MobCraft Beer is quickly building a name for itself. Since debuting little more than a year ago, the brewery is becoming known for its recipes that are conceived and voted upon online by its fans. Its latest release is Old Fashioned Berliner Weisse, with one version aged in brandy barrels and another aged in bourbon barrels.
Inspired by the venerable drink of choice in so many Wisconsin taverns, this brew may be one of the less unusual beers created by MobCraft. A few of its other recent releases include: Chocolate Banana Stout, which is made with actual bananas; Rabbit's Bounty, with sweet baby carrots and crushed walnuts that give it a cake-like flavor; and Candy for Breakfast, which combines ground coffee, peanut flour and cocoa powder to offer up something like a peanut butter cup in a pint glass.
While these strange brews have certainly created some buzz in the social media, what has really put this young Madison company was the silver medal it won at the 2014 Great American Beer Festiva in the coffee beer category for its Batshit Crazy. Then just a few days after capturing that award, the brewery was a finalist in the Steve Case-helmed "Rise of the Rest" tour, which highlights business startups with innovative approaches. MobCraft didn't win, but the competition drew national attention to the company for its creative use of crowdsourcing techniques, ranging from its recipe development to fundraising for a future production brewery it hopes to build.
While some of MobCraft's brews may sound a little wacky, most have been executed into very drinkable concoctions. I admit I was skeptical of its Old Fashioned Berliner Weisse, but it's an enjoyable homage to the classic cocktail.
What is it? Old Fashioned Berliner Weisse from MobCraft Beer of Madison, Wisconsin.
Style: The Berliner Weisse is a light-bodied sour wheat beer that is pale to straw in color and highly carbonated. It has a distinctive acidic sourness from a combination of yeast and Lactobacillus. These beers have very little hop bitterness, and are also light in strength, ranging from 2.8-3.4% ABV. MobCraft departs from the basic style to evoke an Old Fashioned cocktail by adding spices and aging the brew in either brandy or bourbon barrels.
Background: Old Fashioned Berliner Weisse is the twelfth beer to be released by MobCraft since it launched in the summer of 2013. Ideas for new beer recipes are submitted online, both through the company’s website and via email, and then a selection of viable options are voted on by MobCraft's fans over a set time. The winning recipes then get modified and scaled up to a commercial-sized batch by brewmaster Andrew Gierczack.
The Old Fashioned homage was submitted by Casey Groh of Milwaukee. He gets rewarded with his name on the beer's label, and MobCraft is throwing him a personal launch party that's being held at The Gig, a bar in Milwaukee's Riverwest neighborhood.
The Berliner Weisse that's at the base of MobCraft's Old Fashioned is made with a high percentage of wheat malt, to which fruit and a range of spices are added. "We decided to add orange zest, orange juice, Door County cherries, juniper berries, cardamom and star anise," says brewery co-owner Giotto Troia.
The challenge was finding the right amount of fresh fruits and spices that evoke the smells and tastes found in the cocktail. "Much of the success is figuring out when is the best time to add certain ingredients during brewing in order to get the desired flavor," explains Troia. Orange zest and juice, along with cherries provide some tartness, but there's also a small amount of Lactobacillus added to the beer. This is a bacteria commonly used in making yogurt and cheese, and some brewers use it to create a more intense sourness.
Taking the homage to the cocktail a step further, this Old Fashioned is barrel-aged for three months. Half of the 14-barrel batch was finished in brandy barrels, while the other half went into bourbon barrels. Troia said he selected them both because though the whiskey Old Fashioned is quite common, the brandy version is the more popular Wisconsin variant. "We basically cloned what it would be like to drink an Old Fashioned," he says.
While developing an experimental brew like this often involves significant trial runs, MobCraft didn't actually brew any test batches to come up with the final recipe. That was a result of the time requirements of barrel-aging and a desire to get the beer out to consumers as soon as possible after it was selected as a winning entry.
"We winged it," laughs Troia. "We've never done a beer like this before." But there was sample tasting conducted during the aging to determine just how long the beer needed to stay in the oak barrels. "We kept doing small taste tests until we came to the point where we were satisfied with it," he explains.
There's also some variability introduced in the levels of bourbon or brandy flavor of the beer, due to the condition and amount of residual liquor that remained in the barrel before the beer was added. In the end, getting all the flavors to where MobCraft wanted them took much longer than originally planned. Troia says that a timeline that started out at three weeks ended up being nearly three months before the beer was ready for release.
Mobcraft's take on the Old Fashioned is actually the second to come from a Wisconsin brewery this year. New Glarus Thumbprint Spiced Ale was released back in January, and has its own winning qualities. That beer comes off heavier on the spices, particularly the tones of bitters that go into the cocktail.
MobCraft Old Fashioned Berliner Weisse finishes at around 4.5-5% ABV, and is sold in 22-ounce bottles for $10 apiece. When picking up a bottle, the label should be examined closely, as a star in the upper right-hand corner indicates if it's the brandy or bourbon barrel-aged version. Like all of MobCraft's current beers, this is made at the House of Brews on Madison's east side.
MobCraft is planning to make both more barrel-aged and sour beers. Coming out in time for Thanksgiving is Arabian Date Night, a date-spiced barley wine that's aged with vanilla beans in brandy barrels for nine months.
- Aroma: Wow, this really smells like an Old Fashioned! Both versions (brandy and bourbon barrel-aged) have the aroma of fruits and spices you expect in the Old Fashioned cocktail. I recently had the brandy-aged version on draught and tasted it next to an actual brandy Old Fashioned. When I shut my eyes, it was tough to tell the aroma of the two apart.
- Appearance: The brandy barrel version of this beer is a hazy, orange-copper color with a very thick bubbly tan head. The bourbon barrel version is a little darker copper and clear, with a thick bubbly tan head.
- Texture: Both versions are medium-bodied with lots of bubbly carbonation.
- Taste: Nice fruity orange and cherry flavors are found in the beginning of both brews, living up to expectations created by their nose. The brandy barrel version is more fruity and tart, while the bourbon barrel one is slightly sweeter, with a soft and more evident hint of licorice from the star anise.
- Finish/Aftertaste: The brandy barrel brew finishes with light fruity-tartness that blend the hints of cardamom and ginger giving it a touch of pepper like spice. The bourbon barrel brew has those same spices intermingling more with the spirit-sweetness of the liquor, making for a softer and smoother finish.
Glassware: The Berliner Weisse, as it's traditionally served in Germany, ir poured in a special glass that resembles a short cup or bowl with a wide mouth. While the Old Fashioned cocktail is often made and served in a lowball glass, a spiced beer with the character of the drink goes well in a short dimpled mug. It's something of a cross between the two glasses, and is also a nice vessel to show off the beer's color and encourages sipping.
Pairs well with: Try the Old Fashioned Berliner Weisse on its own to get an idea of the flavors, at least for the first one. It's a good pre-meal beer that will encourage conversation. It can also be considered an alternative or companion to an Old Fashioned cocktail while waiting for to be seated in a supper club.
Rating: Brandy Barrel-Aged Old Fashioned Berliner Weisse: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)
Bourbon Barrel-Aged Old Fashioned Berliner Weisse: Three Bottle Openers (out of four)
The Verdict: Old Fashioned Berliner Weiss really shows how an offbeat recipe idea can be made into an enjoyable beer when executed properly. Brewmaster Andrew Gierczak figured out how to make this beer smell like an Old Fashioned. It's right on target with amble fruitiness and carefully calibrated spices that offer a distinctive accent. Both barrel-aged versions of this brew nail the aroma of the cocktail. They also deliver crisp orange and cherry flavors that don't go so far that the beer gets lost in the fruit.
Using the tart Berliner Weisse as the base beer was another great idea. There's a high level of carbonation and a low level of alcohol in the style that makes it crisp and easy-drinking. In fact, I almost drank two 22-ounce bomber bottles of each version, side-by-side, all by myself. But don't try that. Rather, share the experience with a friend who is familiar with the Old Fashioned cocktail and what it tastes like.
Between the two barrel-aged versions of this beer, it's a little bit of a toss-up as to which one is better. Your preference will likely depend upon how you like your Old Fashioned cocktail prepared. I found the bourbon barrel version was smoother, warmer and offered a better blend of orange, cherry and spices with sweetness from the spirit and oak. You might think of it as an Old Fashioned "sweet," while the brandy barrel-aged version is more like an Old Fashioned "sour." In the end, both of MobCraft's Old Fashioned brews go well with Wisconsin's love of supper clubs.