With More Space, Off Color Brewing Expands on its Uniqueness
So, there I was, standing outside on a cold March night in Chicago watching Off Color’s social media manager Ben Ustick and co-founder Dave Bleitner (lovingly called “The Other Guy”) methodically put together the fence that would block off their soon-to-be-open patio space. There was a palpable excitement shared between Ben and Dave as they hammered each 2×4 into place. The patio meant something more than just providing extra seating on a swanky summer day. It was validation that Off Color’s grand experiment had paid off.
The new taproom space, dubbed the Mousetrap, has been a smashing success as it has provided Dave and the other Co-Founder Jon Laffler (the one you usually see in the papers) with more room to share their craft beer genius with hordes of willing Chicagoans. While 2017 was an exciting year for Off Color Brewing, with more momentum and new experiments in the hopper, 2018 is shaping up to be even better.
The Grand Taproom Experiment
Opened last year, Off Color’s Mousetrap has impressed craft beer fans across the Chicago area with its unique combination of off-the-wall beer choices and palpable charm, exuded by bouncers and bartenders, alike. Now with several months under its belt, the Mousetrap has given John and Dave the brewing flexibility they crave. As one facility handles the standard production of flagships like Apex Predator, the other opens itself up to small batch brews and wild experiments. A few recent examples include Sibling Rivalry, a Belgian Tripel, and 15 Feet, a smoked wheat beer. I’ve been to the Mousetrap several times and there are always at least two or three new beer styles that I’ve never tried before – it’s astonishing.
We have two new beers available at @ocmousetrap just in time for the weekend.
Sibling Rivalry, our Tripel, is deceptively palatable for a high alcohol beer. It drinks extremely light with a moderate mandarine pith hop note and mild pepper phenol. Available on draft and to-go. pic.twitter.com/mvGcaR4Gu1
— Off Color Brewing (@OffcolorBrewing) March 16, 2018
But it’s not just beer that Laffler and crew are brewing. They’re also working on a mixed-fermentation saké,. Yes, saké,. True to form, Ben Ustick, their social media manager assures me that “like everything we do, this will be a uniquely Off Color take on sake.” Off Color had to go through the arduous process of obtaining a saké, license and now hold the 17th issued license in the U.S. – and the first for a craft brewery. The sake should be ready by fall; by that time, their patio will have gotten several months of use.
Opening this spring (license-pending), the aforementioned patio will seat around 60, thanks to a variety of beer hall-style picnic tables. The patio is the next evolution of Off Color’s taproom experience and is sure to be met with rave reviews. It will include a unique pouring station outside, so you won’t ever have to worry about having a warm beer. Ustick enjoys it for another reason:
The additional space will give Off Color the chance to educate an even larger swath of beer fans on beer styles that don’t end with “PA.”
“The face-to-face time and chance to interact directly with our customers is invaluable… It’s amazing to have the opportunity to educate the consumer about these lesser known beers and explain our motivations for the brewing decisions we make as we seek to define our style with our distinctive takes on them. Having 10+ original beers in the market at any given time, it can be hard for beer drinkers to try everything. The taproom provides the customer an opportunity to taste through our offerings at their convenience without having to take home ten six-packs, commented Ustick.
Embracing the Niche
Off Color stands out because they take risks – but in small doses. Their new 7-bbl tank system is as small as they go and gives them “the opportunity to experiment and do some one-offs that we wouldn’t previously have,” said Bleitner. The result is, as Laffler puts it: magic.
“We tend to focus on beers we feel are missing in the landscape. When everyone is devoting so much of their time and tank space to IPAs and such ilk that compete by just adding more and more, we prefer to look to delicate and subtle beers as well as techniques and ingredients that aren’t as commonplace… a lot of our focus at Mousetrap is figuring out how we can achieve much of the complexity and nuance that gets developed over years of long term aging in wood in a much shorter time period all in stainless steel.”
Along with creating variants of their flagships, like the coffee-forward Hyper Predator, the expansion of the Mousetrap has allowed to utilize their Dickens brewing location for more one-off beer experiences. This formalized program is now adeptly called The Other Beers, inspired by the “Other” brewer – Bleitner. The program will focus on a small-batch series of new and exciting beer experiments created by Off Color’s contract brewers – with some oversight from John and Dave, of course. The first creation is dubbed The One Percent, a deliciously balanced Gose aged in bourbon barrels with Troublesome ale, then meshed with fresh Troublesome, and re-fermented with 3% cherry juice.
I had this on tap and it was phenomenal. You get huge notes of sweet and sour stemming from the combination of rich cherry and tangy Troublesome, with a surprisingly smooth finish. The flavor profile pushes the limits on what you’d expect from a gose, which was exactly the intention. “Ultimately our goal is to keep pushing boundaries and challenging the norms that have been established, said Ustick. “In terms of number of beers produced, the goal would be a new beer every 4 to 6 weeks or so really covering the style spectrum.” Who knows, maybe the Other Beers will expand the lineage of the Apex Predator family, The second iteration, a variant of their Sibling Rivalry Tripel, should be available by the end of March.
The Champagne of Craft Beers
And while Off Color revels in the niche, perhaps one of their most popular beers was inspired by the macro giant that is MillerCoors. If you follow Off Color on Twitter, you know they’re obsessed with Miller High Life. This obsession led to Laffler reaching out to Lisa Zimmer at MillerCoors to see if a collaboration was even possible. After some persistence, Laffler went up to the MillerCoors facility in the summer of 2016 to brew a test batch – and drink some High Life. Shortly after, the Miller brewers came down to Off Color’s Dickens location to brew the first official batch of Eeek! which was met by rave reviews from their following in October 2016. Eeek! 2.0 returned this past March weekend to large lines of dedicated Off Color fans who were ready to revel in the uniqueness of the beer, which comes from its combination of High Life’s core ingredients and Off Color’s house yeast. The result is a perfect symphony of macro and micro that the Off Color crew is particularly proud of because it tastes great…and sells really well.
You got questions. And we got answers. Yes. We still have forties (a forty actually). Yes. We still have shorties. And yes. We still have bottles of Eeek! to-go. 💃🌙🍺 #chicagobeer #eeek pic.twitter.com/R5eBW1zmS8
— Off Color Brewing (@OffcolorBrewing) March 19, 2018
“I think Eeek! has been so successful not only because it was unexpected and challenged the big beer/small beer narrative, but, most importantly, because it is a really good beer. Ustick explained:
“The idea of taking these quality High Life ingredients and showcasing them in a different way was an opportunity we did not treat lightly. We wanted this beer to be more than a curiosity, to really stand on its own merits. We believe it does.”
In many ways, the creation of Eeek! is the perfect encapsulation of Off Color’s creative spirit. They’re not afraid to push boundaries of what a craft brewer should do, even if it ventures outside the lines of what is traditionally considered “craft.” That is why they excel in the beers they create and consistently spark the curiosity of Chicago’s often over-saturated craft beer following. With more space and positive headwinds, expect Off Color’s craft laboratory to churn out more mind-bending brews soon. Cheers!
Feature image courtesy of Chicago Reader