The newest Chicago brewery in the Pipeline has Belgian roots.
I think I really pissed off Beejay Oslon. But he’s a very forgiving soul. He’s one of the three founders of what may be the next brewery to open in Chicago, potentially later this year.
Speaking with him, I called the brewery Pipeline. Twice. It’s not Pipeline. It’s Pipeworks Brewing Company. Pipeworks. Remember that name. Once it gets up to speed, it could be the next big thing on the Chicago – or even the Midwest’s – or even the country’s – brewing scene. Pipeworks has some solid cred.
Through collaborations with some of Belgium’s most respected brewers, the Pipeworks team has already turned out several well-reviewed, awesome-sounding beers. The catch is, you may have to take a plane to Europe to try them. More on that later.
So how did three guys working together in a Chicago liquor store start turning out world-class-reviewed beers distributed throughout Europe? Let’s let Beejay tell his story.
“I went to art school, and I’d been homebrewing for about three years. After I graduated art school, I had a plan to become an artist, so I started doing some work through galleries, and things like that.
“I realized I hated the art scene. While I love doing artwork, I didn’t like doing the whole showing off the artwork, and dealing with dealers and whatnot.
“One day at lunch with my girlfriend, we were at the Handlebar [2311 West North Avenue, Chicago], which is a nice little beer bar restaurant, and I was kind of bummed out. I was like ‘Aw, I don’t know what I’m doing.’ And she’s like ‘Well, you really like brewing. Why don’t you try to pursue professional brewing?’
“That was kind of the day that I really clicked over. So I started looking into Siebel and whatnot, and the price kind of scared me. [Siebel Institute of Technology is, arguably, the finest training ground for brewers from all over the world, located on Clybourn Ave. in Chicago.]
“So I ended up getting a job at West Lakeview Liquors [2156 West Addison Street, Chicago], to try to get the inside scoop on the industry. And I figured it’s the best beer retailer in the city, so it’s best place to meet some brewers or distributors, and just learn more about the industry. And that’s where Devon Cunningham and Gerrit Lewis and I all met. Both of them had the same kind of epiphany, and had gotten jobs there as well. Through talking, I found out that Devon was a homebrewer as well. So we started brewing together occasionally, and sampling beers, ‘cause we were all major beer geeks – before we ever thought about opening a brewery.
“Devon actually went with West Lakeview Liquors to tour Belgium, and that’s where he met Urbain [Coutteau, an owner of Belgium’s De Struise Brouwers], and that’s where the initial conversation with him took place about us possibly coming out and doing an apprenticeship. So, about 9 or 10 months after we were working at the store, we basically quit, up and left for Belgium.
“So Devon and I went there – the two most brew-forward (at least to start with) guys – we went up there for three months, we got to live on Urbain’s farm, basically live and work with them for three months, which was a pretty incredible experience, as you might imagine. We did a three-month apprenticeship at De Struise, which is famous for Black Albert [an Imperial Stout], Pannepot [a Belgian Strong Ale], and Dirty Horse [an aged, open-air fermented Cherry Sour Ale]. [Remarkably, all three of those beers were among the very few in the world to get a rating of 100 out of 100 on Ratebeer.com – although note that Ratebeer has a bias toward big, in-your-face beers.]
“So while we were there, aside from the normal work of helping him brew his beers, he also gave us the opportunity to collaborate with him, and with another brewery, Picobrouwerij Alvinne.
“We actually got to brew a couple of recipes, with our branding on them. One of those beers was Pipedream [an American-inspired IPA, brewed at Alvinne, which receives a 90 on Ratebeer], which was a collaboration between all three of us … it’s actually still being brewed and produced and being sold in Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden and Italy right now, with a possible chance to be imported into the United States coming up sometime this year.”
With De Struise, they also produced Pipeworks Xenophon’s Wine, described as an American Strong Ale, with a 94 from Ratebeer. Again, it’s currently available only in Europe, unless you happen to run across Beejay, Devon or Gerrit locally. They might offer you a swig.
According to Beejay, there’s a significant, growing interest in American and American-style beers in Europe.
“When we were there last year, more and more bottle shops were starting to carry [American] things … I think I had a Flying Dog IPA on draft at Delirium Café [Brussels, Belgium]. All the bottle shops – people are really craving some of these American IPAs, and the Imperial Stouts especially. So the market out there is growing. There are rumors that Stone [a Southern California brewery, best known for its Arrogant Bastard Ale] is thinking of opening a brewery in Europe, to cut out the shipping costs. So the market out there is growing.
“While we were working at the farm, some of the distributors and importers would come by, and taste our beers. They were just so excited – ‘As soon as you guys open, we’ll take a full container of pallets.’ While we won’t be up to supply that kind of quantity initially, there’s definitely interest, so there’s room for expansion that way.”
But the Pipeworks guys are realistic. They understand it could take, at least, several weeks before they challenge InBev for world beer domination. First they have to find a space.
“We’re really trying to move into a space within the next 2-3 months, then start the acquisition of equipment. And then the biggest burden is always, like, once you’re all installed, you have to file your paperwork, which can take upwards of another 2-3 months. You’re just paying rent and waiting. We’re hoping to be going by the end of the year, beginning of next year at the latest.”
Half Acre established itself initially through a contract brewing relationship with Sand Creek Brewing, in Black River Falls, Wisconsin. Why not take that path for Pipeworks?
“We decided to sidestep the contract brewing. With most of our recipes, they’re pretty high-gravity, high-alcohol beers. We don’t exactly trust the contract brewers to brew the same way we would.” So we’ll have to wait for locally-brewed Pipeworks beers.
But once they get going, “We really want to focus on the high-end market. We’ll have 22 oz. bombers, for most of our releases. Our beers will probably average in price about $8.99 for a 22 oz bomber, with prices going up to $11.99 depending on gravity of beers, barrel treatments and things like that.
“We’ll be doing harder styles. We want to start a sour program right away, a lot of barrel aging stuff …
“We like Belgians a lot, but we’re also really big into hoppy IPAs, Imperial IPAs … our two favorite beers right now that we’re planning on producing are an Imperial Stout called Abduction. That’s going to be a 12 – 13% ABV Imperial Stout, most likely with some portion barrel aged or oak aged.
“We also have a [Scottish-style] Wee Heavy, that clocks in at about 9% called Last Kiss, and that’s brewed with a little bit of vanilla and some other spices with a really extended boil. We tried to brew it somewhat traditionally, then kind of switch it up a little bit on the secondary, with some spicing and stuff, more to compliment the flavors rather than to make it a big vanilla brew.
“We’ll be making a whole slew of different IPAs. We’re working on a Belgian-style Double IPA right now, with Szechuan peppercorns. We like to trick things up a little bit.
“We’ll also have some lower-gravity beers like a Belgian Wit, some English-style Milds, regular ABV IPAs, and those things will be available by draft only, at least initially until we can get a bigger brewhouse. We’re looking to start with a seven-barrel brewhouse with maybe two turns a week.
“We’re bottle conditioning all our beers – there’ll be no forced carbonation whatsoever. We’re taking a lot of the tricks that we learned out in Belgium back home with us.”
It’s an exciting time for beers and brewing in Chicago. We’re lucky to have Pipeworks in the pipeline.
Forgot to mention Pipeworks’ third beer – available only in Europe at present:
As described by Pipeworks:
Hopverdomme is the third of our Belgian collaborative series. The name comes from a flemmish curse that, as a brewer, you use quite a bit… Godverdomme!!! As we worked in Belgium, we found ourselves using this phrase more and more. So when it came time to name our new IPA, it seemed fitting that we should use the play on words, which translates literally to Hop Damnit. Again we coupled our American inspired hop schedule with a Urbain’s grist bill and mash schedule. The final product is a highly drinkable IPA loaded with fruity hop flavors and a pleasant bitterness.
The face on the label comes from one of Beejay’s own oil paintings. The element of oil paintings is a theme which finds it’s way into all three of these collaborative brews, sometimes overt, and sometimes more discrete. The painting in Xenophon’s Wine is from Guido Reni’s “Drinking Bacchus”, of course with some key elements changed. In Pipedream, the clouds come from a fitting source, the work of Belgian Surrealist, Rene Magritte. You can look forward to this marriage of fine art and fine beer in our upcoming label art. We hope you enjoy.