Millstream Brewing Co. celebrates 30 years

Millstream Brewing Company celebrates 30 years in business this Saturday --photo by Stephen Cummings
Millstream Brewing Company celebrates 30 years in business this Saturday — photo by Stephen Cummings

Millstream’s 30th Anniversary Party

Millstream Brewing Co. — Saturday, Aug. 29 at 5 p.m.

While looking over a draft pamphlet for the upcoming Festival of Iowa Beers, Millstream Brewing Company co-owner Teresa Albert said she considers many of the 30 participating breweries Millstream’s children and grandchildren.

Pointing at the brewery logos spread across multiple hand-folded pages, she recalled those who worked and trained at Millstream, the “kids” working their first jobs in the brewing industry who went on to found their own breweries and spawn even more. The knowledge learned and skilled honed at the creek-side brewery in Amana produce beers as close as Solon and Cedar Rapids, and as far away as Alaska and England.

Oftentimes, Albert said, people tell her that Millstream is a part of history. It is a history that began when the pioneering brewery, founded by Carroll Zuber and brothers Dennis and Jim Roemig, began brewing beer 30 years ago this month.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Millstream is hosting a party this Saturday, Aug. 29, at 5 p.m. Millstream’s founders and current owners will be in attendance, Iowa City-based rock group Dogs on Skis will perform, and food will be provided. The annual Tour de Brew, which was rescheduled due to bad weather, will take place in the morning.

Millstream Brewing Company’s hop-covered biergarten. — photo via Millstream Brewing Company
Millstream Brewing Company’s hop-covered biergarten. — photo via Millstream Brewing Company

In addition to the anniversary celebration, Millstream is releasing a limited-edition 30th anniversary doppelbock. Brewed with the help of three former Millstream brewers — Bill Heinrich of Solon’s Big Grove Brewery; Aaron Taubman of the Purity Brewing Company in Warwickshire County, England; and Chris Ellis, the owner of The Quarter Barrel in Cedar Rapids — will be available on draft and in 22-ounce bottles.

A cardboard box in Albert’s office, above Millstream’s taproom, holds mementos of the brewery’s early history. In it are press clippings, photos, and hand-written notes dated as early as 1981. In an article about Millstream published in the September 1985 issue of Brewers Digest, founder Dennis Roemig talks about opening the brewery: “It was a dream for us. We wanted to revive the art of brewing in Amana, and we wanted to brew quality beer.”

According to a historical timeline provided by Albert, Zuber and the Roemigs became interested in opening a brewery in the early-1980s. They embarked on a years-long study of beer and the brewing process, visiting microbreweries, reading all the brewing literature available and visiting a brewing school in Germany. They enlisted the help of Joseph Pickett, Sr., the former owner of the Dubuque Star Brewing Company, and his son, Joseph Pickett, Jr., to design the brewery, develop recipes and establish the brewing procedures.

Millstream brewed its first beer, a 900-gallon test batch, in mid-August 1985. The brewery officially began operations, filling kegs with Millstream Lager and what was then known as Schild Brau Pils, around Labor Day. It began bottling a few months later and the tasting room opened in December 1985. The Brewers Digest article stated that Millstream was the first brewery to open in the Amana Colonies since 1884.

“They were pioneers,” said Albert of Millstream’s founders.

Though she does not think Millstream was the only brewery open in Iowa at the time, it is Iowa’s oldest surviving brewery. Though she can’t confirm it, Albert heard that Millstream was one of just five microbreweries in the United States when it opened.

When the founders decided to focus their attention on the other businesses they owned in the colonies, Dennis and Joanne Henderson of Cedar Rapids purchased Millstream in 1999. Albert and her husband, Tom, along with brewers Chris Priebe and Aaron Taubman, purchased the brewery from the Hendersons in 2001. Though Taubman moved on, Priebe and the Alberts continue to run the brewery as an employee-owned business.

As Iowa’s oldest brewery, Albert said Millstream has been a vanguard for the state’s modern craft brewing industry. Millstream was the first to do many things that are now commonplace at breweries, such as hosting food vendors, live music and beer festivals. Millstream also helped define the regulations governing native breweries in the state — exploring, much like pioneers, what had essentially been unknown territory. Albert said she was clueless regarding the state’s brewing laws when she bought Millstream — but so were officials at Iowa’s Alcoholic Beverages Division.

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Breweries in Iowa can be licensed as either brewpubs or native breweries, and Iowa’s native brewery regulations had been used so rarely that nobody was familiar with them. As Iowa’s only native brewery for a long time, Millstream was an anomaly for the ABD, which had more experience with brewpubs. Albert said she would call the ABD with questions and officials would need to consult the laws and call her back.

“They didn’t know what a native brewery was at the state department,” Albert said. “It was such a new concept, they didn’t know how to handle us.”

Vaguely written laws and state-sized gray areas meant that the ABD gave Millstream approval to do just about anything it wanted — especially because it was the only native brewery around. But the need for clarity and conformity grew with the number of native breweries in the state. With the help of Albert, fellow Iowa brewers, and distributors, the ABD is now starting to fine-tune and better define regulations so everyone knows exactly what they can and cannot do.

When Millstream hosted its first Festival of Iowa Beers in 2005, she said many had never even heard of a beer festival. “Now you can’t go a week without seeing one somewhere,” she said.

Not only did Albert intend for the Festival of Iowa Beers to be a showcase of beers brewed in the Hawkeye State, but she also wanted it to serve as a community-building event for the state’s brewers. The festival’s first edition, she said, was instrumental in the formation of the Iowa Brewers Guild, an association of Iowa brewers dedicated to promoting the state’s beer industry, educating consumers, and pursuing progressive changes to state law.

Not only is Millstream the oldest brewer in Iowa, it is also the most decorated. Proudly displayed along a shelf in the taproom are the many awards Millstream beers have won over the years. Among them are 10 medals from the Great American Beer Festival, three of which are gold. Hanging on the wall in the indoor sitting area is the World Beer Cup gold medal awarded to Schild Brau Amber in 2010.

Originally, Millstream beers could only be found in the Amana Colonies and in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City corridor. Now Schild Brau Amber, Iowa Pale Ale, and the rest of Millstream’s line-up are distributed across Iowa and in parts of six neighboring states. Though Albert said the owners do not have any lofty goals or plans for expansion, they are taking it year-by-year.

If expansion happens, it happens, she said — but she would prefer to keep the operation small and personal. Instead of hiring additional managers and sales representatives, she would rather be able to call customers and manage the taproom herself, as well as sit with patrons in Millstream’s beer garden on Saturday afternoons.

“We could be a lot bigger than we are, but it’s something we are choosing not to do to enjoy the personal aspect of it,” she said. Albert also said they have seen what happens to breweries that grow too much too quickly. Millstream’s slow, level-headed approach is an asset that has helped it survive while many other breweries have come and gone over the last 30 years.

“We’re going to be around for a long time to come,” she said.

While concluding the private tours Millstream auctions for charity, Albert often tells tourists that owning a brewery is the hardest thing she has ever done. The hours are endless and she constantly worries. Thoughts of the brewery keep her up at night; she wonders if they have enough beer, if they filled enough kegs. But, she adds, it is all worth it. Running Millstream is also the most rewarding thing she has ever done, besides raising her own children.

“This isn’t a brewery,” she said, looking over the mementos from the brewery’s infancy. “This is our baby…. This is our kid, this is something we worry about, this is something we want to succeed. It’s a passion, not a job.”

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