Herb Stomach Bitters. Each bottle came with Thielen’s name embossed on the back. Bottle photos courtesy of Peachridge Glass.

The distillery's tax issues were finally resolved in 1899. And in December that year, the business was formally reorganized under the name John Thielen Distilling Company. Thielen was still the president. John Kien stayed on as vice-president. And In January of 1900 they got back to making whiskey.

Badger Club
Thielen’s distillery seemed to have been forgotten. Upon its reopening the Daily Northwestern remarked that "Few persons are cognizant of the fact that a few miles north of Oshkosh is located the most extensive distillery outside of the two in Milwaukee."

Those who did remember would have been surprised by the reincarnation. The entire plant had been made over. A new, continuous-run column still replaced the old pot still. A steel-roller mill took the place of the burr grinder that was used for crushing malt. Thielen hired an experienced distiller from Peoria, Illinois named William Miller to run the plant, which was now feeding two iron-clad, bonded warehouses. The Thielen distillery had grown into the third largest of the five then in Wisconsin. The larger facilities were in Milwaukee. The others were in Sheboygan and Waupaca counties.

Sanborn Map, 1903 (click to enlarge).

The reopening came with a new label. The Silver Spring brand was ditched. The new flagship whiskey was called Badger Club.

Badger Club was a rye whiskey. It was accompanied by another rye whiskey, a lower-shelf brand named Bell of Wisconsin. And then there was Thielen's Malt Whiskey. This one was aimed at a different crowd. Thielen's Malt Whiskey was advertised as if it were a medicine. It was sold in drug stores for $1 a bottle (or about $32 in today's money). It cured nothing but the sobriety of those too genteel for social drinking.

It cost Thielen about 25 cents to produce a gallon of whiskey. The tax on that gallon was $1.10. That same gallon sold, on average, for more than $4. In addition, Thielen had his own distribution using the wholesale network he had built through his dealership on Washington Avenue. He was now selling alcohol well outside of the Oshkosh area. Everything was in place. But for some reason, it never panned out.

By mid-decade, Thielen's distillery had fallen on hard times again. The issues that led to this decline were never aired publicly. But by 1905, Thielen was clearly pulling back from the operation. His withdrawal coincided with the building of a saloon on the distillery property. The saloon was run by Jess Gokey, an infamous Oshkosh bar keeper and cathouse curator. Gokey had recently moved to the outskirts after a couple of sordid episodes in Oshkosh had raised his profile in the city to a degree that was at odds with his appetite for debauchery.

1906 Directory.

Incredibly, Jess Gokey came to be in charge of the distillery that bore John Thielen's name. Thielen was out. In early 1906, he even stopped selling the whiskey that still carried his name on the label. The distillery closed soon after. Perhaps there remained some hope for another revival. The business wasn’t officially dissolved until 1909.

It Burns Going Down
John Thielen carried on much like he had before the establishment of his Keenville distillery.

His liquor trade on Washington Avenue was still brisk. Thielen also busied himself with several other ventures around town. None of them had anything to do with alcohol. Those days were at an end.

On January 16, 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified. It prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors. The new law would take effect a year later. Thielen didn't wait for it. In the summer of 1919, he closed his liquor store and quit the business.

The old distillery burned to the ground two months later.

With the start of Prohibition just weeks away, the report of the destruction read like a mournful allegory.

Fire completely destroyed the old distillery and the old warehouse of John Thielen on the lake shore near the Oshkosh-Neenah road late Thursday afternoon... The distillery was a mere skeleton, the lumber having been largely removed by petty thievery and only the towering skeleton remained. The old frame structure burned like so much tinder.

In former years the distillery, operated by John Thielen, was a busy place and many thousands of gallons of whisky were made there, but for years past it has been abandoned and vacant. The locality is known as Keenville.

     - Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; October 18, 1919.

Keenville, as it is today.

A year after the fire, John Thielen left town. He moved with his family to Los Angeles. Thielen died there in 1934.

End Notes
Just a couple of notes for people looking to dig into some of the stories behind this one....

I mentioned that the Thielen family was a force in the Oshkosh liquor business for more than 50 years. For example, John Thielen's brother Frank was a major player when it came to beer in Oshkosh. There's more on that here.

The controversial construction of the Uihlein Block was part of a push by Schlitz to put its stamp on Oshkosh. And there's more on that here.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

Royal Aster

Here's a sad page from Oshkosh brewery history. It's a drab ad from the 1928 Winnebago County Directory for a brewery that couldn’t make beer during the awful era of Prohibition.

Well, at least the label was pretty…

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

A Record Year for Beer Production in Oshkosh

This article also appears in today's Oshkosh Herald.

Beer production at Oshkosh's three breweries rose sharply in 2021. Bare Bones Brewery, Fifth Ward Brewing, and Fox River Brewing bounced back in record-setting fashion last year after experiencing a downturn triggered by the pandemic of 2020.

The three breweries combined to produce 2,757 barrels of beer last year, a 47-percent increase over their total output for 2020. It was the most beer made in Oshkosh since 1972 when Peoples Brewing Company was still in operation. Each of the breweries broke their previous record for annual production.

Fox River Brewing continues to be the largest brewery in the city accounting for almost half of all the beer made here. In 2021, Fox River's Oshkosh facility produced 1,313 barrels of beer, a 42 percent increase. Fifth Ward saw the largest percentage increase – 57 percent – with its total production rising to 790 barrels. Bare Bones production rose 46 percent on 653 barrels brewed. The amount of beer in a barrel is the equivalent of 31 gallons or 248 pints.

The production increases have come with each brewery riding a separate wave. Fifth Ward's best-seller was its Frootenany series of fruited sours. The individual beers in that set employ different combinations of fruits. Fox River's BLÜ Bobber, a blueberry-flavored ale, remained its leading beer. It's also the most widely distributed beer produced in Oshkosh and is sold throughout much of the state. Oshkosh Lager, a classic American-style lager, was the top beer last year at Bare Bones where co-owner Dan Dringoli watched the momentum build as the year progressed.

"We really didn’t hit full stride until late spring, after the vaccine was available to most adults," Dringoli says. "It was a great rebound year for us. The pendulum towards traditional beers is swinging back and we were ready for it."

Dan Dringoli

But the rapid growth created a new challenge. By mid-year, all three breweries were operating at or near capacity. Fifth Ward felt the impact acutely and had to cut back on distribution to ensure there would be enough beer to meet the demands of its own taproom. Each brewery is taking a different approach to resolving its limitations.

In November, Bare Bones purchased a two-barrel fermenter for small-batch beers and to free up the availability of its larger tanks. The first beer from the new unit, a Double New England IPA, came out in early January. "This is going to give us much more flexibility," says Bare Bones head brewer Jody Cleveland. "It's going to allow us to do things we just haven't been able to do in the past."

Fox River, which has a second brewery in Appleton, has had to refashion its operations at both facilities to meet demand. Jay Supple, CEO of the Supple Group which operates Fox River, credits his head brewer, Andrew Roth, for puzzling together a solution. "With Andrew and his team utilizing new ingredients and modern brewing processes, we still have room to continue to grow," says Supple "We’re excited for 2022."

Fox River Brewing Company, Oshkosh.

At Fifth Ward, they’re betting big on the future. This year, the brewery plans to undertake the largest expansion seen by an Oshkosh brewery in 60 years. In addition to automating part of its production, Fifth Ward is in the process of acquiring three 35-barrel fermenters. The immediate goal is to approximately triple the brewery’s capacity.

"With the new expansion we should be able to produce between 3,000 and 3,500 barrels a year," says Zach Clark, co-owner and co-brewer at Fifth Ward. "We also have enough room in our production area to put more tanks in. We could ultimately produce 10,000 barrels out of this facility."

Clark's optimistic view of the future is shared by Dan Dringoli at Bare Bones. "We have always had a very loyal customer following,” Dringoli says. “I believe the best years are ahead of us now that things are starting to resolve."

Sunday, January 16, 2022

At Bowen and Otter

The former tavern at the southwest corner of Bowen and Otter was one of the oldest in Oshkosh when it closed in 2019. The first saloon there opened in about 1887. Here's a shot of it from the early 1900s.

The man in the doorway may be Albert Polzin, who ran that saloon from about 1899 until 1910. Polzin was a German immigrant who had worked at Kuenzl’s Gambrinus Brewery on Harney Avenue before becoming a saloon keeper. The signs near the doorway advertise Oshkosh Beer from the Oshkosh Brewing Company.

After Prohibition, the tavern became Tony’s DeLux with former cigar-maker Anton Lux the proprietor. His son, Victor Lux took over in the 1940s and ran it until he retired in 1990.


Last summer, the tavern’s liquor license was revoked for inactivity. The building is now up for sale.

Monday, January 10, 2022

Very Cheap, Second Hand Beer Bottles

Here’s something that will make collectors of Oshkosh memorabilia wince. It’s a classified ad from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of September 9, 1893.

Frank Kitz had just closed up his beer bottling plant when he placed that ad. His bottle house was at the northwest corner of what is now Parkway and Monroe.

Here’s the thing: those “Very cheap, second hand beer bottles” Kitz was selling are now extremely rare. And highly sought after. Only a handful of Kitz bottles are known to have survived. Today, they're worth about $500 a piece.

There’s more on Oshkosh’s beer bottlers, here and here. And I recently wrote a long piece about Frank Kitz and his son Theodore. You can find that here.

Thursday, January 6, 2022

Old Derby Rides Again

It’s been 70 years since the last pour of Peoples Old Derby Ale. But on Saturday, January 8th, this lost Oshkosh ale returns. At noon, Bare Bones Brewery will tap into a barrel of Old Derby Ale as part of the brewery’s Heritage Series of historic Oshkosh beers.

The Old Derby Story
This is a beer with a motley backstory. Old Derby Ale began life at the Ripon Brewing Company. It was hatched in the chaotic days that followed the end of National Prohibition in 1933.

The Ripon Brewery on Jefferson St. in Ripon. The brewery was demolished in the early 2000s.

The close of the dry years led to a brief period of adventurous beer-making. The market was new again. It was a chance for brewers to deviate from the standard menu of pale lager that had prevailed before the onset of Prohibition in 1920. The little lager brewery in Ripon set out to do something different. It was going to brew ale.

Old Derby Ale came hurtling out of the wreckage of Prohibition at 12% ABV. It may have been the strongest beer brewed in Wisconsin up to that time. Old Derby slammed into Oshkosh in the spring of 1934. They were selling mugs of it for a dime at the Tip Top Tavern on Main Street.

452 N. Main Street, Oshkosh. Former home to the Tip Top Tavern.

The companion to Old Derby Ale was Old Derby Porter. It was also a rare bird. A number of porters had been brewed in Wisconsin before Prohibition, but the style had been almost completely abandoned by 1920.

Ripon Brewing pushed hard to find an audience for its outré ales. The brewery distributed its Old Derby set as far west as Colorado. But the beers never caught on. In 1937, Ripon Brewing Company failed.

That same year, the Old Derby brand was purchased by Peoples Brewing of Oshkosh. The Porter was left for dead. But Old Derby Ale went back into production. This wasn't the Old Derby of old, though. This one was about 5.5% ABV. The Peoples version of Old Derby was akin to the pale ales that had long been popular on the east coast.

Old Derby was the only ale brewed in Oshkosh in the post-prohibition period. It was slightly stronger and somewhat hoppier than the pale lagers that were the everyday fare here. It was also more expensive. A case of Peoples Beer, the brewery's standard lager, sold for $2.39 in 1949 (or about $26 in today's money). A case of Old Derby Ale went for $2.95 ($32 today).

Old Derby was aimed at aficionados. The sort of folks who were into things like Pabst Old Tankard Ale and Kingsbury Ale out of Manitowoc. It was a niche product. And it remained so until 1951 when Old Derby Ale was discontinued. With that, ale brewing became a dead letter here for more than 40 years. It wasn't until 1995, when Fox River Brewing opened, that ale would again gain a foothold in Oshkosh.

Old Derby Ale at Bare Bones
Bare Bones head brewer Jody Cleveland and I ran into a problem when attempting to replicate this beer: the original recipe had been lost. But all was not lost.

We were able to backward engineer a recipe using extant information we had about the beer, along with material usage and production methods employed at Peoples. We came up with a formula that I'm confident produces a beer comparable to the Old Derby Ale that was brewed at Peoples in the 1940s.

The Bare Bones version of Old Derby Ale is a golden-hued beer that's 5.5% ABV and 40 IBUs. It was brewed from a grist composed primarily of American ale malt, with corn and light-caramel malt rounding out the grain bill. This is a single-hop beer brewed with American-grown cluster. The hopping regimen included a five-day dry hop (or double hopping as they called it when Old Derby was made at Peoples). This is a period piece in liquid form.

The beer was brewed on the Bare Bones pilot system, so just a single barrel of it will be available. Old Derby Ale begins pouring when Bare Bones opens at noon on Saturday, January 8th. Get it while you can.