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EXCHANGE: Craft brewery scene grows in Springfield

January 31, 2019

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — When Casey Conn and his family opened Obed and Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery in 2012, they had no idea if it was a concept that would take off in Springfield.

After all, it was just the second microbrewery to open Springfield in modern times, preceded by the long-closed Capitol City Brewing Co. in Vinegar Hill Mall.

“There was hurdles along the way — we are in Springfield — trying to get Bud Light, Miller Lite-type of people to kind of acquire their taste bud toward craft beer was kind of a struggle for a little bit,” Conn said. “But it took off way more than we could ever expect.”

Celebrating seven years in business this February, the microbrewery and eatery is firmly established as one of the more popular spots to grab a drink in the capital city, proving that local drinkers had a taste for craft.

But the brewpub’s opening proved simply to be the beginning as a flood of other microbreweries, seeking to tap into the the growing craft beer market, have opened their doors to thirsty customers in the past few years.

In 2013, Engrained Brewing Co. would become Springfield’s next brewpub, opening at Legacy Pointe near Interstate 72. And just last year, Buzz Bomb Brewing Co. and Anvil & Forge Brewing and Distilling, two microbreweries with taprooms, began production at downtown locations.

And later this spring, Springfield Beer Co., 3788 Wabash Ave., another microbrewery with a taproom, is expected to open.

Mix those with other area breweries, like Rolling Meadows Farm Brewing near Cantrall and Hand of Fate Brewing in Petersburg, craft beer — mirroring national trends — has become more readily available and mainstream in the Springfield region over the past few years.

While beer consumption overall decreased 1.2 percent in 2017, consumption of craft beer increased by 5 percent, now comprising about a 13 percent share of the overall U.S. beer market.

“I think it really starts with consumer demand,” said Bart Watson, chief economist at the National Brewers Association. “We’ve seen demand for fuller flavor, for more variety and for locally produced products from small, independent producers.”

In terms of dollars spent, craft beer now accounts for more than 23 percent of the $111.4 billion U.S. beer market, showing that while overall consumption might be down, many are still willing pay a bit more for a craft beer.

“It’s moved out of the period where it was just a niche and it was only hardcore craft beer drinkers, but it’s still only 13 percent of the U.S. beer market, so it’s not fully mainstream yet,” Watson said. “I think that points to why there’s opportunities for growth.”

And craft brewers are opening up shop in droves to meet this new demand, with the number of craft breweries in the United States increasing from 2,420 in 2012 to 6,266 in 2017.

The number of regional craft breweries, which include larger ones like Chicago’s Revolution Brewing and Half Acre Beer, more than doubled. The number of brewpubs, which serve food in addition to alcohol, went up as well. However, the most growth came in the microbrewery category, which overtook brewpubs as the most common craft breweries in the U.S.

“There’s the brewpub, which is what I am and what Obed’s are, and that was probably the more classic way to enter the market maybe five years ago,” said Brent Schwoerer, owner of Engrained. “You either went distribution only, like Rolling Meadows, or you went brewpub. But then the advent of this new model of taproom focus has been the emergent area in the industry and we’re seeing that same trend here in Springfield.”

Indeed, the last two craft brewers to open, Buzz Bomb and Anvil & Forge, have been microbreweries with on-site taprooms. And the next one to open, Springfield Beer Co., will follow that same model as well. Those in the industry said this is the best way to maximize profitability, lower overhead costs and gain instant customer feedback on the product.

“The taproom and the brewpub are the conversion grounds of craft beer. We see this all the time, there’s a group of 10 or a group of 20 that comes out. One or two people want to come here because they’re big craft beer lovers, and the other eight or 18 aren’t really that used to craft beer, but they come here and are forced to (try it) because I don’t offer an alternative,” Schwoerer said. “And they try it and they like it and a couple of them are going to get their eyes open and say, ‘Hey, this is alright, I like this.’ Then they’re going to go to the grocery store with an all new outlook.”

The opening of Buzz Bomb in March 2017 quite literally created a buzz in the 300 block of East Adams Street. The business was so successful that it was selling more beer than it had the capacity to make.

This led owners Josh Flanders, Kurt Armstrong, Benjie Gine and Bill Larson to buy a second brewing facility in Illiopolis, which was formerly occupied by now-defunct Reinstone Brewery. Larson characterized it as “a good problem to have.” And it was not the first time their beer won the approval of Springfield drinkers.

Like many tapping into the brewing industry, Larson first started brewing at home years ago with his friends. Then he and the rest of his partners took their beer to festivals in town. At the 2016 Oyster and Beer Festival, people told them how much they loved Buzz Bomb’s beers, and it inspired them to finally go through with opening the brewery and tap room. They started writing a business plan the next day.

With the second facility, Larson said the taproom is now fully stocked and they hope to begin distribution of kegs to local bars and restaurants and of cans in local liquor stores.

The brewery has also embraced their downtown location, partnering with Cafe Moxo, Kidzeum and Just the Basics Catering to service parties up to 1,000 people on Adams Street.

“I think people appreciate hand-crafted products and just the interesting flavors that microbreweries can bring to the table,” Flanders said. “People do love local businesses and things that are made right here in their communities. As for why it’s happened in Springfield, I think that it’s just kind of a natural evolution.”

On the other side of downtown, Mike Zerkle, who owns Anvil & Forge with his brothers John and Adam, said giving back and being a part of the community is a major part of the craft beer movement and was a major emphasis of theirs when building their brewery. All of the materials used for construction are American made and locally produced, if possible.

“We figured if we start out being a part of the community, in that our sourcing is from the community, ... people would be more likely to come in and support our business,” Zerkle said.

Anvil & Forge, which opened in November, features a German beer hall theme with long tables, with Zerkle saying he “wanted the camaraderie” and “sense of community” to shine through.

He added there are already plans to expand into the building next door, which would be used as a tasting room and space that could be rented out for private events. But what sets Anvil & Forge apart, Zerkle said, is that it will be Springfield’s only distillery once that part of the business is up and running in four to six months.

The original plan was to have just a micro-distillery to make different kinds of whiskey, rum or liqueur. But since those would take at least several years to age, they thought it would be a good idea to also brew beer, which has a much quicker turnaround. Zerkle said they currently have eight beers on tap, but soon plan to expand to 16.

Eventually, Zerkle hopes to offer vertical flights, which would allow a person to drink different versions of the same beer.

“That will be years away, because we have to establish our barrel program and get that all through,” Zerkle said.

In a few months, a new player in the craft beer game will be opening his microbrewery on the west side. Ryan Kunken, of Springfield Beer Co., said that despite there being more breweries in Springfield since he first wrote his business plan, he’s confident there’s still room for growth, especially on his side of town.

“I think there’s a big residential population around here, and there aren’t a lot of craft beer or microbrewery options around here,” Kunken said. “So I hope to at least get the neighborhood crowd here.”

Kunken said he got the bug for craft beer after taking a brewing class at Lincoln Land Community College about seven years ago. Since, he’s been brewing at home. That is, until Kunken decided to put his business degree to work and open a microbrewery.

“I like to create things, I like to play music, but I realized a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be a rock star,” Kunken said. “So this is a way to express myself and to share something I’ve made with people. And if I can do that for a living, that would be a plus.”

Though technically in competition with one another, the craft brewers of Springfield say the increase in breweries has fostered a culture of collaboration and that the market has not yet hit a saturation point.

“What we have set out to do at Buzz Bomb from the beginning is to create a brew community,” Flanders said. “So right from the start, those that we didn’t know, we’ve approached with open arms. Those that we did know, we just kept up that friendship.”

Zerkle, whose brother John worked as a brewer at Obed and Isaac’s for two years before going out on his own, agreed.

“We very much try to support each other. On our opening night, our friends and family night, we had a couple local brewers and brewery owners helping us wash dishes,” Zerkle said. “That’s how tight knit this community is as far as on the brewer’s side. I think any one of us would die on the hill for another one of us. It’s a cool community to be a part of.”

With the opening of Springfield Beer Co. later this year, there will be seven breweries in the Springfield region — five microbreweries and two brewpubs. In fact, more craft breweries are welcomed by the group.

“I could see several more breweries being in Springfield and we’ll still only increase in product being sold between all breweries,” Zerkle said. “As far as we’re concerned here at Anvil & Forge, we think that the more the merrier. If we got more breweries even downtown, I’d be happy seeing that because that’s going to be an attraction to bring more people downtown.”

“With Route 66 and Abe Lincoln and all the other things we have going for us from a tourism perspective, the more breweries we get, the more likely that it’s going to put us on the map,” added Schwoerer.

Conn, whose family kicked off the locally-brewed craft beer movement in Springfield when they opened Obed’s in 2012, said the the emergence of the capital city’s craft beer scene has encouraged his brewery to be more creative in their offerings after initially taking a cautious approach and easing local drinkers into the craft concept. The brewpub now offers six regular beers on tap while an additional six are rotated in, depending on the season or occasion. Conn said they also host ‘Firkin Friday’ every week, where they offer a small batch of a different specialty brew for customers to enjoy.

“We are in Springfield and Springfield’s not real big on change,” Conn said. “So you can’t get too off the wall. But I feel that now that we’re more established, we can come up with a little crazier beers and food and try to entice the people that are really into the craft beer scene.”

And apparently, the word is getting out about Springfield’s up-and-coming craft beer scene.

“It’s hearsay, but I’ve had a couple of people that are from Chicago come in and say they’re starting to hear that Springfield’s got good beer and you need to go check it out,” Flanders said. “So I think that that’s absolutely true. We’re getting a craft beer community going downtown and word’s starting to spread.”

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Source: The (Springfield) State Journal-Register, https://bit.ly/2HwM7bF

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Information from: The State Journal-Register, http://www.sj-r.com

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