WEST LOOP, CHICAGO
Brewer Chat: Brian Buckman & Jason Monk
of Illuminated Brew Works
It was a cold, gloomy, Saturday afternoon in Chicago's West Loop and we found ourselves down a seemingly random back alley, tucked underneath the west bound Metra line. With no immediate signs of our quarry, we began to look for clues, knowing that we were close. Unmarked steel doors, a padlocked chain-link fence, and a stiff breeze were all that greeted us. The lone truck parked in the alley offered our only clue; a tiny bumper sticker showing an eye-balled pyramid with the words "Enjoy with people you trust." A knock on the nearest door then a welcoming handshake from the owner, and we'd arrived at Illuminated Brew Works.
Illuminati-esqe treasure hunt story aside, IBW is about as under the radar as they come. Founder Brian Buckman and Brewer Jason Monk are in the midst of building their dream from the ground up. Already producing beer available at several locations around the city, while simultaneously completing construction on their bare bones space is quite the task. We were eager to check out the well-hidden, subterranean brew space and find out what exactly is brewing at Illuminated.
Thanks for having us in, this is quite the space to find. Anyone else made it down here so far?
Jason Monk: Not really, just the odd person who wanders by. We've pretty much been in construction mode since we started. We really hit the ground running and we've just powered through.
How long ago did you start?
Brian Buckman: August 2013.
Is that when you started brewing?
BB: When we first got here we started on this thing (referencing the Sabco system tucked in the corner). We've probably been brewing since 2010.
And how big's the current set up?
BB: It's a 7-barrel system. One is seven, one is 10; but it's basically 7-barrels.
What about the space itself? This is definitely one of the more unique, harder to find spots we've come across.
BB: We've known our landlord for years, long before we were here. He's a huge ally. It's a very affordable rent. He's kind of invested in us, not monetarily, but as a friend. To help us grow. He helped us out with some of the construction as well. He really likes what we're doing with his building.
What was the space before you had it?
JM: Supposedly this was an old bakery. It's turn-of-the-century and the walls are three feet thick. Those bricks go all the way to the exterior. This building is gonna be here forever.
I know it's early on, but what are you plans for this space? It has a ton of potential.
BB: We want to have a tasting room for sure but we still need to explore that. Also, we hope to utilize the space out back, maybe a makeshift beer garden of sorts.
JM: We want to have good beer, a working class feel. We want you to come back for more, and enjoy yourself.
We notice a few skateboards on the wall...
BB: That would be Jason. That's actually how we met, but I would never call myself a skateboarder. I was trying and Jason was actually doing it.
JM: We had an underground ramp on the West Side –not to far from here – at Grace and Grand. You walked down an alley, opened a garage door, and there was a halfpipe inside. We would all meet there on Saturday and Sunday mornings, skate...and drink.
BB: It was a little skateboard speakeasy!
Sounds like you've known each other for a while. How did you guys end up here, starting a brewery?
BB: So I guess it was Matt (Shirley) and I that started it a long time ago. We've known each other for almost 25 years at this point. We had mutual friends and all grew up together. We got the idea to do this around 2008 or 2009. We went through a bunch of iterations. Initially it was going to be a community brew space. Then the plan morphed into a brewpub out in Oak Park. It got really complicated at one point and almost just didn't happen at all. That was about the time that we ran into Jason. We broke everything down to it's bare components; instead of trying to do something super big, we're going to approach it more organically. The brewpub route was a nightmare.
Was it the food aspect?
BB: It was that, but more than anything it was the investor aspect of it. That was more of the problem. And it caused stress on our relationship, which sucked because the reason we did this in the first place was because we're friends. Matt and I used to do Burning Man camps for years [hence the road trip bus out back]. We did a podcast with a couple other guys as well. We've always done different projects together. This one is actually getting some traction but also kind of blew up on us at first. It was important for us to regroup and get back to the core components.
JM: They told me their problems and I said, "let's start brewing with other people and see what they're using. Let's see how they're getting through the hoops."
Who'd you brew with?
JM: Une Année. We've also done a lot of walk-throughs at Hamburger Mary's and DryHop. Once you see how everything there works, you see that "I can do this." I weld and fabricate for a living. Twenty years ago, when I was 20, I got a job at a brewpub in Providence, Rhode Island. I got my feet wet there, I thought it was great. Then, I realized the only person who made money at a brewpub is the brewmaster – and the guys who own it. So, I became a welder and fabricator by trade after that, and I've doing that since.
That's probably a pretty helpful skill when setting up a brewery.
JM: There's a lot of DIY here. I made those (points to fermentors). We sourced the tanks and I turned it into a brew system.
That's awesome. What did they used to be?
JM: They were food processing tanks.
BB: When I say 'we stripped it back to the core components,' that was the stuff that we took a really sharp eye to. We went from having to raise all the money, to having a great space with all the utilities included in the rent. We found Jason who could fabricate our equipment for one-tenth of the cost. And when fabricating issues come up – which they always do – we could ask him instead of having to hire someone. When that fermenter showed up, we got it for a project with a super tight time frame. It showed up with the sample port just wrenched. We were able to call Jason up – he'd show up in an hour, tack a new one on and get it fixed immediately. If we didn't have someone, we would have been out of action for hours, and it would have cost us several hundred dollars.
Are you both still working other jobs? That must be difficult to balance both commitments.
BB: Yeah, we're all still doing our own thing. Part of this whole 'stripping down to the bare components' was that we didn't put more stress on the wrong things at the wrong time. We wanted to keep our costs down. Keeping our overhead super agile is critical to us. Not wanting to kill each other, not wanting to kill ourselves. Wanting to show up and see this thing through.
So – on to the beer. We're noticing a theme with these pints you're pouring.
JM: Brian and I have always loved Belgians...clean, crisp, dry, Belgian beers. I don't like sweet beers. A lot of people, when they try to throw their hat into the ring of doing a Belgian, end up with very sweet beer. You have one glass and you say "alright, I'm not going to have another." We like to dry them down to make them a little more drinkable; they don't taste so boozy. Hasselhopf (a slightly hoppy, aromatic Belgian Ale) is 7%, it just doesn't seem like it.
Was it easy to decide to focus on Belgian beers?
JM: It was a decision we made over time. In the end it's just a matter of taste. I'm not a big fan of lingering hit-you-in-the-face IPAs. But, we're also spoiled. We've had 3 Floyds and Half Acre and everyone who makes these great pale ales. All those guys make great, sessionable, tasty IPAs. But then it all goes back to that discussion of freshness. We're spoiled, getting those beers from the source: here. I was at Temperance, and they were packaging Gatecrasher. My friend there turned around and handed me a can right off the bottling line – as fresh as could be.
Fresh is always good. What will your beer lineup look like once you're up and running?
BB: We have a brown that we'll stick with. We're trying to find a standard that we'll push year-round, we just haven't found it yet. We did Orange Sunshine last summer; we'll do that again, it's a nice citrus saison. Pazuzu's Pedals is a porter that we really like. Until I find a reason not to, it's all Belgian yeast strains. That's what I like to drink. We're going to continue playing with those until there's a reason not to.
Are you planning on bottling?
BB: Right now we're just kegging. We only bottle samples to sell to bars. We have a plan for 2015. And a major part of that is that by the start of Q2, we'll be doing about 2- to 2.5-barrels a month of bottling. Our interest is still to keg the stuff and get it to bars and restaurants. But I would like to see us in some bottle shops.
In what type of bottles?
BB: We'd do the 750ml bottles. We don't know exactly what our packaging would look like yet. We'll be doing the really 'special,' higher gravity stuff in bottles.
Is the plan to self-distribute?
BB: Yep, and we'll continue to do that for as long as we can. That way we keep it in that cold room right until we deliver it. We can control our interaction with our clients as much as possible.
That sounds a lot like what Calvin from Spiteful told us. They really value the face-to-face relationships with their accounts.
JM: Exactly. And you often hear about someone burning their bridge with a place. The place used to get something, then they forgot about them. We don't want that. These places supported us from the beginning and we don't want to forget about them. And we don't want to be forgotten about either. Right now we're a very small company.
One of our clients that I'm most proud of is Parachute. We're the only beer on tap and we have been for six months now. They've been consistently rated as one of the best new restaurants in Chicago. It's an amazing place. They're super talented and doing really interesting stuff.
BB: Twisted Spoke has also been a huge ally. We're doing something for them with that Templeton Rye barrel over there, for their 20 year anniversary this year. They said they didn't care what we gave them, just give them something good.
JM: We've been selling beer to Twisted Spoke pretty much from day one. They're pretty tough cookies. The owner really wants to sweat you down. You give him the sample. He pours it into a glass. He swirls it around. He looks at it. He walks away...and you're just sitting at the bar. Then he comes back. He smells it again. He walks away. It's a total poker game. And then finally he tastes it and you see his face and you're like, "I've got him!" He's playing poker but he's got no poker face. They've pretty much bought every sample we've brought in. They've been really good to us.
And the 'Illuminated brand' itself, can you tell us about that?
BB: I've had a fascination with turn-of-the-century secret societies. What I like about the name Illuminated is that it doesn't really mean anything. Everybody has different ideas of what it means. It's kind of a mirror for people. I think it's similar to what we are doing with the yeast strains. They will change with food and temperature and also with the expectations of the imbiber. As for the artwork, I did the initial design and then we passed it off to Mark Ludeman, a great design buddy of ours.
Final Question. What are you drinking at home nowadays?
BB: I have Chimay Red in there and some Two Brothers Sidekick. It's beautiful, I was crushing that all summer. There's some Orval in there too. It's not always in there but most of the time. I try to keep a bottle of Une Année or Local Option in there.
JM: Mine is a smattering of everything. It's seasonal, depends what's out. Lately it's Revolution, A Little Crazy.
Well, all of this beer talk: should we pour another?...
Photography by Jack Muldowney