What is replacing Milwaukee Brewing’s facility?

When you think of the new owner of Milwaukee Brewing Co.’s massive 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 accompanying restaurant Bottle House 42. Brewing could begin there as early as next week, and Pilot Project hopes to begin welcoming visitors to the remodeled taproom and brand 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 has launched about a dozen brands — mostly beer, but also two lines of hard kombuchas. Co-founder Dan Abel says the goal is to create a platform where creative ideas can take root. The pilot project team works with applicants on their business and marketing plans, recipes, even branding and packaging. Not to mention producing the liquid with or for them. It’s the recording studio metaphor that Abel, a music industry veteran, often uses to explain his business model.

Some of the Pilot Project’s startups have “graduated” from the program and opened their own facilities or continued contract production on a scale that exceeds the relatively modest brewery in Chicago’s Logan Square.

That’s where the Milwaukee facility comes in.


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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 room for additional equipment that could push its capacity to 200,000 barrels , says Abel.

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 large, 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 another location back in March, and then the Milwaukee space became available,” says Abel. “We had a conversation with [Milwaukee Brewing founder] Jim McCabe and it was like, this is a no-brainer. This is what we need. That’s what we had to do.”

It didn’t hurt that Abel and co-founder Jordan Radke are UW-Madison graduates, 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 when you drink in the Midwest,” says Abel, a Minneapolis native. “A very natural part of the Pilot Project story is that we want to expand into premium markets, markets that really care about the bev-alc industry. Clearly, Milwaukee is the place to do that.”

The brewhouse at Milwaukee Brewing has four vessels capable of producing 60 barrels of wort (unfermented beer) in approximately two hours. Photo by Ashley Doelger

Abel is also sensitive to the heritage he’s stepping into — not just Milwaukee Brewing, but the renovated building’s origins as a Pabst distribution center.

“We fully acknowledge the responsibility of taking over this place. I mean, it has Milwaukee’s namesake on the front of the building,” says Abel. “We want to go right by the city and say 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 beer remains uncertain at this point, with the ball in McCabe and Co.’s court. “We have a relationship with the Milwaukee team, and so it’s really important to keep that legacy alive,” Abel says. “We think it’s a pretty beautiful story to work with them, and I’d love to take a shot at being able to produce it for them.”

Abel’s perspective on beverages as a creative space is deeply inspired by his time in the music industry, including a stint with YouTube focusing on developing musical artists.

He saw YouTube, Napster and a host of other platforms force decentralization in the industry and remove barriers for artists to get their music seen and heard. At the same time, Abel and Radke were discovering a creative outlet in home brewing and briefly considered opening their own brewery. Discovering the start-up costs in equipment, licenses and the degree of business acumen needed to do it was a revelation. “We realized how hungry this industry was for this need,” says Abel. “It was like flipping a switch – Oh, my God! Let’s lower the barriers, let’s let actual creatives have their place in this industry.

“No one sets the standard in music that the only way you can create music is if you build your own recording studio. But somehow in brewing we have this weird fallacy that to be a viable bev- alc business. you have to build your own manufacturing facility. Well, that’s really inefficient and it inherently defies innovation,” says Abel. “By removing that concern, we kind of call the fallacy to the idea that you ever need a brewery. We are, in a sense, a frictionless go-to-market solution for someone who has a good idea.”

The 13 brands that the Pilot Project has helped to develop come from a field of almost 500 applicants. Abel describes many of the first applicants as a relatively conventional brewery concept with conventional business plans. But as word has gotten out about the Pilot Project, ideas have gotten more creative and come from more diverse segments 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 it was really cool.”

Abel describes the 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,” says Abel. “I saw the very direct effect of lowering the barriers to an industry and how, whether it was intended or not, when you empower the creatives, the diversity of people, the diversity of thought and approach and innovation begins to happen organically.”

Among the Pilot Project’s first cohort were Azadi Brewing, an Indian-owned brewery that focuses on flavors from the country’s cuisine, and the Black-owned Funkytown Brewing. (Only 1% of 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 fast and get their hard kombucha into as many markets as possible. “They had a great product,” says Abel. “So we produced their products with the goal of scaling right away. We had them in 13 different states within six months with a great tasting product.” After launching in 2019, the Luna Bay Pilot Project grew; it is now made at a contract brewer in Colorado and sold in Trader Joe’s stores across the country.

Another 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 great,” 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 of it as a creative industry,” says Abel. “You are the artist. No one wants the exact same story.”

All of these leads came from Chicago, but the Pilot Project aims to source ideas from well beyond the Midwest. The company is pursuing plans to set up incubators similar to Pilot Project Chicago in creative hubs such as Los Angeles, Miami and London. Concepts developed that may end up in fermentation tanks in Milwaukee.

A new concept for the accompanying restaurant, replacing F Street Hospitality’s Bottle House 42, will be announced soon.

Renovations to remodel the expansive public-facing portions of the building — including some areas on the brewery side, a bar, restaurant seating, beer garden, an event space and a spectacular rooftop terrace — will begin immediately and be done in phases, Abel says. there is excitement about how well the plethora of different spaces might suit the Pilot Project’s approach.

The brewing line and the fermentation tanks are visible through the glass wall that separates the brewery from the restaurant and event space. Photo by Ashley Doelger

“It gives a ton of flexibility in how we interact with the public,” he says. “Our Chicago facility is small, but you’re able to be much more intentional with how each brand is represented and treated and gets to make 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 rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows that look into the brewery. “It’s going to feel quite a bit different,” says Abel. “It will feel more like Pilot Project, which is casual. It feels like you’re in a living room or your favorite coffee shop.”

A big Bucks fan growing up in the purple jersey years, Abel hopes he can find a place in the remodel for the extensive collection of Glenn Robinson basketball cards he collected as a child.

On the other side of the building’s wall, beverage production could be underway as early 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 that production will move to Milwaukee as soon as possible. And then come the new brand ideas, which had been on the back burner when the 30-employee pilot project team focused on the Milwaukee game.

“We’re essentially going to reopen the gates to start incubating brands again, and what’s going to be so nice is the speed at which we can grow brands because we no longer have this logistical concern of production,” Abel says . “Are we going to fill 75,000 barrels of capacity overnight in Milwaukee? The short answer is no, absolutely not, but is the demand there.”



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