A ninja cat wields a massive gold-plated handgun as it rides a fire-breathing unicorn across a landscape of 8-bit graphics that features flames, a blocky rainbow and castle that looks suspiciously like those from “Super Mario Bros.”
This label for Fantasy Factory, the India pale ale that’s the first bottle release from Karben4, is how a hot brewery makes an unmistakable first impression on people who don’t go to bars.
Karben4 has already left its mark on the draft-only audience. It didn’t take long after its opening in the former Ale Asylum in the last week of 2012 for beer geeks to recognize its own identity. Four always-on beers grew to five, with more than that many seasonals and even more occasional barrel-aged and experimental brews. A distribution agreement in September 2013 brought more of that beer to more bars and restaurants, helping push sales to an expected 2,200 barrels this year, about three times that of 2013.
But that Glock-toting cat really ups the ante. As nice as a perfect pint or fresh growler is, bottles (or cans) change a brewery’s profile considerably, putting product in front of would-be buyers who can’t be reached unless it’s sold in the bottle shop or grocery store.
When you consider geographic expansion, you’re looking at essentially unlimited potential, market willing, and that’s what Karben4 tapped into with its Oct. 11 inaugural bottling run.
The 270 cases it yielded was significantly less than the 320 to 340 cases brewmaster Ryan Koga was hoping for. The bottling line, which Karben4 bought from Ale Asylum when it left for a new facility in 2012, showed its age in its first action in more than two years. Snags and breakage caused delays and wasted beer.
Even to get to this point, the machine required more than a year of refurbishing and rebuilding, part by worn-down part. And there’s more work ahead: New pads to hold the bottles in place as the labels are slapped on them are on order ahead of the second Fantasy Factory bottling run, which was set to take place Saturday. That mechanical glitch, though, resulted in a personal touch: Koga personally held in his hand every one of the Fantasy Factory bottles that’s left the brewery.
And for now, Fantasy Factory is Karben4. Originally intended as a seasonal, the beer muscled its way into the brewery’s year-round portfolio after it became a best-seller. Block Party amber ale will join Fantasy Factory in bottles in November or December; Irish red ale Lady Luck and NightCall smoked porter will be bottled next year.
We’ll see how those stack up to the Fantasy Factory label, but that ninja cat-unicorn team isn’t all that makes the package so eye-catching.
Instead of the standard carrier carton, Karben4 chose a box that fully encloses those six bottles. This protects the beer from hops-degrading light, as well as providing a larger canvas for the label artwork and other elements of brewery’s carefully constructed brand. Co-owner Alex Evans says it also will allow Karben4 to do promotions along the lines of Willy Wonka’s “golden ticket.” The box also has a tear-away perforation on one side to allow quick access and, presumably, keep the fridge tidy.
But all of this — awesome labels, nifty boxes, golden tickets, the brewmaster’s touch — is secondary, right? I mean, what about the beer?
Cat enthusiasm aside, that’s why I’m really excited about Fantasy Factory sixers. I think it’s one of the best IPAs not just in Wisconsin but in the entire Midwest — yes, that’s heady company — and bottling is going to put this beer in a lot more hands. But mostly it’s going to put it in mine, a lot more than it was before.
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Style: India pale ale
Brewed by: Karben4, 3698 Kinsman Blvd.
What it’s like: Fantasy Factory straddles the line between the English and American IPA variants. The former accentuates malt like, say, Goose Island’s, and the latter the newer American hop varieties like, say, Bell’s Two Hearted Ale. That’s an interesting and thinly populated intersection.
Where, how much: The roughly 1,000 six-packs from this first bottling run were due to hit stores Monday, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re all or mostly gone by the time you read this. Reinforcements are on the way, but I get the feeling Fantasy Factory is going to be a shortage-plagued beer for a while. Karben4 reported Monday that they’d seen sixers at $8.29-$9.49 at a limited sampling of shops. It’s going to be a touch pricier than other Karben4 beers, when they arrive. Disclosure: Karben4 provided my six-pack for pre-release sampling.
The beer: I was a little nervous about my first bottle of Fantasy Factory. Draft beer is always better than bottles; how much does that play into how much I love Fantasy Factory? Would the process of bottling harm it?
As my first pour from that bottle cascaded into the glass, that familiar aroma — four servings of juicy tropical fruit on one of bready malt — instantly eased my worried mind. The hops do wonders there, and in the flavor, too, with citrus notes out front but resin only a step behind.
But despite being an exemplary version of a hop-forward style, Fantasy Factory is all about the malt. Koga picks the varieties not simply to provide balance for the hops but to shine on their own. Bready-toasty and velvety soft, the malt is more than just Fantasy Factory’s backbone; it’s its entire skeleton and muscles to boot. Extraordinarily balanced, Fantasy Factory is smooth and easy drinking with a long, dry and bitter finish that reminds you, hey, this is totally an IPA.
Booze factor: Fantasy Factory’s ABV is 6.3 percent, middling-low for an IPA.
The buzz: This summer I was at Karben4 talking beer with Koga when the conversation turned toward Fantasy Factory, the beer that, no surprise, was in my glass. Koga is a great beer talker — passionate, confident and reassuringly detail-oriented — but as he told me about a recent refinement to the Fantasy Factory recipe, a new level of pride crept into his voice.
He told me how he finally found the yeast that, in his mind, perfected Fantasy Factory. Initially I found this odd, because when was the last time yeast mattered in an IPA that didn’t have “Belgian” in its description? But Koga said the yeast in the then-current version did what he wanted it to do from a brewing perspective but, he thought, had inadequate flocculation — the ability of the yeast to essentially clot up and then drop out of the beer, taking with those bodies the sharp flavors they bring.
I had never heard of flocculation before and was skeptical of its impact on a beer that I already considered outstanding. So Koga went into a back room and brought back a glass of the new recipe and put it next to the one I was drinking.
The result was an epiphany. Fantasy Factory 2.0 — or 4.19, probably — was clearer in appearance, yes, but particularly in flavor. It’s as if a sheer curtain was pulled back and the sunlight of those juicy, fruity hops and the bready, caramelly malts streamed into the glass.
Koga says he’s done tweaking Fantasy Factory. He’s always brewed for himself, not the crowd, and it’s now the IPA he’s been looking for. I don’t think he’s alone in that.
Bottom line: 4½ stars (out of five)