Kalona Gets Brewing
Look What the Buggy Dragged In—Kalona Brewing Company
Kalona is a familiar locavore hot spot in Eastern Iowa. The center of a thriving Amish and Mennonite farming community, it has long been known as a great place to get top quality eggs, cheese, meat and beer. Wait…beer? All right, so perhaps the Washington County burg isn’t famous for its beer yet, but the recently-opened Kalona Brewing Company is hoping that their hometown will become as well known for beer as it is for its produce.
“It was important for us to locate downtown,” says co-owner and head brewmaster Lew Brewer. “We want to bring in a whole new demographic and introduce even more people to Kalona. It’s a cool little town. Where else can you share the road with horses?” As befits his surname, Brewer has dabbled in the beer industry off and on for the last 30 years. He started home brewing in the late 1980’s while living in Seattle, where Brewer was introduced to some of the pioneers in the craft beer industry.
“I encountered Red Hook when they first opened in the early 80’s,” says Brewer. “They were operating out of an old transmission shop in Seattle and I stopped in to ask if they ever needed any casual labor. Their reply was ‘Yeah, come back on Saturday.’” That led to an informal stint, assisting with bottling and brewing at the original Red Hook facility. A decade later, Brewer made beer with Mike Hale of Hale’s Ales, another of the first generation of Washington microbreweries.
“I really respect those early micros,” says Brewer. “They built the customer base for craft beer from scratch. It’s made the job easier for those of us who follow in their footsteps.”
After moving to Iowa in 1994, Brewer worked for Fitzpatrick’s Brew Pub in Iowa City for a while, then drifted back to his original career as a painting contractor. Later, he and longtime friend, Ted Nagy, explored the possibilities of going into brewing for themselves. “Actually, we originally thought of opening a winery,” admits Brewer, “but we decided it was just too difficult to produce high-quality wines in Iowa. I just thought the time was right to open a brewery.” Although the pair wanted to locate in downtown Kalona, they initially had a hard time finding a suitable building. They were resigned to building on a rural property when their current facility, a former farm implement dealership, popped onto the market.
Before the brewery’s opening in September, 2013, they ran into a few snags, however. The original business plan called for the brewery to be a production facility with a small tasting room, but the city then realized the property was not zoned for that use. In order to comply with city codes, the brewery had to add a restaurant as well. Adding the restaurant removed about half of the space intended for brewing. Fortunately, an adjacent building also became available, giving the brewery more space for storage.
During the building’s makeover, Kalona Brewing included a rainwater collection system with the goal of producing some batches of organic rainwater beer.
“The rain comes off the roof and passes through a series of four filters and into a 5000-gallon holding tank,” reports Brewer. “I’m looking forward to incorporating that into future brews.”
Even if the brewery is not as large as Brewer planned, he still realized he needed an assistant brewer. For that he turned to Warren “W” Yoder, a Kalona native. “I’ve known W for years, and I knew he made his own mead and dabbled a bit in home brewing,” says Brewer. “I decided to ask him if he ever thought of getting into brewing as a career.”
Yoder initially declined, but within a week changed his mind and decided to take the plunge. “I’ve been involved with my family’s construction business for 17 years,” says Yoder, “so it was hard to make that leap into the unknown. Still, it was just something that seemed so interesting that I couldn’t pass it up.” In an odd twist, entering the brewing business has been a boon to Yoder’s health. He reports losing 26 pounds during the grueling start-up months (we won’t digress onto the “brewing as weight-loss program” angle).
Brewer has built up a large stack of recipes over 30 years of home brewing, so the two beer makers have had a lot of fun experimenting with test batches in the brewery’s pilot plant. “The small batches give us the flexibility to try a lot of things in a short amount of time,” says Yoder. “We can split off a batch to try out different strains of yeast, or try out different levels of coffee or chocolate in our experimental stouts.”
Kalona brewing already had an impressive 11 beers on tap at the time of our visit. “I like for us to keep a variety of beers on tap so that everyone should be able to find a beer they like,” says Brewer. “I think we have a good mix of hoppy beers, malty beers, and Belgian- influenced styles.”
At the lighter end of the spectrum, Kalona offers their Classic, an American-style light beer that turned out better than Brewer expected. “I’m no fan of the style,” says Brewer, “but we realize there are a lot of light beer drinkers around here and we wanted to cater to that market. It turned out to be very light and refreshing.” We agree the Kalona Classic would be a perfect beer for a warm summer day. Unlike most American-style lagers, the beer is all malt with no corn or other adjunct grains, and even has just a hint of a hop bite. The Classic is made with mostly pilsner malt, with just a hint of pale ale malt to contribute a hint of toastiness.“
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Brewer’s namesake, the Lewbricator, a malty dark weizen bock that checks in at a hefty 7.5% alcohol by volume. “I’ve been brewing Lewbricator for years, but it’s always hard to gauge what public perception of a beer is going to be,” says Brewer, “but the popularity of Lewbricator has been a pleasant surprise. I wished I’d made more of it to start with.”
Hopheads will find plenty to like in the brewery’s pale ales. Sucha Much, while heavily hopped, also has plenty of malt backbone so that the flavor is not overly bitter. Rather, the Sucha Much offers a more citrusy hop flavor. The Uberhop Pale also packs a hop bite with a complex grassy flavor that almost suggests a Belgian saison. For our tasters, the star of the pales is the Black to the Future black IPA. This bold but well balanced beer starts out with a sweet maltiness, and then kicks in with a mild roasty flavor that hints of coffee or chocolate before finishing on a strong hop note.
Among the more whimsical offerings is the Sucha Half Wit, a blend of the Sucha Much IPA and the brewery’s Quick Wit Belgian-style wheat beer. “That one started as Lew’s clumsy attempt at a black and tan,” says Yoder. “It works, though, and comes across as a lighter, toned-down IPA.”
Those who prefer a lower-alcohol session beer can find a good choice in the Mild Start, a brown ale that “tastes like England” according to Brewer. Or if you’re feeling adventurous (and have a designated driver) the Double Whammy Imperial Stout is a robust choice for a cool evening.
Although the brewery didn’t originally intend to include a restaurant, they still have created a comfortable dining and drinking space. The restaurant offers a locally-sourced menu of wood-fired pizzas, sandwiches and salads, along with daily specials.
When the tasting room opened in September, the spacious beer garden proved to be a popular destination, but during the winter months, patrons can enjoy a comfortable lounge area with couches, comfortable chairs, a giant Scrabble board, but no televisions. “We want to make solid beers and to create an atmosphere for people to come and relate to each other. TVs are a distraction. If you come to a place with no TVs, you either stay quiet or you have to relate to the people who are around you. We want people to be able to linger, we don’t’ care about turning over each table every half hour. Come and enjoy the atmosphere,” says Brewer.
Kalona Brewing also hopes to enhance its tap room ambiance further by rolling out a line of cask-conditioned beers. Brewer plans to install an English-style hand-pulled beer dispenser, which will dispense beer without injecting artificial carbonation. “There’s nothing like a hand-pulled cask ale,” says Brewer. “We also hope to set up a cooler specifically for those casks that will keep the beer around 50 degrees, to provide an authentic cask experience.”
If you’re not able to make the jaunt to Kalona, keep an eye out for Kalona Brewing’s lineup at your local retailer. Many of the beers are already available in 32-ounce ‘mini-growlers.’ “Doug Alberhasky of John’s Grocery suggested we try those after seeing how successful Confluence Brewing has been with that style of packaging” says Brewer. “It’s definitely a kick seeing our beer on the shelves.”
The squat quart bottles bearing the “KBC” logo are just a prelude to the canning line that the brewery hopes to roll out soon. “Canning was always our goal,” states Brewer, “but so many breweries are getting into canning now that it’s put a strain on the supply chain and delayed the debut of our cans.”
Kalona Brewing hopes to produce Sucha Much IPA and Lewbricator Weizen Bock in cans later this year. “One for the hopheads and one for the malty people,” jokes Brewer.
Kalona Brewing has certainly made a lot of progress in their brief existence. Looks like this is another fine Kalona product you’ll want to add to your market basket.