Carving Their Place: IPAs in the Chicago Suburbs with BuckleDown Co-Founder Sean Mahoney
INTERVIEWED JANUARY 22, 2017 BY DOMINIC LYNCH
AT BUCKLEDOWN BREWING - LYONS, IL
Lyons, Illinois isn’t known for much, even for those who do know of it. Located about 15 miles southwest of downtown Chicago, Lyons sits in an industrial corridor bounded by Interstate 55 and 47th street to the south, Illinois route 43 to the east, and Ogden Avenue to the north. Nestled across 47th Street from the town of McCook and some factory buildings lies BuckleDown Brewing. Inside a nondescript former auto shop is a brewery making a name for itself, at the fringe of the city limits.
Sean Mahoney co-founded BuckleDown with his brewing partner Ike Orcutt in 2013. Paying homage to Chicago’s legendary grit and determination, their taproom is rough around the edges — cement floors and steel chairs greet visitors — but with a homey vibe that keeps things welcoming. Specializing in big, bold hoppy beers like their signature Belt & Suspenders IPA, the brewery is becoming a destination for city and suburban beer drinkers alike. Sean took the time to talk to us about how they came to call Lyons home, what’s on the menu, and what sets BuckleDown apart from the plethora of breweries in and around Chicago.
Sean, what's your background?
Originally, out of school, I was a graphic designer. I went and worked for a company that did websites for companies like PlayStation, during the time of the first internet boom. So it was a good time to be in that business and I probably got a job that I shouldn’t have. I’ve always been in love with art and music and so graphic design was just a great field for me.
Then I went to work for a bigger ad agency, and about eleven years ago I started a small graphic design firm. That’s where I met Ike [Orcutt]. Ike’s my partner and head brewer, and was actually a client of mine for my marketing firm. What I didn’t know is that he'd been homebrewing for seven or eight years. I was doing some brewing at my office because there were just a few of us and we were at a loft office building in the West Loop. Every few weekends we’d brew and it was just great.
So how did you get into brewing, from graphic design?
I have a good friend, Derek, who I like to backpack and climb with. He lives in the city and he’s got a really nice rooftop deck he was brewing on. He’s the kind of guy who gets into everything really, really deep — he’s just that kind of guy. Brewing was one of those things. He was like, “Hey, why don’t you come out and brew with me?” Of course it was just another excuse to hang out and drink some beers. But I’m kind of cut from that same cloth too. I just love new stuff and new hobbies. So I did that with him and was totally hooked. That was probably two or three years before I met Ike.
What kind of beers were you homebrewing before you opened BuckleDown?
Mostly clones of hoppy stuff. Derek and I brewed this one that was like a 3 Floyds clone that he called Dumball Head. He thought that was a clever name. But it was pretty good! He never kept a log of any of his stuff so we could never replicate it.
But Ike had this really nice pils and some Belgian stuff, and all this stuff that he was doing was all original stuff that he had been working on over the course of seven or eight years. It was all really, really good stuff and a pretty good range. And it just happened to be in line with the things that I like to drink. So we came together on this project.
What made you want to take the leap from being a really good homebrewer to opening your own business and starting a brewery?
I just kind of have an entrepreneurial bug anyway. I started my own graphic design firm so I was kind of already over that leap that everyone asks all the time, “How do you do that? How do you make that jump?” I guess I just sort of have that personality. But I also firmly and wholeheartedly believe that you just gotta take risks, or nothing ever happens. You just sit and sit and chug away and never really realize some fruitful things that you otherwise experience in your life.
And also, I was pretty confident that if it didn’t work, I could always go back to some other job. But I would always be upset that I never tried. Also, I had the full confidence that my partner is a tremendous brewer. I just thought the beers were so good, so we can’t not do it.
Do you contribute to the beers? Do you help craft the recipes?
No, not really. We’ll sit around and have sessions and we’ll talk through what kind of thing we want to do now, how we want to explore. Overall, do we want to grow a certain category or do we want to try a different style of beer? But it’s really mostly about the particular style we want to go after, then we’ll develop the recipes.
I know you guys do a lot of collaborations. How do those come about?
I think they mostly just sort of happen organically. That’s the way we like it to happen. It’s more fun, it’s a better story. I don’t know...I think if you commit to a strategy of saying, "Oh, we’re going to do X amount of collaborations,” then that’s one thing. But if you say, “It happens here and there,” you gotta be pretty selective about when it happens just because it puts a kink into your production schedule and the other beers you’re trying to put out there.
If you could pick one, what would you say is your best beer?
Oh, man, that’s the thing...that’s like which kid do you like better? I don’t know. I love hoppy beers. That’s sort of what we built our business on. I know there’s a lot of talk right now about it being trite or whatever. But I still love them. I think when we first brewed [Citra] Clencher it was the best beer we ever made.
Personally, I still think it is. That’s my favorite beer.
Yeah, I love Belt & Suspenders too. We don’t often brew Stompbox which is the base beer for Shadowbox. But I think that's also a phenomenal beer. I don’t know. It’s what you’re in the mood for.
Why Lyons? Why this building?
We got started with some other guys talking about building a brewery. They just had different ideas about it.
They were business partners?
SM: Yes. And we just didn’t see eye to eye on how to do it. Ike and I, however, were just in total lockstep. It was like, "Let’s build a brewery this size, that can make this much beer, and just get after it as fast as we can." So that’s how BuckleDown was really born.
Were you always planning on settling here?
SM: Not necessarily. I think we just lucked out. We didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about location. At the time, it was the guys in the city that were already doing great. Half Acre was well established, Revolution was only a couple years old at the time, but of course they were killing it. Then it was Naperville, Warrenville, [and] there was kind of a big gap. And we just thought, okay, where’s a place where we can get up and running pretty quick? So that almost totally eliminated Chicago. At the time our friend Brant was starting DryHop and it took him forever. So then, let’s find a spot we’re comfortable with, where we’d have customers that can come both from the city and from the suburbs, and was in an area where it wasn’t peppered with breweries already. That’s getting a little harder to find now, but yeah, we ended up here.
It just felt right.
It just felt right, yeah. It’s got the bow truss and to me, it reminded me a lot of Piece Pizza in the city. It was basically an empty canvas for us because it was an auto shop. So we had to put in the concrete and everything, but we walked in and it was like, "Don’t turn your back on it," because you hear horror stories of people saying, “Oh, this is great!” then they go back and it’s gone. It had almost everything we wanted except pedestrian traffic, and proximity to Metra would have been nicer. But everything else it had.
That’s pretty great. So the timeline on this was that you and Ike wanted to go into business together, and then you found this place, and opened your brewery. And that was all within one year?
Really? Wow, that’s pretty fast!
Yep! I think I have our early business plans from November of 2011 and we opened in December of 2013.
The name BuckleDown, where does that come from? And that ethos, which I think is pretty fitting for this brewery: “Work hard, work with your hands, make great beer.”
It’s certainly just hard work. Anything worth doing you just buckle down and do it. But I think Ike’s a doer, I’m a doer — that’s not to say we’re not thoughtful guys, and I think that’s a common misconception, that just because you like to work with your hands you aren’t taking things into careful consideration. But it feels good when you work hard and something comes out great on the other end. So we put that into practice with building out the taproom and we just did a lot of the construction ourselves and some of the electrical.
I don’t know. I think it still continues to this day in the brewhouse or the canning line or anything that requires maintenance, which a lot does in a brewery. We rather know why and figure it out and hopefully fix it ourselves than just to leave it up to somebody else.
Did you settle on the name before you even leased the space?
Yeah. I should show you some of the other names. They were all along the same lines. Chicago’s just that way, too. It’s just the stockyards and all the guys that worked building all the infrastructure and all the skyscrapers, and just all this stuff that’s happened here by people with grit. I mean, the place was a swamp, and they built a thriving city on it. It’s kind of humbling to be in a city so big with so much going for it that started that way. It’s kind of nice to give that a nod.
Do you know — do you ever ask anyone — how many people visit from the city and how many come from the suburbs?
Sometimes…in the beginning I used to, just to get a feel for it. I don’t anymore because I don’t really care. I really don’t. I want people to come to enjoy their experience and have good beer and maybe find somebody else to have a conversation with. If they find that they’re connecting over my beers and they’re like way different, but not so much, that’s awesome.
It’s a good experience every time I’ve been here.
I digress a little bit. So the difference between a suburban brewery and a city brewery. All I just hope is that we sort of mix the sentiment of both city and suburban breweries and individuals as much as we can.
If you could talk about your beers a little bit... Where do you see your beers, on the spectrum?
That's a big question.
Yeah. Let me just give you one specific example. Belt & Suspenders is our best selling beer. It’s an IPA, there’re a bajillion IPAs and we know that. There's even starting to be some sort of backlash on them, at least in the kind of beer-snobbery-world.
You think so? What do you see as the 'new' thing then?
Sours. Absolutely. And I think more lagering — more traditional European styles.
But, Belt & Suspenders — it was one of our first four beers. When we started there were four beers on tap and that was it. And we were high-fiving and like, “Woo! We’re open!” And it was also one of the ones that as soon as I tasted it I was like, “Damn Ike, what did you do? This is awesome.”
And I think back before all the darling hops right now, everybody was doing Cascade and Centennial and Chinook. And we love those beers. And then Three Floyds just exploded with Citra, Citra, Citra...which is a great hop and we use a ton of it too. But this beer was a beer we designed to be a little bit different. We designed it to be a beer that if you had a bunch of IPAs, there’d be a little bit more balance or something different to make you say, “I crave that beer. I remember what Belt & Suspenders tastes like and I want it again.”
The last time we chatted, you said you wanted to expand to the space next door. So where’s that headed? Where is BuckleDown headed?
Expansion for sure. How that looks might be different from the last time we talked. And this is just a matter of logistics. We thought about taking over that space next door but when we actually put the pen to paper and talked about how many barrels that would be and what it takes in terms of raw materials and forklift traffic and grain outs and all that — it just gets a little bit more difficult. But we’re doing our due diligence on it...
We have a couple years left on our lease so we’re here for a bit. It’s where we started so I would like to stay. But, who knows? Our barrel program is growing every year. I think it would be fun to turn this place into a barrelhouse and keep it as a taproom and build a production facility somewhere else.
Folks can find you in Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s... That’s a lot of production from a very small space.
It is, yeah. I’m very surprised and pleased by the kind of volume that, for example, Trader Joe’s is doing with us. And Binny’s, of course, has always been a really good customer. But there’s a lot to compete against in a Binny’s and it just keeps getting bigger and bigger. So it’s nice to be in a place like Trader Joe’s where they’ve committed to a local focus, or at least a regional focus. If someone is doing their due diligence and taking care of the stuff they sell, I love to be a part of it.
What beers are in the near future? Are you sticking with the usuals or are you going to try to look at anything new?
It doesn’t sound super sexy but we brewed a just-under 6% pale ale called Broken Rival that is fantastic. I wanted to can it right away. I’m really happy with it. It was totally a high five moment. I’m gonzo for it. So yeah, maybe in that regard we’re sticking to what we know well, but it’s super tasty.
Are there any beers that you’ve brewed that you just didn't really care for?
Yeah, but you’ll never taste it! In our short life there’ve been two batches that we’ve dumped. One was very, very early on and we were experimenting with a hop that was still numbered and it rubbed great and didn’t have a name yet. It was experimental. We decided to do a hoppy wheat beer with it and it just came out way too earthy.
What are you drinking when you’re not drinking BuckleDown?
Ha! Hmm... There’re a couple of beers that I always get when I go to the beer store. I’ve always loved Bell's Two Hearted. It’s a beer that kind of got me into hoppy beers — it’s a good beer.
Do you get the chance to visit other breweries in town?
For sure. I’ve always loved everything that Rev did and does. You don’t get to that volume that fast without doing a good job. Over the summer I had Dovetail's Lager and that was very tasty.
It would be great to call out a macro that I love, but I don’t really...
So Rev, Dovetail and Two Hearted. Not bad. You can leave off the macros then.
Yeah. Maybe that’s it. Bell’s is a pretty big brewery, right?
Yeah, they’re pretty big.
Photography by Melinda Myers.
Authored by Dominic Lynch, collaborator for The Hop Review. Lynch is a writer from Chicago, where he keeps a close eye on industry growth and trends.