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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 15.0° F  Fair
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Karben4 Brewing fires up its brew kettle, ready for Madison debut
Karben4 Brewing is just about ready to open.
Credit:Robin Shepard

Madison's newest brewery, Karben4 Brewing, started making beer this past weekend. Located in the former Ale Asylum space on Kinsman Boulevard, it is owned and operated by three Appleton natives, brothers Ryan and Zak Koga, and Alex Evans. They plan a soft opening for their taproom the weekend after Christmas, with a grand opening in January.

Ryan, 31, Zak, 27, and Evans, 28, are friends from high school. Ryan takes care of the brewing while Zak and Alex handle overall operations and marketing. All of the Karben4 partners were directly involved in much of the renovations to the building, and were up nearly all night last Saturday as they readied the brewery for its first batch.

Karben4's first brew is a porter they're naming NightCall. Ryan Koga is hoping to have at least three beers ready by the last weekend in December, and as many as six after the first of the year. There will be standard beers and a range of rotating styles.

Ryan says he likes beers that are smooth, well balanced, with body and color. "Malt doesn't always get the respect it deserves; it can be very synergistic with hops," he says. The initial batch of NightCall is made with beechwood-smoked malt, which will give it smooth caramel and chocolate sweetness, with a mellow roastedness.

Other beers that Ryan is planning to have on tap come their soft opening include an amber ale named Block Party and an American pale ale he calls SamuRyePA, which is made with rye malt. By the time of the brewery's official grand opening, Ryan is hoping to have an Irish red, a session ale called Undercover, and a black IPA named Silk Scorpion.

While taking over the old Ale Asylum space, Karben4 also purchased some its on-site equipment, including much of the brewhouse, bottling line and cold storage facilities. Other elements are news. Before firing up the brew kettle, they installed three new 30-barrel fermenters, as well as several pieces of equipment essential for transferring, filtering and conditioning beer, including a grain mill and hot liquor tank.

The initial investment to get Karben4 up and brewing was about $600,000. The brewery will self-distribute at first, and offer only draught beer to Madison, with hopes that bottling can begin later in 2013. Once its bottling line is fully operating, Karben4 estimates its capacity will be around 12,000 barrels per year.

During Saturday's inaugural brewing, Ryan had the focus of an engineer as he solved a few unexpected problems associated with learning for the first time how the equipment would operate in action.

Ryan's experience includes six years as a brewer for Yellowstone Valley Brewing in Billings, Montana. He's also helped open two other breweries, so he's not too surprised by most of the challenges that occur with a new brewhouse. Two years ago, while consulting in the opening of a brewery in eastern Michigan, Ryan and Zak knew it was time to open their own brewery.

While looking for a location, Ryan made a series of cold calls that included talking with members of the Wisconsin Brewers Guild. Those connections led him to Ale Asylum co-owner Otto Dilba, who was deeply involved in his own expansion plans. The timing couldn't have been better. Dilba was in the process figuring out what to do with his old space, and Koga was looking for equipment and a location. "This was where we wanted to be, it was the city we wanted to be in, by the people we wanted to be by, and it was an opportunity that we could not pass up," says Ryan.

Ale Asylum's move took about a month longer than planned, which caused temporary shortages in its own beers at a few locations around Madison. The delay actually benefited Karben4, because it allowed more time for remodeling the taproom while they waited for the brewhouse to be vacated.

The taproom is decorated in slate gray, black and green. There is a much larger wooden and steel bar that offers nearly three times the number of bar stools as previously, and more taps for beers. Karben4 turned to another high school buddy, artist Tom Kowalke, to create several large paintings that add a contemporary feel to the space. He'll also be designing the brewery's packaging and labels.

If you're wondering about the brewery's name, Karben4, the brewery partners say it's a twist on how carbon is the foundation of all life, and beer is the foundation for modern civilizations. (Curious readers might want to check out the book A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage.)

Karben4 is working with Underground Food Collective to develop a menu for the taproom. While not yet set, it's likely to include pizzas, sandwiches, soups and small plates. At this early stage, it's best to check the Karben4 Facebook page for more information about hours, menu details, the soft opening (set for Friday, December 28), and the grand opening in 2013.

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