In my beer travels, every once and a while I come upon a truly unexpected and inspiring story of beer appreciation – and I need to tell you about this one. It may take a little while but I promise you it’s worth it.
In the summer of 2018, I found myself in southern Illinois, near Carbondale, looking for good fresh beer and finding only mostly bottled macro lite lagers instead. Unfortunately most of the area appeared to be more or less down on it’s luck in general. On a suggestion I found that there was a brewery not that far away in Elkville – what appeared to me to be in the middle of nowhere – but I figured it was worth checking out. And was I rewarded.
I found the Route 51 Brewing Company – an amazing brewery/music venue/banquet hall with really great beer and owner Chris Harris who is an obvious beer genius. Chris is a high energy super motivated guy with an infectious positive attitude and resolve. He started his brewing journey by buying a carpet warehouse on north highway 51, which he purchased with 50% of his money with two other partners, and most importantly a clear passion for beer and a vision of excellence.
600 sheets of drywall and a whole lot of sweat later a fabulous oasis of craft beer wonderfulness was created in southern Illinois. It really is a stunning accomplishment, one of the most beautiful breweries and tap houses I have had the pleasure to see. When I commented on my astonishment at the unexpected excellence of the place, Isaac the bar man looked at me with knowing eyes and simply said: “I am just happy to be along for the ride”.
Chris the owner works an 80 – 100 hours a week routine from “Cleaning the toilets, setting up the brewery schedule, and baking the meatloaf”. A recording engineer by trade, Chris decided that he wanted to be part of the growing craft beer scene, and it appears that when Chris puts his mind to something – he does it – and he really does it well.
“I went to 300 different breweries in two years, and I asked questions, and everyone helped me. I asked ‘how do you do this, how do you do that’ and they explained it to me. I had no experience in buying or building a brewery – but I watched and learned and then sourced the brewhouse equipment from China. To save money I hired a broker to buy it direct from the manufacturers in China – saved over $100,000 and then I was on my way.” After the equipment arrived, Chris laid out the brewhouse and connected it up himself.
The look and feel of the whole place is really top notch – with a large open seating area and a stage for live music on the weekends that can handle crowds of 500 or more. The brewhouse and brewery area itself is one of the neatest and most attractive I have seen, outfitted colorfully – but clean and functional.
One of the brewers Chris met on his “learning journey” was Tony McGee of Lagunitas – who helped Chris define his vision. Turned out that the local university – SIU (Southern Illinois University) has started up a brewing program – and as is typical of Chris – he put two and two together and made five. He invited Tony McGee to come to his new place, then invited other local brewers to meet Tony and have a brewers mentoring session at Route 51. Of course he also suggested that Tony might speak at the SIU brewing program when he was in the area to help out the university as well – which of course Tony was happy to do.
When he acquired the carpet warehouse building it was a truly huge space, so he cut in half and made half of it into the brewery and tap house, and the other half into a similarly beautifully appointed banquet hall. This year he has over 12 weddings booked along with other charity and local events in the banquet hall space.
“My girlfriend and I run the entire business, from accounting to supplies. I had some extra space in the tap room so in the upstairs balcony area I added three hotel rooms – (though currently I use one for a place to crash). I figured out the idea from seeing it at a winery I visited. I checked the law and if you have four rooms it has to be licensed as a hotel, but you can add three without an additional license”.
A cool idea? Listen to live music, drink at a great brewery, eat good food – and then crash IN the tap room in a nicely appointed private room. Epic.
And of course there’s the brewery itself. Start with 18 beers on tap, with a rotation of styles. And the beer is really good – Chris hired a professional brewer from another brewery who wanted to work closer to his home. When I was there they had on two pale ales, an IPA, and showed plenty of diversity as well. Many of the brews had low ABV (10 were 5% or less). “I like to be able to have a few and not get so I can’t talk with folks” Chris commented. His beers are tasty, clean and good. He has both a 10 bbl system with hot and cold liquor tanks and a separate three barrel system to play with.
Chris told me that they often brew a 7 bbl batch and then decant off a barrel or two of it into one of the smaller fermentors and then modify the ingredients, hop selections, etc. “That way I get a couple of barrels of three different IPA’s to serve in the tap room from one large batch of IPA.”
And there’s a serious attention to detail evident in just about every part of the brewery and tap room. The tables in the tap room are made by hand from decorator burned etched wood with bases built from local machinery. The same wood is used for the trim on the stairs and walls, and the counter in the upstairs balcony.
There is a colorful; epoxy covered floor in the brew house, with wrapped piping and fittings symmetrically arrayed. Artfully cut acoustic tiles on the walls help absorb the sound, and over the stage there are lights set in a drum set fixed in the ceiling. Does he think of everything? Well, he even added an electric chair lift to help the stair challenged get up to the balcony viewing area.
Later Chris took me outside and showed me the deck (location for his next local beer and music festival) and pointed further out back saying “I plan to expand this out and put some cabins out there”. And I have no reason to not believe that if that is what he wants to do, he will do it – and it will be first class all the way.
This is truly a remarkable achievement from a man with passion for beer, intelligence and the sheer will to make his dream happen. If you find yourself anywhere near Carbondale Illinois you simply have to visit Route 51 in Elkville. And don’t worry if you see some big guys in dark suits and large cars hanging around when you get there, as when the Governor of Illinois is in the area, he always drops by for a beer.