Debunking the Misperceptions of Craft Beer in Cans
on 03/02/15 at 11:15 amBeer
Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was about to go national. It had found a distribution and marketing partner, and was ready to bust out of Wisconsin. Jeff Fulbright, the founder and president of the brewing company behind Chief Oshkosh, Mid-Coast Brewing, excitedly placed the beer in a spectrum that showed both his ambition and confidence.
“The West Coast has Anchor Steam beer, and the East Coast has Samuel Adams beer,” Fulbright said in a statement. “Through this union, we have created a company that has the strength to distinguish our line of beers as a dominant Midwestern representative of the rapidly growing microbeer segment.”
The idea for Fulbright’s company was born of the larger craft beer movement in the late 1980s and 1990s, right before it entered its period of greatest growth. Information still traveled primarily over the telephone or by word of mouth; and it was at a Great American Beer Festival in Denver in the late 1980s that Fulbright ran into Jim Koch of the Boston Beer Co., which itself had gone national a few years before.
Fulbright, then in his mid-30s, with bushy brown hair and a moustache to match, told Koch of his idea to revive the Chief Oshkosh brand in his native Wisconsin. He had checked on the trademark: It was available. The beer had been brewed until 1971 by the Oshkosh Brewing Co., one of many regionals that collapsed amid the post-World War II consolidation in the brewing industry.
Oshkosh Brewing itself had been formed by the 1894 consolidation of three Oshkosh-based breweries nervous about competition from Schlitz and Pabst in nearby Milwaukee, according to Lee Reiherzer of the Oshkosh Beer blog, who first tracked down Fulbright’s story.
Koch suggested that Fulbright brew Chief Oshkosh under contract at an existing brewery, which was what Koch himself was doing for his fast-selling Samuel Adams Boston Lager. Fulbright took Koch’s suggestion back to the Midwest, where he studied brewing at the Siebel Institute in Chicago and incorporated the Mid-Coast Brewing Co. in May 1991.
Its signature beer would be a red lager that Fulbright devised at Siebel and brewed at the Stevens Point Brewery, a regional 70 miles northwest of Oshkosh.
Chief Oshkosh Red Lager hit the local Milwaukee market in 1991, retailing for $3.99 a six-pack. Fulbright lined up coverage on three TV stations in Wisconsin as well as in the consumer and trade media. He reached out to legendary critic Michael Jackson personally as well as to this magazine—Jackson praised the beer for an “unapologetic, robust sweetness” and All About Beer said it was “just delightful.” Distributors signed on, and by the end of 1992, Chief Oshkosh would spread statewide, with those plans to go national following quickly after.
The craft beer was already a hit, when, on June 17, 1991, a Monday, Fulbright hosted a formal unveiling for about 45 people at the Oshkosh Hilton. He and volunteers poured the red lager from cans.
That’s right: cans.
You’re forgiven. The history of canning in American craft beer is drenched in myths. For instance, ask most industry experts, including the brewers themselves, and they would date the advent of craft-beer canning to late 2002, when Dale Katechis decided to can all his Oskar Blues brands, particularly his signature Dale’s Pale Ale. Oskar Blues, out of tiny Lyons, CO, is considered to be the first American craft brewery to can its own beers.
But it wasn’t the first American craft beer sold in a can. (And it wasn’t the first in North America, for that matter, to can its own beers, with that honor belonging to Yukon Gold in Canada’s Yukon Territory in 2001.) Chief Oshkosh Red Lager predates Dale’s Pale Ale by 11 years, as do at least four other domestic offerings: Pete’s Summer Brew from Pete’s Brewing, Wisconsin Amber from Capital Brewery, Brewski Brewing’s Brewski Beer and Iron Range Amber Ale from James Page Brewing—all hit shelves, either regionally or nationally, before 1999, though each was canned on contract by larger companies.
For Fulbright, the decision to can in 1991 was purely economic, and he was not aware that he was unique in craft beer. “I just saw it was the only means to an end because, well, I won’t say how little money we started with,” Fulbright told All About Beer in April. He estimates that the total was “way under $100,000.”