Q&A with Ray Stout: The Illinois Craft Brewers Guild’s new executive director chats about the industry surviving Covid, the state’s impressive array of beer, and local breweries having each other’s backs
Q: You’ve been on the job for a little over nine months now. How have you enjoyed meeting the Guild’s members and getting settled in your role?
A: I have been telling people I have the best job in America. We have some of the smartest and most interesting people involved in the craft beer scene here in Illinois, and they brew some of the best craft beer in the country. At the end of the day, I am fighting to help small local businesses grow in this state, and that is the best part of the job.
The craft beer industry drives job growth and revenue across several allied industries, including tourism, hospitality, manufacturing and farming, with an emphasis on local, innovation and collaboration. Craft breweries are often located in vacant warehouses or industrial buildings, are not limited by geography, and often serve as destinations for tourists and a gathering place for members of the community. The best part is that every dollar you spend at an independent craft brewery stays right here in Illinois, and you get to drink world-class beer!
Q: Tell us a bit about you and your background, and why you thought this position was a good fit for you.
A: I have spent the past decade directing the operations and organizing efforts for advocacy organizations. Before moving to Illinois in 2019, I was living in Vermont, where I saw firsthand just how transformative a robust craft beer culture can be for the state, for local economies and for residents.
I am a homebrewer, an avid collector of taproom shirts (much to the chagrin of my wife, as they are slowly taking over my wardrobe) and a lover of craft beer. I think my background is a perfect fit because the real political power of the craft brewing industry resides in our ability to organize and galvanize brewers and beer enthusiasts toward policies that make it easier — not harder — to brew and sell craft beer in Illinois.
Illinois craft breweries made 13,578,000 gallons of beer in 2021! Even though most craft breweries would be considered small businesses, the brewing industry has more than a $3.3 billion impact on the Illinois economy each year.
Q: What’s one thing that you’ve been surprised by thus far?
A: One thing that was surprising to me was the size and magnitude of the craft beer industry in Illinois. Illinois craft breweries made more than 438,000 barrels of beer in 2021. That’s over 13,578,000 gallons of beer! Even though most craft breweries across the state would be considered small businesses, the brewing industry has more than a $3.3 billion impact on the Illinois economy each year.
Craft beer also is a huge job creator. In a recent study by the Worldwide Brewing Alliance, it was reported that for every job at a brewery, another 29 jobs were supported up or downstream in the supply chain, plus another 10 jobs were supported through the induced consumer-spending channel. One brewery job creates and supports 39 other jobs — now that’s amazing to think about.
Q: Most breweries were able to keep producing and selling beer during the pandemic, and find unique ways to reach new customers. But that doesn’t mean things weren’t tough. Explain how the state’s craft beer industry is feeling coming out of Covid.
A: The pandemic was hard for the entire hospitality industry, but especially for craft breweries. Craft breweries don’t fit nicely into one specific hospitality category because they are not quite restaurants, not quite taverns or bars, and not quite production-only facilities. They are a little bit of everything. Because of the hybrid nature of their businesses, many breweries were unable to access pandemic-relief funds at both the state and the federal levels.
On top of that, they had to pivot so quickly and so drastically away from a business model that most had relied on for so long: taproom sales. The typical independent craft brewery makes about 70 percent of its revenue from taproom sales, so suddenly being 100 percent reliant on to-go sales, curbside pickup, local distribution and at-home beer delivery was a significant departure. All the brewers I talk to are very happy taprooms have reopened and are eager to get back to business as they know it.
Q: What do you believe are the biggest challenges facing the craft beer business right now?
A: Customer buying habits have changed drastically, with more and more customers purchasing goods online for delivery. Currently, our laws here in Illinois do not allow for direct home delivery of beer from breweries (even though brewers were afforded that opportunity during the pandemic), nor do they allow the beer to be shipped to a customer by U.S. mail or a third-party carrier. The Illinois liquor laws must be amended to allow craft brewers to meet their customers where they are, and every day it looks like home is that place.
The pandemic has impacted the craft beer industry in other ways as well. All along the beer-supply chain, prices have increased drastically over the past 24 months. With the costs of ingredients and packaging increasing, brewers are finding new and innovative ways to reduce costs and keep making quality beer.
I would say the last real challenge is shortages in staffing. Just like the restaurant and other hospitality industry members, many breweries are having trouble attracting and retaining staff, so be extra nice to those folks who pour you a beer next time you are out.
Q: How excited are you about partnering with Illinois Brewing magazine, and how do you see this partnership helping promote your members and the craft beer scene as a whole?
A: I am really looking forward to this collaborative effort. The team over at Illinois Brewing magazine brings so much experience to the table. I am excited that we are working on a publication that will be in the hands of thousands of people with the intentional purpose of promoting and showcasing Illinois craft breweries.
Q: Tell us a bit about FoBAB this November.
A: FoBAB is North America’s largest and most distinguished barrel-aged beer festival and competition, featuring samples from more than 150 craft breweries and fierce competition for hardware and bragging rights. FoBAB is a must-attend festival for anyone who appreciates the craftsmanship and complexity of wood-aged beer, cider, mead and perry. This year marks the 20th anniversary of this event, and it’s going to be a great one! Be on the lookout for more information including dates, times and tickets at fobab.com
My favorite part of this job is getting to explore all the breweries around the state, and that’s exactly what I would encourage our readers to do. From Chicago to downstate and everywhere in between — they all are doing something unique.
Q: We’re always pleasantly surprised by the genuine camaraderie that exists between craft breweries in Illinois. There’s a real bond between everyone that doesn’t exist in other industries. Why do you think that is, and how have you seen it help the ICBG grow?
A: I agree, and I’m glad you picked up on this too. This was another thing that surprised me about this industry — we really do have each other’s backs. Two of the best examples I can think of are how the craft beer community rallied support for both Skeleton Key Brewery and Twisted Hippo.
Back in June 2021, Skeleton Key Brewery in the southwest suburb of Woodridge was destroyed by a tornado. Within days there was an online campaign circulated by craft beer industry members with a goal of raising $20,000 for immediate relief for staff salaries, moving packaged beer out of the brewery, and rebuilding. This campaign ended up raising over $145,000. In addition, the team at Skeleton Key was welcomed into several breweries to brew collaborations while they were in the process of rebuilding. Skeleton Key is now back open for business in part because of the generosity of the Illinois craft brewing community.
In February of 2022, disaster struck the craft beer community again when a fire destroyed the beloved Albany Park brewery Twisted Hippo. But the Illinois craft brewing community again joined together to raise over $179,000 through a Go Fund Me campaign and hosted an extremely successful in-person fundraiser at Eris Brewery and Cider House.
I can’t think of another industry that comes together like this in times of trouble, and I am proud to be part of the craft beer movement here in Illinois.
Q: If you’re catching up with a group of friends at a brewery and you have one style of beer to pick, what are you ordering? What’s your go-to?
A: A wise person once told me to answer this question with “The best beer is the one that’s in front of me.” I can’t pick just one style or place. My favorite part of this job is getting to explore all the breweries around the state, and that’s exactly what I would encourage our readers to do. There are so many great breweries — from Chicago to downstate and everywhere in between — and they all are doing something unique. From lagers to barrel-aged stouts, our brewers are producing award-winning beer right here in Illinois.
My best advice would be to pick a neighborhood, suburb or city you don’t spend a lot of time in and try the breweries there. You will have an awesome time. Craft beer is about exploration, and I encourage you all to explore.