An organizational meeting of a new club for homebrewers of beer in Oshkosh will be held at 7 p.m. Thursday April 11, at Galaxy Science & Hobby Center, Lake Aire Center, 2211 Oregon St.
The meeting is open to beer lovers and homebrewers at all levels, as well as to the merely curious.
The club will act as a resource of homebrewing information for area brewers and will provide a forum for exchanging recipes and ideas between members. The club also plans to tour microbreweries and enter homebrewing competitions.
It was a good time to start a club dedicated to homebrewing. Interest in the hobby had risen slowly and steadily since its legalization in 1978. Some saw it as a backlash. In Oshkosh, the idea was gaining ground that beer could mean something more than the pale, industrial lagers that dominated the market. Oblio’s Lounge had begun putting a rotating selection of microbrews on tap and a new microbrew with a familiar name, Chief Oshkosh Red Lager, was beginning to appear on store shelves.
Still, the new beers were often hard to come by in Oshkosh. The club that formed in Oshkosh on April 11, 1991 was part of a rising tide of beer drinkers who weren’t going to wait for the market to catch up with them. If they couldn’t buy the sort of beers they wanted, they’d brew their own.
By 1991, a network of beer brewing clubs had already formed in America. Many of the clubs gave themselves amusing names that relied upon puns or double entendres. The homebrewers in Oshkosh took a moniker that at first glance appeared self-important. Officially, they were the Society of Oshkosh Brewers. But they rarely used the full name. Instead, they called themselves the SOBs. The name was pitch perfect for the group that would come together under the epithet.
|A 1991 Gathering of the SOBs|
The SOBs’ original “Funtime Clubhouse,” as they called it, was an empty storefront next door to Galaxy Science & Hobby Center. It was a natural spot for them to gather. Galaxy Science & Hobby sold homebrewing supplies among its other wares, making it the hub of homebrewing activity in Oshkosh.
But the space at Galaxy Science & Hobby was not always available, forcing the club to hold meetings in bars that were less than hospitable. The challenge of finding an appropriate meeting spot for a growing group that arrived with its own beer in tow became an early problem and one that would trouble the club for the next 15 years.
In the May 1992 edition of the SOBs aptly named newsletter, The Brewsletter, editor Jeff Affeldt framed the problem. “The Society was formed over a year ago by a half-dozen homebrew enthusiasts sitting around in a big circle conversing face-to-face, swapping homebrews, recipes, ideas and dubious beer stories,” Affeldt wrote. “With our new meeting place being a public bar, it’s become more difficult to hear and be heard over the loud music and interruptions by waitresses.” Affeldt wrote that what was needed was, “Complete privacy from nosy people drinking their factory-made beer.”
The issue of where to meet would appear again and again and so would the jabs at “factory-made beer.” The early SOB Brewsletters were a grab bag of beer news and event listings, bad jokes, brewing information, and scouring criticism of bad beer. It helped that the club had several good writers, including two professional journalists who often wrote about beer, Jim Lundstrom and Todd Haefer. Lundstom was especially noticeable in the early issues penning a semi-regular “Adventures in Beer” column about the beer-soaked misadventures of the SOBs.
But there was a serious side to the club, as well. The club wanted to grow its membership to exert more influence over the Oshkosh beer scene. The 1993 recruitment pitch carried the same blend of high-toned balderdash that the SOBs favored from the start. “In order to become an SOB, one must be of the highest moral fiber, possess a superior intellect and come from a long family history of aristocratic brewers. Or you can just pay your lousy 10 bucks and be done with it.”
Monthly meetings were now most often held at J.J. Fiddler’s, a tavern on the corner of 16th and Oregon streets. Other times, meetings took place at the Lizard Lounge on High Ave. and sometimes in the homes of club members. The changing settings were accompanied by a change in the SOB roster. By the mid-1990s, a number of the club’s founding members had drifted away. They were being replaced by a new core.
Steve Rehfeldt moved to Oshkosh from Colorado in 1995 with the intention of opening a microbrewery and was drawn into the SOB fold. “The home brewers in Oshkosh were innovative and knowledgeable, and produced great beers,” Rehfeldt says. And the beer they were making retained the influence of the Oshkosh brewers who preceded them. “The Oshkosh folks brewed a lot of lagers and malty, dark ales,” Rehfeldt says.
Rehfeldt was joined at the core of the club by others who had a desire to grow the membership and see the club become more structured. Mike Engel joined the SOBs in 1995 and became the club’s treasurer. Richard Stueven, a trained brewer became a member and began writing technical articles for The Brewsletter. Randy Bauer became an SOB in 1998 and took over editorship of the Brewsletter, giving it a more professional appearance than it had before.
The club grew, but the dilemma over meeting space persisted. A rotating list of venues, which included Fratellos, a camera studio and a series of different bars created difficulties and hampered progress. By 2004, the club had its own website and more than 20 members, but issues were beginning to arise. Attendance at meetings was often low. Rehfeldt was frustrated in his attempts to get the membership to take a more active role in the club’s direction. He wanted the club to be focused on brewing beer and not merely a place where members casually gathered to drink beer. “We do not want a purely social club,” he wrote in The Brewsletter of January 2004.
|From Left to Right, SOBs Dick Waltenberry, |
Mike Engel and Steve Rehfeldt in 2004
Engel’s plea fell on deaf ears. Much of the load would continue to be carried by he and Bauer, with additional support given by Bryce Hinsch and Mark Stanek, both of whom had joined the club in 2000. By the end of 2004, the situation appeared dire. Membership had fallen off. Meetings often comprised fewer than 10 people. Engel and Bauer considered the possibility of folding the club.
They put the idea aside and in January 2005, Engel appeared determined to make things work. “There remains in the club a small but strong nucleus of members who are not fazed by the transgressions of 2004,” he wrote in the January 2005 Brewsletter. “A nucleus that will continue to uphold the traditions of home brewing and the enjoyment of good beer. This, then, is the backbone of The Society of Oshkosh Brewers. It is here where we shall remain. Long live the Society of Oshkosh Brewers.” It was the right choice. By the end of the year, they came upon a solution that would lead the club to its most successful period.
In 2004, O’Marro’s Public House opened in the Lake Aire Centre, just a few doors down from the original home of the SOBs. The Irish pub, served good beer and had a large banquet room that was usually open on weekday nights. It was exactly what the club needed at exactly the right time.
The first meeting of the SOBs at O’Marro’s Public House took place on November 16, 2005. It would immediately become the club’s new home. The pub’s owner, Shawn O’Marro, had a rowdy sense of humor that fit well with the boisterous, beery ways of the SOBs. The club had finally found a home.
|Larry Carlin (left) Randy Bauer (right)|
After settling into O’Marro’s, SOB membership began to tick steadily upwards. The club’s presence in the community had increased thanks to regular appearances at area beer festivals and public brew sessions held in the O’Marro’s parking lot. Sensing that the club needed to create a formalized board with specific duties, the SOBs adopted a set of bylaws at the close of 2006 and held elections. Mike Engel was voted in as president with Bryce Hinsch, Team McClaine, Larry Carlin and Randy Bauer rounding out the SOB board.
The new energy, called for the creation of something special. In late 2008, the club began planning for a beer festival comprised entirely of homebrewed beer. There had never been such a festival in Wisconsin. The SOBs were plowing new ground. Unfortunately they had also gone astray of the law. The event was slated for June 27, 2009 and was to be held at O’Marro’s Public House. But just two weeks before the event, the Department of Wisconsin Alcohol & Tobacco Enforcement interceded, informing the club that if the event went ahead as scheduled, the beer and equipment used for serving it would be confiscated.
|Casks & Caskets 2012|
In the wake of that success, Engel and the others announced that they were stepping down from the SOB board. But the chaos that ensued following the 2004 shake-up was not revisited. With an election process in place, the SOBs voted in a new board of directors and the club’s growth continued unabated. Today there are more than 80 members of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers, making it among the largest homebrewing clubs in the Midwest.
Though the SOBs have come a long way from the “half-dozen homebrew enthusiasts sitting around in a big circle” the club’s original premise remains the same: good friends coming together to enjoy good beer and having a good time.