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Wisconsin beer and breweries: News and reviews
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Ale Asylum readies to open large new brewery on north side
It's poised to join the top three craft breweries in the state
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Ale Asylum operating partners Dean Coffey, left, and Otto Dilba, right, with promotions director Hathaway Dilba. For more photos, click gallery, above.
Credit:Robin Shepard

"The last 2,297 days went by too fast," says Ale Asylum co-owner Otto Dilba. Dilba, 38, shut off the tap lines and poured the final beers in the Madison brewery's Kinsman Boulevard tasting room on Saturday night.

Dilba and co-owner/brewmaster Dean Coffey, 47, met while working together at the Angelic brewpub in downtown Madison and started Ale Asylum with some of its former equipment when Angelic jettisoned brewing to focus on being a campus-area bar.

For six years, Ale Asylum averaged 40% growth annually at this somewhat unlikely location in an industrial park off Highway 51, near the airport. Now it's closing only temporarily as it moves to its new, much larger location, about a mile away. Dilba and Coffey will be pouring beer there within a couple of weeks, with brewing set to start next month.

The new 45,000-square-foot brewery and tasting room will open later this month at Packers Avenue and International Lane. With the addition of about $3 million in equipment (and a $5 million building owned by CSI Construction), the new Ale Asylum is more than an expansion - it's practically a new brewery. The new facility positions Ale Asylum to move from sixth in size among Wisconsin's craft breweries to among the top three. It will add about 30 jobs, mostly in the new tasting room and brewery office. Yet Dilba and Coffey are mindful of not going too far too fast. "We want to be ourselves," Dilba says.

When Ale Asylum opened six years ago, it quickly established itself among Madison's craft beer enthusiasts through its distinctive hoppy brews like Hopalicious, Ballistic and Ambergeddon. The brewery also produced seldom-found Belgian styles that Dilba and Coffey dubbed Tripel Nova, Diablo and Happy Ending.

Hopalicious has brought Ale Asylum its largest following and been most responsible for the brewery's growth. It will be the first of Ale Asylum's brands to go statewide as soon as Coffey makes the beer at the new location.

Phil Reynolds, vice president at the Madison-based General Beer Distributors, says Hopalicious, its top-seller, is "the fastest-growing brand, by volume, that we have ever had" - growth he hasn't seen in his 40 years in the business. General Beer is so confident in overall growth for specialty beers that it's created a new position called "craft beer director" that will work primarily with Ale Asylum on statewide marketing.

The new building was built by CSI Construction Services of DeForest with a southern wall that has removable panels to allow for future additions.

"Ale Asylum has the potential to be a regional craft brewery," says Reynolds. (A regional brewery makes more than 15,000 barrels annually. Capital Brewery in Middleton, Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee and New Glarus Brewing all fall into that category.)

In 2011 Ale Asylum made 9,999 barrels of beer. The new facility is designed for 45,000 barrels annually, which would place it behind Wisconsin craft brewers New Glarus Brewing and Stevens Point Brewery.

Wisconsin Brewer's Guild president (and president of Sprecher Brewing) Jeff Hamilton thinks now is the time for Ale Asylum to make a move. "They are certainly on fire right now," he says. "They're the hottest brewery in the state."

Craft beer sales overall are on the rise in the U.S., while the amount of beer consumed is declining. That, says Hamilton, shows that beer drinkers are willing to pay more for a range of flavors and styles offered by small local breweries. Yet Wisconsin, and Madison, follow national trends, with only about 6% of the beer sold annually coming from craft breweries. Hamilton feels that indicates room for growth, citing such cities as Seattle and San Francisco, where craft beers get 20% of the beer market, and Portland, Ore., where they exceed 30%.

Hamilton also credits increased consumer demand for locally grown food and beverages for driving interest in local craft beer, even when the economy would suggest households might be tightening their food budgets.

"This has been an interesting time. Our industry has not only cruised through the recession but we grew through it," says Hamilton. In the past two years, a majority of Guild members have expanded, including New Glarus Brewing, Capital Brewery and Lake Louie Brewing.

Coffey and Dilba say they don't consider those nearby breweries direct competitors. They'd rather call attention to the thirsty craft beer drinkers in Madison. "We try to focus less on direct competition and more on the demographics of those we are trying to speak to with our beer," says Dilba.

He's the partner responsible for much of the brewery's branding - distinctive graphics that often feature dark clothing, skulls and other imagery commonly found in the tattoos of rock stars.

And the staunchest Ale Asylum fans exhibit an almost cult-like devotion to their favorite Asylum brews. "Part of our responsibility is to serve, or cultivate, the cult," Dilba jokes.

Hamilton, of the Brewer's Guild, agrees that image has helped Ale Asylum establish itself as a unique brewery. "They came in with a fresh look and an image that's cool, with edgy-sounding beer names." That, he says, will be beneficial as it expands statewide and beyond.

Bill Rogers, owner of Madison's Malt House and longtime member of the Madison Homebrewers and Tasters Guild, notes that the brewery's appeal is not just on the surface: "Ale Asylum is brewing interesting recipes, hitting hop heads' sweet spots, and doing it with exceptional quality and consistency." Hopalicious, for example, is an American Pale Ale with a firm bitterness that appeals to both hop lovers and the hop-curious.

"I don't know that being a bigger brewery will change our perceptions of them, but it might make it possible to add some of their seasonals to the year-round line-up," Rogers says. He also foresees Ale Asylum venturing out of Wisconsin into neighboring states.

"That a good thing," he adds.

The new facility has been on the fast track. Foundations and footings were placed last November. Floors were poured and walls went up as winter waned. By June, most major components for the brewhouse had started to arrive. The brewing operation is still being set up, and it will be October before beer is in fermenters in the new location. However, the brewery plans to have its beer available in the tasting room within a couple of weeks.

The main brewhouse section of the building is its own room with a 35-foot ceiling, glass windows and lighting that will expose the inner workings to anyone arriving at the front door.

The new facility will have a new five-vessel brewing system. Previously, Coffey made beer in 13-barrel batches; the new system will increase that capacity to 33 barrels at a time. (A barrel is approximately 31 gallons.)

Major elements of the brewing system were designed by Coffey and custom built by the Milwaukee-based Sprinkman Corp., allowing Coffey to better manage raw ingredients, especially hops in the brewing process.

To keep up with statewide distribution, Ale Asylum purchased a much faster bottling line, a system that once packaged bottles at Sweet Water Brewing in Atlanta. Coffey sent a couple of his brewers there to learn how the system worked before it was disassembled and shipped here.

Just the bottling and packaging area of the new brewery occupies about 8,000 square feet, equal to what everything fit into at the Kinsman Boulevard location. At full speed it'll turn out 277 bottles a minute, four times more than the old system. Coffey describes it as something from the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory.

The bottling line allows for both 12- and 22-ounce bottles. There will also be enough brewery space to eventually hold over 40 fermenters, giving Coffey leeway to be creative. He also intends to give his brewers some freedom to make one-time releases based on their own homebrew recipes.

Coffey himself would like to create a line of specialty beers that would include barleywines and imperial stouts. "I'd like to take a tank or two and allow the beer to sit there for a year and come back to see what happens."

A big part of Ale Asylum's showier profile locally will be its new tasting room. It's done up in the brand's familiar orange and black, with cherry wood and stone accents along the main bar and walls. The work of an area graffiti artist will be featured on a wall in the main tasting room.

Among the most impressive new features are two outdoor patios that can seat over 150. An upper deck overlooks the main patio and Packers Avenue.

Inside, two bars that support 20 tap lines each mean less waiting for a pint in the tasting room. Above the main bar, lighted signs show the names of current brews being served. The tasting room will serve food, but Ale Asylum has no plans to become a gastropub. The focus is still on beer production. But as at the old tasting room, some food will be available - light sandwiches and salads along with Falbo Bros. pizzas. New with the upsizing: A kitchen manager is being hired to oversee the food side.

So what does success look like to a brewmaster? After toiling for 17 years in the brewing business, from Colorado to Wisconsin, Coffey says, "This is the first time I've worked in a building with its own parking lot, so we've achieved something."

But after a pause he becomes more serious. "It's all about the beer, and good beer always wins at the end of the day."

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