Wine making. Beer brewing. How can those two things exist at the same location in peace and harmony? What happens when you add a former microbiologist into the mix? That’s right- things start to really go haywire! Right now I can hear some of you tuning out already- you only want to hear about your preferable beverage. But read on about how Bill Kimmerly has created a success with Masquerade Wine Company and Illuminati Brewing.
Now truth in writing- Illuminati is the home of my favorite IPA- The Millennium Falcon. So when I had the opportunity to sit down with Bill and ask him some questions as well as have a beer, I jumped at the chance. Who wouldn’t?
TH- How did you get started in the wine and beer business?
BK- Well, it was the early 80’s. I had a degree in molecular biology from U.C. Berkley, I was living in Northern California, and was fascinated by the thought of making my own beer. Back then, home brewing for beer was illegal, and you could only find wine making materials from certain stores. It was a hit or miss approach, but when I finally got it right, I was intrigued by the result. I went on to my real job, but never lost interest. In the mid 90’s, I became interested in wine. My professional career took me to eastern Washington, smack dab in the middle of wine country. I dabbled in making both wine and beer, and focused on the molecular structure of the water to make it that much better. I moved to Bellingham in 2010, and started Masquerade at that time. Both beer and wine have their unique communities, and I wanted to try and combine them. This was my vision- to combine those communities and to make something unique at the same time. And so Illuminati Brewery was born!
TH- Wow! That is quite a story. And your passion is clearly evident in the wines and beers that are produced locally. Let’s talk a little more about Masquerade Wine Company!
TH- Where are your grapes grown?
BK- All the Masquerade grapes come from the Rattlesnake Hills subregion of the Columbia Valley- very close to Zillah.
TH- What is your approach to wine making?
BK- Traditional. It has to be about approaching it from the way wine has been made for year- keeping it simple, yet delicious.
TH- What is it about your wine that makes it standout?
BK- For both wine and beer, it is the water composition that matters. In order to make it taste like the region it is from, the water has to have the same molecular composition. So I work hard to make sure each batch is distilled with water that matches that specific structure, giving it a taste like it was made there!
TH- Now that is a fascinating approach. Matching water? I can honestly say I have never heard of that.
BK- I feel it is a unique approach, but follows that line of tradition I was talking about.
TH– How much does a bottle of your wine cost?
BK- It varies of course by type, but most of our bottles are $14-$35.
TH- What is your specialty for wine?
BK- Sparkling. Without a doubt. The path from grape to bottle is more labor intensive, and it is not practiced by a lot of American wineries. This has market potential, and the fact we use water with the same molecular structure as that found in the Champagne Region of France makes it stand out even more.
TH- Which is harder to make? Beer or wine?
BK- Tough question. I would have to say wine is easier to make, but beer is easier to sell.
TH- Let’s talk a little about your beer. Illuminati is one of somewhere around 20 breweries in Whatcom County. You’ve already talked about the water- how does that play into the beer produced here?
BK- Simple. Beer is 95% water. By matching it to the regions a beer is from, we have the same success. For example, when we make an IPA (Authors note: Millennium Falcon- Delicious!), we use water similar to what is found in Chico, CA. Sierra Nevada was a pioneer in the pale ale category, and so we use the same molecular structure as the water near their plants. Another example is our German Pilsner- the water is replicated exactly to the chemical balance of that region in Germany- it makes it more authentic! This is what sets Illuminati and Masquerade apart- it all comes down to the water!
TH- What is your favorite Illuminati beer:
BK- Brew World Order. (5.2% ABV). This is a very traditional German Pilsner- hearty, malty and Bavarian. Absolutely my favorite.
TH- What is your favorite other beer?
BK- Dogfish Head, Stone Brewery or Sierra Nevada. Sierra Nevada is the most traditional American Pale Ale out there, and is hands down one of my favorites.
TH- What does a glass of beer average here?
BK- About $5 per glass or goblet.
TH- What is the hardest part about brewing?
BK- I would say it isn’t the brewing. It is the marketing, making sure to get your name out there so you can compete. Our location is out of the mainstream, so getting people to a business park is also a challenge. We know once they get here they will be back because of our product, but we have to get them here first.
TH- What is the best part about brewing?
BK- Meeting people. And our location is the right configuration. It has the best combination of warmth and fun, creating an atmosphere that people will want to be in on a regular basis.
TH- What is your inspiration for beer?
BK- Beer is edgy, and should be. By combining a traditional approach with an edgy process, the result is a beer that cuts through tradition but yet still allows for a classical interpretation.
TH- Part of the atmosphere here are the two dogs- Pawdre and Koji. What is the story there?
BK- We want to welcome dog owners. I have had Pawdre since he was 6 weeks old- he’s 9/12 now. Koji is much younger, but still a part of the family. This place wouldn’t be the same without them.
TH- Just a few more questions- I promise. I am also an avid cheese lover. I have noticed a decent cheese collection in the display refrigerator. What is that about?
BK- Well wine and cheese have always gone together- so we simply found a way to incorporate that here. It is a lot of fun for me to experiment with pairings- I love doing that! We also make sandwiches, which has been a hit with our customer base. We have a lot of cheese imported from France. Having the different cheeses has allowed us to infuse wine and cheese parties in the tasting room, which has also helped the business to grow.
TH- So what can we expect in the future from both Masquerade and Illuminati?
BK- I am very excited about an upcoming project. We are working on cask conditioned ales! These ales will be made in a very serios and traditional process found in Belgian, English and Scottish beers. This style has excited me the most. I completely underestimated how much I enjoy them!
My goal is to continue to improve what we do, using analytical and quantitative approaches. I want the style to be easily interpreted but allowing for that unique interpretation so that is becomes an individual choice!
TH- What is the “brand attitude” for your two companies?
BK- If we are going to do something weird, we are going to do it well.
TH- BK, thanks so much for sitting down with me. I know you are busy, as is evidenced by the amount of people here, so I really appreciate you sharing your story with us. I know I will be back to drink my favorite, The Millennium Falcon, and I am hoping others will give you a try as well.
BK- Thanks for sharing with your readers!