The barrier to entry for starting a new brewery has never been so low. And the competition has never been so high. Nanos are still passion projects for many. But newer production breweries are structured using the skillsets of 3-4 partners, including some blend of a brewer, a financier, a marketer, and an operations manager to cover all the bases. Even when these aren't official titles, it's generally how the work breaks down. Everyone brings a piece of their background to the game. Beyond that, it's critical to develop a loyal community to support growth. The best can do it with military-like precision. Others find their way on instinct alone. Still others take it day to day, and try to figure out what they don't know as fast as they can.
"I can't count the number of nights where I'd wake up at 4am in a cold sweat and oh my god I care so much about 'whatever it is right now.' There were like 15 or 20 things that happened where if it didn't get fixed right now we were dead in the water. Like building permits, we were waiting so long for building permits. And once you get those, two weeks later, you could not give a shit about building permits, you don't even remember it happening, all you care about is gas service next, or upgrading the gas service. You know it's going to be hard going in to this, and still in the back of your mind you hope it's going to be easier. And then it's not." sighs Laffler.
On the surface, Off Color Brewing, founded by John Laffler and Dave Bleitner, is running extra lean, and literally had to install their brewhouse in the dark (the electric wasn't working yet). These two friends who met in brewing school and interned at Metropolitan constitute the entire majority share of the brewery — and 100% of the day-to-day decision-making, along with the brewing, sales, marketing, and sweeping, cleaning, kegging. Not unheard of for a 3BBL nanobrewery, but Off Color is a 20BBL production facility in an increasingly competitive market. And it's been hard, but steady, going.
But to understand Off Color's approach, and why they're doing just fine despite many initial obstacles, you need to look below the surface. What seems like two guys toiling away in isolation, is actually sustained by a strong network of people from a wide variety of communities across Chicago. Both of these guys have strong, creative relationships in the industry, from the best breweries, restaurants, and bars across the city, to like-minded brewers around the world.
The Chicago Beer Community
The way they chose to finance their operation has built another kind of network, made up of 37 investors — scientists, politicians, a box manufacturer, generally an eclectic group of people that act as a sounding board for specific needs, with no single investor owning more than 4% of the brewery, but supporting its success with everything they've got.
The quality of their contact list gives them the confidence to meet any challenge, from leaking tanks and undersized gas lines, to creating a website and getting the word out. "We call Doug and Tracy from Metro." says Laffler. "We call Doug and Tracy about a lot of things. Just yesterday I had to ask her about what goes on a six pack carrier. Turns out, she doesn't know. She just said 'I don't know I get Randy Mosher to handle all that.'" — Raising a brewery takes a village.
"The community is invaluable. Even just being able to ask somebody if we can borrow a $250 tool that we're going to use that one time and not have to buy it. We couldn't have done this without them. It just wouldn't have happened. I just keep being more and more impressed by what Metro and Half Acre did, opening breweries here when there wasn't that wealth of knowledge and community. They just had to figure it out. We benefit from their experience."
Hatching the plan
The two brewed their first beer together for FoBAB, The Eiffel Tower, an Eiffbock beer, which is a made up style because Eisbock is otherwise illegal. "A few days before FoBAB event, we realized 'Oh shit. This is the festival of barrel aged beers and all we had was a really strong lager.' So we had two plans. One was to put three Hungarian oak cubes in it for 24 hours. The second one was to put the keg on top of a 2x4 and say "look, it was aged on wood. We put the oak cubes in to keep Jeff Sparrow's head from exploding"
Then the long-term business plan kicked in. "The plan was 'Let's go work at breweries and figure out how to do this shit," Laffler says. Bleitner went on to cut his teeth on one of the midwest's largest production systems at Two Brothers Brewing in Warrenville, IL as a head cellarman. And John Laffler found himself in charge of the country's biggest barrel program at Goose Island where he produced everything from Bourbon County Stout to fruit and sour beers like Lolita and Juliet. These stints put them both on a larger stage than most brewers could ever hope for. And as Laffler tells it, it wasn't because he was the best brewer. He was just the most willing.
"I was sweeping floors and cleaning kegs, and at the time, the barrel program wasn't really much of a thing. And it was a lot of work. Nobody wanted to fill BCS barrels and dip their hands in frozen fruit all day. So I just said 'hey, I'll do it.' And as the barrel program became more of a thing, there were definitely some people that were miffed that I was getting all that attention while guys brewing on our large production systems weren't. But really, I was just the guy that was willing to do that shitty work in the warehouse because I wanted to get involved."
Everything about their background tells a story that ends at a Gose. Laffler's experience with mixing far outweighs his production brewing knowledge. And their shared stints at Metropolitan helped spark a love of German recipes, especially obscure ones. Laffler's experience as a beer specialist at West Lakeview liquors exposed him to some of Europe's greatest imports at a very early stage. And then there's just the challenge of it all — Laffler looking to get out from the shadow of the Goose barrel house, and Bleitner wanting to try his hand at more technically demanding recipes.
The Off Color Brewery
There's a certain artfulness to Off Color. They treat their brewery the way a designer or a painter might treat their studio — it's highly personal, cluttered with the detritus of their daily lives, and often thrown open for a party now and again with little planning or concern for the upkeep and impression of the place. They just want to have a damn good time and see some faces they love. There's also a dog so cute that she'll break your heart. (Hops, you owe me)
Late nights after a brew day, Laffler spends a good deal of time closing down shop on his own, seeing few, if any visitors for the day. He's alone with his process and his thoughts the way a painter or a writer might want to be. He seems to be energized by these long, but satisfying days of productive solitude until he heads out for a drink and starts Tweeting at Boulevard's Jeremy Danner like pen pals at summer camp. Bleitner, on the other hand, splits his time with accounts in the field. Hardly the salesman type, he simply tries to establish relationships with bars and restaurants that align with the Off Color approach — smart, playful recipes that reward curiosity. He's learned a lot about the particular challenges of getting your product noticed in a booming market where consumers have more taphandles to choose from than ever before.
"With as much press and exposure that we've gotten, there's still a helluva lot of people that have never heard of us. And you find that out really quickly visiting accounts. The market is just so competitive on-premise, even from a year ago" explains Bleitner. "The challenge for the small producer is that your typical neighborhood bar won't put in the time to do research. But they know they have a Lagunitas rep that comes by every week and chats them up. Revolution has done a really good job with that too. They're everywhere. And there's an arms race with distributors right now so they're trying to rep 50 brands. They can't sell every brand with the same commitment at the same time."
Competing in a Growing Market
The competition isn't quite as simple as traditional press would have us believe. The Big Beer vs Little Beer ignores the complexities of a market where many new craft-focused bars might not even have a Budweiser handle to steal anymore. And if they do, it's one of 75, backed by a bottle list that goes into the 100s.
"The dirty little secret that nobody wants to talk about is that the number of breweries opening up is not on pace with the number of new accounts and new tap handles. We're not all taking handles away from fucking AB as much as everyone wants that to be the ethos and the story. They think we're all in this together and we're fighting the big guys. That story died in the early 2000s" explains Laffler. "And so you get brands like Deschutes selling in Chicago because it's impossible for them to continue growing in their own market any further, partly because there's little guys like us there now. So they look for markets like ours where we're still developing. They're just trying to figure out where they can sell beer."
Telling a story from grain to glass is a challenge for any brewery. Every pitch is like a game of telephone, from the distributor, to the sales rep, to the beer buyer, to the bartender — sometimes the important stuff gets lost in translation. And selling beers with a bit of an obscure edge to them doesn't make things easier. In recent weeks, Bleitner has stopped trying to teach many accounts what a Gose is. He just refers to it as a "tart wheat ale" and things smooth out.
"We're doing stuff that isn't well know. Everybody that knows what a gose is, already knows that this is a gose. So there's really no point in continuing to tell other people because they don't know what that is. For every one person that asks what it is, there's a dozen that never ask and maybe find it off-putting that they don't know. Some people just don't like to ask questions or feel left out and avoid it completely. So we focus on the process rather than the technical style. Big Star put it on their board as Off Color Wheat Beer and it was our number one account for weeks. So we call it a blended wheat beer. Then they ask what it's blended with and we can start talking about our lacto fermentation and blending process. That's been a lot more approachable."
Add to the mix a kottbusser (an old German Alt bier with honey) and inside jokes like a 3.5% russian "imperial" stout called Beer Geek Mus, and Off Color hasn't exactly made recognition or accessibility their top priority.
"People would complain that it wasn't an imperial stout. I mean, obviously it's not! It was commentary on collaborations and commentary on all the work people expect us to do now. I made enough fucking 13.5% imperial stouts aged in bourbon barrels. I don't need to have anything to do with that for awhile. So I'd say, yes, actually it's a Russian serf stout, and they'd go 'oh okay, I really like it now!"
The irony of it all is that the beers themselves couldn't be more approachable, even for a mainstream audience. Perfectly sessionable, bright, clean flavors, and styles that are familiar even if a little off-kilter by design — Off Color's sensibilities are perfectly aligned with where the market is heading and they're goddamn delicious.
"We have to create a market for what we're making. We're not coming to market with a new IPA. And people like new. Different is harder. It takes a lot longer to tell the story," says Laffler. "I'll go on the record and say that Blue Moon was the best thing that ever happened to craft beer. It brought so many people into the fold. Our beers are really accessible, and if someone drinks Bud Light, I think there's something they can like in our beer. But that's a really hard market to reach. What Blue Moon did was they created a really accessible beer that I'll drink when I'm at the airport. It's a lot of ego to think that we should critique these beers because we don't drink them all the time. Blue Moon by itself has way too much coriander for my taste, but we shouldn't be saying fuck 'em they're made by Coors. These are entry beers that get people into the market, because otherwise we have to make those beers. I don't want to make a boring American wheat beer with a shit-ton of coriander just because. And then put a ton of marketing dollars into it for ten years in order to compete with Budweiser ads at theSuper Bowl. We can't do that. Craft beer in total can't really do that. But MillerCoors can, and Blue Moon for what it is has been wonderful."
The Off Color Personality
It's the personality of the brewery that's pushing people's palettes more than anything else, which draws comparisons to Mikkeller (a collaborator of theirs) and Prairie Artisan Ales, a quirky new start-up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Their sense of humor, the looseness of their story and branding, and the nerdy charm of their events all come together to form something completely lovable, but also quite serious and smart.
"I'd done a lot of events with Goose over the years, so we were looking for ways to present beers to different audiences in different ways. I really enjoy doing small, intimate events with a lot of impact. There's just a few people but you really make an impression vs trying to reach 3,500 people. It's important to do both, but I really enjoy doing the small stuff. And differently. It's easy to call up a restaurant and set up a beer dinner and sell tickets, or marketing ends up buying half the tickets and you spend a lot of money to reach 25 people. Dinner is good and the beer is good, but there's not a lot of interaction. There have been some notable exceptions, but for the most part they're not my favorite thing to do. So we had an opportunity to do everything we wanted to do that people thought was crazy and wouldn't let us."
Mischief Pop-up Bar
Their first launch event in the city was a pop up bar concept called Mischief. Off Color took over the Black Rock bar on Damen Avenue for two nights, serving a number of their first collaborations with Metropolitan, Three Floyds, and Haymarket. Dinosaur marshmallows ("dinosmores") were served alongside cocktails in the back mixed by bartenders from Big Star, Little Goat, GEB, and the Local Option. (T-Rexes, if you were wondering.) They didn't just want to pour their beers and wait for the Rate Beer ratings. They wanted to celebrate their adoring community and the things that make them tick.
Next followed the official release of their highly-anticipated production beers, Troublesome (the Gose) and Scurry (the honey alt beer) — pouring for an evening at the field museum alongside the Tsavo Man-Eaters exhibit. Under savannah trees, in front of lions and rhinos, the setting was comically grandiose for such a small tasting event, and that's what made it feel perfectly planned. More than just a clever stage, Off Color played host to one of the museum's curators, digging up some brewing history in the form of potshards and chemistry for the crowd. It was a bit like drinking inside a children's book and it was amazing — Goodnight Gose.
During Chicago Craft Beer Week, Laffler got serious, leading a sour mixing class alongside Tom Korder of Penrose and host Chris Quinn of The Beer Temple. With a small crowd of about 20 craft beer aficionados and homebrewers, Laffler explained the art of mixing for different acid levels, fruit, funk, and bitterness. And then he helped us get hands-on, providing some Virtue Cider, Green Flash Rayon Vert, Rodenbach Grand Cru, and a sour mash to mix ourselves. After 30 minutes of prototyping and tasting, each table presented their finest mix for judging and someone took home a Cantillon. During a week full of busy street festivals, tap takeovers, and massive celebrations, the sour mixing class was a welcome repose where we could take our time and appreciate the process with like-minded individuals.
It's been almost six months since Off Color's introduction to the world of craft beer. And in that six months, they've learned some hard lessons. But they've also learned a lot about themselves and what their vision for the future is all about. They were initially pegged for brewing obscure German recipes, but that's only a small part of the story of where these two friends plan to go exploring. Rather than focus on particular styles, they plan to look to regions and countries for their inspiration, trying their hand at a wide range of recipes, new and old, familiar and nearly-extinct, that can be introduced to an American audience here in Chicago. And that makes perfect sense for a city with so many pockets of deep European brewing heritage, from Czech to Polish, German to Swedish.
But who knows, maybe they'll ditch it all and start making frozen gin Radlers again. But Bleitner wants some refinement in the marketing:
"People still don't get that. They all say 'but gin doesn't freeze!' And I say "EVERYTHING FREEZES. Just because you put something in your freezer at home and it doesn't freeze, doesn't mean that it DOESN'T freeze."