Thursday, August 31, 2017

A Year in The Cellar

In 2009, Dave Koepke opened The Cellar Brew Shop in Fond du Lac. A year ago, he moved his store to Oshkosh.

1921 S. Washburn St., Oshkosh.

Koepke decided to relocate the store for an obvious of reason. "The initial idea was all about reaching a larger population," Koepke says. But along the way, things changed. "It quickly became more about building a community."

That sense of community is becoming ever more crucial in Koepke's line of work. The rise of online retail has been devastating for some traditional homebrew suppliers. Local shops, once the cornerstone of the hobby, are being driven under. But The Cellar appears to be thriving.

Koepke's store is as well stocked as any homebrew shop you'll find. And he's been quick to pick up on what online retailers can't provide: direct contact with fellow homebrew enthusiasts. His own enthusiasm for the hobby is manifest.

"I'm an opinionated son of a bitch, I know that, "Koepke says. "But it's not about me. I love beer. This is such an awesome thing. It's giving people who aren't artists a chance to be artists. That's the way I look at it."

Dave Koepke
His zeal animates The Cellar. Homebrewers seem drawn to it. Koepke’s shop quickly became the hub for brewing activity here. Over the past year, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers has held a couple of their club events at the store. Local homebrewer Tim Pfeister has been teaching beer-making classes there. Koepke has even drawn in professionals from area breweries, wineries, and distilleries.

"That's the weird thing that kind of blows my mind," says Koepke. "I don't know how many other shops have people from breweries and meaderies coming in. They're just supplementing small amounts of minor stuff; bottle wax, a couple of mesh bags for dry hopping. It's just small stuff. We can't take care of everybody all the time, but we like that they're coming to us."

Part of the draw is Koepke's background. He’s been involved in nearly every aspect of craft beer. He’s a graduate of the Siebel Institute’s Diploma Course in Brewing. He brewed professionally at the former Appleton Brewing Company (which became Stone Arch Brewpub). He's run a bar and worked in beer distribution. "I'm not just a homebrewer,” he says. “But, am I a homebrewer first and foremost? Absolutely."

After more than 20 years in the profession, he still brews on a regular basis. "There aren't many who homebrew as much I do," he says. "I've brewed about 45 batches in the last two years."

Most are pilot batches. He's usually testing out a new kit or ingredient. He wants to know what he's selling. "When we get something new I have to try it," Koepke says. "For example, right now we have about 70 hop varieties in stock. I think there's only five of those that I haven't tried."

Much of what he brews he shares with customers. There's usually a few kegs on tap in the keezer at the back of the store. "The proper way to ask if you can have a beer is just to say 'Hey what do you guys have on tap?' It's that simple. As long as I'm stocked on glasses, sure, you can have a beer. The whole point is to brew with the stuff and test it out and let customers come in and try it."

The Cellar Keezer.
All of this a distinct change from what has long been the norm in Oshkosh. The modern homebrew movement arrived here in the early 1990s. Since then, the only local option for homebrewers has been stores selling a limited range of supplies as a sideline to another business.

The most recent of them was Nutrition Discount Center (NDC) on Main Street. Their dabbling came to an abrupt end in June. NDC is about to establish a second location on Witzel Ave. But they have no intention of getting back into selling homebrew supplies.

"There was no way they were going to keep up with what we can stock," Koepke says. "I'm not saying I had it all figured out. I'm a terrible businessman. We stock way too heavy and our prices are too low. But that's the game. You have to. Our biggest competitor is Amazon. And that's how we have to think. A lot of people don't want to leave their house. But when we get them to come here they find out they can get answers to their questions. Homebrew stores are different. People have relationships with the people in the store. It's not like going into a Walmart."

If you've been to The Cellar, you know it's nothing like that. In fact, it's not like any other store I've been in. Koepke is voluble. He'll talk beer with you all day. The discussions often range beyond methods or ingredients.

"The whole thing comes down to attitude," he says. "What are you here for? Are you here to make the best beer? I tell people, I can make some of the best beer in the world and I don't mean that as an ego thing. It's me and you and we share one thing in common. We own the brewery. We can tailor our beer to our own tastes. We control the freshness. You go to the store and almost everything there is three, four months old. My stuff has been in the keg 10 days. You can't get beer any fresher. I don't know, I'm not even talking about the shop. There are guys coming in here now that are going to have careers in brewing. I want to see them flourish. I want to see them make great stuff!"

No, that's definitely not Walmart. And it's definitely not a UPS driver dropping a brown box at your door. It's better than that. It's the way it should be.

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