This past March saw Iowa legislators with, essentially, across the board support for a law allowing breweries in our friendly southern neighbor state to brew batches up to 12% ABV. Another antique blue law given a brief burial in the fields outside some hard working Iowa microbrewery, and a spring of hopeful inspiration for homebrewers, current & prospective.
Brewing lore isn't absent from Iowa's history. But, unlike Wisconsin, such history isn't being sold on highway billboards across a state that is mainly comprised of crossroads. The new law hopes to expand the potential of Iowa's fermented products, drawing eyes & tongues to the fine beverages already & soon to be crafted in the state.
A few facts...
- Iowa's first brewery opened in the middle of the 19th century, in Davenport. Around Iowa's Amish community, near Amana, the Millstream Brewing Company opened in 1895. For a time, it was one of four operating U.S. microbreweries.
- An Iowa City tavern credits itself with one of the first acts of independent beer marketing - adding food coloring to kegs of PBR for St. Patrick's Day, 1935; thus creating green beer.
- Though the temperance movement found early support in Iowa, so did its overturn a decade later. My Great-Grandfather Clayton Scott was known to reliably have a carboy of beer fermenting behind the stove, in those times.
SF 2091 is the bill passed by the legislature in March breaking the old 5% ABV ceiling for Iowa breweries & brewpubs. Though I doubt, in prehistory of the change, that Iowa homebrewers were sticking to the old limit, the red tape certainly made finding inspiration tough. In Minnesota we enjoy a bevy of cold microbrews from our neighbor states. Iowa's old statute allowed for interstate breweries to sell higher-alcohol brews, but they were classified as liquor & handled by the state's liquor office. This meant breweries like Bells, Goose Island & New Belgium had to deal with the state liquor board (not beer distributors) & have cases of their brew sit in a warm warehouse next to bottles of Jack Daniels before they could finally get to customers.
Today, the atmosphere for brewing in Iowa is thankfully much cooler. Fortunate for a state that is streamlining itself for the future.
I went to Des Moines in early April to get a taste of the last pre-SF 2091 brews on tap in the brewpubs along US highway 69. Between the MN border & Ames, the front porch/local bar culture remains an American standard. Though, between towns, the revolution of renewable resources finds a home within hundreds of thousands of acres of wind turbines. Iowans are becoming eco-receptive types!
Olde Main Brewing serves plenty of pints and growlers to ISU liberal arts college students & dinner crowds from the towns surrounding Ames. Nearly every Iowa brewery has an offering tailored for the macro crowd, and Olde Main's light brew & wheat ales are refreshing cornerstones. I found their Clone Ale, a pale with a piney bite went well with garlic chicken aioli egg rolls. A commandingly well-styled stout greeted our cheesecake desert.
We stopped at Hy Vee grocery to load up on Iowa's other micros, the brews coming from roads we wouldn't have time to traverse in one day. From north of Waterloo, Hub City Brewing in Stanley gave us an easy drinking, well malted Golden Ale; a brown ale that ranks with Summit's Great Northern; and one of the few Old Ales I've seen in regular production. Millstream's Windmill Wheat Lager & John's Generations White Ale drink splendidly with solid recipes showcasing the excellent, refreshing quality of their ingredients (their Schild Brau Amber recently won a gold medal at the World Beer Cup!)
Between our destination & Ames is my familial town of Elkhart (pop. about 500). A drive through the four downtown blocks found a new watering hole had opened. I could have never guessed the sole sign identifying it as a bar would be the Fat Tire logo! Even though my grandpa claims Pabst to be too extreme for his tastes, it's encouraging to know that micros are getting weaned into the tastes of satellite communities.
Des Moines is looking fresh, too; not just a microcosm of Minneapolis or Milwaukee, anymore. Sprawl is somewhat restrained around the beltway, where Granite City & Rock Bottom Brewpubs have now been established for the better part of a decade, or more. Following the vein of the old road downtown, one sees new pedestrian bridges, a cleaned up riverfront & a friendly service industry ready for both happy hour locals & Midwest travelers' pit stops.
A former saddle shop is the current front for Court Avenue Brewing. Well prepared Angus burgers & steaks matched well with a stout on cask; at such a temperature with its mellow roasty tone, a novice dark ale drinker would never turn away from another pint. Coming off a 5% lineup, their IPA hid that value well, behind a malt profile that tastes better-aged than many popular commercial examples.
If I had to generalize it, I'd say the beer culture among Iowa pubs matches the food culture: hearty. After a single day of pubcrawling down the state's center, my fiancee & I convalesced in our hotel room under that after-thanksgiving feeling of gratuitously full. We'd have to eat, drink and spend at least twice as much back home to replicate such a feeling. And that, my friends, has been the long tradition of Iowan cuisine.
Burgeoning would be my outlook for Iowa's post-SF 2091 brewing culture. Though having scant more than twenty breweries & brewpubs currently, I assure you there are certainly more savvy homebrewers across the state! The population already has a great state-mandated tradition of session brews that bear a balance of access to quality ingredients with proven brewing traditions. What's to be fermented next will be guided by Iowa's European heritage, popular demand, and of course, thirst...
The next year will undoubtedly find me back south, and I'm in high anticipation for the Imperials, Belgian-styles & Bocks that must be on the minds & hearts of Iowa's brewers. Through decades of watery commercial lagers, I can tell that the heart & heritage of brewing culture is beyond the formulaic stage. The Iowa ethic of hard work & stewardship of lands that provide a spectrum of brewing ingredients should more than do the trick. Competition & inspiration from a world of new brews (already on the shelves) ought to soon be fostering the zymurgy hobby & industry all over the plains.
Think Wisconsin, minus the driftless.