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ALAN ROGERS / THE SOUTHERN A selection of beers are set out for tasting June 14 at Kindling in Crainville.

Is beer the new wine? In Southern Illinois, it just may be. During the last year or so, the growing popularity of craft and specialty beer in the region has created something of a new cultural phenomenon. Beer tastings, beer dinners, beer festivals and even a new production brewery have all cropped up in the area and provided a grain-based alternative to the fruit of the vine for local imbibers.

The wine industry has certainly proven itself to be an economic and social boon to the region for several years now, but better beer is starting to make a mark and demonstrate a similar ability to draw a loyal crowd. Granted, Southern Illinois isn’t replete with fields of barley or sprawling hop farms, but that doesn’t stop local bars, restaurants, retailers and even wineries from paying some serious attention to beer these days.

Statistics show that craft beer sales in the U.S. grew by more than 7 percent in 2009, while sales fell by more than 2 percent for all other domestic beers, according to Brewer’s Association, the trade organization for the American craft brewing industry. This means people are starting to realize there’s a lot more to beer than the ubiquitous American light lager we all know. Like wine, styles of beer number in the hundreds. From witbiers (“white beers”) to schwarzbiers (“black beers”), and everything in between, Southern Illinoisans are quickly discovering the wide world of craft beer.

“A similar phenomenon is taking place regionally with beer that took place with wine some years ago. Many people used to only know red and white, not varietals. Beer used to be just lagers and ales; now the consumer is much more educated to the vast array of styles,” according to Patrick Sullivan, Craft and Import Division manager for Koerner Distributor, Inc., the largest distributor of craft and specialty beer in Southern Illinois.

“The appeal of craft beer is the fact that people like the notion of an American brewed, American owned company that makes a world-class product with quality and consistency. There has never been a better time in history to drink full flavored, well-made beers,” Sullivan says.

This love affair with high quality and local connection seems to be the driving force behind craft beer’s emergence, locally and nationally.

Chuck Stuhrenberg of Big Muddy Brewing Company is a perfect example of this kind of local appeal. As owner of the first production brewery in Murphysboro since Prohibition, Chuck has seen his production volume quadruple in less than a year of operation. His Kinkaid Wheat, along with his newest offering, a dunkel (dark) beer appropriately dubbed Saluki Dunkel Dog, have proven that good beer is also good business.

“It’s all about the experience,” Stuhrenberg says, “and the same people who like to visit the wineries in the region seem to like the beer.” In fact, he says that some of his best clientele are the wineries themselves.

“We’re really big with the tourism crowd,” he says. “I’ve received calls from people visiting the area — a lot of (SIU) alumni — wondering where they can get the beer after they’ve sampled it at a winery on the wine trail.” Visitors and locals alike will be happy to know that Big Muddy beers can now be found on draft or in bottles at more than 40 locations throughout the region.

Ask the owners of Kindling Spirits, Food and Florals if craft beer is here to stay, and they’ll point you to their open craft beer tastings every Monday night at their cozy log cabin on Illinois 13 in Crainville. This well-attended event allows both seasoned beer aficionados and interested novices to stop by and sample from a selection of well in excess of 120 different beers from nearly every beer-producing country of the world. Attendees can share their knowledge (and their beers) in a friendly, casual environment and learn something about beer in the process.

Diane Emery, co-owner of Kindling, says “we were looking for something to set ourselves apart when we opened just over a year ago. We saw a lack of availability locally and created an image around that.” Kindling is now a go-to beer destination in Southern Illinois.

More recently, Mélange on the strip in Carbondale has begun offering no less than two beer events per week at its trendy locale. John Brown’s on the Square in Marion offers its patrons a list of more than 75 beers with a decided emphasis on craft and specialty selections. John Brown’s on the Square features its own signature ale — an American-style brown brewed for them by the St. Louis Brewery, the makers of Schlafly beer.

If bars, restaurants and retailers don’t quench your thirst for better beer, stick around until the fall. The first Big Muddy Monster Brew Festival is planned for Oct. 16 at Riverside Park in Murphysboro. The event’s organizers, the Friends of Murphysboro, promise a wide selection of entertainment, food and craft beer-related activities, including an American Homebrewers Association-sanctioned home brew competition, educational opportunities and, of course, craft beer samples from dozens of breweries from both near and far.

Southern Illinois isn’t quite the Willamette Valley of beer, but there is at least one hop farm just south of Murphysboro getting its start this year.

Windy Hill Farms is in its first year growing hops and plans to offer organically produced hops to local and regional breweries in the very near future.

Our region may draw a lot of people interested in experiencing our local wine culture, and rightly so, but it’s clear that many will also come away with an expanded mind, and palate, for hand-crafted, quality ales and lagers that are a relatively new and welcome attraction in town.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Shawn Connelly will be writing a regular column, Cheers to Beer, in every magazine. Be sure to watch for it in our fall issue.

 

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