A Publication of WTVP

Farm to Tap

by Phil Luciano | Photos by Amy Arhart |
All four owners of the Coal Creek Brewing Company — Mike Grieve, Trevin Kenedy, Justin Stange and Danielle Bender — have ties to farming
All four owners of the Coal Creek Brewing Company — Mike Grieve, Trevin Kenedy, Justin Stange and Danielle Bender — have ties to farming

In Princeton, Coal Creek Brewing Company got a quick start, and began making a name for itself just as fast

The new Coal Creek Brewing Company in Princeton credits a fast start to deep roots in farming.

The business’ four owners have tight and long ties to agriculture. Two still farm, and the other two grew up on family farms. The lessons learned on fields and in barns, especially regarding the value of hard work and teamwork, helped prepare the quartet to get the brewery up and running quickly this year.   

“I think growing up around livestock and around the farm teaches you responsibility and to be selfless,” said Trevin Kennedy, 28, the seventh generation to work the family’s nearby farm. “I think there’s been a great rapport with all of us. It’s never been a ‘me’ or ‘I’ or any one individual. It’s been really moving as a team and doing what needs to be done.”

Fifty miles north of Peoria, Princeton is the seat of agriculture-rich Bureau County. Mike Grieve grew up on a farm near Buda, not far from that owned by the Kennedy family. The two friends,  who these days have non-farming day jobs, got together a while back to brainstorm possible business ventures.

As they mulled ideas, they met Justin Stange, 40, who tends to crops on the family farm outside Princeton while wife Danielle Bender, 33, raises livestock. Stange suggested a tasty business idea.   

“I’ve always had a passion for craft beer,” he said with a smile.

In fact, from time to time over the years, Stange had worked in the beer industry. He shared some brewing ideas with Kennedy and Grieve, and they decided to jump in.

“From there, it was just pedal to the metal,” Grieve said.

They decided to put their operation in Princeton, as the nearest breweries were 30-plus miles away. Plus, the attitude seemed promising in Princeton, population 8,000.

“The … community here supports local business,” Stange said.

Further, Princeton, which was settled in the 1830s, has a lot to offer as a tourist destination.

“People are seeking that kind of rural experience,” Stange said. “I think Princeton is the perfect place to find that. There’s a lot of agriculture here. But there’s also a lot of history in the town.”

So, last spring, the foursome got to work    fast. Inside a downtown commercial structure built in 1876, they began to fashion a bar in front and brewing area in back.   

“It was a crazy timeline,” Grieve said. “There was a lot of stress. You learn to lean on each other, but also push each other. There were times Justin pushed me and there were times I pushed on Trevin. That’s not a comfortable feeling. But learning to deal with those stresses was a big gain.”

In part, Coal Creek Brewing Company is a farm-to-tap operation. For some beers, the business uses local produce

After their day jobs every weeknight, they worked on the brewery. On weekends, wives and parents pitched in. The toil seemed endless, but they pushed on, Kennedy said.

“Growing up on a farm, there are a lot of days during planting season and harvest season where you’re working as long as you need to work.” Kennedy said. “So, I guess that concept isn’t new to any of us.”

In just two months, the brewery was ready to open in time for the summer season. The place offers a simple, throwback vibe and look: tin ceiling, wood floor and brick walls, the latter dotted with old ag implements.

“It’s been a neat experience,” Grieve said. “And I’m glad my kids are able to see that kind of grind and hopefully pick that up as they grow older, understanding it takes a lot to make it anymore.”

To name the place, they went back to farming. Coal Creek gets its start near Grieve’s family farm.

“It’s got some roots,” said Grieve.

So do the beers. In part, their brewing process is farm to tap. Though Coal Creek orders many ingredients from throughout the Midwest, Princeton-area produce    such as rhubarb and berries    have been focal points of their specialty beers, Bender said.

“We do use local ingredients,” she said.

Traditional and otherwise, Coal Creek brews have proved popular with guests. Meantime, the brewery has benefited from the city’s push to host street concerts, festivals and other events that draw big crowds.

“They have a lot of fun stuff throughout the year to keep businesses growing,” Bender said. 

One of their biggest fans is Princeton Mayor Raymond Mabry, who doesn’t even drink. But he, along with other civic leaders, keenly appreciates the addition of the brewery as an economic draw.

“We’d seen a lot of communities where breweries had been successful,” Mabry said. “We thought not having a brewery was a (commercial) gap. It’s nice to see that filled.”

Yet the brewery’s popularity has sometimes proved overwhelming. During a summer street concert, Coal Creek served more than a thousand beers, keeping Bender busy, but leaving her tired when she had to tend to her livestock the next morning.

“Sometimes I’m like, ‘I’m real tired today,’” she said with a laugh.

Indeed, it gets tough to balance brewery duties with day jobs, especially farming. But the four owners, along with five employees, pitch in to make things work.

“It can be a long day,” Bender said. “But the way we all work together, it’s a great support group.”

And so far, it’s working out well, on both sides of the taps.

“I think we’re just trying to stay extremely humble, give the community a place to come (and) share conversation,” Grieve said. “We’re not trying to be off the wall and crazy and do something shiny just to draw people in. We’re just trying to stay true to who we are and who we think the community is.

“And I think people are buying into that.”

Phil Luciano

Phil Luciano

is a senior writer/columnist for Peoria Magazine and content contributor to public television station WTVP. He can be reached at [email protected]