The Blind Pig in downtown Champaign is one of the premier beer drinking establishments in the Midwest, let alone in Champaign-Urbana. Bartender Jason Ewing, who has served up drafts at the Blind Pig since it opened its doors in 2004, delivers the brews to patrons in a friendly demeanor. Jason, age 35, regularly addresses his customers as “doctor” or “professor,” and creates a pleasant drinking atmosphere by rocking deep funk and soul jams through the bars speakers during his shifts.
Jason met up with Smile Politely to share his history of the Blind Pig, the growth of business in downtown Champaign, the Pig’s unique atmosphere, and what’s happening with the Blind Pig brewery on Neil Street that’s set to open this spring.
Smile Politely: So what’s your title at the Pig, if you have a title?
Jason Ewing: Dinosaur bartender … oldest bartender (laughs). I’ve been here since day one.
SP: There was a different Blind Pig before this one, but you’ve been here at the current spot since day one.
JE: Right. About four years ago.
SP: For those who may not be familiar, what’s the difference between the old Blind Pig and the new Blind Pig?
JE: In ’91 … I skipped town to see what skateboarding was all about out west. I got back in ’03, so I’m going with what my brother (Roy Ewing) told me. [The old Blind Pig] was food, a lot of live bands. I don’t know if there was as much focus on the beer, but basically it was a really jumpin’ joint for bands to come from out of town. Apparently downtown Champaign was not the place to be in that era. It was pretty sketchy.
SP: Yeah, that’s what I’ve heard, too. I heard it was a little bit down and out. When I moved to town a couple years ago I couldn’t picture it being down and out.
JE: When we used to skate around here, I vaguely remember we’d seldom make trips to downtown, probably due to that fact. We’d safeguard ourselves by skating around campus. From what people say, they didn’t come around much for anything until recently. They had the Esquire, Chris (Knight, owner of the current Blind Pig) did the (old) Pig. A lot of people give Chris credit for opening one of the first businesses (in the early ’90s) and taking a leap for opening this joint up to get people to come and hang out downtown. Café Kopi as well.
SP: So those were the first joints that, I don’t know if revitalize is the right word, but brought folks back downtown?
SP: So when did the Pig open in its current spot?
SP: Had you been involved in the beer industry or bartending before working here?
JE: Not one bit. Chris knew me from downtown. I was working at Kopi and maybe I made him crack up or something, or maybe he dug the way I helped him out at Kopi, but he asked a mutual friend of ours if I had ever given her a free drink at Kopi, and she said “no.” And that was it. He put me on a shift. (laughs) …
In the hiring process for the Pig when we first opened, everybody and their grandmother wanted a job here. I mean people were knocking at Chris’ door hardcore. He told me a story or two about people in other industries, coffee shops and otherwise, going “Hey Chris, blah blah blah, are you still hiring, blah blah blah?” “Yeah.” “Oh, I’d love to work there, blah blah blah.” So Chris is going “alright” and he gets his coffee handed to him and he asks “How much?” “Don’t worry about.” And Chris is thinking, “Well, you just shot yourself in the foot there, bro. I know you didn’t buy it.” (laughs) It was kinda funny. “Oh no, it’s on me.” Sure it is. No, it’s on your boss.
SP: Was the current Pig when it opened pretty much the same set up as it is now, focusing on some quality American and European brews and making it a good beer drinkers joint?
JE: Yeah, [it was] a pub that definitely didn’t focus on the television, jukebox, or pinball machines. Chris really wanted people to interact. When people come to the Pig — and not to say you’re forced to — but you come in by yourself and you get a drink. You’re not popping quarters in any machine. You’re not staring up in a corner of the wall looking at some sporting event. It’s like, “Hey, how’s it going? Where you from?”
SP: That’s nice, man. I mean, I spend a lot of time over at the Esquire and I love that joint, and I don’t give a shit about sports, but eventually I get sucked into looking at something up in the corner.
JE: I tell you, I’m not into TV at all. Every now and again when I end up at the Esquire, and I swear to you that it could be some weird ESPN arm wrestling tournament, I’d be fixated at the flashing colors that that box is giving off as opposed to talking to someone. (laughs) I don’t know what it is, but how did I spend a half hour staring at that shit? I don’t even like it. It sucks you in.
SP: That’s what I like about this place — people are here to drink good beer, but I’ve had good conversations with some folks just shooting the shit at the bar. Whereas somewhere else, I’d be looking at the damn tube or doing my own thing. So this is a unique opportunity — a true social, public atmosphere.
JE: I think that was what was mostly wanted — a vast beer selection on tap and in bottles. Also, Chris wanted a pub like those where he was from in the UK. He wanted to sit down and chill out. The music isn’t overpowering your conversation, [you can] unwind with a few people and definitely wind up meeting a person or two.
SP: How do you keep up on the beers?
JE: There are a couple sites online that I check out to see what this one’s like or that one’s like. We do little beer tastings. When a new beer comes out, we take a little shot glass and try a little shot of it. After four years, you start to recognize this style or that style. You talk to the other co-workers about what they thought of it, talk to customers.
SP: Champaign-Urbana’s beer culture is unique. It’s a little bit of an oasis where there’s a number of places that concentrate of having good quality beers on tap and in bottles. It’s pretty unique. Do you think the Pig was one of the starters of that?
JE: Definitely on the draft line up. I can’t remember in the first year how many taps we had, but I want to say 19, plus cask-conditioned. Actually, we might have started with two [cask taps]. In the past couple of years we have put another seven taps on. So we’re up to 26, plus we try to do one cask per week. It’s a pretty healthy lineup of drafts.
SP: It’s always rotating, too.
JE: I’d say about three-fourths of what we have on the lineup, there’s going to be a variance on the style, once a week or week and a half. It might be an IPA or a stout, but it’s from a different company or a tweak on it. It might be a double or a fruit-infused. A different play on it. About one-fourth of it stays standard.
SP: It’s nice. There’s a couple economies as well as a variety of good stuff, too.
JE: Oh yeah. There’s a lot of Guinness drinkers, there’s a lot of Pabst drinkers.
SP: What’s happening with the new Blind Pig that took over the Barfly?
JE: Chris is opening a brewpub where beer is going to be brewed on site. It’s going to be three taps in the beginning. I believe it’s going to start out with a bitter, a stout, an IPA, and a cask-conditioned ale, and ten taps outside of that. I believe the brewing system is going to be up front and the sitting area is going to be behind it.
SP: That’s sounds pretty exciting.
JE: Oh yeah. It’s just off the hook how many people [are talking about it]. … I’d say 50% of the conversation every day is based on when’s it going to happen, how’s it going to happen, what’s going on [with it]. People are wiggin’ out.
SP: That’s almost like the missing link about what is needed in this town as far as beer goes. You can get good beer all over the place, but you can’t get any locally brewed.
JE: Right, you have smaller communities in Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin, and these guys are pumping out phenomenal beers of their own, you know what I mean?
SP: That’s what surprised me when I got to town and saw how much beer drinking goes on and there’s not a brewpub like — as you were saying — in most other cities of the same size. I was surprised that hadn’t happened here.
JE: Well, Joe’s on campus, somebody told me, that they used to brew on site and had some decent beers. I don’t know if it changed ownership or if the people who owned it themselves decided “let’s just cut this out of the picture.” They are on campus and back then I don’t think that microbrews were that hot of a deal. … It was more or less, “Can I get a pitcher for a quarter on Tuesday?” or “Do wings come with this?” (laughs) It was a great idea, but when you’re on a college campus it’s more about quantity.
SP: Do you have an idea of what the timeline is for opening up the new joint?
JE: We’re shooting for somewhere between March and April. Construction has gone under way recently, not as far as demo-ing, but going in and getting the place set up.
SP: What do you have going on outside of pulling beers?
JE: I have two awesome kids, two beautiful daughters: Sage and Lotus. Sage is four, Lotus is two. They keep me pretty busy. … I just restarted a band again with a couple buddies. We try to get practice in once a week. Lots of time geeking off about skateboarding. Every and any aspect. That’s my world right now. Skateboards, rock, and family. Family first. Uh, I said that the wrong way. (laughs) “Skateboards! Oh, I have a couple kids, too.” (laughs) … Also, barbecuing whenever the weather gets better. Man, this month …
SP: Not exactly barbecuing weather.
JE: You ask anyone and they know I pretty much barbecue everyday, and this past month it’s been like once or twice.
SP: Well, that’s about all I had. Is there anything else you want to add?
JE: No, thanks for kicking back for a few.
SP: Thanks, man. You need another one … ?
(Top photo of Jason Ewing by Tracy Popp)
If you enjoyed this article, Smile Politely also recommends:
+ Tom Sheehan pours from his fount of beer knowledge, part one
+ Tom Sheehan pours from his fount of beer knowledge, part two
+ Mississippi Records re-releases ‘80s classics
+ Going for the gusto with Schlitz’s classic ‘60s formula
+ Christmas music for people who don’t like “Christmas music”