Thursday, December 1, 2022

The Oshkosh Beer Drinkers Taste Test of 1977

In 1977, the beer scene in Oshkosh was at low ebb. The city had been without a brewery for five years. All of the beer here was being trucked in from somewhere else, and nearly all of it was mass-produced pale lager. The beer may not have been anything special, but at least there was plenty of it.

Dozens of brands filled beer depot shelves. Choosing the best was like trying to identify the ultimate shade of white. It amounted to minor variations on a minor theme. In the fall of 1977, the challenge was taken up at the Oshkosh Beer Drinkers Taste Test.

Sinking a sample at the 1977 taste test.

The competition, sponsored by a UW-Oshkosh student organization, took place on the Thursday evening of November 3, 1977 at Reeve Memorial Union on Algoma Boulevard. About 110 drinkers turned out for a blind sampling of 15 beers. The participants were asked to rate each beer on a scale from one to five, with five being the highest score. Here were the results along with the average score of each beer.

1: Old Style - 3.59
2: Olympia - 3.55
3: Miller High Life - 3.52
4: Hamm’s and Stroh’s (tied) - 3.46
5: Pabst - 3.41
6: Leinenkugels - 3.14
7: Special Export - 3.08
8: Budweiser - 3.05
9: Heineken - 2.90
10: Anheuser-Busch Light - 2.56
11: Miller Lite - 2.48
12: Coors - 2.45
13: Point - 2.28
14: Augsburger - 2.02
15: Schlitz Light - Score not reported

A taste-test volunteer wearing a Chief Oshkosh Beer t-shirt pours samples of Coor’s.

The beer selection didn't quite match up with what peoples in Oshkosh were actually drinking in 1977. Nationally distributed brands accounted for all but two of the 15 entries. Missing were brands such as Rhinelander, Kingsbury, Bohemian Club; regional beers brewed in Wisconsin that were widely popular here. The event’s advisor was almost certainly unaware of that.

Thaine Johnson, on the left, officiating at the Oshkosh Beer Drinkers Taste Test.

Thaine Johnson was a newcomer to Oshkosh but no stranger to beer. Born in 1920, Johnson was a chemist and a journeyman brewer who had made beer at Falstaff in St. Louis, George Wiedemann in Kentucky, and at Hamm’s in St. Paul. He was working as a brewmaster for Hamm’s when the brewery was sold to Olympia in 1975. The new owners replaced Johnson with one of their own.

A few months before the 1977 taste test, Johnson and his wife, Annella, left Minnesota for Oshkosh where he became vice president of manufacturing at the Oshkosh Seven-Up Bottling Company. But soda just wasn't his thing. Johnson was 57 and still had the itch to make beer.

In 1978, he went to Philadelphia to become the brewmaster for Christian Schmidt Brewing. After that brewery closed in 1987, Johnson was recruited by the newly formed Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland. He finished his brewing career at Great Lakes where, among other things, Johnson developed the recipe for the highly awarded Dortmunder Gold Lager.

There was nothing at the 1977 tasting that tasted anything like that one. Johnson’s full-flavored Dortmunder became one of those early craft-beer success stories that helped create a new beer culture in America. The old brewer had turned pioneer.

Dortmunder Gold is still worth seeking out. And if you find one, raise a toast to our former neighbor.

Thaine Johnson (center) with Pat and Dan Conway, the brothers who launched Great Lakes in 1988.

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