There’s an unwritten rule that’s well-known but rarely followed that prohibits discussing matters of politics, religion, and philosophy when alcohol is present. Combining suds or spirits with spirited debate almost never yields anything positive or tangible. Tommy Vandervort is a rare exception to the rule, as the UW-Milwaukee philosophy graduate and Bay View resident’s semi-monthly Enlightened Imbibers discussion group at Roman’s Pub strengthened his affinity for beer, which he later plied into co-founding Enlightened Brewing Company.
“Those are the kinds of things that we wanted to talk about. The one thing we could agree on if we disagreed on that stuff was good beer,” Vandervort says.
Combined with spending most of his adult life working in the service industry and frequenting notable beer bars, Vandervort refined his homebrewing skills over the course of six years of trial and error.
“That’s how I started taking it seriously—appreciating beer and going to places that were serving really awesome beer and finding the passion for it,” Vandervort says. “Really, I wanted to make a living out of it.”
Along the way, he met his eventual partner James Larson, who interned at Bell’s Brewery in Michigan and worked in a non-brewing capacity at Sprecher in addition to earning his a masters degree in brewing and distilling in Scotland. After two-plus years of planning and sampling out beers to fellow hop-heads, Enlightened finally hit tap lines at select Milwaukee bars and restaurants for the first time.
Without even sampling it, Burnhearts and Goodkind owner William Seidel bought a sixth barrel of Enlightened’s flagship brew, Prototypical Porter, and immediately put it into rotation at Goodkind. The following week, he bought another sixth barrel at Burnhearts, an establishment particularly known for specializing in rare and high-quality beers.
“I always see them at good beer events, so I know that they’re probably on the right step right off the bat to making some fun stuff. And it’s the most local brewery to this neighborhood,” Seidel says. “It’s a new local brewery people can get behind.”
Though purchased on the principles of familiarity and Bay View brotherhood, Seidel wasn’t disappointed when he finally had a chance to taste Prototypical.
“I thought it was really good. It’s a really nice porter,” Seidel says. “I’m excited in about what they’re going to be doing in the future. Both [barrels] flew out, so people are excited about it.”
Other businesses to quickly buy into what Enlightened is doing (both literally and figuratively) include Rumpus Room, Vanguard, Morel, and Odd Duck. Odd Duck owners Melissa Buchholz and Ross Bachhuber were immediate supporters of Vandervort’s homebrewing and were frequently relied upon to be guinea pigs for his early attempts when they worked together at a restaurant prior to Odd Duck opening.
“I got to sample a lot of his beers that he’d bring over. I’ve always enjoyed it. With him moving into [brewing professionally], I didn’t think it was a stretch at all,” Bachhuber says. “Everything that I’ve ever had of his could stand up to anyone.”
Odd Duck now has a tap line dedicated to whatever beer their friend and former co-worker’s brewing venture releases. “We always knew that we’d carry his beer,” Buchholz says. “Tommy is slow and methodical. If it wasn’t up to his standards, he wouldn’t release it.”
Prototypical Porter isn’t intended to be a clever name. The 5.3 percent ABV brew has low lacing, minimal head, an onyx black body, and a lightly charred aroma. It’s refreshingly simplistic and unmistakably malty.
“The thing I like about it is it’s all malt. There’s nothing—we didn’t put any coffee or chocolate or any cocoa nibs in it. This is just pure grain, which is great. That’s kind of the way we want to roll,” Vandervort says. Enlightened plans to release a pale ale tentatively called Polly Baker’s Pale (named after a feminist pen name Benjamin Frankin used) that incorporates oats for residual sweetness.
Simplicity seems to be Enlightened’s unofficial mantra. The “micro” in microbrewery has rarely been more applicable. There’s no unique tap handle, silly slogan nor dedicated logo. Vandervort and Larson’s entire operation—which includes just three 30-gallon kettles, a couple 60-gallon fermentation tanks, a self-constructed electric heating element, a homemade walk-in cooler, and sparing ingredients—is confined to a small work space in a studio on South 1st Street.
“Our window is on the second floor and faces west, so I don’t want to say that we figuratively look down on the Horny Goat, but we literally look down on the Horny Goat. We can see their building from our window,” Vandervort says.
Whether literally overlooking one “brewery” (that actually has the vast majority of its beer contract brewed in Stevens Point, by the way) or being figuratively overshadowed by both gargantuan macrobrew behemoths as well as older and more established craft breweries, Enlightened’s philosophy is simple: make beer they enjoy and hope enough like-minded beer enthusiasts agree.
“We don’t want to take over the world. We just want to do it for a living, and we only have to get as big as that requires,” Vandervort says.