Tommy Vandervort has been nurturing Enlightened Brewing since founding it in 2013. Slow growth serves the brewery well.
Location: 2018 S. 1st St.
Brewers: Tommy Vandervort, James Larson and Mike Guten
Come for the: Cream City Brix Cream Ale
Stay for the: Ambiance. The narrow taproom isn’t big, but it’s friendly and bright. Large windows look out onto 1st Street and a garage door opens in summer to provide a little more space for beer drinkers.
Critic’s pick: Sustained Thought Coffee Stout
Where to get the beer: At the Enlightened taproom and a few dozen beer-focused Milwaukee bars, mainly in Bay View, Walker’s Point, downtown and the East Side.
Building a brewery hasn’t always been easy for Tommy Vandervort. The founder of Enlightened Brewing has seen his business become more of a gradual evolution than an overnight success. But that’s just fine with him. For Vandervort, the journey seems to be a big part of the fun.
The brewery has come a long way since its inception in 2013. With expansion plans in the works, it’s clear that Vandervort’s persistence, and the hard work put in by both he brewmaster/co-owner James Larson have paid off.
Vandervort learned an appreciation for beer while working as a server for Diablos Rojos (now the Lowlands Group) and began brewing with a home brew kit. After struggling to find work at any local breweries, he decided to start his own.
“My parents got me a home brew kit for Christmas one year and I was just hooked,” explained Vandervort. “Besides all the history and culture in beer that I was learning about, there’s recipe development that feels like cooking, there’s cool gear and all the equipment (big and small) that you could dream of, and there’s science that feels like it intersects with some kind of magic.”
Enlightened began brewing on the second floor of the Lincoln Warehouse (2018 S. 1st St.), in a 500-square-foot space now occupied by Component Brewing. There was nothing glamorous about the early days of the brewery, just Vandervort and Larson, who earned his brewing chops at Sprecher Brewery and Bells Brewery, slowly brewing small batches of beer.
“In that first space upstairs, we didn’t have a taproom,” said Vandervort. “It was just production of 15 gallons at a time packaging into sixth barrels and selling to bars and restaurants. We’d fill growlers for people, but it was just a tiny space we could grind away in.”
Antiquated brewery laws required Vandervort to step down from his job as a bartender at Rumpus Room when Enlightened began selling its beer in early 2015. He was forced to work at a call center for less money just to ensure that there was enough income to keep the brewing dream alive.
In May 2016, Vandervort was able to hang up his customer service headphones and devote his time fully to brewing. Two months later, Enlightened opened its small but inviting taproom in its current spot on the first floor of the southern edge of the Lincoln Warehouse. The eight taps pour well-made takes on mostly traditional styles like Cream City Brix Cream Ale, Kettle Logic Amber Ale and Imperative Pale Ale.
In the spring, Enlightened plans to shift operations to the former Louis Allis Motors Plant (427 E. Stewart St.). The brewery is ready for the move, but it’s not a decision that was done on a whim.
“The brewing business has been good to us,” said Vandervort. “We’re selling all the beer we’re making and it’s great to have a taproom where we can interact directly with people who drink our beer. We’ve tried to be really careful and scrappy when it comes to expanding because we’ve seen breweries spread themselves too thin, or take on too much debt, or take on investors that are more focused on explosive growth and making money than on making great beer and growing slow and strong.”
The new location includes a 10-barrel QTS brewhouse with ten 20-barrel fermentation tanks that will expand brewing capacity tenfold to roughly 3,600 barrels a year and provide a space for a taproom. Enlightened has definitely come a long way from call centers and 15-gallon batches.
“We’ve always found ways to make our operation work because it’s what we want to do just for the sake of doing it — not to make money or to become popular or to one-up anybody else or to reinvent the wheel,” explained Vandervort. “We love the process, the community and the opportunities we’re afforded by being in this industry because it’s fun, when it comes down to it.”