Like a lot of Chicago beer weenies, I got pretty heated up about Pipeworks Brewing in their early days. Heck, I started writing about them almost two years before anybody could buy their beer—first to review their appearance at Goose Island’s Stout Fest in March 2010, then again in December of that year, when they were raising funds on Kickstarter. In June 2011, I included Pipeworks in the Reader‘s Best of Chicago issue, declaring them the Best Craft Brewery That Doesn’t Exist Yet.
Pipeworks debuted at retail in late February 2012, and in that year’s Best of Chicago issue I named Ninja vs. Unicorn the city’s Best New Bottled Beer. I started writing Beer and Metal in the fall, and within six months I’d reviewed three Pipeworks beers: Abduction, Citra Ninja, and Raspberry Truffle Abduction.
I’m not one of those pathologically unimpressed snobs who’ve decided that Pipeworks beers have jumped the shark, but I decided to cool it with coverage till I had a big story, lest the reading public assume I was on the brewery’s payroll. Now that story has arrived: Pipeworks’ long-anticipated new facility, which has more than six times the square footage of their current space and will open with more than triple the capacity, starts making beer in less than a week.
Pipeworks have occupied a building at Western and Wabansia since late January 2012, where president and marketing director Gerrit Lewis figures they’ve brewed 178 different beers so far. The new space is near Armitage and Pulaski, and shares a wall (as well as a cement backyard “beer garden”) with Off Color. It should increase not just output but also efficiency and consistency, in part by giving brewers finer control over the parameters of the process—Pipeworks plan to use some of the extra elbow room to build a lab on-site.
The new brewery will make everyone’s job easier. “We’re not bumping into each other,” says Lewis. “We’re not fighting for water.” At Western, it takes four or five people to squeegee a spill to the drain, which isn’t even at the lowest point of the floor; the new facility, by contrast, has long trench drains that make the same mess a one-person problem. At Western, the crew have to grain out by hand, hauling the spent mash in a long parade of buckets and trash cans; the new facility has a forklift. And it’s safe to say nobody will miss washing kegs by hand now that the brewery owns an automated machine to do it.
Lewis, 31, is one of Pipeworks’ three founding partners, who met through jobs at West Lakeview Liquors; Beejay Oslon, 33, leads the art department and designs most of the labels, and Scott Coffman, 31, works as lead brewer. Pipeworks’ first proper hire was Drew Fox, who’s moved on to launch 18th Street, and today (counting the founders) the brewery has 17 employees.
With the move to the new space, the Pipeworks crew have formed a new corporation with three additional partners. Head brewer Will Johnston, 37, came aboard in November 2014 after more than 15 years in the industry, and manages the beer-making process “grain to glass,” as he puts it. He worked for Goose Island from 2003 till 2009, and in late 2009 he opened a brewery called Lucette in Menomonie, Wisconsin. In 2010, having moved to Saint Louis, he cofounded 4 Hands, who’ve collaborated with Pipeworks on a pair of double IPAs, Square Grouper and Black Tuna.
Mike Schallau, 26, also a former West Lakeview employee, began volunteering at Pipeworks in summer 2012 and became a partner in early 2014; he runs the barrel program and manages day-to-day operations. Kaighan Pigott, 31, also became a partner early last year, and started working full-time last August; he lived with Lewis in a dorm at Loyola and lent a hand on Pipeworks’ first bottling day at Western. He’s studied molecular biology and accrued some management experience in finance and IT, and he’s in charge of the brewery’s business operations.
The six of them haven’t had the easiest time securing financing: They’re mostly young enough to spook bank officers, with no collateral or assets worth mentioning. None of the partners owns a home, and some are still paying off student loans. The only thing they had going for them was a small but successful brewery that can’t make beer fast enough to meet demand.
Lewis says it took till 2014 for Pipeworks to land the small bank loan that helped pay for their six-head Meheen bottling machine. (They’ve never had any private investors—though my earliest posts mention unnamed benefactors who’d offered to match Pipeworks’ Kickstarter funds, that didn’t pan out.) The Small Business Administration loan that enabled the brewery to acquire and equip the new facility was much larger—about $1 million, according to a story last summer by Josh Noel at the Trib. Pipeworks signed a 20-year lease in February 2014. In February of this year, they pounced on the space next door (their future offices and barrel warehouse) when it became clear they’d lose it to another interested tenant if they waited to see how the expansion panned out.
The Western brewery is 2,600 square feet, with about that much more room in the basement, and Pipeworks currently produces about 1,800 barrels per year there.
The new brewery is 16,500 square feet, and the space next door adds 8,500 to that. Lewis guesses they’ll have room for 250 to 300 barrels, but none of the 50 or so at Western will make the trip—barrels don’t tend to get more than one use at Pipeworks. Once they’re emptied, the crew sells them cheap or trades them for two cases of PBR apiece.
- The future barrel warehouse. I’m told that the abandoned jumble of boxes and furniture in the corner includes an air-hockey table.
The brew house is a three-vessel, 30-barrel Newlands beauty, tweaked for high-gravity beers. So far the facility has 270 barrels of fermenters (two 90-barrel and three 30-barrel) and two bright tanks, one 30 barrels and one 90 barrels. With this gear, Pipeworks can hit 6,000 barrels per year, and the brewery has the infrastructure in place—concrete pads poured, glycol pipes hung—to add the stainless that’d boost production to 15,000. Johnston says the brew house could handle 90,000 barrels per year if they slammed it. Pipeworks will start slow, though, hoping to determine how much more of their beer the market can absorb before investing the money to grow any further.
Pipeworks want to devote their original space to sour beers, especially since Johnston has plenty of experience with such styles. (The cholos at Marz have talked about doing something similar with their original brewery once they move into a larger commercial facility.) And they still plan to open a bottle shop and growler-fill station in the former Rio Jiu Jitsu dojo one door south on Western. Lewis says it’ll take about six months to make that happen, and he thinks the shop might open by the end of 2015—but it’s worth remembering that this has been on Pipeworks’ agenda for at least four years, and that their plans have seemed firm since they posted about the shop on their blog in September 2013. I guess I’m saying don’t mark your calendars yet.
- I forget which piece of expensive brewery equipment is in the crates, but that’s 155,600 empty Ninja vs. Unicorn cans in the background.
For the beer-drinking public, these big changes at Pipeworks mean one thing first and foremost: cans. Four-packs of 16-ounce cans, specifically. Bombers often cost a brewer more than the beer inside them, Lewis says; aluminum cans (much cheaper at roughly ten cents apiece) are less expensive to produce, so retail prices can end up lower. (The profit margin is typically smaller on cans, but high volume helps make up for that.) Until now Pipeworks hasn’t been able to scale up enough to make large-scale canning possible, since the necessary space and equipment require so much capital—the canning line at Pipeworks represents a six-figure investment all by itself.
What do I mean by “large-scale canning”? The single truckload on the floor at Pipeworks now—the smallest order a brewer can make without getting upcharged—consists of 155,600 preprinted Ninja vs. Unicorn cans. Spiteful sneaks under this hurdle by buying smaller lots of blank cans and labeling them by hand.
Big numbers like this will make it possible for Pipeworks to sell a four-pack of Ninja vs. Unicorn for $11.99, which might not seem like a great deal—until you compare it to bomber pricing. Even assuming that you can find a big bottle of this lovely double IPA for $9.99 (in my experience, $10.99 is more common), that’s still about 45 cents per ounce. Sixty-four ounces at $11.99, on the other hand, is less than 19 cents per ounce. That’s a drop of almost 60 percent. I’ll finally be able to afford to drink this stuff again!
Also on their way in four-packs are the hoppy stout Close Encounter ($11.99), the hoppy red ale Blood of the Unicorn ($10.99), the Mosaic-hopped pale Lizard King ($9.99), and the session ale War Bird ($8.99). Ninja vs. Unicorn and Blood of the Unicorn will both have slightly slimmed-down malt bills in cans—the former will fall to 8 percent alcohol from 8.5—but they’ll be hopped the same as before. And of course no canned beer will continue to be packaged in bombers.
Thanks to their roomy new digs and the economies of scale, Pipeworks can also keg more of its beer—usually a very low-margin undertaking, not least because on average around 5 percent of empties are never returned to the brewery that owns them. As of last November, Pipeworks sold just 6 percent of their output in kegs, but that’s already up to 18 percent.
The Pipeworks crew still self-distribute their beer in Chicago—in Illinois, any craft brewer making 7,500 barrels or fewer can legally do so. But they’re working with distributors elsewhere: at the end of June they’ll launch in New York State, and later this summer they’ll grow into Colorado. Down the road they have plans for the rest of Illinois.
Lewis says the inaugural brew date for the new facility is June 21, which means the first cans should start arriving in stores July 9 or 10. Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines.
To sign off I’m posting a track from Toronto black-metal experimentalists Thantifaxath, who played at LiveWire Lounge last month. (Did anybody make it to the show? How was it?) “Violently Expanding Nothing” appears on the band’s self-titled 2011 demo. I don’t mean to throw any shade at Pipeworks with the “violently” and “nothing” parts of that title—it’s really all about the “expanding.” And none of the “expanding” songs I could find with more neutral-sounding titles were worth a shit.