John Laffler with Off Colors tanks, which are named for dead pets.
  • Michael Gebert
  • John Laffler with Off Color’s tanks, which are named for dead pets.

At Goose Island, John Laffler worked with one of Chicago beermaking’s cult successes: Bourbon County Stout, an imperial stout with a fearsome 14 percent alcohol content, aged in used bourbon barrels from places like Iowa’s Templeton Rye, and hunted for by fans on their release dates like a Wonka golden ticket. A bald technical description scarcely does justice to the rapture the Bourbon County Stout line provoked; here’s Michael Kiser at Good Beer Hunting trying to sum it up:

The weather in Chicago gets icy. The days get terribly short. And my palate starts to shed its hoppy skin for a winter molting. All I can think about are the rich, dark flavors of beers like Bourbon County, and maybe a cardigan with elbow patches. It’s a scholarly look, and BCS is a professorial beer if ever there was one. 

A year and a half ago Laffler left Goose Island to launch his own Off Color Brewing with Dave Bleitner in a factory building on the western edge of Logan Square. He’s making beers that compete with his cult hit (literally, like at the Festival of Barrel Aged Beers last year, where Off Color’s Troublesome took a silver to Bourbon County Stout Backyard Rye’s gold). But he’s also making whatever he feels like, like Scurry Kottbusser, made in an obscure German beer style that violates the Reinheitsgebot with ingredients like oats and honey. I met up with him on Off Color’s hidden back patio to talk his beer, and the whole Chicago beer scene, of which he’s a sharp observer. This is the first part of a two-part interview.

Michael Gebert: You were best known for Bourbon County Stout at Goose Island, which really created a category. And then you went out on your own, so what niche was missing in this town with a hundred brewers?

John Laffler: Well, when we started there weren’t a hundred, there were maybe twenty. That’s all been in the last year and a half. They’re opening at the rate of one or two a day.

Goose was great. I was doing R&D for them, so I didn’t have to worry about making wort, I didn’t have to worry about production scheduling. I could just go off and make new stuff. That was wonderful; I had a lot of resources there, and a tremendous amount of creative and intellectual freedom.

But it just got to the point where you work really hard for somebody else, and you kind of want to do it for yourself. There were some constraints, and obviously it was a corporate environment and becoming more and more corporate [after the sale to Anheuser-Busch]. It’s not like anybody was standing over our shoulder looking at budgets—in fact, in innovation, we got yelled at for not spending enough money. It’s like, “I spent $12,000 on raspberries yesterday! These 18 barrels! I’m sorry I didn’t spend more!”

And obviously having those resources and relationships was great. Greg Hall famously said, “We will never use fruit in our beer.” The last year at Goose that I was there, we bought like $200,000 worth of raspberries, and I think 80K in cherries, and god knows what in oranges. We had relationships with Peter Klein at Seedling, and Mick Klug, and all the Green City Market vendors.

It was great and it was fun, but it was just time for me to do my own style. Doing all this barrel-aged stout, I. . .

You got typecast?

I got typecast a little bit. Like the first beer we made here was a 3.5 percent Russian serf stout. That was a little bit of a commentary—no, we’re not going to be doing the exact same thing as we used to do.

Let me back up a second to the fruit. Why was Greg Hall antifruit at Goose?

That was a reaction to the 1990s, wheat beer with crap in it, like raspberry wheat. That was the brew-pub model that used canned concentrate, bullshit fruit. Not at all like we do, actually going to the farms, having strong relationships, doing wild fermentations with naturally occurring bacteria on the skins.

Yeah, that was a time when beer seemed to be trying to find its own Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler.

Sadly, that was the 1990s, yeah. And with all this resurgence of new breweries, we’ve seen some of that pop up again. I think the market’s very different from the 1990s, when those beers went away naturally; and I think the breweries that are making them now will also get weeded out.

It’s a shame because people put their life savings and a lot of themselves into a brewery. One of the things we ask when we make a beer is, why do we need to make this beer? Why should we make this beer? Not, does it taste good, but is it important? Is this viable or is it just that we’re going to make this because we can sell it and then we’ll make money?

You can do that, but if that’s what you’re going for there are much larger breweries that can do things that we can’t do as small craft brewers. Hell, the large craft brewers have more money than we can bear. We can’t do a multimillion dollar marketing campaign. We don’t have a marketing budget. Pretty much tipping well is our marketing campaign.

So no IPA coming out of here?

Everybody else makes IPA, so why would we? We have Lagunitas opening up, so the price of hoppy beer is plummeting. You see their handles all over Chicago—they make a very nice beer, they make a lot more of it than we possibly can, at a price point we could not possibly match. Nor can we get access to the ingredients like they can.

So even though stylistically it’s a beer I don’t care for, it’s not a business model that I want to be in, even if we were, there’s a lot of hindrances that come with making an IPA. A lot of breweries think they need one—I don’t know if that’s a crutch, but I think, if everyone else makes that one beer, why don’t we try something different? The other thinking just doesn’t make sense.

Talking about the beers you do make, Troublesome is a sour beer, which is a category that’s gained favor in the last few years.

Acid beers, beers that have an acidity to them, are definitely having a resurgence. They sort of died off in the 1970s, we almost lost Cantillon. These world-class people almost went out of business because nobody was buying the beer. Which is where we ended up with these kind of back-sweetened beers like Lindemans, because nobody was buying real lambic.

So it’s great to see this resurgence of sour beers. A lot of people were just terrified of bringing wild fermentation into their brewery, it would just contaminate everything. But you go around Europe, I mean, go to London and the breweries are filthy there. But they make fantastic beer. They do a lot of wild fermentation, their tanks are covered with cardboard. As an American brewer you walk in like, How? What? Just flabbergasted.

Everyone’s terrified of bringing bacteria into the brewery, of bringing wild yeast into the brewery. I think people are becoming more savvy about using them now, there have been enough other breweries that have done it. I think we’re going to see more of it. Technically, you take a handful of grain, throw it in wort and you can make a nice acidic beer in three days. You don’t have to wait 18 months for it.

When you do wild fermentation, can you do it in that European style or is it still too far out from our sanitation standards?

We can do anything we damn well please! One of the great things about American brewing is that we have that sense of bravado that’s just, fuck it, we can do it. It’s great now to go back to Europe because we were so influenced by the Europeans, and now they’re all really influenced by us. But they’re not as afraid to take risks now. I mean in England, you used to have your mild, your bitter, and ESB—ooh—that’s a hoppy beer, people aren’t going to buy it. Now they’re all making double IPAs.

What we do with Troublesome is probably a little different from how some other people do it. But it works for us and makes sense to make it. We have two different fermenters where we make a sour beer, purely a lactobacillus beer. There’s been a lactobacillus colony that’s been living in there for about a year and a half, since we opened. In fact, for the first year, we didn’t purchase yeast at all.

We can get up to pH in about 72 hours, which is great. At that point we bring it back to the kettle and we pasteurize the acid beer to keep the lactobacillus from spreading to the rest of the brewery. Especially the bottling machines, because once it gets in there it ain’t coming out!

Then we blend it back to a base beer, which is a really boring wheat beer. The fermentation restarts. For Troublesome we use an ale yeast, for our Berlinerweiss we use a saison strain because we like things really dry. The acid beer doesn’t taste good—it has a really heavy, tomato soup quality. And the base beer doesn’t taste good. But you bring them together and you get something nice.

This post has been edited to reflect that Laffler did not create Bourbon County Stout, rather he “worked with” it, “managing the racking, aging, blending.” He also “developed variants of Goose Island’s [bourbon barrel] program which included BCS, among other beers.” Our apologies for the confusion.