In Savoy, tucked behind a few buildings off of Dunlap Avenue, sits a medium-sized building that holds a small-operation beer brewery: Triptych Brewing. The brewery opened in early 2013 and has since become an integral part of the local eating and drinking community. In addition to its brewery and taproom in Savoy, Triptych’s beers are available in numerous restaurants and bars throughout Champaign-Urbana.
“Triptych” is a word that typically refers to a work of art that contains three panels, often hinged so that the two wings fold over and cover the center panel. Examples can be found throughout the history of Western art, but some of the more famous ones were made during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and used as altarpieces in churches. These hinged panels told a complete narrative: when closed, the triptych was at the beginning and end of the story. When open, the nuances and major plot points of the story were revealed.
Triptych Brewing picks up on the semantics and historical implications of the triptychs of times and places past. Firstly, three people founded the brewery: Anthony Benjamin, Joshi Fullop, and Jason Bartell. Secondly, there are three main ingredients to beer: water, barley, and hops. Thirdly, Triptych Brewing serves (for the most part) three areas: Savoy, Champaign, and Urbana. As a final note, the owners — Benjamin specifically — are almost always around and willing to talk about beer. They enjoy getting a little nerdy with their customers and sharing the knowledge they’ve accumulated. Benjamin states, “We don’t want to bash people over the head with credentials. But if you’re curious, you know, we can talk to you about this stuff.”
Triptych Brewing is one of those American entrepreneurial dreams-made-reality. Benjamin and his wife relocated to Champaign-Urbana in 2005 so that she could attend law school. Needing something to occupy his time, he decided to start home brewing as a hobby. He did some research, joined an area home brewing club, and the rest, as they say, is history. With just under a decade of experience, Benjamin has proven to be a gifted and skilled brewer. As he experimented and embraced the home brewing community, that community has embraced him. This relationship proved to be invaluable, as it not only led him to partners Fullop and Bartell, but it is perhaps the second-most critical reason for Triptych’s success (the first being the high quality, delicious, well-crafted beer, of course).
The Triptych trio are do-it-yourself types, as cliché as that sounds. They have literally built the brewery up from nothing — most of the work done in and to the building (sans plumbing and electrical) was done by their own hands, right down to the photos decorating the walls. “Pretty much everything you see here we built ourselves. We made it a place that was comfortable for us to be in,” Fullop explains. The pews that line the walls were salvaged from a church on the U of I campus, and Fullop burned the Triptych logo into the wood with a heat gun and a chemical used in the beer-making process. The photos are prints from European research trips.
The community of home brewers and others who supported Triptych in its Kickstarter days has continued to support and help expand Triptych’s presence in the community. Personal ties with the community through spouses, family, and friends have led to partnerships and collaborations with nonprofit organizations and area restaurants. Benjamin states that he and the other owners have an “interest in making sure we’re integrated in the community,” and it was his wife who initiated Triptych’s first collaboration with downtown Champaign’s Dublin O’Neil’s. Her connection with the Champaign County Humane Society led to a search for a CCHS fundraiser location, which then led to a collaborative beer dinner at Dublin’s that featured four different Triptych brews. A private dinner was acutioned off at CCHS’s Furball, the proceeds of which ($1,400) benefited CCHS. Triptych also collaborated on a public beer dinner, which you can read about here.
In the spring of 2014, Triptych worked with the University YMCA for their annual farm-to-fork fundraiser, and used local honey and basil to create a Honey Basil Blonde specifically for the event. At the same time, Triptych worked with downtown Champaign’s Seven Saints to create a 7th anniversary brew to celebrate the restaurant’s 7th anniversary. Triptych was also well received at downtown Urbana’s October 2013 inaugural International Beer and Food Truck festival, where they served samples of their fall selections, including a local favorite and 2014 World Beer Cup Silver medal winner, Dirty Hippy. Dirty Hippy, named for a home brewing club friend, is an English-style brown ale with warm tones and a smooth finish. It’s one of the more frequently requested brews.
Triptych strives to offer things that are not available in the region, and with only a couple of local breweries in the greater Champaign-Urbana area, that window is quite large. Fresh beer is best, and the best beers are the freshest ones that use local ingredients. Benjamin draws on local flavors and ingredients, but also finds inspiration from other sources like a great meal, an article in a magazine, or drinks he’s had elsewhere. The menu and brewing schedule aren’t set, which leaves plenty of room for responding to seasonal ingredients and customer feedback. There’s usually one beer on tap that is determined by Benjamin’s personal preference, and the rest are often determined by what the customers like and request. For example, Triptych’s oatmeal stout was very well received on its first appearance. The second time, the feedback was that it was too roasty, so when Benjamin brewed it for a third time, he took into account the feedback from the previous two rounds and adjusted accordingly. Seasonal ingredients determine beer, too, and Triptych has worked with local farms to acquire ingredients. In the fall of 2013, they used over 400 pounds of pumpkin from the Great Pumpkin Patch in Arthur, Illinois, for their pumpkin ale. It was delicious.
If you wander into the taproom on a Friday or Saturday evening, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find an available chair. Despite being in Savoy, away from other eateries, and a bit off the beaten path, the taproom is always full. Benjamin says that the intensity of the response from locals was unexpected and caught them off guard: “Initially, I was going to brew the beer and pour beer in the taproom and make sure everything was working in here [the brewery and tap room]. After a few months, it was quickly apparent that that wasn’t going to work.” They decided to hire someone to work behind the bar, freeing up the other three to tend to the daily activities of brewing beer and running a business.
Triptych does not serve any food, so you can bring in your own meals or have something delivered to you while there. There is always a wide variety of people enjoying a beer — guys, ladies, couples, and friends. Beer is available in sizes ranging from a two-ounce taster to 32- and 64-ounce growlers you can take home. There are always eight different beers on tap, and there is truly something for everyone. Into super-hoppy IPAs? Check. Something lighter, maybe with some fruit? Check. Something in between? Check. Have no idea what sort of beer you like, or what the differences between them are? There is someone around to talk to you about that stuff.
There are few businesses in town that have become so integrated into the community in such a short amount of time. Triptych has been aggressively embraced, and countless efforts have been made to integrate their beer into our community: collaborations with local chefs and restaurants, and community organizations that not only expose the beer to a larger audience, but also weave Triptych into the fabric of food and drink culture in Champaign County. Like the side panels of triptych altarpieces of the past, when you open the doors to Triptych Brewing, you’re entering a world in which you can discover new things and share some stories. You might even learn something.
Triptych Brewing is located at 1703 Woodfield Drive, Savoy, and is open Monday through Thursday, 3-10 p.m., Friday 3 -11 p.m., and Saturday 12-11 p.m.
All photos courtesy of Sam Logan.