Chasing the Beer Scene in Iowa

In previous issues of The Growler, we’ve played match-up with beers from Duluth and Western Wisconsin, pairing them with the most fun, scenic, and exciting outdoor excursions the respective areas have to offer.  Now we’re turning our gaze south to the relatively young but wholly unique craft beer scene in Northern and Central  Iowa. Most of the breweries and attractions we’re covering in this issue are a straight shot south on Highway 52 or I-35  from the Twin Cities, making for perfect winter weekend destinations. It’s generally a few degrees warmer than at home and visiting in the off off-season means shorter lines, smaller tour groups, and more one-on-one time to chat with proprietors and brewers. Some of these brewery/activity pairings are doable in a day, but why not rent a cabin, stay at a bed and breakfast, or take advantage of plentiful cheap hotels in the college towns? Here’s our guide to chasing the beer scene in Northern and Central Iowa.

Angry Cedar Brewing’s Angry Amber Ale //

Skiing the Waverly Rail Trail

People seem to generally know at least one of three factoids about Waverly, Iowa. One, it’s the home of Wartburg College. Two, it was rocked by the 2008 flash floods that also devastated the nearby city of Cedar Rapids. And three, it’s the fictional birthplace of Hawkeye from the Avengers. So from students to humanitarians to Jeremy Renner fanatics, everyone has their own reason to make a pilgrimage to this small town. For us, it’s the outstanding amber ale from Angry Cedar Brewing. The facility doesn’t have a tap room, but that’s just a good excuse to swing by the Wooden Foot Saloon, a well stocked watering hole that has this lightly malty, citrusy copper brew on tap. It’s an especially perfect recovery room for cross-country skiers who are fresh off the Waverly Rail Trail. Located just five miles from the bar’s doorstep, this multi-use trail is relatively low grade but very scenic, offering lovely views of the very same river that inspired the name of the brewing company.

Toppling Goliath’s Rover Truck Oatmeal Stout //

Exploring the Ice Cave State Preserve

If you were to make a Venn diagram of beer geeks and geology nerds, you’d find the intersection between the two surprisingly large. Thus, a  trip to Decorah, Iowa – a small college town in the Upper Iowa River Valley, appeals to niche enthusiasts on multiple levels. The actual ice cave is a 450 million-year-old glacial formation that’s more of a fascinating cubby than the sort of huge, echoing chamber that requires hard hats and headlamps. Still, it’s worth checking out and nearby Dunning Springs boasts one of Iowa’s prettiest natural waterfalls. After spelunking, make your way to Toppling Goliath—a small craft brewery with a small taproom that matches their small batch philosophy. It’s ironic that, with a name like Goliath, the brewery seems to take a lot of pride in keeping their operation mini, but in terms of impression and impact their beers are anything but diminutive. Goliath’s Rover Truck Oatmeal Stout retains a bit of their signature hop bitterness (they make a whole series of aggressively hoppy IPAs called Hop Patrol), but has a strong perfume of toasted almond, goes down smoothly, and finishes with a complex mix of cocoa and char.

Worth Brewing Company’s Sunderland Mild English Dark Ale //

Trout fishing at Kuennen’s Quarry

Since 2007 this husband-and-wife-owned outfit in Northwood has made it their mission to only create precise representations of the 30 styles of beer recognized by the BJCP. Their approach might sound a little rigid, but their taproom is as cozy as a country inn and judging from its popularity, the true-to-form beer is going over well with both locals and out-of-towners. Lighter than most brown ales and far more interesting than most pale ales, the Sunderland Mild is made with English yeast and lots of malted barley. Served just a little colder than room temperature, it has light floral and caramel notes, just enough carbonation to be thirst-quenching, and low  alcohol content, making it a good session beer. Throw back one or two before making the short jaunt (less than three miles) to Kuennen’s Quarry—a nearby wildlife area. The quarry is stocked with trout in the winter for fun, beginner-level fishing and has a heated warming house that you can rent for the day.

Millstream Brewing Company’s Schokolade Bock //

Swimming at Wasserbahn Waterpark

Though Amana is sometimes mistakenly identified as Amish country, the colonies that are home to Millstream Brewing Company were actually settled by Pietists from Germany who later dubbed themselves the Ebenezer Society. The whole area is steeped in history and as the oldest microbrewery in Iowa, Millstream is, too. In fact we can think of few spots this side of the Rhine that are as fitting a place to enjoy a true German-style brew. When you’re finished taking in everything that the informative brewery tour has to offer, pick up a six pack of the Schokolade Bock. Full-bodied, intensely malty, and hazy-dark like a cloudy country evening, the fall/winter seasonal pulls no punches making it a great beer for hibernating. Grab a six-pack of Schokolade at the brewery or the Amana General Store and drive about 15 minutes south of the colonies to Wasserbahn, an indoor/outdoor waterpark located in the Clarion Inn. Scream down the slides, play a game of water basketball, or warm up in sauna. Don’t feel bad about craving some creature comforts. After all, there’s only so much quiet beauty, jam shopping, and longing for the days of yore that a modern family can do on a mini-break.

Madhouse Brewing Company’s Templeton Rye Stout //

Touring the Maytag Blue Cheese Factory & Caves

There’s no restaurant, taproom, or tasting area at Madhouse (though you can sample their beers at Jasper Winery in Des Moines—another company owned by the same family), a “production only” brewery in Newton. But that shouldn’t stop you from seeking out their seasonal Templeton Rye Imperial Stout or Coffee Stout (available year-round) on tap at virtually any one of Newton’s bars. Better yet, hit up the aptly named Pit Stop Liquors and pick up a six pack on your way to the Maytag Dairy Farm where the famed eponymous blue cheese is produced and aged in specially designed caves. The heavy-bodied, slightly smoky stouts pair perfectly with this salty stinky cheese and the factory gift shop alone is worth the visit.

Sutliff Cider Company’s Sutliff Hard Cider //

Climbing at Palisades-Kepler State Park

Cider doesn’t always get a lot of love from beer drinkers. It’s criticized for being less complex, and in some circles, less sophisticated than its grainy, yeasty counterpart. But Sutliff’s cider will  give even hardcore Crispin lovers a run for their money. Their selection is wee but mighty: A non-alcoholic soft cider, a pure cider—a raw, preservative-free, fresh-pressed juice, and their signature hard cider, which was named one of the 30 best in the world by RateBeer. The cider’s subtle sweet notes of pear and hay match perfectly with the farm country setting, but its ultra-crisp quality is all the more appreciated when you’ve been doing something strenuous. If snow isn’t yet on the ground, Lisbon and the larger neighboring town of Mount Vernon have plenty of bike trails but for the more intrepid outdoorsperson, Palisades-Kepler has tons of cliffs, boulders and overhangs to climb. Look for climbing spots in the wooded areas by the park’s boat ramp and along the river where the natural dams are. Not feeling like going too far? Just a five-minute drive south from the brewery is Sutliff’s historic bridge and Baxa’s Tavern—a sanctuary for really good, cheap, deep-fried stuff.

Old Man River Brewery’s Slingshot Dunkel //

Ice Fishing on McGregor Lake

Old men and ice fishing go together like peanut butter and jelly, so we thought it fitting to pair together the classic winter activity with this wise whippersnapper of a beer. Light in body but full of soft fruit and biscuty malt, the Slingshot Dunkel is one of the many German-style beers made with pride at McGregor’s only brewpub. It’s reserved and light enough to make for an enjoyable session beer, which is just what you want when you’re out on a frozen lake. Not quite cold enough to walk on the water? McGregor is just north of Pike’s Peak State Park, full of beautiful falls, hiking trails, and the site of where the Wisconsin River feeds into the Mississippi.


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