Smile Politely

Intentionality drives community-focused Riggs Beer Company

On a warm wooden counter inside Riggs Brewing Company in Urbana, Illinois, there is a red lager in a glass. Photo by Jake Williams.
Jake Williams

Matt Riggs says “no” a lot. 

At Riggs Beer Company, being discerning and intentional is part of what makes it stand out in a crowded American craft beer industry. Matt, his wife Caroline, his brother Darin, and Darin’s wife Gail founded the company in 2015 and started operations a year later. The four share a near-equal ownership in the operation.

“The thrilling thing for us in a family-owned and operated company is that we can get really intentional,” Matt Riggs told Smile Politely. “We can say ‘no’ to most things, and ‘yes’ to just the things that we are actually passionate about.”

That intentional approach means focusing on brewing beer with the four core ingredients — grain, water, hops, and yeast — and nothing else. 

Jake Williams

“There’s so many more things going on at so many breweries, and I’ve gotta say, I have nothing against that, but we’ve made the fairly unique decision to restrain ourselves,” Matt Riggs said. 

From when Riggs Beer Company opened until the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, the brewery was driven primarily by wholesale kegs. In fact, Riggs beer was available on tap in local bars and restaurants before the taproom even opened. The company doesn’t distribute outside of Illinois and doesn’t need to, the owner said. Canning or bottling beer was not in the plan until several days after lockdowns began across the country.

“A keg is a terrible package to be tied to during a pandemic it turns out, and that was 100 percent of our volume until a couple of weeks after everything closed down,” Matt Riggs said. “We shifted our production into cans pretty quickly. That was not our intention, but COVID didn’t ask us what our intentions were.”

The shift saved the company, Matt Riggs said. The brewery retained all staff throughout the pandemic through a mixture of canning and relief support from the Paycheck Protection Program established via the CARES Act.

Despite it being the saving grace, canning beer wasn’t — and still isn’t — financially advantageous, Matt Riggs said.

“We were working harder than we’d ever had to move a really similar amount of volume and make very little money,” Matt Riggs said. “But it was survival mode. We survived.”

When bars and restaurants reopened in the area, wholesale business came back in a big way. 

“I remember multiple wholesalers calling me for months and being like ‘I’ll just take whatever kegs you have,’” Matt Riggs said. 

The company itself is lean — Matt, Caroline, and Darin are the executive team, and the brewery does not employ a sales staff or a marketing and communications staff. The small team of 10 full-time employees centers on brewing and 20 part-time employees serving from the taproom.

Jake Williams

“Most breweries even half of our size have dedicated salespeople, and just being a brewer-owned brewery, we’ve always kind of said it’d be pretty cool if we didn’t, and if we can just sell the volume that we need to sell without a sales team,” Matt Riggs said. “That’s no knock on anybody that does that for a living, it’s just kind of a fun way to operate our little family home brewery.”

That “little family home brewery” sold nearly 100,000 gallons of beer last year. That’s almost 750,000 pints.

Despite surviving during the crisis moments of the pandemic, and meeting a surging demand for wholesale when restaurants and bars reopened, Riggs Beer Company is not immune to the other challenges of the economic climate in 2023, Matt Riggs said.

The company has also been able to keep some costs down because of one crucial piece of their business strategy from the start. Riggs Beer Company is less reliant on the supply chain for its grain — about 40 percent of the grain used in the brewery’s products is grown locally in Champaign County. 

Not only is it grown locally, but it’s grown by the Riggs family. In addition to being a certified and experienced brewer, Darin Riggs oversees most of the farming operations, including on property that’s been in the family since 1874. Darin and his wife are also raising the sixth generation of Riggs farmers. 

In addition to the economic benefits of having access to acres of their own grain, Matt Riggs also just loves the amount of detail he can hone in on during the brewing process.

“I think remaining engaged in growing grains and processing them in the beer is super easy for me, because that is the coolest freaking thing in the world,” Matt Riggs said. “There’s literally no pursuit in life that is to me more interesting than taking something from the ground from my family’s farm and converting it, shepherding it through the entire process to literally handing it to someone across the bar.”

On a field adjacent to the brewery, the Riggs family grow wheat. Every grain from that field goes into the Riggs’ wheat beer. The family also farms corn, soybeans and barley on their family farm and in other fields across the county.

“Maybe that’s the perfect way to encapsulate exactly what we’re all about here — amber waves of grain, the nice, quiet field, under a tree, and we’re growing the thing that we’re consuming right next to where it’s being consumed,” Matt Riggs said. “As a farmer-brewer, that’s a very rewarding thing to be a part of. I think that resonates with a Midwestern psyche incredibly effectively, because we are tied to the land here.”

The taproom at Riggs has only four year-round beers — an American Lager, a Hefeweizen (or wheat beer), a Red Lager and India Pale Lager (similar to an IPA, but a lager instead of an ale).

“They’re the same four that we opened with in 2016. We haven’t changed them,” Matt Riggs said. “Find me another brewery in America that’s doing 3,000 barrels that hasn’t changed their four year-round.”

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Right now, six seasonal brews — Dunkel Lager, Legends Lager, Schwarzbier, Doppelbock, a 2020 wheatwine and 6-Row Pils join the four flagships. In addition, taproom drinkers can have beer mixers like radlers and shandies, a selection of sodas and soda mixes, root beers, hard cider, a mead, a few hot drinks, and even a Busch non-alcoholic beer.

That beer lineup is trimmed down compared to most other American craft breweries (though Matt Riggs prefers to avoid the term “craft” to describe the brewery’s work). Even other local breweries have significantly more offerings available at their taprooms. Triptych Brewing in Savoy has nearly 20 of their own beers on tap. The Blind Pig Brewery has more than a dozen different brews on tap at both Big Pig and its Neil Street brewery. 

Despite the lean tap brewery offerings, Matt Riggs said it doesn’t get boring for him to hone in on making the company’s flagship beers excellent.

“We are making an all-natural product here in small batches, so the variability is actually wider than most people think,” Matt Riggs said. “My job as the leader of the production team here is to take the natural variability that Mother Nature wants to give us in our all-natural product and bring in the left and right lateral limits as tight as I can on the target knowing that I’m never gonna get it into a straight line.”

That doesn’t mean new beers don’t happen at Riggs Beer Company. Each year the company brews at least one new beer they’ve never made before. This August, they’ll release a pale, low-alcohol-by-volume smoked lager, brewed in a Polish smoked lager style.

After a good year, the company pays down debt or plans a capital expansion. Those expansions include the establishment of a malting operation on the farm in coming years, as well as the purchase of the 10 acres of land to the south of the brewery and taproom. In past years, the brewery has added fermentation tanks, as well as done building and property maintenance. 

Also on the list: a parking lot that “needs some love,” Caroline Riggs said.

The company continues to invest in its outdoor beer garden. In recent years, they’ve planted fruit and shade trees in the outdoor space behind the taproom and brewery. As those trees grow, it will go even further to securing the vision Matt Riggs had for the space since the beginning.

“So a big part of expansion for us is just securing the feeling that we have here, securing the ambiance of the beer garden,” Matt Riggs said. “When it comes to expansion, it’s really not about like more beer at this point, or a second location, it’s more about how do we double down on this?”

It’s that focus on quality beer and experiences that brings Matt Riggs and Riggs Beer Company back to being intentional and deliberate. And saying no.

“Less is more. It really is. You cannot place enough value on focus,” Matt Riggs said.

“To me, the most enjoyable thing in the world is enjoying a beer under a shade tree in the summer,” Matt Riggs said. “I’d hate to say ‘never’ to anything, but beer and farming is our passion.”

Jake Williams

For more about Riggs Beer Company, check out their website here.

Riggs Beer Company
1901 S High Cross Rd
Th+F 3 to 10 p.m.
Sa noon to 10 p.m.
Su noon to 8 p.m.

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