Bars The Iowa Craft Beer Tent showcased local brews. Juice file photo.

The Iowa Craft Beer Tent showcased local brews. Juice file photo.

What is Iowa’s beer identity?

Published on July 30th, 2013 | by Joe Lawler

Editor’s note: The size of the system Toppling Goliath is upgrading to was incorrect in a previous version of this story. The brewery plans to update to a 30-barrel system. The size of the potential future Backpocket upgrade was also incorrect. The facility has space for production of 25,000 barrels per year.

Beer helps give an area its identity. Colorado was Coors, and now New Belgium is helping to shape the way that state and the rest of the country are drinking. Missouri has Boulevard, Montana has Big Sky and Oregon has Rogue.

But what is Iowa’s beer identity?

It’s something R.J. Tursi of Exile Brewery thinks Iowa needs. As craft brewing pushes into hoppier and more extreme areas, he’s not sure that will grow interest in Iowa beers.

“It’s interesting to see what’s going on in Iowa, because I don’t think any styles have really won out,” Tursi said. “I think the Iowa palate is different than what is out there right now. We don’t want to turn off farmers and small town drinkers from craft beer because they try one that’s too extreme and decide they don’t like it. I think you’re going to start to see people pioneer styles for the Midwest, which I think really needs to happen.”

To spread the word on Iowa craft beer, more people need to be drinking it, both in and outside Iowa. Sheila Douglas with Iowa Beer Wholesalers said consumption of craft beer in Iowa is on par with the national average, about 6.5 percent. That’s a small number, but sales of craft beer were up 17 percent nationally from 2011 to 2012.

For instance, in 2012, 47 percent of all draft beer served in Oregon bars was produced in the state. In Seattle, 25 percent of beer consumed is craft beer.

“Iowa doesn’t really have what you would call a regional brewery,” said Steve Linn, general manager of the Iowa Craft Beer Tent, which appears annually at the Iowa State Fair and other events. “But I do see some breweries that are starting to become larger and are starting to break out of the state of Iowa.”

The breweries Linn sees as most likely to put Iowa on the beer map are Decorah’s Toppling Goliath and Coralville’s Backpocket. Toppling Goliath has been in operation for four years and has begun selling its beer in Wisconsin. It has been operating on a 10 barrel system (a barrel holds 31 gallons), but soon will be upgrading to a 30 barrel system.

“Becoming a regional brewery is in my sights with my business plan,” Toppling Goliath co-owner Clark Lewey said. “We’re on the tail end of our expansion, but until the new brewing system gets here we just don’t have the beer to bottle.”

Lewey points to Indiana’s Three Floyds as a brewery that has achieved regional status on a 30 barrel system.

Backpocket brewmaster Jake Simmons said he previously heard Iowa referred to as a “beer desert,” but in recent years the expansion of beer in Iowa has given the state a nice reputation in the craft beer world.

“At this point it’s kind of a work in progress. We’re seeing a lot of new brewers taking craft beer in a lot of new directions. I would say the culture of beer in Iowa is one of newness at this point,” Simmons said. “Iowa needs a brewery to call its own, just like every other state, but no one of any knowledge would say Iowa is a beer desert now. Everything is growing, but it takes time.”

Backpocket is set up to produce 8,000 barrels a year and just recently received more fermenters that will allow it to double that number. Simmons said the facility has enough space to produce 25,000 barrels a year, which would make for a good size regional brewery. Backpocket has distribution in most of Iowa, and the next step is markets outside of the state.

Iowa has 41 breweries, with another 11 in various stages of development. Per capita, Iowa ranks 14th in the nation for its number of breweries, but because many of those breweries are producing small batches, Iowa ranks 40th for volume of beer produced. If a larger brewery gets its beer flowing into other states, Iowa could start climbing in the rankings.

“We’ve had a little explosion in Iowa, but we’re starting from such a small base almost anything seems like an explosion,” Iowa Brewers Guild president Dave Coy said. “ Even in the economic downturn, we never had a year where craft beer production in Iowa didn’t increase.”


About the Author

Joe Lawler covers music and more for Juice Magazine. E-mail him at or follow his updates on Twitter @JoeLawler

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