Back to the Source with Chris Priebe of Millstream Brewing Company

Chris Priebe, the head brewer of Millstream Brewery in Amana, Iowa // Photo by Jordan Gale

Chris Priebe’s first word as a child: “Hi.” His second: “Beer.”

At two years old, he was enjoying small sips of his grandfather’s beer. At 16, he traveled to Germany, thus beginning his love affair with German beer.

As an adult, Priebe found himself as an unofficial “taster” for the Dubuque Star Brewery in Dubuque, Iowa. Sipping a beer one morning, he recognized an almost imperceptible hint of butterscotch that didn’t seem to belong. “You can taste that?” his boss asked. Chris nodded. “Want to work in the cellar?”

Cut ahead some decades, and Chris is the head brewer at Millstream Brewing Company. He traverses the brewhouse like a playground, admiring all the possibilities made attainable by the brewery’s equipment and his imagination.

Chris lights up when he explains the mechanisms inside the brewhouse, ideal enzyme temperatures, and what it takes to harvest yeast. It’s clear he loves it all: the creativity, the science, the engineering of beer.

Priebe changes beer lines for bottling at the Millstream Brewing Company // Photo by Jordan Gale

Millstream is Iowa’s first microbrewery, dating back to 1985 and founded in Amana, Iowa. Amana is part of an eastern Iowa collection of villages founded by German immigrants. Through reliance on traditional German craftsmanship and farming techniques, the Amana Colonies maintained an almost entirely self-sufficient local economy for 80 years. Today, heritage tourism pulls in visitors from Iowa and beyond eager to enjoy the village’s authentic German hotels and inns, craft and art shops, and restaurants.

When Chris and his partners, Tom and Teresa Albert, purchased Millstream in early 2001, the brewery’s mark on the map was faint. Many in the Amana Colonies—a community of less than 2,000 people—were unaware the town even had a brewery. It brewed only lagers, all of which had quality control issues in spades. “It took us almost five years before we could sleep at night,” Chris says of the nights he, Tom, and Teresa spent fretting over their product.

The exterior of Millstream Brewing Company in Amana, Iowa // Photo by Jordan Gale

Now, the former fixer-upper is an attraction in itself, and has a great reputation for “making really, really good beer,” Chris says. Nearly everything has changed, from the quality of the beer to the physical space in which it’s brewed: a new brewhouse was erected in 2010 with twice the capacity of the original, and, in 2016, the team bought the establishment next door and converted it into Millstream Brau Haus, a full-service restaurant serving authentic German bratwurst and pretzels, among other menu items.

The scene surrounding Millstream has also changed. In 2000, Iowans were content drinking typical mainstream beers, leaving craft beer as a pet interest of residents of the East and West coasts. Now, Iowa is home to more than 80 breweries.

Chris had a hand in developing Iowa’s brewing scene as a mentor to myriad brewers over the years. “I’ve trained… I don’t know how many brewers, who are working all over the country or who have started their own breweries,” he says.

Chris considers mentorship to be a rewarding, ongoing aspect of his job. “I got a new victim just a few weeks ago,” he laughs. “I haven’t hired two assistant brewers yet that are alike. I like finding out what makes them tick. Their enthusiasm boosts me up.”

With each assistant who moves on from Millstream, Chris’ network of industry friends widens. But the closest relationships he has, of course, are with the people who remain at Millstream.

Spouses Tom and Teresa Albert, Chris’ business partners, are practically family after 17 years of co-ownership. Teresa does sales and marketing, and travels the state educating customers about beer. Tom, the warehouse and production manager, is the organizer of the group and landscapes the premises on the side.

Teresa echoes Chris’ sentiments regarding the owners’ closeness. “[Chris and I] have been ‘married’ for 17 years through the brewery,” she says, jokingly referring to him as her work husband. “He is so laid back and easygoing. For all the pressure he’s under, he’s always got a cool head. He doesn’t get too worked up about much, which helps in this industry.”

There is one area, however, in which Chris can be a challenge to work with, Teresa says. “He’s like me: he forgets what he’s doing from one end of the building to the other.”

But, she points out, there’s a lot going on. As with all small businesses, the ability to wear many hats is a must, and, in addition to brewing, Chris is also the electrician, plumber, and steam heat guy, as well as the doer of several other less-than-enviable jobs around the brewhouse.

Priebe takes a look at the beer lines running to the bottling area // Photo by Jordan Gale

Mondays are designated as Chris’ miscellaneous task day: transferring beers, doing administrative work, and fixing whatever broke the previous week. Tuesdays they bottle. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays they brew. Chris especially loves these days, when he is able to do what he does best. “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve got one of the best brewers in the Midwest,” Teresa says. “His taste buds are amazing; he can taste it before it happens.”

This isn’t a fluke. Chris’ refined taste comes through years of hard work, both in experience and education. He studied at the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago in 1997. Prior to that, he studied industrial technology at Iowa State University and journalism at the University of Iowa—all of which demonstrate just how comfortable he is wearing many, varying hats.

Chris says he feels a sense of gratification when he hears people’s feedback about his beer. It’s satisfying brewing something people spend their hard-earned dollars on, he says, emphasizing that he’d never brew anything he wouldn’t enjoy drinking himself. Hearing that Millstream makes a customer’s favorite Oktoberfest, or having a first-time brewery visitor tell him they’re already a fan of Millstream after having tried the beer elsewhere: these are things that keep Chris going.

He recalls the time one of his neighbors, who was terminally ill, came to the brewery about a week before he died. The man sat down, turned to Chris, and gave him a compliment Chris says he’ll remember forever: “I’m having my last beer, and I want it to be a Millstream.”