Eight years ago Wisconsin native Ryan Koga moved to Montana to start college. The young man who knew nothing about beer or brewing before he left, has returned home as the face and brewmaster of Madison’s mysterious new brewery Karben 4.
“I started off on the bottling line just trying to make rent money,” said Koga. “I didn’t even know anything about beer at all, especially craft beer. I had my eyes opened to what was true around me. I fell in love with it.”
Eventually, Koga moved up the ladder at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Company in Billings, Montana to become the head brewer. He later helped the ownership open a second location and consulted on another small brewery before returning to Wisconsin to open Karben 4.
“My family and I decided I finally knew enough to be dangerous,” said Koga. “So we decided to be dangerous.”
“Wisconsin is undoubtedly one of the nation’s strongest beer cultures,” said Koga. “Historically, popularly…whatever else. I wanted to bring what I had become good at and bring it home and try it here.”
Koga says that he is excited to be here at this point in Wisconsin’s craft beer evolution and that Wisconsin’s beer day of taking craft beer to what it can be is just starting.
“That’s why I am pumped,” said Koga. “The enthusiasm is already here. There is already stellar beer being put out. But I think where it is going to end up is a lot further down the road than it is today, and that had a huge influence on me choosing Madison in my home state of Wisconsin. It is where I was raised, it is where my pride is and where my heart is and I wanted to be a part of what was about to happen.”
Koga and his business partners researched markets all over Wisconsin, but says Madison always came to the top of the list. While doing research, Koga called the president of Wisconsin brewers guild and asked if any other breweries were opening in Madison.
“She tipped me off that Ale Asylum was going to expand and this was right before they were going public saying that they were going to expand,” said Koga. “So I just cold-called Otto (Dilba) the next morning and just said hey, I heard you guys are doing your thing so I guess that probably means you are going to upgrade your equipment—so what if you just sold me your equipment?”
Koga worked out a deal for some of the equipment which the Ale Asylum folks left in place as Karben 4 moved into the 3698 Kinsman Blvd. location that housed Ale Asylum since their inception in 2005.
Why Karben 4?
“With a lot of names and brands people want to be able to understand it right away—and Karben 4 is certainly not that,” said Koga. “It is not in an effort to be pretentious or anything else.”
Koga explained that he wanted to have a brand that would be able to stand by itself like Nike or Google. The ownership wanted something that didn’t mean anything before the company existed or are able to understand who they are.
“It was something that would speak to our personalities that would never paint us into a corner that our beer names or styles would have to follow some sort of theme that was put out there,” said Koga. “Karben 4 is a way of implicitly saying ‘geeks’ without having to outright say it…It is meant to make people uncomfortable, it is meant to make us uncomfortable at first, but it is something that allows us to define who we are as we grow and as we fill out. People will help us define Karben 4 and what it is.”
“The goal is to stay in the tap room as long as possible until we understand what our brand is, how people perceive us, and what beers they really want,” said Koga. “Until we understand all of the factors, I don’t think we are prepared for distribution in bars and restaurants in full force.”
Koga says staying in the taproom will allow Karben 4 to develop its brand and use feedback to understand what its niche in the market is.
“Internally we feel that one of the worst things we can do for strategy is to put a bunch of product into a bottle when nobody knows who we are and we haven’t tested our product,” said Koga. “We can’t just put it on a shelf and hope people find us.”
Koga also hopes tho add at least one more fermentation tank to the three 30-barrel fermentors they already have. He says that having to expand the brewery will be a sign that things are going well.
Koga said Karben 4 picked their flagship beers as their first five (NightCall Smoked Porter, SamuRyePA, Block Party Amber Ale, Lady Luck Irish Red, Undercover Session Ale) releases. While they may change a little bit, they will always be in Karben 4’s regular lineup. Koga has been surprised which brew is emerging as an early favorite amongst patrons.
“NightCall, the smoked porter has been talked about since we opened,” said Koga. “I’m flabbergasted…One of my specialties is to make a richer beer with a little bit more complex flavor that is smooth and works out together…So to have the Smoked Porter be the on in the spotlight, I’m pleased as I could be. That’s awesome!”
Favorite Wisconsin Beers
“Dan Carey makes some of the best traditional German beer you’ll find and I thoroughly enjoy his works,” said Koga. “I have been drinking them for years now. Every time I came on vacation I was often given special requests to bring back Spotted Cow for folks in Montana. The same thing goes for Capital. They are a Lager factory. They are awesome/stellar at making lagers.”
Koga says that Madison is such an eclectic population that one can find a niche and a following in the market if they are doing something consistent and cohesive. He is confident that Karben 4 can succeed with their “malt-forward beers”, though he says he loves hops and can’t keep is head out of the brewing kettle when he is brewing hoppy beers like the Silk Scorpion Black IPA. He also eludes to having a bit of a passion for Porters.
“I love Tommy’s Porter,” said Koga. I have been pawing on that a lot since I’ve been back…I got stuck in my booth at Beer and Cheese and I heard he Lake Louie Brewmaster Tom Porter) was there and he’s one of the people everyone says you’ve got to meet. I also really dig on Ale Asylum beers. My bachelor party was Sticky McDoogle and Hopalicious the whole time. I am not a huge fan of Belgian style beers…but I will willingly and lovingly order Belgian beers at their (Ale Asylum’s) place…I absolutely love Bedlam.”
What He Loves About Beer
Koga thinks making good beer is more than just producing a quaffable product, and thinks there is an emotional side to it as well.
“I love Bordeaux wine,” said Koga. “When I am having red wine…when there is Bordeaux around, that’s my style…I thought to myself, you’re a brewer, you know, can you create that certain emotional experience you have when you are having a Bordeaux? There is a certain way I always feel when I have it, it just connects with me. If that were a beer, what would it be? What would the experience be?”
Koga says that is his statement with the Lady Luck Irish Red which he hopes people will connect with emotionally.