In this new era of craft beer mania, where people will wait for hours to buy a single bottle, among the most frenzy-inciting brews is Goose Island's line of Bourbon County Stouts.
Such devotion has made something of a celebrity of John Laffler, one of Goose's "innovation brewers" behind those barrel-aged delicacies. He is often the company's public face at events and tappings, like one last Friday, where he stood in front of 60 people at a time (who had paid $75 each to be there), talking them through a tasting of several of the rarest beers he has worked on.
His notoriety is why one of Chicago's next breweries will be interesting to watch: Laffler is leaving Goose Island to start it with a former Two Brothers brewer.
Off Color Brewing will be housed in a 7,500-square-foot warehouse near Armitage Avenue and Pulaski Road that's classic old Chicago — cinder block walls, cement floors, wood rafters, a long skylight in a tall ceiling and a Metra train rumbling past every once in a while.
Off Color will be owned and operated by Laffler, 31, and Dave Bleitner, 29, who was most recently the head of cellaring at Two Brothers in Warrenville. Laffler and Bleitner met as students at the Siebel Institute of Technology brewing school in 2008 and later interned together at Metropolitan Brewing.
The idea for the brewery was initially Bleitner's; Laffler signed on quickly. They've been planning since 2009, and in recent months, had looked at close to 50 locations for the brewery. They hope to release beer by March, though new breweries are usually at least two months overly optimistic.
So what will Off Color beer taste like? Not much like the barrel-aged Goose products — think Juliet, Madame Rose, Bourbon County Stout and its variants — that Laffler has worked on. The difference is clear as soon as Bleitner explains the types of beer that inspired Off Color: "Very bizarre beer no one has heard of or knows about."
The trick is making such beers accessible, and based on the tastes I had of Off Color's two year-round beers, the early returns are encouraging.
The lighter was in the gose style, called (for now) Ampel Weiss ("ampel" is German word for traffic light). The hazy, golden wheat brew is easy drinking, but it is also refreshing, lightly tart, mildly funky and among the most interesting low-alcohol beers (4.2 percent) imaginable. It should appeal to both seasoned beer drinkers and those looking to move on from, say, Blue Moon.
The other is a kottbusser — a style even rarer than gose — that doesn't have a name yet. It's a brown wheat beer made with honey and molasses that finishes dry, with just a light, gentle sweetness. It's another deft easy drinker.
"We're releasing near-extinct German beers at a craft beer six-pack price," Bleitner said.
Both of the beers will be available on draft and in six-packs of 12-ounce bottles. Off Color will also release two seasonal beers four times a year that will be available only on draft, at least to start.
The goal, Laffler said, is "doing things people aren't doing in an actual competent manner." The pair mentioned also dabbling in Belgian, Finnish and Swedish styles with modern American twists.
"If you go into Binny's, there are 50 well-made IPAs," Laffler said. "Why the hell would you throw your hat in that ring? Plus this is what we're more interested in."
Bleitner quit Two Brothers this summer to start working on Off Color. Laffler put in his notice to Goose Island this week, and his involvement might surprise people who associate him so heavily with those barrel-aged Goose products.
"I wasn't going to stay at Goose forever," he said. "I'm proud of the work I did there, but it was sort of time to go."
Did founder John Hall selling the company to Anheuser-Busch contribute to making it time?
"I loved working for the Halls," Laffler said. "But changes happened that the Halls implemented and it is time for me to branch out. John did it, Greg (Hall, former Goose Island brewmaster, who now runs Virtue Cider) did it and it is just sort of time."
Off Color will be located at 3925 W. Dickens St. It will offer tours to the public when it starts producing beer. Reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org.