Neighborhood Brewers: CS Alum And Brother Turn Passion For Beer Into A Thriving Business
San Diego was the port of call and discharge papers were the order of business when Darin Riggs put ashore in December 2012, closing out his time cruising under the ocean in nuclear submarines, making sure their reactors behaved themselves.
A Naval officer with an ROTC commission earned through the University of Illinois, Riggs (BS CS ’03) walked off the boat and into civilian life knowing exactly what he wanted to do next: Make beer with his brother and fellow alumnus, Matt (BS Technical Systems Management, ’06).
A few years before, when both brothers were stationed there—Matt as a UI ROTC-commissioned officer in the Marine Corps—San Diego was riding the tide of fizzy, craft-brewed fermentations that would soon have the country awash in India pale ale and chocolate stouts. Between duty stations that included sailing around the world with a Marine expeditionary unit and running practice invasions, Matt had spent much of his free time ashore at San Marcos Brewery & Grill, working in return for food and beer. “To smell that mash for the first time on a brew day—it was like a hook,” he says. “I became convinced that this was what I wanted to do.”
By the time Darin disembarked from his sub for the last time, Matt had already resigned his commission and was working at a different brewery—in Germany. As for Darin, he was preparing to enroll in the Master Brewers Program at the University of California, Davis.
“We had had this pie-in-the-sky dream for a long time—from when we were undergraduates and we first tasted beer,” Matt recalls. “We said, ‘They make this from grain? We do grain back home on our farm. Why don’t we make this someday?’”
The Riggs brothers had seen the future. And it was a brewery.
Something for every palate
Riggs Beer Company lies on the eastern edge of Urbana, just down the road from the farm where Darin and Matt were raised. The brewery has been up and running since May 2015; the taproom opened about a year later after navigating the requisite state-licensing perplexities.
Sit down at the bar to sample Riggs beers, and you will be rewarded with brews that range from pale gold and delicate to red-hued and full-bodied. These beverages keep the taproom bubbling with thirsty locals and beer connoisseurs who stop in to comparison-check taste sensations with those gleaned in craft-brew capitals such as Seattle, Portland, Ore., and Asheville, N.C.
Hefeweizen, a traditional German wheat beer, is the most popular product at the Riggs brewery, where the menu also features Red Lager, a dark malt described as a “German-American dual citizen,” and American and India Pale Lagers, both from mash that includes corn. Seasonal releases run the gamut from bocks and pilsners to an Oktoberfest and a Black IPL. Much of the grain that goes into these beers comes from the Riggs farm, where Darin now lives with his wife, Gail, and their daughters, Anna and Lilly. They are the fifth generation of their family to work the land.
The Riggs American Lager is a beer with global attitude and historic roots. “Only a handful of small breweries” make beer with corn in the mash, says Darin, who notes that this style of beer is singularly German-American, dating back to the days when immigrants settling in the Midwest made beer from the crops they could grow.
Corn in particular proved a problem, but one they solved on campus.
“Oil in the germ of the corn can give a nacho-tortilla flavor that is not very palatable in beer,” Matt explains. Confronting this problem in early 2017, he opened Google and typed “low-oil corn” in the search box. The top hit was for the website of professor Stephen Moose’s Corn Functional Genomics Lab—at the University of Illinois.
Moose curates a strain of low-oil white corn that dates back to 1896—one of four strains in a study considered the world’s longest-running continuous genetics experiment in higher plants. When Matt contacted him, Moose was more than happy to help out, both with corn grown by his students and seed to plant on the Riggs farm.
Since the Riggs brewing operation began, the brothers have fermented about 25 tons of grain harvested from their family’s farm, mostly corn and wheat. The Riggs motto is “On our farm, we grow beer.”
Thirty-five years ago, there were 50 microbreweries in the U.S. Now, some 7,000 compete for the 1 percent of beer-drinking consumers who prefer craft brews. It’s a slow-moving tsunami for which the Riggs brothers have designed their own special raft. They sell beer by the keg only with distribution limited to approximately 350 bars and restaurants in central Illinois. When promoting Riggs beer to area bars and restaurants, Darin says, “I can go in and say, ‘Hey, listen—all these brands you have on tap I can get at the grocery store a block away for a third of the price. But a Riggs beer can only be had on tap.’”
“We designed this place from the ground up to be competitive at a relatively small level of production,” Darin says. The brothers are now selling a frothy half-million servings annually—a level that Matt notes, “may be our sweet spot.”
Darin and Matt Riggs trace their fondness for beer back to their student days at Illinois, where they enrolled after graduating from tiny Heritage High School in Broadlands, Ill. (Matt was one in a class of 35, while Darin’s cohort had 38.) ROTC helped them meet the costs of their UI education.
“Darin and I were both on the Naval ROTC sailing team. We’d go up to Madison, Wis., and out to Boulder and the University of Colorado,” Matt recalls. “We would compete against their ROTC teams in sailing. Afterwards we’d all go out. This was the early 2000s, and there were breweries in Madison and Boulder. And we were, like, ‘How cool is this? They make beer here. We don’t have anything like that in central Illinois’.”
Matt went on to serve five years in the U.S. Marine Corps. Darin put in 10 years and remains a member of the U.S. Navy Reserve. After completing the 18-week brewery program at the University of California-Davis, Darin moved down the road to a mega-brewery gig at the Anheuser-Busch plant in Fairfield, Calif. His computer science background proved unexpectedly germane at the massive facility, where output was some 124 million gallons of beer annually.
“I started out in a shift manager position,” Darin recalls. “And then, lo and behold, I started working with some of the automation equipment like the programmable logic controller—the things that keep the entire factory of conveyors and pumps and motors and everything operating. After about six months, I moved up to a process engineer position where I finally put my computer science degree to work.”
Matt, meanwhile, had winged off to Germany—homeland of his wife, Caroline. He secured an apprenticeship with Brauhaus Faust, a 362-year-old brewery in Bavaria, a region where wheat beer reigns—especially Hefeweizen. From Faust, it was on to Doemens Akademie in Munich, where he earned German brewmaster certification.
By 2015, Darin and Matt Riggs were ready to bet the farm.
“We literally put everything we had into this,” Matt says.
They bought a derelict sports bar on the outskirts of Urbana—purchased, as it happened, from a neighbor whose farm adjoined their parents’ land. They procured top-of-the-line equipment, including 30 stainless-steel fermentation tanks in single, double and triple sizes, and a reverse-osmosis system to purify water for brewing. A four-vessel brewhouse allows rigorous control of the mash, the mix of malted grain and hops in which starch is converted to sugar, permitting subsequent fermentation of the beer. “IPAs, stouts and other craft beers don’t need a complex brewhouse,” says Matt. “German beers do.
Their commitment to sustainability extends from using non-GMO grains and minimal fertilizer for the crops that go into their beer to restricted use of carbon dioxide and chemical cleaning compounds. It’s also reflected in the massive solar array on the edge of the brewery parking lot which, Matt jokes, “serves in place of a billboard” for their goal to produce at least 90 percent of their electricity needs from the sun.
On weekends now, a loyal crowd flows in to occupy the easy-going taproom, with its central bar, big-planked tables and low benches. Brewery events range from receptions, weddings and private gatherings to live music, beer-release parties, board-game nights, drone races and Science on Tap, a monthly get-together featuring presentations by UI graduate students.
“We knew there was nothing like that here,” Darin said, thinking back to the beginning of the brothers’ dream. “And we saw that maybe someday that could be a great opportunity.”