A Culinary-Inspired Brewing Operation
Story by Brett Kell
Photography by Joe Laedtke
Brew City is living up to its name once again. With 2016 ushering in nearly a dozen new breweries, the glory days of countless locally made beers close at hand are no longer a distant memory.
In addition to stalwarts Sprecher, Lakefront and Milwaukee Brewing Co., recently established breweries are becoming favorites in their neighborhoods and beyond: Brenner Brewing, Urban Harvest and soon-to-open Madison transplant MobCraft in Walker’s Point; Company Brewing and Black Husky in Riverwest; Big Head in Wauwatosa; Enlightened Brewing in Bay View, Good City on the East Side, Westallion in West Allis, Bavarian Bierhaus in Glendale and Biloba in Brookfield. Two more, Third Space and City Lights, will open soon in the Menomonee Valley. And Vennture Brew Co. is gearing up for Tosa.
Even famed Milwaukee cornerstone Pabst will begin brewing again, in a church on its sprawling former grounds just north of downtown. This year has also included formation of the Milwaukee Craft Brewery League, to which many of the aforementioned entities belong.
Notable among these new kids on the block is Like Minds Brewing Company, a partnership between serious beer geek John Lavelle and amateur beer geek Justin Aprahamian, James Beard Award-winning owner-chef of Milwaukee’s renowned Sanford restaurant. Perhaps even more incredible than Like Minds’ beer is the frustrating, tangled and ultimately satisfying path the company had to travel just to exist in Milwaukee at all.
It Could Be a Thing
“We were doing beer dinners at Sanford and it caught some momentum,” Aprahamian recalled of his first interactions with Lavelle. “We did a series with John and five other restaurants and five breweries. I became good friends with him, trying different styles and talking and just being beer dorks.”
Until Like Minds, Lavelle’s passion for brewing was more hobby than profession. His career in technology spanned web design, programming and development, including creating the Beer Fridge app. On the side, he sought ways to connect beer enthusiasts, brewers, distributors and retailers who shared his enthusiasm. He even worked at breweries for free to better understand the brewing process.
The more time Aprahamian and Lavelle spent together, they discovered they shared other interests including musicians and artists.
“At some point, we started thinking, ‘how great would it be to make this beer with these flavors, or imagine a beer in this style but with these ingredients?’” Aprahamian said. “There would be these tangents filled with combinations of things that came from the restaurant, and we started thinking that maybe it could be a thing.”
They decided to open a brewery-restaurant that would reflect a keen interest in the kinds of flavor profiles more commonly found in food than in beer.
“We think about beer the way we think about dishes—balanced, nuanced, seasonal, unique to the area—something you want at that time of the year,” Aprahamian said.
The first Like Minds beers were brewed by Hinterland in Green Bay in 2014: Serre Rhubarb Saison and Markt Cucumber Pilsner in summer; Ver’beena Wheat Pale Ale with black currants and lemon verbena in fall; and Nighthawks, a coffee stout, in winter.
When the time came to set up shop, Lavelle and Aprahamian were looking at spaces in Milwaukee when a grenade was lobbed into the middle of things: a Prohibition-era state statute commonly known as the “Tied House” law dictated that Aprahamian could not have ownership stake in a brewery because he owns and holds a liquor license for Sanford.
The solution? “Go to Illinois,” said the Department of Revenue, which issues brewery and brewpub licenses. Lavelle and Aprahamian were stunned. Feeling helpless, they abandoned their Milwaukee plans and found space on the near west side of Chicago just blocks from Goose Island Beer Company and the United Center.
After reading coverage of the ordeal, State Rep. Dale Kooyenga offered to help facilitate discussion between the Department of Revenue, beer distributors, the Tavern League, and others to see what could be done. The Department of Revenue found a loophole that differentiated between brewery and brewpub, which have separate licenses.
“Long story short, we were able to come back to Wisconsin as long as I don’t sell Like Minds beer at Sanford,” Aprahamian said. “This exception existed the whole time, so had we gotten proper explanation we never would have had to go to Chicago. We’re in a 10-year lease there, so it’s not like we can just pick up and come back. It was a huge investment, a lot of time, energy and lost sleep to get the ball rolling as we did.”
Blessing in Disguise
Though segregating their brewing portfolio wasn’t anticipated so early, Lavelle and Aprahamian admit having two breweries allows for greater capacity and freedom to experiment. The Milwaukee brewery has a seven-barrel system in its roughly 2,000 square feet, while Chicago’s 10,000 square feet hold a 30-barrel system.
“We’ll use the Chicago facility for sours, wild ales and anything with wild bacteria or wild yeast, things that could potentially infect everything else,” Aprahamian said. “We’ll make everything else here.”
Aprahamian’s vision for a brewery that functions like a high-end kitchen takes shape when he considers an ingredient’s multiple uses. He mentions spent grain as an obvious example, but shares another:
“Say you age black tea in barrels,” he said. “Then age beer in the barrels the tea was in, and incorporate some barrel-aged tea into the menu and some into more beer. The beauty of what we’re setting ourselves up to do is small batches of a lot of things, and really harnessing what’s available to us. I don’t think there are a lot of people making beer like this.”
Triumphant Return, New Beginning
It’s evident when walking into Like Minds’ Milwaukee space, formerly occupied by The Hamilton lounge, that the beer isn’t the only thing carefully crafted to reflect simplicity. Gone are the dark walls and compartmentalized spaces, now opened up wide with white walls, blonde wood, and a larger, custom-made concrete bar courtesy of Aprahamian’s brother-in-law.
The Milwaukee brewery serves as a pilot lab for new recipes before they are brewed on a larger scale. Despite the success of the initial run of beers in 2014, some evolution and tinkering is natural, said Aprahamian. The Cucumber Pilsner will become a Kolsch, and the Rhubarb Saison will likely become a sour. Coming up will be a Quince Saison, an American Pale Ale, some classic Belgian styles, and others.
Though Aprahamian will spend some time in the Like Minds kitchen on nights away from Sanford, the team will be anchored by sous chefs Jimmy Cababa, formerly of Sanford, and Paul Funk, most recently charcuterie wizard at Hinterland. The small menu will likely include a blend of approachable (burger, charcuterie, pasta) and eclectic (Armenian flatbread, fried lemons) items that complement or utilize Like Minds beer and are inspired by balance and seasonality.
Artist Rob Jones, who frequently collaborates with musician Jack White, designed a bottle label for an as-yet-unreleased Like Minds beer and unofficially serves as a sort of curator, reaching out to other artists. The resulting label art is as varied and exceptional as the beers it adorns, and will be featured on the walls of the restaurant and bar.
“Being back in Wisconsin meant so much to us,” said Aprahamian, reflecting on Like Minds’ journey. “Being where we wanted to be from the get-go, working with the people we wanted to work with—everyone who was so supportive of us out of the gate. Getting this far wasn’t easy, but we’re really excited.”
A Like Minds Beer Primer
Dry Wheat Saison, 6.3% ABV
Made with Belgian yeast strains, Exiled has a crisp, malty backbone and is rounded out by lemon rind provided by Milwaukee’s Rishi Tea.
Label artist: Jake Rathkamp, Milwaukee
Brett IPA, 6.5% ABV
A 100% Brettanomyces India Pale Ale. This particular strain was chosen to accentuate the tropical and citrus aromas from a blend of American and German hops.
Label artist: Zeb Love, Pittsburgh, PA
Double IPA, 9.0% ABV
Made with a blend of German and American hops, Horehound uses German malts chosen to support the citrus hop profile.
Label artist: Jake Rathkamp, Milwaukee
Nitro Oatmeal Coffee Stout, 7.2% ABV
Made with cold-brewed coffee from Metric Coffee Roasters in Chicago, Nighthawks has a pleasant sweetness and chocalate-forward flavor and aroma. The nitrogenation creates a silky mouthfeel.
Label artist: Jason Edmiston
Brett Kell is a writer and communications professional whose work has been featured in various publications and has won awards for feature writing. He nurtures a fondness for food and drink in Milwaukee, and is passionate about wristwatches, whisky and the Green Bay Packers. Brett and his wife, Lauren, have two children whose culinary interests begin and end with mac and cheese. Follow him on Twitter @brettknows.