Monday, October 7, 2013

The Road to the Second Annual Casks & Caskets

The October edition of the Oshkosh SCENE is now out and available all over town. Inside you’ll find my article about Casks and Caskets, The Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrew festival taking place Saturday, November 2 at the Oshkosh Convention Center (more info on all of that HERE).

Last year’s Casks and Caskets was the first full-scale tasting in Wisconsin where all of the beers, wines, ciders and meads were made by local homebrewers. Now in its second year, the festival looks to grow even larger. But the SOBs have had to overcome significant hurdles to get to this point including a tangle with state regulators that eventually ended with a change to Wisconsin law.

In early June 2009, the SOBs were ramping up for what they were billing as a Homebrew Event for Charity. The groundwork had been laid. The event would take place on the Saturday afternoon of June 27th under a 80-foot-long tent in the parking lot of O'Marro's Public House. Tickets were being sold, posters had gone up and word was going out through local media that this was going to be an entirely different sort of beer tasting. It would be comprised of nothing but homebrew. And all of it had already been brewed. Then the hammer fell.

Just two weeks before the festival was to take place, an official from the Department of Wisconsin Alcohol & Tobacco Enforcement spotted a poster for the event taped to the door of an Appleton paint store. He had some news for the SOBs: he said, what they were planning to do was illegal. “That didn’t even come to mind,” says Randy Bauer who was then on the SOB Board of Directors. “We’d been serving our beer for years at local festivals and had never had a problem.” Now they did.

Mike Engel, then president of the SOBs, was informed that if the event took place as planned, local police would have the authority to confiscate all the beer and dispensing equipment on site at the time of the tasting. The festival appeared doomed. But after the panic died down, the SOBs hatched an alternate plan. Engel began contacting Wisconsin breweries telling them what had happened. “I told them we were under the gun” he said. “We weren’t about to just give up. We needed beer.” In the end, the SOBs were able to commandeer enough commercial brew to replace the homebrew they had planned on serving and the event went ahead as scheduled. It wasn’t quite what any of them had hoped for, but the attendees seemed to enjoy it and the club still managed to raise $2,000 for charity.

But that didn’t end the fight. Other brewing clubs in Wisconsin soon found themselves in a similar bind. State officials began cracking down on the dissemination of homebrew, which they now asserted could not be dispensed outside of the brewer’s home. Homebrew clubs in Racine, Madison, Milwaukee and North Central Wisconsin Came under scrutiny for proposing to pour their beer at events in their areas.

In early 2011, the push back began in earnest. Wisconsin homebrewers began banding together in an effort to get the law changed. In April 2012, they succeeded. Senate Bill 395/Assembly Bill 521 was passed freeing homebrewers to serve their beer outside their homes. Though certain restrictions remained, the new law freed the SOBS to stage another festival. And in November 2012, the club finally broke through with the event they’d been hoping for back in 2009.

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