What, another Kickstarter campaign? This time for a frickin’ craft brewery, instead of some band’s next record or an in-progress documentary? Can’t anybody just take out a small-business loan anymore? It’s almost like banks are only interested in helping people who already have huge piles of money.
Upstart mad beer scientists Beejay Oslon, 29, and Gerrit Lewis, 26, aka the Pipeworks Brewing Company, do not have huge piles of money. And they’re trying to raise $30,000 through Kickstarter by January 1. As of December 13 they’re just short of 18 grand.
Why should you help, assuming you have any damn money yourself? Because this gift will keep on giving back. If you help a band you love pay to make a record, you’ll have that record to enjoy, but barring a radical change in the music business the band will likely end up hat-in-hand again when it comes time to make their next album. If you help Pipeworks start their business, though, odds are good it’ll take off—in the first half of 2010, the Great Recession notwithstanding, U.S. craft beer sales grew 9 percent while overall beer sales fell 2.7 percent. That means Oslon and Lewis will be able to keep making beer without bothering you for free money again. I’ve met these guys, and one way or another they’re going to be making beer till they die. Given that they’re excellent at it—more on that after the jump—wouldn’t you like to be able to buy some?
Pipeworks has a group of investors on board who will match the $30,000 in Kickstarter funds if the campaign succeeds, enabling Oslon and Lewis to open a small brewery—”small” meaning a capacity of three 31-gallon barrels, about one-fifth the size of Half Acre’s facility—and an attached bottle shop where they can sell their own beer. (Local laws prohibit brewers from selling their own product directly unless the shop is in the same building as the brewery that makes the beer. Half Acre also takes advantage of this rule.) They’ll be able to sell growler fills immediately and bottles and kegs as soon as they’ve met the more complicated licensing requirements that apply in those cases—and at that point their beers will start showing up on tap at bars and on the shelves at liquor stores.
Oslon and Lewis hope to move into a space in late January or early February—they don’t have a specific location in mind yet, but they’re pretty sure it’ll be on the north side—and start selling beer within three to six months. Because of their small capacity, they’ll be able to respond quickly to customer demand for a particular brew—and to their own whims, which can get pretty whimsical. Little experiments are generally less expensive than big ones.
Both Oslon and Lewis apprenticed at De Struise in Belgium for a few months in early 2009, and it shows in the quality of their beers. Though De Struise has been in business less than ten years, in 2008 it edged out Three Floyds for the title of Best Brewer in the World at RateBeer.com.
I first encountered Pipeworks when I reviewed the Goose Island Stout Fest in March. At the time I wrote that Abduction, their Russian imperial stout, “has a long, complex profile that covers an amazing range of the flavors that a stout can have: hoppy and sweet up front, toasty and molasses-rich in the finish, with a tangle of notes in between that remind me of honey roasted peanuts, burnt toffee, and Kansas City barbecue.”
It’s been tough for me to try other Pipeworks beers since then, because of course they’re not for sale anywhere. This past weekend, though, Oslon and Lewis drove in the freezing rain from Humboldt Park to my place in Edgewater, where they tolerated my record collection for a couple hours (hello, Hammers of Misfortune!) while we shared hand-bottled samples of four brews they’ve been working on lately.
Their Belgian-style witbier, a modest 5 percent alcohol by volume, pours a cloudy gold and smells like fresh banana bread. It’s pleasantly dry and biscuity, with faint spicing from toasted coriander and fennel seeds and a lick of citrusy bitterness from Seville orange zest. Lewis tells me it’s brewed with chamomile too, but as someone who never warmed up to Sleepytime tea I couldn’t pick out that flavor—not with the Meyer lemon peel in the way, anyhow.
Pipeworks’ smoked porter uses 30 percent cherrywood-smoked malt and weighs in at 8.5 abv, which is pretty robust for the style. It starts on the sweet side—I was getting dark rum, raisin, and plum—and finishes astringent, with plenty of smoke. Smoked beers are often a tough sell—I’ve had more than one person tell me that rauchbiers taste like ashtrays—but the smoke flavor here, while pretty sharp, is less ashy and more fruity and woody.
I was especially happy to see that Lewis and Oslon had brought a Berliner weisse, since I love the style (especially in the summer) and there are so few decent American examples. They use the traditional “sour mash” method with a half-and-half blend of wheat and Pilsner malt, fermenting it not with a deliberately introduced yeast culture but with naturally occurring microorganisms, including airborne lactobacillus. The process can be alarmingly nasty, but it results in an easy-drinking beer (2 percent abv) that’s nicely tart and funky, with notes of lemon and peach and a bit of sourdough underneath. The New Glarus Berliner weisse I tried a few summers back was champagne-colored and almost clear, with a lot of spritzy carbonation, but this version is cloudy and full-bodied, with a stickier head and a lot less fizz. (It will allegedly be bubblier once it’s in production—drawing the sample from a keg and bottling it by hand let a lot of the carbonation escape.) Oslon dosed it in the bottle with a bit of the customary fruit syrup, in this case homemade raspberry—they’ve also experimented with mango—but to obviate the need for that step the Pipeworks guys plan to ferment this beer with different fruits, as well as making some uncut batches for the purists.
The most audacious beer Oslon and Lewis shared is a still-evolving experiment they’re calling Pastrami on Rye, a nod to Three Floyds’ Ham on Rye. It’s a strong dark rye ale (8.5 abv) brewed with a touch of smoked malt, piloncillo sugar, honey, and a ridiculous bill of spices, all of which turn up in the various rubs used to make pastrami: coriander, mustard seed, caraway, black pepper, red pepper, cloves, bay leaf, ginger, cinnamon, and allspice. (What, no juniper berries?) Oddly, when I put my nose in the glass, my first impression was that the beer smelled exactly like Dr. Pepper! That said, this is damn fine stuff, and it doesn’t taste anything like Dr. Pepper, which would’ve been even weirder—the sweetness is restrained and complex, like molasses, and the other flavors remind me of hearty black bread, licorice, and dried figs. Imagine a more accessible Bell’s Batch 9,000 (unless you’ve never tried Batch 9,000, in which case please excuse the obnoxious beer-nerd reference).
The drinking public is invited to see for itself at a tasting of Pipeworks beers this Friday evening at West Lakeview Liquors, where Oslon and Lewis met as employees. Seven beers will be available, including the Pastrami on Rye, smoked porter, and Belgian wit.
An even greater number of Pipeworks beers—a total of ten, if all goes to plan—will be among the many extraordinary offerings at Half Acre’s On Photon party this Saturday evening, in case you were lucky enough to get a ticket. (And hey, hit me up in the comments if you have an extra one to sell!)
One more time, here’s that Pipeworks Kickstarter page. The gifts they’re offering in return for donations include stickers, bottle openers, T-shirts, tasting glasses, and—if you’re somehow willing and able to pony up ten grand or more—a guided beer tour of Belgium.