As I walked into Keg Grove Brewing Company, I couldn’t help but notice their taproom felt a little different than any I had previously visited. There was nothing obviously out of the ordinary about it; I did notice that for mid-afternoon on a Wednesday business was strong, but other than that, I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Welcomed by the bartender, I ordered a 7.8% ABV IPA called “2 Hour 5 Minute Walk”, then I sat down in the lower level of the comfortable and modern establishment with co-owners and brew-masters Jeff Mroz and Tyler Cox.
A little way into our conversation, it became apparent that this wasn’t just a tap room, it was an extension of the surrounding neighborhood. It was as if I had stumbled upon a neighborhood secret, almost as if I was an outsider who once inside was welcomed with open arms into a close-knit circle of friends. I asked Jeff about the taproom vibe. “We put a lot of thought into the local neighborhood bar kind of concept,” says Jeff.” We wanted to be both representative of our neighborhood and contributing part of it. I really like interacting with our customers, and our customers want to engage with us. They enjoy telling us what they like, and their input is important to us. Often when I’m done working, I just sit up at the bar and chat. It’s important to be present, we value the interaction and feel our customers do too.” This became most obvious to me during our chat. Intermittently people would walk up join our conversation and inquire about a variety of things from what type of flowers were newly planted out front, to an acceptance of a check of significant sum that had been raised for St. Jude’s – the result of a fundraiser event held at the taproom.
Being a contributing member of the community extends beyond the interaction and fundraising within the walls of the tap room. “We’ve done a bunch of collaborations with local businesses. We did a collaboration with a local floral studio where we worked on pairing different flowers with a beer. The owner and I sat here and drank tea made with different flowers, picked what we thought would work, and then we brewed a beer with it. With Braise, a restaurant here in town, we brewed a pineapple, mango, curry, IPA. Additionally, we are doing a collaboration with Beer Nuts (a local snack producing business) right now. From a charity perspective, we’ve done some limited collaboration brews such as an apple elderberry hefeweizen for one, and we have another coming out for Parklands Foundation soon. We enjoy doing community collaborations; they are important to us. We’re all about community and we try to do as many charity things as we can. We haven’t had the chance to do any brewery collaborations yet. Scheduling has been a problem there because of the nature of our business, it’s difficult to find a time where everybody’s schedule lines up.”
Jeff started brewing when – in his words, “My wife had a weak moment.” “I told her I wanted to brew beer and she said it was ok, so I went online and bought brew kit. Later that night she said, “you’re not really going to do that are you?” Fortunately, I had already clicked the button. I started with kits and extract beers just like probably everyone.”
Tyler and Jeff met when Tyler’s wife took a teaching job at a local school where Jeff was also a teacher. “The first time we met was at a happy hour after school, we drank PBR together and it was like love”- Jeff adds with some laughter. “Tyler joined me and we started writing our own recipes for extract beers together. They were decent – for extract beers. Then Brian from White Oak, who owned the hop shop locally told us that we should just start doing all grain beers – explaining it wasn’t that hard. As a result, #4 on our menu “the Duke” our cream ale was the first recipe I ever wrote. It’s the only one we can’t take down. It’s light enough and easy enough that it really meets the needs of many of our customers. It’s the only thing some of our distribution accounts order.”
Jeff and Tyler’s experience home brewing has strengthened their intuition and paid off from an operations standpoint at Keg Grove. “We have procedures in place, for several potential operational events, but there are a lot of times when we have to make an on the fly decision. Sometimes mash sticks, or the temperature isn’t climbing as it should, or for some reason something is plugged up. The home brewing experience has really helped. If anything happens while homebrewing, you have bare minimum for equipment, and you just have to figure it out. When we have an issue here, with the larger operation it’s now easier to find a work around for it. We’ve been there.”
The original vision for Keg Grove was very close to what it is today. “We always wanted to have approachable beers. Even if we make a higher ABV IPA or something crazy we still want it to be approachable. We want people to try it and not decide they hate IPAs. With our beers people may say, it’s still not my style, but this was fine to drink for me. It makes experimenting a little easier and helps people that are new to craft beer. Additionally, vision wise, we wanted to be part of the community and to be a contributing part of our neighborhood. Part of that is being kid friendly and creating a place for families to come; we have games upstairs too. A lot of parents will get some pizza delivered and hang out up there with their kids for hours. We got all those things. It’s humbling that after a year we have it all. We really thought we would have to work a lot longer and harder to get to where we are.” Keg Grove Brewing Company opened June 1st, 2018.
“Our tap list has changed quite a bit since we opened. We originally had 6 beers on tap. We were trying at the beginning to find the 6 we were always going to have. That’s gone out the window. Now, we need to have at least 10 brews on tap and our styles constantly change. We release at least one new beer every other week. The beers we offer, style wise, do change depending on what beers we think are, or will be popular. What has mass appeal? That in the end has to be the goal, right? The goal is to sell a lot of beer. We prefer mass appeal over trendy. However, trendy sells too; to some extent we do consider what is trendy when we produce something, but sometimes trendy can get you in trouble. If we took our cream ale and dropped a habanero pepper in it, it may be delicious, but how many are we going to drink? So, what’s going to happen? For example, our “Taternater” has 300 lbs. of potatoes in it, I brewed it for St. Patrick’s Day. It’s a good beer but it’s a little goofy. You can taste the earthiness and that’s a little crazy, so obviously that’s going to be a slower mover.”
“Simplicity makes a good beer. You can be crazy, but you don’t want to be crazy in too many ways. I think the more you overthink it, the riskier it is. Stick to the basics, stick to what you know works, and then make it work. From an impersonal aspect, it goes back to approachability. Making a beer that many people can approach. When we were home brewing, we brewed for us – or for our wives. We could do whatever we wanted. Personally, I’m not a fan of hefeweizens but we have a hefeweizen we can’t take off tap. It sells really well. We must embrace what our customers want, not what we prefer. We must put others in mind first. Our blueberry wheat (Holey Jeans) is our best seller by far, we just canned it. It sells so fast it’s crazy. It’s not my favorite beer and that’s not a bad thing, it’s just not my favorite taste – I’m not a fruit beer guy. We’ve had to embrace it as our cornerstone, there is no doubt about it. It’s only a seasonal beer too – which is crazy. The seasonal aspect is interesting because it provides our customers something to look forward to.” Jeff draws comparisons to the McRib. “By taking it away for a little while, it builds anticipation for it.” I later coincidentally confirmed the popularity of the Holey Jeans beer as I had received no less than three recommendations for it from other customers in my short time in the taproom. After trying it, I can report it has a strong scent of blueberry, but isn’t sweet, and is very sessionable.
Like many microbreweries, Keg Grove’s customer’s experience with craft brews is diverse. Some know what they like, others have less experience. Some like just about anything and others have a more limited pallet. I asked Jeff and Tyler to pinpoint which one of their beers they would choose to introduce to a new customer. “It really depends on the customer, but right now it would have to be “Holey Jeans” (blueberry wheat), “the Duke” (cream ale), or “Lighten up Francis” (Kolsch) – which is super easy drinking. It’s a tricky question; if its someone that isn’t familiar with craft, I’d go with “Lighten up Francis”, but a lot of our customers love “Holey Jeans.” For a person more comfortable in the craft beer world I might recommend “King Corn,” considering only what’s on tap right now, I’d go “Cold World Apocalypse” – which is a 10% Russian Imperial Stout. In the end, it’s very much dependent on the conversation that we have with our customers when they come in. We even get some people who come in and want us to mix some of the brews together for them. The blueberry wheat mixes with the imperial stout well, as it does a lot of stuff.
I asked Tyler and Jeff what they look for when drinking a beer produced by someone else. “It depends on what I’m drinking,” Jeff explains. “If I’m drinking a style I’ve never had, I’m just trying to learn more about that style. If I’m drinking something I don’t typically like, I’m looking to try to like it. If I’m looking just to enjoy myself, I’m looking for something that typically falls within my taste range. Honestly, I tend to be more about the low ABVs now because we drink a lot of beer in this business. We go to a lot of events and do a lot of things, and you’ve got to be careful. Honestly, the ABV is the first thing I look at and I go from there.” “I sometimes feel like I’ve gotten boxed in,” Tyler adds. “I feel like I’ve become so used to our beers that I sometimes have trouble drinking other beers. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s more that I’m not used to them anymore. It’s not a bad thing; It’s not that I don’t like them either. I used to spend a ton of money at Binny’s (Beverage Depot), now I can’t remember the last time I was there. It’s habit now that anything new I try, if I go to Binny’s and buy a hefeweizen or a stout, something like what we make here, I compare it. I don’t feel like I enjoy the beer as much because I’m always comparing it to our beer. Is it like ours? Is ours better? If I’m just going to sit and drink a beer, I might just sit and drink a Miller Lite or something. It seems easier to enjoy without having to compare it to our beer.” “I still drink PBR all the time” Jeff adds. “I enjoy sitting in my pool with a PBR or hanging out with friends and family and enjoying beer; any beer will work including PBR, Miller Lite, or Highlife. It’s nice to get away from our beer, relax, and enjoy life. I don’t think domestics get enough credit. We all have opinions on how the big beer companies are run, but our country was founded on those beers. That’s American beer. They outlasted a lot of other breweries for a reason. It’s cool that there is history there, and with some of our lighter beers we try to do what we can to build off it. In a couple weeks we are going after an American Pilsner; I want to see if we can do it, a true American Pilsner. It probably won’t be anywhere near and that will be ok. To be clear, I’m not saying that old beer is better than craft beer, the diversity and quality coming from the craft scene is an amazing thing, but we also need to remember where we came from, and we should respect it.”
Mistakes drive innovation. I’m always interested in how error and unexpected occurrence can spur evolution and good fortune. I asked they guys if they had ever had a vision for a brew that they had to change mid process. “It happens all the time that we stumble upon something or we set out to brew something and it turns into something it wasn’t supposed to be. One time, we were brewing one of our original beers Corn King, and we were brewing another beer alongside of it. All the grain that was measured for both batches separately, went into one batch accidentally. Out of that came a 40% corn IPA with Citra and Mosaic hops. It is amazing; it worked out amazingly. Additionally, one we have on tap right now, “Hazy-Not-Hazy.” Originally, it was supposed to be a hazy IPA, but I didn’t think that through very well in the choices I was making when I was developing it. It’s not hazy as it was intended to be, but it turned out to be a phenomenal IPA. It just didn’t develop into what we intended it be. We are going to revisit the original idea for the hazy IPA, it’s slated to be called “Trailhazer.” The hard part about revisiting a recipe that didn’t work the first time, is deciding what I am willing to give up (ingredient wise) and what am I willing – or not willing to tweak. Sometimes it’s better to start from scratch, this time I did not – so we’ll see.”
Not all accidents in the brewery have a happy ending, but some are funny. “I got coated in blueberry yeast one day from head to toe,” Jeff admits with a laugh. “I was undoing the clamp behind the valve instead of the one in front of the valve. When it lost its integrity, it just blew all the blueberry and yeast from the bottom of the tank and sprayed it all over me. A lot of the guys around here laughed at me pretty hard. I smelled completely like a blueberry. The worst part was I didn’t have a change of shorts, I spent the whole night coated. Another time, we brewed a beer and it smelled like farts, I had to dump it. It was pretty bad, the beer was fully fermented, there wasn’t anything that we could have done to even try to save it. That was the only batch we’ve had to dump fortunately.”
Keg Grove Brewing Company is proud to be a member of the Bloomington-Normal brew scene. “All of the breweries in Bloomington-Normal are rocking out some great beers,” says Jeff. “I enjoy visiting the other places in town to see what they are doing. We have a strong scene and proportionally speaking we have a lot to offer. When I think about Chicago, it’s grown so much that when you’re there, it’s much harder to get around to different places in a reasonable amount of time. We’re in a spot where people can come, and in a day or two, they can visit all four tap rooms, and there’s more to come I hear. Between the places in town, I don’t think there is a style that at least one of us doesn’t have. We all have our own specializations, Lil Beaver Brewery has the stouts and a lot of fruit craziness. Destihl has the sours, White Oak and we cross a lot of styles, but they have some good series going. We at Keg Grove, try to keep a variety at all times and we do put a focus on lighter beers, I’d say that’s our thing.”
The Jeff and Tyler stressed that their focus is on lightness and drinkability but make no mistake, drinkability isn’t the only feature their beer has. There is plenty of both character and flavor. Keg Grove Brewing Company is located at 712 E Empire St, Bloomington Il 61701. You’re missing out if you don’t stop in. Additionally, you can pick up cans of their beer in the tap room or find it on tap at other local establishments.
Upcoming Special Event
Keg Grove Brewing Company is throwing a first anniversary celebration at the tap room on June 8th (of 2019), during standard operating hours. They plan to have lots of food, live bands, and giveaways (gift cards, Chicago White Sox tickets). They will be releasing a special barrel aged offering. In addition, Braise, a local restaurant will be serving food during the event, and a food truck will be there as well. The entrance is free, while food and drink will be priced as standard. Additional details may be announced. In addition to the big party, the tap room is offering an additional ticketed “breakfast in the brewery” event. Tickets for the breakfast event are $30 per person or $55 a couple. Kids welcome.
Other Bloomington-Normal brewery reviews. Lil Beaver Brewery
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