PEORIA (HOI) – Peoria is known as the River City today, but 150 years ago the city had a different nickname: The Whiskey Capital of the World.
“From 1837 until prohibition around 1919 Peoria had about two dozen breweries, which is pretty impressive.”
The boom in brewing and distilling happened in Peoria thanks to new wave of German and Irish immigrants, many were professional brewers.
In addition to the ample supply of grain in the area, Peoria had a unique blend of resources.
“So I think a lot of it had to do with the transportation routes along the Illinois river, the railroad. There was access to coal and wood production, and as well as the access to the fresh water”
The brewing and distilling industry enjoyed an over 80 year run, but that came to an end on January 16, 1919 – Prohibition. That amendment banned intoxicating liquors, and it wouldn’t be until almost 15 years later when the 21st Amendment repealed Prohibition.
Peoria’s brewing and distilling industries never fully recovered, but as whiskey distilling left the city, it opened the door to something new.
“Drinking in America has been a very cyclable industry. You know, it goes up and it goes down. Styles change, people’s tastes change.”
Brewing has seen a rapid expansion, the Brewer’s Association reports within the last 5 years the total number of breweries has nearly doubled.
One of the latest trends is craft beers and microbreweries. In 2018 alone, sales of craft beer totaled $27.6 billion and accounted for 13% of the total volume of beer brewed in the United States.
“Well I think people are tasting the big difference in craft. I mean, they’re not mainstream where they’ll all taste the same. You can go to a different brewery, get the same style, taste totally different.”
There are four microbreweries in the city today, and one of these dates back to over 20 years ago.
“In 1998 when the Rhodell Brewery opened i think we really started to see kind of a comeback of Peoria’s roots with the brewing and distillery. And within the last five to ten years with the rise of the craft brew revolution Peoria has, has really, has started to come back.”
Could craft brewing be expanding too quickly? For the third consecutive year in 2018, half of the top 50 regional craft breweries in the United States saw negative growth. However, this creates an opportunity for small microbreweries, like the ones we have here.
“I think they know us little guys are nipping at their heels. They know there’s a little more competition out there for them and people want something that’s a little more unique and creative.”
In addition, small microbreweries bring economic benefits to smaller cities like Peoria.
“We probably employ about 75 people here, full and part time. Before we got here, this building sat empty, and we came in and put several millions dollars in rehab and hired a lot of people. Our real estate taxes have quadrupled.”
Peoria’s four microbreweries help contribute to the nearly $3.3 billion brewing industry in Illinois, and while Peoria may never completely return to its whiskey days, it helps bring a sense of community.
“People like to be social and intermix. I mean, I was just recently on a trip and we stopped in London. Those neighborhood pubs do the same thing on a smaller scale. Peoria has a lot of those.”
“Each brewery, especially local here, has their own thing that makes them popular and has their own thing that makes people want to go there.”