New Scorched Earth owner says local breweries' appeal now includes families
Scorched Earth Brewing is ready for summer.
During the pandemic, Scorched Earth Brewing nearly doubled its space for customers by installing a large outdoor patio, and new owner Greg Doyen said the Algonquin-based taproom plans to put it to good use as the summer weather hits McHenry County.
"Events are back," said Doyen, who acquired the brewery at the end of April. "People are tired of being inside, but they want to be with their kids or their dogs. We want this place to be inviting for families. And now we're getting requests to participate in festivals again. That wasn't there the last two years."
As McHenry and Kane county breweries ramp up spring and summer events under more normalized circumstances, free of pandemic restrictions, many are looking to broaden their appeal to succeed in a still-competitive industry, said Ray Stout, executive director of the Illinois Craft Brewers Guild.
"The brewery is a gathering place for local communities," Stout said. "We're seeing an uptick in people coming back out, and that's great."
During the pandemic, many breweries across the state built patios and retrofitted parking spaces to allow more customers to be outside, Stout said. He's also among the growing number of brewery visitors bringing their kids.
"They enjoy sitting at picnic tables eating french fries while I sample world-class beer," Stout said of his two children. "In spring and summer, there's no better place to drink a beer than out on a patio."
Among the regular events Scorched Earth will host this summer are weekend food trucks, live music, and trivia. Doyen also said the brewery is looking to get back into local festivals and he was working overtime to add Scorched Earth to some events over the next few months.
Trivia host Joe Coia, who works with Chicago Trivia and hosts trivia nights at several local venues, including Crystal Lake Brewing in Crystal Lake and Black & Gray Brewing Co. in East Dundee, said while he's been doing trivia nights throughout the pandemic, he's noticed a welcome change recently back towards pre-pandemic atmospheres.
"It was kind of lame during the pandemic," Coia said of trivia events, many of which were held virtually or included restrictions like masked or socially distanced guests. "Slowly things have started getting better, starting to pick up, with more places, more venues. The crowds are still smaller than pre-pandemic, but not by much."
Within the county, Scorched Earth began a trend when it opened in 2014 and has helped turn McHenry County's breweries into a major tourism draw, said Jaki Berggren, president of Naturally McHenry County.
The local tourism agency works on promoting nine breweries and two distilleries in addition to the county's other draws, she said.
"Breweries do really well in the summer here," Berggren said. "People think breweries are adult-only, but I think all of the local breweries have been creative in what they did, whether it was expanding outdoor space and adding tents or adding games."
Doyen, who grew up in McHenry, said he comes to the brewery with a background in business strategy and finance and hoped to incorporate an analytical approach to determining how to move Scorched Earth forward.
That includes making data-based decisions on customer responses to new beers, and Scorched Earth may even bring back popular but retired beers based on the results of a future customer vote, Doyen said.
"It's exciting to make small batches and get customer feedback," Doyen said. "I've been listening to customers, to what they want. Everyone has a favorite beer from the past they want to bring back. There's many different applications, and a whole lot of data you can leverage, for how people rate our beer."
One retired beer Doyen said he'd heard multiple customers ask about during his first few weeks as the owner was Base Jumper, a citrus-flavored IPA.
A number of beers were either newly released or released on a limited basis for Craft Beer Week, which ran from May 13 to 20. Scorched Earth released two new beers, Live & Let Rye IPA and Raspberry and Lime Slip N' Slush, a super-fruited gose.
"I've always been interested in the industry as a consumer," Doyen said. "Craft brewing is such an amazing process. There's a lot of science in it. There are nearly unlimited options for what you can do and experiment with beers."
Both Doyen and Stout said while customer tastes changed slightly with seasons, they think IPAs still were the most popular category of beer overall. But in keeping with trends of making places more inclusive for families, Stout said he was seeing many breweries moving away from heavy-alcohol beers "that will just get you intoxicated" to pilsners and lagers that are under 5% alcohol by volume.
Overall, Doyen said despite the wide variety of options available -- Scorched Earth offers more than 30 beers in their taproom -- almost all local breweries survive on the popularity of their core beer selections.
In addition to maintaining the quality of their staple beer offerings, Doyen said he would look to maintain much of the existing company as possible, including the current staff, who he described as "exceptional."