In Suds & Sounds we turn the spotlight on breweries, focusing on the role of music in that brewery’s history, packaging, tastes, and in its city or town as a whole. The idea is to get beer and music lovers to connect with a side of the brewery that may often go overlooked, but one that we think is absolutely vital. To accomplish this, we are talking to the brewers themselves about their own love of music and the role it plays in how they approach their beer. And who knows, maybe we’ll even talk to a musicians from time to time to give a perspective from the other side.
Throughout the course of this column I have had the great pleasure in getting to interview some of the best brewers in the country, many of whom are personal heroes of mine – or at least their beers are. I have to confess that I have never been to Chicago’s Illuminated Brew Works. I can say that it sounds pretty damn cool how they work out of a “turn-of-the-century Nabisco factory in Chicago’s West Loop”, and that they put a strong emphasis on Franco-Bel
For people who may have never heard of your brewery, can you give us a little background on how it started and what kind of beers you specialize in?
We make what we call urban farmhouse beers. To us, the style is much more than just a pilsner with a protein add and spicy yeast. It’s a pedigree we try to honor in everything we do, from our deeply idiosyncratic beers to our handmade brew house, to the way we solve problems. It means, rustic, personal and unique.
Matt Shirley and I started kicking ideas for what would become Illuminated back around 2009. It wasn’t until 2013 that we really found our feet, moved into the space we are in now, and began to discover our identity. We received our licensing in October 2014 and have been increasing our portfolio and our capacity since.
How long have you been brewing and what do you consider your greatest triumph so far as craft brewers?
Our greatest triumph is our company. The three main partners built this place literally from scratch with our own money. We built out the shop, we built the brewhouse, we prop our yeast, we design our labels. Literally, everything has been done by our hands. This is as DIY as it gets. 30 years ago no one could have even imagined that a shop like ours, assembled and operated for under $50k, could even exist let alone be poured next to multi-million dollar, multi-national corporations. This brewery of ours, this is our little brick through the eye of a dying mountain god.
Talk about the beer culture a bit in your city. What do people look for in a good beer and what do you hope to provide, and also do you see the beer scene as being linked in any way to the music scene?
Chicago has a good beer culture. It’s fairly hop-heavy, but that’s what people buy…still. But that is changing. With breweries like us, Une Annee, Transient, Whiner, Lake Effect, and Goose Island making some great beers leaning heavier on other ingredients than hops to develop the flavor profile, the future of Chicago is pretty bright. Chicago’s music scene is great and has been great for a very long time. And there’s always bleed over between the music scene and beer, mostly because most musicians make their money in the bar/service industry. Our focus at Illuminated has always been heavily music focused. We have this amazing outdoor space where we throw free bonfires monthly and always have great local bands play. We’ve been fortunate to benefit from the talents and the generosity and enthusiasm of a lot of local bands during our existence. The PRF BBQ crew has been incredibly supportive. The Columbines we consider our house band. We’ve also hosted Nonagon, Cokegoat, Tijuana Hercules, Sweet Cobra, and a bunch of other bands.
A lot of breweries seem to incorporate their own musical tastes into their packaging and presentation, whether it be a collaboration with a band, a tribute label, or a beer name that references something they like. Has you brewery ever done something like this, and if so can you tell us about it?
One of our first beers that went to market was named for the Butthole Surfers EP “Brown Reason to Live”. We’ve just recently teamed up with Drag City’s Purling Hiss to make a beer for those guys. That project was a lot of fun. I offered to make a blueberry gose for them and Mike came back and was like, “well, we really like shitty beer. Can you make us something like that?” So we made an “American Adjunct Ale”… basically pilsner malts and rice flakes, your main ingredient in macro beers. We wanted to add our signature to it, so instead of a lager yeast we put our house yeast on there and made a really nice, shitty beer. I asked a good friend of mine and very talented artist, Dave Lohman – who actually was the guy who turned me on to Drag City back in the early 90s – to make a label that looked like something a 15-year old stoner might make in the back of his math notebook. He came back with this beautifully shitty hand drawn label that we set on top of loose leaf paper. It really grabs the spirit of how the beer was developed and also that really raw, free energy of the Purling Hiss record it was made to support, High Bias.
Really, all of our beer names our direct references to cultural detritus that we have affections for. Generally that turns out to be names that reference drugs or sex cults, not necessarily in that order. So we have beers like “Orange Sunshine”, “Canadian Aspirin”, “Kallisti”, “Pazuzu’s Pedals”, “Cult of Lam” to name a few. We made a beer with Dry Hop brewers a few years ago called “Jugallo Cadillac”. We were particularly proud of that one.
In your opinion, is there a particular band or genre that is ideal to listen to while brewing beer?
Well, Jason, one of our partners who fabricated our cool room and our brew house loves, to listen to real face ripping shit, New England hard core and stuff like that. Just to mess with him, when he’s around I’ll only play really mellow stuff like Leonard Cohen or John Fahey or Townes Van Zandt. Old outlaw country gets a lot of air time, but so do the Butthole Surfers and Ween. If I’m in a particularly evil mood, Electric Wizard takes over. I listened to Mike Oldfield & Steve Hillage’s version of “Tubular Bells” on repeat for like 4 hours the last time I brewed Pazuzu’s Pedals. Uncle Acid always treats me right. But some days I just want to listen to Will Oldham or Funkadelic or the Kinks.
Is there a hierarchy or system to which employee gets to pick the brewery playlist?
It’s usually whoever gets to the shop first picks the direction and then, as soon as they step out to run an errand or hit the head, somebody else steps in and takes over. It’s all fairly ruthless and opportunistic.
Have you brewed any beers that are specifically inspired by a certain band or kind of music, or maybe one that’s even named ever a band? (The best example of this would be Dogfish Head’s Bitches Brew inspired by the Miles Davis album or their American Beauty inspired by the Grateful Dead.)
The Purling Hiss beer was definitely made with their instincts and style in mind. But we also just kind of take our approach to life – which is deeply inspired by music and a generally aggressive search for novelty, fun, mayhem and joy – into all of our beers. Beer, like food, like music…like anything worthwhile…is best when it’s an expression of the brewer’s world view. You want to see how that brewer understands the world as it’s translated through water, hops, malt and yeast. Or at least I do. I want to express something about the world through my beer and get you high while you digest it.
Has your brewery ever brought in any bands to play?
All the time. It is part and parcel of who we are as an organization. We’ve been blessed to have a beautiful outdoor space made available to us at our brewery and do everything we can to share that space with the people we love and the people who love our beer. And I can’t think of two things that bring people together better than music and beer.
In your opinion, what is the absolute best band or kind of music in general for drinking beer?
Boy, music is just too rich and diverse to say there is any one style that is best. It’s kind of like pornography…you know what works when you get there. Or something like that.
Some breweries have gotten more into music through sponsoring tours, festivals, or even throwing their own versions of those. How do you think live music fits into the fabric of craft beer, and is this something your brewery has done?
Yeah, as I’ve mentioned above. One thing that we take very seriously is that we make our bonfires – with beer, music, food and fire – free, they are always free. They are free and offered as our gift back to Chicago in hopes of giving people a little shelter to hide from the darkness of life and to remind them that money doesn’t own us, it doesn’t have to be the driver for all of your decisions. Sometimes, when the stars are right and the best people are around, something can happen for no other reason than Joy. Real Joy. No bullshit, no bottom line. Joy as a communion between strangers in search of something, something to keep their nervous systems properly jacked up and ready for more.
Do you have any musicians or noteworthy people that you can say are fans of any of your beers?
There are some fucking giants that drink my beer and you’ll never know them. And that’s too bad for you, in some sense. But you’ve got your own giants around you, that I’ll probably never know. Some of my favorite musicians – some of the most talented musicians I know and have heard – nobody outside of Chicago or our little cult will ever know, but that doesn’t in any way diminish how honored I am to know those folks and to share my beer with them. That said, if somebody told me that Ruth Bader Ginsberg drinks IBW I’d be pretty touched.
Illuminated Brew Works is located in Chicago, Illinois at 415 N Sangamon St. For brewery hours and more info visit ibw-chicago.com.
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