Pipeworks Brewing Company has developed quite the cult following (mostly due to their grassroots social media presence and successful Kickstarter campaign) since their inception in 2009. Not bad for a brewery who only started releasing their beer to market in March 2012. They have been Illinois Craft Brewers Guild members since 2010 and co-owner Gerrit Lewis invited me into the brewery (located just south of the North and Western intersection in Wicker Park/Bucktown) to show me around and answer some questions.
As you walk through the front door of Pipeworks Brewing Company, you are in what is currently half business office/half grain storage. But soon (hopefully by October) this will house the bottle shop where eager beer aficionados can purchase merchandise, coveted bottles, and growler fills. Lewis lead me into the brewery proper where co-owner and Head Brewer Beejay Oslon and Brewer Scott Coffman were both laboring away sans shirts due to the extreme heat in the brewery. While Oslon was checking on the beer, Coffman got the task of re-rolling 5,000 labels that had been rolled the wrong way by the manufacturer. “It’s not all glamorous,” said Coffman.
There was no brewing going on the day I was there. Rather, it was bottling day where Pipeworks’ Poivre Rose, a refreshing, slightly earthy/slightly sweet Saison brewed with pink peppercorns, was finding its way into bottles to be hand-delivered to stores across Chicago. At the bottling line I recognized new Illinois Craft Brewers Guild member Brad Shaffer from Spiteful Brewing as well as Drew Fox from 18th Street Brewery. These two young men are still waiting for various licenses to come through so they can start brewing at their own respective breweries but, in the meantime, they are gaining valuable knowledge from the Pipeworks boys. “I’m just waiting for TTB [Alcohol and Tabacco Tax and Trade Bureau] approval. Might as well learn while I’m waiting,” said Fox. “With all of the different nano-breweries that are popping up, they’re all kind of doing the same thing as us. So, it’s like, if you want to figure out how to do this at this small scale, come over here. They will get better experience over here than at a bigger, ‘real’ brewery. I mean, we’re a real brewery but the brewing is still very much homebrew. We have a homemade bottler, things like that. We’re still learning how to do this too” said Lewis.
After the tour and pouring me a glass of Poivre Rose directly from the holding tank, Lewis lead me back into the office so I could conduct my interview.
Illinois Craft Brewers Guild: You have been on the market for a few months now. How has the response been?
Gerrit Lewis: Great. It was great because we had a very focused marketing effort before we started brewing. Pipworks has had its presence in some shape or form since 2009 when we went to Belgium to work with De Struisse and brewed out there. So we built this big Facebook following, especially from the donations and Kickstarter. We had 7,000 fans on there before we even sold any beer. And the funny thing is that in the last five months that we have actually been selling beer, we STILL have 7,000 Facebook fans. We haven’t gained any! So now it’s time to go back to the marketing thing, and reach out to attract more customers. But it was really cool to have that built-in customer base with people just waiting to try your beer. But now you’ve done it. OK, cool. Now it’s time to get some other people to try our beer.
This could have been a totally different situation if we were trying to do something other than what we’re doing. We’ve had comments on Facebook saying ‘Oh, your labels don’t look alike!” “You’re not making a flagship beer, you’re changing the beers up constantly!” That could be a problem if we didn’t have a built in core group of fans. [Our fans] are looking for those different beers. It could confuse the hell out of someone if you try to build a brand the other way.
ICBG: As you just mentioned, you had a successful social media and Kickstarter campaign prior to your launch. How have you maintained that presence? Has your approach to social media changed now that you are in the market?
GL: I think there will be more of the same, more of the grassroots stuff. But maybe we’ll find something else to get people excited about. We get letters and calls and emails, and I’m sure every [brewery] gets these same ones from people at the bigger marketing firms saying, “Oh, I really love what you’re doing! Now if you hire us…” If you really love what I’m doing then why are you calling me? Why are you calling me? I don’t have the budget to do a marketing campaign! A NASCAR team called us one time and said, “Hey! We can put your sticker on our racecar for this one race for some 5 digit number!” These kinds of salespeople have no idea who they’re cold calling. We are going to continue to do grassroots stuff, similar to what we’ve done before on social media, it’s not going to be a TV commercial or radio commercial or something like that.
ICBG: You have been successful in launching a brewery. What advice can you offer to the new crop of breweries opening up in Chicago over the next year?
GL: Just know what you’re doing, first of all. Honestly, it took Beejay [Oslon] and me four years to figure out what we’re doing. And we changed our business plan so many times, we changed our concept so many times. Pipeworks is always going to be about making the best beer possible. But at the same time it’s ‘OK, how are you doing this?’ It changed almost daily as the market changed or how our knowledge changed. So, the more research you can do, the more professional experience you can get, and not just brewing, also sales, marketing, running the business, all of those things, the more focused you’ll be when launching. It’s not just, “Oh, I’ve got great homebrew.” OK, you’ve got great homebrew, but how are you going to market it, sell it. Just do your due diligence. Take it one step at a time. Don’t leap in over your head.
My advice for smaller breweries that are opening up in our situation, you just have to think everything through a million times from start to finish. And every different, possible way that it can [go wrong].
ICBG: You guys started as homebrewers. What advice would you offer to homebrewers who are looking to take the leap to professional brewer?
GL: I guess hands on experience is the most important thing. You know, a lot of homebrewers are like, “I’m going to Siebel” or this other course or I’m taking this course online. That’s great. That’s really good. But that needs to be in conjunction with some hands-on experience because that is where you really learn the most. I mean, I am going to go and take some of these courses myself because they are valuable, but it’s only in conjunction with the time I’ve spent in the trenches.
ICBG: How did you learn the business side of brewing?
GL: I was actually more of a beer drinker. I’m very analytical and I love to drink beer so I was always on ratebeer.com, buying every beer I could, rating it, drinking it, analyzing it (even though I may not know what the hell I’m talking about). And Beejay’s always been a great homebrewer and he’s also got a science background, so we connected kind of on that same level, analytically. He actually taught me how to homebrew right when we got back from Belgium. So I didn’t really know anything about brewing beer. I mean, I kind of did but not really. So we started brewing twice a week for about six months. I learned almost everything from Beejay, in that sense. And the business side, the marketing side, was something that I was very familiar with. Beejay also has an art degree, he’s very artistic, so he was the other leg on that part. So it was good that we complimented each other perfectly.
ICBG: You are a member of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild. How has the Guild supported you so far? What are the benefits of being involved with the Guild?
GL: The Guild’s awesome! It’s cool because when we first got back from Belgium, we got to sit in on one meeting and we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, we were just sitting there quietly, observing and whatnot. We didn’t really understand what the Guild’s role was until we sat in on that meeting. Josh Deth was just about to open Revolution Brewing and I think he had just joined the Guild and it was cool to see that things were changing in Chicago. Of course, it is really cool to be a part of these events that are coming up sponsored by the Guild. They are yearly events that seem to have gotten better and better with each year. They have a lot of the kinks straightened out and they are having a lot more participation. So I think that’s the greatest thing about the Guild. Strength and presence, I guess. Breweries can do all of this marketing by themselves where it maybe seems to a regular person like we are competing with the big guys or with one another. But when you do an event like [Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers] and the likes, it really brings everyone together. What’s good for you is good for me, at this point.
ICBG: Will you be pouring at any upcoming beer festivals?
GL: Oh, yeah! We’re just so small that we don’t have a ton of beer so it’s harder for us to do it. But yes, next year, for sure. When we are able to start kegging beer (we’re basically just doing all bottles right now) and we can start setting stuff aside, barrel aging stuff, and having fun with it, then we will be at the festivals.
ICBG: Many of the bottles on the market currently are pretty big; 6% alcohol by volume or higher. What are your plans for brewing more sessionable beers?
GL: Of course we plan to brew more sessionable beers, and that goes along with the bottle shop. At the moment with our current packaging situation, we can’t put a 4% sessionable beer in a bomber, even if we sold it for $4.99, that’s still not a great value. So when the bottle shop opens, we will do growler fills and you can get your 4% or 5% beers, those that are made to drink fresh.
ICBG: When can we expect the bottle shop to open?
GL: At the earliest, we are looking at late September, at the hopeful latest November. But we are really aiming for hopefully October. But you never know with this city and when they will get back to you with permits or if you will fail inspection because they want something else somewhere.
ICBG: How has the experience been opening a brewery in Chicago?
GL: Opening the brewery portion in the city isn’t hard at all compared to other hurdles. The brewery you can do with almost any zone. You can do a brewery almost anywhere, it’s not really an issue, as long as your building has a good structure. The thing with a bottle shop or a brewpub, you are getting a liquor license. With a brewery, you’re not getting a liquor license; you’re basically just doing some ‘manufacturing’ in a sense. So it’s been ok up until this point. With the liquor license, though, you have to go through a Task Force Inspection, which means you have to be prepared for a Task Force Inspection. So to be prepared you have to do everything to a stricter code, which costs a lot of money.
ICBG: When can we expect your beers to be on draft at restaurants around Chicago?
GL: There are a few restaurants that have contacted us but we are not going to be able to have any kegs for them for the time being. We will be able to give them bottles, though. Our distribution is never going to go much beyond 40 or 50 accounts from this location, including restaurants or bars. Right now we are at something like 24 different places. I don’t see us expanding past that in the next 18 months or so, though.
ICBG: How are you distributing your beer?
GL: Self-distributing. Absolutely self-distributing. And that’s one of the reasons that the [SB 754] law was written, I know it wasn’t the entire reason, but that is one of the reasons that part passed. It would be very, very difficult, if not impossible, for us to do what we are doing, without self-distribution. It is super valuable for all of those breweries starting out that are below or at Pipeworks’ size. Literally, I put the beer in the back of my car, a couple cases at a time. It’s a pain in the ass, but it gets the job done!
ICBG: How did you formulate your business plan of only brewing one-offs rather than going with the more common plan of having a set list of flagship beers?
GL: Well, we always kind of wanted to do that. We always liked what Jared Rouben gets to do over at Goose Island Clybourn Brewpub. He’s crazy! He just brews a different beer all the time. I mean, you’ll see some of the staple Goose Island Brewpub beers but he just gets to brew an experiment with a different beer all the time. And that’s fun. That’s not only fun for the brewer, that’s fun for the drinker. I know I go to Goose Island specifically because for that. ‘Oh, let’s see what he made this time.’ You get a flight and you can try three or four different beers.