"Today's beer consumer is always looking for something new and different, the next beer on their list they haven't had," says brewmaster Dean Coffey about his line of limited, in-house-only "one-off" brews at Madison's Ale Asylum.
Committing to small, single-batch brews, or one-offs, is something many commercial-packaging breweries shy away from. Experimenting on a large scale is costly and risky, and it takes time and fermenter space that a brewery often can't give up when demand is high for its standard offerings.
In contrast, one-off batches are the norm for most brewpubs, where smaller batch sizes and virtually no labeling requirements allow for quick production of new brews based on the latest trend or fancies of local beer aficionados.
Since Ale Asylum opened its new location last fall, its main brews -- Hopalicious, Ambergeddon, Madtown Nutbrown, Contorter Porter and a handful of seasonal releases -- have occupied the attention of brewing staff. Still, Coffey has been able to squeeze in four special releases: an India Brown Ale, a citra hop-focused Blood Red Ale, an IPA made with Centennial hops and a Belgian table beer. A fifth has just debuted.
"It used to be no one wanted to buy a beer that wasn't an established bottled beer," Coffey says. But now one-offs have become part of a brewery's strategy; they help maintain a high level of interest with beer enthusiasts looking for something new and out of the ordinary. For instance, after it opens, the new Wisconsin Brewing plans to offer in-house one-offs from a small system brewmaster Kirby Nelson purchased for just that purpose. He's serious about small, unique batches of beer.
A one-off beer at Ale Asylum usually begins as a pet project for the brewers. Coffey says it's a chance to turn his fellow brewers loose to try out their ideas: "We do these to explore a style, push the boundaries, experiment with ingredients we haven't used before; they allow us to stretch our creativity. Even though they don't always turn out the way we want them to, we learn from them."
Last winter's Blood Red Ale was a trial run, using the brewery's technique for adding hops after the boil in the whirlpool. Coffey feels that beer gave them great ideas for how to get the most out of hops in their new brewhouse.
Ale Asylum's latest one-off is a bitter and dry blonde IPA created by Coffey and head brewer Chris Riphenburg. It's light in color, but not in strength -- it comes in at 7.5% ABV. The recipe started as a homebrew of Ale Asylum staffers Erik Huibregtse and Brian Sebak. The two had been developing a recipe involving Calypso hops when they asked Coffey for some advice.
"I stuck my nose into the hop bag, and the aroma was so crazy," says Coffey. "I had to do something with those hops."
At Ale Asylum, the one-offs often go unnoticed by tasting-room visitors because they get just a small mention at the bottom of the menu. Regulars have learned to ask, "So what do you have on tap that I don't see on the signs above the bar?"
Ale Asylum co-owner Otto Dilba says these beers help "fine-tune our ideas about where we may go in the future." But none of them has broken that barrier so far for Ale Asylum. One impediment to taking a limited-release beer and turning it into a product on store shelves is, oddly enough, the label. Labels must be designed, federally approved, then printed. This can add two to four months to production.
Other area breweries' have notable one-offs. Tyranena Brewing of Lake Mills is out with Prom Date Cherry Saison. It's a strong beer at around 7% ABV, with a hint of cherry aroma and flavor in the finish. It may be around through much of August in the brewery's tasting room, but it's been very popular with regulars, so it may be gone sooner.
Madison's Karben4 will tap Oaktoberfest this fall in its tasting room. It's an Oktoberfest fermented with whiskey-soaked oak. With only one 15-barrel batch, it will be very limited. Brewmaster Ryan Koga also recently made an even more limited brew called Gin Barrel SamuRyePA. It's a version of his rye Pale Ale aged in a gin barrel. Though he made just one barrel of it, it was so popular he's made a second single barrel. In the same gin barrel. It will be tapped at the brewery on Friday, Aug. 9.
At Capital Brewery in Middleton, the latest is Appleanche, a doppelbock made with apples and available this month in 22-ounce bottles. Brewmaster Brian Destree has also been experimenting with infused beers. He's taken Capital Dark and added coffee, vanilla and mint for special tap parties and created an extra-bitter batch of Capsized Double IPA with additional amounts of Simcoe, Amarillo and Cascade hops. Capital recently purchased a 10-gallon pilot system for making single-batch beers for the brewery's bier garten and tasting room.