After more than two decades of raising the standard of beer in C-U, the revered Blind Pig Co. will soon begin packaging, kegging, and distributing its own brew. Brewmaster Bill Morgan and owner Chris Knight have worked together to convert an old garage on Market Street in Champaign into a new brew house and bottling facility. They are putting the finishing touches on construction and plan to begin brewing very soon.
“We are more or less ready to go,” Morgan said during a walk around the brew house. “If a brewer is asked to make a complete list of every little part and piece he needs, it’s never going to happen… But we could start brewing in a week’s time.” He mentioned that they are still working on the necessary licenses, but will commence operations after that is complete.
When the original Blind Pig Co. opened in 1990, craft beer on draft was unheard of in Champaign. With a fantastic well-curated tap list and inspired pub atmosphere, Chris Knight and The Pig essentially introduced craft brews and imports to the C-U bar scene. In 2009, Knight recruited experienced brewer and engineer Morgan and opened the Blind Pig Brewery, or “the Little Pig” as it has affectionately become known, and began selling a variety of the finest house brews available only from that location. With the addition of this new, much larger brew house, they will be able to start offering their beer in stores, bars, and restaurants, as well as at both Blind Pig locations.
Located near the corner of Market and Washington streets in downtown Champaign, the new two-story space was formerly a mechanics garage, which Knight and Morgan completely gutted and converted into an efficient brew house, with room to grow. They kept the classic rolling garage door, painted with their iconic Blind Pig logo, which affords the interior with natural light and air when open. Currently there are six large fermentation tanks and a bottling line in addition to the brewing and finishing tanks, filling about half of the new concrete floor. The grain is stored on the second level loft area, where it is milled and funneled down onto the brewing floor.
“We have room here where we can add more tanks, as we grow and expand,” Morgan said confidently, gesturing to empty space. It’s easy to understand his certainty about their eventual growth, considering the popularity of the Pig’s beer. The volume of production at the Little Pig has risen steadily with demand over the past few years.
Brewer Bill is no stranger to brewing on a large scale. After a couple years of home-brewing, he got his start as a professional at Joe’s Brewery in ’90s while he was working on his bachelor's in ecology. After he graduated, Morgan attended brewing school at the prestigious Siebel Institute in Chicago, known for its excellent programs in brewing science. With his studies at Siebel completed, he moved to Cleveland to brew for the now-closed Diamondback Brewery and Pub, where his barrel-aged sour ales won him gold medals at the Great American Beer Festival in ’97 and ‘98. After three years there, he moved to Japan and practiced his craft at Ginga Kogen Brewery, one of that nation’s most popular. He spent five years in Japan, learning the specifics of brewing on a large scale, before returning to C-U to attend graduate school for engineering. It was shortly after receiving his master's degree that Knight convinced him to begin brewing for the Blind Pig.
Once the Market Street brew house is producing, Blind Pig beer will be available on tap at the original Big Pig for the first time. They will be focusing on filling kegs and distributing to restaurants and bars initially, with six-packs and cases of bottles to follow shortly. The increased volume resulting from this expansion will also allow the Blind Pig brewery to begin selling growlers at both bars, allowing the customer to take away half-gallon containers of their choice brew.
“We will absolutely be doing growlers,” stated Morgan, with relish. “We have a ton of logo growlers. We’ve had them for over a year now, but we just can’t get overall production high enough at the pub.” With this greater brewing capacity, he will focus on four year-round mainstay beers at first and seasonal and limited brews to follow. He has been working on his signature IPA for months now, having brewed a series of “Prototype” ales for the Little Pig and listening to feedback from patrons.
“I really enjoy the direct connection with customers at the pub,” said Morgan. He is a common fixture in the afternoons and evenings at the Little Pig, working at the tanks and conversing with beer enthusiasts and regulars. It’s that exact discourse, that running dialogue about beer between skilled brewer and informed drinker which truly makes the Blind Pig Co., as their motto proclaims, “The Beer of Champaign.”
The Blind Pig Co. is located at 120 N Walnut Street, Champaign; The Blind Pig Brewery is located at 120 N Neil Street, Champaign. Both locations are open daily from 3 p.m. to 2 a.m.
All photos by Nathaniel Curthoys.