Inside the Tank | Off Color Brewing’s John Laffler
You’ve probably seen Off Color Brewing beer in your local beer store. The bottles stand out with their unique artwork featuring a little grain mouse. Off Color doesn’t brew your typical beer. They don’t have an IPA, instead opting to brew Sahtis, smoked beers and anything else outside the norm that head brewer and co-founder John Laffler can dream up. I sat down with John for the latest installment of Inside the Tank to get into the head of the man behind Off Color Brewing in Chicago.
How did you get into beer?
I always liked beer. I had a good friend growing up and he kind of got into beer before I did. We were drinking Bells’ Two Hearted. He’d be smelling it and describing what kind of notes he took away from the beer. I’d think it smells like beer. But that intrigued me, because I could tell that there was something there, something more than I was able to perceive.
We worked on our palates and learned more and more about beer. This was back when I was in school at UW (University of Wisconsin). This was back when beer communities were really small. There were maybe 10 or 20 people back in Chicago that were really into beer. There was a group of us in Madison, maybe 6 or 8 of us and maybe 10 in Chicago and because it was only a few hours away we all became really good friends. They would come up to Madison and we’d go down to Chicago and do pub crawls. The beer community is really tight knit. I still know most of those people, a lot of them are professional brewers or involved in the industry in some way. Almost all of them either own a brewery, own a piece of a brewery or make beer professionally. That’s how I got the yen for it all.
You came up with the idea for Off Color with Dave Bleitner while you were interning at Metropolitan Brewery. How did the brewery idea get going?
Doug and Tracy (co-founders of Metropolitan) were really big influences on us. They were opened for like five days when Dave walked in for the first time and I was maybe a few weeks or a month after him. Dave and I had known each other from the Siebel Institute and we started working together and we worked together really well. We think very similarly about beer. At some point we thought maybe we could do this too.
But from Metropolitan you didn’t open Off Color right away. You and Dave each went to another brewery.
I went to Goose Island and Dave went to Two Brothers. Part of the business plan from the get go before we jumped in with two feet was to go work at a couple of other breweries and learn more of the trade.
I very much come from the background like a restaurant kitchen. Where you go to school and then you intern somewhere for free and you slowly move up. They let you cut vegetables then you get to wash salad and from there you grow. I very much come from that tradition.
I very much believe in it in terms of brewing, because this is such a trade. It’s not a job, it’s a trade. You go to beer school which is great and fun – you get to drink beer at four in the afternoon and ten in the morning but Siebel just teaches you the theory behind brewing. The actual hands on practicality behind it is something they don’t teach.
That’s what you took away from Goose Island?
I took away the tradecraft from Goose. At Goose I had a weird job – it wasn’t shift brewing but that’s a whole other story.
Talk about being in the Goose Island alumni family.
It’s great. If you have a question about anything, you have 15 people you can call or text who can answer back in half an hour. Goose is one of the strong feeder systems for professional brewing. Rock Bottom is the other one.
There are certain things in breweries where it’s easy to see where the brewers came from. The brewer boots I have, if you go down to Perennial everyone has the same boots because those are the boots we got at Goose. They are great boots, we like the boots, so we all wear the same boots. Rock Bottom brewers have different boots.
Why the name Off Color?
We put all the business paperwork under Umlaut Brewing because we didn’t want media latching onto it. It’s a great way to kill your story. As you’re filing all your paperwork, word will get out, but you won’t actually be open for another 6-8 months. So by calling us Umlaut and operating under that and changing it at the very end we were allow to stay under the radar while getting ready.
People would ask me what Umlaut was and I would just tell them nothing. It worked really well, no one knew we were doing this until two months before we were ready to open.
We actually couldn’t decide on a name after we knew we had to change it from Umlaut. We literally needed to get paperwork in that day for some reason I don’t remember why. It was between Off Color and a couple of other ideas. Dave got to pick the name and I got to pick the mascot – the grain mouse.
Why the grain mouse?
Everyone thinks it’s a rat, weasel or ferret but it’s a mouse. My mom was a children’s librarian so that form of children’s artwork is a really strong influence. I like the idea of little wooden creatures and the mascot in general because you can tell stories with a mascot.
I definitely wanted a mascot to do story telling and the mice in the brewery are the only things here more often than we are. That kind of became our symbol.
What’s Off Colors persona? If I said Off Color Brewing to someone what would they think about?
Man this guy is really drunk. What we try to do is make spectacular interesting beer. When people zig we want to zag. We want to have this otherness about us with the beers we make and the methodology we use. I just finished brewing Bare Bear today and we put wine barrel staves in the boil because I wanted to do barrel aging on the hot side. That’s not a thing – it doesn’t exist. But we were like “fuck it” let’s see what happens. It actually adds a really nice structure to the beer.
Favorite Off Color Beer? Favorite beer style? If you’re not drinking Off Color what are you drinking?
My favorite Off Color beer is our pilsner Tooth and Claw. Favorite beer style is pilsners. If it’s not Off Color I’m drinking Alpha King and High Life. I think about beer for 10-12 hours a day so when I actually go out to the bar I don’t want to think about beer anymore. I’ll go to the bar and people will tell me I have to try this and I just don’t fucking care. That’s not why I’m here.
How hard is it to stay relevant in Chicago with so many craft breweries entering the picture?
I think if you’re doing something interesting and authentic, it’s not that difficult to stay relevant. If you’re doing the same thing as everyone else and brewing the same things as everyone else, then yeah you’re going to have a more difficult time. Why would anyone buy your beer over someone else’s beer if you’re both doing the same thing. You all make pale ales – why yours? Because you have bigger brighter more neon bullshit cartoon character on your label?
Everyone’s trying to out 3 Floyd’s 3 Floyd’s and that’s not a way to stay relevant. For us it’s just by doing things differently, by making beers most people don’t make. Trying new methodologies that may or may not work – honestly by fucking around a lot. We don’t have an IPA or a pale ale. We have no plans to. Everyone else can do that and some do it extremely well, but we’re going to focus on what we can do extremely well that people aren’t doing. A lot of the beers we make are things we wish we could drink that aren’t in the market place.
We make a grodziskie which is a Polish smoked beer made with 100% wheat. You shouldn’t be able to make that beer but, we were like fuck it. It’s 3.2% ABV it’s super light in body but enough interest in the smoking element that we can drink it all day. It’s our house beer. It’s what we like to drink when we are working. No one else makes it so we had to make it ourself. That should be what people do at other breweries.
Let’s talk about Dino S’mores.
It’s definitely outside our normal realm of beers we make. We first designed that beer with the guys from Amager in Denmark and Kristina (Bozic) from West Lakeview Liquors. We work with them (Amager) a lot. I think I’ve worked with them like 5 or 6 times. Every time we have an idea where we have time to make a beer with them I always ask “Do you have this in Denmark?” That’s kind of what happened.
We wanted to make a beer with them in Denmark so we went out there. We made this beer and the Danes loved it and the Swedes loved it so we thought we should make it here. Scandinavian stouts are much more different than American stouts – they are much more roasty. I didn’t actually get a bottle right away. It’s funny because you design and work on this beer but then you have to leave without ever trying it. They sent over a bottle when it was done and it was good but it was super roasty and there was a lot of Danish influence on it so we thought we should do the American influence on it.
We made it and weren’t planning on making anymore of it. We made 20 barrels the first year and then people were really excited by it. Honestly it’s a little obnoxious because we make all these others beers throughout the year that we’re really proud of that are actually much more fitting of our ethos. But people always are looking for Dino S’mores. Here I have this other beer that I spent a lot of time making, it’s really hard to make and expensive to make but people want to know why we don’t have more imperial stouts in the middle of June. People want it in the summer. I don’t get it but they do.
I’m happy that people like it and give it attention. I’d much rather have that then not. It’s not something we’re always going to do – we’re not going to be a one trick pony.
Talk about the Jester King Radiolaria collaboration. What’s it like to work with Jester King?
I love those guys. I’ve known them forever. I went down there for their first year anniversary. It’s amazing to see how much they’ve grown. We see them all over the place – we travel in the same circles. I like what they do, they like what we do. We have very strong similar ethos. We care about indigenous organisms. We’re both fermentation-focused breweries and there aren’t a lot of breweries that are.
What will be the trend in 2016 for craft beer?
A lot more lagers. A lot of breweries overbuilt capacity. The demand isn’t there for the amount they can supply so the obvious answer is make a lager. It doesn’t matter if the beer sits in the tank for four weeks versus two weeks. You’re going to see a lot of breweries say they’ve always like lagers we just didn’t tell anybody. It’s like fuck you. We make one lager here and it hurts. We should be making two tanks of Apex in that same time period, but we don’t because we do care about this. You see these breweries that have too much capacity jump on the (lager) bandwagon and it drives me fucking nuts.
Hazy beer is a thing now too. People are into hazy beer all of a sudden. I’ve been doing this for a while and at first beer was hazy because we didn’t have a lot of money and time to do filtration. Then everyone bought centrifuges because they got big enough and could afford them. Then we thought clear beer was cool. All of a sudden clear beer was the sign of quality and know-how. Now all of a sudden people out East people are literally throwing flour into their beers to get cloudy beers because that’s now the sign of quality. It’s a sign of “quality” because it has an imperfection in it. It’s just a bunch of bullshit.
We only filter our pilsner. We’re not intentionally trying to create haze. Troublesome is hazy because there’s yeast in it. Apex is hazy because it’s rustic – it is what it is. We’re not intentionally doing it.
Why are collaboration beers becoming so popular?
I spend most of my day here alone. It’s nice to work with other brewers and cross-pollinate with your different techniques. You get to travel a little bit and hang out with your friends and shoot the shit with them all day long. I think also part of it is an easy way to market beer – so you get to sell more. There are breweries that use it as that.
We’ve turned down a fair amount of people, not because we want to be dicks about it, but you have a limited amount of time and it’s cool you want to make a beer but what do you want to make? Why do we want to make it? What are we going to do that’s interesting or new or creative? What’s the point of it? Because we can sell it? You can make beer that you can sell and we can make beer that we can sell – that’s not a good enough reason. If you make a hoppy pale ale and we make a hoppy pale ale, it doesn’t make sense to make a hoppy pale ale together. Why even bother – besides the camaraderie part. That’s still important.
The trend of making beers rare and people lining up for them. What is your take on it?
It’s a marketing tool. It gets attention and the media fall for it. If media stopped falling for it people would stop doing it. I’m so sick of stories about the line at Goose Island being however long it is. That’s been going on for 4 or 5 years now. That’s not interesting anymore. I’m sick of hearing “Oh my God this beer is $149, can you believe it?” That is such bullshit and then the media falls for it and then people keep doing it because it gets them attention. You see your name in print and you sell more base beer because your name is in print.
We’re going to start doing more direct bottle sales so we can figure out how we don’t have people waiting in line in the middle of February. That’s not a cool thing to do.
Thoughts on AB-InBev taking over craft breweries?
I don’t really care. I get why they are doing it. They (AB) are used to having a certain amount of market share and as their mass-market share is dying, they’re picking up breweries of a certain size to fulfill that marketshare.
They’re used to going into a Jewel or some other place and they’re used to having 60% of the retail space. As retail space is getting more and more crowded, what’s getting pushed out is Bud Light in three or four different packages. You don’t need a 12-pack of bottles, a 12-pack of cans, four-pack of bottles and a 36-pack of cans — you don’t need that anymore. They’re getting squeezed out on that, so they’re buying craft breweries. If you can’t beat them join them. I don’t particularly care about them.
I was at Goose through the AB buyout. When they announced it to us as employees we were told we were allowed to express some concern. My comment to media at that point was I have some concern. My comment today is still I have some concern.
In a lot of ways it’s been really good for Goose. They’ve gotten to do some really cool stuff as a result of it. I think some beers have changed substantially as they aren’t being made by Goose Island brewers or at Fulton.
By taking 312 away from Fulton and making it somewhere else, and who really cares about 312, so if they take that away it gives the guys at Fulton the chance to make more special beers where their talents are more utilized. In that sense it’s great. Someone else will make your wheat beer that you sell a lot of – awesome.
What’s the future for Off Color?
We’ll keep doing what we are doing. We are definitely maturing as a brewery. We’re in year three and year three is very different from year two which is very different from year one. My goal as we sat down as a staff is to be an adult brewery. We went through our whole punk rock stage and that’s over. I worked so hard and for so long in year one, I got shingles. But that’s what year one is. Now going into year three we need to be adult. People have times that they need to come in by now. We have a board of who needs to do what. There’s accountability.
For a long time we didn’t have the tank space and personnel to make enough of the core beers so we couldn’t do new projects. Now we have the time and tank space to do those. I’m not working 14-18 hour days anymore. I might get a day or two off every week now. It allows us to do creative projects again which is great. Before, all I was doing was Troublesome. I didn’t open a brewery to do shift brewing. That’s not fun to do that. If I wanted to do that I’d work for a brewery where I’d make a lot more money and have better health benefits.
We’ll do a lot more wilds and fermentation stuff. One of my pet projects recently has been really complex beers with mixed fermentation. We have a tank where we just do those. They’ve been pretty successful so now we have three tanks for creative projects.
Mike Zoller is the Chicago Editor for PorchDrinking.com. Follow him on Instagram: @chicagobeer and PorchDrinking Chicago’s Twitter feed: @porchdrinkchi