It’s shaping up to be the ultimate summer to go grab a beer somewhere. With pandemic protocols lightening, masks not blocking open mouths and a years-worth of pent-up demand for human interaction, customers are primed to return on premise to drink beer and enjoy the brewery experience. Of course, Buffalo Creek Brewing hasn’t really had that problem. The destination brewery, located in historic downtown Long Grove, Ill., has become a sanctuary for beer drinkers during the pandemic.
“We’re 35 miles outside of Chicago,” said Brewmaster and Owner Mike Marr. “All these surrounding suburbs, you know, have 50,000 to 70,000 people in them. This town only has 8,000 people in it, so it’s like a little farm town in the middle of suburbia.”
Picture a classic Midwestern hamlet, and its defining feature is a one-lane covered bridge. That’s the town’s logo. Boutique shops, fun restaurants, cobblestone walks, rural atmosphere. Long Grove is a fitting name, and Buffalo Creek Brewing has become one of its biggest attractions — a giant, 17,000-sq-ft barn-style brewery (once an art studio), sitting on an acre of land, offering a Bavarian-style taproom, sprawling wooden patios, an outdoor stone lounge with picnic tables and year-round rental opportunities. Even during the pandemic, Buffalo Creek was busy, but it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t without innovation. For starters…
“Behind the brewery, we’ve opened it up and basically made an Alpine beer garden out there,” said Marr. “So, there’s a very large wooden deck with a gazebo that can hold about a hundred people. Then the lawns or what was the lawns is now all stone. We get 400 to 500 people out there on a Saturday. Even during COVID we’ve had enough space where everyone can spread out. We have enough seating. When we run out of seating, people bring their own lawn chairs, their own picnic blankets, and they set up camp out there.”
And those folks want a beer. While keg sales are still struggling mightily in 2021, Buffalo Creek experienced a 20 percent on-premise increase in its German-style beer sales in 2020 compared to 2019, despite being shut down for three months. The brewery also recently signed with Louis Glunz Beer Inc. to expand its packaged product into Chicago and beyond in 2021.
“When we bought the building, we had a 3,000-barrel capacity,” he explained. “Right now, with our existing equipment, and the way that we’ve actually got everything designed, adding more tanks, more bright tanks. We have everything in place to make this happen. So, within this space, we can actually get to about 15,000 bls with just additional equipment, but I gotta be honest, this is a retirement job. I sold my last company back in 2015, and making 15,000 barrels a year is … I think that’s pretty much where we want to be and would probably not get any bigger than that.”
Buffalo Creek is in the process of procuring two more, 30-bbl fermenters and another 30-bbl brite tank from American Beer Equipment. “Those guys have really taken care of us,” he says. The brewhouse itself is situated in a former art gallery with 25-ft cathedral ceilings. The operation installed an American Beer Equipment LinCan 35 canning line, which runs 16-oz cans at a rate of 35 cans per minute, and it’s being run several days a week. Also, interesting to note: Buffalo Creek uses a high-tech water filtration process (like a $20,000 system) to allow the brewery to clean and adapt the style of its water.
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“We have a reverse osmosis system,” explained Marr. “That allows us to actually strip everything out of the water, and bring it right down to zero, which is also probably the most corrosive water you can have because it wants to, you know, attract to anything like copper pipes. We strip it all the way down to zero, and then once we get it into the tank, we’ll add the minerals and salts, everything that we want back in. I travel a lot over to Europe and I can take water samples there, bring them back, get them analyzed and in theory we’re able to reproduce the exact water that is found elsewhere around the world and reproduce recipes.”
Complementing its hometown’s rich German heritage, Buffalo Creek specializes in beer styles popular in western Europe. Its German-style Kölsch brand Marrvelous is its flagship brewski, but it produces farmhouse saisons, pilsners, Belgian strong ales, hefeweizens and (maybe a little begrudgingly) a few IPAs. Buffalo Creek also makes 15 bbls of hard seltzer twice a month.
Outside of the brewery, Buffalo Creek Brewing is now being distributed to alcohol retailers across Lake, McHenry, Cook, DuPage, Kane, DeKalb, Kendall and Will counties in Illinois — with plans to expand in the future. Consumers can expect to see its three signature beers typically on sale: Marrvelous (German Kölsch), Farmer’s Illegit Daughter (Farmhouse Saison), and Muttersholtz (German Wheat) — as well as some other specialties.
“We also do a little self-distribution up in Lake Geneva too. It’s up in Wisconsin,” said Marr. “We actually went through and reviewed our numbers last year — 89 percent of what we sold was actually sold on-premise, and only 11 percent was out in distribution. With all the restaurants and everything being closed last year, it was tough to get it out there. This year we recently launched with Louis Glunz down in Chicago, and they are doing good things for us. We had another distributor before that, before the pandemic, and what that distributor sold in one year, Louis basically did about 25 percent more than them in one month. It’s one of the reasons why we’re over here working seven days a week.”
Marr lauded Louis Glunz. Most of the distributor’s sales team has actually been to brewery, checking it out, doing tours. This allows them to go out there and talk about the product, Marr noted. It also helps that Louis Glunz is the oldest distributor in Chicagoland.
While business has been good, it certainly hasn’t all been easy for Buffalo Creek. It shut down for three months, laid off its entire staff and virtually had no private events in 2020 because of pandemic restrictions. The company was forced to work its way out of a distribution contract with its previous wholesaler. The brewery also gambled and made a huge pivot during the pandemic by building its Alpine Beer Garden last year to attract beer drinkers outdoors (even during the chilly Illinois winter).
“There’s been some weird twists and turns. It’s forced us to really reimagine this place,” said Marr. “To redevelop our Alpine Beer Garden outback where even on January 2, and it was maybe 15 degrees outside, we had 450 people out there. We got all the fire pits going there, the heaters and we have live music and food trucks. We’ve gotten really good at throwing a party here every Friday, Saturday and Sunday.”
Speaking of parties, what advice can Marr share about attracting folks back out to life at any brewhouse?
“Outdoors and the indoors, we redecorate everything and shift everything around every two months and just keep it fresh for people,” he noted. “We recently just got some cable spools from a local cable company. We saw a design on Pinterest where people took those, cut them up and turned them into furniture. People love it. We have this rustic industrial theme, and we got a hay wagon out there. That’s got a stage on it. I’ve got a 1952 Ford tractor that I can use to move stuff around. People come out here and, you know, it’s like a little farm community. We’ve got the whole package here for people coming out and experiencing a destination brewery.”
Besides creating the ultimate spread, Marr shared these other insights:
- Morning beer: The brewery hosts yoga sessions every Sunday morning.
- Family vs. Party: During the day, the brewery promotes a family friendly and pet friendly atmosphere. Then at night, the crowd shifts and it gets more like an Oktoberfest.
- Clubs: Buffalo Creek has a couple of unique beer series coming up, and it’s hoping to try to invite beer can clubs, Facebook beer clubs and other enthusiasts out to attend tastings.
- Education: In August, Buffalo Creek is going to try a beer education series. Set up out in the gazebo with a microphone, staff will do a two-hour session where they just talk about beer. It will be broadcast over the entire property.
- New POS System: The brewery just implemented a new handheld point of sale system (Toast). There used to be a lot of running back and forth to the bar. It took a long time to get beer to customers. A handheld point of sale system increased sales by about 35 percent overnight. Customers are much happier, and waiters are getting more tips because of more sales. (We are big into Arryved for this reason)
- More Music: Buffalo Creek’s Summer Concert Series continues in June on both Saturdays and Sundays. Double Pint weekends showcase some of the best local talent the area has to offer at two convenient time slots on stage in the biergarten. The brewery’s summer concerts are set to hit its highpoint on July 3 with the patriotic celebration for the whole family — American Salute — a free, open air concert featuring the renowned 45-piece Lake County Symphony Orchestra.
“I want to make sure that when customers come, they have the best experience possible, and there is no way we could do that without the team that we have. Josh is our manager. He works tirelessly to make sure everyone’s trained. Everyone understands what they’re doing. Being busy, we gotta be firing on all cylinders,” said Marr, which brings him to a last piece of advice. “If you treat your employees, well, it’s amazing what they’ll do for you, and these guys and gals bend over backwards.”