Smile Politely
Four owners of Triptych Brewing stand in front of the navy sign outside the taproom in Savoy, Illinois.
Alyssa Buckley

Triptych Brewing and a decade of craft beers

Dank Meme, A Wizard is Never Late, and Backpack Full of Bees are some eccentric names of beers made by Triptych Brewing. Started by passionate home brewers in 2013, the microbrewery has produced over 470 beers — some nationally award-winning — and they have no plans to slow their frenetic pace.

Triptych is owned by four beer enthusiasts head brewer Anthony Benjamin, Lyle Amacher, Greg Altstetter, and James Voigtlander — all alumni of C-U’s BUZZ club. The brewery has a taproom in Savoy and a beer production facility just across the street called The Memery.

This year in celebration of ten years of beer, Triptych released an anniversary brew called This is Fine, inspired by the iconic namesake meme. I sat down with Triptych’s four owners and general manager Michael Miller to chat about the evolution of the business and what the next decade holds.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Smile Politely: What was Triptych like in the beginning?

Lyle Amacher: It was cool! I was helping Anthony start something. We were basically cooking on a glorified stove to do our first batches of beer. We were scooping spent grain out with a scoop.

Anthony Benjamin: A dog food scoop.

Amacher: [laughs] Yeah, scooping grain into a bucket.

SP: A special kind of bucket?

Benjamin: It was a garbage can. [laughs] We knew we reached a different place when the farmer could no longer come and get the spent grain. He’s just like, this is too much.

Amacher: So we started hauling it to Urban Gardens on Prospect, and they started composting with it.

Benjamin: Then we outgrew that!

Amacher: Now we’re trucking it to the U of I dairy farm, and they blend it with cattle feed.

Greg Altstetter: Ten years ago, the emphasis was on brewing new batches to replace batches that were drank dry in less than two weeks, which demanded increasing the number of brews per week. We were constantly changing equipment out as funds allowed and getting new equipment to make the processes less time consuming.

Benjamin: Or just make more beer! We were the first microbrewery with a big focus on distribution. We weren’t trying to get people to come in; we wanted to sell beer to bars and restaurants in Downtown [Champaign]. From the get-go, we wanted to be a supplier, not just a place. Now it’s ironic because craft beer has flipped that completely, and the microbrewery is the place to go. If we could’ve looked ten years into the future, we may have spent more time, energy, and money to make this more of a space to hang out and eat food.

Michael Miller: When Triptych first moved in 2013, half the building was an office supply and repair company. 

Benjamin: When we got the space, our first task was to demolish all of that and have a blank slate. That’s when Lyle and I came back and started building what we have now.

Most of what the taproom is now is still pretty original, but our brewing used to be where the taproom is, and so there was a big portion of the space dedicated to that. In 2018, we moved into the building across the street and moved all production there.

Anthony Benjamin

Miller: To the Memery.

SP: Memery? 

Miller: Our production facility, obviously a play on a meme brewery. It’s the house that memes built. Our most popular beer by far is Dank Meme, which started in 2016. Anthony was wanting to brew a hazy pale ale style. Now it is ubiquitous, but at the time, nobody around was making it. He thought that style was going to be a joke, which is why he named it Dank Meme. The beer sold out quickly, and we embraced the dankness of the meme. Now we just roll with it.

SP: Did the Memery inspire Triptych’s ten year anniversary This is Fine brew?

Benjamin: It was all Mike’s idea. When he first told me the idea, I thought, “That guy is never going to email you back. But if so, I’ll come up with a beer.”

Alyssa Buckley

Miller: At Triptych, dank memes have always been our muse. I thought “This Is Fine” would be a great name for a beer. I started doing a little research about the history of the “This is Fine” meme, found the artist, and introduced myself. He was shocked that someone would actually ask to pay for the use of his art rather than blatantly stealing it! And the fact that this would be brewed for Triptych’s ten year anniversary at the same time as “This Is Fine” turns ten was serendipitous.

The artist KC sent us the actual, original photoshop file and told us, “Don’t share this with anybody!” We made sure he was able to get some of the beer, too.

Benjamin: There’s always something on fire at the brewery. A couple months ago, it was cold enough that one of our equipment froze solid. Back when we leased the building, the roof used to leak, and if it rained really hard, there’d be a waterfall in the taproom. I’d put a bucket down and tell patrons, “So sorry, it’s not my building — but someday, you know?”

When Mike worked this up to the final stages, I needed to come up with a beer. Triptych has this love affair with a specific hop called Citra. The first year we hit it big was Little Secret, and it had a lot of Citra. Dank Meme has a lot of Citra, and there’s another one called Indistinguishable from Magic that has a lot of Citra. 

Miller: We wanted to have a big beer for our ten year anniversary. Whenever we go big for a beer, it’s gonna be a crazy stout or a really fun hazy IPA. Anthony built this recipe with vanilla and cool citrusy hops.

Alyssa Buckley

Benjamin: It’s a very big imperial IPA with 9.3% alcohol. It’s very hoppy with some thickness and body, layering in Citra and Mandarina Bavaria, which is a German hop known for more of tangerine or mandarin flavors; then, drop a little bit of Hawaiian vanilla beans which are known to be more floral. It has a sweet vanilla thing going on, and it’s also incredibly dry.

Miller: For a 9.3% beer, it is deceptively smooth, and the hops give it a nice tangerine, orange creamsicle vibe.

Benjamin: When Triptych opened, our idea was pretty low alcohol session beers, so people could just hang out. We came to the conclusion that customers weren’t willing to pay a premium for low alcohol beer. Alcohol equates to dollars for lots of people, and I respect that.

SP: How many beers has Triptych made?

Benjamin: 472 unique beers in ten years. Of the 80+ different beers every year, several are returns and some are new. Every week, we have between one and four new beers on the menu. We try to keep that frenetic pace across the entire year.

Many are esoteric styles and not commonly found. Things like West Indies style stout and spruce tip beer — way before it was cool and way after, too. We’ve used Koji, a special type of fungus predominantly found in sake; we’ve made hard seltzers with botanically-sourced terpenes designed to mimic the aromas typically found in cannabis. We age beers in bourbon barrels, rum barrels, scotch barrels, maple syrup barrels, and even once in a hot sauce barrel in collaboration with Mark “Shades” Hartstein, a chef currently at Black Dog. We’ve used local peaches, apple cider, raspberries, basil, watermelon, and honey over the years, and we even dabbled in smoked beers.

There are definitely — I’m the first to admit — some gimmicky chocolate-coconut, vanilla bean, candy bar stout ideas that run through here, but there also some normal, classic beers. Right now, there’s four lagers and a Kölsch.

Alyssa Buckley

SP: So who comes up with the names?

Benjamin: Mike and I have a big list of names that we haven’t used yet, clear of trademark encumbrances and other people using them. Then we’re like, “Okay, this name fits good on this beer. Let’s use it.” Of those 472, Mike has named at least ten of them.

Miller: [laughs]

Benjamin: It’s true! And Greg named one. Lyle’s named one or two.

Amacher: A mistake was named after me!

Back in the early days — when I actually touched the grain. I do strictly hammer-and-nails kind of stuff now, but in one of our first sessions, Anthony said we need X pounds of the grain from that bucket, and he pointed to a bucket. I got X pounds of that grain from the bucket. We put it through the mill, and Anthony looked at me and said, “That doesn’t look right. Are you sure you picked the bucket I meant?”

I said, “I picked the one you pointed at,” — and that’s how our almost only amber ale initially started out.

SP: Are the fun names a big draw for Triptych’s beer?

Benjamin: That’s part of it, but we also have a reputation for quality. When you come into Triptych this week, there’s 17 beers, and next week, there will be 20 beers. We cycle through stuff so fast that it can look like a scattergun approach, but the approach is just bringing new things to people. That’s what craft beer is about: tasting new things.

A triptych is a three-panel work of art. In the Middle Ages, a monk or another holy person would carry a triptych from town to town. For a lot of small towns, that was an exposure to art, a new thing, and I think something that our brewery has done: exposing our customers to new ideas in beer.

Miller: In our logo, there’s three main ingredients of beer: water, barley, and hops. With just those three, our brewers have created beers of strikingly different styles. Beer, like art, is all about experimenting, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun. We like to get a little adventurous: bourbon-barrel aged stouts with vanilla beans and toasted coconut, sours with tart blueberries or peaches, and even a Nigori sake-inspired hard seltzer with rice, yuzu, and vanilla.

One of the most rewarding relationships we have is with Japan House. We partner with them for the Matsuri festival, brewing special beers. It’s cool that the beer world has opened up doors to meet really amazing people.

Alyssa Buckley

SP: What awards has Triptych won?

Benjamin: We’ve won a World Beer Cup medal for our English brown ale called Dirty Hippie. We won for a session IPA called Little Secret in 2016, and we won Dank Meme for hazy IPA out of 300 entries in 2021.

SP: Are you submitting this year?

Benjamin: Yeah, a wide spectrum: one pale ale, Dank Meme — obviously, we keep entering that, and everything else is a unique beer: a pilsner, a Kölsch, and a barrel-aged stout entry. It speaks to our scatter-brained approach. We’re very interested in a lot of different things all at once.

Alyssa Buckley

SP: What’s your favorite beer?

Amacher: I’m still getting my hop training wheels on — even after ten years. My favorite beer is Thanks, Lyle, an amber ale. 

Altstetter: My favorite beer is a namesake beer that is a tripel, trappist-style ale called Greg’s Tripel Play.

Benjamin: It’s a pun! Because Greg loves baseball.

Altstetter: The can art featured an autographed baseball with my signature. Easily one of my favorites.

James Voigtlander: My favorite is one called Drunken Hippie, which is Dirty Hippie, a brown ale, aged in a bourbon barrel. It has that aged flavor and yet a relatively low APV with tons of oak and vanilla.

Miller: Our latest batch of A Wizard Is Never Late is absolutely incredible.  

SP: Master brewer, what’s your favorite beer?

Benjamin: For me, every beer is my favorite. I have a long memory of every hour that I’ve spent on each one — not only the days we brewed the beer, from the planning to when it’s packaged. Every beer is like a child, and when I hear someone not like a beer, it literally breaks my heart.

My three favorites: first, AJ’s stout, an imperial stout aged in bourbon barrels. I brewed it once as a home brewer the year my son was born. The idea was to brew a beer strong enough that it could last until he could have it at 21. Every year, we release AJ’s Stout, and it’s always a high point for me. My second is another barrel-aged beer with coffee and vanilla called Dearest Anna to recognize my wife. Finally, I made a beer for myself called 52 Hertz, a pistachio-vanilla bean stout. It’s a riff on this whale who was in the Pacific who spoke in a frequency that no other whales could understand. I feel like I can’t relate to a lot of people, and ultimately, I’m just this lone whale.

Alyssa Buckley

SP: Talk about Triptych Brewing now, ten years in.

Altstetter: We are more intentional than we’ve ever been.

Benjamin: That’s true. We made a beer five years ago with breakfast cereal; we wouldn’t do that now. Ten years is a long time, and we’re all getting older, so the things I am interested in a beer are different.

SP: What do you predict your tastes will be in ten years?

Benjamin: I’ll probably just be drinking light beer, like the lightest beer we have. Right now, I’m in a lager phase.

Voigtlander: What I see, too, is we’re going down a path of providing more robust opportunities for our employees and bringing more of a sustainable, livable wage. That’s encouraging.

Benjamin:  In the pandemic, we had to let our staff go because we were mandated to close by the State of Illinois. When that happened, Mike and I reformulated what it was like to work here. When we reopened, there was lots of to-go beer, and expecting customers to tip on to-go beer is kind of weird. A lot of what goes into the price of our beer is that there’s no tipping. Fair wage means the business pays that, not customers subsidizing.

Altstetter: Good employees are priceless. We want to hold onto this wealth of knowledge in the taproom we’ve managed to accumulate. 

SP: What’s planned for the next decade of Triptych Brewing?

Miller: It’s hard to say where the craft world will be in ten years. As far as Triptych goes: continuing to do fun events in the community and build relationships. I can see us having more events at the taproom possibly. We’re doing a festival in July with Savoy, hopefully shutting down the street and having a blues concert. Triptych also sets up a beer tent at the Mutt Strut every year with the Champaign County Humane Society, and we’ve featured ten different dogs and cats, all with different beer styles. Last year, we made Zippity Brew Da, a sour red ale with cranberry juice, orange peel, and ginger for the 2022 Mutt Strut winner, Zipporah.

Alyssa Buckley

Altstetter: We are trying to stay ahead of trends. As far as where we’ll be, hopefully we will have another perhaps destination taproom in the not too distant future.

Benjamin: When we opened ten years ago, there were 2,400 microbreweries, and now there’s 9,000. Everyone is starting to specialize, but we’re still resisting that. We’re good at brewing a very wide style range.

Triptych Brewing
1703 Woodfield Drive
M-W 3 to 9 p.m.
Th 3 to 10 p.m.
F+Sa noon to 11 p.m.
Su noon to 8 p.m.

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