Brewing has been part of the fabric of Peoria, IL since Andrew Eitle established the first brewery there in 1837. There were over 20 breweries in Peoria at one point. In fact, the city grew and evolved around the brewing industry and likely wouldn’t be the same today without its beer making and distilling past.
The Peoria skyline overlooks the Illinois river; people who haven’t visited before often note that they hadn’t anticipated that it would be as “developed” as it is. In addition to a skyline, Peoria has a thriving brewery scene with 5 well supported breweries in a town of just over 100,000. Being a short three-hour drive from Chicago, St. Louis, and Indianapolis makes Peoria a great option for a weekend get-away for beer lovers. The first stop on my Peoria brew tour was one of Peoria’s newest additions, Bearded Owl Brewing.
Peoria’s Warehouse District, where Bearded Owl is located, has charming character; there is a great mix of industrial history, natural beauty, and midwestern pride. Bearded Owl has added to the character since it opened in January of 2018, it’s a beautiful taproom with historic charm. Co-owner and brew master Nick Babcock was kind enough to spend some time to discuss his gem of a brewery and the Peoria craft beer scene with me.
Nick, like many brewers, honed his craft home brewing in his garage. A home kit he received as a past Christmas gift sparked his interest. He credits his success to being an “obsessive hobbyist” and conceded that his first home attempts resulted in failure, but led to a period of years in which he invested in equipment, learned different methods of brewing, and used experimentation to gain knowledge. His years of trial and error at home have resulted in not having any major disasters in a brew attempt at Bearded Owl to date.
Nick conceived the original vision for Bearded Owl with a friend. they kicked around ideas; would they start a brew pub, a production brewery, or strictly a distribution operation? Where would they locate? While his friend ultimately dropped out, Nick knew he wanted to share his beer with the public and follow his beer making dream. His vision for the brew pub continues to evolve; Bearded Owl are now licensed for distribution and plan to do so within the next couple of months. Distribution will include kegs to local establishments as well as limited cans.
Peoria’s brew scene is unique from a cultural perspective. Regionally craft brewers continue to focus on educating the public and consumers about what craft beer is. There is a dedicated craft following here, but it is still predominantly a light beer town. Consumers in Peoria also seem to place importance on having food at the taprooms, which is something that Bearded Owl particularly has had to adjust to.
I asked Nick his thoughts on what makes a good beer. From his perspective, “It needs to be well made.” Did we hit our marks? Did the brew date go well? Did we do what we set out to do from a design perspective? “If it did, I’m happy.” Some of my favorite beers in our catalogue aren’t our best sellers, some beers I wonder if we missed the mark and they turn out to be best sellers.
When I drink someone else’s beer, I look for it to be what I expect it to be. If it’s a Dunkelwiezen, is it true to style? If it isn’t true to style, is it marketed that way? That’s a lesson we learned here. Doing a brew that isn’t necessarily true to style and then failing to market it appropriately. “We still want to experiment, but we want to be clear in our marketing.”
While enjoying a Ghost Fence Imperial Cream Ale during our conversation, I noticed how well conceived the beer is. For a young brewery the beers are well developed. Nick says he relies on intuition a lot more than he’s comfortable with. “When I brewed in the garage I focused on IPAs, a few lagers, and stouts. Since we offer a large variety of styles, I’ve had to use a lot of intuition, because I didn’t have the experience behind me initially to know how some things would turn out. I study what I can, but it would be nice to have a test system.”
The first beer they have chosen for distribution is going to be a hazy IPA called Crush a lot. “It sells out pretty quickly, has a low ABV and “it’s crushable, hence the name.” Another beer he is proud of is their coffee cream ale Terrible Lie, it’s a beer people love. The first time they made it, they were given some coffee beans from someone who had roasted them at home. They were tossing around names for it, some of which were taken. Somebody said, “Terrible Lie,” and as many of the team are Nine Inch Nails fans, it stuck.
It’s hard not to notice the beautiful metal owl sculpture over the taproom bar as well as metal cut outs of skeletons by a campfire. The logo and the skeleton guys were ideas Nick came up with back in the garage days. Local artist Scott Fletcher was brought in to create the designs. The owl is motorized; it is built to move its head, eyes, and wings but is not yet active.
Bearded Owl Brewing currently has 12 brews on tap. They have a large variety of styles and an ever-changing tap list. I enjoyed a couple of brews on this visit. The Ghost Fence Imperial Cream ale (8.3 ABV 45 IBU), is a smooth drink with hints of vanilla, butter, chocolate, and cream. It’s unique, I can’t recall having a similar beer elsewhere; this brew alone is worth a visit. The Astral Haze (7.7 ABV 68 IBU) is an IPA with hints of Pine and well-balanced hops that is well suited for sipping any time of day in any season.
Bearded owl brewing is located at 112 State Street, Peoria, IL 61602. They do serve food in addition to their tap list.
I hope to highlight more of the Peoria area breweries over the next few weeks. Every brew pub in town is producing great beer and they complement each other well. I encourage you to spend a weekend there and visit all of them. It really is a great way to spend a weekend.