When it comes to the beer business, craft offerings and microbreweries are becoming more popular.
The Springfield area is starting to catch up with the national trend.
Rachel Otwell went behind the scenes of local beer-making operations to get "tapped in" to what's happening there: (For more on Springfield's history of brewing, you can find an extended interview at the bottom of this page)
How did the craft beer movement find its way to town?
David Smalley, a professor who teaches a home-brewing class at Lincoln Land Community College, says there's probably a half-dozen good places to get a wide-variety of beer. "[They've] really widened their selection" Smalley says. "I think some of it really is people like us willing to spend that money - I'm not going to spend a dollar-fifty on a beer, I'm going to spend 5 bucks."
Smalley hails from Madison, Wisconsin - a capital city where craft brews have long been an integral part of the culture and bar scene. Smalley joined the Prairie Schooners home-brewers group when he moved to Springfield 6 years ago. He says since then, he's seen the interest in craft beer blossom here. All three of the breweries in town have connections to the group and tried their hand at making beer at home.
At Obed and Issac's in downtown Springfield, the smell is somewhat overwhelming - almost like fresh baked bread, but more peculiar. Adam Conn is one of the brewers there, and he says part of the smell comes in part from the CO2 being released from the kettles - large steel vats which hold beer before it goes into the kegs.
“We bring in between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds of malted barley or wheat" Conn says, "Some sort of cereal grain we can [use to] start the base of the beer called 'wert'.”
For Conn, beer is a family affair. His parents own Obed and Issacs, the microbrewery built in a Lincoln-era home. Conn says he and his father got into beer by starting small:
“[At the] 'School of Hard Knocks', I guess. We messed up a lot at home, learned a lot at home. It's reading a lot," Conn says, "A lot of publications...”
The Conns have no formal training. They use common knowledge and brainstorming to dream up brews like the "Long 9", a black India Pale Ale with high alcohol content. They also brew a milk stout and lagers and wheat ales that utilize seasonal fruit. Conn says they have offered about 35 different varieties of beer so far.
In Cantrall, Ill., northwest of Springfield, is Rolling Meadows Brewery. It's another family-owned operation led by 30-year-old Chris Trudeau, who grows his own hops:
“It's a really nice tranquil area for a workplace," Trudeau says, "Because you know you can have a stressful day in the brewery and then you come take a walk in nature and it's really nice.”
Rolling Meadows has been operating for about 3 years. It started after Trudeau went to college in Vancouver where he spent his free time at small, local craft breweries. When he heard in one of his classes that for many micro-breweries the largest cost is graphics and advertising, he had a bit of an epiphany:
“[To start] a little brewery on the family farm, we could grow our own hops, we got our own water already... basically developed organically like that.”
For Rolling Meadows, local beer is part of the growing local food movement - Trudeau is passionate about supplying people with organic products made in their own communities. Some of the produce in his garden goes to the Springfield restaurant American Harvest Eatery, where his beer is also served. Restaurants and grocery stores in Chicago also sell Rolling Meadows beer - some of which show hometown pride with names like “Lincoln's Lager”, “Springfield Wheat”, and “Abe's Ale.”
Local, organic food and beer pairing will also be a focus of the freshly opened Engrained Brewing Company. Brent Schwoerer is the owner there. He spent 11 years as an engineer for Caterpillar before this venture. He too was a home brewer who enjoyed making hoppy beers as well as an oatmeal stout for his wife. He says it was her idea that the two go into the beer business. And Schwoerer says he follows the rising trend of craft breweries in Springfield and on a larger scale:
"Just from a state perspective, the state of Illinois has seen a tremendous growth in the number of microbreweries and the amount of beer they produce," Schwoerer says. "Nationwide, craft beer growth has been amazing. It's actually a real success story - every year, during the recession ... craft beer numbers grew.”
According to the Brewers Association, the U.S. craft brewing industry grew last year by about 15% - in both distribution and dollars earned.
But with the plethora of craft beers to choose from nationwide, why the need to go local in the first place? For enthusiasts like David Smalley, there's an easy answer for that.
"Freshness. If you've ever had fresh bread. That's the example I use most of the time. You can get fresh-baked bread in New York City that's really good - (but) by the time it gets to you, it's probably stale," Smalley says.
Thanks to new craft brewers in the area, that's not a problem. You can put down your import and pick up a fresh, local beer that best suits your taste.
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