A coffee-cream nut brown. A chocolate banana stout. An imperial IPA with eight malts, 12 hop varieties and nine separate hop additions. A hazelnut amber ale. A hefeweizen brewed with green tea and blood oranges.
You can’t make this stuff up, except you did. This is what beer democracy looks like.
These are the off-the-wall beers brewed so far by MobCraft Beer, a Madison outfit that last spring announced it would become the world’s first crowd-sourced brewery, with recipes developed by and voted on by its customers.
The founders of Mobcraft — home-brewers Henry Schwartz and Giotto Troia and pro brewer Andrew Gierczak, who helped craft the Leinenkugel’s Big Eddy series among other work at MillerCoors’ 10th Street Brewery in Milwaukee — knew the process was going to result in kooky beers. But the idea is that if you broaden out your potential customer base enough, the craziest 1 percent of beer drinkers is plenty of business to build a brewery on.
It was a model I was somewhat skeptical of when I wrote about MobCraft last year, based in part in my belief that a brewery must embrace its local customers first and build out in concentric circles to reach a wider market.
But that’s exactly what is happening with MobCraft. While the crowd-sourcing part of the business — each vote in the recipe-winnowing stage represents an order of four 22-ounce bottles — has grown haltingly due to regulatory and website snags, MobCraft’s bombers have had an increasingly high profile in local bottle shops in recent months.
Each seven-barrel batch — MobCraft makes its beer at House of Brews with proprietor Page Buchanan — yields about 720 bombers as well as a handful of kegs poured at the House of Brews Far East Side tap room and other local bars and restaurants. Currently, only about 100 of the bottles are sold as part of the crowd-sourcing vote process, a share that Schwartz said he expects to grow when MobCraft gets final approval to begin shipping its beer across state lines — a key part of the model.
That has left a lot of beer for MobCraft to sell here in Madison, and Schwartz has relished how local retailers and beer drinkers have embraced brews that aren’t really made to be for everyone.
He said the crowd-sourced beers are meant to be a shared social experience, with a group sharing a bottle or two. And yeah, six ounces of the Blood Orange Green Tea Hefeweizen might be enough.
“As far as actual consumption in the city, I feel like we’ve got a niche right here that I don’t really want to push out of,” Schwartz said. “Madison is a great beer city from every aspect of it.”
As MobCraft moves ahead to develop far-flung sales, it also has its eye on bricks and mortar of its own here in Madison. Its contract with House of Brews ends in April, and MobCraft is in talks to lease sites from Monona to the Near East Side, including the East Washington Avenue corridor.
Schwartz said MobCraft already has an option to purchase a seven-barrel brewhouse and other brewing equipment from a defunct brewery, and that system could be in Madison by April.
The goal is to have not just room to brew for the crowd-sourced bottles and kegs but also for a brewpub. That, Schwartz said, would require a line of regular beers that would pair better with food than most of the beers MobCraft has made so far. (Schwartz is excited to begin a line of MobCraft sour beers.)
And if you think the crowd has gotten the squirrelly recipes out of its system, check out the MobCraft brews that are on deck. Crowd-sourced brew No. 6 is Mayan Chocolate Chili Ale, a corn-based beer brewed with cacao and ultra-hot ghost peppers that’s due out toward the end of this month. No. 7, expected by mid-March, is a carrot cake beer called Rabbit’s Bounty, made with honey, brown sugar, milk sugar, walnuts and, yep, carrots.
Before things got really crazy, though, the crowd got just a little wild with this week’s beer.
Night & Day
Style: Black India pale ale — or, as MobCraft calls it, an India black ale — brewed with vanilla
Brewed by: MobCraft Beer
Where, how much: Bombers of MobCraft usually sell for $8 each, and most of the better bottle shops in Madison have them: Steve’s, Alpine, Trixie’s, Star, Riley’s.
The beer: Night & Day pours a dark mahogany, just a touch lighter than the titular black. This beer has a great aroma, with vanilla and chocolate notes far more prominent than the conventional malt and hop accents. The nose repeats on the front end of each sip before the dark, roasty malts and relatively neutral hop bitterness sweep in. Gierczak chose noble hops to avoid the citrus, pine and floral notes common with American hop varieties. It all comes together in a pleasing package, although there’s a bitter finish that’s sharper from the bomber than I recall from the pints at the Night & Day launch party on Feb. 1. I agree with the guys at MobCraft, who say this is the most repeatable crowd-sourced beer they’ve made — one that could be brought back as a regular or seasonal. “We’ve had a lot of good response on this one,” Schwartz said. “This might be one that you’d want to stick.”
Booze factor: The 6.5 percent ABV is middle-of-the-road for an IPA, black or otherwise.
The buzz: While I wouldn’t say I’ve had a great beer from MobCraft yet, I do think there’s a triumph in its run so far: Gierczak’s steady hand guiding the off-the-wall recipes to capable, and often surprisingly drinkable, fruition. There’s the judicious application of banana — an ingredient I’ve heard of in only one other beer — to a nice base beer in the Chocolate Banana Stout. And Night & Day is not only a harmonious version of a style that often suffers from discombobulation between its hops and roasty malt, it seamlessly adds a bonus ingredient to the mix. These touches are the sign of a very promising brewer; now we get to see if Gierczak can pull off a carrot cake beer.
Schwartz notes that the entire MobCraft team has learned from each brew — scaling up a homebrew-scale batch to a commercial system is more art than science — and they expect any encore brews to be better-executed than the first. This, more than the what-will-they-think-of-next aspect of the crowd-sourcing, has me eager to see what MobCraft’s next year will bring.
Bottom line: 3½ stars (out of five)