No man can be called sane who can’t embrace a little madness on occasion, especially if you’re looking to create something unique, off the wall and ingenious. At Ale Asylum, embracing a bold, out-of-the-ordinary spirit seems to be a mission statement for the Madison, Wis.-craft brewery. Customers who love Ale Asylum’s craft beers (brews like Ambergeddon, Ballistic IPA and Contorter Porter) often refer to those ale brands as “Inmates.”
It’s a fun marketing strategy, personified in Ale Asylum’s awesomely edgy beer labels, yet each of the company’s craft beers actually have a uniquely “sane” flavor profile. All of the brewery’s beers are unfiltered and all natural, using no additives, preservatives, fruits or “horse hooves, fish guts or extracts,” so says the brewery’s website. Rather it’s the cleverly deranged personalities of brewery heads like Dean Coffey that give these all natural beers their askew character.
“We’re not worried about pushing limits,” said brewmaster, yeast rancher and co-founder Coffey. “With a name like Ale Asylum, it might appear otherwise or that we’re trying to push the crazy, but we’re really traditionalists. We never use fruit, syrups, spices, horse hooves — yes, people use horse hooves — or any adjuncts when making our beer. We use only the four traditional ingredients: water, malt, hops and yeast. When it comes to the beer, we think it’s crazy to do it any other way.”
Of course the word “Asylum” means different things to different people. For instance: The company’s tagline “Fermented in Sanity” means something different when you read vs. hear it. It’s clever, but at the end of the day all that’s left is the beer in the bottle. It doesn’t matter how bizarre or crazy the branding or founders are.
“If the beer tastes like bat urine, they’re not buying another six pack,” said co-founder Otto Dilba. “Unless they’re into that sort of thing. We’re not here to judge.”
Ale Asylum’s bold characters are only growing more popular. The brewery just finished an $8 million expansion into a new 45,000-sq ft brewhouse and tasting room in 2012. By the end of 2013, the brewery is projected to double its 24 employees and produce an estimated 20,000 barrels (bbls) of beer (up from 12,045 bbls last year) as the company expands distribution to cover most of the State of Wisconsin. The new brewhouse can produce 160 bbls of beer a day compared to 40 bbls a day at the former facility. There’s also a lab for yeast propagation, fermentation tanks from the old brewery, three new 100-bbl fermentation tanks manufactured by W.M. Sprinkman Corp. and a used Krones bottling system from Atlanta’s SweetWater Brewing Co. that can fill 277 bottles a minute.“If the beer tastes like bat urine, they’re not buying another six pack. Unless they’re into that sort of thing. We’re not here to judge.” — Ale Asylum co-founder Otto Dilba.Many of those bottles will be filled with Ambergeddon, Ale Asylum’s popular amber ale. Like many of the brewery’s brands, Ambergeddon has loads of unique personality. For starters, ambers usually rely on lots of malt flavor with hints of hoppiness. Not Ambergeddon — it’s a fury of hop flavor with a hint of malt backbone. It’s fittingly described as a West Coast amber, available year round in six packs and on tap throughout the Madison and Milwaukee regions.
“Ambergeddon is a descendent from an American-style ESB I used to make when I was brewing for the now-closed Angelic Brewing Company,” says Coffey. “That beer was called Believer’s Bitter. I guess you could also say this beer is a distant relative of a homebrew I once made called BOB: Big Old Bitter.”
Today, Ambergeddon accounts for about 7 to 9 percent of Ale Asylum sales. Using the brewery’s strict ingredients portfolio, Ambergeddon is only brewed using water, hops, malted barley and yeast, “with the belief that the magic of our beer occurs within the discipline of those four ingredients,” says Coffey. California ale yeast is used for the fermentation purposes.
At 6.9 percent ABV, Ambergeddon is high-alcohol content amber ale. The pour is a hazy brownish amber with a nice head. The aroma is malty, but the hops present themselves with a slight piney smell and the taste has a malty, strong hop finish, giving this beer a unique flavor profile for the category. Because amber’s are popular for both craft and big beer brands, it’s important to produce a product that stands out, Coffey noted.
“My main piece of advice would be not to make a weak amber,” he explained. “Everyone needs to find their own path. There is no one size fits all. In other words, what’s right for us may not be right for someone else. Also, make sure it’s got good clever branding that someone can attach themselves to. The person marketing the beer really should have clear sense of the craft beer culture.”
Ale Asylum looks to continue to expand its peculiar beer culture around Wisconsin and beyond. Its new facility at 2002 Pankratz Street has a maximum capacity of 50,000 bbls, plus a new 3,500-sq ft cooler. The expansion will give the company longer shelf life for beer, increased energy efficiency, new seasonal beers and more packing variety (like 12 packs and bomber bottles). With all of this of growth, how is Coffey keeping his own sanity? He employs a simple philosophy.
“Whenever I make changes to our brewery, whether it’s adding a new tank or a change to our brewhouse, I always ask myself, ‘What is best for the beer?’” he said. “We have been able to undergo our recent expansion by balancing controlled growth with demand. A big challenge we have recently faced is to keep up with demand in a fiscally sound way. We have found this is not easy, but it will pay off in the long run.”
Craft Brewing Business will keep you updated on Ale Asylum’s long run. It looks like the brewery just continues to pick up steam, and we would be insane to think its momentum is going to slow down anytime soon.