They won’t catch up with the coasts. But microbreweries catch on here.
By David Blanchette
Just eight years ago there were none in Springfield. Now there are five operating microbreweries in the capital city area with a sixth soon to open, and don’t be surprised if you see more in the coming years.
Craft beers are hot right now, and the establishments that make and serve those homemade hopped beverages are the places to be. Local microbreweries are part of a national trend that saw a 16 percent increase in the number of operating breweries last year, with craft breweries now accounting for 12.7 percent of the overall market share for beer sales, according to the Brewers Association.
“Beer lovers are trending toward supporting their local small and independent community craft breweries,” said Bart Watson, chief economist for the Brewers Association. “Beer lovers want to support businesses that align with their values and are having a positive impact on their local communities and our larger society. That’s what small and independent craft brewers are all about.”
Beer Association figures for 2017 show that craft brewers produced 25.4 million barrels, a five percent increase over 2016, and had an eight percent rise in retail sales volume to $26 billion. Microbreweries and brewpubs delivered 76 percent of the craft brewer growth, which occurred in the context of a total beer market which dropped one percent by volume in 2017.
The number of operating breweries in the U.S. grew 16 percent, totaling 6,372 breweries, which includes 3,812 microbreweries, 2,252 brewpubs, 202 regional craft breweries and 106 large or otherwise non-craft brewers. The Beer Association said there were 997 new brewery openings in 2017.
Two Springfield microbreweries are going to make the list of openings in 2018. One of them is Buzz Bomb Brewing Co., which opened in March at 406 E. Adams, and the other is Anvil & Forge Brewing and Distilling Co. at 619 E. Washington, scheduled to open in early summer. They join six-year veteran Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery on South Sixth Street downtown; Engrained Brewery and Restaurant near the MacArthur-Interstate 72 interchange; Hand of Fate Brewing Co. in Petersburg; and Rolling Meadows Farm Brewery in rural Cantrall, the old man of the bunch at seven years old.
The Springfield area microbreweries have several common themes: Their owners started as homebrewers and parlayed their passion into a business; they did advance research to determine the public demand for their operation; and most of them would welcome even more microbreweries in the community.
Anvil & Forge Brewing and Distilling Co.
“Our philosophy is a rising tide floats all boats,” said Anvil & Forge co-owner Mike Zerkle. “People ask us if we are upset that someone opened right across the way from us, and we tell them that helps us, because it gets everyone down and in the same area. It brings more people to a location who are looking for the same thing.”
Mike and his brothers, John and Adam Zerkle, plan to open the doors of their microbrewery operation in early summer and have the whiskey distilling portion ready a few months after that. The siblings actually planned the distillery first, then decided that adding a microbrewery made a lot of sense.
“We realized there is a lot of overlap between distilling and brewing in the equipment and the production side of things that happens when you go from grain to final product,” Mike Zerkle said. “Really, distilling is just one extra step, so we morphed it into a combined business plan and it took off from there.”
That business plan included using locally and regionally sourced building supplies and equipment wherever possible, making sure customers have a clear view of the entire production process and having a way to effectively bring new beverages to the market.
“We are likely to use our pilot system as a starting point and do iterations of the same beer, trying to chase what we are looking for in a batch,” said co-owner John Zerkle. “It will definitely be based on sales and response from the public as well as our own feelings about it.”
Although they aren’t yet open, Anvil & Forge already has a sense of their demographic.
“Our experience is that people of all ages are popping their heads in,” John Zerkle said. “Not only are they interested in what’s going on, far more people have at least been exposed to craft beer than most people would think.”
The Zerkles started in homebrewing, John worked for a time at Obed & Isaac’s, and then the three of them decided to give their own business a try. They already have their sights set on expansion.
“Distribution is going to be a focus with the general Springfield area first, we will most likely be doing kegs to bars and restaurants,” said co-owner Adam Zerkle. “We will also have a canning line here to sell our beer in supermarkets and liquor stores.”
“Our approach will be self-distribution in the beginning, and from there we can discuss whether or not we will hire someone whose full job is sales and deliveries,” Adam Zerkle said. “In 10 years we’d like to see our distribution trucks circling around the block.”
Buzz Bomb Brewing Co.
“We are a long ways off from saturation. All research for the last five or six years shows there is still a lot of room for growth for operations like ours,” said Buzz Bomb co-owner Bill Larson. “We could have four or five microbreweries in downtown Springfield and all of us would still function just fine.”
Larson and co-owner Josh Flanders developed a 65-page business plan for their microbrewery with help from the Lincoln Land Community College Small Business Development Center. The plan provided them with valuable information and convinced them that the market was ripe for another establishment in the downtown area.
“A large portion of our demographic is millennials, that’s a big driving force in the craft beer industry right now,” Larson said. “They are much more educated in their beer-drinking prowess than the previous generations were at their age, and they have expendable income. But honestly our clientele is all over the place. If you come in on a Friday night you have 21-year-olds all the way to retired folks.”
“Brand loyalty is kind of going by the wayside, even for smaller craft breweries,” Larson said. “Instead of having flagship beers that keep the customers coming back, it’s variety. The younger crowd seems to crave that. We have taken note of that, and it’s one of our goals here, to have constant change.”
Buzz Bomb has a “pilot batch” system, a series of perpetually brewing recipes in smaller vessels that allows them to anticipate trends and try new concoctions, and then get larger batches in production much more quickly. The owners built all of the eclectic furnishings, including a table with designs burned into the wood using electric current. Distribution is the next step in the business’ state of perpetual motion.
“Our immediate plans are to make this the best tap room possible, find a place to start distribution, fully supply ourselves with beer here, then supply Springfield and central Illinois, then Illinois and the world with our beer,” said Buzz Bomb co-owner Josh Flanders. “Then along the way, we may do some things like open a custom furniture store, a German restaurant food truck; we get a lot of ideas after we’ve had a couple of beers.”
Buzz Bomb has come a long way from two friends who gathered to home brew every weekend.
“It was a hobby that took over our lives,” Flanders said. “We had always gotten good reviews on our beer but they were from our friends, so you take that with a grain of salt. But when those good reviews come from strangers, that made the difference.”
Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery
“I think Springfield has gotten to the point that we have room for other breweries. We don’t consider it competition,” said Obed & Isaac’s operations manager Casey Conn. “I’ve had Buzz Bomb’s and Anvil & Forge’s beers, and they are great beers. They are different from us, and I think there is plenty of room for them to be in Springfield as well.”
Obed & Isaac’s was the first Springfield area brewpub and proved these type of establishments could be as popular as anywhere else in the country. But Conn said it wasn’t a sure thing when they opened in 2012.
“Springfield was a little different due to the fact that there wasn’t a microbrewery here, and sometimes Springfield doesn’t like change very much,” Conn said. “So even as we opened we had to be very leery of how much change Springfield would be willing to allow. It was a learning curve.”
“The initial response was very overwhelming. We never thought it would take off like it did,” Conn said. “For the first couple of years we were very cautious about putting new menu items on, both of beer and food, but we are a little bit more established now and we can mix it up a little bit and get away with it, to get more off-the-wall beers and things of that nature.”
Conn said their two brewers keep Obed & Isaac’s flagship beers in good supply, but they have the freedom to experiment with new recipes which are offered in small batches every Friday to gauge customer reactions. The brewpub attracts visitors of all ages and sees a lot of traffic from the nearby Lincoln Home and people traveling Route 66, he said.
Obed & Isaac’s has come a long way from the homebrewing Conn, his brother and father did before deciding to take beer production to the next level. Conn hopes the newer microbreweries will have the same success.
“I am very happy to see these other businesses come in here and focus on what we’ve done for so long,” Conn said. “We can grow Springfield, and especially downtown.”
Rolling Meadows Farm Brewery
“I think the more breweries the better,” said Rolling Meadows head brewer Dustin Regan. “It’s great for the beer community to have access to beers from town, from local farms, and get a real taste of what’s going on in your local neighborhood.”
“There’s still a lot of people out there who don’t know about this craft beer resurgence and are stuck in their old habits, their old drinking ways,” Regan said. “The more microbreweries there are, the more good beers there are to try locally and the more it’s going to open consumers’ minds to the whole idea and the ethos of consuming products that are made locally and supporting the local economy.”
That was the idea when Rolling Meadows was founded in 2011 in rural Cantrall, using local ingredients to produce unique beers and to get those beverages on area stores’ shelves. They aren’t a brewpub and are open only by appointment, but their beer can be purchased at several area grocery and liquor stores and is on draft at Findley’s Tap House in Springfield.
Rolling Meadows started the same way many other microbreweries begin, with friends who liked to make their own beer.
“We are making beer out here on a farm, and it kind of evolved into saying that something like this needs to be available to the public,” Regan said. “We were out here using farm-based ingredients, great friends who loved making beer together, and we did it for these big personal parties that we had out here. That showed us how much people enjoyed this craft product, and we wanted to make that available, not only to our friends, but to everyone in the Springfield area.”
“If it weren’t beer we were making for the local community, it would be something else using farm-fresh ingredients,” Regan said.
Rolling Meadows’ goal is the same as that of the other area microbreweries.
“Getting people to branch out of that name brand box they are in, and to try a craft beer, and to love it,” Regan said.
Hand of Fate Brewing Co.
“We understand that they are going to try our neighbor’s beer, and we want them to have good beer too, because if their beer is the first one they try and they don’t like it, they might not come and try mine,” said Hand of Fate owner Mike Allison. “We want mass-produced beer drinkers to get out of that rut of the same old, same old. There is so much variety and so many wonderful flavors out there that you are missing out on if you’re not checking it out.”
The Petersburg microbrewery is the official Illinois Bicentennial Beer producer, and Hand of Fate hopes their 1818 Prairie State Farmhouse Ale will get more people to visit microbreweries and try their offerings.
“It was great that the state recognized how much this industry was really beginning to bloom and decided that they needed to spotlight that during the Bicentennial,” Allison said. “We created a brew that is an ambassador beer for non-craft drinkers. They can try it and think, ‘Hey, there is some neat stuff out there.’”
Allison founded Hand of Fate in 2016 as the longtime homebrewer and former funeral director realized that central Illinois was just starting to open up to craft beers. Allison is glad that the area has more microbreweries than when he started, but he doesn’t think the sky is the limit.
“Variety is good, but we don’t have the large metropolitan area that places like Chicago or St. Louis do. I think there will be a saturation point,” Allison said. “It really depends on what the breweries are aiming to be. If you are just a brewpub where people just come to your place to drink, I think that’s fine. But we are running into more and more production breweries so it’s going to get tougher to get places on the shelf.”
Hand of Fate is a brewery, not a brewpub, and as such can only serve what they produce on site, Allison said. He supports state legislation introduced as House Bill 4897 that would expand what microbreweries could serve.
“This bill would allow us to have ‘guest taps’ to allow us to spotlight some of our other colleagues’ beers in here also,” Allison said.
“We are starting to see people going back to wanting the farm-to-table, the locally raised food, the locally made beer, the little coffee places,” Allison said. “People are starting to go back to that and getting away from the large, mass-produced stuff.”
Engrained Brewery and Restaurant
“It’s not hard to tell the future in Springfield. You just look to the west coast and look to the east coast and add about five years, and that’s what is coming,” said Engrained owner Brent Schwoerer. “I think craft beer is a very good predictor of that. You see the level of saturation on the coasts and it’s far beyond what we have here, so I think there’s a lot of potential down the road.”
Engrained opened in 2013 and for a while the south side establishment and downtown’s Obed & Isaac’s were the only brewpub games in town.
“My philosophy, and I think it’s one that most of the people in the craft industry share, is that we are stronger together,” Schwoerer said. “The more breweries and brewpubs that are out there, the more educational efforts, the more awareness, the more diversion from macro into micro, that’s better for all of us.”
Schwoerer was a mechanical engineer for Caterpillar and decided to abandon the corporate world and pursue his passion, which began with homebrewing. He grew up on a farm and emphasized the farm to table nature of many of his brewing and restaurant dish ingredients.
“You are seeing less allegiance and loyalty to brand and more focus on value and where things come from, how things are made, and the experience,” Schwoerer said. “There can be loyalty when you are aligned with those values.”
Schwoerer realizes his location just south of Scheel’s puts him on “a bit of an island” now, but he anticipates future growth will put more businesses in the area. He gets his inspiration for trying new beer recipes from trips to the grocery store, industry trends and customer suggestions. A recent trip to Kentucky will result in some new beer offerings at Engrained.
“We picked our own barrel of bourbon. We will be getting that bourbon in bottles but I also get the barrel,” Schwoerer said. “We will fill that barrel with beer and we’re going to have bourbon barrel-aged beer to go with our other beers.”
There are an estimated 1.1 million homebrewers in the United States, 26 percent of whom are in the Midwest, according to the American Homebrewers Association. These homebrewers produced 1.4 million barrels of beer in 2017, or approximately one percent of total U.S. production. Forty percent started homebrewing in the last four years, according to the association.
“Craft beer is in. I started homebrewing about 10 years ago in my kitchen,” said Jeremy Barrow, owner of Capital City Brewing Supply in Springfield, which opened in the fall of 2017.
“Somebody puts their time and effort, their blood, sweat and tears into making their product,” Barrow said. “It’s a very proud moment to give somebody a beer that you made and have them drink it and like it.”
Barrow said area microbreweries purchase supplies from him and he buys things from them. He doesn’t think the craft brewing marketplace is saturated and believes that the craft beer industry is a supportive community. Barrow feels most homebrewers are also microbrewery customers.
“People want to be able to duplicate what they taste,” Barrow said. “With so many different beers out there and so many different styles for different palates, the possibilities are endless.”
Friar Tuck Beverage in Springfield also sells homebrewing ingredients and equipment for novice to intermediate brewers.
“A lot of folks are picking up the hobby of both home brewing and wine making,” said Springfield Friar Tuck Beverage general manager Mark Maskey. “I think it’s been growing for quite some time now.”
The owners of several area microbreweries are familiar faces to Maskey, and he now carries some of their craft beers in his store.
“Some of them actually got their start with us,” Maskey said. “When they began to brew they bought some of their equipment and supplies from us, like the folks at Rolling Meadows, and we are pleased to now feature their products.”