Yesterday I published the first half of an interview with John Laffler, former R&D brewer for Goose Island, who started Off Color Brewing with his partner Dave Bleitner on the west side. Besides talking about some of the obscure historical styles that he brews—or at least brews versions of—he also offers his assessment of our beer scene, where it's going, who's going to get hurt if there's a shakeout, and why it matters that the world of beer remain small and collegial.
Michael Gebert: Another of your beers is Scurry, which is a kottbusser-style ale. What is this style and why did you want to bring it back?
John Laffler: It's a Prussian beer, which just sounded interesting. You know, humans have been making beer since we settled down. And there are so many beers that through taxation or other legal means have basically been erased. Witbier, for example, was a near-extinct beer in the 70s until Pierre Celis thought, "This beer tastes good, why isn't anybody else making it?” and started making Blue Moon. Now Hoegaarden makes how many millions of barrels a year?
So there's a ton of beers out there that are different and more nuanced, and we were looking for things that would interest my business partner Dave and I. This is a beer that tastes good that nobody makes any more, and it's made of things that taste good themselves: honey, molasses, and oats. We played around with it—technically I think ours would be more of a dunkel kottbusser, but no one knows what it is in the first place, so . . .
I really don't like styles being confined to the style. Having to brew styles. It's not something we do, and the people whose beer I enjoy, they don't do it either. Our Berlinerweiss has a yeast that has no business being in there. The gose [Troublesome] is our interpretation of a gose. There's only a couple of examples coming out of Germany and the oldest ones there are from the 90s. It's basically a blank slate—here's an idea, here's some ingredients, you can put your own spin on it.
The funny thing about doing a kottbusser was, Against the Grain [a brewery in Louisville] had done one the year before, and I think a brewpub in Denver had done it like once. So basically nobody else in the U.S. had done this. And then within six months [5 Rabbit brewer and beer consultant] Randy Mosher had designed one for Berghoff. So it's like, whoa, there's two kottbussers being made in Chicago, is this our style now? I ran into Randy and he was like, "Where the hell did you even hear about this beer?" And I looked at him and said, "Remember when you wrote this book called Radical Brewing? That's probably where we read about it." Probably in a footnote!
What's been the reaction of people in Chicago to these weird and obscure styles? Do people by now just have a, hey, it's new, let's try it mentality?
In general there's the it's new, let's try it mentality as there's more and more beers—as a professional I can't even keep up with them all. At this point I'm overwhelmed, plus I think about beer all day—when I go out I just want to drink [Three Floyds] Alpha King, because I don't want to think about beer anymore. I know that beer, it's delicious, I drink more of it than water. But, "Oh my God, it's another new IPA"—I'm not intrigued by that anymore. I think, pretty soon, the market's going to feel the same way, that there's just too much.
For our beers it took a little while to catch on. People don't know the style, they don't even know how to pronounce it. Actually, that's something if you're making beers like ours—if people can't pronounce it, they don't want to look like an idiot in front of the bartender, so they don’t order it. And then some people are really curious and they say, "What is a kottbusser?" and the bartender is like, uh . . .
I guess maybe craft brew is mainstream now. We have a place at the table now. For those of us who have been in this for a while, forever you had some weird bearded guy working in the brewery. It attracted people who don't like talking to other people. And now that model doesn't work anymore. You can't just be the surly brewer in the back who doesn't talk to customers. That doesn't fly now. My favorite is Nick Floyd [of Three Floyds]. He's so surly, he just does not give a fuck. But he's so genuine about it that it becomes a lovable quality. Where if you don’t know him, it's like, oh my God, that guy's going to punch me. But he is who he is and he's genuine about it.
Actually, I think genuineness is going to be the next big craft brewing crisis. Are you doing this genuinely or why are you doing this? I think even just from a design aspect, there are so many people trying to emulate what Three Floyds does. Everything is like metal and skulls and shit. In their case, not only have they been doing that forever, but that's who they are. You see some other brews opening up who say, "Let's put some skulls and heavy metal on it," and it's like, that's who they are. Who are you? And I think when we get some of the winnowing out, what's going to do it is that lack of authenticity.
But there are so many breweries now. When I was talking to [beer blogger] Karl Klockars a while back, one thing we batted around was this idea of beers that were really just neighborhood brews, just tied to an Albany Park or wherever. Do you think that we could get to that level of micropopularity, I guess you'd call it?
I think there's so much room for expansion in Chicago with brewpubs. Production breweries are harder for that because unless you have a ton of distribution in a small area, you can't make it. When we're competing for tap handles, we're not competing with Bud or Coors or whoever. We're competing with a Lagunitas handle or a Revolution handle or a Sierra Nevada handle, the larger craft brewers. They make really good beer, they market it really well, and they have the sales force to back it up—and people should be drinking their beer, their beer's delicious.
The smaller craft brewers, that's where our competition is. The amount of breweries opening up, the amount of beer being released, far exceeds the rate of new handles opening up. For every new craft beer bar that's opening up, we get four breweries opening up at the same time.
We probably sell 40 percent of our beer to the national market. So we're a small brewery in Chicago, and we have beer in 23 states, I think.
So where do those sales come from? How do people find out about it?
By making interesting beer—it’s attractive to interesting people. One of the problems we had when we were trying to sell only on draft, only in Chicago was that when you make weird, esoteric beer, and nobody really knows what it is, it doesn’t work really well to follow that model.
I do a fair amount of traveling now, because we have another brewer which is pretty sweet. So I do a lot of traveling—but it's hard to go out there and support it, it's hard to market it. You have to rely on word of mouth for making interesting beers, and the press has been pretty good to us. There's some name recognition.
My sister lives in D.C. and she gets really annoyed with me because we'll go to a bar near her, and I'll know more people there than she does. But beer's supersmall. Not only is beer small but beer's local. There's still this really strong relationship with brewers. Like I'll get emails constantly saying, "Oh, we're going to be in Chicago, we heard about your brewery, mind if we stop by?" And I'm like, we're not open to the public. I get emails all the time saying, "Do you do tours?" Yeah, we're supposed to, but I work six days a week, I don’t want to be here on my day off . . .
But I was in Denmark for a festival, and then I had to fly the next day to London to brew beers in London. And I didn't know where I was going to stay; I knew like two people in London, and at four in the morning I’m drinking outside the hotel with the staff of like half the craft breweries in London, and I stayed in one of their pubs that had a hotel attached to it, went out drinking with them, and I just wandered around the city drinking with people who I had met like two days ago.
That still exists. And that's one of the things that I would hate to lose as we get bigger and bigger and get more and more breweries. When we don’t know each other and we're competing more and more, I would really hate to lose that sense of camaraderie. In the beginning, nobody knew how to do this. And it wasn’t like you could just go to a book. You had to rely on the people around you.
We share ingredients, we share yeast. This is why we haven't had to buy yeast very often. I go to Revolution to get it. They're actively giving a crucial raw ingredient to a competitor. Three Floyds has given away yeast forever, Goose Island gave away yeast forever. We give our lactobacillus culture away. In any other business, that wouldn’t fly, but here, it still works.