Brandon Wright, Owner/Head of Brewing Operations/Chief Beer Guru/CEO/CFO/C-3PO
Steve Woertendyke, Head Brewer
Werk Force Brewing, Plainfield
2.5BBL System / Brewery, Taproom + Homebrew Shop
Meet Brandon Wright, step inside his taproom or sample his brews at a festival, and it’s immediately clear that he thrives on a never-ending passion for experimentation. It’s at the boiling, bubbling core of everything he does. His zeal for exploring new ingredients and flavors stems from more than a dozen years of homebrewing and the last five years running Chicago Brew Werks, one of the most successful homebrew supply shops in the country. Alongside Head Brewer Steve Woertendyke, Werk Force specializes in big, bold beer styles in small batches – all under the same roof as their shop. A visit to the taproom is an experiment in itself actually. Where else can you grab a pint or two of unique beers, learn how Brandon and Steve made them and walk out with the ingredients to try brewing them yourself?
Which Chicagoland brewery inspires you most and why?
Brandon: Flesk. James and Will work their asses off and are two great guys. They are very small like us, and I look at them all the time and how hard they work to get their beer out. It’s really inspiring to me. They are also just down-to-earth, good people. Every time we get together with them to hang, we throw around a ton of ideas. They are the one brewery we have done the most collaborations with.
Steve: Revolution. The reason is the beer. Every time I try a beer I haven’t had from Rev, I am always happy with my choice. They brew several different styles so there’s always something fun to choose from.
In 10 words or less, sum up your view of the current Chicagoland craft beer scene.
Brandon: Exploding. There is some truly awesome beer rolling out of Illinois. (Sorry that’s 11)
Steve: Adventurous, exciting, growing, fun.
Would you be in favor of retailers/bars filling growlers of your beer? Why or why not?
Brandon: I would be in favor. I totally understand the arguments on both sides. It is up to the brewery to determine if the establishment should be able to serve their beer. For us, as a self-distributor, it’s a little easier because we maintain full control over where our beer goes. For larger breweries, it is the responsibility of their reps to make this determination. I have been to a few growler shops in the South, and the employees were very particular that the growler needed to be spotless. In our taproom, we are the same way. We have a sign behind the bar that states we will refuse to fill a dirty growler. Same as walking into a bar with dirty draft lines. We have the right to refuse selling beer to them unless they change their act.
What’s at the top of your professional wish list over the next 3 years?
Brandon: 1 – Get a bigger brewhouse. We rock out a lot of beer on our little system. We tripled production from 2014 to 2015. We are well on our way to do it again, but we are limited by the size of our current brewhouse. We hope to have a new one by mid-summer. 2 – Expand our wild and sour ales by opening up a barrel/blending warehouse. From day one, we have been as experimental as we can with our beers. All of that comes from our homebrewing roots. I absolutely love wild ales, and we have been actively pursuing them. Not every sour has to take the enamel off your teeth. Kettle sours are great, and we brew them, but we also have a ton of long-term souring beer in various wine barrels. There is something to be said about the beauty and complexity that can be achieved from these beers. 3 – Opening up a new Werk Force taproom. Our current taproom (and brewery) is inside our brewing supply shop, Chicago Brew Werks. This has been an awesome home and a great place to get the brewery off the ground. On weekends, it can get really busy, and we’d like to eventually open up a standalone location.
What makes your brewery different or stand out in Chicagoland?
Brandon: First, I think our beer fucking rocks. Second, we are the best education brewery around. I don’t think anyone in the Chicagoland area can say this. We openly share all of our recipes – shameless self-plug to recipes.chicagobrewwerks.comWe get stoked to have people brew our beer. As I mentioned, we are located in the best homebrewing supply shop in the Midwest. We spend a lot of time educating customers on what went into the brewing of the beer they are drinking at the Werk Force taproom. Even if they are not homebrewers, we go in depth about the beer we brew. On a fairly regularly basis, we will split off a portion of a batch into multiple small fermenters. We will use different yeast strains, dry hops, fruit, etc., and put the final beers on tap side by side. Brewed out of the same kettle, same day, same batch, but all will come out wildly different due to the variable we changed. I truly love this. It’s so cool to see people’s reactions when they discover that by only changing the yeast strain, the beers come out different. Keep in mind our brewing supply shop carries around 300 different types of malt, 200 yeast strains and over 100 types of hops. Werk Force Brewing has access to all of this to brew some ridiculous beer.
Steve: The reason is the beer. We don’t shy away from brewing whatever it is we feel like brewing. Currently we have the ability to brew pilot batches and explore different styles and ingredients. If it works out well, it goes on draft and/or gets brewed in a larger format. If not, we scrap it and try again.
Tell us something about your brewery that we probably don’t know.
Brandon: We started from scratch. We didn’t take on any investors. We decided to take a very stable growth approach to the brewery. We wanted the demand to grow our brewery. I think a lot of breweries take on a lot of debt and get a big beautiful brewhouse that makes a ton of beer and then they have to go pound the market to try to get it all sold. We did the opposite. Get the brewery and taproom going and let the demand make us brew more. I won’t deny that having the brewing supply shop established for two years helped a ton. It gave us a home to get started as rent, and utilities are not cheap. The shop was started on our kitchen table with only what we could afford – a computer, a pallet worth of brewing supplies and a few months of rent in which I somehow talked a landlord into leasing us some space. Two years later, we got the brewery off the ground and have been growing it ever since.
Steve: We have a large barrel program that has been in place since the beginning and a bunch of those brews will be coming out in the very near future.
What’s your brewery’s toughest challenge day in/day out?
Brandon: Capacity and the size of the brewhouse. We have to brew three times to fill our 7bbl tanks. That’s a ton of effort. We literally have to work three times as hard to produce the beer we make.
If you could go back and change one thing when starting your brewery, what would it be?
Brandon: Layout and drains. When we started, we laid out the space for our small little 1bbl and 2bbl tanks. I remember saying, ‘This is a ton of room and should work for at least three years.’ Shit was I wrong. About six months in, we purchased two 7bbl fermenters, then two more and then a 7bbl bright tank. We totally outgrew the space in a matter of months. Secondly, we put in a floor drain, and I didn’t pay enough attention to the plumber who installed it. I totally trusted their judgement, and they didn’t pitch the floor right. All of the drainage on the floor flows away from the drain. Our squeegee gets a ton of use. If there is one thing I can recommend to any startup brewery or other business for that matter, you have to watch the contractors and subs like a hawk.
What aggravates or annoys you most when it comes to the current craft beer scene?
Brandon: Donations to for-profit fests. We get hit up all the time by festivals that want our beer. Then they state they require the kegs to be donated. Don’t get me wrong, if a festival is donating 100% of the proceeds to charity and is volunteer run, count us in. We are totally into helping others in need (100% of our tips in our taproom are donated to local charities). It really makes me aggravated when someone is running something that is for-profit and then asks you to donate what you worked your ass off to produce. It’s just wrong. Very wrong. On the other side, there are a number of really well-run, for-profit fests that are always willing to purchase the beer. They get it and run the right budget where they can pay the breweries for the product they produce.
Steve: Bad mouthing your fellow breweries. If you haven’t got anything nice to say…
If you could put only one other Chicagoland beer on tap at your brewery, which would it be and why?
Brandon: Flesk’s Helles Lager. It’s frigging awesome and super crushable.
Steve: 350 Brewing/MXPX’s Pokinatcha. It’s delicious!