I don't live in Madison anymore, which is sad because I love Madison. It is sad because now I have to drive multiple hours for: every home football game, a relaxing afternoon on the Terrace, the Dane County Farmer's Market and all of my bartending shifts at The City (jk, I don't work there anymore, you guys. I totally have a job here in Chicago).
While all of those things are on a Shakespearean level of tragedy, the thing that saddens me the most is that the vibrant Madison beer scene is evolving at a breakneck pace and I am not there to experience it! I mean, I've only been to Ale Asylum's new brewery/restaurant once since it opened. That is no way to go through life. I missed Madison Craft Beer Week (well, most of it; I was there for the first weekend) and the next time I have a Moon Man from New Glarus, it will be my first one in months. MONTHS, I TELL YOU!
But there is some good that comes from not living in Madison anymore. Every time I visit the isthmus, my friends have some new and exciting beer to try. In the past year and a half, most of those new brews have come from one place: Karben4 Brewing.
Karben4 Brewing opened in January 2013 on Madison's northeast side, right by the airport, in Ale Asylum's old brewhouse. Since then, they've been living by this motto: "The quick and dirty is that Karben4 specializes in English-style malt bombs. We are enamored with the myriad of delicate flavors and aromas that malted grains offer."
The brewery is owned by three Appletonians: brewmaster Ryan Koga, his brother Zak Koga and their friend Alex Evans. Zak is the connection to Madison for the trio, as he graduated from UW. That's excellent to counterbalance Alex's Marquette education. I'm thinking we can let Alex's allegiance to Marquette slide this time due to the excellent beer he helps produce. As always, beer is the best moderator in any sort of dispute. Tom Kowalke is another buddy, and is the in-house artist for the brewery. He designed the logo and helped make the taproom aesthetically pleasing with multiple colorful paintings on the walls, each of which is representative of one of the beers.
Although this is a nice story of friends opening a brewery and doing something they love, I probably wouldn't be telling it if the beer was no good. Luckily for you, me and them, the beer is excellent. Karben4 shies away from making beer that is overly-hopped (a recent disturbing trend in the craft brewing industry that seems to be waning a bit), instead using hops and malt in concert with each other to make a balanced beer that tastes, for a lack of a better term, good.
Their stable of beers that you'll always find on tap at the taproom are: Lady Luck Irish red ale, Block Party amber, NightCall smoked porter, UnderCover session ale and SamuRyePA pale ale. However, the most popular beer that Karben4 produced in their first year was Fantasy Factory IPA. The Beer Baron over at the Wisconsin State Journal notes that Fantasy Factory was supposed to be a seasonal, but proved so popular that Koga decided to keep brewing it year-round. This is similar to the story of Ale Asylum's Bedlam!, which also began as a seasonal beer.
Besides being named after my second favorite TV show featuring Rob Dyrdek, Fantasy Factory is one of the two Karben4 beers I have tried. Clocking in at a reasonable 6.3 percent ABV, the first thing you'll notice about the beer is the Citra hops on the nose. It's grapefruity without being overpowering, a nice of change of pace for an American IPA. Like their mission statement claims, the malts are pronounced here. They bring a toffee sweetness to the beer, which is lacking from many other beers of this style. This was definitely my favorite of the two I tried and I can't wait to get back up to Madison to try it again. The other offering that I tried was the NightCall porter. I had NightCall this past winter, and it was not as roasty as I would have liked my porter to be. There was a little bit of smoke, some coffee and a touch of chocolate in my glass, but I did leave feeling like there could have been more to it.
Karben4 also brews seasonal beers, which according to online reviews have been quite tasty. You can find Karben4 at over 100 Madison-area bars and restaurants, but as of right now their beer is unavailable in bottles. That all is supposed to change soon though, because when they bought Ale Asylum's old location they also bought the bottling line that went with it. They hope to have the bottling line operational early this summer. At the brewery, they are also offering food so you don't get too drunk every time you're there. These guys thought of everything!
Next time you're in Madison and you're looking for something a little off the beaten path of Spotted Cow and Hopalicious, check out the Karben4 handle at your nearest Madison watering hole.