Meet Beejay Olson. Artist. Brewery owner. And now, a climber! Beejay, a Chicago native originally from the Avondale neighborhood but now living in Humboldt Park, admits that he’s relatively new to climbing, only starting once BKB Chicago opened in the city. But since then, he’s come to love it, climbing three times per week for up to three hours per day. Not only does climbing provide a physical stimulus for Beejay, it also gives him the opportunity to connect with a unique community, the kind you won’t find drifting back and forth from your average gym.
When he’s not climbing, Beejay is brewing. Have you ever tried beers? Yeah, that’s Beejay. His crew focuses on unique beers with unusual flavor profiles that speak to their strong culinary influences and enjoyment of beer as more than merely a refreshing drink. Beejay was kind enough to speak to us about his love of beers and bouldering.
When did you first decide that you wanted to visit BKB Chicago?
Before you guys even opened. I think I might have seen a Facebook post or something from one of the athletic groups I’m a part of brought it up. Climbing’s something I’ve always wanted to do. Since I was a kid, I was big into backpacking and being outdoors. But living in the Midwest and Chicago, climbing was never a big thing, especially since we didn’t have any climbing gyms growing up. I was here on the very first day you guys opened the doors to climbers.
What has your experience been like since the first day we opened?
Ever since the first day, I was coming like three days a week. It’s a very addicting thing. I really enjoy it a lot. I’m usually here three days a week, three hours at a time. As much as my body can handle more or less.
Do you stick to bouldering?
Primarily. I’m top rope certified, but I haven’t done a lot of it. I keep talking about wanting to do it, but then I come in and think, “Oh, I want to work on that boulder problem,” and it turns into three hours. I like top roping, but I really enjoy the challenge of bouldering. I think it’s really suited toward my style.
When you first started bouldering, what was your experience like physically and mentally?
Physically, I was somewhat prepared for it. I mean, I’m a pretty physical guy. But there’s definitely a pretty big learning curve. You’re like, I’m going to try and do this, and then something like a crimpy hold makes you realize, “Oh wow, my fingers can’t do that, even if I can do 15 pull ups at a time.” My fingers can’t hold on to this tiny thing. There’s things that I could do and then there’s things that, over the months and after learning more basic things like footwork, technique and balance, I’ve gotten better with. It’s really interesting when you learn a new breakthrough and you learn a new technique. You become more comfortable and you can rely on it. You see yourself a half a grade better. It’s really exciting. So that definitely keeps me coming back all the time so you’re thinking, “Oh I want to conquer that problem. I want to learn how to do that move.” I mean, I go to bed thinking about that move that I couldn’t get. I think, “I’m going to do that the next time I’m in there!”
The one thing I like about climbing community as opposed to a traditional gym is the communal atmosphere … Conversation is really easy around here compared to a regular gym where everyone’s just staring ahead thinking, “Don’t look at me!”
Have you gone rock climbing outdoors since you’ve started?
Not yet. I mean, we had a pretty brutal winter. Some people that I’ve met here are planning on going down to Holy Boulders at the end of this month. I’m planning on camping a couple of nights and doing the bouldering down there. Definitely want to start doing outdoor rock climbing. It’s just gotta warm up a bit.
You’ve had all winter to prepare!
I’ve honed my technique, so I won’t be so shocked as much.
So tell me about some of the people you’ve met here.
The community is so awesome. The one thing I like about climbing community as opposed to a traditional gym is the communal atmosphere. You’re working on a problem and the people around you are giving you pointers if you want them to. Or you just like watching them climb. Conversation is really easy around here compared to a regular gym where everyone’s just staring ahead thinking, “Don’t look at me!” Here, it’s like, you might not know someone, but you’re rooting for them when you see them doing a move. I’ve met so many awesome people. And it’s cool. You come time and time again and you see the same people and you say hi. It makes it a really inviting atmosphere that I didn’t know about. It’s something I really appreciate.
Would you say that you’ve made some friends from here?
Yeah. I don’t think I’ve gone out and hung out with people, but I’m planning on doing this trip with people I’ve met and so I’m really excited about that.
So, you’re from Chicago right?
Yep! Born and raised.
Cool. So what neighborhood?
I guess you would call it Avondale. It’s Belmont and Milwaukee. I live in Humboldt Park now.
What was it like growing up there?
It was interesting. Especially in the 90s, the neighborhoods were a little rougher. There was a lot more gang activity I think when I was growing up. That’s gone down a lot more. When I was growing up in high school, if you walked down the street at dark, you got frisked. It was a really crazy time. Now, I live in Humboldt Park, right by the park, which is … when I grew up, you wouldn’t go anywhere near the park. I literally go to the park everyday with my dogs. That’s something that I thought I’d never be able to do. So it’s really interesting to see the ways things are changing. It’s better in general.
How long have you been in Humboldt Park?
I think I’ve lived in my spot for five years, and I lived in a couple of other places before that. So about seven years between UK Village and Humboldt Park.
Why do you like Humboldt Park?
I like the diversity actually. I’m Caucasian, but I’ve never lived in a white-white neighborhood. And I don’t like the idea of living in a white-white neighborhood. I like to live with all different types of people because I feel that’s normal. Just the way I was raised. It’s funny because my landlord is from New York and she bought the building and she’s a really cool lady. And she said, “Man, it’s crazy how segregated Chicago is.” And it’s something that never really clicked in my head because that wasn’t my experience of the city. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought, yeah, I guess it is really segregated. But I guess I’ve just never been a part of that segregation. Which is a really weird thing.
Tell me about what you do when you’re not climbing.
So, I own a brewery. Some friends and I founded Pipeworks Brewing Company. We just celebrated our three-year anniversary. So yeah, we brew beer. And make art to go with the beer and it’s awesome. I love it. It’s the best thing I could do.
We really thrive on experimentation and novel ingredients and trying new things.
How did you get started doing that?
So when I was in college, I was in school for fine arts. I was a painter. One of my best friends at the time and room mates was a chef. He one day brought up the idea of homebrewing and I thought, “Oh! That’s awesome!” Like you can make beer at home? What a novel idea! So I started homebrewing. And I home brewed all throughout college. When I graduated, I was trying to break through to the art scene doing gallery work and found out I don’t really like the scene. My personality didn’t quite fit the salesman aspect of being a fine artist, which was fine. At the time I was really bummed out. I was living in an artist’s loft studio with a bunch of artists. And I was like, “Man, I’m not feeling this.” One day my girlfriend – now wife – and I were having lunch and I was saying, “I don’t know what I’m going to do with money.” And she said, “Hey, why don’t you look into brewing professionally. You’ve been brewing for six years now.” At the time, we had so few breweries in Chicago. I approached one of the 3 or 4 that was here and they asked, “Do you have any experience?” And I said, “I home brew!” and they said, “Yeah, you and everyone else.” That avenue didn’t work out. But eventually I met my now partner and we decided since we can’t get jobs in this industry, we’ll make our own jobs. A lot of hard work and trial and error and a Kickstarter later and we finally got our brewery open.
Tell me about the first beer you created?
So the very first beer we actually created was based on a beer I had home brewed for a really long time. It was an IPA that had no name at the time other than it having a yellow cap in the box of beer I made. So the first beer we released was a variation on that double IPA that we’ve since called Ninja vs. Unicorn. And since then, Ninja vs. Unicorn is by far our most popular product and one of the few products we continually make. Generally, every few months, we’ll make 7 or 8 new beers we haven’t made before. We really thrive on experimentation and novel ingredients and trying new things. But now we’re opening a second facility. It’ll be finished this summer. We’ll start canning beer for the first time. And one of the first beers that’ll come on the line will be Ninja vs. Unicorn.
Where is your current facility?
Current facility’s at Western and Wabansia. So I guess Bucktown, Wicker Park border, but still three blocks from my Humboldt Park apartment. And the new facility is at Armitage and Pulaski, so kind of back where I grew up.
Do you have any new beers in the works?
Yeah! Always! Some random things: we have something called Lucky Cat that we’re brewing for the first time. That’s gonna be a beer brewed with strawberries and hibiscus flowers. Something really tart and refreshing for the summer months. We just released our Square Grouper, which is becoming one of our big cult hits. That’s a honey IPA brewed with citrus hops that we brewed in collaboration with a brewery called Four Hands in St. Louis. So that one always has fan appeal. Everyone, all of the brewers, get a chance to chime in with what they want to do. That might be a beer based on Cinnamon Toast Crunch that we eventually did called Cinnamon Beardos or something with pineapple juice called Pineapple Bling that’s coming out. So yeah, it’s across the board a lot of culinary influences.
Beer for me it’s definitely an art form and a science.
Do you have a philosophy in terms of creating the beers that you do?
I think it’s kind of comes and goes to a certain degree. All the brewers we work with are all very culinary focused so we definitely bring what we would use to the kitchen to our brewing. And one of the things we encourage is to never be afraid of a crazy idea. Like we have a tiki beer coming up and the beer’s going to be naturally dyed blue with these crazy flowers we found from Thailand. It’s really hard to get blue things in food naturally. One of our brewers Kate, she always comes up with the craziest ideas and she really searches high and low to find really novel ingredients to bring to the table. She found these flowers and said, “Dude, it’s gonna be amazing!” So we’re really excited to make a tiki inspired cocktail that’s blue.
What do you like most about beer?
Beer is an amazing beverage. It’s an ancient beverage. It’s something that humankind has had forever. It’s just like any kind of alcoholic beverage: it brings people together. It has a social lubricating effect. You can hang out with friends and talk over a couple of beers. More specifically, beer for me it’s definitely an art form and a science. For me, coming from an art background and a science background. I minored was in art science. I come to beer from both ends of it. I really like the artistry of it. The culinary touches of it. And then the science that goes behind fermentation and all of the really insane things that happen with these ingredients on a technical level. And also from an artistry background, I get to design these really cool labels for the imagery of company. So it encompasses so many different aspects for my life. It allows me to not leave one behind in lieu of the others. So for me, it’s this really complex thing I can share with others.