Iowa Brews: A look at the state’s beer industry in 2014

Iowa Beer
In addition to the growth of breweries throughout Iowa, many of the state’s larger beer festivals experienced record attendance in 2014. — photo by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr Creative Commons

The Iowa brewing industry is growing so quickly, even industry experts and representatives have a hard time keeping up.

When Iowa Pints: A Guide to Iowa Breweries was published in June, the author, J. Wilson, featured profiles of 51 established breweries, two cider makers and three breweries set to open over the summer. It also mentioned over two dozen breweries in planning.

Despite Wilson’s hard work to ensure the book did not become outdated too quickly, he said the industry is growing so rapidly, and news of brewery openings is so fluid, that he recently heard about a half dozen new Iowa breweries that were not even on his radar when writing the book.

“It really is tough to keep track,” said Wilson, who is also the Minister of Iowa Beer at the Iowa Brewers Guild. “I have two or three or four brewery concepts in my mind … You don’t know what somebody is planning at their kitchen table.”

2014 was a “phenomenal” year for the brewing industry in Iowa, said Megan McKay, co-owner of the Peace Tree Brewing Company in Knoxville and the breweries’ representative on the Iowa Wine and Beer Promotion Board. Not only did the number of breweries in Iowa top 50 for the first time in the modern craft beer era, McKay said attendance records were set at many of the state’s larger beer festivals; volume and sales increased 30 percent; and three Iowa-brewed beers received national and international recognition.

McKay and Wilson agree that the remarkable growth seen in 2014 will continue in 2015, and even more breweries will open in the state — regardless of whether anyone is able to keep up.

According to Wilson, six new breweries opened in Iowa in 2014, bringing the state’s total to 55. The most recent opening was Flix Brewhouse, a cinema brewery chain that opened in Des Moines on Dec. 17. Wilson said a couple other breweries are also about to open, and there are 30 more breweries-in-planning including Cedar Rapids’ Quarter Barrel and Paha Hills Artisanal Brewery.

The rising number of breweries in the state reflects a nationwide surge. According to the Brewers Association, nearly 400 breweries opened in the United States in 2013, increasing the total number of breweries in the country to 2,822, the most since the early-1870s.

“You can really feel a lot of excitement about craft beer in general,” said McKay. She added that the Iowa Craft Brew Festival drew a record crowd in 2014, and BrrrFest and the Iowa City Brew Fest did the same.

On top of the phenomenal growth and increasing interest came worldwide recognition. In April, Peace Tree’s Blonde Fatale was awarded a gold medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup in the Belgian-Style Blonde Ale or Pale Ale category. At the Great American Beer Festival in October, Workman’s Compensation, brewed by the Lion Bridge Brewing Co. in Cedar Rapids, won a gold medal in the English-Style Mild Ale category. CocO Stout, brewed by West O Beer of West Okoboji, was awarded a GABF gold medal in the Sweet Stout or Cream Stout category.

“We have a lot of great beers to be proud of,” said Wilson who believes the awards demonstrate that Iowa brewers “can compete with anyone in the country, and the world.”

But despite the awards, there is still work to do and problems to overcome. Thanks to the plethora of reviews and resources available online, consumers have access to more information and are more savvy than ever before. Wilson said poor quality is an ongoing issue that concerns many and may doom some breweries. For McKay, the breweries that are not making beer as well as they could taints the state’s entire industry because each brewer and beer they make is an ambassador for Iowa.

Quality is paramount, Wilson emphasized, which is why it was a focal point at the Iowa Brewers Guild’s first education conference, the Iowa Brewers Education Seminar and Tippling (i-BEST), in November at Lion Bridge in Cedar Rapids. Representatives from 25 Iowa breweries not only discussed quality control, they also attended a tasting, a glassware demonstration and a panel on distribution.

Along with efforts to improve quality, Wilson said the Brewers Guild and lobbyists will work to “massage” state laws in Iowa’s 2015 legislative session. Though he declined to provide specifics, Wilson said breweries are small businesses tied to employment, tourism, historic preservation and agriculture, and reforming antiquated laws will help them succeed.

Both McKay and Wilson dismiss fears that Iowa will soon have too many breweries.

“We have plenty of room to grow,” said Wilson.

Though there may be a saturation point for the number of breweries that package and distribute their beer in larger regions, McKay said the number of nano and neighborhood breweries that only sell beer on-premise or within small communities will continue to grow. McKay noted that only 3.5 percent of beer sold in Iowa is craft beer, so there is a lot of market share to capture. Instead, she worries about limited tap and shelf space. Will retailers and bars be able to keep up?

They have so far, she said. Though it is hard for homegrown breweries to muscle their way onto retail shelves and tap lines, McKay said quality speaks for itself. Distributors and wholesalers are proud to sell quality beer, especially when it is brewed nearby.

“People are driven to a local product,” McKay said.

Iowa breweries that opened in 2014:

Another Road Brewing
1175 8th Ave., Marion

Firetrucker Brewery
716 SW 3rd St., Ankeny

Flix Brewhouse
3800 Merle Hay Rd. Suite 1300, Des Moines

Franklin Street Brewing Company
116 S. Franklin St., Manchester

Jubeck New World Brewing
115 W. 11th St., Dubuque

Lion Bridge Brewing Company
59 16th Ave. SW, Cedar Rapids

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