Thursday, May 6, 2010

Mike Engel & the Rise of the S.O.B.s

Portrait of a Real S.O.B
Mike Engel’s introduction to homebrewing was fairly typical. “I asked my wife for a homebrewing kit for Christmas,” he says. And that’s where the “typical” ends. Some 15 years later he’s risen from the ranks of the homebrew curious to being head of the largest, and perhaps most active, homebrewing club in Northeast Wisconsin, The Society of Oshkosh Brewers; or as Mike and just about everyone else who comes in contact with the club prefers to call them, The S.O.B.s.

The transformation from homebrew newbie to Primary Fermentor (yes, that’s his official title) wasn’t exactly an orderly affair. “It took me a while to discover good beer,” Mike says. “My dad used to drink Pabst and before coming to Oshkosh I lived in Beaver Dam where everybody drank Old Style.” His initial foray into homebrewing wasn’t so spectacular, either. A year after getting that fateful kit he finally got around to brewing his first batch. About this same time, he spotted a flier for The S.O.B.s. Kismet! Mike decided to check out the club and see what they had to say about his creation. The results were something he’d rather forget. “There was one guy there who really gave me a hard time about that beer,” Mike says. Then he puts it a bit more diplomatically. He says, “Let’s just say I wasn’t warmly received.” Mike stresses that the club member in question has long since moved on and that the S.O.B.s these days are much more considerate and receptive to new brewers.

As for Mike, the rough treatment he received didn’t deter him. He kept brewing and showing up for club meetings and learned enough along the way to develop his chops to the point where people no longer scoffed at his beer. He won a couple of awards including a Best of Show at a contest held by Homebrew Market. All the while his involvement with the S.O.B.s continued to deepen.

By 2004 Mike was the treasurer of the club, which then had more than two dozen members. But the club was losing its way. In April of that year, the S.O.B.s lost a couple of key members including their president Steve Rehfeldt. The club began to stagnate. Membership dwindled to less than a dozen, most of whom weren’t especially active or interested in developing the club. In the November 2004 edition of The Brewsletter, the club’s monthly newsletter, Randy Bauer recapped their October meeting writing, “The Question of the night for the SOB’s: Should we continue?” They did, but it took more than a year for them to find their direction and when they did, the guy who had stumbled in 9 years earlier with a batch of lousy homebrew was now the de-facto President.

“There was no one else to run things so I stepped into the position,” Mike says. In October of 2006 it was made official with Mike being elected Primary Fermentor. Things began to change. The S.O.B.s found a new home at O’Marro’s Public House and the club grew. Mike says, “Once we moved to O’Marro’s membership exploded.” The club now has approximately 50 members and continues to grow. “I can’t believe how succesful the club has become over the past few years,” Mike says. “We seem to get one or two new members at every meeting. I’m especially happy to see the number of women we now have in the club.” And he’s confident that there’s still more potential for growth. “I’m convinced that there are a lot more people out there brewing beer in Oshkosh than we know about.”

As successful as the club has grown under his direction, Mike sees the time approaching when he’ll need to step aside. He forsees a need for “new blood” in the leadership. He says, “At some point the time is going to come for me to step down and let someone else direct the club.” One thing is certain, whoever takes the reigns will be in a better position than the one Mike found himself in when the job fell to him. The club is thriving and it took a Real S.O.B to make that happen.

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