It's old but welcome news that former Goose Island "innovation brewer" John Laffler and former Two Brothers brewer Dave Bleitner are launching an operation of their own called Off Color Brewing. They've been scheming since 2009, and in late February they finally assembled their 20-barrel brew house in a warehouse space near Armitage and Pulaski. Laffler and Bleitner hope to install fermentation tanks late this month and begin filling kegs by the end of April, and they'll be bottling two year-round beers in four- and six-packs of 12-ounce bottles. Four times annually they plan to release seasonal brews in pairs, which at least initially will be draft only. Off Color intends to introduce Chicago drinkers to obscure or borderline extinct traditional styles—German, Belgian, Finnish, Swedish—enlivened with what I'll call the "adventurousness" of American craft brewing (another way of saying this approach likely wouldn't fly in the country that gave us the Reinheitsgebot).
The brewery debuted yesterday with a pop-up bar at Black Rock Pub called "Mischief." Because its own facility isn't built out yet, Off Color collaborated with three area breweries for the four beers it poured at Mischief: Metropolitan (a pink pilsner and a smoked bock), Haymarket (an invented style christened a "half bock"), and Three Floyds (a hybrid of a strong Belgian-style golden ale and an imperial saison). Laffler's veiled threats notwithstanding, not one of them is called "I Think That Stripper Really Liked Me." Advance tickets for the Monday session of Mischief, from 7:30 till 10:30 PM tonight, are sold out, but Laffler says there will be some for sale at the door.
The Off Color beers at Mischief are relatively familiar styles, or at least based on relatively familiar styles, but its first year-round beers will be much more obscure: a gose and a kottbusser. A gose is a rare German beer—a slightly tart wheat brew from Leipzig and environs, similar to a Berliner weisse—and in Off Color's version it's actually two beers blended together. In Laffler's words, one is a "relatively boring, flabby wheat beer," and the other is a funky acid beer fermented solely with lactobacillus; Off Color pasteurizes the lacto portion so that the finished product is stable and consistent in the bottle and won't infect draft lines. They're also adding salt, as is traditional—a tiny amount, to give the beer an unctuous, creamy body without making it taste salty. A kottbusser is also German—a near extinct wheat beer from northern Prussia, says Laffler, that's made with honey, molasses, and oats.
Back to the pop-up bar, though. The Three Floyds collaboration, called "Tonnerre Neige" because Flossmoor has already released an imperial stout named Thundersnow, splits the difference between French and Belgian styles in part by using yeast strains from each. It smells like stewed peaches and coriander, sweet southern tea with lemon, cut grass, and hay, with a funky tang from the yeast. A frothy, frosty sort of bitterness, like white grapefruit and spearmint, comes forward first in the flavor, but I also pick up pineapple and banana and a little bit of sourdough.
Tonnerre Neige ("Thunder Snow," sort of), Off Color's collaboration with Three Floyds
Laffler introduced the Haymarket half bock by explaining that he'd wanted to make a beer low enough in alcohol that the folks working at Mischief could drink it all day without falling over. I was only there for a few hours, so I don't know if it worked, but I'd definitely at least want to drink this one all day. "Malty, a little toasty, super clean, crisp and dry," as Laffler puts it, the half bock smells beautiful, and its taste adds a bit of bright noble-hop bitterness with a lick of brown sugar underneath.
The Metropolitan pink pilsner, though slightly darker than I'm used to seeing a pils, has only a bit of a rosy tinge—it's brewed with a purple heirloom rice, but that color didn't make it out of the mash with quite the intended intensity. (Tweaks to the recipe are pending.) In all other respects, however, the beer would have to be judged a success: it's subtly fruity and floral up front, like violet and red grape, thanks to a New Zealand hop neither Laffler nor Metro's Doug Hurst could remember the name of, and finishes with the traditional clean bitterness of noble hops, alongside chewy, bready malts so rich they put me in mind of a buttery brioche.
Off Color's adorable logo in button form. Logo by Nikki Jarecki and Kristin Miaso.
My favorite beer of the day was the other Metropolitan collaboration, a bock with 30 percent of its malt bill smoked over maple wood. Dark and lovely, with a dense, plush head, it smells a little dubious at first, like a campfire somebody's just put out with a bucket of water. But the flavor is astonishing—it makes a first impression like crisp maple-cured bacon and hardwood smoke, with a bit of molasses-sweetened whole-wheat bread and English toffee in the finish. I think I was tasting this one all the way up past my eyeballs.
I should mention when talking of favorites that I only made it to one of the guest taps—probably not even as many as the moose over the bar. That was the cheekily named Goose Island Boring, so called because it had its origins in the infestation of ten beer-aging barrels with wood-boring beetles. The barrels of course had to be emptied and disposed of, but Laffler dumped only two, managing to blend the others into Boring. It's a deliciously astringent brown sour, winey and fruity, but to be honest at that point in the day my tasting notes were pretty sketchy.
I didn't make it to the cocktails in the back room, one of which was served in tiny novelty Hoegaarden glasses (and looked impressively like the beer in question, despite being based on gin). I did try two of the fancy Jell-O shots, though: the Manhattan, topped with a sliver of dark maraschino cherry, and the bee's knees. Ordinarily a bee's knees is just gin, honey, and lemon juice, but this one was made with grapefruit and with Goose Island Sofie that Laffler had allegedly distilled.
Lastly, I'd be remiss not to mention the contribution of Revolution Brewing pastry chef Courtney Baldy, who brought s'mores. More specifically, bourbon dinosmores. I had a Tyrannosaurus Rex, I think.
The Off Color collaborations at Mischief. The guest-tap list is out of frame to the right.