THE HOUSE THAT SOURS BUILT: Destihl Brewery Designed an Empire Built on Sours

The long-term home for Matt Potts is finished. Building toward the future begins now and the co-founder of Destihl Brewery sees lots to be excited about. As Potts sat in the new $14.5 million dollar facility talking to Brewer the day before their first major bottle release of Dasvidaniya — a Russian Imperial the brewery is known for along with their 10th anniversary since opening the first brewpub in Normal, Illinois, the veteran CEO and Brewmaster joked that making breweries is something of a career for him.
“This is the fifth brewery I’ve opened. Not that I’m a professional but, holy cow I’ve opened five breweries since 2001,” he said. “So I don’t know if I’m a little insane or a glutton for punishment. Maybe I’m aggressive, vicious, stupid … smart. I don’t know what. All the above. I don’t really know what, but I am excited to do this.
“I’m really driven and I love what I do. No matter how hard a particular day may be or demanding, I cannot wait to get to work the next day. I love what I do, love the team I’m with; I love our company and where we’re going as a company and what the future holds for us.”
That future, a production facility capable of making upwards of 200,000 barrels of beer sits in an area of about 130,000 people in central Illinois. It’s not exactly the beer capital of the world.
So why plunk a multi-million dollar project so far away from currently thriving beer markets, or even in a city like Chicago? Potts said the Bloomington/Normal, Illinois market is home.
“We really have no business having a brewery like this where we have it,” he admitted. “You’d be stretched to even find something this big and beautiful even in some of the best parts of the country.
“And we really modeled this after something you see out west, whether it’s Colorado or California or whatever. But, I’m just a farm boy from Illinois. I mean, I grew up here. I’m grounded here. This is where my family is. I’m comfortable. I love mountains as much as the next guy and I’d love to live in Colorado. But this is where we are and this is where we started. And what makes it even more difficult is not only are we not maybe in what we would consider any kind of beer Mecca whatsoever, but that is a challenge. It’s a great challenge for us.
“It’s not the easiest state to grow a business, either legislatively or from an economic standpoint.
“We had every reason in the world to not grow this business here. We could have just been content with two brewpubs and maybe built a production brewery in a neighboring state or somewhere else. But it had a lot to do with Bloomington/Normal and that it was a great community and deserving of something like this.
“We want to get people in this town to have an experience like none other. We’ve actually had a lot of people tell us when they walk in here they feel like they’re on vacation even though they are from town. They feel like they’ve just gone to California or Colorado, so it’s been a great escape for people. Something really unique.”
Two key drivers is that the brewery is in the middle of the country with a good reach both east and west along with driving the market with a sour program that began early, gained some recognition and have used that to work themselves into a wholesaler’s portfolio. It has helped the brewery expand to 21 states by the end of 2017, with adding more in 2018 as the brewery announced at the end of November they planned to enter the Massachusetts market and internationally to South Korea.
It means more orders and more increase in production. All which Potts planned for and built the new facilty for, which is around 80 percent loans and 20 percent personal finance from the brewery’s profits and investors.
“You know, as we sit here and think, that was almost the more mind-boggling, fascinating thing that we were able to get this massive brewery financed,” he conceeded. “We are a fairly small brewery operation. You know we were only at about 8,000 barrels at the time. I mean most of it was from the SBA and our lenders, and to get the lender to get behind us on a project this big is no small task.
“We did have some investor money as well. It was really a combination of all three. It’s a massive project, so massive, even for the bank that this had to get approved not just by our local lender, but by the president of the entire bank and every credit analyst and vice president of the bank in-between. The amount of scrutiny that we had was tremendous. So a lot of that was not that we had enough money to do this project. We showed our growth. We showed the demand. We did have obviously profitability and all those things pointing to the direction you justifying this project. Certainly, the demand [for sours] is there.”
Another risky move Potts made was taking a lender to the 2015 GABF to work at the booth.
“That could have broke bad or could it be really great,” he recalled. “You know if he wasn’t impressed by GABF, he could have been like ‘Yeah, I don’t get this. This isn’t what we really thought it was.’ But we had for the past couple years been a feature brewery and had an endcap. So he got to witness all the long lines of consumers for Destihl. My worst fear is that we no longer would have any hype. We would have nobody. The fear was taking the lender and we wouldn’t have as much attention as what we were used to. That could have been a horrible gamble. We took him with us that year and he got to really witness that.”
Potts helped found Destihl in Normal in 2007 as a brewpub. The original pub is still there with its original seven-barrel system. But now, the new home for Destihl touts a 10-barrel pilot system tucked into the corner of a multi-faceted brewhouse that was specifically molded into the set up for the thoughts toward what the future may be. Empty spots line what will be future kettles or mash tuns. Even now, an impressive 120-barrel kettle sits ready for use. It’s most likely the largest kettle for souring in the world.
Winning medals at festivals like FOBAB in Chicago starting in 2009 led to Destihl going to the GABF in 2011 and getting noticed by word of mouth
“We went from a brewery that nobody had heard of when we got there to within half an hour on Thursday to having a line that stretched across the hallway between the booths and all the way across. So it was a remarkable thing to watch. There weren’t a lot of sours yet. Some of the pioneers like Lost Abbey and Russian River. Then, there’s little old us. We in some ways kind of peaked before we really should have. Even though we had sours, our sours were only available at our brewpubs. We had no package sours so we weren’t really able to take advantage of the hype.”
Originally on a career path as a lawyer, Potts got into homebrewing in the mid 90s and by 2001 opened Elmwood Brewing, his first venture into brewpubs. He was a part of a group years later to start Destihl and they opened in late 2007, right before the 2008 Recession hit. The going was slow at the small brewpub, but Potts said they survived.
“We did so by not sacrificing quality to the service that we were providing because people are going to go out during those times and spend their money,” he said. “You want to get value in return. That’s what we thought we were giving. And so instead of trying to make ends meet we stayed true to our ideals as a company.
“I think it’s what got us through that because our business grew and grew by word of mouth. We didn’t have to advertise at all. Never have really. So something works.”
Opening during that time taught him a lot, but he can still joke about his luck at times. When Elmwood started to open, 9/11 happened. The recession hit in 2008 right after Destihl opened. And when the brewery expanded to add a location in nearby Champaign, Illinois, a fire ravaged the downtown area.
“The cautionary note with this is when we open new businesses I usually try to tell people to maybe pull their money out of their stocks. Put gold under their pillow because every time we open a business a major tragedy happens,” he joked.
Potts said his advice to aspiring brewers or breweries that are looking to expand is the same as when someone came to him to ask about becoming a lawyer.
“I say generally ‘Don’t do it!’,” he kidded. “But I have to understand their passionate and they’re going to do it anyway. So then I’d be like ‘OK, well … then at least pursue an area that you are passionate about.
“What’s unique about what you want to do. What’s unique about the area that you’re going in? Is there an opportunity there? Is there already too much demand or too much competition? If there is, are going to be able to compete with that?
“In order for people that are going to have something unique enough to fit in and be able to compete. I know for most breweries I’d say if they want to go really the easy route don’t do the food thing because you can reduce the amount of staff and headache and just work with good food trucks. You’ve seen a lot of breweries that have done that model and have been extremely successfully. The easiest way for somebody to get in this business is to keep it easy.
“Focus on the taproom for some. Production for others. Don’t focus so much on the restaurant side because that’s going to increase your risk as a business and your costs. Unless you have somebody partnering with you that has been in that business before. People see brewpubs and they think those would be awesome. But it’s hard work. And it’s hard to be successful doing it with the competition, even with other breweries.”
For Destihl, that uniqueness means barrel-aged and kettle Sours.
Led by their Wild SOURS program and occasional releases from the Saint Dekkera brand, Destihl built its name early in a style that is only now becoming prominent.
“We kind of had that thought, maybe even when we were originally considering putting sour beer cans like ‘Do you realize how huge this could be because nobody is doing it?’, he recalled from years ago. “So those kind of decisions go back pretty far. But then when you kind of see that reaction and that demand for it is kind of when you’re like: ‘We can build entire brewery around this.’ And those decisions become all the more urgent. And it gets confirmed when you start running out of capacity just as fast at the old brewery. The new brewery is specifically designed to be a sour brewery. But because of the massive souring capacity we have — which again I think has to be — we have what may be the biggest sour systems, and I know we still are keeping a lot of focus on barrel-aged Sours.”
Destihl put out a press release in September, 2014 that they were putting their Sours in cans and introduced a Wild SOURS series.
“We’ve really never looked back,” Potts said. “It’s been really at that point we saw exponential growth. So from September ‘14 to September 2015, we pretty much maxed out that the region, which then explains why we started for this kind of catch up to where we are now.”
Today Potts said the Wild SOURS series is about 60 percent of the brewery’s nearly 20,000-barrel production.
“It is pretty massive,” he admitted, noting that percentage will fall as more cleaner styles are being put in cans for distribution and additional beers are being produced for in-house sales as well. “I’m really trying to get more balance to decrease the volume of sours. We’re getting increased volume but just proportionately take a little bit more balance. But that’s what people want from us. And that is where the growth still is and that continues to be even to this day.”
Potts said he does have plans other than beer for Destihl. With a name like that, he figures there should be spirit making included at some point. Mead, cider and wine also will be a part of the plan.
“With a name like Destihl, it would actually make sense if we were distilling and it has been a goal of ours since we opened 10 years ago,” he said.
“The laws don’t really favor that thus far and really allow that. We’re thinking now we’ll have a separate production license for the spirits. There might be some way to make it happen and keep working on the state laws to help make it happen.”
The facility does have room to grow. Potts noted that the land the brewery is on is six acres and an adjoining six acres could be purchased to add to a future campus.
“We don’t want to just make clear spirits, but also get into whiskey and that requires a lot of space,” he said, noting the need for many barrels. “That’s getting kind of almost too far ahead of where we are now though.
“Obviously the main goal is to build this first to really meet the needs for years to come because there’s a lot of growth even in this first building.”

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