His first stop was in England, picking hops in West Kent and working at Fuller’s Brewery in London. In addition to working at breweries, Ilan biked as much as possible while in Europe, blogging about his beer discoveries along the way. His blog was called “Bike For Beer” and it chronicled his experience of “discovering each country’s many regions that are holding on to their historical and unique brewing traditions.” It was his way of documenting his year in beer and raising awareness—as well a little money. (“I think I raised like $600,” he laughs.)
After Fuller’s, Ilan flew to Japan to work at Kiuchi Brewery. There he learned about sake as well as beer, and was introduced to a little fruit that would make a big impact on his future in brewing: yuzu. “It’s this wrinkly little yellow fruit that kind of looks and tastes like lemon, but has a ton of seeds,” he says. “I had a yuzu tree in the backyard of where I was staying and was curious about it. I asked the brewer if we could make a beer with it and he let me do a pilot batch. That’s pretty much when Hell Chicken was created.”
From Japan it was back to Europe, to Denmark, to work at Fanø and Søgaards Bryghus for a few months. Then, after biking around Belgium and France, Ilan headed home to Minneapolis, to put everything he’d learned into action. He had $91 in his bank account and big dreams of starting his own brewery.
There was just one problem: “I found out I wasn’t very good at putting together a business plan,” Ilan says. The passion was there, but passion does not a business make. Fortunately, that’s about the time Ilan met Brian Berge, a fellow homebrewer—and a guy with a background in branding, marketing, and business management. Along the way they also found Kevin Hilliard and Eric Schmidt, two more homebrewers with experience in areas needed to get a brewery up and running: sales (Kevin) and finance and supply chain* (Eric).
Insight Brewing opened on November 21, 2014, with a decidedly unique lineup of beers. “I want to bring new styles of beer to the Midwest—to push the limits,” Ilan says of his choices. The two beers that most accomplish that goal are In the Halls of the Sunken City, a saison with sauvignon blanc grapes, and The Garden of the Hell Chicken, a pale ale with yuzu. “There are a couple breweries around the country that have done things like this [saison], but it’s not a common thing in brewing to use wine grapes,” Ilan says.
As far as brewing with yuzu, well, he doesn’t know of anyone doing that. “It’s a difficult fruit to work with,” he says. “It has a ton of seeds and is very labor-intensive.” It’s so uncommon in the United States, in fact, that Ilan has to source his yuzu puree from Japan; the only place in the U.S. that grows yuzu is in California, and they don’t grow nearly as much as Insight needs for its popular pale ale—especially now that it’s in 16-ounce cans as well as on tap.
But those are the kinds of hurdles that excite and motivate Ilan. Challenges, innovation, growth, newness: this is what brewing offers him, and what he channels to make beer that stands out in a fast-growing market. They are the elements that drive him outside the brewhouse, too. As if opening a brewery and getting married wasn’t enough for one year, last year Ilan also took on a cello student. This year, his goal is to join a community orchestra—maybe even get a jazz trio together to play in the brewery now and then.
He also remains dedicated to the dictum that travel is the key to staying on the forefront of brewing. This past August, he went to England to revisit connections he’d made on his initial world tour and brew collaboration beers with Beerd Brewery and Elgood’s Brewery. This spring, he’s heading to Belgium and Italy to do more collaborations, and is already brainstorming about the kinds of grapes he wants to experiment with for another Insight beer.
It’s all about growth, Ilan says of what the future holds for him and Insight. New cans and bottles, opening up new markets, diving into sours and barrel aging, expanding the brewhouse: year two of Insight will push every limit Ilan set for himself in year one, which is exactly how he wants it. “I think it’s a decent amount,” he says of his long and ever-growing to-do list. “It’s fun. It’s all hindsight: you look back and it feels like things go slowly, but you’re amazed with what actually happened.”
Whether or not Ilan has ever taken anything slowly in his life is debatable. What isn’t debatable is that his risk-taking has paid off thus far—and that his risks are the beer drinker’s reward.
* Correction: The original article stated that Ilan was in Belgium when he was a child; he was in Denmark. It also stated that Eric Schmidt’s background was in business development and finance; it was supply chain and finance.
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