A Publication of WTVP

Come for the ‘damn good beer,’ stay for the conversation

by Pam Tomka | Photos by Ron Johnson |
Mark Johnstone Rhodell’s Brewery
Mark Johnstone is the proprietor of the John S. Rhodell Brewery

Mark Johnstone, the dean of Peoria-area brewmasters, is nearing his 25th anniversary at Rhodell’s

On Downtown Peoria’s riverfront, nestled into a building constructed in 1928, sits the oldest operating brewery in central Illinois. John S. Rhodell Brewery, 111 Walnut St., will soon celebrate 25 years of serving unique, tasty, handcrafted quality beers to its many customers.

Rhodell’s was started by Mark Johnstone, in partnership with his wife Suzie (O’Dell) Johnstone and John Rhodes — along with a few others — and those three remain the sole owners of the business.

Rhodell's Brewery

Who is John S. Rhodell? That’s a conglomeration of the three partners’ names, and it has become synonymous with excellent beer in a welcoming atmosphere with an outstanding staff that is very knowledgeable about what’s on tap, capable of addressing “taste notes,” hop variety and ABV (alcohol by volume), among other topics.

Mark, the brewmaster and a native of Scotland, met his wife there at the University of Stirling while she was studying abroad. They married in Edinburgh and eventually moved to her hometown of Peoria after having their first son, Callum, while still in Scotland. They have since added son Euan and daughter Fiona to the family.

After looking at Bloomington and other places in Peoria, they decided on a location down Water Street from where they are now located to start their brewing business, ultimately spending 17 years there. When they went shopping for a larger space and more convenient parking, many of their customers followed.

Evidently, it’s been a hit. “I find the atmosphere to be wonderful, with a variety of different people and families of all ages and backgrounds,” said Scott Umland, a longtime customer. “It is bright and airy and draws an eclectic crowd.”

For many years at the old and present locations, customers came to brew their own beers, which they would bottle and take home or store in an on-site walk-in cooler. Eventually, Rhodell’s switched up its business model from being a personal brewing site to a bar, due primarily to the cost of materials, though some limited personal brewing is still an option. Purchasing quality malt and hops from Germany, the Czech Republic, the United Kingdom and throughout the U.S. for small-batch brews allows Rhodell’s to create some of the most interesting and flavorful beers available, but it can be costly for an individual.

Rhodell's Brewery

Brewing is an art. The malt is the canvas, hops and yeast the colors

Today, Rhodell’s typically has about 13 beers on tap, all of its own creation. Usually, beer must sit from four to six weeks to age before being served. Some, like the bourbon barrel beers, are aged for more than a year.

Johnstone compares brewing to an art, saying that the malt is the canvas and the hops and yeast are the different colors. Like a true artist, the possibilities are endless, though he has to pay attention to what his customers enjoy. That said, new malts and hops are frequently available so he can experiment to appease a variety of palates.

Oscar and Patty Gillespie have been coming to Rhodell’s “for the community and the variety of fresh beers” since it opened in 1998. They love the “IPA’s and cask beers Mark crafts.”

“Mark is an incredibly knowledgeable and inventive brewmaster. The variety of beers that he creates is outstanding,” added customers Danila and Mike McAsey, who likewise have been coming to Rhodell’s nearly since day one. “The mouth feel of his ales makes for a much richer taste experience.”

All the partners say they are firm believers in reinvesting in their business to continue to provide the experiences their customers have come to expect. Each week introduces a new variety of beers with unique names and tastes such as “Wild Prairie Blond,” “Hopside of the Moon” and “MacBeth’s Revenge.” Both the names and the types of beer come from cultural and heritage influences and even customer suggestions, said Johnstone. Often his staff can help customers in making a choice based on what they are told you like.

One change Rhodell’s has made in recent years is to offer a variety of drinks beyond beers, wine and mixed drinks, as not everyone is a beer drinker. That full watering hole experience has made Rhodell’s a place for people of all ages and interests to socialize.

“I have grown friendships” through the brewery, said local attorney Jon Phillips. Bonds with colleagues have been formed “over beer and giving Mark hell” at Rhodell’s, “not at the Courthouse.”

Customers have sometimes asked why Rhodell’s does not sell food. That would require a kitchen, more staff and a great deal of additional work, said Johnstone, who will cook up a frozen pizza for patrons, who also are free to bring their own.

“The very nature of the brewery — i.e. little food, little frill, beer-focused, makes it clear that the beer must shine because that is what it sells — just damn good beer,” said Phillips.

‘The very nature of the brewery — little frill, little food — makes it clear that the beer must shine’— Jon Phillips

Unlike some other gathering spots that were challenged to the point of going under during the pandemic, Johnstone was able to keep his business thriving with a carryout growler business. That aspect of his sales continues to be strong, although many customers prefer to come in and partake of some banter with their brew.

Larry and Martha Campbell were among those who “disappeared” during the pandemic, but now they are back and happy to “have a conversation with groups with no loud music or blaring sports TV.

“The experience of sharing quality ales with strangers that soon became friends” is one of the reasons they keep coming back, said Larry. The latter includes Johnstone, who often comes out to talk with customers in his Scottish brogue. He is proud of his heritage, and of the place he’s built for a loyal clientele that comes for the beer and stays for the conversation.

Pam Tomka

Pam Tomka

is the retired director of the Washington District Library and a beekeeper whose homemade honey has gone into a Rhodell’s beer.