Q&A with Brian Buckman, co-founder and head brewer at Illuminated Brew Works about his brewery’s long-awaited opening in Norwood Park
Q: Moving into this space has been a long process for you. How did it feel to finally open your doors last week?
A: It was an incredible relief. Our brewery moves slow and organically. When we opened our doors in 2015, we did it with $30k from the three main partners. We grew our brewery with revenues until 2018, when we had our first expansion.
The move to Norwood Park was the next move after that, and we’ve been working on this move for three years. One year to negotiate the lease and two years of permitting and build out. Needless to say, we couldn’t get those doors open soon enough.
Fortunately, the response from the neighborhood and the industry in general has been incredibly positive. We’re doing something quite different than our colleagues in the Chicago brewing scene and bringing something wholly new to the neighborhood. It’s nice to see people recognize that and appreciate it. We’re looking forward to developing this space and our relationship with the neighborhood.
Q: What made you choose Norwood Park as the brewery’s new home?
A: One of the three partners, Jason Monk, has lived in Norwood Park forever. He drives by 6186 every day, or did when our shop was in the West Loop. Now he walks to work. Anyway, he saw the building was available and we set up an appointment to kick the tires a bit. We looked at a few other locations with some other property management groups, but none were as unique as this space. The bow truss ceilings — originals from the building’s construction — really made the sale for us. That, and there aren’t other breweries in the neighborhood (yet), so we knew we could make this work.
I hadn’t had a lot of experience coming up to Norwood Park prior to the move, as I live in Avondale and used to work in the West Loop. But coming up here, it’s a really beautiful neighborhood with some great homes and fantastic parks. We’re pretty proud to hang our brewer boots here.
Never before have three hungry guys been able to open a brewery for $30k and pour their beer next to multi-national brands. It’s wild. Of course, that also means the competition is insane. But that keeps you on your toes. It pushes quality. It pushes innovation. It makes everyone better, if not a little less sleep-prone.
Q: How do you feel about the state of the craft beer scene in Chicago right now?
A: It’s always been exciting to be part of this truly historic moment in brewing. Never before has there been opportunities for brewers and for beer drinkers like there are now. And I think the industry has doubled two or three times over since we were first licensed.
And never before have three hungry guys been able to open a brewery for $30k and pour their beer next to multi-national brands. It’s wild. Of course, that also means the competition is insane. But that keeps you on your toes. It pushes quality. It pushes innovation. It makes everyone better, if not a little less sleep-prone.
People have been talking about “the bubble” now since we got into the industry. We haven’t seen it yet, even with COVID and the challenges brought forth with supply chains this year as a result of COVID. What you see is a naturally evolving ecosystem where some brands die off and others grow in their place. I think part of the reason for that is the congeniality of the industry. Everyone is incredibly supportive, from the biggest brands all the way down to little scrappy creeps like us.
Brewers and brewery staff really tend to lift each other up. There’s not a lot of industries like this. For all of its fierce competition, there’s just as much support amongst brewers.
Q: What can we expect from IBW this fall and beyond?
A: We’ll just have to see. Having the tap room allows us to get back to some styles we’ve had to leave on the table that don’t perform as well in the off-premise market. When we started, we did a lot more experimentation with yeasts, wild and otherwise, as well as pushing the boundaries of ingredients and flavor profiles. Now that we can make smaller batches (5-10 barrels as opposed to the 50-150 barrel batches we do for distribution) and have the ability to get immediate feedback from drinkers, you’re going to see some pretty wild stuff from us again.
We’re already starting to brew some old fan favorites with Pazuzu’s Pedals and Brown Reason to Live. We’re also doing an Octoberfest of sorts this year for the first time. Using a new yeast strain from Omega that they’re calling a “pseudo-lager,” we’re making Mock Turtle Necks, our mock Octoberfest, that should release soon. Also, we’re starting a barrel-aging program this winter. Lots of fun stuff!
Illuminated Brew Works is located at 6186 N. Northwest Highway in Chicago’s Norwood Park neighborhood. Visit IBW-Chicago.com for updates.