Pipeworks' Big Plans for Small Beers

This is The Feast 14, in which we highlight the most anticipated projects of the new season. Here now, brewer Beejay Oslon explains Pipeworks Brewing, Chicago's newest and smallest beer company.

The city's craft breweries seem to be expanding in size. Cases in point: Goose Island's recent buy-out by Anheiseur-Busch and Revolution Brewing's enlarged second-floor lounge. But when Pipeworks Brewing Company opens this fall, it hopes to do exactly the opposite. The small-batch focused brewery is helmed by two first-time beer makers—Beejay Oslen and Gerrit Lewis— who've been doing things their own way since the start. After successfully funding the brewery through online fundraising tool Kickstarter, the pair plans to eschew flagship beers in favor of a rotating menu of out-there creations. The Feast spoke with Oslen to find out why smaller is better.

You're not going to have signature beers. Why not?
Right, we won't have a flagship beer. At least for the first year, we're going to keep doing what we've always done, which is to take a sort of mad scientist approach; we're always experimenting. Over the last five years of brewing together, we've developed some great recipes which are sure to come up, but we'd like to keep it fresh and not have the same beer out all the time.

You and Gerrit Lewis met at West Lakeview Liquors. How did you learn about beer if you've never worked in a commercial brewery?
I tried to get a job in a brewery, but with only so many in Chicago, it was hard to find one to get my foot in the door. Gerrit and I started homebrewing together, one thing led to another, and we more or less sent an email to Urbain Coutteau of De Struise Brewery in Belgium, who at the time was the number one rated brewer on RateBeer.com. He was like, "Yeah, sure, you can come stay with me for a while." It was really that easy. We stayed out there for three months, doing collaborative beers and festivals.

What's different about your beers?
We’re really small. We’ll be the smallest brewery in the city, only doing about 500 barrels in our first year. We could see that rise to about 1,200 barrels by the time we’re at our maximum, but that will still be way less than any other brewery in the city. It will allow us to put that much more attention into it.

Do you have a specific style that you favor?
That’s another reason why we don’t want to stick to flagship beers. There are so many different beer styles that it’s kind of weird to limit yourself to one or two. We’re going after it like a restaurant that changes its menu every week. We’re using what’s in season and what’s interesting and inspiring to us that week. I will say that we’re mostly doing ales as opposed to lagers. We’ll also be doing a lot of Berlinerweisses.

How can people try your beers?
We’ll have a 2500 square foot space opening at Western and Wabansia, which will include a bottle shop and space for a significant barrel program. It’s not a place you can sit down for a drink, though. I’m sure eventually you’ll see our bottles at a couple of liquor stores, and then definitely in restaurants and bars. We want to work closely with the restaurant scene, because that was a big inspiration for this. Things that I can put in my mouth are awesome—be it beer or food.

What's an example of one of your wackier beers?
We have a beer called Pastrami On Rye. The idea is to use as many ingredients of a pastrami on rye sandwich as we could, minus putting brisket in the beer. We use all the spices that would be used in curing pastrami, plus caraway seeds and rye and smoked malt. Strangely, the beer ends up tasting like a Christmas beer because of the ginger and coriander notes. It doesn’t taste much like a pastrami on rye, which is probably a good thing.

Are you trying to buck the establishment?
I don’t want to be contrarian. That is not at all why we brew the beers that we do. I’m going to brew beers that I want to drink. Even though IPAs are an overdone style, I love IPAs, so you better believe there will always be a great IPA each month at Pipeworks. There are no rules to what we’ll do. [The Feast]

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