Everywhere I travel to I’m on the lookout for new beers. This is just something I’ve done most of my adult life and is much easier now that most cities host at least one local brewery or brewpub. If your town doesn’t have one, there’s probably one in the next town over. We live in a wonderful time-of-plenty for good and local craft beer. At the same time I would be remiss if I didn’t note the recent selling of craft brewing powerhouses Lagunitas and Wicked Weed, showing that the big beer guys are wanting to get in on the action. When in doubt I would nearly always drink beer from someplace nearby where I can see the process and talk to the people who make it.
On a recent trip to Champaign/Urbana, Illinois to visit my dad (I spent all my summers growing up there,) I was happy to find some new breweries back home. The newest of these was Riggs Beer Company in Urbana. My dad had tried the place out and thought I might be happy with it. He was correct!
The brewery is located outside the cities, still surrounded by mainly by fields. The taproom is spacious, comfortable, and well attended, with a very long wooden bar with plenty of seating. This particular day was rainy and grim outside, but I noted some more seating and playground equipment outside for nicer weather. Plenty of locals were in attendance and the place was bustling but not crazy.
Riggs opened up just under a year ago in June of 2016. It was started by Matt and Darin Riggs and their wives (hence the name!) as a family business. Both brothers discovered beer and homebrewing in college–like you do. Matt ended up moving to Germany with his wife, working at the Faust Brewery and then getting his German Brewmaster’s degree at the Doemens World Brewing Academy. Darin ended up getting his own brewing degree from UC Davis in California and spent some time interning at Stone Brewing in San Diego. What I’m trying to say here is that these guys really have the education and professional background to make beer!
Matt and Darin were kind enough to give me an impromptu tour and interview back in the brewery itself, which was unexpected and much appreciated. Learning more about the history of the family and the brewing background of the brothers helped me to put things in perspective. The Riggs family wants the beer to stand on its own merits, eschewing fancy names on the beers and minimizing marketing efforts. As a result of Matt’s German education, they focus on traditional German beer styles with a few additional surprises to keep things interesting. I’ll get to my impressions of those beers in a minute. A cool aspect of the brewery that appeals to my inner beer geek is the fact that some of the barley they use is grown on the family farm right there in Illinois, then malted nearby. This home-grown barley is blended with commercial barley, but adds a bit of local terroir to the Riggs beers.
So the taproom is cool and relaxed, the brewers are pros, and the brewery is German–what about the beers? Here’s where I don my judge hat and give a few very short reviews of the beers I tried. I rate on a 0-5 scale where 0=2 day old cat urine; 3=decent beer I’d drink; 5=angelic choir and backflipping cherubs.
- American Lager: Being mostly a Rheinheitsgebot brewery (keeping with the old brewing German purity law requiring only barley, water, hops, and yeast) there is one exception–the American Lager. This beer contains a portion of corn grown on the family farm, which I think adds an incredibly subtle sweet corn finish to it. The nose is bright with a bit of hop aroma present. Clarity is excellent with a light straw color. Flavor is mellow, balanced with a smidge of hop flavor to add interest. A subtle beer with just the right amount of hop, malt and crisp finish to make me want to keep drinking it. I really don’t like this style much, but this is quite simply the best American lager I’ve ever had. Yes you read that right. While I wouldn’t necessarily choose this as my one desert island beer, I give it the highest marks I’ve ever given a beer of this style. 4.75
- Red Lager: Made with some dark German malts and some mild American hops this is a well balanced and easy drinking lager beer. 3.75
- Nitro Porter: Fairly light in color for a porter. Smooth body, but a bit thin. Refreshing for the style. 3.75
- Schwarzbier: Deep amber to light brown color. Slightly roasty, but with plenty of malt to even that out. Lager yeast character is strong and finish is mildly bitter. A very nice example of the style. 4
- Maibock: Aroma and flavor redolent of noble hops, hints of honey, and alcohol zip. Very well balanced with just the right amount of bitterness for the style. Crisp and clean finish with mild lingering bitterness. 4.25
- Doppelbock: Very malty with a hint of caramel sweetness. Some alcohol present but not hot. Finish dry enough to cut the malt sweetness. 4.25
Overall the beers were all very good to excellent, a good sign for a brewery so young! The maibock was the best I’ve had this year and the doppelbock stood out nicely as well. Lagers are often more difficult to brew consistently, and take more time, so breweries putting out well balanced and amazing lagers always grab my attention.
I think Riggs Beer Company is the best brewery in the Champaign/Urbana area and will likely continue to grow and succeed over the coming years. I look forward to going back on my next trip through Illinois and recommend anyone to stop by for a glass of beer served up in the correct style of glassware and a hint of community and place.