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Lansing’s One Trick Pony Brewery: a craft beer oasis

New brew—CG Watershed—being released one day early: Friday at 5:00pm

One Trick Pony
Five years after opening One Trick Pony Brewery, owner Mark Kocol is looking for a larger location. Business has been good in Lansing, and he wants to stay here. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)
by Carrie Steinweg

LANSING, Ill. (October 2017) – It started as a one-year experiment.
“What’s the least amount of money you can spend to open a standalone brewery to see if you can keep it open for one year as an experiment?” That’s what Mark Kocol asked himself a few years ago. He decided he’d give it a go, and after a year he would see where he was at. He opened One Trick Pony in 2012.

To say the experiment was successful is an understatement.

Running out of room

One Trick Pony has since grown from a small tap room with a handful of tables and six taps to a new location a few doors down with increased space for brewing, more tables, a stage area, and 20 of their own beers on tap. And even in the new digs, One Trick Pony is bursting at the seams and considering yet another move.

“It’s five years later, and I’ve learned lots,” Kocol said. “We moved from our original spot down here to take over two spaces, and as you see when you look in the brewery, we are completely out of room. I’m kind of keeping my eyes open for a new space where I wouldn’t have to ever move again.”

Business has been good in Lansing and Kocol intends to stay here, looking for a larger spot that would have room to expand if needed. He also recognizes the need to bring more food options into the mix, which is currently limited to pizza, although customers are welcome to bring in their own food. At the time he opened, tap rooms that served strictly brews were the norm, but the industry has shifted with many becoming brewpubs with trendy menus of bar bites and seasonal entrees. Because space an issue, he’s toying with the idea of a food truck of his own. “The food truck industry has outgrown even brewing over the last five years,” he said.

Big demand for barrel-aged brews

There have been other changes in the brewing world in those five short years, one of them being the popularity of barrel-aged beers. As we move into the season of heavier beers, Kocol plans to bring back a couple of stouts that did particularly well. Cocoa Butter Kisses, a spiced imperial stout sold out in about two hours when it was released last February. Heavy Things, a Russian imperial stout will return around St. Patrick’s Day. “When it came out we did about a week and a half of sales in three hours,” said Kocol.

Barrel-aged beers spend a significantly longer time aging than other varieties. Whereas a standard ale can go from grain to glass in a couple of weeks, Kocol said that a barrel-aged beer needs a good six months minimum to mature, often much longer. That translates into a much higher percentage of Alcohol by Volume (Or “ABV”). Standard beers typically are around 4, 5, or 6% ABV and some of One Trick Pony’s barrel-aged versions have gone upwards of 12%. “We have Heavy Things in the tank right now sitting at 17 percent,” said Kocol.

As the beers age in barrels rather than stainless steel, they can take on a number of flavor characteristics based on the wood and what was previously in the barrel. “They are brewed like normal beers, but are bigger, bolder, and higher in alcohol content and will mellow out while aging in the barrel. The flavors tend to meld together,” he said. “We try to be unique and experiment with styles you don’t normally see.” One of those unusual flavors would be a highly-anticipated seasonal stout that uses squash.

You’ll have an opportunity to try two new barrel-aged brews this month. Kentucky Mountain Barrel-Aged Ale will be available November 18 and a very special seasonal beer called CG Watershed will launch at 5:00pm on Friday, November 3. (Note: The November 1 print edition of The Lansing Journal reported the CG Watershed release date as November 4. The release was moved up after publication.)

“CG Watershed is an American-style Imperial Spiced Porter, 12.5% ABV and released on tap and in bottles starting at 5:00pm on November 3,” said Kocol. “It is brewed with locally-grown, cinnamon-baked acorn squash. No, it’s not a lousy pumpkin beer! This is meant to showcase a traditional ingredient native to this area—North and Central America, to be exact—an area abounding in Indian trails used for settlement and trade, the same Native Americans who introduced the acorn squash to European settlers years ago.”

Getting started

The name for the craft brewery came about when Kocol was home brewing and getting repeated requests from a friend who favored India Pale Ales. Kocol responded by telling him that he wasn’t going to be his “One Trick Pony” and brew him IPAs all the time.

One Trick Pony
Owner Mark Kocol was determined not to be a “one trick pony” when he opened. He now has 20 beers on tap. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

David Murphy played a vital role in helping to get One Trick Pony off the ground. “He was eminently important in setting the brewery taproom’s early feel with his quick, corny jokes, engagement with customers, and effusiveness about how damn good our beer is,” said Kocol. The brewery now has a staff of six with a full-time brewer, Jonathan Hickey.

Growlers to crowlers

Over the years customers have come in not just to enjoy a pint at the bar, but to purchase beer to transport home in 64-ounce dark glass jugs called growlers. One disadvantage of a growler is that its contents have to be enjoyed quickly, as the screw on caps hold freshness for only a few days.

While growlers can still be filled at One Trick Pony, the brewery has also introduced a crowler system in which customers can select a beer and see it filled and canned before their eyes into 32-ounce containers. Kocol expects to have pre-canned beer available for sale before the holidays.

Adding entertainment

Last year open mic nights debuted with Ed Hill, and Kocol said that feature has been drawing in new people from all over on Wednesday nights. “You don’t need to call in advance. Just show up with instruments,” he said. “We encourage anyone that plays to get up there, and I really like the creativity. We had one girl come in with horrible stage fright and you could tell every bit of her rehearsal went out the window. But a couple guys went up and started playing behind her—and she knocked everyone dead.”

Open mic nights were so well-received that a permanent stage area was added, and a back room was opened up to extend seating. Bands are featured on the weekends—a mixture of local, touring, and cover bands. One Thursday a month, Paul’s Broken Radio, a local blues band, performs. There’s no cover charge for bands.

One Trick Pony
The stage area in One Trick Pony’s taproom is surrounded by a large collection of growlers from craft breweries around the country acquired from customers, who swapped them for a One Trick Pony growler. The photo, taken in 1913, is an image of a tavern that once stood on Torrence Avenue in Lansing. (Photo: Carrie Steinweg)

Where and when

One Trick Pony Brewery is located at 17845-17851 Chappel Avenue and is open seven nights a week until 10:00 or 11:00pm.

One Trick Pony Brewery
17845-17851 Chappel Avenue, Lansing, IL 60438
CG Watershed American-style Imperial Spiced Porter
Release Date: 11/3/17 at 5:00pm
Kentucky Mountain Barrel-aged Ale
Release Date: 11/18/17
Other reasons to visit:
• 20 beers on tap
• Mug Club to expand in January 2018 (daily discounts to members and exclusive, commemorative denim shirt)
• Private room available for holiday parties
• Open mic night every Wednesday, 7:00–11:00pm
• Live bands on weekends
Follow on Facebook for upcoming events

Carrie Steinweg
Carrie Steinweg
Carrie Steinweg is a freelance writer, photographer, author, and food and travel blogger who has lived in Lansing for 27 years. She most enjoys writing about food, people, history, and baseball. Her favorite Lansing Journal articles that she has written are: "Lan Oak Lanes attracts film crew," "Why Millennials are choosing Lansing," "Curtis Granderson returns home to give back," "The Cubs, the World Series, fandom, and family," and "Lansing's One Trick Pony Brewery: a craft beer oasis."