Posts Tagged ‘iowa beer’

Des Moines’s Newest Brewery

Saturday, August 18th, 2012

Anchoring the end of Walnut, where it meets 16th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard, sits the Fitch soap company building. Like many structures around the western gateway, this building dates to the roaring twenties when industrial Des Moines was booming, but has sat empty for many decades. That is, until R.J. Tursi decided it was the perfect location to open his Exile Brewing Company.

Exile is cut from a slightly different cloth than Court Avenue or Raccoon River, Exile’s older siblings. While those well-established eateries have more of the traditional brewpub look, Exile meshes in modern design elements, though all three occupy rehabbed space. For more details as well as pictures of the dining areas, check out the coverage in the Reggie.

On the brewery side everything seems scaled to grow. A new four vessel 30 barrel Specific Mechanical brewhouse gives Exile the ability to brew multiple batches. Assuming they can get the staff and make the sales, they will be able to produce beer essentially continuously.Exile Brewhouse One bottleneck will be the cellar, as Exile currently has only three fermentation tanks, though at a 60 barrel capacity each they’re certainly nothing to sneeze at.

They also have six lager tanks in the massive cooler, as well as a brite tank. Another bottleneck will be serving. Since Exile has no dedicated serving tanks, every drop will be kegged. Much of it will be sold off-premise at bars and restaurants around town, in a similar strategy as CABCo has been adopting recently. However Exile has a much larger capacity, and plenty of room to grow.

Exile CellarAt the time of my visit they did not yet have their own beer available, with one exception: they had a Maibock which was contract brewed at the Gordon Biersch facility in Kansas City. However, they have been madly brewing the past week and a half, and they should have a few locally-produced beers available soon. Among those will be a Munich gold lager, a honey lager and a hefeweissen.

The head brewer is John Woodford, a recent Iowa State grad. Though he has a degree from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, he has no professional brewing experience, so he seems like a strange choice for head of a new brewery. But the proof is in the pudding, so I’ll have to wait to judge until they have beer on offer that was brewed under his supervision.

The Maibock is a pale coppery amber with an opalescent haze. There is a bit of off-white head, but not much. The nose is malty and sweet, with notes of biscuits, toast and nuts. I’d like there to be more pronounced hop character, as that is one of the defining characteristics of a maibock.

The flavor is likewise sweet and bready. A bit of noble hops come out early but quickly fade. The sweetness is cloying, lingering far too long. If the hops were more assertive, that might not be as much of an issue. As it stands it’s tasty, but it’s hard to drink more than one.

+/-Exile Maibock

3.2 (3-7-7-2-14)

Iowa IPA Challenge

Wednesday, March 30th, 2011

Apparently tonight, in downtown Iowa City, there was a major throwdown of Iowa-made India pale ales. You probably haven’t heard about it, and even if you had, you would be hard pressed to find any information at all. The only reference on the series of tubes seems to be a tweet from Short’s that it is happening either during or as a part of the Top Chef of Iowa City. This event is being put on by the Downtown Association of Iowa City, and features chefs battling it out for culinary champion as well as bartenders showing off their most “creative” cocktails.

Short’s Burger & Shine has been making waves since they switched all of their taps to Iowa-made beers last year. Apparently, with this challenge they were hoping to capitalize on the recent growth of Iowa craft beer and an already-planned foodie event. I would argue that they made three critical errors in calling for this competition.

First, the timing. The tweet mentioning the challenge appeared yesterday on Short’s feed. They even admitted to having a paltry three entries. Three beers is a tasting, not a competition. Eric Sorensen, brewer at Rock Bottom in Des Moines, tweeted simply, “wish we would have had more notice.”

Second, the venue. The Top Chef event is tied in with the Downtown Association’s annual meeting. Surely the focus at that meeting will be on the operations of the association. Where the entertainment comes into play, it is reasonable to assume that the stars of the show will be the chefs and bartenders, since that is the competition that has been advertised.

Finally, the audience. I would expect that the majority of the attendees of this evening’s events are members of the association hosting the meeting. These are businesspeople, not beer aficionados. These are people who purchased their tickets over a week ago to an event that, at the time, had no beer elements. An Iowa IPA Challenge is a grand idea, but it must be held where all beer lovers can take part.

Enough complaining, let’s try some beer. Tonight I will be tasting four Iowa-made India pale ales. My review of Millstream Iowa Pale Ale is almost two years old, so I’ll re-rate it, but I just tasted both of the Peace Tree IPAs a few weeks ago so we can let those reviews stand. This all means that my Iowa IPA Challenge has twice the number of entrants of the “official” one.

First up, the Iowa Grown I.P.A. made by Madhouse Brewing Company in Newton. Since it is made with Iowa-grown hops, I picked up this beer for a post I will be doing soon about local ingredients, but it seems fitting to rate it today. The Iowa Grown IPA pours a burnt orange color, nearly clear, with some creamy white head. The nose is simply not hoppy at all. There is a caramel malt character like raisins that borders on vinous.

There is some hoppiness to the flavor, a deep, earthy grassiness. But the hops contribute minimal perceptible bitterness, and no strong, clean flavors. The caramel malt character carries through, maintaining the raisin and vinous flavor. A residual sweetness would balance the hops if they were there. The carbonation is a bit too intense. The flavor is unsettling, and not just because you expect to taste an IPA. This beer hasn’t really ever heard of the style.

Now I will taste the Iowa Pale Ale from Millstream Brewing Company in Amana. The Iowa Pale Ale is a very hazy pumpkin orange color. The buff-colored head is creamy and generous. The hops make the aroma citric and astringent, like the contribution of orange peel to a Belgian wit. Otherwise the nose is barren, with almost no malt character and no readily identifiable hops.

The flavor is mild and citric, as the aroma would indicate. The astringent citrus character continues to lend a Belgian wit quality to the beer: were it not for the color and body, you might mistake this for a witbier. There is a thickness to the palate and some residual sweetness; however, there is no rich malt flavor to justify it. This beer had a friend once who knew what it was like to be an IPA.

Next up, the double IPA from Millstream, HOP2, which has the dubious honor of having the worst label of the group. Even for Millstream this label is bad. Just look at it. No wait, don’t.

The HOP2 pours a copper-tinted auburn, opalescent, with some creamy off-white head. The nose of this beer, like the regular IPA, is disturbingly citric, in this case more like lemon peel. There is also an unpleasant character that I could name, but won’t here for the reader’s sake. It’s mild, so hopefully you won’t pick it up. There is a bit of a caramel malt character, but hardly any.

The flavor is simply unpleasant. There is a medicinal alcohol flavor, which could be the result of either of two major issues. First, they might be stressing the yeast past its point of comfort, in which case they would simply need to switch to a new strain. My suspicion, however, is that this flavor comes from the use of hop extract, used to try to boost the hop flavor and bitterness cheaply.

If you can get past this off-flavor, the beer is not too bad. There is a decent grassy hop character, as well as some sweet, toasty, caramel malt flavor. But those are hard to detect behind the sharp fusel alcohol bite. This beer probably read the Wikipedia article on India pale ale.

For my last Iowa-made India pale ale I had to step out. I headed over to Devotay to try the Golden Nugget on tap. This IPA is made by one of the newest Iowa breweries, Toppling Goliath Brewing Company in Decorah.

The Golden Nugget pours a lightly hazy pale straw with some bone-white head. The nose is mild, but pleasantly so. The Nugget hops certainly come through, producing a lightly fruity and earthy nose dominated by grapefruit and pine. There is just the faintest malt aroma.

The taste follows the aroma: the pine and grapefruit from the hops give a rich hoppy foundation. Some bready malt begins to balance, but this beer is very dry, so the bitterness starts to get away again. There is just a bit of a sweetness or richness that is soon overtaken by the lingering bitterness. The Golden Nugget isn’t too hoppy, it could just use a bit more malt to balance it out. Now here is a beer that understands what an IPA really is.

Well, if you add to this discussion my ratings of the two Peace Tree India pale ales, I think you have a pretty good overview of the Iowa craft brewing scene. Take that how you will, but I’m content looking forward to more beers from breweries like Toppling Goliath and Peace Tree.

+Toppling Goliath Golden Nugget

3.7 (2-8-8-3-16)

+/-Madhouse Iowa Grown I.P.A.

2.8 (3-6-5-3-11)

+/-Millstream HOP2

2.8 (4-6-5-3-10)

+/-Millstream Iowa Pale Ale

2.8 (4-5-5-3-11)

Peace Tree Imperial Stout

Tuesday, March 15th, 2011

Tonight I am going to try the new imperial stout from Peace Tree Brewing Company in Knoxville, Iowa.

The Imperial Stout pours a deep, dark black color, with a generous amount of creamy, sepia-tone head. The nose is very light. A bit of caramel malt, and some roast malt adds a burnt character. There is a bit of a fruity yeast aroma as well.

The flavor is much cleaner than you would expect from an imperial stout. The malt flavor is sweet to the point of being cloying. Much too much caramel malt and far too little roasted barley makes this beer just sweet and not very stout. The only strong flavor is the yeast fruitiness, entirely inappropriate for the style.

This beer is lacking any real character, and the sweetness makes it unpalatable. Do yourself a favor and just get the Gumbo Stout or the Imperial IPA instead.

-Peace Tree Imperial Stout

2.8 (4-7-5-1-11)

Peace Tree, Day Two

Monday, February 21st, 2011

A major factor in the success of the Peace Tree Brewing Company has been the wide availability of their beer. Distribution has always presented something of a chicken-and-egg problem for small breweries. Winning the shelf space of retailers without any brewing history is difficult, and taking away tap handles from other brands (especially ones from the big three brewers) can be next to impossible. Fortunately things have been changing, and the state of Iowa has slowly built up a craft beer culture. It is onto this burgeoning scene that Peace Tree has burst.

They wasted no time at all building a wide distribution network. Though they are anchored by a dozen locations around Knoxville, including their own tap room, the real strength of their growth can be seen in the liquor section of Hy-Vee. Timing their opening just perfectly with a recent push by that store to expand craft beer and wine selections, Peace Tree beers are now available at more than forty Hy-Vees statewide. Considering beer purchasing is done individually by each local store, this illustrates a dedication to making their beer available.

But what is most impressive is the number of Peace Tree’s draft accounts in Des Moines and Iowa City. There basically isn’t a bar of consequence in either town without at least one of Red Rambler or Hop Wrangler. Peace Tree is quickly becoming Iowa’s own little New Glarus.

Tonight I will have two more beers. The first, a seasonal farmhouse ale, is brewed with not just corn, but also corn stalks. I’d also say that the name Cornucopia fits very well with yesterday’s discussion of roots. After that I will have a bottle of the year-round Rye Porter.

Cornucopia pours a very pale straw color, just barely shy of brilliantly clear. The head is bone white, just a thin little pillow that doesn’t linger. A rich but delicate bread character from the malt supports the fruity aroma that is the star of the nose. This characteristic raspberry peach calling card is created by Peace Tree’s strain of Belgian yeast. They use the same for (almost) all of their beers, but nowhere else does it shine like this.

A spicy yeast flavor and a alcoholic sharpness make this beer a bit more intense than one would expect. The alcohol turns quickly to warming, and the black pepper and coriander almost yield to the malt. The corn makes the body quite light, and the corn stalks give a bit of a graininess to the flavor. Certainly a beer to drink fresh.

Now to the Rye Porter. This one is a very dark, very hazy, chocolate color, with some creamy, sandy brown head. The nose is at first roasty, strongly of burnt toast. A light berry fruitiness grows to balance, and the roast character turns to coffee.

Rich toast and caramel marries with the spiciness from the rye, creating a deep and intriguing combination. Espresso and strong dark chocolate flavors balance the milky palate and sweet caramel malt residual. Very thick and rich, but still refreshing.

+Peace Tree Rye Porter

3.8 (4-7-8-4-15)

+Peace Tree Cornucopia

3.5 (3-8-6-3-15)

Peace Tree, Day One

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Over the next several days I will be tasting everything I can get my hands on from one of the most exciting new Iowa breweries, Peace Tree Brewing Company in Knoxville. They started making beer barely more than year ago, and hosted their grand opening just last March. However, as I understand it, they now produce as much beer as anyone else in the state.

What has driven this explosive growth? The powerhouse team behind Peace Tree, Megan McKay Ziller, her husband Scott Ziller, and her father Daniel McKay have managed to hit a sweet spot that has enabled their continuous expansion. In my mind it is three specific factors.

First, the beer. No brewery can have any measure of success without consistently producing drinkable and interesting beer. Peace Tree lured brewer Joe Kesteloot from the Cold Spring Brewery to capably tackle that side of things. This and the next few posts will certainly examine Peace Tree’s beers.

Next, the marketing. The label and tap art is unique and interesting but also classy and consistent. The bottled beers come in those squat, round bottles you’d usually see holding a particular Jamaican beer (“hooray, beer!”), which makes them stand out just a little bit more. And above all, the team has done a great job of getting accounts in some important Iowa bars and retailers, making their beer highly available. I’ll talk more about this later.

Lastly, it is authenticity. Peace Tree exudes honesty. The brewery is named for the old stump that today juts out of the reservoir named (questionably) Lake Red Rock. Before the area was flooded, this tree served as a meeting point for Native Americans, and later fur traders.

It is in that vein that tonight I taste two beers that are named for local landmarks. The Red Rambler is an homage to the building the Peace Tree brewery is in, which in a former life was a Nash Rambler dealership. After that I’ll have the Black River Gumbo Stout, named for the rich black gumbo soil of the Des Moines River. This brewery actually has a beer named for dirt.

The Red Rambler pours mostly clear, a beautiful copper to ruby color, with some creamy off-white head. The nose is light but very intriguing. The malt is most prominent, with plenty of melanoidins making toast and caramel notes. In the background lie nut and raisin aromas, with a bit of a fruity hoppiness adding character.

The flavor is very refreshing. The bitterness is immediately apparent – strong, but smooth. Rich malt flavors help bring it in balance, but this beer still leans towards hoppy. Herbal hops combine with bread and toast for a lively and interesting flavor. The body is present, but not full, and the carbonation light and creamy. The malt flavor lingers for a moment, the herbal hops just a moment longer.

The Black River Gumbo Stout is, appropriately, a very dark beer, black to all but the brightest of lights. The ample creamy head is pale bronze color. The aroma is rich with roasted malts. A toasty, woody, even smoky character is offset by a rich and sweet nuttiness. Hazelnuts and walnuts are joined by plums before being overtaken by burnt bread. A deeply mesmerizing aroma.

The flavor is certainly roasty, but much less oppressive than suggested by the aroma, coming off more like coffee and chocolate. Fruity character from the Belgian yeast makes for a lively balance. Thick caramel and roasted malt flavors do battle with the herbal hops and fruity yeast across the surface of your tongue. Eventually the malt wins out, leaving a caramel malt sweetness and roast malt bitterness lingering for a moment, not unlike a good coffee.

+Peace Tree Black River Gumbo Stout

4.0 (4-9-7-4-16)

+Peace Tree Red Rambler

3.7 (3-8-7-4-15)

The Taps Runneth

Friday, March 26th, 2010

I am tasting my first sips of freedom.


Today, at 12:00 AM, John’s Grocery officially began selling high-proof beers from Bell’s Brewery, including Two Hearted, Expedition Stout, and their Old Ale. This is the first strong beer I am aware of sold in Iowa.

The night perhaps had an atmosphere similar to an evening 77 years earlier.


They also got a number of kegs, including Hopslam that will be on tap at the Hideaway and Red’s in North Liberty, as well as a few from Peace Tree Brewing from Knoxville, Iowa.

I’ve had Two Hearted before, but never has it tasted this good.

High-Gravity Beer

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

Once again the issue of high-gravity beer has been raised, now in a story for Radio Iowa by Pat Curtis. He covers most of the major points of the issue while staying neutral.

But nothing can hide the confusion of Lynn Walding (head of the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division). “I think it’s a little disingenuous and misleading to call them beer… they’re aging and finishing like a scotch whiskey.” Let’s ignore for a moment that it’s not the place of the state to define a well-defined term (like pi?). We can’t ignore the fact that these beers age and finish like (and are almost exclusively in the alcohol range of) fine wine, not spirits. And in Iowa, native wines are legislatively encouraged for their economic development effects. Wineries are invited to the ABD for feedback. Where are our native breweries? Why were they not invited? All brewers want is equality.

This might also be a good time to point out that the numbers for 2009 high-proof beer sales have been released. Sierra Nevada’s Torpedo, Bigfoot, and Celebration once again make every other brand feel impotent. Together they are 72,840 bottles of beer that could have been made by an Iowan if the legislature modernized our ancient alcohol laws.

Edit: The story is also available in audio format from Iowa Public Radio (stream or download).

Festival of Iowa Beers 2009

Sunday, September 6th, 2009

2009-09-06-prosI had a pretty good time at the Festival of Iowa Beers today. As always, the buzz and bustle was around the homebrewers’ tent. There were a wide range of beers on tap there: imperial this that and the other, a few sours, and several real ales served on a beer engine. The pros had a few interesting taps, but predictably most were pouring their usual fare.

There was plenty of gossip and news to be had, lots about brewery openings. The owners of Jasper Winery are apparently occupying the old Maytag factory in Newton with their new brewery. That’ll be running a copper 15 barrel two-vessel brewhouse. I also heard about a new startup that’s currently courting investors – they call themselves Grass Roots Brewing.

2009-09-06-hub-cityHub City up in Stanley is finishing the preparations on their new addition, featuring a 30 barrel brewing system. They will apparently be running double batches into 60 barrel (!) fermenters. That’s a huge increase in capacity, but apparently their distributors are working hard to keep that beer on the shelves. Hub City will also be releasing two small batch series: one of seasonals and one of high-gravity specials available only outside the state (thank you Iowa ABD!). More about those nearer to their year-end release.

I was able to try two of the beers B.J. from Hub City is developing. The first was the Russian Imperial Stout, the initial release in the out-of-state series. It was deep mahogany brown, lightly hazy, with a yellowed ring of head and a malty aroma. The taste is roasty with coffee and burnt toast. Thick and chewy, with a complex yet delicate flavor.

+Hub City Russian Imperial Stout

3.7 (4-6-8-4-15)

I also had a taste of a steam beer B.J. has been working on for the seasonal schedule. It has a light fruity nose, a pale yellow color, and almost no head. The flavor is a little sweet with a prominent yeast roughness and fruity hop character.

+Hub City Steam Beer

3.1 (2-6-7-3-13)

From the Burlington Makers of Beer (MOB) I had the cask-conditioned Mildly Interesting ale, an English-style mild. This is a near clear gamboge color with some frothy tan head. The nose is lightly malty and yeasty. It has a cider and caramel flavor, with just a bit of pomegranate.

The Ames Brewers League was one of many to bring an imperial stout aged on wood. Theirs is a Whiskey Barrel Russian Imperial Stout. It’s near black, with hints of brown and a ring of yellowed head. A sweet nose greets you initially, with prominent whiskey and rye. Thick and sweet, the flavor is toasty with a bit of roast and a strong alcohol spike. The sweetness and an astringency linger.

I had the Gruit beer from Cenosilicaphobia Brewers (a homebrew club out of Pella, Iowa). This one was labeled “NO HOPS”, and in red lettering “SOUR”. It is a hazy orange yellow with no head. The nose is lightly citric and a bit tart. The flavor is a clean lactic sour, with orange, grapefruit, and raspberry. There is just a bit of pale malt flavor. It is refreshingly tart, but not too intense.

Old Man River Brewery in McGregor, Iowa, is now bottling under the name Einfach Beer (“simple beer”). I tried both of the beers they brought to the festival (they forgot the Dunkel at home). The Oktoberfest is rich with malt flavor: toast, caramel, and bread. It is amber, almost clear, with a light malt nose. Sweet and smooth, decently authentic.

+Einfach Oktoberfest

3.0 (3-5-7-3-12)

The Helles is a clear straw with generous and creamy white head. The nose is light with corn, somewhat metallic, and a little toasty. The flavor is sulfury corn with a bit of sweetness. Actually remarkably authentic.

+/-Einfach Helles

2.8 (4-5-6-2-11)

2009-09-06-amsPowder Keggers is a women’s beer appreciation group in Des Moines, but they were able to muster up a few selections of homebrew to bring to the festival. (ed. note: this was meant to read “they’re a beer appreciation group, but they brought homebrew anyway” rather than “they’re a women’s group, but they could still figure out how to bring beer”) I tried their Lady Nessa’s Grand Cru. It was a very clear pale amber color with a little white head. The nose was malty with notes of grassy hops. The flavor is malty, with an alcohol tinge and a balancing sweetness. Some earthy hops come through. The body is thick but not cloying.

From the Raccoon River Brewers I tried an Oktoberfest. This one highlighted the difficulties brewing a good festbier. It was an opal amber with some off-white head. A lightly sweet, toast and corn nose led into a flavor of cotton candy and some bread. Sweet and cloying.

From down in Fort Madison the crew at Lost Duck Brewing Company brought a few interesting beers. The one I tried was the Duck ala Orange, an orange-infused lager. This one is light on flavor with an orange character that borders on synthetic. Very sweet, it’s a beer for those who appreciate Leinie’s Sunset Wheat. The redeeming quality is the bitter orange peel that comes through if you look for it.

+/-Lost Duck Duck ala Orange

2.6 (2-4-7-3-10)

From the MUGZ homebrew club I tried Little Brown Winkie. It claimed to be aged on sour cherries. Lightly hazy and reddish brown, the Winkie has some tan head. The nose is strong with pie cherries, I’d say montmorency. There is also just a bit of gym sock. It has a strong sharp pie cherry flavor with some malt. An astringency and sweetness linger.

Well, as usual I don’t think I was there long enough and I don’t think I had enough variety. But all in all it was a pretty good festival.

Oh yeah, and I took a look around the new brewhouse at Millstream. It’s coming along…