TINY DOWNSTATE BREWERY DRAWING NATIONAL ATTENTION
Century-old dairy barn now home to high-quality beer
Roughly 100 miles south of Chicago (well beyond our craft beer map boundaries), east of Pontiac, south of Dwight, even 8 miles outside of Fairbury, cars are lined on a country road and families are headed to a barn on a sprawling farm. There’s no doubt that your GPS has taken you to Emancipation Brewing because, well … there’s literally nothing else around.
The century-old barn, which sat empty for a decade, was last home to dairy cattle. The milking room is now filled with a 2-barrel brewing system. The grazing area of the barn – fittingly – is now a taproom. And on a recent Friday night, it was packed. Regulars swapping stories at the bar, couples playing board games at the tables, kids tossing a football around hop bines in the back and parents enjoying wood-fired pizza with beers that are literally rooted in the fields around them.
It’s been four years since head brewer Lincoln Slagel and his parents, Don and Susan, opened the brewery on their family farm, but it took a unique release to get our attention.
“There was no water used to make this beer,” they declared on social media.
Brown’s Maple Ale is made of tree sap from a neighboring farm and images from the brewing process serve as a reminder that fresh maple sap is thin and clear, not the thick and dark liquid we put on pancakes. Likewise, the beer wasn’t as sweet or thick as you might expect, but instead was a well-balanced 7.5% brown ale with maple flavor that’s not overpowering. It’s part of their small-batch experimental Original Thoughts series.
While it takes as much as 45 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, Slagel said it’s only about 2% sugar before boiling. Altering the PH was key, but otherwise “it was remarkably similar to brewing with our normal water from a process point of view.”
“Had I brewed a standard brown ale, it would have been too sweet with even a small syrup addition,” he added. “But the sap really made the difference. It added a depth that was never present, and allowed a smaller syrup addition than expected, which was great. I’m extremely happy with it, and it’ll certainly be a tradition.”
As we sampled other offerings, we found Slagel not only keeps his beers true to his farming roots, but true to style, as well – a cream ale, golden ale, hefeweizen, hazy IPA and session IPA were all dialed in. And except for that brown ale, they all begin with water from a 550-foot well on the property.
Then there’s their popular “Kolsch Night in the Boonies” service (next one taking place on May 17), which has become so well attended that reservations are required. It’s become one of Slagel’s favorite events because “it accomplishes one of my favorite things about beer – bringing people together and creating memories.”
“I think the future of craft beer is unique, high-quality experiences, and getting back to our industry roots – differentiating ourselves based on quality, both in the beer we brew and of the experiences we give our customers,” he said. “That doesn’t mean we can’t follow trends or make crazy beers, it just means doing everything in a high-quality and thoughtful manner. To me, doing a Kolsch service allowed us to not only brew a delicious beer, but to provide an entire experience around that beer that will educate our customers, leave a lasting impression, and most importantly, give them a fantastic time.”
That attention to detail jumped out during our visit – staff are not just welcoming, but knowledgeable. Not just about beer, but about the brewery, the farm and the family behind it. They’ll tell you how the Slagels are a family of entrepreneurs (yep, his cousins own Slagel Family Meats) and how an amber from a homebrew kit started this whole thing seven years ago.
A business management and finance major at North Central College, Slagel opted to do a senior project on starting a brewery, having been inspired by a roommate who was a member of a monthly beer club. Before long, he was traveling with his wife to Germany to learn more and research recipes, even later learning that his great-grandfather was a hop farmer in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. When they opened Emancipation Brewing, a relative dug up the long-forgotten sign from that family farm – “Hop Pickers Wanted” – and it now hangs above the bar.
Slagel, 28, lives in Plainfield and with his wife, Kim, who also works full-time at the brewery, makes the roughly 140-mile round-trip commute to the brewery.
“We came into this with the intention to offer a wide variety of styles, from classic European styles to modern American trends, but that’s not unique,” he said. “What we feel is unique is how we present them. You won’t find any snobby undertones of IPA supremacy; you won’t be made to feel bad if you don’t like imperial stouts or pastry sours. We don’t do ‘token’ beers in the way that some breweries that are focused on trendy styles do when they’ll have ten IPAs and a token lager.
“We feel that each style is as important as the next, even if it’s an ‘uncool’ style that doesn’t sell well. It’s still going to be someone’s favorite beer, and we won’t sell it short. Our goal is not to have our customers drinking IPAs and stouts, it’s to have them drinking their favorite beers, whatever they may be. We don’t want to be gatekeepers; we just want to brew the best beers we can and present them on their own merits.”
They’ve grown enough that they’re now contract brewing some canned offerings at Destihl, which has allowed them to self-distribute at select downstate stores, bars and restaurants, but also at places like Bottle Theory in Elmhurst, Orange & Brew in Downers Grove and Flight Tasting Room and Bottle Shop in Yorkville.
Yet the Slagels remain true to those rural roots – growing Emancipation Brewing thoughtfully and strategically while remaining grounded at home instead of a more populated area. “We see its remote location as a feature, not a bug. It’s a wonderful destination, and while lack of population density can cause problems, especially with bad weather for example, it’s worth the benefits of offering a retreat to people, a place they can go that’s off the beaten path,” he said.
“Growing up here, I didn’t see the beauty of it. But when we started searching for a location, it soon became obvious that the family farm was the ideal spot. Looking at it not as a place of work, but a place people would spend time with family and friends made me see it in a whole new light. I started noticing the sunsets, which have become a signature aspect of our outdoor area, as well as the beautiful rolling hills, distant tree lines, and even the adjacent corn & bean fields, which lend something to the experience.”