The founders of Chicago-based Pilot Project Brewing are shaking up Milwaukee’s brewing scene not only by introducing a new take on how a brewery can operate, but also by purchasing the production facility of one of the city’s best-known brands.
Dan Abel, chief executive officer and co-founder of Pilot Project, and Jordan Radke, co-founder and chief operating officer, closed on the purchase of Milwaukee Brewing Company’s 70,000-square-foot downtown Milwaukee production facility at 1128 N. 9th St., as well as the attached Bottlehouse 42 restaurant, on Sept. 22.
Abel and Radke, who are both creatives, first began tossing around the idea of a “brewery incubator” in 2016 after going through the home brewing process themselves and realizing how many barriers could hold a talented brewer back. Those barriers can range from financial to legal.
“We realized this is a very creative industry that requires a high level of know-how,” Abel said. “Think about songwriting in that sense. Songwriting is equal parts creativity and logic. The structure of a song is very logical whereas the other components might be a touch more whimsical. The same thing exists in brewing.”
Pilot Project Brewing’s mission is to foster experimental and small-batch brewing. The company’s Chicago location, established in 2019, offers breweries assistance in fine-tuning recipes, production, scaling, business development, marketing, distribution and more.
Pilot Project had already been seeking a second location when Milwaukee Brewing Company announced its sale. When Pilot Project first opened, it hit its production capacity quickly. The COVID-19 pandemic provided short-term relief, but once 2021 came, the company was once again having a hard time keeping up with demand.
Abel and Radke had a finite list of states where they could look for a second facility. Pilot Project has to follow several laws as a business that is helping create other companies. Those laws involve factors such as liquor liability. That’s why the company opened its first location in Chicago – it was the only state Project Pilot could legally operate in.
“By the time that February and March came around, we had been talking with enough people that we had heard the rumor that Milwaukee Brewing Company might be open to selling,” Abel said. “We jumped on the bandwagon.”
Pilot Project has 35 employees at the Chicago location. The company is bringing on the Bottlehouse 42 team and expects to grow to about 80 people. The company will also produce approximately 10 times more beer at the Milwaukee facility.
“It’s a massive jump for us,” Abel said.
Any brand launched by Pilot Project will start at the Chicago location. Once that brand reaches a certain growth point, it will be scaled up to Milwaukee. Any of the brands Pilot Project has launched thus far could be produced in Milwaukee. Only about half of the brands the company has launched are from Chicago.
Pilot Project’s Milwaukee location will open by the end of the year, but “surface-level” work will be ongoing. The company is also partnering with a yet-to-be-named chef and his restaurant group to open a food concept within Pilot Project. The menu will include both Milwaukee and Chicago classics.
As for what beers Abel is enjoying the most these days, he said he’s leaning into seasonal favorites like Octoberfest brews and dark lagers. To celebrate closing on the purchase of the Milwaukee Brewing Company facility, he had New Glarus Brewing Company's Staghorn Octoberfest.
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