On a tour of Duff Brewery, Homer Simpson discovers that Duff, Duff Light and Duff Dry all come from the same vat. The joke is that the different varieties of beer are indistinguishable by taste. For craft beer lovers, it spoke to what they believe is a larger truth — that the popular beers from domestic mega breweries don’t taste like much at all.
If Homer were to venture outside of Moe’s and visit the real Springfield, he would discover a cornucopia of beers that vary greatly in taste and style. The craft beer trend, which has been sweeping the coasts for many years now, has been making inroads in the Land of Lincoln, and it’s changing the way people are enjoying a night out.
The Brewhaus was on the cutting edge of this trend when it opened almost 20 years ago with a massive beer menu. More recently, the Craft Beer Bar has stepped in to serve beer connoisseurs. And Springfield is now home to two pubs that brew their own beer — Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery, and Engrained Brewing Co. — and Rolling Meadows Brewery, a commercial brewer.
Chris Trudeau opened Rolling Meadows back in 2011, making it the first production brewery in the Springfield area since the Reisch Brewery closed in 1966. Along with other microbreweries around the country, he is taking the beer industry full circle, back to a time when every town had its own brewer.
Rolling Meadows is capitalizing on a movement away from mass-produced lagers from the beer giants that bring us Budweiser, Miller Lite and Coors — beers that are brewed primarily to be thrown back without regard for taste.
Craft beer, on the other hand, is meant to be smelled, tasted and savored. In that respect, Trudeau believes that the rise of craft beer will result in a decline of the drink-to-get-drunk mentality that is common in many bars.
“It’s helping to get away from that trend of drinking to excess with the buckets of beer or pitchers of beer,” he says. “You aren’t going to do a keg stand with craft beer.”
Rolling Meadows — whose flagship beer is Abe’s Ale — recently expanded its brewing capacity to keep up with demand. Its beer can be found in more than 30 outlets in the Springfield area, along with locations throughout the state.
There for the beer
One of the places where you can enjoy Rolling Meadows is the Craft Beer Bar located at Fifth and Monroe streets. Josh Sonneborn and his partners opened the establishment in October of last year after observing evolving consumer preferences through another business he co-owns, 5 Flavors Catering.
“We noticed that when we would put a craft beer on the wedding bar, the domestic sales would go to zero,” Sonneborn says. “We saw that once we gave people that option, that’s what they really wanted.”
Page 2 of 3 – The Craft Beer Bar’s clientele skews a bit older than other downtown establishments.
“We’re empty at midnight, which is great for us. The crowd comes out a little earlier. They go home a little earlier. It’s just a more relaxed environment, which is what we were going for,” he says.
The bar’s clientele also has a different motivation for going out. Instead of partying or looking to hook up, they are there primarily for the beer.
“The customer is coming to us for the experience of trying something new. We won’t see someone drink three or four of the same beer, but they will try three different beers,” he says.
The staff at the Craft Beer Bar are encouraged to take online tests to increase their knowledge of beers and brewing methods so they can educate curious customers.
Steve Balen, the bar’s manager, is largely responsible for selecting the beers for their ever-evolving selection. Often he’ll select beers based on names alone, knowing that customers are drawn to the clever or unusual. That’s why you’ll find Monty Python Holy Grail Ale, Buffalo Sweat Stout and Rogue Yellow Snow on their menu.
While the Craft Beer Bar does attract some hard core craft beer lovers, Brent Schwoerer says that’s not the type of customer he is seeing at Engrained Brewery up to this point. The combined microbrewery and restaurant opened last year in Legacy Pointe.
Schwoerer describes a brewpub as a conversion ground where many people are introduced to craft beers for the first time. While they are interested in trying something new, their taste buds, attuned to light American lagers, aren’t quite ready for a radical changes in tastes.
“I think at most brewpubs, the lightest beer that you have on tap is going to dominate your sales. At least in the Midwest,” Schwoerer says.
For customers new to the craft beer experience, he’ll introduce them to a German Kolsch-style beer, which is less hoppy than the pale ale and IPA that he has on tap. What he won’t do is offer customers the watered-down beers that dominate grocery store displays and Super Bowl advertising.
“I don’t offer any domestic choices at Engrained. We do eight of our own beers and then a selection of what I call guest taps for commercial craft beers,” he says. “I try to get things that can’t be easily found around town.”
Tastes are a-changin’
Victoria Ringer, executive director of Downtown Springfield, Inc., believes that these establishments are not only attracting an older demographic that wouldn’t normally go out on a Saturday night, they also provide Springfield with a more urban and contemporary environment for visitors from larger cities.
Page 3 of 3 – Casey Conn has noticed that many out-of-towners have been making their way to Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery since his family opened it in 2012.
“For my family, when we travel that’s what we look for, and I know that there’s a lot of people who do the same thing,” he says. “When they’re in town and looking for a place to eat, they’ll look for a craft brewery or local brew pub.”
After two years in business, Conn also has noticed that the local clientele has become more sophisticated in their tastes. Their best-selling beer used to be Ditzy Blonde, a lighter ale. But more recently it was overtaken by their American Pale Ale, a variety that appeals to those who prefer a bit more bite to their beer.
“It tells us that people’s tastes are changing, and they’re acquiring an appreciation for beers that are better than those super light beers that they were used to,” Conn says.
Like Engrained, Obed & Isaac’s is pairing its beers with a full menu of offerings that goes far beyond typical bar food. While the Craft Beer Bar doesn’t have a restaurant side, Balen believes once more people start appreciating beer the same way they do food, the demand for craft styles will only increase.
Where to go
617 E. Washington St.
Owner: Mike Parkes
Craft Beer Bar
430 E. Monroe St.
Owners: Jordan Blevins, Josh Lindvall, Josh Sonneborn and Paul Wiss
Engrained Brewing Co.
1120 Lincolnshire Blvd.
Owners: Brent and Melissa Schwoerer
Obed & Isaac’s Microbrewery and Eatery
500 S. Sixth St.
Owners: Court and Karen Conn; sons Casey and Adam Conn