Brewer’s Spotlight: Jim Cibak, Revolution Brewing Company
Our “Brewer’s Spotlight” is a series of conversations with innovative brewers across the country. Recently we sat down with Jim Cibak, Lead Brewer at Revolution Brewing in Chicago, IL. John I. Haas is honored to be a trusted supplier of quality hops for Revolution—and Jim is currently featured in our “Here’s to the Moments” ad campaign. This month, we talked with Jim about surprising naysayers, playing with contrasts in second runnings, and always brewing what you love.
Q: How did Revolution get its start?
Jim: Revolution was founded by Josh Deth and his wife, Krista. Josh and I and worked together at Goose Island in the late 90’s, where we became friends. Josh always had the dream of starting his own brewery, and was cobbling equipment together in his basement 20 years ago. It just took the right amount of time, the right people, a few key investors, the right building and the team. Slowly over the years, he was working on making all those things happen. It came together around 2008/09 when he found a brewpub on Milwaukee Avenue that was pretty raw and unrefined, but it just worked.
When I came on 2009, the brewery was really just a pile of clamps and gaskets and brewing equipment. Whenever a different part of the building would get worked on, the brewery would morph and move around until finally we were able to get it into its current state. We officially opened in Feb 2010 and it was immediately successful. Josh always had the dream of doing some distribution, so we started sprinkling some kegs out of the brewpub and quickly found the opportunity to open our production facility on Kedzie Avenue in 2012.
When we started, everyone said, ‘Ah, that building’s too big. Your brew system is too large.’ People assumed we were going to contract brew. But we were pretty steadfast about brewing our own beers…while hoping in the back of our minds we wouldn’t have to contract brew and we could keep our tanks full. It turned out to be a wise decision. Our first 8 months we did 8,000 barrels. Last year, 2016, we did 73,000—and that was with a huge outdoor cellar and eight 800 barrel fermenters. Now we’re rocking two brewhouses, a 120-barrel and a 45-barrel brewhouse as well. It just kind of a whirlwind.
Q: You do so many different styles of beer here, what’s your process for developing new ideas?
Jim: In the beginning it was really just Josh and I talking about the kind of beers we like to make and beers we like to drink. We’re kind of selfish in that respect, because we don’t sit around a table and try to decide what people want right now, or what’s hot or what’s cool. We don’t really care about that. We try to brew beers that we feel good about and that we like to drink.
As we’ve expanded and our brew team has grown, we have guys with great brewing experience, great palates and great ideas. So as we’ve grown, our innovation group has grown as well. In general, we don’t really do anything too small. We have a pretty big system—the smallest thing we have is a 15 barrel system at our brewpub—so we go pretty full on when we do a new beer. We want to make sure all of our ideas can scale up to work, without losing the consistency. So, even with our innovation program, we go full in.
Q: Are there any surprising beers you’ve brewed lately?
Jim: One thing that I really love to do, and that helps us use our ingredients a little more efficiently, is whenever we brew a strong beer or a beer that’s going to go into barrels, we save the second runnings, divert them into our original brewhouse and we brew that wort separately. Sometimes people call this style ‘small beer.’ But I don’t like that term because by no means are they small.
We did a beer called Ryeway to Heaven, a barley wine that’s 60% rye malt with very little hop aroma in it, and a low bitterness level, and it just goes into barrels and gets aged for a year. We diverted the second runnings of that beer and brewed an intense Rye IPA with it that was about 90 IBUs. We used about two pounds per barrel of hops in the brewhouse alone, then we dry hopped it with five pounds per barrel in the fermentation tank, and it just turned out amazing. It was so cool to create two so different and unique beers from the same mash.
That’s something we’ve done several times here: an American IPA and a Belgian Quad off the same grain. We did a pair of beers we named after the two cities in the Bible that were stricken down because of their debaucherous ways. The Imperial Stout was called Sodom and the second running’s beer was called Gomorra, a 3.5% stout with 4.5 pounds of Amarillo® and Chinook that we just hopped the hell out of it. It’s cool. People really dig it and it’s a way to use your ingredients more efficiently so you’re not dumping high gravity down the drain.
Q: How do you see people’s beer tastes changing?
Jim: I think IPAs and American pales are pretty much here to stay. What I do see coming around, though, is sessionable beers of all kinds. More English and German styles, where you can hang out and have several of them without falling off your barstool. The very first beer we brewed at Revolution was a mild English Ale, it was 4.5% ABV and 20 IBUs, so sessionable beers have always been near and dear to our hearts.
I think people tend to think strong beers have the most character and they’re the most difficult to brew. But it’s really these light, soft beers like Kolsches, Pilsners and English Bitters—that’s where the true art of brewing is. Making drinkable beers that are super flavorful and balanced even when they’re lighter, fragile and don’t have a ton of hops aroma or barrel aging or specialty malt—those are the most challenging for brewers to execute. In truth, I don’t think sessionable beers have ever really fallen out of favor, they just haven’t been as popular in craft brewing at certain points. Just like anything, people go to the extremes, then they always come back to the traditional styles.
Q: What gets you excited about the future of craft and the future of Revolution?
Jim: It’s really just people’s enthusiasm for craft beer in general. Back when I first started, if people smelled an IPA or tasted a beer with high bitterness in it, or, God forbid, a Belgian style beer, people looked at it like it was a foreign concept. Now it’s commonplace. Not only are people’s palates becoming more evolved, but their beer knowledge in general is 100 times higher than it was 20 years ago. As brewers, we know how hard we work to try to make the best beer you can. Like anything in life, when you work hard, it’s nice to know that people appreciate it.