Thursday, August 20, 2015

Home to Pro, a Q+A series: Brian Buckman of Illuminated Brew Works, Chicago (West Loop) IL

Brewer: Brian Buckman
Brewery Name: Illuminated Brew Works
Chicago-West Loop IL

Q - How did you get into home brewing?
A - Years of research and development and a strong desire to spend more time around beer inspired the start of this project. 

Q - When did you know you wanted to go pro?
A - The switch just flipped immediately. Matt and I have worked on several projects over the years and we’ve both always enjoyed the physical parts of those projects as well as the problem solving skills required. If hard work and puzzles turn you on, then brewing is the perfect fit. Add to that that I really enjoy seeing people get off on an intoxicant of my making. So when I started brewing it was like coming home after a long time away.
Q How long did it take from initially thinking you wanted to go pro and when it was actualized?
A - Around 6 years. 
Q - If you were to outline a simple 5 step process from transitioning from hobby to professional, what would it be?

  1. Start by spending some real time around a brewery to see if this is something you really want to do, and I mean real time. Volunteer somewhere and spend enough time for the honeymoon to wear off. 
  2. Make a business plan and a pro-forma. Figure out how much money you’re going to need, then double that, then add 30%... and then leave yourself an extra buffer of about 30% on top of that.
  3. Check out a lot of breweries and see who is doing things in a way that is smarter, better or more interesting than other places. The time I spent at Une Annee was invaluable. Seeing Jerry’s solutions for his brewhouse was a huge inspiration for us.  
  4. Put together a good team. Nobody can do this alone... and why would you want to?
  5. Don’t rush.

Q - What was an obstacle that you had to overcome to open your brewery or get licensed?
A - We’ve been through at least 3 skins in the process of getting IBW open. One of those was around 2012 when we were looking to open a brew pub in Oak Park.  we were working with some investors that we aligned with because we wanted to get rolling, not because we had a good chemical fit with them. They had shitty ideas but a lot of money. We had great ideas but no money and they really started to think that their money made their ideas good. It became clear fast that we were going after something much different. We fired them and about ended our friendship. We took about 6 months off from talking to each other and hanging out and then slowly began rebuilding our friendship. After some time we came back to our ideas, pairing down to essentials and we started thinking very hard about how we could do this without bringing in investor money. Once we made that honest assessment of ourselves we found the project began take life again.

Q - Any weird state or government laws you had to battle?
A - Nah.

Q - What do you know now that you wished you had known before starting the process? 
A - The capital expenses really have been a surprise and we were pretty honest and seasoned as far as figuring out our costs. But, particularly because of the way we’ve done this, growing organically rather than looking for a sugar daddy... cap ex just keeps coming and shaking us down. It’s little stuff like extra tri-clamps or a broken chiller or some tool or some gauge or some build out need, they just keep at you. Every month it’s something new and unexpected. It really is surprising and sometimes painful.

Q - Would you do anything differently? 
A - Well, we clearly had to learn the lesson about investors probably to help us later down the road. That said, I would have liked to have not lost 2 years and change on that first phase and to be where we are now back in 2012, but so be it, this is the narrative and I’m not complaining.

What did your start up cost? How did you fund it?

A - We worked *very* hard to keep our start up costs down. We’ve spent about $35k up to this point which, when you compare that to other professional breweries of our size, it’s pretty impressive. Jason has been a huge help. He worked with me visiting other fabricators from Wisconsin and visiting breweries to come up with a plan for our brewhouse and building it out. You cannot overvalue having a professional welder on your team.

Q - What size barrel system is your brew house? How much beer are you planning to produce annually? 
A - We can make 7.5bbls at a pop and we’ve got 20bbls capacity.

Q - How did you come up with your brewery name?  
A - I like the Promethean fuck you attitude of great beer and I’ve always wanted to run a cult. You do the math.

Q - What differentiates your beer from other craft breweries? What's your style?
A -
We do what we call American Farmhouses.  it’s purposefully oblique. I’m not a fan of styles and we try to thoughtfully break the rules of styles with our beer.  but mostly we're just making beer that i want to drink.  which generally is low ABV, high complexity beers that work very well with delicious food and can be consumed for about 20 hours at a time without spinning you out too much.  we also don’t put much focus on hops at all at this point.  i kind of want to get hops out of our beer altogether.  we let the yeast drive to boat. it’s far more interesting to me as a beer drinker and a brewer. 

Q - How are you going to set yourself apart?
A -
Making complex, yeast driven beer has proven very effective as a differentiator up to this point.

Q - If a consumer can take away one beer or a vibe about your beer company, what would you want them to remember about you and why? 
A - That we make beer that tastes like no one else's, that our beer makes them smarter and will reward them greatly in the next life. 

Q - Where do you see your start-up brewery headed in 5 years?  
A - We’ll have multiple bars doing delicious and hilarious things to back up our continually evolving beer gestalt.

Q - If you could give one piece of advice to a home brewer that wants to go pro, what would it be?
A - If you don’t have a method of intense and honest self-reflection right now, get one right away. 

Q - Anything else you want to add?
A - Have fun.
Nancy Brew wants to know! 

 - Are you in the process of transitioning from home brewer to a pro brewer? If so, I'd love to hear from you!

- Are you curious about transitioning from home brewer to pro? Did you find this Q/A helpful? 

 - What other questions do you want to know about going Pro?


  1. I loved Brian, Matt and Jason's work on their defunct podcast and I'm sure I'll enjoy the hell out of their beer! I can't wait until Illuminated makes it out to Kali. And, yes, this Q & A was very helpful!

    1. Thank you! Their beer is great just like the people who brew it :)
      And you'll be the first person I alert if their beers head west! Cheers!

  2. Nancy, these interviews are great. You're doing a great job of asking the not so easy questions. I get a lot out of them as I consider whether to one day go pro.

    1. Thanks Eric! I appreciate the feedback and I'm glad these interviews are helpful. I hope to continue to do more of them in the future! Cheers!

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