By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Mar 06, 2023 at 9:03 AM

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When I visited the new Pilot Project brewery and taproom in the former Milwaukee Brewing Co. facility – at 1128 N. 9th St., in the Brewery District – in November it had not yet opened to the public.

But it was close, and that in itself was impressive, considering the Chicago brewery had only bought the property less than two months earlier.

While some finishing touches in the public spaces have been wrapped up and the place looks great – though, to be fair, it already looked pretty nice by my pre-opening day visit – arguably the biggest changes have occurred in the brewhouse and kitchen.

In the latter, Chef Ryan Gill has been putting his own stamp on the initial menu created by Chicago's Chef Tony Quartaro, adding things like a formidable smashburger, removing a mussels plate and tinkering the fish fry and other dishes.

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Chef Ryan Gill and his burger.
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For beer lovers the biggest change is that while Pilot Project opened with only one or two Milwaukee-brewed beers on tap, now there are many.

And because of the brewery's size, the batches are 60 barrels.

For comparison, in Chicago, where Pilot Project has a 10-barrel brewhouse, they often do double turns to make 20-barrel batches.

A lot of changes were made to the brew system here, says co-founder Dan Abel – who is onsite in Milwaukee three days a week – and that made getting it up and running akin to firing up an entirely new brewery.

“It took a minute to get it where we want it," says Abel. "The brewhouse was set up for brewing Milwaukee Brewing Co. beers, and so I would not call it a turn-key brewery. For them it was probably rinse and repeat, but we’re still making adjustments.

“We've changed this (system) substantially and it's really about dialing it in for what we need.”

Still, the brewing team has been able to do that and it is humming now.

“These are three beers that were brewed back to back,” says Abel as he pours tasters. “We have enough data from brewing to be able to (flavor) match what we're doing in Chicago. We're pulling water from the same source, and the water profiles are almost identical, but it's still a different system.”

We taste a crisp Italian pilsner called Il Serpente, and a pair of related hazy IPAs called Two Falls and Mountains Calling Home – all of which are also available in cans, and which are extremely popular.

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Mountains Calling Home is brewed with Nectaron hops, which Abel says is the most expensive hop Pilot Project has ever purchased.

“We contracted a very small amount of it. It got its name from nectarine, but I think it's one of the wilder hops I've ever had. It doesn't taste like your quintessential citrus bomb. It's got way more tropical nose. I think it tastes like if you were to take a bag of blue Skittles and throw it in your mouth.

“As a kid, did you ever take the fruit roll-up, the ones that were squares and then just like ball it up and throw in your mouth," he asks. "That's what I get with this.”

The 80 percent Nectaron hops bill rounds out with some Simcoe and Amarillo.

We also try some more unusual brews that are a reminder that a flight is always a good way to taste through a long and varied beer list like the one at Pilot Project.

Having two systems opens the potential for more experimentation, too.

“We are really happy with what we get out of the Chicago spot, but having brewed on this one now, it's like, wow, there's some real potential. This system is breaking in really nicely.”

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Dan Abel taps some tasters.
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Abel says Pilot Project is brewing a couple times a week in Milwaukee at the moment.

“There aren't actually that many tanks here,” he says. “There are enough tanks to brew. If we were doing really quick turns, we could probably get close to brewing daily. But we do a lot of lagers. We do a lot of long ferments. So in all reality, we could probably only brew 15 batches a month up here.”

For that reason, the plan is to add more tanks over time. Though for now, he adds, there’s plenty of capacity.

The brewery is canning most of its beers and for now is self-distributing in Wisconsin.

Pilot Project incubates brands and there will be four new ones hitting this year, says Abel, though he declines to be too specific.

But he will say there are two coming in spring and two in autumn, including a Milwaukee brand.

He's also thinking about non-alcoholic brews, but is not yet ready to pull the trigger.

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"We had seven new incubator brands pitch us in the last couple weeks," Abel says. "Five of the seven were NA. I feel like everyone's thinking about it."

The plan remains, as Abel told me when I visited the Chicago brewery, that brands will start small on the Chicago system and, if necessary, grow into Milwaukee’s much larger brewhouse.

“Now that we're like finally online,” he says, “it's kind of cool. We'll brew down in Chicago until it hits that spot that we need. Then we can bring it up here and, you know, spread the love.”

Abel doesn’t see Pilot Project growing out of this space, which was an empty Pabst Brewing distribution facility converted into a brewery in 2018. It’s huge.

“We don't have any plans to get bigger than this,” he says. “We do have plans to add little spots like what we have in Chicago in other premium markets, and we still want to be able to incubate brands all over the world, but this would still be the home. When anyone wants to grow, they'd come to our hub in Milwaukee.

“We hope that this is forever our production facility.”

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.