At this very moment there are more breweries in the United States than at any other point in history. And the number is inexplicably rising. Never mind saturated markets, limited space on the shelves or the terrible thought that there might not be enough ingredients to go around. People are opening breweries in every corner of the country every day. Two of these people are Milwaukeeans Tommy Vandervoort (27) and Grant Willey (24), who are feverishly working to perfect their small brewery named The Enlightened Brewing Company. On a cold late December evening, I met the 2 new business owners at my favorite haunt Landmark 1850 to talk about their journey so far & what’s in store for them in the future.
Wisconsuds (W): So where did you guys meet?
Grant Willey (GW): At the Milwaukee Public Market. I had been working at Groppi’s in Bay View & one day they said they didn’t have work for me there, but needed help at the bar they owned at the Public Market. I was like “so am I fired?” The answer was no, they just needed extra help there that day. I went & the rest is history.
Tommy Vandervoort (TV): I’d been working there since November 2012, and when Grant came in February that’s how we were eventually introduced.
GW: I was talking about homebrewing with a different coworker & they were like “Have you met the other guy who’s into that?”
TV: Other guy? I’m the other guy?!
GW: Yeah, you’re the other guy.
TV: Initially I asked you about your homebrewing setup, didn’t I?
GW: Yeah, we both seemed to NOT know the same stuff, so it was great to get to know each other.
W: You guys bring your setup together for the brewery?
TV: It’s a combination of our homebrew equipment and a new system we put together in order to make more beer. We definitely bought a bunch of stuff and the system we’ll be brewing on is brand new.
W: When do you think the first batch will be ready?
TV: Probably April or May.
W: How did you come up with the name Enlightened Brewing Company?
TV: I incorporated the LLC in January 2013, but have been working on the business side of it for more than 2 years now. We were running with the name ‘Enlightened Imbiber’ but the more I talked to people, the more people were like “what’s an imbiber?”
W: People don’t know what the word ‘imbibe’ means?
GW & TW: NO!
TV: And they didn’t know how to say it either. They’d be like, “What’s an im-Bieber?” After Summer we changed our business name to the Enlightened Brewing company.
The whole thing is…
GW: We should read the mission statement to you.
W: Yes, do that
GW: “For those who love to think, for those who love to drink, and for those who are fairly certain they can do both at the same time. For those who marry their beer with merry conversation and fellow imbibers in the discourse of enlightenment. Drink it down and lighten up.”
W: That’s deep. I like it.
TV: That’s the whole thing. The deal with beer culture – getting good friends together. People who are intelligent and can talk about religion, politics, et cetera. All that stuff that’s off limits at the dinner table – we say ‘fuck that’ – get together, have some good beers, find a good place and sit down & hash it out. Not going to agree on things all the time, but at least we can find peace over good beer. Great beer is universal.
W: It’s 2014, there’s already thousands of breweries out & it’s gonna keep growing. Why start a brewery now?
GW: Cuz we want to. (Laughs) I actually think there’s room for even more breweries. There’s as many breweries now as before prohibition. However, now we have a much larger population, distribution has improved greatly. Sure we’ll probably see some of these new breweries fail, given that peoples tastes’ change and for other factors. Maybe we’ll see older breweries that have been around for awhile start to decline as well. Who knows. There’s room for competition.
W: The reason I ask is because what I think you’re doing is great, but I also think you’re crazy. Are you?
TV: No, we’re just tired of working for others. We have to do something. If we’re working on the premise that we’re going to do our own thing and start our own business, there is no other option. It’s an interesting world, because there are plenty of homebrewers out there that brew amazing beer, but it’s a lot more than that when you want to do it for a living. So it helps that we’ve made so many connections in the industry before deciding to go forward with the brewery.
GW: We’ve collectively been in the bar industry for more than 12 years now.
TV: Going through the process in the last few months of going through licensing, and the physical space, the equipment -
GW: and the plumbing, the plumbing…
TV: Yeah, we had some issues. But I can see why homebrewers don’t take the next step. We’re starting up as small as we can & still make a living off it. But we’re going to be big enough that we can supply beer to whoever will need it. There’s plenty of space left for new brewers – even with all of the craft brewers in America, it’s still only a 3 or 4% of total market share. So we both think there’s room to grow.
W: Self-distributing to start?
W: Kegs only, or package as well?
TV: Kegs only. We’d like to package, but a bottling line in our space isn’t feasible.
GW: Only 515 square feet.
TV: Say we want to barrel-age something. Let it sit for a year. And maybe we’ll hand-bottle bombers as a super special release. Maybe. Whatever we do, we’ll be passionate about it.
W: How did you eventually decide on the space, and where is it?
GW: A great building manager, the price, and the ability to lease were the big factors.
TV: It’s located at 1st & Becher, across from Horny Goat actually – it’s the big red warehouse.
GW: Much of the building is studio space. You’ll hear a lot of band practices in there when you swing by.
TV: There’s really a lot of potential in that building – there’s a distillery moving in there, the guys from Milwaukee Pizza Company are going in there. And this is really the neighborhood that we want our beer in.
W: What Makes you guys different from other startup breweries?
GW: I think our big advantage is being tied in with the local community. Tommy has been one of the best bartenders in the Bay View for a long time. Just being plugged in is a great thing.
TV: That’s true. The community part.
GW: We know beer quality too. We’re not putting anything out there that isn’t perfect to us. You should retry that stout that I shared with you awhile ago.
GW: You’ll try it again soon, I’m sure. Anyways, there’s a lot of breweries out there that are about our size, and their beers are as good as ours – but they don’t know the community and they’re trying to self-distribute and it’s proving to be very difficult. Right now we’re worried that we might be spreading ourselves too thin – there’s so many places serving such great beers already. We’d like to be a part of that. We’ve got some crazy ideas up our sleeve; right now I’m working on acquiring some barrels from a distillery in the state.
TV: We’re not in it for marketing, or money – it’s what we want to do for a living. We try beer all the time & we trust our palates. Like we’ll try something and think “Hey it’d be awesome to make it this way, or this style.” Sometimes even the name of the beer comes first before we brew something.
W: What happens if you make a bad beer? Will you dump it?
TV: It certainly wouldn’t go to market, that’s for sure.
GW: We’d throw some bacteria in it and call it a sour.
TV: (Laughs) No, we wouldn’t do that. If anything we’d drink it ourselves until we couldn’t anymore & dump the rest.
W: Able to talk about any establishments that are ready & willing to put you on tap?
TV: Odd Duck has been extremely supportive. I worked for the owners for awhile, and they’ve agreed that when we’re up & running that we will be on tap there.
GW: We have our hopefuls & probables. From certain places. Not going to name them yet.
TV: I know the places we’d LIKE to be on. We hang out in Bay View, so obviously we’d like to be on at Sugar Maple, Burnhearts, Palm (Tavern).
GW: Mike Romans.
TV: Yeah. Obviously those are the *ideal* places we’d like to be on, but we really have to brew the right beers first.
W: I feel like there’s a point in every beer lover’s life where you experience a perfect beer moment. Whether it’s a certain beer, or the venue, or the night, you know. Can you think of your perfect beer moment at that perfect beer place?
GW: Good question.
W: I came up with them so I can start. Mine was at The Porter Beer Bar in Decatur, GA after a long day of work – and had the best Founder’s Porter. I’d had it many times before, but at that exact moment, I took one sip of it and thought “This is the best beer I’ve ever had.” It was the perfect beer at the perfect time. Sounds hippie-ish, but if you have a memory, I want to hear it.
TV: One of my earliest ones I remember was after I turned 21. I was developing my palate at Hollander Downer and chose a beer that I’d never had – Rodenbach Grand Cru. I didn’t even know it was sour. Popped it open, poured it out and tasted it – and my mind was blown. I had never had a beer that tasted like that before. My world has never been the same since. I was with great friends, and overall that was a pretty magical moment.
W: That’s a good one. Everyone’s got those moments.
GW: I think as far as my first ‘holy shit’ moment with beer was when my dad ordered me a Tripel Karmeliet. We were out at a bar watching a soccer match at 7am – I smelled it, tasted it – I, too, had no idea that beer could taste like that. I don’t know – every beer I had after that for a long time just didn’t compare. It just blew me away and it still does. And that’s why people pay a $8, $9 for a bottle of beer.
W: Are you going to concentrate on any certain styles? Are you going to have a flagship that you’ll make if people keep asking for it? Or will you just keep brewing different stuff?
TV: The market will have to dictate that. People ask us that all the time, but I don’t have an answer for it. We’re so small, it’s going to be a batch by batch thing. We have ideas for beers – and we’re going to make those.
If something sticks, we can dedicate more production to that, but eventually we’ll have to grow to keep experimenting. On the flipside of that – we don’t want to be shackled down to one beer.
GW: In short no – we won’t have a flagship.
W: What’s something you want to make?
GW: I had an idea for a Berliner Weiss where we go over the top for the style – super tart. And then for the syrup that would be added to it – there’s a japanese berry that they call the ‘Miracle berry’. I don’t know the technical term, but they feed it to kids before they eat fermented soybeans, because they’re disgusting – but the berry makes everything taste sweet. People call it “flavor tripping” or something. It’s way out there and I’m pretty sure that’s never been done before in a beer. Not sure how we’ll do it, or if it can be done – but that’s some of the out-there thinking we want to experiment with. I want to do an autumn seasonal where we use smoked malt and use burning leaves somehow. I wanna do shit with black truffles, I want to use squid ink -
W: 3Sheeps did that to their IPA. Sorry man.
TV: Did they really?
W: They really did.
GW: Ok so we won’t do that. (Laughs)
TV: What about – have you ever had sorrel?
TV: They use it in salads. A leafy green, it’s like a sour leaf. It’s good but I love sour everything. I want to extract that sourness – how cool would a green Berliner Weiss for St. Patty’s day be?
W: Gloriously gimmicky.
TV: Yes, but I still think it could be a green beer opportunity. It could turn brown, who knows! Eventually I want to make a great schwarzbier, I really do. That’s one I want to nail.
W: If you could be on tap in any Wisconsin bar, which would it be?
GW: Romans would be a big win for me personally.
TV: Yeah, I’d feel honored and privileged for that one too.
GW: He knows quality beer. He goes to great lengths to have a great list. It’d be very flattering. Von Trier too – I started drinking there when I turned 21 and that’s another one. Chad the bartender always put great beer in front of me. I trusted him and it was very rewarding.
TV: I still say Odd Duck. They are quality through and through. Quality over everything else there – they’re creative, great people.
W: What are your thoughts on MKE beer scene as a whole?
TV: I feel like it needs some work. It’s going in the right direction, but I don’t know. Grant and I have talked about this – the reputation is ‘brew city’, but the craft is still just getting off the ground. We’re living in Miller’s shadow still. I wish there could be more done in Milwaukee. Wisconsin is doing good, Milwaukee though…
GW: You know, but Wisconsin – we have Dave’s Brewfarm, Central Waters, Black Husky and many others doing great things. You can’t compare Milwaukee to Madison though. (In Madison) you have Ale Asylum, Karben4, One Barrel, Next Door, Great Dane, MobCraft all around. They’re above Milwaukee’s craft scene still.
W: Grant, pick one: Horace, Amy, or Ulysses S?
G: There’s one I don’t know.
W: What? Which one?
G: The first one.
W: Horace Grant? Chicago Bulls? Rec Specs?
GW: I’m a soccer guy, sorry.
W: Basketball player…
GW: Well I’m still sticking with Ulysses. He’s on the $50 bill.
W: Tommy, you need to pick one: Boy, LaSorda, or Gun?
TV: Like the Thompson submachine gun?
W: Yeah. Tommy Boy, Tommy LaSorda, or Tommy Gun. Choose carefully.
TV: Wasn’t Tommy Gun a porn star?
TV: What, you guys don’t know your porn stars? Also why isn’t Hugh Grant in these choices? Whatever, I’m saying Tommy LaSorda.
W: You remember when he got hit by that bat & fell like a ton of bricks?
TV: That was funny – not funny.
That was really the gist of the interview. More beers were had. More conversation was had. Laughter filled the air. You get the picture.
The impact ‘local’ beers have had on the craft beer scene in the past couple of years has been massive . I find myself torn all too often though – and have vocally expressed that just because it’s local – does not mean it’s good. In terms of the Enlightened Brewing Company, however – I *can* tell you that what I’ve had so far has been exceptional. If the beer is good – the people will drink. There won’t be any flashy marketing or enormous gaudy tap handles behind this stuff – it’s simply going to be 2 normal dudes making interesting, good beer. In an on-premise market that’s dominated by cash from big corporations, I really do hope they’ll be able to not only survive, but also thrive. Time will tell if we’ll find the path to enlightenment. God that was cheesy. Here’s to hopefully seeing some Enlightened Brewing Company beer in the near future. Best of luck to these guys. May the daunting hurdles make way for big wins.