Turner Alley Brewing: Art, Science, and Fun
In the past, we’ve written how brewing beer is a mix of art and science. One other thing we should stress is that brewing beer can be just plain fun. Travis Scheidecker, a long-time fixture on the Cedar Rapids brewing scene, is having a blast with his new job as brewmaster at Turner Alley Brewing Co.
It is fitting that Turner Alley’s owner, Bill Patterson, has a day job selling playground and recreation equipment. When Bill relocated to Cedar Rapids with his wife, Jacque, he began to pursue seriously his dream of building his dream brewery.
“This is something Bill has had in mind for ten years or more,” says Scheidecker, who formerly served as brewer and restaurant manager at Third Base Brewing in Cedar Rapids. “When Bill moved to town two or three years, ago, he contacted me right away. A lot of fellow beer geeks gathered at the brewpub, and Bill sought out contacts within that community. He made it known that he wanted to start up a local brewery.”
Although Patterson has studied brewing at the Seibel Institute in Chicago, and has worked at a production brewery in Reno, Nevada, he recruited Scheidecker to be the brewer for Turner Alley. “Once he showed me the space, I was hooked,” says Scheidecker, “although really I was on board from the start.”
Turner Alley is named after native son, Grant Wood’s, downtown art studio, but the brewery sits far from the heart of Cedar Rapids.
“When I told people about the location, they said, ‘Well, that’s a terrible place for a restaurant,’ and I agree,” jokes Scheidecker. Travis notes that Turner Alley is meant to be a ‘beer factory,’ not a pub, so features such as low rent, high ceilings cement flooring and a convenient loading dock took preference to a downtown location with a lot of foot traffic.
Patterson and Scheidecker sketched they layout for the brewery in a chalk outline on the bare floor. The pair originally planned to begin operations in late 2014, but the equipment for the 30-barrel operation took a little longer to set up than planned, as the equipment was imported from a Chinese manufacturer. “The company sent a technician to install the equipment, but he didn’t speak much English, so the language barrier created problems,” says Scheidecker. “He was a really bright guy, though, and a wizard of an electrician, so we eventually got it done.”
In some ways, though, the delay in setting up the brewery proved beneficial. “Both of us have made a lot of contacts in the local bar scene, so we were able to spend our time going to bar owners and talking up the brewery,” says Scheidecker. “Bill and Jacque, took a lot of time to create the branding and all of the promotional materials so we were able to present a clear vision of what we’re trying to do.”
Fortunately, the concept of a local brewery has proven to be an easier sell than in years past, with many outlets jumping on the ‘locally-produced’ bandwagon. “The recent growth of local breweries made it really easy for us to get a foot in the door. For some bars, all we had to do was
mention that we’re a local brewery and they were more than willing to give us a chance, even before they had a chance to taste the beer,” notes Scheidecker.
The local beer movement also made it easy to procure a distribution deal with 7G, which has a facility just down the road from Turner Alley. “I’ve known those guys from being in the bar business for ten years, so we were really pleased to get on board with them, “ says Scheidecker.” Turner Alley originally planned to self-distribute their beers, so the arrangement with 7G saved the brewery the expense of buying their own delivery truck and hiring a dedicated driver.
Once Turner Alley began brewing in the late May, Scheidecker really got to start enjoying his new toy. “The system proved easy to use from day one. This is a huge difference from the cramped quarters I was used to at the brewpub,” says Scheidecker. “Right now, I’m just getting used to the system and dialing in the consistency of our batches.”
Scheidecker relishes the large capacity. Unlike many commercial brewers, Scheidecker has no home brewing background. “I’m actually a terrible home brewer,” he says, “so it’s actually easy for me to get used to the larger system.” Bill Patterson is able to contribute his insights from his past work at production brewery, and neighboring brewers Quinton McLain of Lion Bridge and Chris Priebe of Millstream have offered invaluable advice.
“Chris has even let me bring down a rental truck full of kegs to clean at Millstream,” notes Scheidecker. “The local brewing community has just been wonderful to work with.”
The initial results from the brewery have exceeded Scheidecker’s expectations. “To be honest, I expected to have to dump my first four batches as I learned the system, but so far the only problem batch was some pale ale that just came out too bitter,” states the brewer.
Turner Alley is honing in on developing its flagship beers first, so Scheidecker’s energy has been devoted to brewing three primary beers to start with.
“We really hoped the pilsner would turn into our flagship beer, and it looks like that is happening. Pilsner is what I like to drink and what I most like to make, so we’re very pleased at how it has taken off in just the first 30 days.” Turner Alley’s Czech Village pilsner is a perfect summertime beer made with traditional Bohemian malt and Saaz hops, which give the beer just a hint of spiciness.
Like most small craft brewers, Turner Alley also offers pale ales in the form of Mays Island IPA and Rising Rapids Rye Pale Ale. Scheidecker is still dialing in the hop efficiency of the ales, so the level of hop-flavor has fluctuated a bit. “One batch was far too hoppy to sell,” reports Scheidecker, “but I’m getting used to how the brewing system processes hops.”
For the third flagship brew, Scheidecker hopes the Wood’s Wheat will take off. “I would love to keep making that,” says the brewer, “it’s got the hop content that gives it the aroma of a pale ale, but it drinks like a light wheat beer.” We agree that the wheat makes for a refreshing warm-weather beverage.
Naturally, there is some call for a strong beer option, and Scheidecker has an Imperial Red ale in the works. The new brew will check in at about 8.2% alcohol and uses Ella hops, an Australian variety that contributes a citrusy flavor reminiscent of west-coast IPAs.
Turner Alley also plans on rotating some seasonal beers through its rotation. “Bill and I share very similar preferences in beer styles,” says Scheidecker. In addition to pilsner, Scheidecker claims an affinity toward the Belgian-style saison, so beer lovers can expect that in the coming months.
“Both of us also like stout, so we’re leaning toward making an American-style stout, and we’ll be rolling out a smoked porter for the fall,” says the brewer. “We’ll also always try to have something refreshing and low in alcohol for the summer months.” Scheidecker speculates a fruity wheat beer could be in the future to fill that niche.
“I’d really love to make a hefeweizen, but in my experience, it’s a tough beer to make properly and tough to maintain freshness. I think it’s a style that’s more suited to a brewpub, so even though I had great success with that style at Third Base, I don’t think we’ll do that here.”
The brewery hopes to offer tours at some point, but don’t expect to pop in for a pint at Turner Alley just yet. The brewery is still in the process of setting up a tasting area that complies with local city codes. “We’ll probably be restricted to relatively small groups,” says Scheidecker, “so we’ll probably have a couple tours a month for thirty people or so, in addition to any specially-arranged tours.” “I’m better off with no one else around, anyway,” jokes Scheidecker. “I’d rather just put on some classical music and brew instead of having to stop every time someone walks through the door. I might get distracted and forget to add the hops to the brew kettle.”
Turner Alley is working hard to build local tap outlets, however. The beer already is widely available through the Cedar Rapids-Solon-Coralville-Iowa City area, and a foray into the Quad Cities should be coming soon. The brewery does not yet have a distributor for the Des Moines area, so the capital city will have to wait a while longer.
Bottling may also be in the cards, despite not being part of the brewery’s initial plans. “We projected that might be something we’d do after two years, but if we can get a bottling machine, that may happen earlier,” says Scheidecker.
The brewery plans for 2,400 barrels of production this year, with 5000 planned for next year. “Those are lofty goals, to be sure,” says Scheidecker, but we like that.” That’s a lot of beer, but if Turner Alley wants to brew it, we’re more than happy to help them drink it. It’s all in good fun.
When You Go:
Turner Alley Brewing Company
2715 12th Street SW, Cedar Rapids319.383.4651
The brewery’s web site, TurnerAlleyBrewing.com, has an updated list of area restaurants and pubs where you can find the beer, including #eiFriends Big Grove, Devotay, and Lion Bridge Brewing, as well as the Iowa Chop House.