A selection of O'so Brewing's offerings.
It’s the classic nightmare, really. You’re back in school, and it’s the day of your big presentation, and then you realize you have the whole class looking at you and you’re not wearing pants, and also your eagerly awaited bourbon barrel-aged imperial porter with blackberries hasn’t carbonated and maybe never will. You know the one.
If you run in local beer circles, you’ve probably heard this story. O’so Brewing’s three high-alcohol special-release Night Train porter variants proved too strong to facilitate prompt carbonation in the bottle. Not long after the November 2014 release event, a handful of negative reviews popped up online, which led to returns accepted and vouchers issued, apologies made and lessons learned.
“I think people understand that we are still learning, and we are not going to get it right every time. We have learned so much from all this, and all we can do is hold our heads up and go forward,” says O’so founder and owner Marc Buttera. Going forward meant, in part, delaying the next round of large-format beers — Bourbon Barrel Aged Convenient Distraction and a coconut version of Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Night Train — so their own carbonation levels could be tested and counted on.
Those bottles were finally released earlier this month, in a brewery event on April 4; they were joined on the docket by two new fruited sour beers produced with Madison’s Funk Factory (Cassis and The Fox and the Grapes), a coffee-infused sour blonde ale (called Sense of Direction), and a surprise. Unannounced until the moment the taphouse’s doors opened, the brandy barrel-aged smoked imperial stout called Goldilocks’ Revenge harks back to one of O’so’s historic recipes, but takes that story in a new direction.
“We originally did this beer three years ago, and it was great,” Buttera says, “but this time we came in at 13.6% ABV and had a new perspective on how to deal with that.”
Using wine yeast, for example. The hardier strain is more amenable to high-alcohol environments, eating sugars and expelling carbon dioxide. Replace standard brewing yeasts with wine yeast, and voilà, bottle-conditioned high-ABV beers.
“We did a ton of testing in our lab prior, but we didn't want to tell anyone it was ready to go and have the same problem we had last time,” says Buttera. “We cracked some various bottles [the week prior to release] and decided it was ready to go...hence the surprise.”
It’d be easy to think the release of Goldilocks’ Revenge — which is terrific, by the way, with smoke, sweetness and barrel all balancing expertly— was strictly a response to O’so’s trouble with carbonating previous big beers. At first blush, the label text seems to address the issue: “This beer was originally concocted with copious amounts of anger as a main ingredient. The last few years have been a time of self-reflection and maturation for O’so Brewing and has afforded us a cooling off period.... True greatness is achieved by patience, perseverance and hard work.”
Buttera explains that “The label is about splitting with a distributor back in 2012, but the same lessons can be taken from that situation [and applied to] our carb issues.”
Carbonation has not been the only issue O'so has had to deal with.
The brewery's use of the name “Night Train” is being challenged, and, according to the post on the brewery’s Facebook page, a trademark attorney has suggested it would make more sense that they find another name than fight over trademark.
Buttera has opened up the Night Train renaming process to the public, promising a 1/6-barrel tap party with the renamed beer should a fan submission be chosen.
Also forthcoming: A planned June release with more new beer, like the excellent brandy barrel-aged version of Spike’s Maple strong ale called Grandpa’s Got a Gun (surely no controversy there), Wheat You Talkin’ ’Bout Willis (a wheat wine with more bruleed banana flavor than seems possible in a beer with no actual banana), and more fruited lambics with Funk Factory. And a couple years down the road, Buttera estimates, a new brewery space could be in the works.
By the end of 2015, though, O’so Brewing will have seen about as many challenges as a small craft brewery can expect to face. Buttera figures the Night Train brand will have steamed off over the horizon by then, replaced by who knows what. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was something sassy, a winking reference to making it through another nightmare.