Illinois’ craft beer boom good news for small towns
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Until recently, Petersburg’s downtown had a vacant, ghost town quality similar to that of the neighboring village of New Salem, the Abraham Lincoln-themed historic site that hasn’t had an official resident since at least 1840.
Now this Central Illinois community with a population of slightly more than 2,000 has the opposite problem.
On a crisp Saturday evening in October, it was difficult to find an available parking space on the block surrounding the Menard County Courthouse. Almost all of the foot traffic beelined to the north side of the town square to visit Hand of Fate Brewing Co., the award-winning brewer behind Illinois’ official bicentennial beer: 1818 Prairie State Farmhouse Ale.
The traffic isn’t unusual these days. Ever since the husband-and-wife team of Mike and Brie Allison opened the craft brewery and taproom in a former Dollar General discount store in May 2016, Hand of Fate has drawn big crowds and helped shake the business district awake from its generation-long slumber.
Suddenly, new shops are opening on the square. And events like this spring’s second annual “Drinkin’ with Lincoln” street festival are regional draws.
“It took off a lot quicker than we imagined,” said Brie Allison. “Turns out, the community wanted a place where people and families could get together and enjoy a beer and socialize.”
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It’s a story that’s becoming increasingly common throughout the state.
A vast majority of Illinois’ 200 craft breweries are in Chicago or its suburbs, but the $2.6 billion-a-year craft beer movement in Illinois that bubbled up in major metropolises over the last 15 years has begun to trickle down to rural towns and villages. As a result, microbreweries are increasingly having a macro impact on the Main Streets of sleepy Illinois outposts like Petersburg.
“In the last five years we’ve seen a diversification of breweries, and they’re starting to have an economic impact on all parts of a state like Illinois,” said Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association.
Craft breweries, Watson says, are having a three-pronged effect on small towns that have them. They’re bringing new jobs, increased tourism, and more dollars to local businesses in spaces “that badly need revitalization.”
That rings true with Old Bakery Brewing Co., a bakery-turned-craft brewery that opened in Alton in 2015, Excel Bottling Co. in Breese, which was a longtime bottling plant until it expanded into making beer and soda in 2012. The cheekily named Effing Brewing Co. is jump-starting the economy of Effingham, population 12,000, despite opening its doors only seven months ago.
“For our first year of business, we’re doing very well,” said Aric Cornell, one of the trio of owners of the town’s first brewery. “Craft beer is still pretty foreign in this area, we’re the only brewery for 70 miles in every direction, and it was a bit of a shock for (some locals). But now we have a steady stream of regulars and plenty of traffic from out-of-towners.”
Cornell expected hardly anyone to attend the Middle of America Craft Brew Festival in June. It was the town’s first beer festival, and the heat index topped a scorching 104 degrees. But he was pleasantly surprised when a crowd estimated at 2,500 packed the downtown street to sample the 30 different local brews.
Likewise, Effing’s owners didn’t anticipate that the brewery would already cause a rejuvenation of central Effingham. “There are places that have sat vacant for 20 or 30 years that are getting filled with boutiques and bars, and it’s firing up downtown,” Cornell said.
Craft beer has even flowed down to Southern Illinois, a region known for its wineries — not breweries. Take Scratch Brewing Co., an obscure spot an hour and 40 minutes southeast of St. Louis. It’s not easy to find; visitors must navigate their way through country roads past the tiny town of Ava to discover the 75-acre expanse of what “Men’s Journal” called America’s Coolest Microbrewery.
Scratch specializes in foraged beer, a back-to-the-future trend in which their adventurous brewers use whatever is grown on their farm or hunt for forest-grown ingredients from the adjacent Shawnee National Forest, such as nettle, elderberry, ginger, dandelion, maple sap, tree bark, lavender, juniper, and chanterelle mushrooms. In other words, one-of-a-kind flavors you can’t get from Budweiser.
Hopheads from all over the Midwest are making pilgrimages to Scratch. “We’re kind of a destination brewery and we have people visit from all over, especially St. Louis and Chicago,” said David Wright, Scratch’s taproom manager.
That’s not too uncommon, says Watson. His association’s data shows that 1.6 percent of craft beer drinkers take more than 10 trips a year to breweries located more than two hours from their homes. “It speaks of a desire to have an experience and these craft breweries are different than traditional bar visits,” he said.
Many of Illinois’ microbreweries are aware that beer lovers are looking for more than a stiff drink; they’re looking for something local and idiosyncratic.
That’s true of Hand of Fate, which has a sign affixed to the brick exterior that explains the story behind the brewery’s name. As legend has it, Peter Lukins and George Warburton argued over naming rights to the town originally surveyed by Lincoln and settled their dispute in a very 19th century way: A hand of cards.
Because it’s not named Georgetown, you can guess who won.
“Hand of Fate is part of the town’s story,” Mike Allison said. “And it’s also about us because everything has fallen into place.”