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'Homebrewing on Steroids'

Enlightened Brewing keeps up with growing demand

Apr. 5, 2016
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James Larson and Tommy Vandervort, the head brewer and founder/operations manager of Enlightened Brewing Company, should be exhausted, but if they are, they don’t let on.

When they greet me at the door of their cozy brewing space and offer me a sample of their most recent beer—the delicious Suspended in Thought, which I’ll get to soon—I’m surprised to hear, a few minutes into the conversation, that they just finished up a 20-hour brew day. Larson gestures at a stack of about 20 one-sixth-barrel kegs—which hold about 41 pints apiece—looks at me, and grins.

Larson and Vandervort had been playing catch-up, having briefly run out of beer and leaving vendors and customers clamoring for their increasingly popular brews. (One of the highest compliments for a microbrewery is struggling to keep up with demand.) Larson, who earned a master’s in brewing and distilling from Heriot Watt Univerity in Edinburgh, Scotland, and previously worked in a brewing capacity at Bell’s Brewery, describes their current setup as “homebrewing on steroids.”

But, hey, great beer comes out of that setup. And while they’re not staying in their current location on the second floor of the Lincoln Building on First Street (alongside other manufacturers like Bittercube, Top Note Tonics, and Twisted Path Distillery) much longer, they don’t have far to move: Larson and Vandervort plan to open a tasting room featuring an expanded brewing setup in the building’s southwest corner in mid-to-late April.

Both are excited and looking forward to the move: Larson to having more space to work with and tripling the brewery’s production, and Vandervort—who’s just generally a happy and excited guy—to the stability of having their own tap room. (Of course, they will continue taking their beers to many of your favorite watering holes and selling them out of the back of their cars.)

Vandervort’s path to Enlightened is a bit wavier than Larson’s: having earned a degree in political science from UW-Milwaukee, served as an Oak Creek alderman, joined the Peace Corps and floated around various bars as a bartender/bouncer, all while homebrewing. Once he decided to found Enlightened in mid-2014, he was put in touch with Larson by Rob Zellermayer, a bartender at Sugar Maple.

One of the first beers they brewed remains their flagship, the A Priori Pale Ale—the name a reference to the philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s theory that there are some things we just know. (One of them, presumably, is that beer tastes good.) This pale ale is in the Black Husky mode of higher-than-usual-for-a-pale-ale ABV and a full, crisp hop flavor balanced by a solid malt backbone; it’s an excellent take on the style. Sustained Thought Coffee Stout, made with fresh coffee from Valentine, was recently souped up as Suspended in Thought. To craft the new brew, they took bourbon-soaked oak chips and let them rest in the finishing tank, creating a “bourbon-soaked oak-infused coffee stout” that blends the sweetness of the bourbon with dry oak flavors and the roastiness and acidity of the coffee to create an extremely balanced take on the popular style. Their very popular California Common-style beer, 53207 (named for their zip code), is smooth, easy drinking, and just a touch sweet.

Although their relatively small setup requires precision and carefulness for each batch—out of which they get about 18 barrels which are then distributed across Milwaukee, one per bar—the brewing experience they share means they haven’t hit any major hiccups yet, and with the expansion on the horizon, it looks like Enlightened Brewing’s best days are ahead of them. 

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