If you haven’t already noticed, craft beer is having a moment. According to the Brewers Association, the craft brewing industry grew by 16% from 2015 to 2016, and there are over 5,000 breweries in the United States, nearly 3,000 more than in 2012.
That’s a lot of beer.
Monticello, the town of about 5,500 people located southwest of Champaign, now has its own brewery: Monarch Brewing Company. This Kickstarter-funded brewery has an upscale restaurant on site, making it different than its friends in C-U — Triptych, Riggs, Blind Pig — and a self-proclaimed brewpub. (Bloomington-Normal’s Destihl also has the restaurant-brewery thing happening, but Destihl’s production line and restaurant prowess are larger than Monarch’s.) And certainly unlike its counterparts in C-U, Monarch Brewing Company is located in a renovated church, one that has quite a lot of sentimental value to the Monticello community (or so social media indicates). The building is over 100 years old, and was formerly the United Methodist Church. (Check out a little more info on Monarch’s Kickstarter page.)
Not too long ago, some friends and I got in the car and made the 20-plus mile drive to Monticello with the express purpose of checking out this newly opened restaurant and brewery. Monarch opened in early April, and appears to be well received, based on social media posts and reviews. When we arrived, the parking surrounding this church-turned-brewpub was crowded, and we were told the wait for a table would be about 45 minutes.
As we made our way through the space to the bar for some drinks, we all whipped our heads around to check out the space. I don’t know what the interior of the church looked like before the brewpub opened, but I can say that the new space is fairly neutral and plain; the original stained glass windows bring all the pizzazz, and the evening light filtering through them was really, really beautiful. Because the space is completely open with incredibly high ceilings, the music and gentle roar of conversation was amplified. The main dining space appears to be in what was the nave, or main seating area, of the church, while the bar is located in the “overflow” area. The restaurant reads as one contiguous space, save for the high top tables in the bar, and standard height tables in the main dining area.
Lucky for us, the weather was beautiful so we grabbed some drinks and sat outside at one of the several picnic tables Monarch positioned on the side of the building. During our time sitting outside waiting for an inside table, a Monarch employee came around to check in and see if we needed anything. It was a nice touch, especially considering the outside seating was completely disconnected from the restaurant — it was down a few steps and on the side of the building, not out on a patio.
I had five ounces of each of the three Monarch brews on tap: Caldwell’s kölsh, False Alarm (a pale ale), and Zihuatanejo stout. The kölsh tasted like a yeasty beer — it reminded me of what my younger self thought beer tasted like, but better. It’d be a solid as a cold brew on a hot summer day. False Alarm, the pale ale, was citrusy and refreshing. The Zihuatanejo stout was also a solid brew, with the quintessential malty-roasty flavors, though they were not overpowering. There weren’t any detailed descriptions of the brews on the menu, and the bartenders were too busy to answer a bunch of questions, so I don’t know the stories of their names. All three seemed to me to be good examples of their respective type of beer.
When we were finally seated, about an hour and some change after our initial arrival, our server greeted us warmly and took our drink order. We placed our drink orders, an appetizer of pretzel braids with beer cheese sauce ($8), as well as our entrées. After about ten minutes, our server returned and told us the pretzel braids were out, so we ordered the kölsch brined wings with the dry rub ($8, also available with buffalo or barbecue).
By the time we sat down and ordered our food, the restaurant had thinned out, so we were all surprised when our appetizer took an incredibly long time to arrive. We watched as other tables (seated about the same time as us) received bread baskets, and after asking for one, we received one too. The bread was warm and a much needed bit of food after an hour and half of waiting. Shortly after the bread came out, our wings also arrived. They were small, and not beautifully plated, but they were hot and salty and sweet and garlicky. They were gone in about two minutes.
As we continued to wait, 10 minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes, we flagged down our server to check on the status of our food. Our server was pleasant and confirmed that it should be right up, and that she would check on it immediately. When our food finally arrived, it was an hour after we were seated, a solid two hours after we initially arrived at the restaurant. I’m not sure what the dysfunction was in the kitchen, but the wait was absolutely ridiculous, and was hopefully a one-time situation.
A friend ordered the night’s special: an eight-ounce filet of beef served with two bacon-wrapped scallops, grilled broccolini, and fries ($32). The filet was cooked properly to medium-rare and the scallops were nicely browned. The broccolini could have probably been cooked a little longer, as it was a little tough, but the fries were tasty and well seasoned.
Another friend ordered the beef tenderloin filet ($23), which is served with a choice of two sides. My friend selected fries and avocado fries (additional $1.25). There aren’t that (m)any places in the greater C-U area that have avocado fries on the menu, so we were all pretty excited to try them. When her plate arrived, the server asked to her to cut into the filet to ensure it was cooked properly, which seemed strange to all of us. It wasn’t — it was well overcooked — but since we had already waited an hour since ordering, she didn’t send it back. The avocado fries were battered and fried to golden perfection; the creamy avocado became just slightly warm and soft inside the batter, making them a perfect combination of crispy-crunchy and soft and smooth. If you haven’t had a chance to try avocado fries, treat yourself when you have an opportunity.
My husband ordered the burger ($8), with fries (we all like fries, apparently). The burger was cooked nicely, and was generally a solid example of a burger. Sadly for us fry-lovers, his were cold.
I ordered the half order of the beer steamed mussels ($6/$12 for the whole order) and the loaded twice baked potato side ($5). The mussel dish was quite generous for a half order. The dish was quite good, though I think a more robust sausage and some in-season fresh tomatoes and onions would take it to the next level. The crostini were perfectly toasted and buttered; I could eat an entire baguette sliced and toasted like that. The potato arrived looking a little sloppy on the plate, and I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as loaded, but was creamy and cheesy and indulgent.
The food was solid and the servers (including the bartenders) were all friendly. The kitchen problems were unfortunate, but can hopefully be resolved quickly and with more efficient management. The pricing of the menu was a little perplexing. It was strange to me that my dish of mussels was $6 while my half of potato with some cheese and five bacon bits was $5 — they just didn’t feel equivalent. The higher price point makes Monarch a bit of a treat, though if you’re dining with children, the kids’ menu features four different selections at $4.50, which is practically free, right? The affordability of the children’s menu makes it easier for families to dine together, especially when entrées are close to the $20 mark.
Monarch Brewing Company is brand new, and kinks and missteps are to be expected. Right now there are only three or four of their brews on tap, and as the brewery portion gains momentum, I’m eager to try more. The bar has over twenty different “guest” beers on tap, including other locals like JT Walker’s, Triptych, and Riggs, and that lineup is always changing. Likewise, the restaurant has been consistent in offering daily specials at various price points: sandwiches and burgers at $8 and up, as well as the protein-heavy dishes at $20 and up.
If you live in or close to Monticello, checking out Monarch Brewing Company is a no brainer. If you’re hesitant to make the drive from a little further out, just plan accordingly. Check out the dinner and beer menus ahead of time, and check Facebook for the daily special(s). I recommend picking a nice day to visit so that you may enjoy a brew outside if you have to wait for a table. It’s refreshing to see a community rally behind a meaningful and beautiful structure, to breathe new life into something that could have been torn down and replaced with something ugly and cheap. Instead, a small town now has a brewpub featuring locally made craft brews, a new house of worship, if you will.
Monarch Brewing Company is located at 212 South Independence Street, Monticello, and is open Tuesday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. (kitchen until 9 p.m.); Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. (kitchen until 10 p.m.); and Sunday 4 to 8 p.m.
All photos by Jessica Hammie.