Interview with Chicago Rising Star Brewer John Laffler of Off Color Brewing

by Caroline Hatchett
May 2015

Caroline Hatchett: What’s your brewing philosophy?
John Laffler:
There are lots of new breweries popping up here in Chicago; it’s a mix of both established brewers and home brewers. I was on the innovation team at Goose Island, and I ran the barrel program, as well. After you do that, you’ve basically hit the pinnacle of what you want to do there. So it was time for me to branch off and Dave was in a similar position. We both shared the same vision: to make a specialized, niche product. There are a lot of fancy beers and so many breweries at the moment, all were doing a great job, so we need to stand out. Lots of people launch with an IPA but we didn’t do that because the world simply doesn’t need another IPA. We asked ourselves what we're doing to improve as an industry or art. It’s more about why we make beer, not what we make. Whether we're running a factory or being more artistic, we need to be saying something, either in a cultural, political, or social aspect. We're trying to lead the market with beers that people will be making in 2 or 3 years. We have to sell beers with styles that people haven't heard of.

CH: What’s the story behind the mouse that appears on some of your beer labels?
My mother was a children’s librarian and I’ve always found storytelling to be important. We play off stories with our packaging, and the only other critter that’s here more than me and Dave is the grain mouse. Having that character allows us to anthropomorphize it. It's self indulgent.

CH: How are you involved in the local community?
I’m super outspoken. I’ve been in beer for 10 years in Chicago, and it’s so different now than from when I started. Back then, there were only 30 to 50 of us. It was a tight knit group. You knew the other brewers, their wives, their dogs, and those are the people you’d turned to with your questions, your struggles, your successes. Now, there are so many people and the community has gotten a lot larger. People tend to forget how it was all built. We’re the old guard of brewing in Chicago. We started young, did the labor and came up through the industry.

CH: How do you distribute Off Color beers?
We have an interesting distribution model. The standard way is to start in the city, then expand into suburbs, to states—a concentric expansion. We work with Twelve Percent Imports by Brian Ewing, out of New York City. In every metro market, we sell our beers at the top 10 places in each market. It allows us to go deeper and make weirder and weirder beers, since we only sell specialty beers. This influences the types of beer we make and how we operate as a brewery.

CH: What is your production capacity at Off Color Brewing?
The first 7 months of running we did 600 barrels, and last year it grew to over 3,000. We recently got some new tanks, so we'll be able to do 4,500 to 5,000 barrels this year. We have a fixed amount of beer we can produce out of this plant— 8,000 is the max. We’re going to be pushing up against that soon.