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The Winds of Change at O’so

BY LEE REIHERZER

Have a discussion with Marc Butera about his brewery and you’ll notice there’s a word that visits the conversation again and again: Fun. Butera is obviously having it. Talk to him about the taproom that he operates in conjunction with O’so Brewing in Plover and you’ll find out what Butera’s idea of fun is all about. “We have 40 taps and we’re using them as our playground,” he says. “It allows us to do some fun stuff and keep cranking out different beers. People are out there looking for the latest/greatest. They’re looking for something they haven’t had before. Your brewery has to have a little ADD,” he adds laughing.

It’s more like a polymath’s approach to beer. Butera has dubbed it “freestyle brewing.” With a barrel-aging program in full swing and the introduction of a series of sour beers earlier this year, O’so has developed into one of the more innovative breweries in Wisconsin. Among its recent sours is a pale ale fermented with brettanomyces, which lends the beer a pleasingly tart edge. The beer was given the timely name Winds of Change. “That’s something that’s kind of funky and fun,” Butera says. “It shows another side of us.”

There’s also a lambic in the works. “We’re going all the way in with that,” Butera says. “We utilized a coolship, which allows microflora in the air to inoculate the wort. It worked. There’s something funky in there. The jury is still out on that beer. It could wind up being great or it could suck totally. But we’re excited about it. Apprehensive? Yes, but we needed to do it. You can’t call it a lambic unless it’s spontaneously fermented.”

The new beers are indicative of the creative growth that’s taken hold at O’so. And that’s clearly on display in the taproom. At times, you’ll find as many as 30 different O’so beers pouring alongside other Wisconsin-made brews of a similarly eclectic bent. “We’re starting to have more of our beer on tap here, but we’re still going to show our love for Wisconsin beers,” Butera says. “Basically anybody in Wisconsin that’s doing fun stuff, we’ll put it on. It’s been pretty amazing. It’s a different model from what the area has seen. We don’t have dartboards or pool tables or TVs, but we still manage to pack the place.”

Taking things in an unconventional direction was part of Butera’s plan from the start. Shortly after launching the brewery in 2007, he was telling of his desire to introduce a wide range of beers, including sour beers made with wild yeast. “I had an idea for doing these funky beers that I was going to call the Microbe Series,” he says. “Then I realized that this was not something I could start with. At the time, the market wasn’t ready for it. So in the beginning, we toned it down a little bit. But now we’re at a place where we can start getting this stuff out.”

The early restraint delivered benefits. Last year, the Wisconsin Beer Distributors Association pegged O’so as the second fastest growing brewery in the state. “We have enough distribution now where we do really well with our core brands,” Butera says. “Night Train and Hopdinger are still our best sellers. They are always going to be there. Getting those established made it much easier for us to get shelf space. We used to have to fight all the time just to get any presence at all.”

Brewing on a 30-barrel system, O’so produced approximately 5,000 barrels of beer in 2013. Almost all of it was sold in Wisconsin, with a small portion going to the Chicago area. This year will see the brewery increase production again. Three years after moving to a new, larger facility Butera finds himself facing a familiar dilemma. “We’re already out of space here pretty bad, so to grow now just becomes more headaches,” he says. “I knew this had the potential to do something pretty awesome, but I’ve been a little taken aback by how quickly things took off for us; especially when I think about the number of breweries in this state. There’s a lot of good competition out there.”

There’s also a new brewmaster overseeing production. Steve Buszka joined O’so in early February. Most recently he was brewmaster at Potosi Brewing, but prior to that, Buszka had spent 10 years at Michigan’s well-known Bell’s Brewing. While at Bell’s, Buszka was head brewer and picked up a couple of Great American Beer Festival medals. “We had been in conversation with Steve for a while,” Butera says. “I kept telling him that here you’re going to get to do some fun stuff. He’s said more than once that this place reminds him of his early days at Bell’s. That makes me feel good.”

Butera says a brewer like Buszka’s is just what O’so needs at this point. “I’ve asked him to put his fingerprint on the brewery,” he says. “He’s a guy that’s had experience at the next level and that’s where we’re headed. It’s going to be really helpful to have someone who has been there. We’re a team here. We have a lot of young guys and they have a lot of respect for him. Steve is one of those guys that just gets right in there. He’s not a paper pusher.”

What, exactly, would the “next level” look like for O’so? “I don’t want to become huge,” Butera says, “but I could see us getting to where we do 30 to 40 thousand barrels a year. If I ever hit that, I’d be ecstatic. Right now, it seems like there’s not an end in sight to what we can do. I’m only 40 years old, so we can still do this thing for a while. We’re just going to hold on for the ride and keep on pushing the envelope.” ν

Lee Reiherzer drinks, brews and researches beer in Oshkosh. Visit his blog, Oshkosh Beer, at OshkoshBeer.Blogspot.com

 

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