Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries


Beer Reviews

Pioneer Oderbolz Bock

Sand Creek Brewing Co.
Black River Falls, WI

Style: Bock

Nigel’s Rating:
one beerone beerone beerone beerone beer   (Outstanding within its style.)

Much like Eddie Glick, I’m convinced that half of the craft beer brewed in the Midwest is brewed at the Sand Creek Brewery in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Chicago’s Half Acre, Spring Green’s Furthermore, Cross Plain’s Brewing Co., Wisconsin Rapids Pangea Beer Co., Madison’s BluCreek, Port Washington’s Harbor City … all of the above are brewed at the old facility in Black River Falls, home of 4,000 people and the inspiration for the famous book Wisconsin Death Trip (and, to a much lesser extent, the album Wisconsin Death Trip). I’ve touched on the contract brewing situation at Sand Creek in previous reviews for both them and some of the contract brews, so I won’t go into too much detail. It seems odd that a small, somewhat remote brewery in an ancient building would brew so much of the beer that we’re familiar with in the upper Midwest, but I guess an aggressive business plan and a need for brewing capacity will do that. Long live capitalism.

Amidst all of those names emerge the home company brews, which, like the convoluted contract situation, aren’t exactly cut and dried. Sand Creek is the mother company, owner of the brewery itself and creator of the brews that fall under the Sand Creek name. They also continue to brew under the Pioneer Brewing Co. name, the former owner of the Black River Falls brewery and one of a number of mid-1990s craft breweries that went belly up, selling the facility and their name to Sand Creek in 2004. Also owned and brewed by Sand Creek is the Wisconsin Brewing Company line of brews, a defunct company formerly based in Wauwatosa that was forced to sell in 1998 after suffering severe flooding. One company, three brands. How wonderfully confusing.

Today’s selection would be from the Pioneer branch, and, though I’ve heard relatively positive things about it and seen it all over in the past decade, I have yet to sample. Sand Creek Pioneer Oderbolz Bock, a brew created by their predecessors at Pioneer, has a much older historical tie. Ulrich Oderbolz was the Swiss immigrant who built the brewery in 1856, making it one of Wisconsin’s first. As is depicted in Wisconsin Death Trip, the Oderbolz family also faced a number of hardships over the years in rural Jackson County. In 1888, young Charley Oderbolz fell into a vat of boiling malt at the brewery, a graphic description of which appeared in the local paper, including peeling skin and a slow, torturous death the next morning. The family ties to the brewery ended in 1911, when owner Frank Oderbolz’s boat lost steering and careened over the falls on the Black River, sending him to a premature death. After a few years as Badger Brewing Company, Prohibition ended the operation in Black River Falls until Pioneer revived it in 1995 as a craft brewery.

I find the history fascinating, and always appreciate a craft brew with good stories behind it. What’s more important presently is how the beer is, regardless of who created it and who’s currently brewing it. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a standard bock, a malty lager that is often enjoyed in the spring months. The offer of a free Sand Creek pint glass lured me in, and I’m hoping to be rewarded with a tasty beverage.

Pioneer Oderbolz Bock pours well, with an initial frothy head of about an inch that quickly settles into my chalice, leaving slight tan lacing at the sides throughout. A deep mahogany color, it’s a bit redder than expected but is still a nice looking brew in the glass.

Aromas are pleasant, and right in line with the style. Sweet malt is present off the bat, with hints of caramel, molasses, and other sugars. A very slight roasted tinge hits the nostrils in the background, along with hints of dark fruit and a touch of hops. Not the most complex aroma you’ll find, but pleasant nonetheless.

The taste is solid, and makes me think Sand Creek kept this old Pioneer brew around for one simple reason: it’s damn good. Malty and earthy as a bock should be, there is a constant underlying sweetness to Oderbolz that gives it an extra oomph. Initial flavors are sweet caramel malt with a touch of molasses and brown sugar. A more subtle maltiness begins to take over next, with the standard earthy graininess associated with roasted barley. Later, the dominant sweet overtones move away from sugar and become fruitier, with plenty of notes of dark raisin/plum and even a slight hint of citrus. Hops make a token appearance at the very end, but remain largely an insignificant presence. Medium bodied and smooth on the palate, Oderbolz is a bit too rich to make a session brew, but finishing off one or two bottles over the course of the evening is certainly a tasty treat.

Whatever the history, Pioneer Oderbolz Bock is one of the better American craft versions I’ve had. While far short of the elite five-mug territory, it’s a very good beer that is pleasantly sweet and well balanced, making it a nice option regardless of the season. I’m not sure how Pioneer’s other brews measure up to this one, but if they compare, then Sand Creek made a very wise choice in keeping the line alive. Widely available in Wisconsin, eastern Minnesota, as well as in other scattered Midwest locations, be sure to give it a shot. Perhaps you can contract them for your next home brew.


Reviewed by Nigel Tanner on August 12, 2009.
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