My meeting with Chad Bevers of Lil Beaver Brewery coincided with my first visit to his brewery and tap room. It’s located in an industrial district of Bloomington Illinois near a local Chocolatier (which I also recommend you visit). The tap room is cozy and welcoming, the smell of an active brew adds depth to the ambiance. I ordered an imperial milk stout called Ridiculousness while Chad finished brewing one of his future offerings. The medium to full bodied stout had flavors of toasted coconut, banana, cinnamon, vanilla, and a touch of malty sweetness. The character of the individual flavors stand independently yet harmoniously to make a stout that I believe would be approachable to anyone (12% ABV). I would soon learn from Chad that strong flavor and approachability are the driving factors in how he approaches beer making.
Chad’s first exposure to craft beer was at a local brewery called Illinois Brewing Company. He used to hang out there often (20 years ago), but when he visited, at first, he didn’t try any of their brews. He hung out with his buddies and drank Miller Lite. “One day,” says Chad, “I went to an old Chicago, a place known to have a variety of craft brews on tap. I thought, here are all these tap handles, all these beers, I have to venture out. I started drinking Blue Moon, then tried a dark beer – I liked the way it looked when they poured it, so I ordered a Guinness; I loved it. Later that night, I went back to IBC. I said to the bartender, I drink dark beer now, what do you have for dark beer? They had a beer called Porter from Hell, it was a 9% (ABV) porter. It was dark, had very little head, and it was delicious; I fell in love with that. The next time I went back and I tried to order it, they were out. I was told, considering their rotating taps, they may not even make it again. Fortunately, I happened to be sitting next to IBC’s brewer who started chatting with me. He took me downstairs, showed me around, and took me through the process. I decided then that I wanted to brew beer. It was the perfect hobby, for a couple of years I brewed regularly. After that, it kind of went to a brew once in a while thing. After moving in with my wife I dove back in with both feet and have been brewing “gung-ho” ever since.”
“The original vision for Lil Beaver Brewery was to have a small brewery with a tap room. I’ve always loved sharing beer. It’s my favorite thing about brewing. When the tap room opened in January of 2018, it was a way to make my beer and sell it rather than just give it away to people. I have two partners Adam and Justin Bellas of Bellas landscaping in town. I met them when I was the executive director of the Bloomington division of the Midwest Foodbank. Adam and Justin donated the foodbank’s lawncare and snow removal equipment. They are great people and we became good friends. When they found out I was going to buy out my previous partner here at the brewery they saw it as an opportunity, they bought out my business partner instead.”
While Chad’s initial craft beer preference was for dark beer, his current preference changes with the season, his mood, and where he happens to be choosing a beer. “My favorite kind of beer? It depends; there are lots of great beers and styles. I’m not above drinking a domestic light beer. Sometimes they go down quite well. I generally prefer flavorful beer; most of what we produce has a lot of flavor. If I market a coffee cinnamon beer, you are going to taste coffee and cinnamon. It’s a pet peeve of mine when I order a beer that is marketed in a way, but you have to struggle to find the expected flavor in it. Some brewers want the base beer to be the shining star and the subtle flavors to work their way underneath. I want it the other way around. That’s how I like it. You will see our beers are very flavor forward. Whether it’s the hops coming through or the adjuncts that we use, my goal is to make a beer with a lot of flavor. That doesn’t mean we don’t have easy drinking beers, our hefeweizen for instance, does have a lot of flavor, but it’s a good easy drinking summer beer. It’s my favorite summer time beer.”
“Ten to fifteen years ago I loved IPAs. I like to say that I was into hops before they were cool, but then I got burned out on them. For an extended period, I avoided hoppy beers; my drinking and brewing focus was on stouts. When I opened this place, I started drinking more hoppy beers with the intent of being able to make them; the market demands hoppy beers now days.” Chad believes that drinking beer made by other craft brewers improves his skill. “Other people’s beer serves as an inspiration for me. It’s easy to just drink your own beer, but it can rob you of opportunity for growth. With all the good beer out there now, I don’t need to look far.” When considering if his beer inspires others, Chad acknowledges that many home brewers visit Lil Beaver Brewery with questions. “I talk to a lot of home brewers that have a lot of questions. I think it’s natural for people to build upon an idea they appreciate. I can’t say it’s my intent when brewing to inspire others, but I do appreciate that other brewers approach beer in a similar manner to me.”
I ask Chad which one of his beers he would choose to introduce to a new customer. “It depends on the customer, it’s like my previous response, what I want depends on the mood I am in; everyone has a different preference. One of my goals is to consistently have a variety of beers on tap. Sometimes we may be heavy on a style; IPAs or stouts, etc.; usually that is the product of an event we’ve recently held. For instance, we will do a lot of internal tap takeovers such as a stout day. We just did a hot pepper beer flight the other day, we had four hot pepper beers. We thought no one is really doing that, lets do it. The event was well received. Of course, afterward people come in and ask, why do so many of your beers taste like hot pepper?”
“Bloomington/Normal has a lot of recent craft beer converts. There are a lot of people here who aren’t beer nerds necessarily but have a great interest in it. I figured our average customer would be 25-30 years old, it’s probably closer to 45. I was astounded by that but it’s the coolest thing too. We get many people that stop in and say, “I don’t really drink craft beer,” or “I typically drink light beer.” So, we ask questions. What do you like? What’s your favorite beer? What’s your favorite food or candy? We try to match them with a beer that way. Sometimes they are reluctant, stating that they’ll never like something, then they try it and like it. Next thing you know they order a second glass of a full-flavored beer, and then buy some to go. I love introducing people to a whole new world within craft beer. It probably happens the most with hoppy beers. Many people are reluctant when it comes to hops. However, a New England style IPA has a soft bitterness and lots of fruitiness and juiciness which comes from the type of hops, how the hops and yeast interact, and the timing of the introduction of the hops to the mix. We’ve turned a lot of people on to IPAs with these.”
“Over time, I’ve tweaked a lot of our recipes. Some changes are on a whim, others are because I listened to a podcast. Podcasts are great to draw little tidbits of information from. Most of my base recipes stay the same but have evolved in how I put them together. I do this nearly every time. I often change the yeast used, some of the water additions, and when I add the hops. Consistency can be a bit of a give and take between the brewery and its customers, “We pride our self on having a rotating tap list, but we have some customers who come in and want a pour of the same beer every time. Likewise, there are some restaurants that we send kegs to that want a barrel of the same beer every time. We try to please them, but it’s hard to do. I’d prefer to provide them with a variety. If all you know of our brewery is a single style of beer that you have at an outside establishment, you really don’t get exposed to all that we have to offer. We hope that when you try our beer outside of our tap room, it motivates you to visit us and see what else we have to offer. We take pride in rotating our tap list and the variety we offer. We find that when we do send an outside establishment a keg of a different brew, they sell just as well.”
“I believe our beers have improved over the last year or so, and the feedback we get from customers reflects this as well. There were a couple of brewing disasters early on however, starting with the first batch or two I did here. I was brewing 4 barrels (two 2-barrel batches) and didn’t have the proper chilling equipment; I thought the little home brewing chillers that the system came with would be enough, but they weren’t. It also didn’t help that it was September and the ground water was warm. I ended up running to the gas station and spending $150 on ice to cool everything down. I started my brew at 7 am on Saturday and got home at 2 am on Sunday. It was a long day!”
Another example of the brewery’s early brewing difficulties came last spring (2017). “I had to dump several batches of our hefeweizen. I traced it back to our elements. They were dry firing during our mash. Long story, but we wouldn’t notice it until it fermented, then we’d taste it and it had an ashtray flavor. For a while, I thought we were doomed to never have a Hefe. As it’s one of my favorite summer time beers, I’m glad we finally got it right.”
Lil Beaver Brewery’s logo was designed by local artist Patty Young. The design of the tap room was Chad’s. “My ex-partner and my brother in law built the bar. I wanted it done out of recycled pallet boards. So, we pulled apart a bunch of pallets, sanded and stained them, and added a black pipe. It’s simple and hand made. The barrel wall acts as a separator for the brewery and tap room and gives it a nice look. It also serves the dual purpose of aging our beer, almost every barrel in the building is full right now.”
Lil Beaver Brewing has a few initiatives under way with the intent of increasing accessibility to their beer. “We want to be as accessible to people as possible, we’ve recently started canning our beer. While we love having people stay for a beer, it’s nice to see people stop into the tap room just to pick up some beer to go. Collaboration with other breweries is another opportunity I take advantage of to reach more people. It has the added benefit that I learn something new every time. We’ve brewed with Triptych in Champaign, Mikerphone Brewing in Elk Grove, and Forbidden Root in Chicago. We look forward to further collaboration events with these guys and others in the future.”
Lil Beaver Brewery’s tap room is located at 16 Currency Drive Unit B, Bloomington, IL 61704. They are holding a parking lot party May 4th, 2019. They plan to set up tents, have newly released beer, and food trucks. Additionally, outside of the tap room you will find them pouring their beer at Peoria International Brewfest April 26th and 27th, or you can find their cans at central Illinois beer retailers.