St. Mark Lutheran Church
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Every other Sunday, shortly after 2 p.m., Fred Grabel's Cape Girardeau home turns host to a microbrewing crew, otherwise known as St. Mark's Spirits Club. Grabel opens his garage and assembles sterilized equipment.
Depending on the day, he either sets pots out over gas burners or carries bottles up from his basement. The men brew one week and return two weeks later to bottle the beer.
By 2:30 p.m., men have begun arriving, some wearing sweatshirts and jeans, others in khakis. It's a casual affair. Deep in the spartan garage, a basketball or football game flickers on a small television, with the volume just high enough to follow the score. The men won't have much time to linger around the tube. For two hours, they will be working.
Spirits Club was Grabel's idea. He started brewing beer as a hobby seven years ago. He noticed many women he knew belonged to knitting clubs or the Red Hat Society. So he asked his pastor if it was OK to start Spirits Club and invite men from the church to join.
"The women wanted to belong to this group, but we said, 'There's no group for guys,'" Grabel said.
Spirits Club's second rule, after No Girls Allowed: Members must be 21.
Before long, a dozen, then two dozen men were visiting Grabel's home to tend bubbling pots and help bottle the results.
Chris Goeke is a charter member of the club.
Ken Green, Michael Berry and Dieter Jedan, a native of Germany and language professor at Southeast Missouri State University, and another Southeast professor, Steven Hoffman, are also member. Mike Higgins was voted in as the club's treasurer after the original treasurer retired and moved away. All through the preparation process, they carry on a series of genial conversations, sharing stories about work or family. This is fellowship, Grabel said.
"You can attend church for years but not know anybody," he said. "You can know a name and a face but not know anything more."
Goeke said while no one actively tries to get club members talking about life's rough spots, "everyone has their own personal trials."
"What's nice about it is you don't have to worry about what you talk about," Grabel said. "You know there's people to talk to about it."
"Or not talk about heavy topics," Jedan softly suggested.
Grabel glanced over at Jedan and recalled a phone call between the two men just after Jedan's wife died earlier this year.
"We didn't know if he'd come back," Grabel said. "We were a little worried about him."
Jedan smiled quietly, and someone introduced a new subject.
Most are members of St. Mark Lutheran Church in Cape Girardeau, but the club is open to men from other churches.
"It's really a way for men to get together," Berry said. "We don't have a regular men's group."
Goeke interrupted him.
"We have, but this is the only one with regular attendance," he said. Everyone within earshot laughed.
"And you learn something," Jedan added.
Frank Nelson joined almost three years ago.
"We don't drink that much," he said. The group has no formal meetings or attendance requirements.
"We haven't had any accidents," Grabel said. "We had [the Rev.] Bob Klein bless the equipment."
And later, when the group added more equipment, he asked a bishop to bless that, too.
"He thought it was a joke until he saw the equipment," Grabel said.
The worst that has happened with the beer -- other than a rare kit leaving members unimpressed -- is when a thermometer broke in the pot holding an India Pale Ale and the whole batch had to be tossed.
They brew four batches of beer every other Sunday, two dark, two light. For $10, they bring home two six-packs, one of each kind. The division works out so the men have "leftover" beer to sip while commingling in Grabel's garage or on the driveway while they microbrew.
Spirits Club only meets on alternating Sundays through the winter. Each autumn for the last four years, they've hosted an Oktoberfest in Grabel's yard, complete with horse and buggy rides. Everyone from St. Mark is invited.
It takes Grabel less than 30 minutes to prepare for the brewing sessions. The men meet for two hours on a brewing Sunday and one hour on a bottling Sunday.
Still, in that time over the years, Spirits Club members have gone from seeing somewhat familiar faces to truly knowing a fellow congregant.
"We know each others' concerns more," said one. "Like, if one of us is going to have a child or grandchild."
During the cooking phase, Berry said. "there's lots of free time for talking."
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