Steam billows inside the Karben4 brewhouse as its bottling machinery is prepared for its first production run.
The words "Fantasy Factory" take on special meaning amidst the whirl and hum of a brewery built upon both dreams and hard work. On Saturday, another idea became reality when Karben4 Brewing fired up some long-dormant machinery for the first time and started filling bottles with its most popular beer, Fantasy Factory India Pale Ale.
Since opening nearly two years ago, the brewery on Madison's north side has concentrated building demand for its beers through draught-only sales to local bars, restaurants and in its own taproom at 3698 Kinsman Blvd. "We wanted to build brand equity so that our beers are pulled onto the shelves, rather than fighting for space in local stores," says Karben4 co-owner and brewmaster Ryan Koga.
Fantasy Factory, a vigorously hoppy IPA, is central to the young brewery's efforts at building a name for itself, especially among craft beer fans serious about bitter brews. "It's our most popular beer; we've gotten a huge response from the marketplace," says Koga about the decision to make it their first bottled brew.
"A lot of breweries start bottling right away, and they struggle because they are also buying tanks, kegs and all the stuff to grow," he explains. "We thought, let's build our business on draught lines first, and that will help us get a business built with the cash flow we need to support bottling.”
Karben4 beers are packaged in short stubby brown bottles, and packaged in closed-top six-pack cartons. In the case of Fantasy Factory, the label and carton depict a cat riding a fire-breathing unicorn, an image that should help it stand out in a crowded IPA market. The first run of beer must go through a distributor before it hits shelves, and Koga estimates Fantasy Factory will start appearing the week of October 20.
Up next in bottles is Block Party Amber Ale, which is expected to be packaged come December. Back in March, Karben4 unveiled its initial bottled lineup, which will also include Lady Luck Irish Red and NightCall Smoked Porter, but these additions won't come until next year.
When Karben4 launched in late 2012, it did so in the former home of Ale Asylum, which had used the same space and bottling line for about six years. However, that machinery has had a much longer life in various craft breweries, with parts of it previously used by California's Lagunitas Brewing and Oregon's BridgePort Brewing.
By the time Karben4 opened, the equipment was well-worn and in bad need of repair. The effort to get it running was more than Koga anticipated at first, taking over a year and required extensive cleaning, breaking down the machinery, refurbishing some parts and, in some instances, fabricating new elements altogether. In September, Karben4 even paid to fly in a specialist from a company that services bottling equipment.
Koga estimates it took over 2,000 person hours and $30,000 to get the bottling line up and running. He adds that he's humbled by the volunteers and local craftspeople who helped with rebuilding the machine and designing replacement parts. Without their help, Koga says the brewery would not be ready to bottle even now.
When running at its peak, the refurbished packaging line can turn out about 85 bottles of beer a minute. During the first run on Saturday, about a dozen people, standing at various points along the line, were on hand to make sure everything worked as it was supposed to, and also to provide enough hands to grab filled bottles and stack them neatly into waiting six-pack cartons.
Having the bottling machine up and running instantly doubles Karben4's production, notes Koga. It will also be immediately installing an additional bright tank, which is a large vessel in which beer stabilizes just before it's packaged. Altogether, the brewery is expecting to more than double its annual production, jumping to over 5,000 barrels for 2015.
"Now we'll do 800 cases in a bottling day," notes Koga. That means Karben4 will soon have the ability to reach customers outside of Madison, and its beers are slated to arrive in Milwaukee by early next year.
"This machine is really the heartbeat of Karben4 moving forward," says Koga. "Now that people have become familiar with who we are and what we do, they are saying we want it in bottles. Now our challenge is how do you produce it fast enough?"