Inexplicably, I haven’t written about Off Color since founders John Laffler and Dave Bleitner got it up and running as a production brewery last summer—I reviewed the Mischief pop-up bar in March 2013, then got an early taste of the hibiscus gose tapped at Northdown’s Lions, Tigers & Beers on June 5. Even my 2013 Best of Chicago write-up (“Best Brewery With a Bright Tank Named ‘Waffles'”) had to be finished before Off Color started shipping bottles.
For my first Off Color column since then I’ve succumbed to peer pressure and written about an imperial stout with crazy shit in it, even though imperial stouts with crazy shit in them are already so reliably popular with entry-level beer nerds that I’m pretty sure I won’t be able to make myself heard over all the hyperventilating on the Internet. DinoSmores takes its name from the dinosaur-shaped treats that Revolution pastry chef Courtney Baldy made for the Mischief pop-up, and it’s brewed with marshmallow, molasses, graham flour, cacao nibs, and vanilla beans—Laffler says the 60-barrel batch required six pounds of beans, at $150 per pound, and that scraping out the pods took 28 hours of hand-cramping labor.
I don’t mean to sound dismissive of DinoSmores, because it’s a tasty beer. But I do know that it’s not the sort of thing Off Color wants to expend much energy on—the brewery has structured its business model so that it can focus on relatively challenging beers, not big crowd-pleasers. Its year-round bottles, Troublesome and Scurry, are based on a gose and a kottbusser; that’s a niche strategy, not the decision of a brewery trying to compete on volume. Working with 12 Percent Imports, Off Color sells small amounts of beer to top-tier accounts in craft-friendly markets across the country—New York, D.C., Seattle, Portland, the Bay Area—because even a modestly sized brewery that specializes in styles so few drinkers recognize by name can’t do enough business in a single city to thrive.
And Off Color is thriving, or at least appears to be: Laffler and Bleitner are hiring a third full-time brewer to start in June (pending final confirmation, all they’d tell me is that the new guy is a former Chicagoan returning from a brewing job in Kansas). By the end of this month they hope to have installed two new 60-barrel fermenters, augmenting the three they’ve already got, which ought to help them catch up with the growing demand for Off Color beer. Other infrastructure improvements include a hot liquor tank and a cold room.
Apex Predator saison is out in 12-ounce four-packs—the same format as DinoSmores, but priced at a comparatively reasonable eight or nine bucks. (I paid $16 for my four of DinoSmores.) And in some of the best drinking news of the spring, over the next couple weeks Off Color will roll out kegs of its Berliner weisse, a 3.8 percent beer named Fierce. (Well, it’s not technically a Berliner weisse, because it uses a saison yeast, but Laffler says he and Bleitner are still deciding what to call it.) If all goes to plan, it’ll be bottled in July.
But I did say I’d review DinoSmores, right? And it definitely deserves the attention. An uncareful pour kicks up a frothy, pillowy head the color of cappuccino, which recedes to a ring and cap that hang around for at least half an hour. (At that point I swirled the beer in my glass to raise some new foam, invalidating further observations.)
DinoSmores has a lush, desserty aroma, but it’s not cloyingly sweet—I’d call it sophisticated, if “sophisticated” didn’t seem like a silly word for a beer that’s trying to taste like a goopy half-burnt campfire treat that people eat with their hands. Dark chocolate and vanilla bean come forward first, followed by molasses and something toasty that you can almost persuade yourself is a marshmallow with a perfectly charred skin.
In the taste, vanilla dominates, which reinforces the impression of marshmallow. (I’m not sure I can pick out the actual marshmallow in this beer—the flavor of marshmallow is more like vanilla than anything else, but no way can it stand up to real vanilla beans.) Next to arrive is a big wallop of baker’s chocolate and an astringent roastiness a little like black Vietnamese coffee, with the same sort of gently acidic bitterness. The malts dovetail with notes of graham cracker, caramel, and maple syrup, which linger in the finish. You’d never guess this was 10.5 percent alcohol.
Off Color brewed DinoSmores in February, though it didn’t ship till spring on account of a delay with its bottle labels and four-pack holders. Only 72 cases shipped, and if they’re not all gone now, they will be soon. (I found my four-pack at Andersonville Wine & Spirits this weekend, but it looked like the last one.) I do have some good news for DinoSmores fans, though: 5 percent of the current batch is aging in bourbon barrels as I type this. Two of the three barrels in question came from the Buffalo Trace distillery, and the third, which originally held Wild Turkey, arrived at Off Color from Goose Island’s warehouse.
- The weird thing isn’t the mouse in the dinosaur suit—it’s the cubic marshmallow. Illustration by Nikki Jarecki; graphic design by Tim Breen.
Off Color (and the first kegs of Fierce) will make a good showing during Chicago Craft Beer Week, which begins this Thursday. On Sat 5/17 it’ll be one of the featured breweries—alongside Solemn Oath, Metropolitan, and Against the Grain—at the Sportsman’s Club (948 N. Western). You can buy a ticket to get in at 4 PM, and it’s open to the public from 6 PM on.
On Mon 5/19 Off Color goes to Libertyville, where Laffler attended high school, to spend an evening at Firkin with Penrose and Revolution. Then on Wed 5/21 the Beer Temple hosts a discussion and tapping called Inspired Variation: A Look Into the Brewer’s Creative Process, with Off Color, Perennial, and Penrose; among the beers pouring will be a version of DinoSmores made with cinnamon and coffee. The event’s “very very limited” tickets cost $35 and went on sale Sat 5/10.
For this week’s metal, I’m pretty much obligated to post “Dyna-Soar,” from the Boris album Heavy Rocks (the orange one that came out in 2002, not the purple one that came out in 2011). That’s guest weirdo Maso Yamazaki, better known as Masonna, adding weedly electronic noise to the skyscraper-kicking riffs.