Illinois Breweries and Distilleries are Going Farm to Pint
As romantic as the idea of passing down the family farm from generation to generation sounds, the reality is that without a steady increase in acreage, it’s becoming more and more difficult to generate a sustainable living off the same land that’s been farmed for decades. To remedy this, a new crop of farmers is diversifying operations, learning the process of beer and spirit making, and opening up breweries and distilleries right on their land. It’s a move that’s been both financially smart and positive for their communities, giving visitors the opportunity to try beverages made with local Illinois ingredients. Take a look at three farms hopping on this trend.
When brothers Matt and Darin Riggs started thinking about adding brewing to their fifth-generation family farming operation in Champaign County, they began by experimenting with home brews in their garages. After marrying his German-born wife, Caroline, Matt decided there was no place better to learn beer making from the ground up than Deutschland – so the couple moved there for three years, where Matt worked as an apprentice in the centuries-old Faust Brewery in the city of Miltenberg and earned his German brewmaster certification in Munich.
“One of the things that struck me when I was in Germany was that you can make really great beer – and a lot of different styles of really great beer – with just grain, water, hops and yeast,” Matt says.
That Bavarian method has been the compass guiding the brewing operations at Riggs Beer Company, which officially launched in 2015. Shunning process aids and flavorings that Matt says have become typical at many American breweries, the Riggs’ rely on “traditional, precise old-school brewing” to differentiate.
The Riggs’ are also a draft-only brewery, meaning they only serve their beer from kegs, which saves money on bottling. Three of their flagship beers integrate a large percentage of their own corn and barley malt, grown on the family’s 300-acre farm. Matt and Darin’s father manages the farm, while the sons focus on the brewery, using about 1,500 pounds of grain per month in their beers.
“(Keeping the farm independently operated) becomes a lot more realistic when you can grow a specialty crop and vertically integrate that all the way to the consumer,” Matt says. “Then, you don’t need a lot of ground to make some margin and stay independent.”
With a focus on the local consumer, the Riggs’ only distribute their beer in central Illinois. They say they’re at max capacity serving their current customers, and “operating in their comfort zone,” with no desire to expand north to Chicago. Considering there are more than 7,000 breweries around the country, “being local is important right now,” Matt says.
In summer 2016, Riggs Beer Company debuted a 200-seat, family-friendly beer garden open Thursday through Sunday year round. Last year, it won the Illinois Sustainability Award for a large solar array installed next to the beer garden, which offset 90 percent of their electricity in 2018. “We don’t have much of a marketing budget,” Matt says, “so it helps us communicate our values.”
Putting a Small Town on the Map
Further south, a microbrewery in Randolph County also produces high-quality German lagers, in addition to American-style ales. Owner Kris Liefer started with a home brew kit in his farm shop seven years ago, trying out his creations on his friends. “With positive feedback, we began to seriously think about opening a brewery,” he says, deciding to go into business with his three siblings and their spouses.
The right home for that brewery turned out to be a historic building owned by his aunt and uncle in downtown Red Bud (population: 3,529), which they renovated and officially opened as Lieferbräu Brewery in June 2018.
“Running a brewery was a huge learning curve for all of us,” Kris says. “We have learned a lot, and business is going very well.”
Along with his brothers, fourth-generation farmers Kirk and Kent, plus their parents, Kris is still involved in the family’s farm operation, where they raise corn, wheat and soybeans. One of the most satisfying parts of the brewery so far has been opening up a door for a small town like Red Bud to draw in visitors from larger cities. They’re not alone – Lieferbräu joins 15 other breweries on the Southern Illinois Beer Trail. “We are becoming a destination,” Kris says.
That’s the Spirit
Illinois’ first estate distillery – meaning if they don’t grow the ingredients, they don’t make it – is located on a 2,000-acre farm in DeKalb. A collaboration between father-and-son team Jim and Jamie Walter and a family friend, Nick Naegele, Whiskey Acres Distilling Co. launched in 2013.
“The main reason (we started Whiskey Acres) was to support farming operations, to add value to some of the grain grown here and hopefully make the farm that much more sustainable, both economically and environmentally, for the next generation,” Jamie says.
By opening up a distillery, they not only created a product but also a place for people to come experience the farm. They make straight bourbon from a few varieties of yellow dent corn, which is a variety developed by a northern Illinois farmer with a high soft starch content. They also use heirloom seeds like Bloody Butcher and Blue Popcorn and straight rye whiskey.
“We grow, harvest, clean, mill, cook, ferment, distill, barrel and bottle everything on-site,” Jamie says. “Guests can come see the process and enjoy the product.”