Time flies when you’re having fun, and there’s been plenty of that to go around at Rockford’s favorite dockside brewery on its journey from eyesore to thriving entertainment and dining venue.
When Prairie Street Brewing Co. opened its doors, the owners didn’t give much thought to what lay down the road. But now that a landmark anniversary is here, its staying power takes on added significance.
“It’s mind-blowing that it’s been 10 years,” says Reed Sjostrom, co-founder and chief brand and products officer. “We just wanted to create a place for Rockford to enjoy and bring a large-city feel to help regenerate downtown Rockford.”
A Rockford native, Sjostrom has tag teamed with another Rockford original, Dustin Koch, president and fellow co-founder, to put Prairie Street on the map. The pair met in middle school, but they didn’t become close until both returned home to Rockford after college.
Prairie Street Brewing Co. is a stunning, five-story red brick building housed along the banks of the Rock River. The building itself is the oldest brewery in the state of Illinois, going back to 1857 when it was known as the Peacock Brewery. These days, the fully restored Prairie Street Brewhouse, located at 200 Prairie St., is home to a brewery, brewpub, seven event spaces, dockside taproom, offices, lofts and a marina.
In 1999, Koch’s parents, Loyd and Diane Koch, purchased the building due, in large part, to their passion for boating and the Rock River. The plan to turn it back into a brewery and full-scale event center was hatched by Dustin. In 2013, it opened as Rockford Brewing Co. before being re-branded as Prairie Street Brewing Co. three years later.
Koch and Sjostrom have spent the better part of the past decade traveling the world, bringing back ideas from other popular restaurants to their hometown business. With a young family at home, Sjostrom travels less often these days, but Koch still makes the rounds, including a recent visit to Japan to tour several unique restaurants and check on a new brewery startup they’re involved with.
“So many recipes or styles you see or enjoy were probably developed somewhere else,” says Sjostrom. “We brought them here and made a local favorite. Look at the menu – everything from traditional American cuisine, Asian, Southwest, Mexican. It’s a melting pot of all things everywhere. We bring fun ideas back and our team of seasoned chefs put the Prairie Street spin on it and turn it into a classic.”
Food is served in the brewpub and main dining area as well as the dockside taproom downstairs. The menu has a variety of tastes from cheese curds and pretzels to sandwiches, burgers and salads.
Every month, Sjostrom, executive chef Josh Tourville and general manager Mike Ryan meet to talk about the nuts and bolts of the brewpub’s menu, which usually changes in the spring and fall. The recent spring tune-up included the addition of five new dishes and two more that were modified. The salmon poke and tofu poke were huge crowd pleasers, so they added a Japanese-style fried chicken poke and the shrimp poke to the menu.
“We always want honest feedback because we can’t be here unless customers are happy with the products we’re serving,” says Sjostrom. “If someone thinks something is bad, we take it to heart. We look at a particular dish and decide if it’s one person’s opinion or if we truly need to make a change.”
Then there’s the beer. There are typically 12 styles of beers available at any time, according to Sjostrom. There are favorites – like the Screw City, a light lager, and the Prairie Street IPA, which is a West Coast-style pale ale. The 90-pound hammer Bourbon Barrel Aged Barleywine is a seasonal classic that’s always a crowd pleaser. Also released last year were Pavo Real and a 10th anniversary champagne beer. New releases from January to April this year were “experimental” beers.
“We wanted to push them and let them stretch their legs,” says Sjostrom. “Our three brewers do a great job. They sold faster than we thought. Most everything was gone in two weeks.”
Without question, the hardest part of the past decade was navigating the murky waters of the COVID pandemic. Sjostrom says that, while it was difficult, the staff learned many valuable lessons.
“It was such a shock as things were happening; it’s still strange getting back into it,” he says. “But the thing that stuck with me is we had to be a lot nimbler and more flexible. Half of our bread and butter is weddings, and it was gone.
“The most important thing was keeping our staff. We couldn’t do it without these folks,” Sjostrom adds. “They are such a huge part of why we’ve been here for 10 years.”
Prairie Street is a popular spot for social gatherings. It offers six rooms as well as the outdoor river deck. There are spaces for everything from weddings to reunions to business meetings.
While the wedding business slowly returns, the average size of wedding celebrations has decreased. With that in mind, Prairie Street has started overhauling some of its event space. For example, the Bottle House was recently renovated with new carpet, paint and lighting.
“We are currently revamping the space to focus more on higher-end formal events,” says Sjostrom.
One facet of the business that hasn’t suffered is free public events, such as Dinner on the Dock, held every Thursday night until early September. Dinner on the Dock packs in the crowds with local bands, beer and food. Sjostrom says Dinner on the Dock is what got the ball rolling for Prairie Street.
“It’s such an iconic event – it was the first idea we had as a way to use this building,” he says. “It leans into the river so heavily. You can feel the waves crashing down, see the boats coming, and people walking from the neighborhoods and other parts of the city. It’s the only public event where we open the entire dock.”
One of the regular acts to play Dinner on the Dock is Sunset Strip, a popular local ’80s tribute rock band. “We love it,” says Jill Moth, better known as “Jill Jett,” the band’s keyboard player. “They’re good to us. It’s one of my favorite places to play.”
As a tribute to the past, Prairie Street held a smaller celebration in March that featured pizza from Woodfire Pizza, a downtown neighbor.
“When we first opened the brewery, we had no food, so Woodfire came out every weekend to cook up pizza,” says Sjostrom. “We decided to re-create that event for people to come down for pizza and beer.”
Another throwback event in the works is a Hoppy Halloween celebration scheduled for October, which was the first event Prairie Street ever held.
Each week now kicks off with Dockside Live, a night of locally focused live music from 6 to 9 p.m. every Monday through Sept. 4.
If that’s not enough, new this year is Truckin’ Tuesdays. Come hungry to Prairie Street every Tuesday through Aug. 29 to enjoy items from food trucks including 815 Taco Shell, Little Nick’s Barbecue and Sizz ‘N Fizz. “We have opening seating on the docks for a real casual dining experience offering food that you don’t normally get here,” Sjostrom says.
Prairie Street has packed in a lot of good memories during the past decade.
“In these past 10 years not only are we growing but downtown and the community around us is growing with us,” says Sjostrom. “Downtown is completely different from the day we opened our doors. People are excited whenever something new happens in downtown Rockford and we’re glad to be a part of it.”