Tuesday, February 22, 2022

John Harry and the Ongoing Story of Peoples Beer

America was home to more than 400 breweries in 1950. By 1980, three-quarters of them had closed. Those that went under were soon forgotten by almost everyone, save for breweriana collectors and local history enthusiasts. Recently, though, there’s been a stir of national interest in one of those lost breweries. That brewery was located in Oshkosh.

Peoples Brewing Company had been producing beer on South Main Street for 59 years when it closed in 1972. The closure had been preceded by two, tumultuous years that began with the sale of the brewery to a Milwaukee-based group led by Theodore Mack. With that, Peoples became the first black-owned brewery in Wisconsin.

Theodore Mack

It’s those two years that have ignited interest in a brewery few outside of Wisconsin had heard of until recently. John Harry is one of the people responsible for raising that awareness. On Thursday, February 24, the Oshkosh Public Museum will host Harry via Zoom for a public discussion titled “Peoples Beer: The Story of Wisconsin's First African American Owned Brewery.”

John Harry

Harry was recently named Executive Director of the Portage County Historical Society, but before taking that job he had immersed himself in the 1970s incarnation of Peoples Brewing when Theodore Mack was its president. Harry had come upon that story while preparing for a transition of his own. "I was a radio DJ for 10 years and decided I was going to change careers," he says. "I've always loved history and I was at a point in my life where I was like, let's just go for it."

He moved to Milwaukee where last year he earned a master's degree in public history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. There, he focused on black capitalism as it pertained to the Theodore Mack era at Peoples. "Nobody was writing about it on an academic sphere," Harry says. "I found my niche there as a historian."

Harry began gathering oral histories from people who had been connected to the brewery in the early 1970s. Though Theodore Mack had passed away in 2019, Harry traveled to Georgia to interview his widow, Pearl, who had been the corporate secretary at Peoples. “It was one of those things where you ask yourself, is this really going to happen?” he says. “I sat down and had about a half hour conversation with her. You're talking to this woman who was married to Ted Mack; nobody knows this guy better. It was really intense.”

In July of 2020, Harry shared much of what he had gathered in a piece for the Good Beer Hunting website titled “Beer for the People — How Wisconsin’s First Black-Owned Brewery Took on the Entire Beer Industry.” The article placed what had occurred at Peoples in the 1970s within the context of minority entrepreneurship and documented Theodore Mack's struggle for success and ultimate failure in Oshkosh.

The timing was fortuitous. Against the backdrop of 2020's Black Lives Matter protests, the lack of diversity in American craft beer was being called out in a more forceful manner. For those concerned, Harry's article provided a historical frame of reference that had been missing. Peoples Brewing, which had closed almost 50 years earlier, was suddenly receiving more widespread attention than it had during its peak years in the 1950s.

Shortly after Harry's article appeared, a brewery in Sacramento, California announced that it was claiming the legacy of Peoples Brewing for its own. With the blessing of Theodore Mack's son Ted Mack II, Oak Park Brewing co-opted the Peoples Beer brand and began releasing their product under a label lifted directly from the defunct Oshkosh brewery. 

Harry published a follow-up article for Good Beer Hunting that addressed some of the more troubling aspects of the Oak Park situation.

"Anytime you give more exposure to an untold story about an underserved population, I think that that's a good thing," Harry says. "I think it's interesting, though, that there's no inclusion of the community of Oshkosh. As a question of ownership or memory of something like Peoples Beer, the people who remember it best are going to be in Oshkosh. The community didn't have their chance to weigh in. It became less a beer of the community and more a beer of black history. I think you have to tell that part of the story, but you can't also ignore the 60 years of history that led up to that."

It's a story that continues to unfold and one that Harry will explore fully in his talk for the Oshkosh Public Museum on Thursday, February 24. To attend, go to oshkoshmuseum.org and click the Programs/Events tab at the top of the page (here is a direct link to the event page). 

This article also appears in the February 23 edition of the Oshkosh Herald.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

The Phoenix House

The Phoenix House hotel opened in 1872 on the east side of what is now the 500 block of N. Main Street. It was destroyed by the great Oshkosh fire of July 1874 and then immediately rebuilt. The proprietor was Joseph Schneider, a German immigrant who came to Oshkosh in 1857. In 1905, Schneider was arrested for running a Blind Pig (an unlicensed saloon) out of the Phoenix House. After that, he went legal and over the next 95 years the location was home to numerous taverns. It’s now the Sideyard at Peabody's Ale House.

A Main Street mash-up: circa 1890 & 2022.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Beer of the Moment: Bare Bones’ Buster

Beer and community are inseparable in Oshkosh. It's been this way since our first breweries were launched in 1849. There's a beer named Buster that just went on tap at Bare Bone Brewery that typifies the sense of community that tends to form around beer here.


Buster is a rustic ale taken in a modern direction. It starts as a blonde ale with a creamy, malt base built from a foundation of oats. The soft texture gives way to sweet and tart flavors from an especially generous dose of Door County cherries. The simple construction produces a complexity worth lingering upon. At 6.5% ABV, this is not a small beer, yet it still travels lightly.

The idea for Buster arose three years ago when the Oshkosh chapter of Girls Pint Out decided it was time to go beyond the taprooms they’d been touring and get into the brewhouse. The group partnered with Bare Bones in developing the recipe for Buster and took part in its inaugural brew. Buster met with such success that Bare Bones has brewed it annually every year since.

You don’t need to know the story behind a beer like this to enjoy it. But when you do, it makes for a more memorable experience. Just about every beer has a story to tell. In Oshkosh, that story usually comes back around to community.

Beer of the Moment is an ongoing series I’m writing about local beer for the Visit Oshkosh website. These are not intended as critical reviews or endorsements. Their purpose is to provide a glimpse into the local beer culture for people considering a visit to Oshkosh. I also post them here in hopes of building a representative overview of the sort of beer that is being made here now. Most of the beers featured in this series have been selected by the brewers.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

OBC Bull

The Oshkosh Brewing Company had a history of telling ridiculous stories about its connection to Chief Oshkosh and the native people who had lived here. Here's a whopper 1953: “Our own 515 foot well produces water so delicious that the Indians used to trek for miles for a taste of it.”
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern; November 25, 1953

Total nonsense. The brewery’s 515-foot well was drilled in 1949. Nobody was trekking to Oshkosh for a taste of that well's water.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

Cheater Mugs

 Here's a rough-looking headline from the Oshkosh Daily Northwestern of October 9, 1907.

The lousy barley crop of 1907 led to shortages that hiked the price of beer in Oshkosh. Looks like history is getting ready to repeat. Last year's barley production was the worst since 1939. It's one of the factors causing beer prices here to rise. 

Back in 1907, some saloons and taprooms in Oshkosh dealt with the issue by using "cheater" mugs. They were normal-sized but had thick, punted bottoms so they held less beer. A mug of beer cost a nickel then. Lately, I’ve been seeing more $6 and higher pints, and places not listing prices on their beer menus. But no cheater mugs… yet.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Beer of the Moment: Fifth Ward’s Pibber Jibber

This is the first in what will be an ongoing series of posts I’m writing about local beer for the Visit Oshkosh website. These are not intended as critical reviews or endorsements. Their purpose is to provide a glimpse into the local beer culture for people considering a visit to Oshkosh. I’m also posting them here with the aim of building an overview of the sort of beers that are being made in Oshkosh now. I’ve attempted to do something like this in the past, but with little success; due largely to my lack of enthusiasm for certain types of beer. That won’t be a problem this time. Most of the beers I’ll write about in this series are going to be selected by the brewer who made it. And with that, I give you this...

We’re serious about our beer in Oshkosh, but that doesn't mean the brewers here are above having some fun with it. Case in point: Pibber Jibber, which was just released by Fifth Ward Brewing Company at 1009 S. Main Street in Oshkosh.

Pibber Jibber is a 6% ABV ale brewed with peanuts, graham crackers, and concord grape juice. It drinks like the distillation of a toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwich. So much for serious. Yet, this isn’t just a liquid wisecrack. It’s part of an ongoing pursuit of flavor.

Ian Wenger and Zach Clark, who launched Fifth Ward in 2017, came to brewing from the culinary world. Ever since, they've been drawing from an expansive range of ingredients more common to the kitchen than the brewhouse.

"As usual, we are trying to find new and different flavors, which is pretty difficult in this craft beer flavor dystopia we find ourselves in now," Wenger says. "But honestly, I think it's one of the best peanut butter beers we've made and easily the best PB&J beer I've had."

There’s a dab of local tradition in there, too. The base beer at the foundation of Pibber Jibber was produced using a method long-ago favored by Southside Oshkosh brewers who made tangy "White Beer” here beginning in the 1860s. Those old-timers, though, would never have dreamed of a peanut-butter beer. It’s not that they lacked imagination. Peanut butter didn’t reach America until the 1890s. Given the opportunity, they might have made their own Pibber Jibber.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Armin Reinke

Armin Reinke was a commercial artist from Oshkosh. He worked here for more than 60 years beginning in the 1920s.

Armin Reinke in 1978.

Reinke provided artwork for dozens of American businesses, including breweries. There's going to be more on that coming in the not-too-distant future. For now, here's a piece of his work from the early 1930s. This package was once seen in nearly every Oshkosh grocery store.

Lee-Precour was a coffee importing and roasting company run by Harry Lee and William Precour. Their roastery was just east of where the Oshkosh Convention Center now stands.

After Prohibition ended, Lee & Precour quit coffee and got into beer. That business eventually became Lee Beverage of Wisconsin. It’s now one of the largest beer distributorships in the state.

January 14, 1936.

Lee Beverage would play a major role in Oshkosh beer history. I've touched on that a couple of times on the blog. The story of the early years of Lee Beverage is here. The role the company played in the undoing of the Oshkosh Brewing Company is here.