By Josh Noel | Chicago Tribune
May 21, 2020 | 4:13 PM
When a pandemic hands you old beer, you don’t make lemonade. You make Malort.
In this case, the old beer was 160 kegs of Revolution Brewing’s flagship Anti-Hero IPA that were about to fall out of code while most bars and restaurants remain closed to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
Rather than dump the beer, Revolution teamed up with Chicago’s CH Distillery to create a first: Malort made from beer.
The product, which goes on sale Friday at Revolution, CH Distillery and Binny’s, pairs two modern Chicago icons: the city’s top-selling craft beer and the city’s most iconic spirit, an intensely bitter liqueur that doubles as a civic badge of pride.
But it’s also a playful solution to a serious problem for breweries large and small: What to do with all those useless kegs?
As stay-at-home orders took root, breweries mostly stopped filling kegs as almost all beer sales in the U.S. shifted to bottles and cans. But hundreds of thousands of kegs were already filled, waiting to head into the market. The smallest breweries have repurposed some of that beer for sales in cans. Others have donated kegs to turn beer into hand sanitizer.
The majority of kegs, however, won’t be salvaged. As they go out of code, breweries and wholesalers have hatched plans to deal with an unprecedented issue.
Lester Jones, chief economist for the National Beer Wholesalers Association, said about 10 million gallons of beer — the equivalent of about 645,000 standard-sized kegs and valued at about $1 billion — were stranded in the market as shutdown orders took effect in mid-March.
A small amount of beer already on tap was sold in growlers by bars and restaurants, Jones said. But the vast majority needed somewhere to go as it became clear it would never reach beer drinkers before expiring.
Solving the problem has amounted to shared sacrifice between breweries and their distributors.
Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors and Heineken USA all have said they will split the cost with distributors to pull back out-of-code kegs. Constellation Brands, which makes leading Mexican brands including Modelo and Corona for the U.S. market, has said it will cover 70% of the cost of returned kegs.
Craft breweries including New Glarus and Summit have pledged to absorb all the cost of recalling out-of-code kegs.
“It’s going to be a backbreaking chore to extract all those kegs from all those independent bars and taverns,” Jones said. “That’ll be a lot of work and it won’t be as easy as driving up to the local stadium and unloading a bunch of kegs.”
Revolution Brewing founder Josh Deth said his brewery will split the cost 50-50 with distributors, which maps out to a loss of more than $50 per keg for each party. He said there are more than 1,000 kegs of Anti-Hero in the market that will need to be resolved — plus other Revolution brands.
“We have budgeted several hundred thousand (dollars), but won’t know for sure (the impact) until the kegs all come back,” Deth said.
Malort made from Anti-Hero was intended to be a fun solution to the vexing problem. Revolution and CH Distillery each will donate $5,000 of proceeds from the project to the Comp Tab Relief Fund, which supports workers in the hospitality industry.
“It was never about making us whole on the financial side,” Deth said. “It’s more like we’re bored and we had all this beer.”
As kegs of Anti-Hero sat at the brewery, Deth reached out to CH founder Tremaine Atkinson in April with the idea of distilling something from the beer, though he wasn’t sure what.
“You hate to see something you value wasted — that’s the biggest thing," Deth said.
Efficiency, he said, “is in the lifeblood of the brewer; no one wants to waste beer at this point.”
Atkinson suggested they make Malort. The bottles will retail for $25, a $5 increase from the standard bottle of Malort. Deth and Atkinson will discuss the collaboration Saturday at 4 p.m. on a web chat hosted by the Chicago Brewseum.
Revolution sent several workers to the Pilsen distillery across multiple days for the effort. Atkinson said he hoped to tease out new flavors in Malort, a product known largely for its mouth-twisting bitterness.
They separated the distillate into three flavor profiles — malty-sweet, floral-hoppy and bitter-hoppy — then blended the three to a result that accents Anti-Hero’s malty character as well as the floral notes from its hops, Atkinson said.
Hops also lend bitterness, which accents the bitterness already present in Malort due to its herbaceous key ingredient, wormwood.