Tuesday, January 30, 2024

A Beer By Any Other Name

The longest-lived craft beer made in Oshkosh has a fluid identity. It’s a Scottish Ale from Fox River Brewing Company, and it was first served to the public at Fratello's Italian Cafe on Friday, December 15, 1995. On that day, it was called Caber Tossing. In 2014, Caber Tossing became Marble Eye. This February, the name will change again, this time to Highland Fox Scottish Ale.

Drew Roth is the head brewer at Fox River. He knows what’s coming next. “It’s kind of a running joke around the brewery. People will insist that Caber Tossing and Marble Eye were completely different beers with different recipes,” he says. “I can pull out recipe sheets and show them that they’re the same beers. It doesn’t matter. They just tell me I’m wrong.”

Drew Roth

Roth has 29 years of brewing logs backing up his claim. The recipe he is using for Highland Fox adheres, in every important respect, to the recipe that former Fox River head Brewer Al Bundee entered into the logbook for the first batch of Caber Tossing on November 25, 1995. “It’s a different name, but the recipe is not changing in the slightest,” he says.

In the trend-riddled world of craft beer, that kind of longevity is practically unheard of. But then, this beer was an outlier from the start. When Caber Tossing was introduced it became the strongest year-round beer ever produced in Oshkosh. At 6.5% ABV, with its deep amber color and caramelized malt flavor, Fox River’s Scottish Ale was altogether different from the mild, pale lagers that had been dominant here for a century.

Beer connoisseur and brewer Mark Stanek was among the early adopters. He became acquainted with Caber Tossing after moving to Oshkosh from Madison in 1997. “That beer was outstanding,” Stanek says. “It was malty in flavor and aromatics. It was one of the great beers from that time frame and was really well respected.”

In 2001, Caber Tossing took the gold medal in the Scottish-style ale category at the Great American Beer Festival. By 2006, it was the best-selling beer in Fox River’s portfolio. Caber Tossing-cum-Marble Eye held that position until 2014 when BLU Bobber became a year-round beer and the brewery’s runaway bestseller. Ten years later, Marble Eye, soon to be Highland Fox, still holds its own.

“It just continues to be that beer that consistently sells,” Roth says. “We have discussions every year about what beers are going to get pulled to make room for new things, but Marble Eye has never been up for discussion. It just keeps going, and we’re going to keep brewing it.”

That’s a rare declaration to attach to an amber beer these days. Nationwide, the popularity of darker-hued brews has fallen significantly. The decline is illustrated by the recently diminished Fat Tire Amber Ale. Ten years ago, Fat Tire was among the most popular of all craft beers. But deflating sales led to Fat Tire's reformulation last year. Gone is the amber. Fat Tire now wobbles along, drained of its color.

“Wisconsin is kind of a weird market in that way,” Roth says. “A lot of people here still want those darker beers. It might be our climate, or some of the traditions around here, I’m not really sure. Marble Eye is often our second or third best seller on draft even in the summertime.”

It's a beer that has been bucking trends for so long that it has entered the pantheon of Oshkosh classics such as Chief Oshkosh, Peoples Beer, and Rahr’s Elk’s Head. At 29-years old, what is about to become Highland Fox is the youngster of that bunch. Yet it remains an old friend to those who discovered their love of flavorful beer through Caber Tossing. “I know I’m going to hear about it, but I like the new name,” Roth says. “Highland Fox embraces our identity and what the beer is about. We're getting back to our roots on that.”

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