In late September, two days before the first inspection for Mousetrap, the new taproom from Off Color Brewing, water is leaking from one of the five enormous casks that occupy nearly an entire room at the front of the building. The 15-year-old former Barolo wine barrels, known as foeders, recently made the long journey here from an Italian wine cellar and need to be hydrated and checked for leaks. The one that’s dribbling water onto the ground has an improperly seated gasket that will need to be fixed; another, currently sitting empty, has cracks between the wooden staves big enough that you can see light through them if you stick your head inside the barrel. “That [one] was worse than it is now,” says John Laffler, cofounder and head brewer of Off Color. “At some point it takes some strategic whacking with a mallet.”
Beer will eventually fill the five 58-hectoliter foeders (58 hectoliters is approximately 1,500 gallons, or about 100 standard-size kegs), along with a 34-hectoliter Calvados cask that rests next to them. None is being made here yet, though: the taproom side and brewing side of the operation are tied together in the city license, Laffler says, and until Off Color gets that license it can’t brew anything. “It makes the economics of it very difficult, because the brewery side could have been up and running for a while,” he says. Fortunately, Off Color already has a brewery—the original location, which began production in 2013 at the western edge of Logan Square—that can supply beer to the taproom when it first opens. (While many taprooms and brewpubs can only sell products made on the premises, Mousetrap has a full tavern license, so it can sell wine, beer, and spirits from any producer.)
Off Color’s mascot is the grain mouse, “the only mammal that’s at the brewery more than us,” Laffler says. During the planning stages of the taproom, Laffler had been calling the place Meow Town (he likes cats). Dave Bleitner, the brewery’s cofounder, asked, “You’re not planning to do a cat bar, like those cat cafes, are you?” Laffler’s response was, “That’s a great idea!” Bleitner disagreed, and the name Mousetrap evolved from there.
Laffler expects the 150-seat taproom, which sits in the shadow of a Whole Foods on Kingsbury in Lincoln Park, to open in mid-October. Once the brewing side is active, it will be devoted to experimental projects and beers made with wild yeasts and bacteria, while the original location will produce Off Color’s core lineup—mostly Apex Predator, a farmhouse ale that Laffler says accounts for 80 percent of the beer Off Color brews. For a brewery that launched with a gose (a lightly tart German style that hardly anyone had heard of at the time) and a kottbusser (an even more obscure style of German beer made with oats, honey, and molasses), farmhouse ale is relatively mainstream, but it’s still hardly as popular as IPA. Off Color doesn’t do IPA and probably never will, preferring to leave hoppy beers alone. It has, however, made up several styles of beer, including not one but two versions of a “Russian Serf Stout,” riffs on the typically boozy Russian imperial stout that both weigh in at just 3.5 percent alcohol; a “Danish Style American Wild Ale” with lactobacillus, cranberries, juniper berries, and honey; and a “Tiki Weisse Style Ale” brewed with passion fruit and grapefruit peel (all one-offs that are no longer available).
It’s this type of experimental brewing that Laffler is looking forward to exploring more when Mousetrap opens. As Off Color’s production has grown, it’s been increasingly difficult to fit in new beers. “We couldn’t do the fun projects anymore,” Laffler says. “They just threw a monkey wrench in the whole schedule.” While the brewers know the timing of their regular beers and can usually have them out of the tank within three weeks, wild beers are unpredictable and can take three months or more. At Mousetrap there will be more flexibility. “Here, we have a whole facility designed to make the small-batch stuff,” Laffler says.
He’s especially looking forward to making beers using wild fermentation and blending yeast strains. “They’re expensive and they take a long time and they’re hard to do, so we haven’t gotten to do as many as we’d like,” Laffler says. Not only is there more space in Mousetrap to experiment, but being able to sell beer across the bar means that the brewery operates at a higher profit margin, making labor-intensive beers more viable. When Off Color sells beer retail through other bars, Laffler says, it generally gets about 75 cents from each $6 pint. Selling that same pint across the bar at Mousetrap for the same price would let Off Color keep $5.25.
“It’s a huge change in what we can do,” Laffler says. “We can take that all as profit, which—what the fuck are we going to do with a bunch of money? Or we can buy more expensive equipment to do interesting things, or spend more on ingredients. Honey is superexpensive. Here we can take more of those swings.” One of the projects he’s most excited about is making sake, an idea that flowed from a beer based on ancient Chinese brewing techniques that Off Color created in collaboration with the Field Museum. The first step in making it was using koji mold to break down the starch and sugar in rice, which also happens to be the process used to make sake. “It’s a completely different approach to fermentation than we’re used to, and it was just something really fun to do,” Laffler says. They’re still waiting for the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to approve Off Color’s license to brew it, a process that’s already taken four months. Because there are so few sake licenses in the U.S.—around a dozen in total—”there’s not a lot of expertise at the TTB about how to approve them,” he says.
A more traditional way to expand, Laffler says, would be to build a facility with a bigger brewhouse: a 50-barrel system, for example, which would offer more brewing capacity than Off Color’s 20-barrel one. “Dave and I don’t want to make more money by selling more beer,” Laffler says. “It would turn this into a more industrial process. So we decided to spend the same amount of money and build a much smaller place.” Like the original facility, it has a 20-barrel brewing system but will produce about 2,000 barrels a year to the production brewery’s 8,000.
There’s also been demand for a taproom for quite a while now, Laffler says. Off Color opened a bottle shop at the brewery as a stopgap, but customers were disappointed that they couldn’t hang out and drink the beer they bought there. “We did the bottle shop because we had so many people showing up from O’Hare, luggage in tow, to a production brewery on Saturday when we’re closed,” Laffler says. “I would just happen to be there working on a project, hear a knock on the door. Like, ‘We’re here from Portland, where’s your taproom?’ You feel bad when they show up and they’re really excited.”
Ben Fasman (Big Star, Dove’s Luncheonette, Estereo), who’s running the taproom, is developing four cocktails and choosing a few wines to offer by the glass. “Mostly biodynamic, funkier stuff that complements what we’re doing here—two reds, one white, one rosé, one bubbles,” Laffler says. Of course, the focus is beer, available from 16 draft lines: 12 Off Color beers and four guest taps. “One will probably be a Three Floyds line, because they’ve always been supergood to us.” In addition, four cask lines will pour cider, sake, coffee, and cocktails.
While the taproom will have a full bar, Laffler says it will only total about 50 bottles. “One thing we really love is curation,” he says. “What we’re trying to set up is a bar with a viewpoint.”
Most of the customers will be there for the beer, Fasman says, but every aspect of the bar is being taken seriously, including the limited coffee program. “We wanted to make not just a taproom for a cool brewery, but a bar where all of us would want to hang out. We want to have something for everyone.” v