Illinois GA Airport Unveils New Brew

St. Nicholas Brewery’s Wheelz Up IPA at KMDH is advertised as the “first beer brewed in a general aviation airport.”

St. Nicholas Brewing Co at Southern Illinois Airport offers a unique $100 hamburger stop or full weekend getaway in the Midwest. [Credit: Savanna Kathleen Photography and Caffeine Until Cocktails]

The $100 hamburger outing is a beloved aviator tradition, and St. Nicholas Brewing Co at Southern Illinois Airport (KMDH) just north of college town Carbondale, offers pilots an opportunity to turn the tradition into an overnight outing with great food, craft beers and artisanal cocktails, and trails to explore by bicycle or on foot. 

The brewery, which has two other locations in the area (all within a 45-mile radius), celebrated the tapping of its Wheelz Up IPA on Thursday, February 23, which it is advertising as the “first beer brewed in a general aviation airport.” The ale was brewed on-site at its airport location. The airport is one of the busiest airports in Illinois, after Chicago O’Hare and Midway. 

Abby Ancell, managing partner for the brewery, says it is a relatively new business—it’s been just under nine years since the first location opened. “We’re all cyclists,” she said of the business’s owners. “And when we opened our first location, it was really a spot for us to drink craft beer and eat good food. There weren’t a lot of craft breweries anywhere in southern Illinois at the time.” 

St. Nicholas Brewing Co. [Courtesy: St. Nicholas Brewing Co.]

Ancell said that Linda Shafer, wife of KMDH airport manager Gary Shafer, was a patron of the brewery and introduced her husband to its managers. The couple’s interest led to the idea of setting up a brewery location at the airport not only to give aviators stopping in for gas a place to have a meal, but also to foster a relationship between the local community and members of the aviation community. 

The planning process started five years ago, concurrent with the development of a new terminal at the airport. The opening of the brewery was delayed by the pandemic, but it came about in May 2022. 

“He came to us with this offer we couldn’t refuse,” Ancell said with a chuckle. “He felt there was no better way to bring [these community groups] together than food and beverage. Everyone likes to eat!” He saw it as an economic development opportunity for the airport. 

“They have been wonderful to work with,” Ancell said of the airport staff. “Just being in on how their vision and how they’re continuing to expand is amazing.”

For aviators who want to sample the brewery’s cocktails or craft brews, there are plenty of options for lodging and exploring the region. “We are right in the heart of Shawnee National Forest, and it’s truly one of the most beautiful places in the country,” Ancell said. “I mean—waterfalls, great hiking, little towns full of character and boardwalks are just 20 minutes away. And Carbondale is a unique, funky college town.” 

There are a variety of bed and breakfast and Airbnb options for visitors who’d like to stay in a nearby town, or even cabins in the national forest, Ancell said. Brewery staff and FBO employees love to help pilots connect the dots, including finding transportation options on the ground, she added. 

For visitors who aren’t beer enthusiasts, the brewery offers a full bar with unique craft cocktails. 

“Our bar manager is a mixologist who comes up with these delicious cocktails made from local ingredients,” Ancell said. “You would think you’re in a city, but you don’t have to pay $20 for [a drink].”

Southern Illinois University school of aviation trains students at KMDH, “so we get to watch their students and other pilots in training fly all day long, and it’s inspiring to see these young people with all this responsibility and passion,” said Ancell. Many of the students work part-time for St. Nicholas to help offset the cost of their training. In fact, almost all of the staff members are SIU students, Ancell said. 

This adds another link with members of the Carbondale community, who come in to eat and get to talk to student pilot servers about aviation. “They’re so interested in this world,” Ancell said of the locals. “The students love talking about [aviation], and the guests love hearing about it, so it’s a win-win for everybody.”

St. Nicholas Brewing Co. [Courtesy: St. Nicholas Brewing Co.]

The brewery has hosted events from graduation parties and rehearsal dinners to regional economic development meetings, and Ancell said they are working on future collaborations and events. They plan to host a fly-in and viewing event for the 2024 solar eclipse. 

St. Nicholas Brewing Co is open Tuesdays through Thursdays from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. (with the bar open later), and Sundays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. It is closed on Mondays. In addition to indoor dining, the brewery offers seating just off the ramp. There is a bar facing the runway. To make reservations, call (618) 529-3142. A menu and calendar of events may be found here.

A Reminder for Responsible Aviators

FAA alcohol regulations stipulate in FAR 91.17 that a pilot may not fly while under the influence of alcohol or with a blood content higher than .04%, and must wait a minimum of 8 hours after consuming alcoholic beverages before flying. Further, someone who is or appears intoxicated may not be carried as a passenger in a civil aircraft. Be aware that it could take longer than the minimum time to process the alcohol in your system and you could still be impaired after 8 hours have passed. Some pilots may need 12 to 24 hours alcohol-free before acting as pilot-in-command, and some operators require 12 hours. 

Amy Wilder is managing editor for Plane & Pilot magazine. She fell in love with airplanes at age 8 when her brother-in-law took her up in a Cessna 172. Pretty soon, Amy's bedroom walls were covered with images of vintage airplanes and she was convinced she'd be a bush pilot in Alaska one day. She became a journalist instead, which is also somewhat impractical—but with fewer bears. Now she's working on her private pilot certificate and ready to be a lifelong student of the art of flying.

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