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Talking Beer And Kittens With Pipeworks Brewing Company

By Erika Kubick in Food on Nov 19, 2014 5:10PM


Chicago’s craft beer boom has given rise to a unique problem: quite simply, there’s too much good beer. This presents the plethora of local breweries with a challenge to make their brews stand out among the glut of artisanal ales and lagers.

Enter Pipeworks Brewing Company, beer deviants slinging outlandishly spirited brews befitted with fanciful labels featuring roaring colors and wickedly clever descriptions. Since debuting in March of 2012, Pipeworks has done nothing but stand out and develop a cult following thirsty for their unique, ever-changing brews. Restaurants all over the city are scrambling to add the iconic wrench handle to their draft lineups or large-format bottles to their beer lists.

To find out just what makes Pipeworks so alluring, we sat down with Mike Schallau, known as “Strong Mike,” who has worked with the brewery since August 2012 and has dabbled in all of the inner pipe-workings. Schallau walked us through the process behind the extravagant brews, conversed about the slew of cats that roam the brewery and divulged on the future, including a second brewing location slated to open next spring.

Like most of the crew, Schallau's passion for beer began at home. Similarly, in the early stages of their home-brewing careers, co-founders BeeJay Olson and Gerrit Lewis spent time mastering classic Belgian beer styles and experimenting with their own home brews before embarking on their vagrant, one-off style of brewing. Even before they opened the Bucktown brewery, the duo created a name for themselves by frequently dominating at home-brew competitions and became a major influence in the online home-brewing community. Their professional careers took off through Kickstarter. Once Pipeworks brews became commercially available, they rapidly gained popularity and began appearing on shelves across the city.

Photo of Mike Schallau Courtesy of Pipeworks Brewing Company

As production went up, the staff grew to include a collection of introverted beer nerds, each with an avid experience in home-brewing. These collective minds at work have produced some of the most farfetched yet, just as importantly, well-executed beers that Chicago has seen; their reputation for experimentation is matched by that of refinement. “We do a lot of weird beers, and add a lot of weird things to beers but all of us can only do that because we spent such a chunk of time brewing boring, normal beers and learning how to make them right,” says Schallau; “we don’t brew to style, we brew to taste.”

While the ambiguous style is part of Pipeworks’ charm, it can leave some drinkers without a grounded expectation for how the beer will taste. However, most of the styles that categorize all beer are rather dubious. “Most beers classified as pale ales are actually IPAs and a lot of IPAs are double IPAs, and so on,” says Schallau, “so we use style to subvert expectations. A lot of these beers don’t have a real style.” For example, Cinnamon Beer D-O’s, a cereal-milk inspired brew, is described as an imperial cream ale, though it doesn’t drink like one. The beer isn’t even very rich, but rather lighter and clear in color with a sweet, cinnamon-muddled cereal-milk quality to it. “That has become the aesthetic here, seeing what the logical extension of flavor is,” Schallau says; “we don’t find ourselves constrained by categories.” Nevertheless, while the brewery emphasizes creativity, it’s their aggressively hopped IPAs that are the flagships. “Most people have never heard of a white Russian imperial stout,” explains Schallau, alluding to their The Big Lebowski-inspired beer, “but they’ve heard of an IPA.”

Creating the unique brews is a collaborative effort. The process begins with a meeting once a month, where the team pitches their ideas. “This might sound weird, but we never really look to do something weird or something outside of the box.” Schallau insists. “It’s just the natural occurring ideas for us.” No beer is any one person’s, but the result of collaboration. Each brewer brings a unique knowledge to the mash, whether it’s the secrets of homemade bitters or the inner workings of brewing equipment. The team has gotten so well-versed in producing unconventional creations that they typically don’t test-batch them, but roll right into production

Pipework’s current location is an inconspicuous charcoal-colored 2,500 square foot building at the corner of Western and Wabansia. The brewery has three stories: a basement for barrel-aging, the main level with a beer-flooded brew room equipped with 12 fermenters, six brite tanks and a lofted office space. On a typical day, there are between 6 and 12 beers fermenting, blasting music that spills into the street and an array of cats wandering about. While cats in a brewery sounds strange, they serve as mousers, chasing away rodents that are attracted to the malts. Pipeworks is fated always to have more than one on staff. “Gerrit is like a magnet for cats,” Says Schallau. “Everywhere he goes, there’s some sad cat waiting for him.” Kwingston was the first, and then came Symcoe, Bona, and Hazel. When Pipeworks first purchased new property in Logan Square, they found a litter of kittens living in the wall, which the staff saved by laboriously bottle feeding.

Photo courtesy of Pipeworks Brewing Company

Looking at their social media accounts, it seems only natural that Pipeworks are cat people. Since they have no PR representative, the marketing is based solely out of social media channels, like Facebook and their blog. “We try not to do it in a way that’s a list of the beers that are coming out or the events we’re doing. It’s just a glimpse into what we’re doing today.” Brewer Kate Brankin mans the sites, using her snarky sense of humor and inventive storytelling skills to interact with the brewery’s cult following. The blog features short, quirky narratives and pictures inspired by the beers, mirrors of the real life characters brewing the beer. “This is kind of a cool forum to express another venue for how we’re creative,” Schallau says, “and it’s social. It was the only thing that could let us speak, before the beer was in retail stores.” The honest, candid profiles serve as a lesson in marketing, from a business with no experience in the topic.

When Pipeworks first started, they only sold 22-ounce bombers but the brewery is moving more in the direction of draft beers. Recently, they secured a semi-permanent draft at Hopleaf in Andersonville. Their new brewery located at 3912 W. McLean will be 16,000 square feet, much larger than the current space and closed to the public. In addition to expanding production of kegs, they plan to regularly release both favorites, like Ninja vs Unicorn, and select seasonal brews in 16-ounce cans. Fan-favorite beers in large format bottles will also return to retail shelves, so look out for new releases of Blood of the Unicorn, Thor, and more. While they’ll still release experimental bombers, this will no longer make up the bulk of their output.The new location will begin production next spring, and Pipeworks is planning to open an off-site tasting room and retail outlet space next door to the current location.

Perhaps anticlimactically, there is no business secret here. The team at Pipeworks is just insanely talented at brewing. They have the knowledge, the skills, the creativity—all of the right elements fell into place to make Pipeworks a success story. It just goes to show that if you pursue what you love and are good at, people will take notice. Chicago certainly is.