Surrounded by farmland as far as the eye can see, Lincoln Slagel showed off a crop you don't see too often here in central Illinois: hops.
His mostly Cascade hops—the flowers used to make beer—snake up from the ground on ropes. They’re just steps away from Slagel’s taproom, Emancipation Brewing Co., near Fairbury in Livingston County.
Emancipation is the latest in a series of craft beer openings in central Illinois in the past few years, including several in Bloomington-Normal. There are now at least 229 craft breweries in Illinois, more than double what it was just four years ago, according to the Brewers Association.
Emancipation is a new branch of Illinois agritourism, like going to a pumpkin patch but with, you know, beer.
“The thing that really sets us apart is our location, which is more of a destination,” said Slagel, co-owner and head brewer. "Even though we’re not anywhere glamorous, people can come and spend the whole afternoon here. People really have a connection to the agricultural background, I think.”
Emancipation is around an hour northeast of Bloomington-Normal. It's literally inside an old dairy barn.
On top of what he grows on vines just outside, Slagel also gets hops from Land Locked Hops just down the road in Loda.
“When I post on social media about beer with local hops, people get real excited. Those are the most popular releases we’ve done so far—the local-ingredient ones,” he said. “We’ve drawn a decent amount of people who are interested (in our local hops). We get a lot of farmers even coming out and saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to grow some hops too.’ It’s become a community thing. People are coming out not just because of the beer, which is an interesting thing.”
Ag Theme Is Everywhere
For now, Emancipation's beer is only available in the taproom. It hasn't popped up in restaurants and stores yet. Slagel has a one-barrel brewing system and seven fermenters.
“It’s as much beer as I can make myself without any help,” as he puts it.
Emancipation's taproom is a really clean mix of rustic and modern. A barn door separates the taproom from the brewing area. There are power outlets at tables so people can charge their phones.
The ag theme is everywhere. When GLT visited, the selection included beer called Row Crop, Farmer's Favorite, and Straw Hat. They’re taking advantage of all that extra space and land by working on a new family-friendly outdoor courtyard that’s set to open in August or September.
“People don’t have to make the trip here and just spend a half-hour. They can feel that it’s worth it and have something the whole family can enjoy,” Slagel said.
Slagel is in business with his father, Don. The family's always been entrepreneurial. The other family business is steel fabrication, mostly for agriculture equipment.
“We’ve always had a small-business background. I grew up around my dad growing his business,” Slagel said. “It was perfect timing. I got really into brewing right at the same time I needed something to do in my life. And it’s turned into this.”
Growth In Microbreweries
Overall beer sales fell 1 percent in 2018, according to the Brewers Association. But craft sales grew by 4 percent. And craft production grew the most for microbreweries, BA reported.
Slagel said he thinks that’s where craft beer’s future is brightest—the smallest breweries, like his. It’s a throwback to the days before Prohibition when there was a small brewery in almost every town, he said.
“We’re just now getting to the same amount of breweries that were open before Prohibition, and to think of how many fewer people there were then, it speaks to the room there is for new breweries,” Slagel said.
Slagel said he’s received encouragement and direct support from several of the Bloomington-Normal breweries that have opened locations in the past two years, such as Destihl, White Oak, Keg Grove, and Lil Beaver Brewery. He said there’s definitely potential for beer tourism.
“We do see a lot of people here from Indiana, Chicago, Bloomington, and Iowa. There were people who drove from Ohio to Oregon and stopped here out of nowhere. I think every person coming into these small towns helps the local (economy). Because they’re likely to go out to eat afterward,” he said.
You don't need to be a craft-beer expert to visit Emancipation. In fact, that's kind of why it's called Emancipation.
“It’s not just freedom from tasteless beer or the monotony of drinking stuff you may not even like that’s more of a habit. It's become a freedom from the snobbiness that can often come from the craft beer world. And also just promoting sensible drinking for enjoyment, not for the result. So it’s freedom from the bad things in beer as well.”
Emancipation's taproom is open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.
People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.