Iowa Taps the Craft Beer Renaissance
Story by J. Wilson, Photography by Paul Gates
It’s 10 a.m. on a sunny September day, and John Bueltel wields a paintbrush and a hammer, adding finishing touches to the taproom decor. Randy Romens stands nearby talking on his cell phone, coordinating fence installation for the outdoor beer garden. Grant Hebel is pumping brew from one stainless-steel tank to another. Tonight’s festivities will demand ample supply.
Many years of dreaming and seven months of sweat and paperwork have come to a head. The friends and business partners are in the final scramble toward opening the doors of Keg Creek Brewing Company in the southwest Iowa community of Glenwood and represent a growing part of the population focused on quality, flavor, and an appreciation for locally produced food products.
“I’m a guy that likes to have a beer,” says Romens, who differentiates himself from mainstream beer drinkers by discussing quality and flavor over quantity and inexpensiveness. “I don’t want to get drunk. I don’t want a six-pack. I want a beer.”
This burgeoning beer scene in Iowa is not an anomaly. “The increasing interest and support for today’s local breweries is amazing,” says Julia Herz of the Brewers Association in Boulder, Colorado.
“Year after year we have had continued growth in sales and production and more breweries opening, all of which lead to a beautiful advancement of U.S. beer culture.”
Back to the Future
Producing just three barrels (93 gallons) per batch, Keg Creek joins more than two dozen other craft breweries in Iowa and over 1,700 such small businesses across the country, according to statistics from the Brewers Association.
The growth in popularity and production in Iowa harkens back to a different era.
Before Prohibition (1920–1933) wiped out over 800 breweries across the nation, small breweries were common. Between 1933 and 1982 brewery numbers dropped from around 700 to about 50, with flavor and variety also diminishing.
Spurred by an increase in home brewing in the 1970s — legalized by the stroke of President Jimmy Carter’s pen on October 14, 1978 — the craft brewing industry has gained momentum in recent decades.
Like many professional brewers, Hebel started out brewing at home, exploring the complexities that can be achieved with just four ingredients: malted barley, hops, yeast, and water.
“I’ve always enjoyed the ‘What makes this beer different?’ kind of thing. And that’s what got me into drinking craft beer,” says Hebel.
After graduating from Iowa State University, the Iowa native moved to Colorado, where he fell into the brewing industry at Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver. When the owners sought to open a brewpub in Des Moines in 1997, Coy found his ticket home.
At that time the number of breweries in Iowa could be counted on one hand. Coy expects IBG membership to reach 30 in 2012.
A nonprofit organization working to showcase Iowa beer, promote communication among the state’s brewers, and lobby for progressive law change, the IBG was more of an idea than an organization until 2007.
Brewers that year coalesced around the effort to change Iowa’s beer law, which disallowed Iowa breweries to produce beers in excess of five percent alcohol by weight. Meanwhile, out-of-state breweries were free to brew higher-alcohol beers and distribute them as malt liquor through the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division. “We were at a competitive disadvantage,” says Coy.
The tenacious effort to even the playing field found good timing and broad support, and in March of 2010 Governor Chet Culver signed S.F. 2088 into law, lifting the limit to 12 percent and restructuring distribution.
“We’re stronger as a group than we are individually,” says Coy of the effort. “Here we are now enjoying the freedom to make styles of beer that we couldn’t before.”
“Among brewers, I think it has reignited enthusiasm for the craft,” says Worth Brewing Company’s Peter Ausenhus of the legislative change. “At least it has broadened the options for creativity and quality.”
Ausenhus and his wife, Margaret Bishop, opened Worth Brewing Company in Northwood on St. Patrick’s Day in 2007 after longtime home brewer Ausenhus had cut his professional teeth at Summit Brewing Company in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Living in a community of 2,000, they opted to go “nano,” which is the smallest of the small breweries — and intentionally so. Brewing just 10 gallons per batch, Worth is one of the smallest breweries in the country and has found success supplying its local market while contributing to an emerging segment of the tourist industry.
“Craft breweries are a draw to a town,” says the Brewers Association’s Herz, who notes that dollar growth in the craft beer market was up 15 percent in the first six months of 2011. “There is no doubt that tourism increases when breweries are present.”
Iowa is counting on that. “Get out there and try what Iowa has to offer,” says Colleen Murphy of the Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board, which works to educate the public and market the products from the local industry. “People will be pleasantly surprised and will definitely find a favorite.”
Having just returned from a 10-day beer tour of Germany and Belgium, Worth’s Ausenhus has observed firsthand beer’s role as catalyst for tourism from both sides.
“I see an increasing number of people stopping in the taproom as part of a concerted effort to visit as many local breweries and wineries as possible. We have been encouraged by the support.”
On Shelves and Online
While Iowa breweries like Keg Creek and Worth are exceptionally small, and some like Coy’s brewpub feature a restaurant component, others are larger-production breweries, bottling their wares and putting them on grocery store shelves.
Jake Simmons plans to soon oversee the production of 8,000 barrels of beer annually. Like Coy and Ausenhus, Simmons returned to Iowa after absorbing beer culture in other parts of the country. “I looked back at Iowa, and I just didn’t see it,” he says of the state’s latent embrace of craft.
Yet when the opportunity arose for him to wield the brewer’s paddle at Old Man River Brewery in McGregor, he took it. “It was a long-term dream to bring something back to Iowa.”
Success in distributing draught beer locally prompted Simmons to quadruple his production in a new $5.3 million Coralville brewery called Backpocket Brewing, which is scheduled to supply Old Man River while putting Simmons’ German-focused beers into bottles for wider distribution by the summer of 2012.
Simmons expects the 15,000-square-foot facility — which will become Iowa’s largest — to drive both tourism and education among customers.
Starting out on a 10-gallon system in October 2009 and quickly working toward a 20-barrel (620 gallons) system by March 2010, Peace Tree Brewing Company in Knoxville is an up-and-coming brewery known for quality, solid branding, and online community building.
“Social media provides the opportunity to network widely with people of like minds,” says Peace Tree co-owner Megan McKay Ziller. “We let our personalities hang out, and I think people really connect with it.”
“We wanted to do something good for our hometown,” says McKay Ziller of a taproom that periodically showcases artists and musicians.“Beer just happened to be the vehicle for that.
At first [our taproom customers] were local, then it was ‘the beer curious,’ and now it’s a lot more people from out of town seeking a good beer while on a trip.
A new but enthusiastic member of the craft beer scene, McKay Ziller has taken a seat on the Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board. She replaces longtime board member Teresa Albert, who, along with her husband, Tom, and business partner, Chris Priebe, purchased Amana’s Millstream Brewing Company in 2000, 15 years after it opened its doors as the first brewery to operate in Amana since 1884.
The oldest operating brewery in Iowa, Millstream today distributes in five states. Popularity has coalesced around excellence.
“The beer is most important to us,” says Albert, who focuses on sales and marketing for the brewery. “We dumped a third of the beer we brewed in our first year in an effort to work up the quality.”
Millstream’s attention to detail has earned the brewery numerous medals in national and international competitions. In 2011 its Back Road Oatmeal Stout took home the gold from the Great American Beer Festival, and its Schild Brau Amber Lager won the same top honor at the World Beer Cup.
With Iowa building a reputation in the craft beer world, Hebel and his Keg Creek business partners are tapping their kegs at an encouraging time.
Iowa’s microbrew landscape is blossoming — with recent brewery and sales growth in all corners of Iowa and a dozen more breweries in the planning stage — and Iowa brewers are ready to slake consumers’ thirst. As Coy notes, “There’s a lot of untapped potential all over the state.”