If you haven’t heard of Destihl Brewery, you will soon. With a new multimillion-dollar brew hall and production facility recently opened in Bloomington-Normal Illinois, they are poised to break out well beyond the 20 states you can find them in now, having just added New York to the list. Their story is a unique one. Destihl jumpstarted an entire state’s brewing industry. They helped changed the laws and returned power and opportunity back to the brewers and away from the distributors. They’ve won awards for their face melting, never boring brews at festivals around the country and helped put Illinois on the must-stop brew-tour map. And now they’re getting bigger, remaining independent, and still boycotting bland. That’s great for everyone, unless you’re AB InBev. If you’re looking for a good guy in the Beer Wars who just made it big and has no plans to sell out… his name is Matt Potts, and this is the story of Destihl.
Illinois was desert of independent microbreweries for a very long time. It’s fair to say that the Midwest (Illinois in particular) found itself about 10 years behind the curve of the booming craft beer industry on the East and West Coasts. Draconian distribution laws and out dated local liquor ordinances were largely to blame. Having Budweiser due west in St. Louis and Miller due North in Milwaukee didn’t help either. But, there was a little room to work for small businesses if you had a “brewpub” where at least 50% of your income came from food. In November of 2007 Destihl Restaurant and Brew Works launched in Normal, IL. It was an instant success. In 2011 a sister brewpub opened in Champaign Il. As business continued to boom, the idea of distributing to other local bars and restaurants became the focus. Destihl’s brewmaster Matt Potts, who is also a lawyer, spent years working with the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild to amend the laws that kept breweries from distributing their own beer, a legal battle that changed the craft beer landscape in Illinois.
In 2011 a small group of Destihl employees made the trek to the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) in Denver CO. with a few kegs of beer. Their barrel-aged sour beers blew people’s minds. The Saint Dekkara Reserve Sour Ale became the stuff of legends and was awarded accordingly. It was a big part of the sour beer kick-start, and Destihl was now part of the national discussion amongst the beer nerd culture. This tiny brewpub in central Illinois was taking national awards home. And people from all over wanted more of this sour stuff. It was time to can and bottle and expand.
Destihl opened their first production and packaging facility in 2014 and the Wild Sour Series debuted in a can shortly there after. The release was much like a black Friday event. If you weren’t at the local liquor store before 5pm, you weren’t taking any of it home (I know because I was empty handed after having stopped by two major chains and my local shop). And for good reason. “Even though these are kettle sour beers, we do not buy cultures from a lab to sour; rather we have harvested the micro-flora in our terroir around the brewery, including our Saint Dekkera Reserve Sour barrels. It created a bit of monster,” says Potts.
But it’s the kind of monster any business wants to have. And it’s not just the sours. The Dosvidanya Russian Imperial Stout took another medal at GABF last fall. Various medals and “Best of Show’s” at other festivals as well. There is a reason they are expanding so big. It’s not just Wild Sours and Stouts and Quads and Trips. Strawberry Blonde and Vertex IPA are top sellers. They have great beer, but they really pour themselves into the rare beers that scare some brewers off. The beers that require more time, more skill, and more space. The new 47,000sq.ft. production facility was built with just that in mind. As Potts explains, “ The new brew house was built with multiple, dedicated sour kettles which allows us to brew over 300-350 barrels of sour beer per day as needed, and over 150,000bbls annually across all brands.” That’s big time.
And the new production facility and brew hall is something to see. Unlike anything in the Midwest since Surly’s brew hall in Minneapolis. It’s big. It’s modern. It’s beautiful, and you want to stay there all day… and night. It’s Munich’s Hofbrauhaus am Platzl in corn country and on steroids. Wood. Steel. Chrome. Long shared tables encouraging engagement with likeminded, brew loving strangers. Massive glass windows provide a glimpse into where the magic happens. Roasted malt fills the air. The food is dangerously good. Welcome to Valhalla for long suffering Midwestern beer lovers.
My first thought when I heard Destihl was building this $14 million dollar expansion was that they may be flirting with AB InBev. Invest $14 million into an awesome expansion brewery, begin expanding distribution throughout all 48 continuous, catch someone’s eye at AB InBev, and BINGO!! They offer you half a billion or maybe a billion. Corporate takeovers. Cash out! It’s happened before. It’s war and it’s getting brutal.
Now that Destihl is among the biggest and brightest what does the future hold? Is there a billion-dollar target on their back? Is a company that worked this hard to change local ordinances and state law, fought the giant distributors and brewers, and now competes against a global monopoly intent on buying up any threat they see, going to sell out?
No. Potts and Destihl would “rather earn a billion dollars the hard way” than sell out like Elysian did last year. Yes, people got into the craft beer industry to make a living. It’s worked out very well for a very high percentage in comparison to other markets. But it’s the love of beer and idea of a local, independent artisan business that provides the heart and drive for everyone involved. “Passion requires independence”, says Potts. Sure, there will be more sell outs in the future. Those whose intentions were not so pure and who would happily cash their check from the corporate giants. I don’t see Matt Potts and Destihl being among the sellouts. I may be wrong. I may be hoping too hard. They are big time now, but the commitment to craftsmanship and community has never been stronger or more exciting. Time will tell.
And the growth isn’t stopping with their new, beautiful expansion. While AB InBev is taking control over the supply of hops in South Africa (remember what SAB stands for?) setting another dangerous precedent, Destihl recently announced plans to grow more of the ingredients they use around their newly finished monolith to hops. With AB InBev still mulling takeovers of independent breweries, Destihl just announced it is acquiring the permits to expand into producing Cider, Wine and Mead. In combination with the announcement of expansion into New York that began July 10th of this year, Destihl is clearly ready to diversify, move their vision forward, and challenge the corporate giants everywhere. Oh, and you can take yoga classes there too. Other independent brewers should begin taking notes. With every move AB InBev makes, Destihl seems to be a step ahead of them. Potts wants to make a billion dollars the hard way. They are on track to do so, without sacrificing quality. And without selling out. Cheers to that.