- The palatial headquarters of Illuminated Brew Works. I could tell you what those video games are doing there, but then I’d have to kill you.
If you were going to start a brewery—and don’t tell me you haven’t thought about it, you beer-column-reading person—how would you get the money? (For rhetorical purposes, I’m assuming you’re not independently wealthy.) Would you hit up family and friends? Run a Kickstarter? Beat the bushes for private investors? Grovel for a bank loan? (Good luck with that!) Lots of great breweries—if not most of them—have chosen one or more of those routes.
But maybe you don’t want to be accountable to anybody. Maybe, even though you’re trying to start a business, you remain stubbornly averse to capitalist whoring and wary of debt. Maybe you’d rather hang on to your day job for as long as possible and rely only on money that comes out of your own pocket—to the point that you’d put heavy brewing equipment on your credit card.
That’s the narrow road Chicago’s Illuminated Brew Works has taken. In August 2013 its founders, head brewer Brian Buckman and business maestro Matt Shirley, secured a cheap West Loop space (on Sangamon between Kinzie and Hubbard), and IBW beers made their first festival appearance that November at the Beer Hoptacular, where my colleague Julia Thiel encountered them. Since then, operating without the capital infusion necessary to finance a big pro-gear, pro-attitude launch, Illuminated has ramped up gradually, increasing in size from “imperceptible” to “tiny.”
- The ROA mural again, with head brewer Brian Buckman in the frame for scale. That’s the aftermath of a yeast spill on his hoodie.
IBW’s two Hoptacular entries, 50% Chance of Death and Death Is the Real Drag, were collaborations with DryHop and Hamburger Mary’s, respectively (Illuminated didn’t have its own license at the time). Julia ranked them among her favorites of the evening, and they established IBW’s bona fides as beer weirdos to be reckoned with: the former was 40 percent cider, brewed with saison yeast, cardamom, and Szechuan peppercorns; the latter was a sour dunkel brewed with black cherries and black pepper.
Illuminated began distributing to local bars in February 2014, beginning with just eight accounts, but because it wouldn’t secure its license till October, it brewed at Une Annee—the single five-barrel fermenter that IBW now uses in its own space lived there instead. I had my first taste of Illuminated’s handiwork at an August 2014 event at Goose Island’s Wrigleyville pub—the American citrus saison Orange Sunshine was the best new-to-me beer I tried that day.
- You’ve probably spotted the skateboard decks hung up around the room. Buckman and assistant brewer Jason Monk met through skating—Monk knew an underground indoor half-pipe at Grand and Grace.
Buckman, Shirley, and assistant brewer Jason Monk have been able to manage their expenses for a year and a half while selling very little product—even today their output doesn’t top ten barrels per month—because from day one their plans have included a slow start and extremely low overhead. As they told the Hop Review last month, their landlord is a friend they’ve known since long before they moved in; their scandalously affordable rent includes water and electricity, no small matter for a brewery. “He helped us out with some of the construction as well,” Buckman says. “He really likes what we’re doing with his building.” Monk suspects the turn-of-the-century edifice used to be a bakery: “The walls are three feet thick,” he says. “Those bricks go all the way to the exterior. This building is gonna be here forever.”
- The Illuminated Brew Works logo reflects Buckman’s fascination with turn-of-the-century secret societies. Another IBW sticker reads “Enjoy with people you trust.”
Buckman continues to work as a project manager for a mobile app company; Shirley has a job with Arlington Heights caterer Gourmet 45; and Monk, who manages Grover Welding in Skokie, has been a welder and fabricator for more than 20 years. Rather than hire a contractor, Monk and Buckman broke up a section of the original cement floor with a sledgehammer themselves, so that a friend of Monk’s could pour a new floor and install a trench drain. And Monk used his skills as a metalworker to retrofit used food-processing tanks into IBW’s brew house. (Its vessels are of mixed sizes, so that despite having a ten-barrel tank its output is about seven barrels.) Buckman estimates that all the gear in Illuminated’s brewery, with the exception of the aforementioned five-barrel fermenter, cost a total of just $3,500 thanks to this DIY approach. The ten-barrel brew house at DryHop, he says, while vastly nicer, probably set those folks back more like $250,000. Even the two-barrel Psycho Brew system that Pipeworks started out with costs more than $12,000 new.
Buckman and Shirley, who’ve known each other for nearly 25 years, had their first inkling about a brewery in 2008 or 2009—at first they thought they’d open a community brew space, but soon they began scheming about a brewpub in Oak Park. In no time, though, that turned into a migraine-inducing clusterfuck. “More than anything it was the investor aspect of it,” says Buckman. (I’m still quoting the Hop Review—he told me more or less the same thing, but I didn’t write it down.) “It caused stress on our relationship, which sucked. . . . 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.”
The Illuminated crew may want to build a working-class brewery, but they’re still business owners, and they’d like to expand—by the end of the month, they plan to install a ten-barrel fermenter (so they no longer have to brew partial batches) and a small bottling line for high-gravity special releases (Buckman says he hopes to use the same style of 750-milliliter bottles that Jolly Pumpkin does). And by the end of the year, they’d like to have four ten-barrel fermenters online—an increase in capacity of about 800 percent. Buckman, Shirley, and Monk will continue to pay for everything themselves, and they’re prepared to carry some credit-card debt to do it.
Maybe most important, last month IBW hired two part-time sales reps, Arman Mabry and Sam Eaton, and when I talked to Buckman the two of them had just sold ten kegs in three days. (That’s a lot for Illuminated, at least at this point. I wasn’t being mean when I said “tiny.”) Arman is an old friend of mine from my garage-rock years—in 2001 we drank lots of nasty beer together as bandmates in the White Outs—so it was a pleasant surprise to hear his name.
Illuminated has around 15 regular accounts now, including Twisted Spoke, Jaks Tap, the Local Option, Fountainhead, and Logan Arcade. Buckman is especially proud that his Brown Reason to Live (basically a low-alcohol Belgian-style dubbel, named after the Butthole Surfers’ first LP) has been the only beer on draft at Parachute since October. IBW self-distributes, of course, and Buckman says the brewery will keep that up as long as possible—in part because that’s the best way to make sure clients get the attention they need to keep them coming back.
And about those beers! I tried a few on my visit to Illuminated, of course (I’m not made of stone). Everything Buckman and Monk have brewed so far uses one of a variety of Belgian yeasts—a focus Illuminated shares with Une Annee and Penrose.
I started with a not-yet-carbonated sample of Kallisti (7.4 percent alcohol), a “golden apple ale” brewed with Calypso hops, pilsner and Munich malts, unmalted wheat, La Chouffe yeast (one of Buckman’s favorites, along with Rochefort), and no apples of any kind. It does smell like apple, though, as well as pear, honey, and something floral that reminds me of young coconut, pandan leaf, and honeydew melon. Buckman and Monk don’t care for sweet beers, and Kallisti finishes cracklingly dry, with a whisper of sourness.
Illuminated’s first concession to the market for hop-forward beers, a Belgian-style pale called Hasselhopf (5.8 percent alcohol), uses Columbus, Cascade, and Amarillo hops. Like Kallisti, it’s brewed with pilsner and Munich malts, which give it what Buckman describes as a “grainy, biscuity crunchiness.” The hops contribute citrus, peach, and mango, with a rounded, berrylike bottom like blood orange; the fruit flavors neatly balance notes of juniper and white pepper and a crisp, frosty bitterness like white grapefruit pith and wintergreen.
The “Extra Special Belgian” 2-Headed Dog (5.8 percent alcohol), named in tribute to the Roky Erickson song, stitches together a British ESB and a Belgian pale. Brewed with New Zealand hops, Rochefort yeast, and a combination of English and Belgian malts (Maris Otter, Special B, and dark crystal), it smells a lot like a dubbel, with black cherry, raisin, and tobacco in the nose, but once you take a sip, that dark fruit gets cut clean through by a faintly smoky toastiness and a dry, nutty finish. This is a beautifully rich beer, especially considering its modest alcohol content, and might’ve been my favorite of the day.
Pazuzu’s Pedals (5.8 percent alcohol), a Belgian-style porter, is definitely one of Buckman’s favorites. Its aroma combines dried fig and apricot, black cherry, toffee, and roast malts; on the palate, bittersweet chocolate and unsweetened coffee tangle with mellow, peachy tartness. Despite its lushness, it feels almost thin, but as a result you can keep drinking it for as long as you keep enjoying it—which could be for quite a while.
- Pazuzu’s Pedals has lovely garnet highlights when held up to a strong light, but I can’t hold a beer this size and take a decent picture of it at the same time.
My last beer was a barrel-aged version of the Black Maw (8.1 percent alcohol unaged), a “Black Abbey Stout” that on my visit still needed more time in the Few rye-whiskey cask where it’s been relaxing. It’s brewed with what tastes like a metric shit-ton of licorice, which underlines the fruitiness of its Rochefort yeast and complements flavors of dark chocolate, booze, and vanilla.
- This sign reading “Sharp Flying Object Therapy” was intended to accompany a knife-throwing entertainment at an Illuminated event that never happened. Knife throwing and beer! What could possibly go wrong?
You can try 2-Headed Dog on Thursday at Quenchers, when Tijuana Hercules, the Columbines, and Buckingham Palace SVU play a $5 show. Buckingham Palace SVU, in case you were wondering, features Arman Mabry (“bass and schadenfreude,” in his words) and Jake Acosta of Famous Laughs on drums. “You will be absorbed into the machinery, so just fucking relax, please,” says the Facebook page for the event.
On Monday, February 23, Illuminated hosts a tap takeover at Table, Donkey and Stick, pouring Kallisti, 2-Headed Dog, and the Black Lodge, an homage to Special Agent Dale Cooper and Twin Peaks—it’s a special release of the Black Maw, brewed with Metropolis coffee and black cherry puree. Food pairings are in the works for all three beers.
- No fire pit is complete without a crucified skeleton. Illuminated plans to start throwing parties and having concerts out in the yard come June.
IBW has a busy spring planned, but I’ll stop with an event on Friday, March 6, at Fountainhead, when the bar will pair local beers with local whiskeys. I’d expect to see 2-Headed Dog there too.
Buckman is the metal guy at Illuminated, and when I asked him about his favorite bands, he said the magic words: “Electric Wizard.” So to sign off I’m posting “Funeralopolis,” from the 2000 album Dopethrone. If you don’t want to wait for the guitars to get loud, you can just skip to 1:29.