Interbrew: Fermented insanity with Ale Asylum’s Dean Coffey

A little late, but we’re finally capping off the weekend of Ale Asylum (I’ve got two empty growlers to prove it!). Head brewer Dean Coffey was nice enough to sit down and talk with me about breaking through in Wisconsin’s tough beer market, why Bedlam tastes like bedlam and great sushi-beer combos. Read the interview after the jump!

When and how did you get into brewing?

It was in the late 80’s, I was putting myself through school, my undergrad, and when you put yourself through school you’re really poor. I was really, really poor, and I couldn’t afford good beer and I won’t drink not-good beer, swill beer, I just won’t do it. I pretty much had to figure out how to brew beer, it really appealed to me right away. I’m kind of a science dork, and it’s about deductive reasoning.

Do you have a science background?

Kind of, not really. I majored in environmental studies.

Where does your love of brewing come from?

I don’t know? I grew up in Los Angeles, and it’s a hard-drinking kind of place. I don’t know if people know that, when I was 15, I was drinking and that wasn’t a weird thing. I hope that doesn’t offend anyone. I was instantly attracted to better beer. We all hung out at one of my friend’s house, and he lived around the corner of the very first Trader Joe’s. They had a great section of imports, we would always talk our parents into buying us beer there, so we got a lot of imported dark beers. Right away, even in high-school, I was drinking dark-beers, good beers. It was the beginnings of a beer snob. As soon as I got to college and found books about brewing, I just ate it up.

How did you end up in Wisconsin?

I was working for a microbrewery in Boulder, and it’s kind of a funny story. The guy who started the Angelic–this is getting into ancient Madison history here–when he started the Angelic he did everything wrong. He hired a guy who got good grades in brew-school, but that was it. There was no interview at all. Had he interviewed him, he would have learned lots of things, like this guy didn’t even like beer. He had no understanding of brewing. Within a couple of months that brew pub was ready to go out of business. It was a brand new brew pub and they couldn’t even give away beer. The guy who started the brewery went to college in Colorado, and he started calling all the good breweries he knew of looking for talent.

How did you start Ale Asylum?

The plans for Ale Asylum started years ago. We signed the lease on this building in September of 2005. In the beginning we made 800 barrels. Last year we made 7200 barrels. We’re just trying to keep up, we’re only in Madison and Milwaukee, a little bit in Sheboygan. We opened our doors in May of 2006.

What were the challenges?

I guess the money. Finding money is really, really hard. I can’t overstress how soul-crushing and difficult it was to find the money.

What are the next challenges?

We’re constantly challenged to keep up with demand. That is layered with challenges, like our staff is growing really fast. It used to be just me and one other guy, then three of us, now there’s seven of us. We’d run brewing shifts, and when we’re going we start at 7 AM Sunday and we go until Midnight every day of the week until Saturday. We’re cranking out 15 actual brews a week, actual mash-in brew.

You learn a lot of lessons right away. We learned right away if you run out of beer at a liquor store, say if I own a liquor store and [a person] walks in and says I want to buy Hopalicious and I’m out, and I say “sorry dude I’m out,” and he walks out, that pisses off liquor store owners, like really bad. So we had to make sure that never happened, because they get so angry. When we got to Milwaukee, we told them they could have this much beer and no more. It wasn’t until about October, we went down there and said “go crazy, sell as much beer as as you can” and they are just, wow, every month, sales have gone up.

What’s your favorite part about your job?

My new favorite thing is giving out bonuses and raises. A couple weeks ago my partner and I went around and handed out bonuses and raises, it’s great to make someone’s day. I love making beer, all aspects, I love mashing, love fermentation, dry-hopping, all of it.

What advice would you give to someone trying to start a brewery?

When I walked into this, I had like 15 years professional experience. And I needed all of that. That’s what I would say, anyone who wants to work in this business, get a job and start working, there’s just a billion little things. Especially the production aspect.

What’s the story behind Hopalicious?

Well, the beer itself, APA is one of the most difficult styles. It’s such a weird thing, to do it right, it’s such a weird balance of flavor of hop bitterness with malt presence and it’s all such a delicate little thing. If you don’t do it just right, you really end up with a mediocre beer. It was one of the styles I struggled with the most, I struggled with it for years and years and years. And so when we were building this place and just brewing the beer, my partner Otto, who is responsible for everything you see, the images, most of the names, and so we’re kicking around ideas for the APA, we’re pretty sure that it’s going to be the beer that’s going to take off for us. We want the right name. We have all these names and he says “Hopalicious.” Whoa, what? We said, “That’s it!” He disagreed. Again, we said “No, no no that’s it!” All of us had to band together to choose it. I think it’s perfect.

What’s the plan with Bedlam? (recently named Isthmus Beer of the Year) Will it be back?

For sure. It had such a strong sale, people loved it. The response was crazy. Now, I’m not a style-Nazi, I’m more like a style-Republican, meaning that if I make a pale ale, damn it, it’s going to taste like a pale ale. If I make a porter, it’s going to have the look and the aroma of a porter. When my guys came to me like, hey let’s twist a style and to belgian and IPA I was like “WHAT? WHAT? You can’t say that!” I made this agreement that we’d make the smallest amount we can, and I’m going to taste it, and if I don’t like it, it goes down the drain and we never talk about it again. It’s such a weird thing. Myself and Chris wrote the recipe, and then I left the country. “I can’t be here while you guys do this, you can break the rules when I’m not there.” I left the country, and when I came back, they were all excited. We tasted the beer, and, really, it’s a freak-show of a beer. It really is bedlam to me. I really don’t know how I feel about it, but everyone else loves it.

What are your other passions? How do they inform your brewing?

My passions, I’m a science dork. My wife and I just went to Africa, we saw everything, so cool. My love of nature, all things natural, it plays right into brewing. My other love is cycling, pretty much the entire brewing staff cycles unless it’s winter. I’m proud of that. That requires a discipline that’s reflected in brewing.

Any good books?

I read all the time. I’m a dork for science fiction, modern, cool hard science fiction. As far as brewing, there are so many good ones. If you’re just starting, the Complete Joy [of Homebrewing] is a great place to start. As I like to say, Charlie taught us all how to brew. I really like Ray Daniels, “Designing Great Beers,” if you want to start making your recipes that’s a really useful resource to have in your arsenal.

Any interesting food and beer pairings? Beer and cheese is cool.

Beer and chese is so 101. Once, for fun, my wife and I bought a bunch of sushi to go and brought it here and started sampling sushi with beer. The weird thing was the winner, the hands down winner, was German dobblebock and sushi. Who’d a thunk it? I would have thought an IPA or something?

Need more? Follow us on Facebook and Twitter (@MidwestBeer). Any tips, questions or comments can be directed to mwbeercollective@gmail.com.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Interbrew: Fermented insanity with Ale Asylum’s Dean Coffey

  1. Pingback: Brew for Thought: Ale Asylum Hopalicious | Midwest Beer Collective

  2. Pingback: The Midwest Beer Collective’s Best of 2011 | Midwest Beer Collective

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