Lager of the land

Lager of the land

GEORGETOWN — As the owner of Big Thorn Brewery, Aaron Young feels he's gone from home brewing to professional brewing to somewhere in between.

That's because the former home brewer turned professional brewer is now making beer professionally again, but this time at his and partner Anna Schweig's home — Big Thorn Farm near the Little Vermilion River west of Georgetown in Vermilion County.

Before that, Young worked for two years at JT Walker's Brewery in Mahomet. That's where he first met Schweig, in 2009, when she was tending bar.

"We had it in the back of our minds to do our own thing," Young said. "After our son, Mack, was born (in January), we decided we'd better do it now."

And the two are doing it all off the grid, using solar power, a backup generator and well water from a well they dug.

And continuing the DIY ethics, Young, Schweig and their carpenter friend John Gow built all the structures at Big Thorn Farm, finishing the brewery and beer-aging cellar in March and the couple's tiny house in 2014.

In the small brewery building, Young "cooks" the beer in a hot-liquor tank, a mash tun and a brew kettle. He then moves the beer through underground lines to the cellar, where it ferments and ages in oak barrels.

"The focus is to use things from the farm," Young said. "We have to brew seasonally, so we'll do more ales in the summer and fall and we'll do more lagers in the winter."

Sowing seeds

The couple's first planting at Big Thorn was 150 hops plants on locust trees growing on their 15-acre property. The couple named their land Big Thorn Farm because locust trees have "giant, gnarly thorns."

Growing their own hops, though, proved too labor-intensive, and the results didn't meet the couple's expectations. After four years, they gave up, keeping only a few of the plants. Young buys hops now from a home-brewing supplier.

Schweig and Young also put into their soil — a former cornfield — blackberries, raspberries, grapes, asparagus, gooseberries, baby ginger and fruit trees.

Then came their herb garden and vegetables. They sell that produce to area restaurants and individuals.

Their farm is not certified organic.

"But we grow everything without pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizer. Au naturel," Schweig said.

Well water

Numerous Illinois craft breweries use ingredients grown on their properties. But Big Thorn and Scratch Brewing Company in Ava might be the only ones using only ingredients grown and foraged on their land, according to the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild.

Big Thorn also might be the rare brewery that uses well water, from a wide, 60-foot-deep well. Schweig and Young don't know the source of that water.

But "the well water is wonderful," she said. "We don't do anything to it. It's the most delicious well water I've tasted. We got lucky with our water supply."

Young, who had the water tested by a lab used by home brewers, said the mineral and sodium levels are just right so as not to create "off flavors" in his beer. The water also doesn't have sulfur and is not chlorinated.

"It turned out really great for beer," he said.

Lot of work

Operating Big Thorn Farm and Brewery is labor intensive. Most days, Young and Schweig, who's 30, rise at 5:30 a.m. and work until sundown. Young goes to bed at 9, so Schweig and Mack follow suit.

"Living in one room, you pretty much all have to go to bed at the same time," she said.

The couple sleeps in a loft bed at one end of the 196- square-foot home. Under the loft is a guest bed; Mack's crib is across the way.

In the center of the home is the bathroom, with a shower made from a 4-foot horse trough.

Next to it is the kitchen, outfitted with a couple of chairs, a mini-refrigerator, a sink made from a galvanized wash tub and a three-burner stove powered by propane.

Propane also heats the home. Schweig and Young use solar power as well, but it's not dependable when it's not sunny. So they also use a back-up generator.

They don't own a TV — Young finds it distracting. They have a small DVD player and a laptop and use Spotify for news and music. Streaming is iffy because their satellite internet access is spotty.

The verdict

With Big Thorn Brewery recently licensed by the state, the couple just began distributing their specialty beers to The Blind Pig and Barrelhouse 34 in Champaign; Crane Alley in Urbana; and JT Walker's in Mahomet.

The first was a 13.2-gallon keg of Light Farmhouse ale, a tart brew flavored with apple mint, tapped at Barrelhouse 34 in downtown Champaign.

It sold out in two days.

"It was wonderful," said Barrelhouse general manager Tiffany Jolley. "We've already got another keg. We're on their Double Goose right now."

Double Goose, flavored with gooseberries, was Crane Alley's first Big Thorn offering.

"I think it's really good," bartender Richie Brockhe said. "It's a double pale ale, really refreshing with a light body. And it has a piercing hop flavor."

For another beer, Gose — flavored with grapes, ginger and black salt — Big Thorn collaborated with Blind Pig Brewery. It was served at the Pig during Toast of Champaign, a craft-brew event that coincided with the Taste of Champaign-Urbana last month.

"I think people are into our beer because it's weird and a little different," Schweig said. "We're not putting out brown ales and IPAs, the standards."

In the future, Young and Schweig might add a tasting room or outdoor pavilion at Big Thorn Farm.

"We really want people to walk around and drink a beer and tour the farm," said Schweig, who after working at JT Walker's tended bar for six years at the Blind Pig. "There's not really a place to do that now."

Putting their brews to the test

Big Thorn Brewery will be one of six Illinois breweries participating in the Artisan Cup and Fork competition Oct. 23 at City Center in downtown Champaign.

Big Thorn will be part of a team that will include Epiphany Farms Restaurant Chef Stu Hummel and Bedinger Sheep Farm in Catlin. Epiphany Farms is a farm-to-table eatery in Bloomington.

The Artisan Cup and Fork, a fundraiser for Champaign-based The Land Connection, will feature a tasting of each dish and beverage pairing, three servings of beer/cider, a cheese bar, desserts and a butcher's demonstration.

General admission tickets are $145 and VIP tickets, $195. Of that, $70 is tax-deductible. For information, email or call 840-2128.

Sections (1):Living
Topics (2):Entrepreneurs, People

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aantulov wrote on September 05, 2016 at 9:09 am

Sounds like the pioneering spirit!

I hope they will be attending the Common Ground Co-op's Meeting of the Owners or (MOO) on the 22nd at the Independant Media Center. This is the rebirth of American industry, its stars need to be celebrated at as man tables as possible. 

Three cheers for the Land Connection helping to make businesses like this a reality.