Beers, spirits do well in dry economy

By Gus Bode

A new industry is brewing in Southern Illinois: craft alcohols.

“Right now we’re at a grassroots level of the next big industry,” said Shawn Connelly, local beer expert and craft-beer blogger at The Beer Philosopher. “People are interested in a craft product.”

The only microbrewery in the area is Big Muddy Brewing in Murphysboro, but Connelly said there are several more in early stages of development. He said he doesn’t know why, but the alcohol industry seems to be recession-proof.

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Chuck Stuhrenberg, owner and brewmaster of Big Muddy Brewing, collects yeast during a brew session Wednesday in his Murphysboro brewhouse. Stuhrenberg said he has had to expand his operation to meet the area’s demand for craft beer. During Tuesday’s Carbondale City Council meeting, the council approved a motion to allow microbreweries, microdistilleries and wineries in agricultural districts of Carbondale. Stuhrenberg, who owns the area’s only microbrewery, said he hopes to see more open in response to the council’s decision. –€“ Isaac Smith | Daily Egyptian

The Carbondale City Council recently voted to include microbreweries and microdistilleries as special-use establishments in agricultural zones. Council member Jane Adams said several entrepreneurs have expressed interest in brewing or distilling in Carbondale.

“One of the remarkable things is, in this period of recession, we have an industry growing here,” Adams said.

Chuck Stuhrenberg, owner of Big Muddy Brewing, said the demand for his beer has surpassed his ability to produce it.

“It amazes me how much beer people drink,” he said.

Big Muddy recently expanded to produce more beer, and Stuhrenberg said he plans on further additions. The company currently brews four different beers. He said he hopes to add a vanilla stout to the lineup in time for Christmas.

“I found out you have to sell a lot of beer before you become profitable,” Stuhrenberg said.

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He said starting the brewery about two years ago required a large initial investment, but he learned the trade by home brewing as an SIUC undergraduate  in the 1980s.

Starting a microbrewery is a daunting process both financially and legally, said Marika Josephson, vice president of Southern Illinois Brewers, an organization of about 90 area home brewers.

She said she, SIB President Ryan Tockstein and a third partner plan to open a microbrewery of their own.

Josephson said the licensing can take months to complete, during which they must have an address for the brewery. She said one way to make money in the meantime is to serve food or make soda with the brewing equipment, which they plan to do.

“Brew pubs, which are restaurants that make beer on-site, can draw in tourists like wineries do,” Connelly said.

The region has the potential to draw in tourists like the Shawnee Hills Wine Trail has, said Matt McCarroll, associate professor of chemistry and owner of Windy Hill Hop Farm, located south of Murphysboro.

“I like to think we’ll have a beer path along with the wine trail,” McCarroll said.

McCarroll planted his hops, a key ingredient in beer, during the ’09-’10 winter. He said he came up with the idea while cleaning up his farm after the May 8, 2009 storm and decided it would be a way to put his property to use.

“Along the way we found a lot of people who were thinking the same thing,” he said.

Hops, traditionally grown in the Pacific Northwest, are now being grown in the Midwest, the Northeast and North Carolina, he said.

He said he hopes to sell the hops to local home brewers and microbreweries, and he’s sold-out of all his crop so far.

The presence of local ingedients such as fruits should lend itself to microdistilleries and the production of craft spirits and help the integration of the new industry into the region, Adams said.

“It really is a perfect fit,” she said.

SIU recognizes the potential for the industry to impact the region and is therefore looking into the possibility of developing a fermentation science program to train professional brewers, McCarroll said.

Josephson said she thinks the rise in interest is connected to people staying closer to their community in the recession and being interested in where their food and drink comes from.

McCarroll said the interest might have to do with something a little more simple.

“The first and historical reason is the taste and quality,” he said. “Most of the really good beers I’ve had have been homebrews.”

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