In Part I of this series, we talked with one of the organizers of the Square Roots Festival, returning to Lincoln Square this July 8-10 after a two-year COVID-19 delay. Now I get a chance to write about some of the beer being featured, which turned into a discussion with Dan Abel, co-founder and CEO of Pilot Project Brewing. The “incubator” brewery will be pouring some of their “house brand” Brewer’s Kitchen, that the Festival’s Brew Lounge.
MM: Let’s start off with what you can tell us about Pilot Project’s involvement with the Square Roots Festival.
DA: So Pilot Project, and by that, our brand, Brewer’s Kitchen, is one of the participating craft sponsors of the festival this year. We will be on premise selling two selections from our house brand, Brewer’s Kitchen.
One is an Italian Pilsner called Il Serpente. It’s a beautiful beer. It’s a clean beer, but it has a noble hop character that would be slightly out of the norm for Italian Pils.
The other is our 55 Rocks hazy pale ale, which is a nod to how much it would cost to go to space base on the charge for a civilian to ride on SpaceX; it’s $55 million. The reason we gave it that name was because we’re using exclusively, hops that have all space themed names, and they’re all pretty new and unique hops, some of which are not being readily sold or showcased in beers. There’s Galaxy, which is the quintessential “space hop.” We’re using Strata and Comet, and then there’s another hop that has yet to be officially released. It has a letter term right now, but it’s something that will when it does come out, it’s going to have a space name, according to the hop farm.
MM: So, what’s fun about Pilot Projects?
DA: Pilot Project is a brewery incubator, first of its kind, as far as we know, in the world, where it is a business focused on lowering the barrier to entry, and as a result, helping to create new craft beers or beverages and their brands. We’ve launched 13 brands in our first 2 1/2 years of existence. But we don’t just incubate companies, we also incubate concepts and ideas and ingredients. Brewer’s Kitchen is Pilot Project’s house brand, and the reason why it’s called Brewer’s Kitchen is because it’s essentially a Brewer’s kitchen sink for different ideas and creativity. That brand is essentially the amalgamation of all of Pilot Projects research that we get to do with all of these other brewing partners. Essentially, we consolidated into what we consider our “house” company or our public-facing brand because we try to keep Pilot Project as an incubator neutral.
We don’t do this very often where we let Brewer’s Kitchen be out on its own, but for a festival like this, it’s particularly exciting because very seldom do you see our brewers flex their muscles. They’re always working to support the brands that we’re incubating, and so this is kind of our R&D team.
MM: I was at the Beer Under Glass at Union Station, and I had one of the two Brewer’s Kitchen brews. How many have you’ve managed to make as a House brand altogether? And is this something that eventually maybe goes on to one of your incubator clients?
DA: We will use the Brewer’s Kitchen brand as a way to test new, different unique ingredients. At any moment we generally have 4, 5 or 6 unique products from Brewer’s kitchen out there, at retailers and bars and restaurants.
But what’s fun about our team is when we’re working with our hop farms, they show us these brand new ingredients and say “Hey, can you make something with this?”
MM: When you have an incubator brewer who’s beer catches on, where fo they go next?
DA: If I have a beer that’s proven itself out in the market, I want to make a lot more of it, but I don’t have the production space. I can go to a contract brewer like Great Central. I pay them to produce my beer under license and more of it goes out to the world.
The way that we work with our breweries is that there’s some more hand-holding and consultation involved on the Pilot Project front. Since we launched about 2-1/2 years ago. We’ve had over 450 people apply to be incubated brands at our facilities. When you apply, you’re going to bring to us your product. But even even more important at times is your business plan, your marketing and brand. When we get all of those together and the audition process is completed where we select these brands based on the merit of, essentially all three.
Then, once we’ve selected you, it’s not like this is a flash in the pan. Not “Here’s one beer, be on your way.” We will work with you to create an entire go-to-market strategy. These are oftentimes for people that have never owned their own company before or, in some instances been involved in the brewing industry.
The way that incubation goes is we have a launch event here at Pilot Project with your first three beers as flagships. Once we get some tasting room success under your belt we begin distributing.
This is how it worked with a brand that we launched called Funkytown. They’re the second black owned brewery to have launched in the City of Chicago. Back in October, Funkytown had their big release party, and then within about a month’s time we had them in 200 different retailers around the state of Illinois. Now they’ve grown from that, but that is the launching mechanism, where the true incubation happens, is over the next six to nine months, where we’re really validating your brand. We’re growing the value, the equity in what you’re doing, such that hopefully you get up to 1,000 barrels a year, and you’re too big for Pilot Project. You’re either one going off and launching your own brewery, or you are working with a contract brewery that can handle larger scale.
MM: So then there are just different occasions where you’re basically pushing your fledglings out of the nests, or different reasons why you can finally do that.
DA: That’s exactly correct. Everyone comes to us with a different plan, a different definition of what success looks like. We make sure that between production and distribution, but then also legal and accounting and marketing and business development that you are in a place that you can really grow. This was modeled after, what Y Combinator and Venture Capital funds do for the tech industry. The analogy that I always use is what the recording industry and labels do for musicians. We try to be that end-to-end support system, so that true creatives can enter this industry and not be intimidated by the very real financial barriers, but then also the intangible barriers of, “I’m incredible at my craft, but I don’t want to go into this industry because I’m not good at legal or I’m not good at this, that and the other thing.” And so what’s been fun about that is when you lower this barrier to entry, you’re not just creating opportunity for creatives, you’re actually leveling the playing field.
So we saw you have the 13 brands we’ve launched. Five of them are female-owned like I mentioned earlier, and we’ve helped launch the second Black owned brewery in Chicago. We have Azadi, an Indian inspired brewery; a travel and adventure inspired brand; and an entirely unique approach to making hard kombucha. All of those things that have come out of this.
MM: Are there some new brewers coming along that you’re able to talk about, with some new concepts?
DA: I can’t talk about anything that’s coming up. But what you can discuss right now is what’s available at Pilot Project. We’ve mentioned Funkytown. There’s Azadi Brewing; they’re an Indian inspired brewery using ingredients, in a lot of instances, straight from the streets of Mumbai.
There’s ROVM Hard Kombucha. It’s started by a woman out of Lake Tahoe. She has a very unique approach to how she has created her hard kombucha.
We’ve always had Brewer’s Kitchen, which is just our melting pot of exploration. Then we have Histrionic Brewlab which is owned by two doctors, scientists. They’re extremely chemistry oriented. They examine things like the specificity of when we dry hop and when we do this and all, this is extremely diligent and they are a very high performing group that we work with.
MM: Are there any who just kind of went through the program and then decided at the end that it just wasn’t going to work?
DA: I don’t think there’s anyone that would say “This doesn’t work,” because by the time we go through the audition process, we vet them pretty aggressively. There are brands that probably came in with slightly more nuanced approaches to how they wanted to go. What they ultimately learned in that process is, “Hey, I really like this idea as a capstone marketing concept.”
MM: What size batch would some of the initial products be?
DA: You can technically do a batch as small as two barrels, which is not much; it’s 4 kegs or 20 cases of product. More often than not we will launch every unique idea or concept in a 10 barrel batch. That’s 20 kegs or 100 cases. Then we will grow them in our facility to be doing about, at max 100 barrels a month. Then it’s at that point where we begin to contract production to other other producers just so that we can maintain their momentum until they’re ready to graduate.
MM: Then there are the brewers who seem to be aimed at a specific market, like Funkytown or Azadi.
DA: In the instance of Funkytown, we wanted to see how a brand like that, which is meant to be approachable, to win over the non-craft brew drinker. The drinking audience within the Black community has not been necessarily favorable towards the next craft beer. They look to other other options, and so that was Funkytown’s key component.
Whereas with Azadi Brewing, Bhavik Modi, the co-founder of that company, knew that 50% of the liquor store owners in his area are of Indian descent. He targets high end Indian restaurants like Vajra and some of the others in the city. I think what Bhavik has done really well with the Indian inspired beers that are still approachable. You try their Kavi cardamom golden ale, it’s not tongue cloying. It’s really beautiful. You try their Kadak chai stout. I love pastry stout to a certain degree, but then this stands out as different. They’re really intelligent with how they go to market with their products.
MM: I’ve had the Azadi’s Devon tart gose at Beer Under Glass. It was just slightly different in terms of spices, but not trying to blast you with its ingredients.
DA: It’s very culinary inspired, so it’s meant to blend well.
MM: Yes, I just caught some of the some spice, salt and pepper at the very least.
DA: The salt component obviously is leaning into the gose style, but then they used a different mechanism for souring, so it’s not the if you have a kettle sour from any other brewery, the process is entirely different than 99.9% of sours out in the market
MM: You done a few kombucha start-ups. It that a kind of process that requires special equipment, or isolation, like a Belgian beer with wild yeast?
DA: The biggest concern with wild Brett is that it’s basically airborne bacteria. Kombucha, is not going to have that same concern. It basically uses a culture that you know is very clean. It’s just a material that you of course want to dispose of intelligently. Luna Bay Hard Kombucha was one of the first brands that we incubated, and they’ve done very well. I believe during our time with them, we distributed their products to about 13 states. They’re probably in over 25 now and doing very well. I think as a fun success story.
Our current Kombucha brand is ROVM. We can’t keep up with production with our space, it’s tough to subcontract hard kombucha, so we’ve unfortunately to, in a sense, stifle the growth of ROVM just because it’s a very nuanced product that is tough to to brew elsewhere, so we’re in the process of figuring out how to scale that one up.
But getting back to Brewer’s Kitchen. That’s done really well because it’s fun, people know it’s Pilot Project and we’ll make hazy IPA just as well as anybody else. But where we really like to put our flag in the ground is by using some ingredients that may tilt your head.
We were one of the first brands to start using the Phantasm product that’s now everywhere. That’s a powdered Sauvignon Blanc grape from New Zealand. We used that very early on because we got a nod from the grape farm that was that was producing it.
It gives you all the advantages of a grape must from an aromatics and taste standpoint, but it doesn’t muddy your product. So Reeve Joseph, the co-founder of Odious Cellars, was one of those people who wanted to make Brett beers. He wants to make mixed culture brews, but he also recognizes that’s not for everybody, and so he’ll while he absolutely goes into the market with wild mixed cultures, but then at other times he’ll do things that are slightly more approachable, and I’ve really enjoyed his product. He graduated about a year ago and since then I’m really impressed with what he’s been able to continue coming up with.
MM: Any points we want to drive home a little more?
DA: With respect to Square Roots festival: come check us out. We very seldom, if ever, promote Brewer’s Kitchen. It’s a fun opportunity for us to be able to talk about that, something that we don’t get to do as often so we’re excited to showcase the two beers that we’re bringing there, which we think of as two pieces of art.
As far as Pilot Project goes, we are in the midst of adding a second location. There’s a fundraiser so keep your ear to the ground.
We’ll have some announcements in the coming months. We’ll be launching a couple of new brands to the roster here very shortly.