Mike Pallen, the founder of Chicago’s white-hot Mikerphone Brewing, has a tattoo on his left forearm, and I just know it’s going to be something music-related and profound that serves as the perfect example of how the music industry pro-turned-brewer draws from the experiences of his former career to make melodies in beer form. So when I visit him on a moist, post-rain day at his brewery’s spanking-new taproom in Elk Grove Village outside Chicago, it’s the first thing I want to see. But Pallen, wearing a black snapback hat flipped backwards and a black T-shirt emblazoned with his brewery’s logo, is perched over a 9-barrel brew kettle, gripping a plastic paddle and slowly stirring the grains inside by hand, and there’s too much steam. It rises up from the kettle, fogging the lenses of Pallen’s glasses and blocking my view. I wait for my moment as “Times Like These” by the Foo Fighters reverberates off the stainless steel tanks, and eventually he reaches out to stir some grains at the far end of the tank and I can finally make out the phrase in full: “Where words fail, music speaks.”
Behind the music
A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Pallen had grown up around beer. His father, in fact, worked at the big brewery in town: Miller Brewing Co. But the younger Pallen kept his hands off beer and brewing until attending a botany course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, for which the professor offered his students an option for their final project: grow a garden or brew a beer. For Pallen, it was not a tough choice.
“We had just turned 21; we were brewing a beer,” he says. “It was a mess, especially living in a small apartment in college. It was just a terrible experience, yet rewarding, once we had the beer. It was like: We made this.”
Opening a brewery wouldn’t become an objective until years later. Music was his first passion, and after graduating from college, he moved to Chicago with a plan to use the city as a launch pad toward his eventual goal: working at Capital Records in LA. And for years, the strategy seemed to be working. He started his Chi-town music career doing band promotion and merch sales for Aware Records (which manages a number of famous artists and bands, including Five for Fighting, Train, John Mayer and Guster), then landed a gig seeking out and securing musical acts for the ad campaigns for Fortune 500 companies. After that, Pallen ran international marketing for School of Rock, a music academy chain that teaches kids to play instruments through performance. (The movie you’re thinking of with Jack Black, Pallen says, is actually based on this company.)
But all the while, Pallen never gave up on beer. When he wasn’t working, he was writing recipes, brewing test batches in his basement home brewery and sampling them out to whomever would try them. He got in with Pipeworks Brewing Co. as a volunteer helping out with tank moves, brewdays and bottling, then met Drew Fox, owner and head brewer at 18th Street Brewery, who offered Pallen the chance to become his assistant brewer and manage the brewery’s social media—you can thank Pallen for the Kickstarter campaign that got 18th Street off the ground. Fox also allowed Pallen to develop his own brewery from inside 18th Street, but before Pallen could brew any Mikerphone beer, he was tapped as the head brewer of the soon-to-open BreakRoom Brewery. Unfortunately, this deal also fell through. (BreakRoom later closed for good in March 2016.)
Mikerphone started in earnest in March 2015, operating in the same space as SlapShot Brewing Co., a six-year-old brewery in Chicago’s South Lawndale neighborhood, but Pallen was only able to ship out a few beers before Slapshot shut the doors to that location toward the end of 2015. Pallen then moved his operation to Une Annee Brewery near downtown Chicago. Like siblings tired of sharing the same room, however, both breweries were working toward their own locations. Une Année opened in Niles, Illinois, in March 2017; Mikerphone opened in Elk Grove the same month.
Striking a chord
The first thing you see when you step inside Mikerphone’s taproom is the “beanis.” It’s a coffee bean penis, attached to a creature made entirely of coffee beans that’s featured on the label of one of Pallen’s most popular beers, Smells Like Bean Spirit, which recreates the infamous cover for Nirvana’s “Nevermind” album—you know, the one with the naked baby floating in a pool. The eyes are drawn next to the wall behind the bar. About 15 feet high, it’s constructed with guitar amps from the likes of Fender, Vox and Marshall—all told, there’s enough wattage represented to fill a small stadium with sound. None of them are real, unfortunately, and only one has the honor of being connected to the eight microphone-topped faucets that pour the brewery’s beer.
“One of my requirements was the to have the taps coming out of an Orange amp,” Pallen says. He gestures toward the walls, where a dozen or so guitars (signed by the likes of Taylor Swift and Guster) hang. “This is my man-cave. I don’t have one at my house, so this is it.”
It’s not the first location you’d choose for a man-cave. Mikerphone’s located inside Elk Grove Village, the largest industrial park in the U.S. The multitude of square, mostly windowless brick buildings represents more than 62 million square feet of inventory; about 3,000 of those belong to Mikerphone. Pallen picked this location based on proximity to his home, wife and kids; he’d initially planned to operate it as a simple production brewery—no tasting room, no onsite sales. But soon after beginning buildout, Mikerphone was named the best new brewery in Illinois by RateBeer, and at the awards festival in early 2016, brewers he spoke with convinced him that opening a tasting room was the way to go.
“For me it’s exciting, because for a long time I was simply making beer, loading it up, delivering it and saying goodbye,” Pallen says. “Now we’ve got that interaction with the consumers. We talk to them about the beers, and just talk to them in general, say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? How you doing? What brought you here?’ We can see the swath of people who are coming in. It’s fun to be here and have that consumer-facing part of it, and to sell directly is great. We get instant feedback; we know what they like and don’t like, and we can go in and change it right away. And the beer’s coming directly fresh, from that wall, the day of tapping. It’s something I never planned to do, but now that we have it I can’t see doing this any other way.”
On the day I visited, Mikerphone’s taproom was scheduled to open at 3 p.m. People began lining up outside the doors, growlers in hand, around 2:30. It was Thursday. Pallen says this isn’t unusual; when he releases a new bottle, customers sometimes show up hours beforehand and the line spills onto the sidewalks in front of his industrial park neighbors. The brewery has resonated with people—both the hundreds who work in the industrial park as well as those living in the surrounding communities.
“We’re the only brewery in this area,” Pallen says. “So people have kind of taken us on as, ‘This is our brewery. This is our local brewery.’ Which is more than I could have ever imagined.”
Finding the harmony
Perhaps more effectively than any creative human endeavor, music has the ability to transport us. An old song can trigger vivid memories, conducting you through memory to a place in time and emotion you thought you’d long forgotten. Beer can have the same effect: A sip of something you had at a great moment in your life can bring you right back to that moment. For Pallen, New Belgium’s Fat Tire provides an example of this: For years, the popular amber ale wasn’t distributed in Chicago. When it finally did arrive, Windy City locals looking to be reminded of Rocky Mountain ski slopes went nuts.
“We would drink 22-ounce bombers like water, because it did: It brought you back to that happy place, that moment in time,” Pallen says. “Beer connects with you.”
Beer and music are linked, from the songs brewers listen to while playing their craft to the fanaticism of each industry’s supporters. (Pallen says the ways both music and beer fans react when their favorite band or brewery “sells out” are so identical, it’s embarassing.) Through Mikerphone’s tagline, “Craft beer inspired by music,” he acknowledges the parallels between his two chosen industries.
Take Mikerphone Check, the first beer Pallen brewed in his current space. The name was descriptive—it was literally a “check” of Mikerphone’s equipment. And it did not go well. Due to some incorrect voltage attachments, Pallen torched his system’s heating elements; he had to buy whole new ones, and the beer went right down the drain. But the second attempt—Mikerphone Check 1, 2—was a wild success.
Cloudy, New England-style IPAs like Mikerphone Check 1, 2, The Get-Fresh Flow and Special Sauce have played a major role in Mikerphone’s popularity even as they drew ire from some brewers and drinkers (many of them took to calling Pallen’s creations at the Elk Grove brewery “the ugly beers” due to their cloudy appearance derived from dry-hopping as well as additions of wheat and oats). Much of this has to do with availability; Pallen says part of the reason he decided to focus on brewing hazy IPAs is because he couldn’t get many examples of the style in Chicago. Fruit-spiked Berliner weisses have also been big for the brewery, as have ingredient-driven stouts like the aforementioned Smells Like Bean Spirit, which conveys extreme levels of the maple syrup and coffee used in the brewing process.
“That’s what we’ve always based our beer on: If there’s a flavor posted on that beer label, it’s going to have that flavor,” he says. “We go through massive intensity in order to get those flavors to pop.”
The upcoming album
Initially, Pallen thought he’d brew 1,000 barrels of beer this year, but high demand has him on pace to crush that goal. (On the small 9-barrel brewhouse, that means 12-hour double-batch brewdays are the norm.) But Pallen isn’t complaining; he’s already planning for the future.
“We’ve had an insane first three months,” Pallen says. “I can’t believe what we’ve accomplished in such a short time. We’ve brought on four full-time employees and we’re working on getting benefits for everybody. We’re building out our staff, giving me the opportunity to build our brand outside, go do more collabs, go do more festivals. But we have to see if this honeymoon phase continues, and don’t overstep ourselves too much, but definitely try to get some more space because we need it; we’re maxed out here.”
While Pallen says he has a goal to open a second location back in his home state of Wisconsin, he’s currently working toward taking over the space next door to his taproom, which would enable him to build out a dedicated packaging area and, possibly, expand packaging beyond the 25-ounce bottles in which his beers are solely available. And then there’s the obvious limitation of the current space: music. Pallen says if he is able to get more room someday, it’ll be constructed with live music in mind.
“I’ll go back to those contacts I built over the years and be like, ‘Hey, does so-and-so artist want to come in while they’re coming through town? Do they want to come brew with me?’”
And they probably will, because there’s a a generally accepted addendum to Pallen’s profound ink: Where music fails, beer speaks.