LENA, Ill. — A home brewing beer kit purchased in 2009 has developed into artisan craft micro-brewery operated by Nate and Penny Peterson.
“Nate was getting more and more into craft beef, so for his birthday in 2009 I got him a kit,” said Penny Peterson about her husband. “He loved it immediately.”
“I didn’t even have the first batch in the fermenter, and I ordered three more kits,” Nate added. “I was brewing beer about every weekend, so the next logical step was to open a brewery.”
At the time, the Petersons lived in Freeport and wished for a farm. In January 2011, their goal to buy a farm became a reality when they purchased a 10-acre farm near Lena.
“That’s how we came up with the name of Wishful Acres Farm because we wished for a farm,” Penny said.
However, the farm they bought was quite a mess since it had been vacant for three years.
“There were animals in the house, holes in all the roofs of the buildings and weeds neck high so you could hardly see this barn,” Penny said.
Prior to moving to their farm, the Petersons grew organic vegetables on rented land, and they sold the vegetables at the Freeport farmers market.
“We jumped right in that first year and continued with the farmers market in Freeport, added the Rockford farmers market and started a CSA program,” Penny said.
In 2012, a big expansion was planned for the vegetable production along with the addition of chickens, pastured pigs and goats.
“Then the drought hit and the vegetables were smaller, the quantity was less, so I pulled out of the farmers markets in July and only continued the CSA,” Penny said. “That was the worst possible year to expand a farm business, and after that I pulled back to just the CSAs.”
From the time the Petersons first moved to their farm they talked about establishing a brewery, and in 2015 they felt ready to make that move. They filed the necessary federal, state and county paperwork to transform a former dairy barn into a taproom bar and brewery.
“I think this was a calf barn, and you can still see the ridges in the floor,” Penny said. “One of our customers brought in old photos of the farm when she lived here.”
The Petersons used a Farm Service Agency loan to renovate the barn and install a commercial kitchen.
“We did it all ourselves, except the plumbing,” Penny said.
“This area had been used as a recording studio, and it had rooms with big glass windows that were glued in,” Nate said. “We had to shatter the glass to remove them.”
Wishful Acres Farm & Brewery opened on Oct. 1, 2016.
“We incorporate a lot of the things we grow on the farm into the beer,” Penny said. “We just harvested hops last week, but we don’t have enough to make all our beer, so our fresh hops are in one special batch of beer.”
Bees also are part of the Wishful Acres, and the honey is used to make the honey wheat beer.
“The beers on tap change constantly,” Nate said. “We have 11 beers on tap and root beer and almost all rotate out except honey wheat and peach that we keep on tap all the time.”
The craft brewery offers stouts, Belgium style and IPA beers to name a few.
“Nate has made close to 100 different beers,” Penny said. “He brews beer once a week, and that’s a nice pace with our sales.”
“I use a three-barrel system, and I double-batch most of the time,” Nate said.
Wishful Acres also sells kegs of their beer to local bars and restaurants.
“Outside of our brewery, the honey wheat beer sells the best,” Nate said.
“Oktoberfest is coming, which is a lager and takes much longer to make,” he said.
Bigger And Better
The Petersons have been surprised by the number of people who visit their brewery.
“When I wrote the business plan, I had no idea how many people would come,” Penny said. “Within the first six months, we had blown past the year two projection and by year two we blew past the five-year projection.”
From the reviews from people who have visited Wishful Acres, people say they love the brewery because it is relaxed, the beers change all the time and the farm is in a rural area.
“We’re not on a lighted highway, so when you get here, you’re away from the sound of traffic and we’re a big believer in no TVs,” Nate said.
“People play cards and talk to each other,” Penny said. “Our brewery is very different, and most people love it.”
Since 2016, the brewery already has been expanded three times. When the Petersons first opened, the seating area was in one room.
“A year and a half ago, we finished the rest of the barn for seating and moved the brewery,” Penny said. “We also opened the beer garden.”
This past winter, the number of beers on tap increased from the original six to 11 beers plus root beer.
“About 50% of our customers are locals, and about 50% come from out of the area,” Penny said. “We have four lake communities within 30 minutes of here, and we get brewery tour traffic especially on Saturdays.”
Customers from as far away as Sweden and Australia also have visited the craft brewery.
“The people from Sweden were visiting people in Chicago and were on their way back to Minnesota on Highway 20 and they saw our sign,” Penny said. “You just never know who will walk through the door at our farm in the middle of nowhere.”