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Five Upstart Breweries Work Side by Side at Chicago’s First Beer Incubator

September 09, 2019

By Megan Turchi, September 09, 2019

While in college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, childhood best friends Dan Abel and Jordan Radke would head to the liquor store and walk straight to the craft beer. “Instead of buying thirty packs of beer, which we still did sometimes,” Radke said. “We would always look for different six-packs of something local, something craft. There was always an instinct for us to try something new.”

Ten years later, Abel and Radke are still trying something new.

Meet Pilot Project—a brewery incubator located in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood—a space where homebrewers or brewing entrepreneurs can take the first steps towards opening a brewery of their own. Abel (CEO), Radke (COO), and their team, which includes Abel’s sister Mary (director of hospitality), work with these brewers to perfect their craft and provide them with the tanks and space to brew.

The rest of the Pilot Project team is comprised of head brewer Logan Helton and Brandon Kempf, who is director of coffee and a brewer. Helton joined near the early stages of the project and called his friend and roommate, Kempf, to come aboard—the duo met while working at Michigan’s Bell’s Brewery.

“Logan and I had almost daily talked about opening our own brewery before this became an idea,” Kempf said. Kempf joined on as a brewer, but also had some other brews in mind. “Originally the concept was just to do beer,” he said. “But I felt so strongly about coffee. I designed a coffee program. We do a lot of unique things.” Some of these things include a Parisian rose latte garnished with dried flowers and an old-fashioned of the non-alcoholic variety with housemade coffee tonic.

Pilot Project Brewing

Pilot Project opened in August with four breweries under its roof in addition to its own two brands. Pilot Project branded beers are sold exclusively in the taproom and currently include a house lager and house IPA. The team also brews under the name Brewer's Kitchen, which will soon be distributed across the city. Brewer’s Kitchen beers take influence from the global culinary industry, such as an IPA brewed with four different types of Spanish tea.

As for the rest of the brewers at Pilot Project, they couldn’t be more different and each have a story to tell.

Tethered Vines

Tethered Vines symbolizes the joining together of grapes and hops: a beer and wine combo. Founder Tyler Davis wanted to focus on using ingredients and techniques from both the beer and wine industries, creating a beverage that is a balanced mix of the two. Davis is working with a lab sourcing wild yeast strains and plans to travel across the globe to source his own ingredients. His next trip, he said, will be to the Willamette Valley in Oregon to harvest grapes and the Seattle area to get hops to use in a beer that channels the region.

“I have been noticing that the wine world and the beer world don’t talk to each other, but it’s the same processes,” he said.

He also works closely with his friend and sommelier at City Winery Chicago, Michael Schroeder, who helps him develop recipes. He plans to continue to brew at Pilot Project until he finds a space of his own. Once he does, he wants to make it a hybrid brewery and urban winery.

Odious Cellars

Odious Cellars began as a school project from Reeve Joseph when he was at Siebel, Chicago’s brewer’s school. He was tasked with creating a business plan and his own brewery. His focus was on blending and aging a wild and sour program. After graduating, he moved to Asheville, North Carolina to work at Wicked Weed. “I loved their sour side,” Joseph said. In 2017, he returned to Chicago to bring Odious Cellars to life, with the help of his business partner Tim Coe.

“I did a lot of test stuff at home,” he said. “[Such as] messing with different strains of brett and different methods of sour beer production.” He also has spent the last few years finding the right place to open a brewery, which he finally found—a movie theater in Logan Square built in 1918.

Joseph started contract brewing at Dovetail Brewery before finding Pilot Project. “That was the genesis of our sour program—sixteen wine barrels filled with various commercial cultures and bacteria and Belgian and sour beers,” he said. 

Joseph, who is now aging his brews from Dovetail in barrels at his own brewery space, wanted to start his operation with plenty of time before opening Odious Cellars, because his beers can take well over a year to produce. In the next couple of months, he will begin to brew additional beers at Pilot Project, that will be transferred to barrels at his Logan Square location. Currently, none of his sours are ready, but he said there will be some available at Pilot Project closer to his brewery’s opening next spring.

Pilot Project Brewing

Luna Bay Booch Co.

Bridget Connelly is a health and wellness marketing professional who has worked around the world for brands like Lululemon. During her tenure at Lululemon, she got a taste of Australia’s kombucha market. When she moved back stateside, one of her clients was a hard kombucha brewer.

“I see things become trendy here and eventually they move to the Midwest,” Connelly said. She worked with a designer to build her brand on nights and weekends, but there was a problem: Connelly didn’t know how to brew.

Connelly met her business partner Claire Ridge through a mutual friend last June. At the time, Ridge was making kombucha and selling it at local farmers markets.  “It was perfect,” Connelly said. “I had the brand and she had the product.” And luckily for Connelly, Ridge was willing to try hard kombucha.

Along with a sour beer brewer consultant and a microbiologist, Luna Bay Booch Co. was born. It’s available in flavors including ginger lemon and hibiscus lavender. Along with finding their beverages at Pilot Project, Luna Bay Booch will soon be distributed around the city.

Ørkenoy

When Jonny Ifergan was touring around the country with his band The Kickback, he often found himself in coffee shops and breweries. “I just got immersed in it,” he said. “I started home brewing eight or nine years ago and got obsessed.” He turned his apartment’s second bedroom into what he referred to as “a Breaking Bad meth lab,” but for beer and started throwing parties to see what people thought about his creations, which are often named after pets, like Mr. Sparkles Emerson, a farmhouse ale that tastes like “fruit loops on a farm on a cloudy breezy afternoon.”

When it came time to turn his hobby into a business, “I knew I wanted to create something community-based and give back to the arts community,” Ifergan said. He set his sights on Chicago’s Humboldt Park and brought on a business partner, Ryan Sanders, to handle the food aspect of the operation.

Then came the naming, which proved to be a difficult endeavor, as “everything we wanted to do in English was already taken.” He wanted the brewery to have a Scandanvian vibe and had a love for Kveik yeast, so he started looking for words in Norweigian, eventually landing on Ørkenoy, which in its native language would be two words meaning desert island.

Ifergan found a space at the Kimball Arts Center, which is set to open next year. His brother, who owns a chain of coffee shops called Dayglow in Los Angeles, will run Orkenoy’s coffee program, which will feature Scandinavian beans. Ifergan said he also plans to have artist residencies and find other ways to engage with the creative community. In the meantime, he is brewing at Pilot Project, where he—like all of the Pilot Project brewers—is getting his name out there and continuing to refine his brand.

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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