Brewery Showcase | BuckleDown Brewing
Enter the BuckleDown Brewing taproom and you’ll find, among other elements, an arrangement of leather furniture around a table (barrel) that makes one feel as if they have been invited into the BuckleDown home. It’s a fitting setting for an inviting brewery where the people matter as much, if not more, than the beer served to them. Ironically, BuckleDown opened with a production mindset in place rather than a brewpub or any concept intended to draw people through the door. Nonetheless, people arrived and relationships were forged. Catering to people isn’t a business strategy at BuckleDown: it’s organic and genuine.
Head Brewer Ike Orcutt and Sean Mahoney founded BuckleDown in 2013. The two discovered a building suitable for production that also allowed for retail in Lyons, IL, a small, industrial suburb located just outside Chicago’s city limits, and the two subsequently transformed the building into a brewery with their bare hands.
But that’s not where the story starts: The genesis of BuckleDown occurred well before that 2013 opening.
After seven or eight years working for someone else in marketing and advertising, Mahoney decided to leave the safety net of corporate life and open his own company, Foothold Design.
“It didn’t take me long to fall in love with working for myself,” Mahoney said. “I don’t want anyone taking credit for my hard work, but I also don’t mind the part where I have to account for mistakes that are made.”
And when you own your business, you can do things otherwise frowned upon at corporate offices.
“During the last few years at Foothold Design, we were brewing in the office,” Mahoney explained. So, if he ever claims he was a homebrewer, you can remind him that he was, in fact, an office brewer.
That brewing led to something more important than beer: a meeting with Ike Orcutt.
“I met Ike while working at Foothold,” Mahoney said. “He was the account manager for projects we were working on.”
Over time, the two got to talking about beer and found themselves often hanging out at Haymarket Brewing in Chicago’s West Loop.
Mahoney started sampling Orcutt’s beer, too. With a humble, spirited laugh, Mahoney explained, “I thought highly of my homebrews! However, I started to get to know Ike’s beer, which was way better than mine.”
From those meetings and geeky chats, the two business-minded adults decide to leap into the world of craft beer.
At first, the two attempted to partner with a contractor.
“[Half Acre Beer Co. founder] Gabriel Magliaro started out using contractors and then jumped to getting his own thing,” Mahoney said. “That was our model. We didn’t raise of a ton of money at first, so we thought that would be a good idea.”
It worked for Half Acre. But, in the end, that relationship did not work for Mahoney and Orcutt. So, just as it was in the marketing world, Mahoney said, “It’s just better to go about it yourself.”
In other words, it was time to buckle down!
And so, the two opened the brewery in 2013.
When asked why Lyons, a location with mostly industrial and commercial-owned buildings, Mahoney said, with a laugh, “Well, there was a void in the area. It was like our version of gerrymandering.”
He added, “It’s a manufacturing plant and it’s a retail spot. That’s tough to find. But, our plan was always to build a production facility, not a brewpub. We weren’t as much about foot traffic at first. We needed space to brew and expand.”
BuckleDown started with a 15 bbl system and hoped to exceed 1,500 barrels the first year, a risky move for an upstart brewery in a city that had not yet become nearly as craft-friendly as it is today.
Mahoney, again laughing at himself exclaimed, “I have a character flaw. I think everything I do will be successful. I get ripped on it for it.’
Genuine modesty aside, the two seasoned business veterans understood that the path to success would be found in the quality of the product and Mahoney believed in the product: “We believed in what we are doing, and I loved what Ike was doing. I felt like we could put Ike’s beers against anyone’s.”
And, in true craft fashion, they got a little help from the brewing community, starting with the very place Orcutt and Mahoney used to hang out.
“Pete Crowley at Haymarket helped us with business plans and thinking about ramping up recipes from small brewing to large-scale brewing,” explained Mahoney.
In fact, Haymarket Pub and Brewery brewmaster and founder Pete Crowley welcomed Mahoney and Orcutt into the brewery to brew with him (including brewing a couple of collaborative beers). The experience served them well for many reasons, but primarily because BuckleDown was installing (at the time) the same brewing system Haymarket used.
“It would have taken us much more time if not for Pete. We owe him a debt of gratitude,” Mahoney said.
In the spring of 2013, the BuckleDown experience finally came to fruition. And, when the brewery opened, throngs of beer fans beat down the doors to get a sample. Well, not exactly crowds as much as four people from Haymarket and a woman looking for a gift card (that they didn’t have, obviously).
Humble beginnings, indeed.
Soon though, patrons arrived and some of them became regulars.
“They have their butt indentations in the stool, you can say, and I don’t want to do anything to disturb that,” Mahoney explained. “And, that’s been the best part about the whole experience: the people. And not just the customers but the staff and really everyone you come across. I love that part of it so much.”
One of those people is Vikki Reid, whose official title is Head of Marketing and Events for BuckleDown Brewing, but she is also heavily involved at the College of DuPage Business of Craft Beer education program and the Illinois Craft Beer Guild. You’ll see her at seemingly every fest and certainly every party at BuckleDown.
“She was a young bartender nearby. She was working the bar, but also she just took the initiative to reach out to local brewers, like us,” Mahoney said. “We wanted to increase our exposure and she brought all her people into the taproom and drew us into her family, which was cool. She has been amazing for us.”
Finding and hiring Reid was a smart business decision, for sure. But her personality fits the BuckleDown vibe. To call her personable, inviting and friendly would be an understatement. Like Mahoney and Orcutt, she helps people feel at home.
(And she’s an English teacher, too, so one can hope she doesn’t review this article for its grammar).
It’s people like Reid, Orcutt and the entire staff that Mahoney relies upon who came to mean much more to him during a tough moment in life: In the fall of 2017, doctors informed him that he had a brain tumor. The surgery went well and recovery has been successful although not easy and not without its trials.
Twice, I have asked Mahoney about the health situation and both times, without hesitation, he focused on the overwhelming positivity derived from the people closest to him, starting with his wife and children and then his BuckleDown family and the customers and everyone throughout the craft community.
Suffice it to say, he gets emotional when expressing the joy he attains from the people around him.
The future for Mahoney and BuckleDown is always about looking ahead and moving forward. Plans for expansion are underway (this space is getting crowded and production demands are increasing), but it is a slow process as they seek the right fit for BuckleDown.
In the meantime, the commitment remains strong to the current customers and making great beer.
“You are trying to be somewhat innovative, but also be consistent. The focus is now is to maintain our quality and our brand, but still grow,” Mahoney said.
Whatever the challenge, the people in place at BuckleDown, including a dedicated (and growing) fan base, make it tough to bet against them.
They focus on the people. They concentrate on making good beer. And when push comes to shove, they buckle down and get it done.