The building is being renovated over the fall, and Funk plans to open his geuzeria in December.
It's never been a better time to be a sour beer lover in Madison. Levi Funk -- yes, that's his real name -- has just signed a lease on a building on the city's south side for his Funk Factory Geuzeria, where he plans to turn wort brewed all over Wisconsin into geuze and lambic-style beers.
"It's a model that is not uncommon in Belgium and is similar to a contract brewing model here in the U.S.," Funk explains. "Essentially I will give breweries a recipe and they'll brew it, and I'll buy it." He then transforms the wort into sour beer.
In this brewing process, the wort is left overnight in a "coolship," a stainless-steel open-top tank, in order to allow ambient wild yeasts to land in the liquid and start the fermentation process. "I built a coolship that I can take to breweries," says Funk, who then brings the vessel to a nearby outdoor area.
"I'll pump [wort] into transport tanks, and then either pump it right into the coolship, or drive it out to an orchard and do it there." The next morning, Funk transfers the brew into wine barrels for aging. Funk initially used his basement at home for this stage of production before striking up a partnership with O'so Brewing in Plover.
It's a long process compared to the turnaround for most beers -- Funk doesn't add anything to the barrels until they've aged 18 months, and he doesn't even taste beers for the first year. "There's no point," he explains. "Tasting it that young is not very useful. Around 18 months is when I would check to see if [the barrel] would be good for fruiting."
Fruit such as cherry, apple, and pear is typically added to lambic-style beers during the aging process. Funk is currently planning to create five different fruit varietals this fall and winter. The beer sits on fruit for three months, before another one-to-three month period of bottle conditioning.
Funk is exactly the mix of passionate beer lover and complete geek that is making the craft brewing industry so exciting. "I got into lambics right away when I got into craft beer, and gradually I became more hardcore and more of a nerd," he recalls with a laugh. "I started trading and buying overseas and acquiring as many lambics as I could, and educated myself on what is good."
Funk made his first pilot barrel of lambic-style beer in 2011. "I decided I wanted to learn more about the fermenting and aging -- the barrel side of lambics," he says. "I'm not a brewer, and I don't have a huge interest in brewing. Brewing lambics is more of a science. The art and creativity is really in the aging and blending and fruiting."
When making geuze, a style made by blending old and young lambic-style brews, Funk gets to experiment with combining multiple vintages of beer. His mindset is similar to that of traditional Bordeaux winemakers, who consider the blending of wine varietals from carefully selected vineyards to be the highest art form in their craft.
During a moment of what can only be considered the ultimate homebrewer's dream, Funk told O'so owner and brewmaster Marc Buttera about his basement geuzeria. "I told him I had this barrel going in my basement and asked if he wanted to come over and taste it," recalls Funk. "He did, and we decided we should do this."
In these collaborations with O'so, Funk brings his coolship to the brewery and buys barrels for aging. Buttera brews the base beer, and Funk takes over from there. "He basically lets me have creative control," says Funk.
This model makes use of terroir -- the French concept of "sense of place," a term normally reserved for wine -- through the use of wild microflora to lend regional character to a beer. "If I'm buying wort at O'so, the yeast will come from the region around O'so," Funk explains.
The revenue from this partnership is now helping Funk establish his own facility, which is basically a barrel warehouse. "If you were to just open a geuzeria, you'd have three years of rent, and buying wort, and sitting on products [as they age] before you had any money coming in," he explains.
Funk is opening his new geuzeria at 1604 Gilson St., located in the Bay View neighborhood on the south side of Madison. He selected this location because he lives nearby and prefers commuting by bike. The building is being renovated this fall, and Funk will be able to move in come December. Designing a geuzeria is a very different task from designing a brewery -- rather than fermenters and tanks, Funk Factory will be full of stacked wine barrels.
"I think the American sour beer market as a whole is very, very young," Funk declares. "Sour beers haven't been done in the U.S. except in the last ten years." While California blazed the trail for sour brewing in this nation, he thinks Wisconsin has come a long way.
"Here in the state you've got New Glarus, and I'm looking forward to seeing the direction they take the sour beer program, if it's going to be more American in terms of innovation and creating new styles or more of a re-creation of the traditional styles," notes Funk. "And at O'so, Marc has really gotten very excited about the different Brett fermentations that he has going and that he's done in the past.”
Funk stresses that his approach is traditionalist: "I'm not looking to do anything new and innovative -- the only thing new about it is the location."
Tradition is a big deal when it comes to talking about these types of beers, particularly in Europe given their origins in Belgium. Purists consider the term "lambic" should only be used to describe Belgian beers. But Funk believes lambic can and should be used to demonstrate the regionality of any place -- whether it's Flanders or the Wisconsin River valley.
"What I'm making is an 'American lambic,'" he says. There'll always be people who refuse to call something made in America a lambic, and people like myself who will follow every nuance to the traditional process and call it 'American Lambic.'"
Funk hopes to someday showcase Wisconsin's varied terroir with a hugely ambitious geuze project. "If I went and brewed at a half dozen breweries around the state and picked up yeast along the way, every brewery will have slightly different microbes in the air," he says. "In a few years I'd have enough variety to make a Wisconsin geuze -- a blend of the state's breweries."