When you’re thinking about the new owner of Milwaukee Brewing Co.’s huge 4-year old facility, don’t think of it as a brewery. Think of it as a recording studio.
Chicago-based Pilot Project closed today on the purchase of the brewing equipment and attached Bottle House 42 restaurant. Brewing could begin there as soon as next week, and Pilot Project hopes to begin welcoming visitors to the remodeled taproom and all-new restaurant later this fall.
Pilot Project has an unusual if not unique model as an incubator for other breweries. Since opening its Chicago facility in 2019, it’s launched about a dozen brands – mostly beer but also two lines of hard kombuchas. Co-founder Dan Abel says the goal is to provide a platform for creative ideas to take root. The Pilot Project team works with applicants on their business and to-market plans, recipes, even branding and packaging. Not to mention producing the liquid with or for them. That’s the recording studio metaphor that Abel, a veteran of the music biz, often uses to explain his business’s model.
Some of Pilot Project’s startups have “graduated” from the program and opened facilities of their own, or continued contract production at a scale beyond the capabilities of the relatively modest brewery in Chicago’s Logan Square.
That’s where the Milwaukee facility comes in.
The former Milwaukee Brewing brewery, which opened in fall 2018, can brew about 75,000 barrels of beer – or hard booch, or hard coffee, or hard seltzer – a year, and it has space for additional equipment that could push its capacity to 200,000 barrels, Abel says.
Pilot Project has been looking to go big for more than a year and knew it wanted its new “growth engine” brewery to be in a major, well established beer market without cannibalizing its influence in Chicago. San Diego, Portland, Oregon, and Denver were all considered.
“We were in the process of securing a different location back in March, and then the Milwaukee space came available,” Abel says. “We had a conversation with [Milwaukee Brewing founder] Jim McCabe, and it was like, this is a no-brainer. This is what we need. This is what we needed to do.”
It didn’t hurt that Abel and co-founder Jordan Radke are UW-Madison grads, so they knew firsthand the cultural benefits of locating in Wisconsin.
“Milwaukee is kind of the birthplace of America’s beer scene, in my opinion, especially being a Midwestern drinker through and through,” says Abel, a Minneapolis native. “A very natural part of the Pilot Project story is we want to expand to premium markets, markets that really care about the bev-alc industry. Obviously, Milwaukee is the place to do it.”
Abel is also sensitive to the legacy he’s stepping into – not just Milwaukee Brewing but the origin of the renovated building as a Pabst distribution center.
“We fully recognize a responsibility of taking this place over. I mean, it has Milwaukee’s namesake on the front of the building,” Abel says. “We want to do right by the city and state that Jordan and I called home for a very long time, and we’re excited to get back to it.”
The future of Milwaukee Brewing’s beers remains uncertain at this point, with the ball in McCabe and Co.’s court. “We have a relationship with the Milwaukee team, and so keeping that legacy alive is really important,” Abel says. “We think it’s a pretty beautiful story to work with them, and I would love to take a shot at being able to produce it for them.”
A Different Approach to Brewing
Abel’s perspective on beverages as a creative space is deeply informed by his time in the music industry, including a stint with YouTube focusing on development of musical artists.
He saw YouTube, Napster and a host of other platforms force decentralization in the business, removing obstacles for artists to have their music seen and heard. At the same time, Abel and Radke were discovering a creative outlet in homebrewing and briefly considered opening their own brewery. Discovering the startup costs in equipment, licensing and the degree of business acumen necessary to do so was a revelation. “We realized how starving this industry was for this need,” Abel says. “It was like a flipping a switch – Oh, my gosh! Let’s lower the barriers, let’s let actual creatives have their place in this industry.
“No one set the standard in music that the only way that you can create music is if you build your own recording studio. But somehow in brewing, we have this strange fallacy that in order to be a viable bev-alc business. you have to go build your own manufacturing facility. Well, that’s really inefficient and that inherently defies innovation,” Abel says. “By stripping that concern away, we’re kind of calling fallacy to the idea that you ever need a brewery. We’re, in a sense, a frictionless go-to-market solution for someone who has a great idea.”
The 13 brands that Pilot Project has helped develop come from a field of nearly 500 applicants. Abel describes many of the initial applicants as relatively conventional brewery concept with conventional business plans. But as the word has gotten out about Pilot Project, ideas have become more creative and coming from more diverse sectors of the population – women, people of color – that are woefully underrepresented in the industry. “And we didn’t have to stir the pot, we didn’t have to go out there and say, ‘Hey, you and you and you, come apply, please.’ It just happened and that was really cool.”
Abel describes Pilot Project as purpose-driven, and diversity is one of its cornerstones. “When you lower the barrier to entry, it’s basically a creativity renaissance,” Abel says. “I saw the very direct impact of lowering the barriers to an industry, and how, whether it was intended or not, when you give power to the creatives, diversity of people, diversity of thought and approach and innovation start to sort of organically happen.”
Among Pilot Project’s first cohort were Azadi Brewing, an Indian-owned brewery that focuses on flavors of that country’s cuisine, and the Black-owned Funkytown Brewing. (Only 1% the nation’s 8,000-some breweries have Black owners.)
Abel cites Luna Bay Booch Co. as one of Pilot Project’s very early success stories. Its owners – all women – wanted to go big quickly and get their hard kombucha in as many markets as possible. “They had an awesome product,” Abel says. “So we produced their products with the intent of scale right away. We had them in 13 different states within six months with a great-tasting product.” After launching in 2019, Luna Bay outgrew Pilot Project; it’s now being made at a contract brewer in Colorado and is sold in Trader Joe’s stores across the country.
Taking a different approach was Brother Chimp Brewing, which wanted to launch a local brewpub but first build its reputation and refine recipes so it could “go live with something awesome,” Abel says. The brewpub in North Aurora, Illinois, opened in March 2020. (Yes, bad timing.)
“It’s not like a one-size-fits-all because you think about it as a creative industry,” Abel says. “You’re the artist. No one’s gonna have the exact same story.”
All of these leads came from Chicago, but Pilot Project is aiming to cull ideas from well beyond the Midwest, too. The business is pursuing plans to set up incubators similar to Pilot Project Chicago in creative hubs like Los Angeles, Miami and London. Concepts developed there could end up in fermentation tanks in Milwaukee.
On the Ground in Milwaukee
A new concept for the attached restaurant, replacing F Street Hospitality’s Bottle House 42, will be announced soon.
Renovations to remake the expansive public-facing parts of the building – including some areas on the brewery side, a bar, restaurant seating, beer garden, an event space and a spectacular rooftop patio – will begin immediately and occur in phases, says Abel, who’s excited about how well the plethora of distinct spaces can fit Pilot Project’s approach.
“It offers a ton of flexibility in how we interact with the public,” he says. “Our Chicago facility is small, but you’re able to be that much more intentional with how each brand is represented and treated and gets to craft their own story. And in Milwaukee, with a facility that has so many unique spaces, we could potentially give each of these brands the benefit of having their own.”
The glassy spaces have with floor-to-ceiling windows looking into the brewery. “It’s going to feel quite a bit different,” Abel says. “It’ll feel more like Pilot Project, which is unpretentious. It feels like you’re in a living room or your favorite coffee shop.”
Abel, who was a big Bucks fan growing up during the purple-jersey years, hopes he can find a place in the remodel for the expansive collection of Glenn Robinson basketball cards that he amassed as a kid.
On the other side of the building’s wall, beverage production could be underway as soon as next week, pending license approvals.
The 3,500-barrel brewery in Chicago is maxed out and some production of Pilot Project brands has been subcontracted to other breweries in the Windy City. All of that production will shift to Milwaukee as soon as possible. And then come the new brand ideas, which had been on the back burner as the 30-employee Pilot Project team focused on the Milwaukee play.
“We’ll essentially reopen the gates to start incubating brands again, and what’ll be so nice is the velocity that we can grow brands with because we no longer have this logistical concern of production,” Abel says. “Are we gonna fill 75,000 barrels of capacity overnight in Milwaukee? The short answer is no, absolutely not, but is the demand there.”