Can you give some history on your brewery? When was it started? How did it get its start?
Enlightened Brewing Company was a work in progress starting in 2013 and we first started selling beer in the winter of 2015. I got the ball rolling as a home brewer and a bartender/regular at some of the craftier beer places in Milwaukee (Cafe Centraal is where I did a lot of serving and learning, but we would also hang out at Sugar Maple, Palm Tavern, Romans Pub, etc). I had a home brew system that kept getting more and more elaborate and I knew I wanted to work in the brewing industry for a living so I took that system and installed it at the Lincoln Warehouse in Bay View on 1st and Becher. From there, it was a learning process to figure out how to take a glorified home brew system and turn it into a fully licensed commercial production brewery. It was a lot of wrangling of permits and authorizations at every level of government as well as figuring out how to start and run something as a business. I and a previous partner in the business started brewing beer in there in 2014 while figuring out how to get the rest of the pieces in place. At that time, my previous partner and I were both bartending and using that income to pay the rent for the business and get the things we needed to grow it into a viable production brewery. One of the last pieces of the puzzle was getting our Wisconsin Brewers Permit, but we found out the hard way that tied-house laws prevent anyone from owning/working/operating on any two tiers of the alcohol system (the three of them being manufacturing, wholesaling/distributing, and retailing). Since we were working as bartenders, and also owned a fledgling brewery, they wouldn’t give us the state brewers permit unless we quit our existing jobs. That would have been all well and good if we were starting up with a bunch of money, but our income from tending bar was the thing keeping the business afloat until we could start making and selling beer. At this time, James and I had just met and my previous partner wanted to leave the business. James had just finished up his master’s degree in brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland and was working a production internship at Bell’s in Michigan when our friend Rob from The Sugar Maple introduced us. James was looking for a brewery home and I needed a partner to keep things moving, so it was a match made in heaven. I quit my job as a bartender and worked the most terrible job as a Captioning Assistant at Captel (It was terrible for me, anyway. Cubicles are NOT my style) while the brewery got off the ground selling beer. At that time we were brewing 15 gallons at a time, fermenting in one barrel tanks, and finishing in a 3 barrel bright tank. That meant that every beer we did required 6 batches on the brew house to go into 3 fermentation tanks to go into 1 bright beer tank. James worked his ass off making beer (along with Mike, who started as an intern but is now our Head Brewer), and we maxed out that brewery which was on the 2nd floor of the Lincoln Warehouse in a 500 square foot space. We didn’t have the space for a tap room, so at that time it was production brewing only for wholesale. We sold to bars and restaurants around the Milwaukee area for a while until we realized that we needed to grow and we desperately needed to open a tap room. Not only does a tap room provide space for people to come see what we do and where, it also generates the cash flow that can really sustain a brewery with the ebb and flow of wholesale. Furthermore, we can serve the beer directly to people and tell our story as well as get important feedback straight from the source. There was a space available in the Lincoln Warehouse that we felt we could turn into a bigger production space and still have an area for our tap room, so we rented it and began build out. We did a ton of work in there – painting, digging a trench drain, building our cold storage – through the Spring of 2016 and finally opened the tap room in July of 2016. Our new 3.5 barrel brewery came a month later and that’s what we’ve been working with since! We’re very happy to be in the neighborhood we’re in, and to be doing this full time. These days, we have a few employees: Mike is our head brewer and Joe is our assistant brewer/cellar man. We also have a few people serving beer through our tap room. We have 4 year round beers in a Priori Pale Ale, Kettle Logic Amber, Prototypical Porter, and Cream City Brix Cream Ale and we try to keep 4 unique beers on tap with rotating styles of seasonal brews.
What makes your brewery unique?
Our brewery has always been really scrappy and personal. We’ve done a TON of the work ourselves and with family and friends who lent a hand. We didn’t start out with a ton of money or any investors, so it’s definitely been a big DIY passion project. We couldn’t have got where we are today if we were just in it for the business opportunity or the money: if you get into beer for the money, you’re in the WRONG line of work. 😉 I think we’ve created an atmosphere with our tap room that reflects our attitudes about work, comfort, and building something that’s your own. Another thing that might set us apart is our style choices when making beer. We didn’t set out to make our entire lineup sessionable, but those are the beers that have formed as ours over time. Our style is “keep it simple” and we feel that you don’t have to over-complicate beer for it to taste good. That’s not to say that we’re not interested in complex recipes or in taking risks with barrel aging or kettle souring etc. We recently make a dark ale with maple sap that wasn’t brewed with any water – it only had the maple sap as hot liquor, wort, etc. We bottled that one up as a special release for our one year anniversary on July 15th of this year. We just believe that you don’t need to re-invent the wheel when it comes to beer. German breweries still conform to the Reinheitsgebot and they make an incredible variety of amazing beers. As a small brewery in the U.S. we’re free to take whatever risks we want in making beer, or not. Mostly we try to make really solid examples of styles that we enjoy drinking.
How is your beer connected to the local area?
Our neighborhood (and our city) is a big asset to us. The bars and restaurants that we loved going to helped us to get going when we first hit the streets selling beer. The people that own these places are our friends and neighbors and they’re really great people aside from owning great businesses. It’s just an honor to be a part of a community like we have here in the craftier areas of Milwaukee. Not only that, but being a brewery offers us the opportunity to use our product to help different organizations raise money for their cause. We’ve worked with people raising money for schools, parks, river revitalization, community centers, food banks and even personal health battles. It’s nice to have something tangible that we can offer people to turn around and use to raise money for a good cause. And all of that goes to help something in our own proximity with people that live and work around us. Also, we sell our beer to bars and restaurants just in the Milwaukee area, so they’re ambassadors for our beer as much as we are. I think it helps that they know who we are and what we represent and vice versa.
What efforts do you make to be environmentally friendly?
There’s no doubt about it, brewing beer is pretty water intensive and can have an impact on the environment. Being a smaller brewery, we have a smaller footprint than others, but we still try to do things efficiently. We have systems in place to reclaim process water so that we can use it again on another brew or for cleaning. We’ve composted some of our grain with anyone in the area that’s interested. A lot of the farms that would take our grain are a little far away for our old Dodge truck and coordinating with farmers to pick it up can be difficult. We all live in the neighborhood, so we’re walking or biking to work.
Was the expectation of building and opening a brewery different from reality?
I would say that since I didn’t have any experience working in a commercial brewery, the experience of building and operating a brewery is all new to me. We all knew it would be a lot of hard work, and that expectation has been met tenfold. I would say that something I didn’t expect was how accommodating and collaborative other breweries would be. From everything you hear about “business” there’s so much competition and you’d be forgiven if you thought it was all cutthroat. Especially in beer where tap line and shelf real estate is limited and the number of breweries is exploding every year. But what we’ve found, at least in Milwaukee, is that every brewery is interested in working together – from the crafty forefathers like Lakefront, Sprecher, and MKE to the new kids on the block. Even a huge company like Miller has found ways to work with smaller breweries, like including Milwaukee craft beer in certain areas of Miller Park. We all have events together and share knowledge and best practices, sometimes ingredients if we need them. It was pretty refreshing and unexpected and I hope it continues.
Is there inspiration behind the beers you make? What is your flagship beer?
As I mentioned before, our goal is to make solid examples of beer in styles that we enjoy drinking. We like to name our beers after things that will get people thinking or talking or searching on wikipedia, so a lot of the names have philosophical inspirations. The concept of “a priori” knowledge is part of Immanuel Kant’s framework and it’s still pretty confusing even though I have a bachelors degree in Philosophy. Basically it describes something that’s true by definition. We also have our Kettle Logic Amber – Kettle Logic is a type of argument where you have a bunch of premises that are true on their own but fall apart when you use them together for a wider argument. From our beer names to our space, we try to create dialogues while focusing on enjoying the beer that we put a lot of work into. While it’s a lot of work to churn beer out on a smaller system, fresh beer is great beer and we move through our beer quickly enough that it’s almost always super fresh.
Our flagship beer is probably our Cream City Brix. It’s a beer that we didn’t make until we got on our new system in the new space in the Lincoln Warehouse, but it’s been our top seller and it’s the one we drink the most of. It’s a light bodied ale in a style that’s been around since before Prohibition. Essentially it’s the ale version of German lagers. Crispy, clean, and very drinkable. We named it in honor of the Cream City Brick that is prevalent in the city of Milwaukee. “Brix” is a measurement of sugar that’s used more in the wine and cider industries, but the object of the measurement is the same: You figure out how much sugar is in solution before you add your yeast, and then figure out how much is left after the yeast have gone to town so you can figure out the ABV of your liquid. It’s a little punny, but we love puns.
General info about the brewery: Location, hours, tours (if applicable), etc.
Enlightened Brewing Company is located on the edge of Bay View at the Lincoln Warehouse at 2018 S. 1st Street, Milwaukee WI 53207. Our taproom is open Wednesday 4-10pm, Thursday 4-11pm, Friday and Saturday 3pm to midnight, and Sunday Noon-5pm. We don’t offer tours, but if you come to the brewery, the entire operation is on display and we’d be happy to talk you through how we make the liquid. We’re also dog friendly inside and out, as long as the dog is people friendly. We have a little outdoor patio for the non-winter months. You can find our beer around Milwaukee if we’re not running too short, but a few places that are very supportive are Sugar Maple, Palm Tavern, Draft and Vessel, Braise, Meraki, Easy Tyger, Odd Duck, Fuel Cafe on 5th Street, Morel, Palomino, Honey Pie, and Valentine Coffee in Oak Creek.
The warehouse we’re in also contains Eagle Park Brewery and Dock 18, which is Twisted Path Distillery’s tasting room. Every so often we’ll have food trucks come by, so it can be a great place to make an evening out of!