By Christopher Stolarski
In April 2013, Alex Evans was schlepping growlers of his fledgling brewery’s suds to Madison-area bars, delivering barrels in a 1998 Ford Ranger. Tired and sore, he just wanted to crack into one of the most competitive craft beer markets in the Midwest.
Exactly two years later, he’s the co-owner of and marketing wizard behind Karben4, one of the fastest-growing and well-liked breweries in Wisconsin.
Unlike the state’s famed beer barons of the past, barley and hops didn’t run through Evans’ veins. A 2007 Marquette Business graduate, he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance and marketing and then followed a rather predictable path — out of character for the restless, creative Evans. In the summer of 2008, he took a job as a credit analyst with what was then M&I Bank and stayed there for two years before his self-described “life ADD” kicked in.
“I always had this creative itch I wanted to scratch,” he says between sips of Fantasy Factory IPA, Karben4’s biggest seller. “I needed to explore that side of my brain.”
Go west, young man
The business plan for Karben4 came together while Evans was pursuing a master’s degree in creative writing at UCLA. He partnered with his best friend, Zak Koga, with whom he’d been hatching start-up ideas since they attended high school in Appleton, Wisconsin.
“We’d been writing business plans since we were kids,” Evans recalls. “But neither of us ever had an actual skill we could exploit.”
Enter Zak’s older brother, Ryan. While Evans was honing his writing chops in southern California, the elder Koga had worked his way up to brewmaster at Yellowstone Valley Brewing in Billings, Montana.
For two years, Evans ping-ponged from L.A. to Billings to Madison and back, he and the Brothers Koga fine-tuning their business plan and beer recipes. They also met with some 15 banks before securing the loan that launched their business. Evans made the permanent move in May 2012 to Madison where Zak was living. Ryan came in August, and the team settled into its brewery space two months later.
The gang seeks asylum
Securing that spot was as savvy as it was fortuitous. When Ale Asylum outgrew the space and relocated to a larger facility nearby, Karben4 seized the opportunity in what Evans describes as a “hybrid-esque start-up.”
“We not only took over the lease from them,” he explains, “But we also initiated an asset purchase agreement for their equipment. Some 30 percent of the equipment we started with was from Ale Asylum.”
Evans’ penchant for business efficiencies didn’t cease there. He and his team rode Ale Asylum’s PR coattails.
“Every article about Ale Asylum’s new facility always ended the same way: ‘And moving into their old space is a new local craft brewery, Karben4.’ It was free press,” Evans says.
What’s in a name?
“We wanted a name that didn’t exist anywhere,” Evans says of the Karben4 moniker.
The name is rooted in the foundational element of all organic life: carbon. This is married with beer’s history as being a foundation of civilizations. Evans says the numeral 4 also has scientific connotations, but more than that it was simply a branding play.
“This was an effort to rid the consumer of any potential opinions or bias, and so the name simply acts as an extension of whatever we exude as a company,” Evans adds. “Basically, we’re further defining what Karben4 means every single day as we continue to operate and market the business.”
The fantasy factory
Fantasy Factory IPA accounts for 50 percent of Karben4’s sales. With a growing cult following, its popularity is surging among beer enthusiasts who laud the ale’s balance. But its label design — one part internet meme, one part psychedelic tour bus — is equally charismatic.
And it’s that label that typifies much of what Karben4 is trying to accomplish with its products, brewery taproom and overall brand, Evans says.
Anyone who visits that taproom is immediately introduced to Karben4’s personality. A sleek, minimalist design set to a muted color palette is dotted with the company’s iconic bright green logo elements — all of which gives way to a showcase of shocking, oversized paintings.
Evans commissioned the work from his friend, local artist Tom Kowalke. Each avant garde piece represents one of Karben4’s beers and will eventually become the product’s label design.
“We wanted to make sure that when people walked through our doors, it was a unique and differentiated brand,” Evans explains.
Willy Wonka and the Happy Meal box
Karben4’s production capacity sits at 13,000 barrels. They produced only 700 in their first full year but tripled that in 2014. The brewery, which has grown from four to 31 employees, will brew approximately 7,500 barrels in 2015.
According to Evans, Karben4 will acquire five more tanks by early 2016, giving them the equipment needed to produce at full capacity.
While most of those barrels find their way to some 400 bars and restaurants in Madison and Milwaukee, bringing craft beer to the masses requires a more retail-friendly vessel: bottles.
“We started bottling in October of 2014,” Evans says. “We started, of course, with Fantasy Factory and limited it to Madison only. We’ll start to ship bottles to Milwaukee in late-2015.”
Karben4 this month also began bottling another strong seller, its Block Party amber ale.
Ever the marketing mad scientists, Evans and his team weren’t content to fill brown bottles and ship them off in those ubiquitous little boxes with the built-in handles. For Karben4, it had to be different.
Their inspiration? A late-night food craving and a few McDonald’s Happy Meal boxes.
But being clever for cleverness’ sake isn’t Evans’ style. The boxes have a clear marketing purpose.
“A box that completely covers the bottles gives us more branding space,” he explains, his voice turning serious, almost professorial. “Also, unlike the boxes with the handles, they’re stackable, which allows more flexibility for retail display.”
Evans, his tone more jovial, adds, “And then I thought, why don’t we ‘Willy Wonka’ some of these things?”
And so Evans personally puts a surprise coupon in random boxes as they come off the line.
At Karben4, business is good, and Evans loves being in the craft beer game. “It’s the perfect marriage for me to combine my business acumen with the creative side of my brain,” he says.
Frederick Pabst he’s not. Spend a few hours in the taproom and production facility with Evans and it’s apparent that this isn’t just a business, it’s a creative playground — his own little fantasy factory.
“We’re not going to win by trying to compete with everybody,” he says. “We’re going to do it by constantly innovating.”