LOGAN SQUARE — Since Dan Abel and Jordan Radke opened Pilot Project in 2019, they’ve helped 13 breweries bring their fermented dreams to market.
The brewery incubator allows budding brewers to set up shop and craft beer at its headquarters, 2140 N. Milwaukee Ave. Now, co-owners Abel and Radke are taking the next step to allow their brewery partners to scale their beverages for wider distribution.
Pilot Project is taking over the longterm lease of the Milwaukee Brewing Company and associated Bottlehouse 42 restaurant in Wisconsin. Funding its expansion is Chicago-based investment firm InvestBrev, which has put in $8 million in seed funding.
Abel said their journey mirrored those of their partner breweries.
“When you’re trying to start a business, it is all based off of the idea of a promise without a ton of context for what you’re actually trying to do,” Abel said.
Abel and Radke were working in the music industry when they got into home brewing. They realized there was a missing opportunity: Musicians and bands can hire a studio to help produce an album — but brewers did not have an equivalent opportunity, they said. The barrier to entry for big-time brewing was high, they said.
That’s how Pilot Project was born: The select promising partners to provide with brewing assistance and marketing, production and other business expertise, helping new brewers launch their brands. Their partners brew in Pilot Project’s space, which also has a tasting room for customers.
The $8 million investment is a testament to the market validation of their concept, Abel said. Pilot Project will also benefit from the expertise InvestBrev can provide them, he said.
Wisconsin ended up being a natural choice for the expansion. Abel graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Radke spent more than a decade there.
“We knew the market really well,” as well as people in the industry, Abel said.
After briefly considering building their own facility, they decided it would be better to refurbish an existing building. When they got wind of the availability of the Milwaukee Brewing Company, “the stars kinda aligned; it was still the right size for our next endeavor,” Abel said.
The new facility will have about 65,000 square feet for their operations, a jump from the 6,000 square feet in their Chicago facility. Soon, they’ll announce a restaurant partner for the tasting room in the Bottlehouse 42 spot.
While they have some changes to the space, Pilot Project hopes to begin brewing there this week, and the co-owners want to open to the public by the end of the October or beginning of November.
Even though they’ll have two facilities to brew beer, they’ll look at their operations holistically.
“In that perfect world, we would launch five or six new concept brands for a year, and then we would scale those next at a facility that’s capable of housing many brands,” Abel said.
In addition to the facility, Pilot Project hired Todd Haug as chief innovation officer. He previously worked for Three Floyds and Surly Brewing.
“He gets to make sure that we stay on the cusp of whatever is cutting edge,” Abel said. “You can’t have innovation and diversity of thought and people without being willing to test and learn.”
The team’s long-term plan is to build other beer incubators in other cities and internationally.
“We love the idea of having more lead generators, more idea generation in culturally rich, diverse places across the globe,” Abel said.
They look forward to getting their Milwaukee facility up and running and helping partner brewers expand beyond the Chicago market. They also plan to hold events in both locations so “it feels a little bit more immersive when you’re going to one versus the other,” Abel said.
“By adding this new space, we can launch new ideas and even take bigger risks. We’re not going to get in the way of the growth of somebody else,” Abel said.
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