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Zak Koga
June 3, 2019

Building a fantasy factory: Construction alum hops into brewery

Written By: Tom Ziemer

Zak Koga’s baseball dreams were fading as he rode home to Appleton, Wisconsin, in the passenger seat of his dad’s Mercury Sable. His one year of Big Ten baseball at the University of Iowa was mercifully over, doomed from the start after the coach who had recruited him resigned.

Father and son talked about the 19-year-old’s options as they drove northeast on U.S. Highway 151 toward Madison. Despite Koga’s baseball predicament, he had aced his classes as an engineering major. On a whim, they decided to stop at the Red Gym to see if a transfer to the University of Wisconsin-Madison might be an option.

A few months later, Koga (BSCEE ’08) returned to campus for the start of the fall semester.

“It was one of the best things I ever did, making that decision,” he says while sitting in the taproom at Karben4 Brewing, the popular brewery he co-owns on Madison’s northeast side.

Beer bottle assembly at Karben4
Karben4 bottles its six flagship beers, along with a variety of seasonal offerings. Photo: Sarah Page.

After graduating from UW-Madison with a degree in civil engineering and an emphasis in construction engineering and management, Koga carved out a steady career at the construction firm Findorff, first as a project engineer and then a project manager.

On the side, he had also begun helping his older brother Ryan, then the head brewer at a brewery in Montana, pursue his own operation in Madison. While hatching plans with Ryan and longtime friend Alex Evans, Koga came to a realization: He wanted more from his career than simply to work his way up in the construction industry.

Although Koga stuck with his day job after Karben4 launched in 2012 in the former Ale Asylum brewery, the birth of his first child in 2014 gave him the nudge he needed to make the full-time career jump.

At that point, Karben4 had gained a following, largely on the strength of its India pale ale Fantasy Factory, but it wasn’t yet bottling its brews.

“We needed to be moving faster. It wasn’t sustainable to stay where we were,” recalls Koga. “It became very clear: We needed to move faster here. We needed to grow. We couldn’t do that if we didn’t have more resources. We needed more time as a group.”

These days, Karben4 bottles its six flagship beers, along with a variety of seasonal offerings. Production has increased from 700 barrels in 2013 to about 11,200 in 2018, even as the beer market has grown increasingly saturated.

Koga, who oversees the company’s finances and operations, says his engineering education permeates his job, whether he’s analyzing Karben4’s supply chain or helping install a new bottle labeler.

“It’s constant. It’s problem-solving. That’s most of what engineering is, right? You are trained to be a very competent problem solver,” he says. “It’s breaking things down into little parts, solving the parts and putting them together.”

The box for Karben4’s amber ale, Block Party, includes images of the Red Gym and Máquina, the fountain sculpture on Engineering Mall. They’re nods to the two serendipitous campus stops Koga and his dad made on their drive back to Wisconsin in 2004, the day that launched his odyssey in Madison.

“Looking back, it only feels disjointed and meandering when I talk about it. When I think about it, it makes perfect sense,” he says. “Growth requires pain. Things get a little messy and they’re tough. But that’s the whole thing. The process of facing the world and deciding to do the right thing—as best as you can decipher it—that’s our existence.”