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Homebrewers vie for 'Iron' prize
Club crafts homemade drinks, friendship since 2010
New president Jonah Levia of Monroe hands off the Cheese City Brewers & Vintners clubs Iron Brewer trophy to former president and three-time winner Dan Thorp, also of Monroe. (Times photo: Marissa Weiher)

Editors note: This story was originally published Jan. 17, 2018.

MONROE - When clubs form and people come together, it typically means good times might be had by all. For the Cheese City Brewers & Vintners club, many would agree it's a guaranteed good time for all.  

Members of the longtime club gathered Saturday night in the Lazy Mutt Lounge at Minhas to taste-test each other's brews in a formal competition for the traveling keg trophy known as the "Iron Brewer."

"I was president this past year, and I planned out the whole event," said Dan Thorp, outgoing president. "I planned everything in February and saw it all the way through."

The group sets out four competitions annually, brewing for specific styles and getting graded on each. After the final competition, points are added up and the traveling trophy finds a new home. Saturday evening members and some guests blind-tested a variety of homebrewed porters and stouts, as well as the fun "grab bag" category that saw ingredients such as Butterfingers, Oreos, figs and Cap'n Crunch. 

When scores were added up for the evening and for the year, it was Thorp, the two-time reigning champ, winning once again.

"He still needs someone to hand the Iron Brew trophy off to him," past president Logan Cisewski said from his back-row table as the night concluded. New club president Jonah Levia took the ceremonial mini-keg off the bar top and handed it, with a large grin, to the champ. 

Levia started brewing after his wife showed him a YouTube video claiming how easy it was. Since then, he says it's "grown into more of an obsession instead of a hobby." Levia joined the group about four years ago.

The club, running since 2010, has grown from a handful of friends into a larger group of more than 25 people who brew beer and make wine both together and individually - and love to share their creations. 

"It's just enjoyable to share with other people," said Jim Robinson of Freeport. "It's what I like the best (about homebrewing). To have people try something that I've made, and all the different styles. You can make an amber, but make slight changes that you like, making it more maltier or hoppier or whatever you want."

The club's founding member, Patrick Tribbey, got his start years ago in Oshkosh.

"They have a huge club called the SOBs, the Society of Oshkosh Brewers," Tribbey said. "So, when I started brewing, I had a lot of help from them. Anytime I failed at something I could find out why, and anytime I succeeded I could find out why. When I moved to Monroe, I found out there wasn't a club anywhere from here to Janesville and Madison. I wasn't going to travel that far to a club meeting, so that's why I started the one here."

The club started out small, mostly just a group of friends sharing each other's beer and brewing once in a while, according to Levia. But a few years ago, the group decided to formalize a bit more, which sparked some energy. In the past few years, the club has gone to homebrewing conventions, participated in the American Homebrewers Association national club brewing day, adopted a stretch of highway on Wisconsin 11 for cleanup, gotten matching club brewing work shirts and expanded their competitions.

"One of our guys (Cisewski) works in a food science lab and lets us know why some yeasts work better than others and stuff like that," Levia said. "We critique each other's beers. We make each other better brewers."

More than just homebrewing, Tribbey calls the club a family.

"And it's always nice to see family," he said. His appearance at the December meeting was his first since a car accident Aug. 1. "The club was a huge help. They put together two fundraisers for me. That helped pay a lot of bills."

Tribbey, who hasn't been able to re-start brewing since the accident, also said his home community of Argyle and Poncho and Lefty's in Monroe were a big help.

Jim Robinson joined the club this past year with his son, Trevor. Robinson started brewing in the 1990s but quit after a year. In 2017, Trevor asked him to help with some homebrews. At Saturday's competition, the duo brought their 20th different beer of the past 12 months.

"We kind of jumped in feet first, and we're enjoying it a lot," Robinson said. "And I'm doing it with my son, which made it even better." 

Trevor's favorite self-made home brew was the fig brown ale he and his father made for the competition.

"Drinking (our own beer) is pretty fun, but we have fun sharing it as well. We like sharing it with our friends and seeing what they have to say about it," Trevor said.

Jolie LaBarre, Cisewski's girlfriend, doesn't homebrew but is there, along with other partners, to join in the revelry. 

"It's always been fun going to events," LaBarre said. "We kind of help out and are cheerleaders."

Tribbey is proud to see how far the club has come as a whole - first from a group of guys discussing beer at local bars and now formalized and expanding.

"The past presidents we've had in this club have taken the club further than I ever had hoped it could go. We're just moving into the future in a way that I just really like to see," Tribbey said. "The people in this club are just tremendous."

Club fees are $20 for anyone interested in joining. The next Iron Brewer event is April 21.