Thursday, April 25, 2024

Oshkosh Peculiar

All is not well in the world of beer. American beer sales are trending steadily downward, and craft breweries are failing at an unprecedented rate. Yet there’s little evidence of such withering here. Last year, Oshkosh's three breweries – Bare Bones, Fifth Ward, and Fox River – each saw their sales volume increase.

“Maybe it’s just that we’re a couple of years behind the trend,” says Ian Wenger, co-owner of Fifth Ward Brewing. Wenger may be half joking, but the concern is genuine. When it comes to beer, Oshkosh has a history of being slow to adopt national trends. If the local homebrewing scene is any indication, though, this may be one trend that skips the city altogether.

Homebrewing has been looked upon as a bellwether for the craft beer industry. In fact, the struggle that now besets craft brewers was preceded by a sharp downturn in homebrewing. Membership in the American Homebrewers Association has fallen by 35 percent since 2018, and the organization has canceled its annual conference for 2024. Over the past three years, however, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrewing club has increased its membership by 35 percent. The club now has 69 members.

Scott Westpfahl during a recent meeting of the SOBs at Fifth Ward Brewing. Photo by Staci Saunders.

Scott Westpfahl has been president of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers (the SOBs) since 2021. He has no doubts about what makes the Oshkosh club different. “We have a lot of people here who are truly invested in the club,” Westpfahl says. “It’s a very active membership. It makes all the difference. And we’re so tied into the community. The SOBs are engaged with every brewery, cidery, meadery, and distillery in the region.”

At Fifth Ward, brewery co-owner Zach Clark takes a similar view. “I go around to a lot of other towns on sales calls, and one thing you notice here is that the enthusiasm hasn’t died down the way it has in some places. We see it in our taproom. People want to go out and do things and be active. I mean, we have a pretty advanced crowd coming in here. They’ve evolved along with us. You don’t see that everywhere.”

Clark says it probably helped that the craft beer scene in Oshkosh didn’t grow as quickly as it did some larger cities. “It happened more gradually here, and I think that’s meant that we’ve never had the oversaturation that you see in other places where there might be too many breweries, and people kind of losing interest because it's just too much to keep up with. I think people around here have remained engaged with what’s going on.”

The engagement is an expression of social life in a city where tavern culture has been foundational. Wenger sees a shift taking place. “I know that some of our taproom regulars are people who used to spend more time in bars, but maybe they just wanted a different sort of atmosphere. We see a lot of the same faces, and they might be with their families and they're getting together, and they can all feel comfortable here. I don’t know if that kind of thing is happening in the bars so much anymore.”

The Fifth Ward's taproom in Oshkosh. Photo by Staci Saunders.

Fifth Ward is looking to build upon its taproom success. Clark and Wenger are currently exploring the possibility of opening a second taproom in the area. After doubling the capacity of its brewery over the past two years, Fifth Ward became the largest producer of beer in Oshkosh last year selling 1,480 barrels.

“We could already make twice as much beer here as we do now, so we absolutely have the capacity to supply another taproom,” Clark says. “The question we’re thinking about is how far do we want to go in that direction? We’re trying to figure out where the equilibrium is.”

For the Oshkosh homebrewers the future appears as promising, but far less complex. “I mean, for us it’s all about having fun,” Westpfahl says. “And right now we have such a great group that’s really invested in the overall experience of being an SOB. We’re in a good place.”

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers invites the community to get a taste of the SOB experience on Saturday, May 4, when the club will hold its annual Big Brew from 9am until 1pm at The Cellar homebrew shop at 465 N. Washburn Street. The event is open to the public and will feature brewing demonstrations.

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

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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Oshkosh Classics: The Story of Our City’s Beer in 12 Recipes

Here's the story of our beer culture told through recipes that span 175 years of brewing in Oshkosh.

Oshkosh Classics is a 32-page, magazine-sized booklet with full-color illustrations throughout. Beer recipes are the core of the booklet, but anyone with an interest in Oshkosh brewing history or the city’s social history will find it interesting. The story goes beyond beer. It’s about community.

Oshkosh Classics has been a long time coming. I began searching for recipes from old Oshkosh breweries about a dozen years ago. My sole intention was to replicate what were then lost Oshkosh beers. As I found recipes, I scaled them to homebrew batch size and got brewing. I wasn’t too surprised to find that some of the old recipes produced great beers. After all, people in Oshkosh once loved these beers.

Rolling another barrel of Gambrinus Brewery Beer into an Oshkosh saloon in the early 1890s. A recipe for the brewery’s black lager is included in Oshkosh Classics.

As it often is with homebrewers, I had a strong impulse to share what I was doing. It was easy finding people who understood my obsession. I’ve been a member of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrew club since 2010. This kind of thing is what the SOBs are all about.

In the spring of 2023, I suggested to the club’s board that we collect these recipes into a booklet. And off we went. I spent most of this past winter writing and designing the booklet, and thanks to SOB Rob Bearwald, we were able to have it professionally bound and printed on quality paper. Our humble, little beer book turned out better than any of us could have expected.

Some SOBs checking out their copies of Oshkosh Classics. Photos courtesy of Staci Saunders.

The SOBs’ release party for Oshkosh Classics will be at Bare Bones Brewery on Saturday, April 20, beginning at noon. In addition to the booklet release, SOB members will be sharing free samples of homebrew made from recipes included in the booklet.

Here’s a bonus: that same day, Bare Bones Brewery will release Peoples Bock made from the original recipe used at Peoples Brewing of Oshkosh in the 1950s and 1960s. Peoples Bock will be available on draft and in collectible cans.

There are only 300 copies of Oshkosh Classics, and I doubt that more will be printed. The SOBs are a non-profit organization and printing something like this is quite expensive. But the club wanted to keep the price of the booklet as low as possible. So, individual copies of Oshkosh Classics will be sold for $5 when purchased directly from a club member.

If you can’t make the release party at Bare Bones, here are a couple of other options…

Saturday, April 27
I’ll have copies of Oshkosh Classics for sale at the B'Gosh It's Good Breweriana Show from noon until 4pm.

Saturday, May 4
The SOBs will host their annual Big Brew behind the The Cellar brew shop at 465 N. Washburn from 9am until noon. This is always a fun, public event with lots of brewing, and food from the Ginger German food truck. This year, we’ll have a stack of Oshkosh Classics with us.

All of us SOBs hope to see you at one of these events. Prost!

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

175 Years of Beer in Oshkosh

The Oshkosh 175 celebration begins Thursday, April 4th at Fifth Ward Brewing with the release of 175 Bock.

All three Oshkosh breweries will release a bock beer this year to commemorate the 175th anniversary of brewing here. Each of the collectible cans for these beers will carry the “Oshkosh 175” emblem. This is the first time brewers in Oshkosh have collaborated on a series of beers that celebrate our city’s brewing heritage.

Each of the three beers in the series will be a different style of Bock. The Fifth Ward’s Bock is a traditional German Bock, dark and rich with a lush caramel note and just enough hop contribution to keep it from being too sweet. It's a surprisingly drinkable beer considering that it brings a solid 6.2% ABV. This is an excellent example of the style.

Now, here’s something I’ve been saving for the right occasion, and I think this is it... Back in 2017, Ian Wenger and Zach Clark were working to get their brewery launched. Fifth Ward would open later that year, in November. In the meantime, Zach and Ian continued to homebrew. In April of 2017, the three of us got together to drink some of their homemade Bock beer. For reasons I no longer recall, I shot some video while we quaffed Bock.

Here are the three of us from April 2017, six months before the opening of Fifth Ward, getting a taste of what was to come. Prost, guys!

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Talkin' Omro Saloon Wars

I’ll be talking this Thursday, April 4, about the Omro Saloon Wars of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Omro saloon scene was like something out of the Wild West. Unfortunately, this is a history that was left for dead. It’s time we bring it back to life.

The talk begins at 6:30 at the Carter Memorial Library in Omro. Hope to see you there!