For five years we encouraged beer lovers to celebrate downstate Illinois and St. Louis’ brightest brewers during our South of 80 event during Chicago Craft Beer Week, but sadly all good things must come to an end.
Seven years ago we came up with South of 80: A Celebration of Downstate Brewers, a hair-brained idea to inviting a bunch of downstate brewers up to Chicago for a one-time event during what was then Chicago Craft Beer Week. Melani Domingues, owner of The Green Lady, was crazy enough (thank goodness) to buy into our idea, as were dozens of well-regarded brewers.
The thinking — from a guy born and raised in Springfield and who spent time in Carbondale, Peoria and then Chicago — was to expose beer lovers in the city to some fantastic beer they probably never knew existed. Beer from the far flung reaches of downstate Illinois. And not, like Joliet downstate, but real downstate — places like Alton, Ava and Cantrall.
Over those five years the event — and breweries taking part — grew by leaps and bounds. The first-ever South of 80 featured 12 beers on tap. Our final event, in 2016, was a tap takeover with all 30 of The Green Lady’s tap handles flowing with some of downstate’s best beers.
In total the event drew 16 different breweries, many of whom returned for additional events. 104 beers were poured, many for the first time in Chicago outside of a festival. It was an honor to be the first to introduce Chicagoans to the likes of Six Row, Urban Chestnut, Scratch and Rolling Meadows. Six Row, Urban Chestnut and Destihl all inked distribution deals in Chicago in the months following South of 80 events, and Scratch and Rolling Meadows became more regular fixtures in Chicago following South of 80. The former has gone on to garner national attention, and rightfully so.
The event unceremoniously came to an end last year and we formally decided this year not to pursue another South of 80. Despite the statewide focus of the event, this decision actually had nothing to do with Chicago Craft Beer Week morphing into Illinois Craft Beer Week.
The reasons were many, but the bottom line is this: the logistical hurdles were too challenging to manage from over 150 miles away as someone who now lives in East Lansing, Michigan. You see, South of 80 was never a ticketed event, so for the brewers who had their beer on tap at TGL to do so legally, we had to operate through the three-tier system. This meant loads of paperwork and coordinating pickups and deliveries with a chain of distributors.
Sure, we could have changed it to a ticketed event and made things much easier on ourselves and others, but that didn’t fit with the spirit of South of 80. If you wanted to buy pint after pint of Rolling Meadows Abe’s Ale or sample flight after flight of all these crazy downstate beers (which many of you did), then you could.
We have a lot of people to thank for a great run, first and foremost Melani at TGL. You took a chance on a pitch from a couple of guys who wrote about beer and gave us the freedom to grow the event and bring in new brewers, eventually relinquishing all of your tap handles to South of 80. That first year, you wanted to taste every beer that would be poured. By year five you just wanted to know what would be on tap. For your trust and blind faith, we say thanks.
To the brewers, marketers and owners who took a chance on us and the event — and even those who just took time to entertain it — thank you. We’d like to think South of 80 was a pretty awesome and it was you and your beers that made it that way. It was an honor to introduce you to the following breweries, many of whom were being poured from the tap handle of a Chicago bar for the first time.
(Number of years they took part in South of 80)
- 4 Hands, St. Louis, Mo. (2)
- Bent River, Moline, Ill. (2)
- Big Muddy, Murphysboro, Ill. (1)
- Destihl, Normal, Ill. (3)
- Excel, Breese, Ill. (1)
- Iron Spike, Galesburg, Ill. (1)
- Little Egypt, Ava, Ill. (2)
- Main Street, Belleville, Ill. (1)
- Old Bakery, Alton, Ill. (2)
- Rockwell, St. Louis, Mo. (1)
- Rolling Meadows, Cantrall, Ill. (5)
- Schlafly, St. Louis Mo. (1)
- Scratch Brewing, Ava, Ill. (3)
- Six Row, St. Louis, Mo. (2)
- Triptych, Savoy, Ill. (3)
- Urban Chestnut, St. Louis, Mo. (2)
And then there’s our distribution partners, who endured round and after round of pestering phone calls and email check-ins from some guy in Chicago that was worried about a few kegs from Ava. Those partners include: Chicago Beverage Systems, Donnewald Distributing, Heartland Beverage, Burke Beverage, G&M Distributors and Koerner Distributor.
And finally, thanks to YOU. The response to this event was overwhelming at times and it wouldn’t have continued as long as it did if it weren’t for your support.
In the end, we’d like to think maybe we added a couple of breweries to your must-visit list on your next jaunt downstate. Or perhaps we spawned a downstate beer tour. Or maybe we just introduced you to a great beer from a cool brewery you had never heard of. Regardless of the outcome, we’re glad we could introduce you to beers and breweries from the real downstate.
Now that our event focusing on all of Illinois is in our rear-view mirror, we’d like to express our hope that in in the future, the true spirit of an Illinois Craft Beer Week is realized.
This year the seed was planted, and some strides forward were made — when we asked about efforts outside the city limits, the Guild pointed to Alter’s Backyard Brewfest as the first of some forthcoming annual suburban festivals during Craft Beer Week.
Rome wasn’t built in a day; nor does something like this expand to all borders immediately.
That said, there’s still plenty of runway to celebrate downstate, mid-state and Western Illinois breweries.
On the ICBG site for this year’s events, not a single event was listed in this year’s “Illinois-Southern” neighborhood. Of the events listed in the “Illinois-Central” neighborhood, just one brewery — Tangled Roots — had more than one event planned.
We’re hoping that next year the outreach to breweries across Illinois will continue. More downstate breweries stepping up and choosing to participate would be great, but an official Guild event — say, something in Springfield during the week bringing together downstate, central and northern Illinois along with the IL side of the Quad Cities — would be even better to see.
We’ve proven year after year that Chicago-area craft beer fans are more than willing to come out (on a Tuesday night!) to try beers from our fellow Illinois citizens downstate. Hopefully next year’s Illinois Craft Beer Week really does show off more of Illinois.