Every beer starts with an idea, but only brewery employees can experience the thrill of drinking a professionally brewed beer that was his or her own idea.
Madison’s newest brewery wants to change that.
MobCraft Beer is putting its eventual customers in charge of one of a brewer’s most critical decisions: what kind of beer to brew.
First, some basics: MobCraft was started by Giotto Troia and Henry Schwartz of Madison and Andrew Gierczak, MobCraft’s brewer, who for the past two years has worked at a brewery in Milwaukee.
MobCraft will be brewing for now at House of Brews, the Far East Side brewery of Page Buchanan, though the plan is to build a facility of their own once MobCraft gets established.
Rather than start by selling through a tap room or to bars and stores, MobCraft is looking to ship beer directly to customers, or offer local pickup. It’s currently cleared to ship beer to 36 states.
Here’s how the monthly beer selection process works:
First, people submit beer suggestions online at www.mobcraftbeer.com. These can be very specific — the submission form asks for details such as malt bill, hop regimen, yeast and boil times — or general: a peppermint IPA, perhaps.
MobCraft keeps an archive of these recipes and measures the social media buzz for each. The four most viral beers for the month are again turned over to the crowd, with each vote an order for a $24 (plus shipping) four-pack of 22-ounce bottles of the beer. The beer with the most orders is brewed, after Gierczak fills in any gaps in the recipe submission. Those who voted for a beer that didn’t win can instead buy the victor or cancel and wait for the next month. Four to six weeks later, the beer ships or is available for pickup at House of Brews. (MobCraft also will offer three-, six- and 12-month subscriptions to receive the top vote-getting beer.)
It’s a model that the guys behind MobCraft know isn’t going to be for everyone. Although they do eventually plan to have relatively traditional flagship beers, they also expect to make plenty of beers that aren’t for everyone, and that’s one of the reasons why they’re looking to tap such a broad base of tens of millions of potential customers.
They believe they can reach a base of homebrewers and hard-core beer geeks who will want to try a tamarind hefeweizen or a cucumber-cilantro sour ale — two beers MobCraft has made in the past. You don’t typically see those kind of aggressive beer experiments from traditional breweries, but MobCraft makes them possible with small batches and pre-committed customers.
“If we were to brew how everybody else is brewing, we’d be competing with them,” Schwartz said. “Doing it this way, we’re more in the competition of beer that’s delivered to your house — beer of the month clubs and stuff like that. It’s a way of getting into the industry without really getting into the industry.”
There are two potential problems I see with what MobCraft is trying to do, although Schwartz and Troia had answers to both.
First and foremost, I feared for the brewer. In one recent vote, before the brewery’s official debut this month, the MobCraft mob really put Gierczak through the wringer, seeking drinkable beer from a pistachio pear pilsner, an amber ale brewed with ghost peppers (one of the world’s hottest chilies) and a raspberry-cherry lambic.
These are beers that perhaps are not made for a reason, and while the MobCraft team is confident the “gross beers” will be weeded out as the customer base grows, they do expect the crowdsourced offerings to be somewhat off the wall — challenges to even a veteran brewer.
But Troia and Schwartz have the utmost confidence in Gierczak, a UW-Madison-trained microbiologist who has run extensive test batches on a 1.3-barrel system, using hundreds of combinations of ingredients — malts, hops, yeasts and exotic adjuncts — and techniques such as fermentation temperatures and aging times to isolate each factor’s effects.
“A lot of it comes down the skill of the brewmaster, and Andrew is a great brewer,” Troia said.
The two MobCraft beers I sampled recently seemed capably brewed: a coffee-chocolate porter that was bursting with java flavor and a pear sour that was more subtle than it might sound.
Another challenge I see for MobCraft is in the way it connects with its customers. Breweries often cultivate powerful loyalty with local customers that’s reinforced every time fans see a tap handle in a bar or six-pack carton in a cooler. MobCraft’s strategy doesn’t allow that, instead banking on social media marketing to reach and engage far-flung but like-minded customers.
And there’s also the crowdsourcing, which the MobCraft team is banking will be a potent tool, virtually bringing customers into the brewhouse. One of the company’s mottos is “unleash your inner brewmaster.”
“That resonates with homebrewers — ‘It’s linked to my ideas and my suggestions,’” Schwartz said. “It establishes the personal connection that way rather than through locality.”
Schwartz and Troia make a convincing case that the MobCraft model is going to work. But just like the beer portfolio of their new brewery, its future is up to the crowd.