Science-themed brewery and fermentation lab to open downtown

Paha Hills Brewlab
Paha Hills will open at the corner of South Van Buren and East Washington Streets. — photo by Kate Conlow

For brewer Drew Letcher, yeast is more than just an ingredient for brewing beer: A microscopic fungus that converts sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide, yeast organisms are living creatures.

“It’s our duty to keep them happy so they can keep us happy,” he said, wondering, “or is it the other way around?”

Either way, Letcher and his son, Nathan, plan to not only keep yeast happy, but also local beer and fermentation enthusiasts when they open Paha Hills Brewlab, a brewery and fermentation laboratory, in Iowa City this summer.

Letcher said the plan is to open the taproom on July 1. However, he does not expect to have a brewing license until August. Until the brewery is licensed and running, he said the taproom will offer guest taps and host tap takeovers.

Paha Hills will be located at 505 E. Washington St., across from the New Pioneer Food Co-op and the Chauncey Swan parking ramp. Letcher said it is an ideal space that is close to downtown and will allow Paha Hills to collaborate with the Iowa City Farmers Market to serve locally-sourced food and offer knowledge to those interested in fermented food, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and pickles.

Paha Hills will brew a wide variety of craft beers. Easy-drinking, malt-focused classics like blonde ale, English bitters, German Alt beer and American wheat ales will be brewed along with hoppy pale ales and IPAs. Paha Hills will also brew Baltic porters and imperial stouts for those who love dark, roasty beers. The brewery’s signature beer will be a Belgian tripel called Cookies, which is modeled after a beer served exclusively at a bar in Bruges, Belgium. Eventually, Letcher said he plans to produce barrel-aged and sour beers as well as kombucha.

Owners plan to offer small-plate, café-style food, with a focus on fermented foods like cheese, cured meats, breads, sauerkraut and kimchi. Paha Hills will also offer chocolate desserts and cupcakes. Locally grown Iowa ingredients will be used as much as possible.

Letcher, who quit his job as a software developer in the financial industry to focus full-time on Paha Hills, said he plans to support local fermentation enthusiasts by sponsoring and hosting monthly homebrewing and fermentation clubs at the brewery. Fittingly, the taproom will feature a science lab theme, complete with a black slate bar top, old science tables and other lab-themed décor.

“The [brewlab] concept came about because my son and I both enjoy the science behind brewing,” Letcher wrote. “Brewing has always been one of the driving forces for scientific discovery and early technology adopters. From ancient pottery to refrigeration and Louis Pasteur to DNA sequencing.”

Eventually, Letcher said the space used for club meetings will also serve as a sensory lab that will host beer tastings, flavor training and product testing. Letcher would also like to use the lab to develop apps related to consumer tastings, sensory analysis and quality control.

The name “Paha,” also derives from science: Letcher says it comes from the Sioux word for hill. A paha is the geological name for a ridge created by wind sweeping across the edge of receding glaciers. The ridge running through Mt. Vernon is the most noted example.

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