Like many homebrewers, Gerrit Lewis and Beejay Oslon of Chicago’s Pipeworks Brewing Company had the urge to open up their own professional brewery. Instead of attending brewing school or calling their local brewery to volunteer, though, they wrote a letter to their favorite brewery overseas and offered to work for free. That brewery was De Struise Brouwers in Oostvleteren, Belgium. “It was as simple as writing Urbain Coutteau, the owner and head brewer at De Struise, and asking him if we could work at his brewery for free. He said yes, so we went.” Oslon says.
The two stayed at Urbain’s nearby bed and breakfast—located on his former commercial ostrich farm—while they brewed, bottled, and delivered beer for De Struise. Among their chores was feeding spent grain to the ostriches, which is why the Pipeworks War Bird Session Ale sports an ostrich on the can.
“We were in Belgium in early 2009, when the world’s beer industry was starting to change dramatically,” Lewis says. “It was a lot of the Michael Jackson–type beer culture where all these brewers who had known each other for years got together to drink each other’s beers. They’d come to the De Struise farm about once a month to see what Urbain was concocting,” which could fall just about anywhere on the scale from traditional Belgian beers to experimental one-offs. That experimentation is what Lewis credits to the changes that occurred in the industry around that time. “There was a whole new group of people and traditions,” he says. “The beer got better. Brewers got smarter. They were creating traditional styles in new formats.”
During their time in Belgium, Oslon and Lewis laid the groundwork for the brewery that they wanted to open when they returned home. Oslon, who had attended art school, got to work on the logo and the labels, and together they crafted many collaboration beers with Coutteau and other local brewers. “We made a name for ourselves as ‘The American Boys,’ with confidence in a brand that didn’t really make its own beer yet,” Lewis says.
Those collaborations would go on to be a huge part of what Lewis and Oslon do today and to shape the philosophy with which they approach their business. After returning from Belgium, the duo spent eighteen months developing a plan to raise startup funds for the brewery before they found the Kickstarter platform. The crowd-funding site was just what they needed to raise their initial funds in a way that involved their family, friends, and the growing Chicago craft-beer community.
“We used media to spread the word that craft beer was coming to Chicago,” Lewis says. “At that point, we really had only Half Acre, Metropolitan, and Revolution. Now the city has sixty plus breweries.”
When Lewis and Oslon launched Pipeworks Brewing in 2012, they bottle-conditioned their beers in bombers. That Belgian-influenced plan changed quickly, though, when their customers went nuts about their Ninja vs. Unicorn IPA. “We weren’t going to bottle-condition an IPA. So when the DIPA turned out really popular, we reacted and changed our packaging plan, going the force-carbonating route.”
Flash forward to Pipeworks’s fourth year in business with a great deal of growth and a new facility. The War Bird Session Ale and Ninja vs. Unicorn, along with several of the brewery’s other mainstays, such as the Lizard King Mosaic Pale Ale and the Glaucus Belgian Ale, are now canned offerings. More space is allowing Lewis and Oslon to return to their original plan and bottle-condition more of their beers.
“In the beginning, we had a lot of crazy ideas, crazy labels, and weird recipes,” Lewis reflects. “In fact we’ve done more than 200 beers since we opened, and it’s not just Beejay and I writing the recipes, either.”
In the spirit of collaboration, Pipeworks has created many beers with other breweries, including Half Acre, DryHop Brewers, 18th Street Brewery, and 350 Brewing. They also rely on their entire staff for recipe development. “Almost everyone at the brewery has input,” Lewis says. “Any one beer could have been incepted by one of fifteen people.”
With more than 200 beers and some seriously radical beer labels, Pipeworks doesn’t exactly seem to have a common thread to the beers they make. “You can look across the label range and see a lot of variation, and ‘no unifying theme’ has been one of the criticisms we’ve gotten.”
Those critics most likely don’t know about Lewis and Oslon’s time overseas or the ostriches they used to feed spent grain. They probably don’t know that the name Pipeworks stems from a Lewis’s nickname in college (The Plumber) or about Oslon’s art background. If those critics did know these stories, they wouldn’t have much to critique, as Pipeworks’s common thread is the people who created it. Everything about the brewery—from its Belgian roots and Kickstarted beginning to its current brews and collaborative model—reflects the passionate owners and their zany approach to what they do.
Pipeworks’s Greatest Hits
Any brewery with 200 different beers under their collective belt is sure to have some that rise about the fray and find a special place in the hearts of their fans. Here are a few Pipeworks releases that have resonated with P-dubs loyalists and our editorial team alike.
Ninja vs. Unicorn Double IPA
Pipeworks has changed the original recipe of this beloved double IPA since they started canning this past summer. It has all the juicy hops and smooth mouthfeel you can ask for in a double IPA. Pick up a four-pack or an entire case; it won’t last long in your fridge.
Lizard King Mosaic Pale Ale
This fan-favorite originally started as a draft-only offering around Chicago but turned into a year-round offering once Pipeworks’s canning line was up and running.
Abduction Stout Series
Each imperial stout in this series is infused with adjuncts as if they were going out of style, from cherry truffle to coffee to vanilla. Scoop up any bottles you see and try a tasting to see which flavors you like best.
The name says it all, and the locals scoop this up each time it’s released. It’s a refreshing saison in summer or winter. You might be able to find someone willing to trade a bottle if you need a taste sooner rather than later.
Spotted Puffer Imperial IPA
This Imperial IPA is brewed with honey, passion fruit, and Citra hops. It’s a flavor explosion and blows up your palate in the best way possible.
Hey, Careful Man, There’s a Beverage Here!
Pipeworks has brewed up some cocktail-inspired brews, and this is a classic throw back to The Big Lebowski. This White Russian Imperial Milk Stout was brewed with lactose sugar, cacao, coffee, and vanilla.