With hundreds of options competing for customer eyeballs, it’s tough to get noticed in beer coolers these days.
So it can really help to get noticed outside of it.
That’s exactly what happened in the past month or so for 17-month-old Bent Kettle Brewing. You might know the name of the Fort Atkinson-based company from the four-packs of tallboys that have been in a handful of Madison bottle shops since last fall.
Bent Kettle is the labor of co-owners Jim Jorgenson and Mark Cook, the brewmaster. Since Bent Kettle’s inaugural brew day in April 2015, Cook and Jorgenson have brewed at House of Brews in Madison, though they are vetting two sites in Fort Atkinson for their own brewery/tap room/restaurant.
It’s a small operation. Bent Kettle sold a little over 100 barrels last year, Cook said, and is on pace for perhaps 180 in 2016. Bent Kettle self-distributes, which means Cook and Jorgenson do all the selling and hauling of their beer to bars and bottle shops in Madison and a handful in the Milwaukee and Fox Valley areas. Cook, 53, said a short-term goal is to get the pace up to about 20 barrels a week so he could leave his day job as an optometrist.
The brewery’s three mainstays — an amber ale, an India pale ale and an imperial IPA — are solid beers, made with what Cook calls a “nonconformist” approach. Go Fasters amber uses crystal rye malt and English hops, while Thwack IPA includes a touch of smoked malt. My favorite of the bunch has been Insolence, a warming, satisfying IIPA with an interesting hop bill.
But Bent Kettle’s newest beer may have given it the break it needed for Cook to “trade eyeglasses for beer glasses full time.”
The buzz for K’Paui, a big coconut porter, began with its June 25 debut at the Bacon Brew and BBQ festival in Sun Prairie and continued at festivals throughout the summer. The final recipe premiered July 16 at Hometown Brewdown in Verona, and it was the talk of the Great Taste of the Midwest in early August.
“People just went nuts over it at the Great Taste,” Cook said.
After K’Paui’s release in cans late last month, some retailers sold out in hours, Cook said, adding that he’s even heard reports of it being sought by the geekiest of the beer geeks who trade via mail.
K’Paui came about after Bent Kettle fans asked for a dark beer to go along with the other, lighter offerings. Cook held out until he was sure he had fine-tuned the recipes for Go Fasters, Thwack and Insolence before turning to the beer that just might be Bent Kettle’s breakout hit.
“They wanted a candy bar in a glass and that’s what I gave ’em,” he said.
Style: American porter with coconut
Brewed by: Bent Kettle Brewing, Fort Atkinson, at House of Brews in Madison.
What it’s like: A big, soft porter like Founders Porter, or perhaps an imperial Deschutes Black Butte, garnished with a Mounds bar (both pieces).
Where, how much: My four-pack of 16-ounce tallboys was $10.99 at Riley’s Wines of the World, but Cook noted that supplies have been going quickly at the mostly smaller, independent Madison bottle shops that carried K’Paui. A smart shopper will call ahead.
The beer: K’Paui’s name is a Hawaiian-tinged spin on the “kapow!” reaction from early tasters of the base porter, before the coconut was paired with it, and it’s even fitting for the first impression of the finished product.
The coconut billows out of the glass, sweet and tropical and perfectly pairing with the chocolatey, slightly roasty malt for an effect that brought me back to childhood slices of German chocolate cake.
From that aroma you’d expect it to be sticky-sweet, and all the sugars are not fermented away. But thanks to deft hopping and careful malt selection K’Paui is able to deliver all that coconut and chocolate character with enough balance — just the right amount of sizzling bitterness on the finish — to invite further sips.
As the soft, smooth and enveloping beer warms, the malty chocolate emerges in the aroma and flavor, overtaking the still-there coconut as the foremost flavor.
It’s the kind of beer that figures to do well in small sips at a festival, but because you get all that candy-bar flavor without the sweetness, it’s easy to go through a whole tallboy or two.
Booze factor: K’Paui’s 7 percent ABV falls in the “robust” range of a porter.
The buzz: Retail stocks might be scarce now, but Cook said he has enough ingredients on hand to brew another 30 barrels or so of K’Paui, more than the 20-barrel first batch. The beer’s ingredients are all easily sourced, so only demand will hold Bent Kettle back from its goal of making K’Paui a year-round offering. The primary obstacle to more K’Paui on shelves is difficulty booking the mobile canner Bent Kettle uses for a Madison stop.
There are variants in the works, too. Cook is proud of the base porter and wants to experiment with other adjuncts or possibly release it on its own, stripped of the coconut adornment.
A “very small” pilot batch of K’Paui is currently aging in used rum barrels from Old Sugar Distillery. Assuming it comes out of the barrels clean, that beer is destined for the Wood and Wild event at HopCat in Madison on Oct. 21-22.
Another Bent Kettle offering at that event is a Old Sugar Distillery brandy barrel-aged Belgian dubbel — a beer that walks a path Cook wants to explore more as the brewery settles in.
“The style of beer that I really enjoy brewing are Belgians,” Cook said. “I love working with the yeasts and the flavor profiles.”
The Belgian dubbel (sans barrel-aging) is set for cans later this fall, and Cook has dialed in the recipe for a Belgian IPA that’s ready for a trial brew. “We’re just getting started,” he said.
Bottom line: 4½ stars (out of five)