I'm going to be honest, earlier in the year when I first met Tim Kovac, founder and brewmaster at Small Town Brewery, he said he had something for me to try, and it was a root beer. My interest level sank to an all time low and I wasn't excited in the least bit. I'd had a few of the hard root beers that were on the market and I wasn't overly impressed. They were cloying, dry and almost artificial in flavor. You could make it through about three sips before throwing in the towel and looking for another libation. Another hard root beer was the last thing the market really needed.
After taking a sip...this was different. This was a game changer. It was called Not Your Father's Root Beer, and it was great. The taste was smooth, creamy and sweet, but not an overall mess. You could sip your way through a glass and be more than happy. I liken it to the A&W root beer fountains at the restaurant itself. Fresh, well carbonated, and creamy on the palate.
The rest of 2014 saw Not Your Father's Root Beer exploding in popularity and the demand sky rocketed through the roof. People will drive for miles and states away just to line up for hours to get their hands on a few bottles. It's been an awesome, but chaotic, experience for Tim and Small Town, and expanding while keeping the focus and integrity of each batch has been the focus (and struggle) as of late.
When I arrived, I found Tim at the back of the small industrial space in Wauconda that Small Town Brewery occupies. He was there alone, filling kegs one by one, by hand. The current space is outfitted with a kettle, three primary fermenters, three secondary fermenters, two bright/kegging tanks, and a cooler. When it comes to tanks, we're not talking massive. Each fermenter yields just about seven kegs. Seven kegs isn't a lot, especially since some bars are rifling through 6-7 kegs per week. On any given day, Kovac is a one man operation in house cooking up a batch, transferring the last batch, cleaning and filling kegs for 12-14 hours. It's long hours, but he's been the first one in and last one out since the beginning, and he's not one to shy away from the care and time that goes into making the beer.
In order to keep up with the retail demand, Small Town has a secondary location in La Crosse, Wisconsin, brewing and bottling the 5.9% six packs. The 10.7% and rare 19.5% versions are still crafted in Wauconda and are mainly a draft-focused operation, with a few runs of 22oz bombers of the 10.7% version making an appearance every now and then. Even at that point, putting those bottles together is no small task. Kovac has an outside operation come in just for the occasion.
Each batch of Not Your Father's Root Beer is kept small and focused. One and a half pounds of vanilla beans and a specific type of honey brought in by the barrel from Switzerland are just two key components of what make up recipe, which has come a long way with many trials to get where it is today. "I was supposed to go on vacation a couple years back and there was some volcanic eruption in Ireland and our trip got cancelled. So I asked my son, you want to just spend the week brewing beer?," said Kovac with a laugh. "We were in the car and my son came up with the idea to make a root beer." The two went to get supplies and ingredients and started putting things together to see what came of it. Kovac admits that the initial end result had a good taste, but needed some refinement. "Originally the root beer started out as this big, alcoholic brew that we then boiled off the alcohol, added a ton of water to it, and sold it as a 0% root beer at only one place. People loved it." Speaking from experience, it is very good. Smooth, silky, sweet and creamy. There is a defined difference without the alcohol, but it is a great beverage to stand on its own. After a call in to the authorities, Tim found out that he could brew and sell the root beer with the alcohol in it. Cue the fireworks. After a few test batches and tinkering with the recipe to bring down the alcohol, the beer was born.
NO ONE HIT WONDER
Sure the root beer is good, and it's widely popular, but a lot of people (including myself) often ask if Small Town Brewery makes anything else. The answer is simply, yes. The only (good) problem is that everyone has been so interested in the root beer that it has kept the brewery extremely busy just keeping up with that interest alone. Being a brewer, you have a creativity that needs to be explored and making the same batch of beer every day starts to wear a bit.
Kovac has brewing in his blood. According to family legend, in the 1600s his great-great-grandfather won a brewery in a card game and began crafting his own beers. Tim still has the journal and recipe book that his great-great-grandfather wrote and taps into those recipes for inspiration and foundation for some of the beers at Small Town. One of the more recent beers that he has brewed was a 16th Century Hefeweizen that had an addition of applewood and white oak in secondary fermentation. This doesn't drink like most hefeweizens. The beer is cleared, not overly fruity, and the wood characteristics adds a nice, smooth, earthy tone to a beer that otherwise wouldn't have that.
Small Town also produces a strawberry rhubarb beer that is just as popular as the root beer but has only been made a handful of times. According to Tim, the last batch of strawberry rhubarb was bought up by a local tavern that then sold through all of the kegs in less than 48 hours.
Small Town is big on experimentation and using fruits and spices for making their beers rather than the usual styles like IPA and pale ale. Their pear beer uses 750 pounds of pears and a copious amount of cinnamon and the result is worth it. Sweet, slightly spicy and refreshing. The chocolate porter recipe calls for crushed cocoa beans, which are hand cracked and crushed before being added to the boil. Every step in making their beers is done by hand. Painstaking and laborious efforts are behind every sip of brew from Small Town Brewery, and it shows in the final product.
Tim is in the process of moving to a larger space and growing within a reasonable amount. The plans are to increase production enough to fill more orders, while keeping the process and controllable as possible. The new space also has plans for the addition of a distillery where Kovac aims to create creative, small batch spirits. The plan is to have a tasting room for both the brewery and the distillery and offer bottles for sale.
Kovac hopes to tap into some of the other recipes in his great-great-grandad's journal, and produce enough of a line of beers to offer up a variety pack around summer time. He's even got a recipe for a French toast beer that he says, "By the second sip, you can taste the butter. It's all there."
In a growing landscape of breweries and a lot of same-style beers, Small Town Brewery is doing things a little differently. The fruit forward, adjunct laden beers offer up something unique to consumers, especially those who aren't quite beer drinkers but are looking for something tasty and different. With control growth and the commitment to the craft, I don't see any reason why Small Town's ship will need to come to harbor any time soon.