MILWAUKEE — Clear your mind for a moment and embark with me on a journey of free association.
You thought about Miller, right? Pabst? Schlitz? Blatz? Shotz, the made-up brewery from “Laverne and Shirley”?
In the past couple of decades a few Milwaukee craft brewers, notably Lakefront and Milwaukee Brewing, have been working to change the Cream City’s beer image, but a 150-year history of fizzy yellow beer casts a long shadow.
Milwaukee’s newest beer export, however, has very little to do with legacy and everything to do with what’s happening right now in the beer world.
Good City Brewing, which opened last June, could be a veritable checklist of how to open a craft brewery in 2016:
- Sharp branding including a cool catchphrase, and a stirring (and true) story: friends coming together to open a business together. A sense of place, and of love for that community.
- A beer portfolio heavy on hops — especially sexy ones. Simple but elegant styles that come in a broad range of ABVs. A sought-after limited release.
- A cool, refined tap room, repurposed from another use into a brewery, that emphasizes overall experience, with food and culture presented with as much care as the beer.
Do these things, as Good City has, and I’d expect a brewery to do well, as Good City has. In its first six months it sprinted to 500 barrels of production, nearly all of it destined for the tap room or draft lines in one of about 100 bars and restaurants in the Milwaukee area.
That’s about three times the market penetration that Good City’s founders expected at this point, they told me on a snowy December evening in the tap room on Milwaukee’s hip East Side.
The brewery represents a pledge of sorts by the three founders — Dan Katt, 34, a real estate developer; David Dupee, 35, an attorney and founder of the CraftFund online investment platform; and Andy Jones, 32, a pro brewer who’s an alum of Goose Island in Chicago and spent nearly eight years at Milwaukee’s Lakefront, leaving the company as plant manager — to each other and to Milwaukee.
The three got serious about opening a brewery at the 2015 Craft Brewers Conference in Portland, Oregon, surrounded by the red-hot craft beer industry and by the type of beer that inspired them to take their passion to the next level.
Dupee described Good City’s approach to beer as “unabashedly hophead,” with a key inspiration in the West Coast IPAs so common to the Pacific Northwest.
The founders cite test batches of Risk, the IPA at the top of Good City’s tap list, as the final push they needed to move forward with the brewery. The double IPA Reward (get it?) grew into a hit on tap lines across Brew City the latter half of last year, and its juicy tropical fruit profile won it an honorable mention in my Year in Beer column last month. Motto, a crisp single-hop, single-malt American pale ale deploying the Mosaic hop, is the tap room’s No. 1 seller.
Good City’s other beers also skew hop-forward and stick mostly to straightforward adaptations of established styles: pilsner, porter, session IPA, scotch ale, imperial stout. Now that the recipes have been dialed in, Jones said, he’s excited to experiment with different flavors within the existing beers by using casks, rather than adding, say, fruit to an actual IPA recipe.
“With the amount of real flavors you can get with malt and hops, you don’t need to do a lot with adjuncts,” he said.
Some batches of the imperial stout, Density, went into bourbon barrels beginning in midsummer for aging.
The outcome, released in bombers at the brewery last month, was a chocolatey-bourbon delight that drank a bit like a more robust version of Central Waters’ revered Bourbon Barrel Stout. Good City plans Barrel-Aged Density as an annual release.
December also saw the debut of Motto in cans, packaged for now using a mobile canning line.
And this, patient reader, is where Madison comes in; Motto six-packs are expected to drop in the capital city in early February.
Good City aims to add an in-house canning line this spring, and the plan is for four beers to be canned by the end of 2017, with Risk, Reward and Good City Pils joining Motto.
That APA with an exceptionally dry West Coast profile is as much of a Good City mission statement as the brewery’s slogan, “Seek the Good.” Let’s dig in and get a preview of the newest beer to Madison.
Style: American pale ale
Brewed by: Good City Brewing, 2108 N. Farwell Ave., Milwaukee
What it’s like: Every brewery is different, but I keep finding myself comparing Good City’s early run to the fast start by a brewery here in Madison: Karben4. And Karben4 just happens to have a Mosaic pale ale of its own. Dragon Flute is chewier and more bitter than Motto, but if you like one you’ll probably like the other.
Where, how much: Dupee described this first drop of Motto for our market as “limited,” and it’s unclear how regular Madison’s supply of the self-distributed Good City beer will be going forward. Your best bet will be beer-centric bottle shops, and your price will be around $10 per six-pack.
The beer: Hazy amber topped with a lacy white head, Motto asserts itself with a robust, distinctly Mosaic aroma of pineapple and other bright tropical fruit undercut with resinous, slightly dank pine. The flavor follows the aroma, with the malt — a variety known as Crisp Pale Ale — playing a deep second fiddle to Motto’s hops.
It’s yet another beer that reminds us that hoppy does not always equal bitter, as only a modest bitterness comes in on the finish. Aside from the Mosaic character perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Motto is an assertive dryness — a thread that runs through many of Good City’s beers.
Booze factor: Motto’s 5.2 percent ABV — not to mention the bright flavor profile — positions it nicely for summer quencher/lawnmower beer status, if winter ever ends.
The buzz: Good City was one of seven breweries to open in Brew City last year, leading some to wonder whether Milwaukee was suddenly over-beered. Dupee chuckles at such talk of a Milwaukee craft beer “bubble” and believes the city is just getting started.
“The energy level for Milwaukee is high and the energy from our customers is high,” Katt said of the city’s big beer year. “I think everyone wants to see each other do well.”
As tap handles from Good City and the other new breweries proliferate around Brew City, Katt said he’s seeing the out-of-state options crowded out rather than, say, beers from Lakefront or Milwaukee Brewing. “We’re competing against lines from out of town.”
That has to be satisfying for Katt, Dupee and Jones, who see the revival of Milwaukee as a key reward that so far has made their risk worthwhile.
“Good City Brewing is built on the conviction that everyone should live life as if they have been granted a key to their city,” the brewery says on its website. “To have a key is to seek the good as a friend and ally of your local place. We are committed to brewing beer that inspires others to live with a key and participate in Milwaukee’s resurgence.”
Bottom line: 4½ stars (out of five)