Our friend and Iowa native, Renee Brincks, reports on the beer scene in
America’s heartland. Renee can be found on the web at reneebrincks.com
I’ve lived in California for nine years, but every year I still spend a few months in the pretty corner of northeast Iowa where I grew up. My home base there is a farm outside of Decorah. Yes, there are corn fields, and there also are hiking and biking trails, canoe-friendly rivers, limestone bluffs, lush hills and trees that blaze gorgeous shades of orange and red in the fall. Seed Savers Exchange is based there, and remember that eagle cam that captivated people this spring? That’s in Decorah, too.
Recently, beer drinkers have been toasting start-up breweries and better distribution of popular brands, as well. Anchor Brewing pioneer Fritz Maytag is an Iowa boy, but until about ten years ago, his home state was lacking when it came to beer. Budweiser and Busch Light were the norm, and I know more than one person who considered Coors Light to be a “dark beer.”
Thankfully, things have changed.
When I arrived in Decorah this June, I was eager to visit Toppling Goliath. The brewery launched two years ago, and I’d already become of a fan of their Tsunami Pale. In a community where beer menus were limited for so long, introducing stouts and ambers and bitter brews isn’t necessarily easy – it takes a little coaxing to get customers to look past the Bud Light. These days, however, several local restaurants pour Dorothy’s New World Lager, the lightly-hopped Toppling Goliath flagship that’s an easy-drinking 5.5 percent.
I caught up with high school friends at the Toppling Goliath tap room, where we took advantage of the warm summer night by sitting outside. The outdoor patio there is perfect for happy hours and live music; the brewery also hosts home brew club meetings and airs all sorts of sporting events. I ordered a pint of Golden Nugget IPA. It earned an unofficial “best Iowa IPA” nod during a spring tasting at Short’s Burger and Shine in Iowa City, which dedicates its 10 taps to Iowa beers, and it will definitely be a go-to when I’m in town.
The other visit I’d planned for this trip was the Tap Room in the Hotel Winneshiek. My parents have fun stories of this place in the 1970s, and there was a lot of buzz about the bar’s June re-opening. A cozy redecorating job and an Iowa-focused beer menu made the Tap Room a nice place to kick back with Peace Tree’s Hop Wrangler. I sampled releases from Millstream and Toppling Goliath, too, a our table of friends shared the smoked trout dip and a bowl of truffle popcorn.
One afternoon, my parents and I took a day trip to two little towns along the Mississippi River, about 40 miles away. Our first stop was Stark’s Sport Shop in Prairie du Chien, Wisc. The store sells beer, spirits, wine and Wisconsin cheeses, along with outdoor gear, boat parts, fishing rods, lures, hunting supplies, guns…a whole wall of guns, in fact, hung right over rows of vodka and whiskey. The store’s signature t-shirt even says, “Mixing guns and liquor since Prohibition.”
I’m not from a family of hunters, but we’ve been coming to Stark’s since long before I was old enough to order my own beer. We sometimes swung through on Sunday drives when I was a kid and my parents were stocking up on bottles for backyard get-togethers. I asked to visit this time, because I knew that Stark’s sells New Glarus. There were several options on the mix-your-own-six-pack shelves, so I left with Spotted Cow, Moon Man, Two Women, Dancing Man Wheat, Totally Naked and Fat Squirrel. I also grabbed a few bottles of Bell’s Best Brown Ale, which I can’t get in San Francisco.
From there, we crossed back over the bridge into Iowa to grab lunch at Old Man River in McGregor. It’s another example of how far Iowa has come in terms of craft beer. Here, in a town of about 875 people, is an outfit turning out solid German-style brews. Owners recently announced plans to expand with a 25,000-barrel-per-year production facility near Iowa City.
My standard order at Old Man River is “The Iowa,” a steak burger topped with bacon and blue cheese. I washed it down with a taster set – samples of helles, hefeweizen, a German pale ale, a smoky Scottish lager and the brewery’s popular dunkel, plus a splash of root beer that worked well as dessert. With baseball on the bar’s flat screens and an art and food affair happening in the park across the street, it was a festive afternoon in McGregor.
My two-week Iowa adventure included a few other beer stops back in Decorah, starting with pints and pizza at McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita (this June, USA Today named their pizza the best in Iowa) and sandwiches at T-Bocks. Toppling Goliath, Schell’s and Leinenkugel are among a dozen brands on tap there, and the bar has a range of seasonals and specialty bottles. I also made a quick survey of the refrigerators at Oneota Co-op, which carries great local, organic food along with Stevens Point, Sierra Nevada, Big Sky and other labels that were unheard of in Iowa just a decade ago.
It was a refreshing trip, thanks to fun family time and great weather (San Francisco’s foggy summers just can’t compete with Iowa’s sunshine…). Good beer options give me even more to look forward to when it’s time for the next stay.