Thursday, April 25, 2024

Oshkosh Peculiar

All is not well in the world of beer. American beer sales are trending steadily downward, and craft breweries are failing at an unprecedented rate. Yet there’s little evidence of such withering here. Last year, Oshkosh's three breweries – Bare Bones, Fifth Ward, and Fox River – each saw their sales volume increase.

“Maybe it’s just that we’re a couple of years behind the trend,” says Ian Wenger, co-owner of Fifth Ward Brewing. Wenger may be half joking, but the concern is genuine. When it comes to beer, Oshkosh has a history of being slow to adopt national trends. If the local homebrewing scene is any indication, though, this may be one trend that skips the city altogether.

Homebrewing has been looked upon as a bellwether for the craft beer industry. In fact, the struggle that now besets craft brewers was preceded by a sharp downturn in homebrewing. Membership in the American Homebrewers Association has fallen by 35 percent since 2018, and the organization has canceled its annual conference for 2024. Over the past three years, however, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers homebrewing club has increased its membership by 35 percent. The club now has 69 members.

Scott Westpfahl during a recent meeting of the SOBs at Fifth Ward Brewing. Photo by Staci Saunders.

Scott Westpfahl has been president of the Society of Oshkosh Brewers (the SOBs) since 2021. He has no doubts about what makes the Oshkosh club different. “We have a lot of people here who are truly invested in the club,” Westpfahl says. “It’s a very active membership. It makes all the difference. And we’re so tied into the community. The SOBs are engaged with every brewery, cidery, meadery, and distillery in the region.”

At Fifth Ward, brewery co-owner Zach Clark takes a similar view. “I go around to a lot of other towns on sales calls, and one thing you notice here is that the enthusiasm hasn’t died down the way it has in some places. We see it in our taproom. People want to go out and do things and be active. I mean, we have a pretty advanced crowd coming in here. They’ve evolved along with us. You don’t see that everywhere.”

Clark says it probably helped that the craft beer scene in Oshkosh didn’t grow as quickly as it did some larger cities. “It happened more gradually here, and I think that’s meant that we’ve never had the oversaturation that you see in other places where there might be too many breweries, and people kind of losing interest because it's just too much to keep up with. I think people around here have remained engaged with what’s going on.”

The engagement is an expression of social life in a city where tavern culture has been foundational. Wenger sees a shift taking place. “I know that some of our taproom regulars are people who used to spend more time in bars, but maybe they just wanted a different sort of atmosphere. We see a lot of the same faces, and they might be with their families and they're getting together, and they can all feel comfortable here. I don’t know if that kind of thing is happening in the bars so much anymore.”

The Fifth Ward's taproom in Oshkosh. Photo by Staci Saunders.

Fifth Ward is looking to build upon its taproom success. Clark and Wenger are currently exploring the possibility of opening a second taproom in the area. After doubling the capacity of its brewery over the past two years, Fifth Ward became the largest producer of beer in Oshkosh last year selling 1,480 barrels.

“We could already make twice as much beer here as we do now, so we absolutely have the capacity to supply another taproom,” Clark says. “The question we’re thinking about is how far do we want to go in that direction? We’re trying to figure out where the equilibrium is.”

For the Oshkosh homebrewers the future appears as promising, but far less complex. “I mean, for us it’s all about having fun,” Westpfahl says. “And right now we have such a great group that’s really invested in the overall experience of being an SOB. We’re in a good place.”

The Society of Oshkosh Brewers invites the community to get a taste of the SOB experience on Saturday, May 4, when the club will hold its annual Big Brew from 9am until 1pm at The Cellar homebrew shop at 465 N. Washburn Street. The event is open to the public and will feature brewing demonstrations.

A slightly different version of this story appears in today’s Oshkosh Herald.

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