To the naked eye, the new Ale Asylum brewery looks to be a bar and restaurant.
But don’t go using that terminology. The owners prefer to call the $8 million project a brewery and “tasting room.”
“We are really, really adamant about not wanting to promote ourselves as a bar or restaurant. We’re a brewery with an attached tasting room,” said Otto Dilba, who founded the business with brewmaster Dean Coffey.
Because the new 45,000-square-foot building is so roomy and features a bar that stretches the length of the front room, it’s natural people would make that assumption. But Dilba stresses the distinction, lest anyone think it’s trying to compete with the bars and restaurants it distributes to in the area.
“We would prefer to be dead here and have those businesses jam-packed with people drinking Hopalicious,” he said.
The tasting room opened Sept. 14, not far from the original Ale Asylum, in a prime location for those making a trip to the airport or Madison Area Technical College.
Ale Asylum has 23 investors with Dilba and Coffey, both former employees of the now-defunct Angelic Brewing Co., as the operating principals. The men originally opened Ale Asylum in 2006 on the other side of the airport. The new facility is more than five times the size of the old one.
For now, the company is considered a microbrewery because it produces 15,000 barrels a year. Once it surpasses that mark — and it will this year — it will be designated a “regional brewery,” Dilba said.
Food in the original establishment was an afterthought. Customers could order four types of sandwiches at the bar.
At the new Ale Asylum, customers can order appetizers, salads, soup, five different sandwiches, as well as fish tacos and daily specials.
On my first visit, I had some very promising, meaty chili accented by roasted poblano peppers ($3), and an exceptional hot ham & havarti sandwich ($7). The sandwich came with surprisingly good salsa that burst with cilanto and chipotle peppers. It was served with El Rey tortilla chips.
On a return trip, I went with a vegetarian friend who surprisingly found a lot to eat on the menu. We started with a vegetarian quesadilla ($8), a wheat tortilla stuffed with cheese, red pepper, tomatoes, black beans, corn, pepperoncinis, and black olives.
“It’s not awful,” my companion said, and I agreed it wasn’t exactly thrilling. But it was served with the same wonderful, fresh-tasting salsa and a side of grated cabbage with sour cream.
The citrus salmon salad ($11) featured a large, square piece of fish with grill marks, but the mandarin oranges and sour grapefruit overwhelmed everything. Goat cheese and almond slivers helped, as did the sparing use of a vinaigrette dressing made with the brewery’s signature beer, Hopalicious.
A spicy black bean burger ($7) had a pre-formed chipotle patty (from MorningStar) that didn’t fall apart, a thin layer of mozzarella cheese, leaf lettuce and tomato. The chipotle mayo could have been more pronounced. It mimicked a burger well and had a good level of spice but was nothing spectacular, either.
Best was the hot ham & havarti sandwich, which I couldn’t resist ordering a second time. The grilled hoagie roll was rather small, but was piled high with smoked ham. The melted harvarti and roasted garlic mayo cinched the deal. A fabulous combination of flavors.
On my most recent visit, the tasting room was out of three of its beers, including my favorite, the world-class Madtown Nut Brown. But the Ambergedden — “part ale, part sensory eruption” — filled in fine.
The space is impressive, the beers are fantastic, and the menu goes a lot further than it used to. Just don’t call it a bar or restaurant.
“It makes us sleep better at night if we call it a tasting room, I guess,” Dilba said.