From Hobbyists to Entrepreneurs

by Cody Mitzelfelt

Peoria Brewing Company’s lineup of locally-made craft beers is bringing new choices to the River City.

From the outside looking in, it’s fairly nondescript: a massive yet unassuming brown warehouse building, tucked away in an industrial park on the outskirts of town. But step inside, and you’ll be struck by the detailed chalk illustrations of Peoria artist Devin McGlone, golf simulators in the Green Room and the laidback ambiance of the Tap Room, where you can experience “so-fresh-you’ll-have-to-slap-it craft beer, a few feet from where it’s made.”

From its welcoming staff to its modern industrial charm, Peoria Brewing Company offers a lively atmosphere that invites you in and keeps you there. Combined with the animated personalities of owners Todd Hayes and Christian Payne, you have a blend as memorable as its brews.

A Business Takes Shape
Though it’s only been open a year, Peoria Brewing Company has proven prolific in extending its business. Working out of what they jokingly refer to as an “Acme-style building,” the two co-owners, both Peoria natives, are responsible for taking Hayes’ onetime hobby statewide.

Hayes recalls the onset of his pursuit some 30 years ago, in those pioneering days of craft brewing. Driving through Creve Coeur on his way to Peoria, he would pass by a shop that can only be described as an enigma. Situated in what used to be a small Italian restaurant was a computer repair/brewing supply outlet, and as peculiar as that combination might seem, it called to Hayes. “That was the first time I got interested,” he remembers. “I got started picking up brewing buckets there… and had a little success.”

Keeping his hobby amongst friends, Hayes moved to Grand Rapids in the early 1990s, a time when craft beers were just starting to catch on around the country. “You didn’t really have beer choices,” he explains. “I brewed a lot there and would give beer to my buddies, and it worked: they liked it. Word got out, and I actually got requests to brew stuff. It took off from there.”

There were fewer than 300 craft brewers in the United States in 1990, according to the Beer Institute. By the turn of the century, that number had increased five-fold, an upward trajectory that continues to this day. Hayes returned to Peoria in 2002, moving into a house in the Uplands neighborhood next to his future business partner. The property offered a notable benefit: 500 square feet of garage space available for his longtime hobby. Still, it would be another decade before the first thoughts of Peoria Brewing Company began to take shape.

In 2012, the two neighbors took up jogging together, and ideas began bubbling to the surface. “We would start talking about it on the runs,” Payne explains. “We’d end up in the garage, toying around.” With advice and support from their wives, they decided to turn the hobby into a real business. Last year, both men took that pivotal entrepreneurial leap: quitting their day jobs in order to pursue their dreams. “You can’t do that without a supportive spouse,” Hayes notes.

Before leaving their jobs, however, the business needed a name, and the pair finally settled on the simple and straightforward: Peoria Brewing Company. They recruited local artist Devin McGlone to design a logo, while Hayes’ father, a retired attorney, helped them arrange the necessary legal paperwork. And so, Hayes’ humble garage in the Uplands became the first location for the newly-minted corporation.

Success did not come instantly, but word spread rapidly; after all, Peoria was not exactly a hotbed for craft breweries. Through a number of informal tastings, a Kickstarter campaign and the power of social networking, Hayes and Payne spread their name as best they could. Following a front-page newspaper article in the fall of 2013, they began attracting investors, and “it started snowballing,” Hayes recalls. “By January, we were fully funded.”

Though the pair initially considered moving to Peoria’s Warehouse District, they instead settled on the 7,500-square-foot warehouse on North Hale, just off Pioneer Parkway in north Peoria, where they opened their doors to the public in September 2014.

Home-Grown Roots
A beer mug in the shape of the state of Illinois establishes the Peoria Brewing Company logo, a red star near its center signaling the city of its birth. A golden banner unfurls the words “hand crafted” and “locally made”—grounding the business in the value proposition of this rich heritage. True to its hometown roots, PBC does as much as possible to source its products locally. “It was important to us… to use as much stuff from Illinois as we could,” Hayes declares. “Our tanks are built in Illinois, and all the brewery equipment comes from Rock Island.

“I get my wheats from Cargill, Wisconsin, and I get some hops in Yakima, Washington,” he adds, “but my goal is to start using local farmers as much as I can.” Though still being perfected, a cherry saison beer—tentatively known as “Fester’s Cherry Pie”—is in the works, utilizing cherries given to Hayes by a farmer in nearby Farmington, and he hopes it will be a hit with customers.

For now, there are eight standard brews, each the product of careful experimentation and numerous rounds of trial and error. From Rothgar (“king of rye pale ales”) to the Honey Do (“a twist on the traditional American wheat”) to the Moody Cow (“a gateway milk stout [with] personality-plus”) and more, PBC offers an experience for all palettes. Meanwhile, the undecided can try one of its beer flights—perfect for first-timers looking to sample a variety.

Besides the quality of their brews, Payne and Hayes believe the atmosphere at PBC really sets the place apart. “People love it because it doesn’t feel like a bar,” Payne says. They pride themselves on the experience they can provide, such as their Green Room, a large private area available for gatherings, complete with golf simulators. The business also hosts live music in its outdoor beer garden—perfect for a leisurely evening of entertainment. In addition to a regular lineup of local performers, PBC hosts nationally known acts as well: in July, a concert by Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear attracted a crowd of more than 500.

Even more impressive is the breadth of its wholesale distribution, which Hayes and Payne credit to Brewers Distributing, the first to pick up their beers. “They told us this was really going to work here, and they’d love to be part of it,” remembers Hayes. “They know their way around beer and they’ve got the infrastructure, the knowledge and the manpower. Of course, we said yes.”

As PBC celebrates its first anniversary this month, Hayes and Payne will soon begin canning operations—another step in their unfolding business plan. Though whiskey distilling was once Peoria’s greatest claim to fame, the river city was also a center for brewing beer, with names like Pabst, Gipps and Leisy among the ghosts of brewers past. And with a litany of brews on tap and more on the way, it’s a legacy the Peoria Brewing Company is bringing back—to the cheers of craft beer enthusiasts all over the region. iBi

Peoria Brewing Company is located at 8012 North Hale Avenue in north Peoria. For more information, call (309) 839-0945 or visit peoriabrewingcompany.com.

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