Anna Jean Peterson
Otto Dilba (left) and Dean Coffey with the flagship beer that started it all.
Madison's Ale Asylum has rapidly become a player on the Wisconsin craft beer stage. At the heart of its ascent is its flagship beer, Hopalicious, an American Pale Ale that accounts for about 60% of the brewery's output.
"It was clear to me that Hopalicious was a special beer from the beginning, and it was going to be the one," says Otto Dilba, who started Ale Asylum in 2006 with Dean Coffey in an unlikely block of warehouses just off Hwy. 51.
Coffey worked on the recipe for Hopalicious for nearly a decade. "It's been important to me that Hopalicious is what we're known for and that it is an aggressive [hoppy] beer," he says.
Hopalicious is certainly not tame. It gets its character from 11 additions of Cascade hops. The result is a beer packed with sharp, hoppy-citrus flavor and aroma, qualities craved by bitter beer fans.
With a steady annual growth that approached 20%, by late 2012 Ale Asylum had outgrown its initial home and built a new 45,000-square-foot brewhouse and taproom just off Packers Avenue near the entrance to the Dane County Regional Airport. In the year following its move, the brewery's 2013 production increased by nearly 45%, to 17,243 barrels. 2013 was also the year Ale Asylum ventured beyond Madison. Its beers are now found statewide, with the exception of a handful of counties in the far north.
Its 2013 barrelage mark puts Ale Asylum among a small number of Wisconsin craft breweries considered "regional" by the American Brewers Association, for making more than 15,000 barrels annually.
And now Dilba and Coffey have set their sights on the Illinois beer market and are expanding their facility to meet that demand. December saw the brewery placing equipment orders for a new fermenter, conditioning tank, bright-beer tank, and a larger hot-water system that will allow production to top 42,000 barrels of beer a year.
That's a mark they hope to hit within two to three years. "We've had a lot of interest from Illinois. Beer travelers and Wisconsin expatriates who live there regularly come here and take beer back with them," says Dilba.
Illinois will likely get about 10% of the brewery's production in 2014. "We want to expand there with a limited number of beers, adding new ones over time," says Dilba.
Initial offerings include Hopalicious, Ambergeddon (a West Coast amber ale), Bedlam (a Belgian Pale Ale) and Madtown Nutbrown. They should be found in Chicago and northern Illinois markets by early February.
The Wirtz Beverage Group of Cicero will handle Ale Asylum's Illinois distribution. Wirtz has also interests in Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and Nevada as well as Wisconsin, so greater distribution could be possible.
If things go well in Illinois, Dilba is willing to take his brews further: "We're watching not just Illinois but Minnesota and Iowa closely," he says.
Capitalizing on a beer that stands out is key to a small brewery's growth. New Glarus, with its Spotted Cow, is a clear example of how one beer can drive brewery expansion and sales. It can even push the brewery into regional and national markets, as with Sierra Nevada Pale Ale and the Boston Beer Co.'s Samuel Adams Boston Lager.
It's too early to say that Hopalicious has national-brand potential, but it's certainly getting the kind of love from hop-heads that makes one wonder if it might. On Ratebeer, a web-based rating service, it scores 97 for style and 94 overall (out of 100).
On a recent Friday afternoon, Eric Anacker of Madison and a few friends were enjoying Hopalicious in the Ale Asylum taproom. "It's a very good local version of my national favorite, Sierra Nevada," said Anacker.
Pale Ales and India Pale Ales (IPAs) are the hottest beer styles in the craft beer movement right now, so this distinctive recipe gives the brewery an entry into a larger, if competitive, scene.
Beyond Hopalicious, Coffey has charmed hop-heads and intense bitter beer lovers with such seasonal brews as Ballistic, an IPA, and Satisfaction Jacksin, a double IPA.
Coffey also brews a range of beers that round out Ale Asylum's persona: lighter golden ales, a porter and a series of much-sought-after Belgian beers.
Regardless of success beyond Wisconsin's borders, Dilba and Coffey are quick to point out they don't want Madison fans of their brewery to feel abandoned.
"Expansion is great. It means we'll have more beer here, too, and there will be beers you can get only here," says Dilba.