Every year, millions of Americans hit the legal drinking age. On Dec. 16, Springfield Brewing Co. hosted a party to celebrate the milestone.
That Sunday night, live music echoed throughout the two floors of the downtown brewery, cake was passed around to a crowded room and head brewmaster Ashton Lewis led tours of the brewing room.
A day after the party, Lewis, who co-owns the brewery with Christina and Neil Chanter and Donald and Carrie Babb, sat down on the second floor of SBC to reflect on the last two decades. He was there in the beginning.
“It’s been a fun trip, and I think 21 years flies by,” Lewis says. “When I think back, I remember the first brews, the construction and everything about the early days.”
When the doors first opened in 1997 at 305 S. Market Ave, the craft brewery industry was fledgling.
“The consumer in Springfield was not exposed to a lot of different beers,” Lewis says.
So, in addition to the house brews, SBC sold Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors in bottles.
The first beer SBC brewed was the Maiden Voyage pale ale.
“I called it Maiden Voyage because it was kind of a test brew,” Lewis says. “I had a recipe for it, but we had never used our equipment before, and I like jazz. ‘Maiden Voyage’ is a Herbie Hancock tune, and it was a fun beer.”
The brewery started as a way for longtime Springfield stainless steel manufacturer Paul Mueller Co. to showcase its fermentation tanks. The equipment was designed to be aesthetically pleasing and installed to be visible to the public, Lewis says.
The brewery now has three beers on tap at all times – Paul’s Pale Ale, Walnut Street Wheat and Greene Ghost IPA – and six rotating seasonal varieties. Declining to disclose revenue, Lewis says SBC sold 3,000 barrels this year. They previously brewed 3,000 barrels in 2017 and 2,300 barrels in 2016.
Not just beer
Along with its own selection of craft beer, SBC’s menu also offers food items such as soups, salads, pizzas, burgers and wings.
SGC Foodservice sales representative Zach White thinks the most popular dish is the fish and chips. He shipped the brewery 120 pounds of cod on Dec. 14.
“They’re going through 100 to 150 pounds of cod a week,” White says, adding SBC goes through a couple hundred pounds of chicken per week.
White has handled the SBC account since May. He says he was paired up with the brewery given his 17-year background in the food service industry, the last three years as Hotel Vandivort’s executive chef.
When he took over the account, SBC was changing its menu and going through a kitchen renovation.
“What we want to explain to them is gross profit dollar at the end of the day and making that plate the most profitable,” he says.
Coast to coast
Lewis’ journey to head brewmaster started in Maryland – when he was in high school.
“I started homebrewing with my best friend when we were juniors in 1986,” he says.
“When I entered college, I decided I wanted to be a head brewer, so I studied food science.”
He studied at the University of Maryland before transferring to Virginia Tech University.
He applied to graduate school at the University of California-Davis, which at the time had the only four-year degree brewing program in the nation, paying his way through school by teaching brewing classes and as a teaching assistant.
At UC Davis’ program, he started a brewing consulting firm, called Lewis Twice & Shellhammer, with two professors – another named Lewis and the other’s nickname.
The firm was hired by Mueller Co. in October 1996 to consult on SBC’s development. Originally, the company wanted to sell beer through distribution, but leadership was convinced by consultants to pursue the restaurant and brewery model.
“We each took turns coming to Springfield, and I was offered a job by Mueller to be the brewmaster here and work on developing products for the craft brewing industry,” Lewis says of his decision in June 1997 to join its brewery systems team. “It was exciting to see a project from the ground up from a building renovation and restoration. I really saw the equipment from the design stages of the project all the way up through fabrication.”
Distribution eventually was worked into the business plan, and now Lewis says SBC sends product as far as Columbia and Rolla and to the Arkansas, Oklahoma and Kansas state lines.
The best seller? Lewis says it’s currently the Greene Ghost IPA.
He says the challenge in the early days was educating consumers on the craft beer industry.
The word “homebrew” was considered dirty when SBC first opened, and he says the craft beer market was a second thought to nationally established brands.
“The beer industry has changed a lot in the last 21 years, and it’s continuing to change,” he says. “The biggest unknown for me is I don’t know what today’s beer drinker really is wanting long term. There’s a lot of pressure on breweries right now to constantly create, and a lot of the younger beer consumers have a very short span of attention.”
The shift in drinker habits has evolved from simple consumption to an almost higher calling.
“It’s gotten to the point where some consumers don’t even want to drink the same beer twice,” Lewis says. “They’re on these never-ending quests.”
Atlanta-based Chicken Salad Chick made its Springfield debut; husband and wife Garrett and Rose Cochran opened Heirloom Candle Bar; and mobile eatery Girldad BBQ LLC was launched.