A couple years ago, I took part in a discussion about Oshkosh history held at the Oshkosh Public Museum. I was there to talk of the role that beer and brewing have played. At one point, I mentioned something about the “beer culture” of Oshkosh. Immediately there came a snort of disapproval. It was from a woman in her late sixties who has lived here all her life. She didn’t care for my suggestion that Oshkosh had any such thing as a beer culture. To her, the idea of connecting the words beer and culture was absurd. You probably know better.
There has been a persistent beer culture here for more than 160 years. It blossomed before Oshkosh was even a city. It grew out of the traditions of European immigrants who settled here and planted breweries all over town. It has been a dynamic culture. There have been boom years and lean years. And there was a time, in the not too distant past, when nobody seemed to care at all.
The doubting woman at the museum, came of age during that singular downturn. She saw Oshkosh’s last two production breweries go bust in the early 1970s. The beer she came to know was the mass-produced, beer-like liquid trucked in from Milwaukee and St. Louis. You can hardly blame her for thinking the way she does. But I suspect her parents may have thought differently.
You and I have been luckier than she. Many of the people I’ve gotten to know in Oshkosh’s resurgent beer culture are too young to recall the time when most every beer available was a variation on the same bland theme: adulterated, industrial, lager. Those days are behind us, but the impact of that bleak period lingers. It conceals the fact that we’re part of a tradition established long ago; one that each of us is playing a part in reaffirming. That’s what this weekly column is going to be about.
Each Thursday I’ll have an article here about the continually developing Oshkosh beer scene. It will be about the beers we drink and where and why we drink them. Most importantly it will be about the people who enjoy, pour and make those beers. This city is teeming with fascinating beer enthusiasts. My hope is to introduce a good number of them to you.
Along with stories of what’s happening within our beer scene, I also want to use this column as an opportunity to increase local awareness about beer in general. It’s easy to forget that you and I are part of an extreme minority. Many of those around us are bewildered by the endless rush of new beers and the multitude of styles that we take for granted. Spend a little time people watching in the beer aisle at Festival Foods and you’ll see what I mean. We all have our blind spots. No matter who you are, when it comes to beer, there’s always so much more to learn.
As for me, I’ve been writing (my wife might say obsessively) about beer in Oshkosh since 2010 when I started my blog, Oshkosh Beer. I’m also a homebrewer and enjoy nothing more than recreating classic beers that were once regularly brewed here. Along the way, I became enthralled with beer history; in particular the history of beer and brewing in Oshkosh. That interest culminated in a book I wrote with Ron Akin in 2012 entitled The Breweries of Oshkosh, Their Rise and Fall.
I want to use that background to show that what we’re up to now fits within a larger framework of time. What is happening here beer-wise these days is impressive and dramatic, but it’s not without precedent. I think it’s important to realize that. It makes our experience richer.
Oshkosh’s beer scene has grown substantially over the past five years. Not since before Prohibition have there been so many people here so deeply interested in beer. We have a large and energetic homebrewing community and an even larger number of enthusiasts actively pursuing quality beer. Elsewhere, that combination has resulted in a flourish of new breweries. There’s no reason for that not to happen in Oshkosh… again. I believe we’re on the cusp of exciting times. We’ll find out together. See you next Thursday.
photo from the author’s collection.