This content was originally published by The Hop Review, a digital magazine that joined the Hop Culture family in March 2020.
This piece was written by Tom White.
THR’S 100TH INTERVIEW
INTERVIEWED NOVEMBER 4, 2016
AT PIPEWORKS BREWING COMPANY – CHICAGO, IL
There are few Midwest breweries that consistently generate as much buzz as that that’s generated by each Pipeworks Brewing Co‘s bottle release. Unleashing dozens of bizarre and creative concoctions each year, the brewery has encountered plenty of hype and success since its inception in 2012. Once housed in a cramped space in Bucktown, the operation has since expanded impressively into a large facility in West Side’s Hermosa neighborhood. With that, Pipeworks’ core lineup of canned brews are much more widely available, though that hasn’t stifled the flow of weird and wonderful bottles that still make it out into the local market.
With all of the growth, ebbs and flows, and experimentation the brewery has seen in just a few short years, one employee has bore witness to it all–current ‘Master of Barrels’, Mike Schallau. Starting as an unpaid intern–simply ‘fixing things that needed fixing’–he’s now the man responsible for maintaining the brewery’s ever-growing barrel program. We met up with Mike, for The Hop Review’s 100th interview, to chat about this expanded barrel-aging program, among other things. Over a few of his award winning beers, we dug into the early days of the brewery, hype, their unique approach to distribution, and how he fell into the role of barrel caretaker–all while dodging a small army of brewery cats along the way.
Let’s start in 2012, the early days of Pipeworks. You’d been here since the beginning?
I came in about six months after they actually opened. Beejay [Olson] and Gerrit [Lewis] are the two founders. They met working at West Lakeview Liquors and went to Belgium to intern at a brewery called De Struise for a couple months. We were so small back then–I started here as an intern. Most of the people in managerial positions started here as interns for like eight months, unpaid. Then we got hired for $10 an hour. And now, we’re running this stuff.
The name ‘Pipeworks’, we’ve always been curious, where did that come from?
Beejay and Gerrit had planned to do a collaboration with De Struise. The guy they were working with said, “Ok guys, what’s the name of your brewery again?” They’d gone through a bunch of ideas—’Da Vinci Brewing,’ ‘Flying Machine Brewing’—and then they just said, “Pipeworks, I guess?” There’s really no meaning that I know of, or at least one that they can articulate.
Just spur of the moment, then. How did they manage to execute the brewery after that?
And it worked, obviously.
It totally worked. It’s a weird thing, because people make fun of Kickstarter breweries nowadays. And I’m like, “Hey, we were a Kickstarter brewery.” We even hear it from people who are fans of ours, who forget they gave money to our Kickstarter. It’s just proof that people get misconceptions about origins of breweries. All that really should matter to you is how good the beer is and if those people are assholes. The two most important things.
We were recently in New York City and your beer was recommended to us frequently. How long have you been out there?
Less than a year. Since we moved in here [the new Hermosa brewery], we’ve been sending stuff out there in a trickle. We work with a distributor out there called Sarene and they’re kind of like us—a bunch of early 30s, late 20s guys who left a place called Union Beverage, the big distributor out there, to start their own craft-only operation. They’re super cool guys.
Why continue to self-distribute here versus signing on with distributors in other markets? That sounds like a lot of unnecessary work at this size.
There’re a lot of reasons not to self-distribute. It is hard work and these guys work their asses off. But it allows us so many benefits, that it’s almost silly to us to have to go through a distributor. We get that direct contact. We don’t have any one person we’d call a ‘sales rep.’ All of our drivers are knowledgeable enough to be a sales rep. They don’t take orders or anything, but it’s so much better to have the person who’s giving you the beer be the person who can actually speak to the beer. There’s that and the fact we can capture an extra 30% of revenue this way.
The majority of that goes right back to paying people, for the vans, and all the stuff it takes to get you the beer. But a chunk of [the revenue] doesn’t, so we can allocate that to a different part of the brewery. There are no quotas we have to hit saying we have to sell a certain amount of X beer. And no one knows anything else here. We like it the way this is. We’ve figured out a system that really works pretty well. In Illinois, you’re going to have to be a better distributor than we are of our product. None of them are going to be. It’s not possible.
So why change that philosophy in New York? Just the unknowns of a new market?
While we’re self distributed in Illinois, there’s a cap on how much you can make. With this place being as large as it is, we hit that cap. So, we now have to sell everything after 7,500 barrels to a distributor of some sort. In the markets we can control, we’d prefer to be totally in control. In New York, we found people who were really just kindred spirits to us. They were small and young, and we were going to be the biggest thing in their portfolio almost immediately. That was super important to us. Everyone makes an American Pale Ale, so why would we go with a distributor that has 15 other APA’s they’ve been selling for years?
Where are you from originally?
Connecticut, about 45 minutes outside of NYC, on the Long Island Sound.
How did you end up in Chicago?
Well, my mom is from the South Side of Chicago and my dad is from Iowa. So it was kind of an anomaly that I ended up in Connecticut at all. I came back here for school and went to DePaul.
What did you study?
I went to their music school. That’s kind of why I work in beer… I was super employable after college, haha.
We’ve run into a lot of ‘broke’ artists who’ve ended up in the beer world.
Totally. One of our founders has a degree in Fine Arts Portraiture [laughs]. Another guy has a degree in Journalism. Everyone else who started volunteering was in photography, creative writing, music, or had no college degree at all.
The band of misfits.
A total band of misfits.
It’s really a relatively recent thing for someone to go to school for brewing, in the US at least.
Yea, of people I know who actually work in brewing, I hardly know any who actually went to school for it. Nothing in Chicago is really big enough yet that they could employ people like that. Those people don’t tend to start their breweries without a more organized plan. You have to do a lot wishful thinking–and ignorance of reality–to actually start a brewery. When we started, it made no sense on paper.
So, you graduated DePaul, and then what?
I had basically a non-profit arts management degree from DePaul. I didn’t get hyper specific or have raw marketable skills. I’d spent two years taking non-profit arts classes. I thought I was going to be a lawyer, so I applied to a bunch of law firms doing paralegal work. I was going to do that for a couple years to see if I liked it, then go to law school. I got brought back to a few second or third interviews but by then I was writing emails saying, “I’m not coming back.”
What brought you to Pipeworks?
I was a homebrewer in college and I was dating a girl who worked at Half Acre at the time. So I was getting to know people in an industry that I thought was really interesting. So while I was just floundering around looking for any work to make some money, I started working at West Lakeview Liquors. I worked there for about a year. While there, I met these guys, Beejay and Gerrit. They were still driving the beer around, doing all the deliveries themselves out of the back of their tiny hatchback.
So how does one get a job at Pipeworks?
One day, I kind of had a day off, and just wandered into the brewery. All of a sudden, I was volunteering. They’d just say, “Can you grab this and bring it over there?” “Yea, sure!” I just kept coming back. I tend to look at stuff and think I can do that better. I started doing that stuff and then would move along to the next thing. They’d kind of opened two businesses—a distributor and a brewery. Two or three people couldn’t really handle it all themselves. So us as volunteers stepped up to fill gaps.
And now you have the title of “Master of Barrels.” As someone with no “raw marketable skills,” that’s an impressive move. How did you get into that?
While I was working at West Lakeview Liquors, I also got really into Bourbon and I would bring samples from my home collection into the brewery. When they started up this program, they said, “We think you should be in charge of the barrel-aging program because you know Bourbon really well.” That was all of my qualifications.
Sounds like a serious challenge.
I was like, “Oh shit, I’ve gotta learn.” There are no books and there were no YouTube videos on how to Bourbon barrel-age beer. But there were people. And there were people that lived here. So I asked a bunch of people I’d met if I could sit down and talk to them about how they did it. I asked really stupid questions that now are really obvious. But, then, I really had no idea. I talked to Jared Rouben who was the Goose Island pub brewer [now Moody Tongue] at the time and had just won four medals at FOBAB. I talked to Pete Crowley [Haymarket] briefly. I talked to John Laffler [Off Color] for a little bit. I just pieced together what they were saying about how to handle the barrels, how to make sure you don’t infect your beer, and general best practices.
That’s a whole lot of pressure to put on someone. Were you able to take it at your own pace?
Well you can’t really do it at your own pace. You just have to go for it. That’s why I wanted to try to gather as much information as I could up front. They used to ask, “Well, when is it done?” I’d say, “I don’t know–when it tastes good.” There really is no metric for when it’s done. If you’re brewing a beer in stainless steel, like an IPA, there’s gravity numbers you can hit, and once it’s there you do X, Y, and Z. But at least the first time we did this, I had no idea how long it was going to take.
We were a Kickstarter brewery so we didn’t have a lot of money to sit on a batch of beer for a really long time. We were working pretty much in the model of Net-30 terms with our malt distributor. So within the two weeks to make and package the beer–and the two weeks to sell it–we could pay for that malt and maybe have some profit. When I’d say, “We’re not even going to taste these barrels for six months,” they’d say, “What the hell are you talking about?” The first week and the first six months are roughly the same thing. Then you get into all the things that make really good barrel-aged beers so rich and robust.
Now you have this huge, climate controlled barrel room. How did you handle these barrels in the old brewery space, on Western Ave?
It really wasn’t a decision at the old place. It was, ‘this is what we have.’ The decisions come in knowing which variables you can’t change and which things you can. At our old place, all of our barrels were in a basement–and so were our glycol chillers. I don’t know if you’ve ever gotten really close to a refrigerator that’s been running for a really long time, but the outside is super hot. There were areas in that basement that were 100°. There were other areas that were 60° or lower. We would have these little micro-seasons down there, and it caused some beers to age differently. I started moving barrels around, putting them in different parts of the basement so they all got aged in a slightly different way. When you’d blend them back together, a lot of different notes came from it.
Moving from that basement space to here must’ve been exciting–or were you disappointed a little, as you’d finally figured out your ‘system’?
Oh, it was excitement. As cool as it was to be able to put stuff in places that I thought would turn out different ways and have that blend together, it was way, way harder. I had to bring every barrel down one at a time, fill them in place by cutting a hole in the ceiling, pulling a hose through, and connecting it to the barrel racking wand downstairs. Then we’d need to pump up the finished beer by doing the reversed. All the logistics were so much more difficult.
So, you’re Master of Barrels. What are you looking for in a finished beer? Take this Jones Dog we’re drinking for an example. How has that changed in the new brewery?
This is a milk stout with cacao nibs and vanilla beans that’s aged in Elijah Craig 12-year old barrels, for 11 months. In the old place we would be at about nine months. It’s a little longer here because the temperature fluctuations are less. We don’t taste our barrels for the first six months. Then we taste them every month or so after that, then after a couple of months, you taste them every couple weeks, then you start tasting every week, then every day.
What you’re looking for is the oxygen ingress into the beer starting to be detrimental. You can taste when it’s going to start turning, so I pull them out. This one get’s a four hour boil—while almost all of our beers get one hour boils. There’s a higher percentage of character malts than there is in the normal Jones Dog just to bring out those characters that will get covered up by sweetness, vanilla, and bourbon over time. To me, I get a lot of chocolate on the nose. I think it integrates really well with the barrel character. We try to use the barrel as an ingredient, not just a place that holds the liquid for a while.
Pipeworks’ barrel-aged beers have been very infrequent releases in past years. What’s the plan moving forward now you have this new space?
There’re two ways of looking at it. One is that we try to make the same exact Jones Dog every time. The other is that we try to make the best possible version of Jones Dog every time we make it. That’s kind of the school of thought we’ve bought into. So if we get 35 barrels again, we’re going to use them to make Jones Dog. The way we’re planning on handling barrel-aged beers is a little different than a lot of people. Instead of having one huge release once a year, we’re just going to be constantly releasing small batches of the same beers and variants.
That’s great news for Pipeworks fans. Hopefully that makes them a little easier to come by.
I hate the idea that ‘it only gets released once a year–it’s super rare.’ Then you sit on it for two years in your cellar and you don’t really like it. In my mind, if we’re releasing 100 cases of Jones Dog every other month, I’d prefer that to releasing 600 cases of Jones Dog once a year. I think it will change how people perceive them. If these beers really are as good as people rate them, the rarity really shouldn’t have any effect.
There’s no doubt some beers are rated highly simply because of rarity. And hype often stems from that. Pipeworks definitely had to deal with that early on.
Yea, there’s definitely hype, and we’ll definitely lean into that sometimes. But I think the hype really happened because we were only making seven barrels of beer at a time. We only had four tanks to start off with so we really could only make a few beers a month, and only as many as we could afford. It wasn’t like were were purposefully not getting people beer—it was just the constraints of how we had our business going.
Wasn’t the original plan to never brew the same beer twice?
I think it gets mischaracterized that we would never brew the same beer again. The original intention was to re-brew beers that people wanted—ferociously wanted–again. But we also were a bunch of people with weird creative degrees. So, we had a lot of weird creative ideas. Not that other breweries don’t have a lot of ideas, just not people that are so fervent about having their ideas actually out there in the real world.
It would be interesting to compare the ratings of Ninja vs Unicorn back when it was in a hard-to-find bomber, versus today when it’s more commonly available.
I look at those things in a couple different ways. In a vacuum, everything would just be blind tasted and it would just be about the liquid. But, except for competitions, that’s never going to happen. There will always be some context for how people are drinking. So even though it frustrates me that there’s hype on these beers and that might be inflating the ratings, reminding myself they’re never going to be drank without the context of what they are, makes it a little bit more okay in my head. We’re not wholly unaware of that. Art effects how you rate things–where you drank it, who you were with…
When you really break it down, all we’re doing is making a liquid that should help you enjoy the time you’re spending with it. If there’s some sort of placebo effect because of the perceived hype, or the can looks cool, or because you saved it for so long, that’s still a legitimate way for them to rate it. But it can get frustrating, as the person who makes it.
Will we ever see a Pipeworks barrel-aged sour?
We’re not going to do that here. It’s just not worth it to us right now. You just hear so many horror stories about people who have incredible SOP’s and operating procedures and things that, on paper, should preclude them from having issues, and it still happens. But eventually down the road we might.
Who are some of you favorite barrel-agers, not named Pipeworks?
I like trying new stuff all the time. I don’t have a cellar at home. It’s more of an ideological thing where I don’t believe in cellaring beers. I’ve seen people review them and yes, it’s not as good as it would have been if you’d drank it a year ago. So I don’t do it, and that makes it hard to drink a lot of other barrel-aged beers to be honest with you. Bourbon County Stout is still incredible–and the benchmark. I like trying what my friends are making. Half Acre is starting to have a barrel-aging program and I’m excited to try that. I don’t drink all that much barrel-aged beer outside of work. I drink a good amount of it here. I can’t drink more than a couple ounces of it when I’m out somewhere.
Alright, how do you describe Pipeworks’ ethos, to people who are new to the brand?
It’s the idea that when you make a beer, you have all the options open to you…of what you can do. It’s not just hops, barley, water, and yeast—it can be anything.
It’s this idea that all creative pathways are open for this vessel, be it the liquid or the art.
Photography by Jack Muldowney.
Cheers to Mike for stepping out of the barrel room to show us around the new facility, and share a couple bottles of Jones Dog and Hyper Dog for our 100th interview. Pipeworks is available throughout Chicagoland, and in other very select locations around the world. Keep an eye out for updates on the brewery’s bottle shop, planned for the coming months… We’ve seen it and it does exist—trust us.