Iowa Pints by J. Wilson, A Field And Travel Guide To Iowa's Breweries
I’m a field guide junkie. So is my wife, and our kids. Our bookshelves at home are stocked with them. Birds, mammals, reptiles, rocks, trees, you name it--all opening doors to a different part of the natural world. To each and every member of my family, they are a gateway to wonder.
My love of field guides is so deep that I even paid for a field guide app on my smartphone, only to later uninstall it, learning what I should have known before, that nothing beats a real book, a tattered old friend in my pocket that may have accompanied me on walks in the woods, down rivers, along beaches, and up and down mountains for decades.
I confess, however, to being a little neurotic with respect to travel guides. You know, the Fodor/Frommer/Michelin type guides the tourists use to help guide them through foreign lands? Some of it I realize is simply envy. I know that I will probably never reach most of these destinations because of the lack of time and/or money, which is a little depressing. I’m also too blue collar to use one of what appear to be “hoity-toity” guides. Maybe I’m too driven by class, but to me Fodor/Frommer/Michelin ooze pretension. Maybe Smith/Clark/Bogenshutz travel guides might work for this hometown guy. I know, there are guides on how to do foreign destinations for say, $10 a day or so, but I am deeply afraid of them. I can too easily see myself optimistically taking the advice of such a guide, only to find myself halfway through the trip, penniless sitting on the curb outside a train station with no way to get home. And besides, who wants to be seen wandering the streets of Paris with a brightly colored Michelin guide, looking back and forth between its pages and the view of the Eiffel tower?
My experience is that locals serve as the best guides, and that nothing else comes close. One December long ago I found myself in Mexico City for ten days. Every night, I climbed into a taxi and asked the driver to take me to a bar--not a tourist bar--but a real bar; preferably where no one would hurt me. Once at the bar, invariably I was invited to a table to talk with a bunch of men about real things--their city, their lives, politics, art, music, the economy, international relations, women, whatever. That’s the kind of a tour I want, and the kind of guides.
Which is a long winded way of getting me to my latest acquisition in the genre, J. Wilson’s Iowa Pints, a Guide to Iowa Breweries ($16.95, Gentry County Publishing, 2014).
It’s both a field guide and a travel guide to Iowa’s small breweries.
Does it succeed? Absolutely. Locations, descriptions, and images and ample opportunities to learn about the Iowa beer industry. As Wilson puts it, 56 breweries, complete with history, tips, photos, itineraries, and recommendations, plus 55 bars/restaurants, 28 breweries in planning, and 25 homebrew clubs. Exhaustive.
But it is deeper than that as well. Iowa Pints presents “history,” but only in the best sense of the word, in that it isn’t a dry dusty tome that merely chronicles events. The book offers vignettes on family, friendship, struggle, overcoming challenges, gaining wisdom, protagonists accompanied by mentors and foes--essentially the narrative components of every good story since the beginning of time. It’s also about building community, historic preservation, revitalizing neighborhoods and growing local economies. It’s also about good beer. Local beer, and local Davids battling corporate Goliaths.
Who doesn’t love these stories? And who doesn’t want to be a player, even a bit player, in the narrative? A few glimpses follow.
Close to home, and a place I enjoy going to, Tim and Liz Ware with the Appanoose Rapids Brewing Company of Ottumwa remodeled a vacant run-down building in the middle of a few blocks of downtown that have certainly seen their better days. It’s an oasis amid run down buildings and provides hope to all who want to help bring that once booming community back. The beer is good, but even better are the looks on the faces of the clientele. Everyone from young “hipsters” to aging businessmen and women sampling beer and good food have a bit of glow about them--happy to be there, and to be a part of it.
In Iowa Pints we learn about the friendship of Cinnamon Rost and Ariane Criger who brought their homebrew husbands together, which eventually led to the founding of 515 Brewing in Clive.
Several of the brewers are like Andrew Saucke of Buck Ridge Brewery in Janesville, who went on a youthful walk-about to discover themselves and then come home. Saucke’s epiphany came when he wandered into a wild hop field near Boulder, Colorado.
We learn that brewers are scientists AND artists. The owner of Toppling Goliath Brewing Company in Decorah, Clark Lewey, says one of their goals is to produce beer that “makes people happy without stopping the creative process.” They call what they do “extreme brewing,” and according to Iowa Pints, they “push to the edge of what beer can be in Iowa.”
The creativity among brewers never takes a break. I’ll never forget the night when Joe Kesteloot, Brewmaster at Peace Tree Brewing in Knoxville and his wife Dani were over for dinner. Joe noticed some of my wife’s herbs drying, and pulled down some summer savory, and held it to his nose. Shutting his eyes, he inhaled deeply, and I could see that he was contemplating what, if anything, he could do with this lovely herb.
Good local beer and local breweries offer something special. Sure it’s a business, like any other local business. We wish them all success, but not every business lets us be a part of it in a meaningful way. Bars and breweries with tap rooms are what Ray Oldenburg calls “third places.” Not work, not home, but a third place, where people can come together and socialize, preferably with food and drink, where we can meet old and new friends and socialize. These places are easily accessible, are welcoming and comfortable, and often have regulars. We are a part of it. Third places can be bowling alleys, bookstores, libraries, and restaurants, but as we all know, the rules of social engagement are likely more complex than in a tap room.
You can drink in any bar, but it is only in a local tap room that you can drink with the people who made the hand crafted beer you are drinking. That intellectualizes the discussion, as you can ask them questions about the intention and process. And they can get immediate feedback. Since the process is intellectualized, the person at the next table likely shares your interest, as does likely everyone in the room. It’s a shared community amidst friends, neighbors and even strangers, who likely won’t remain strangers for long.
Local matters. David Bryan, owner/brewer of New American Brewing Company in Ankeny knows this. Iowa Pints shares that Bryan wants to return to the historical roots of American brewing, when every town had its own brewery, mostly small family owned businesses. When one traveled to that town, that’s the beer you drank. The town’s local beer.
Now how cool is that?
My local beer is brewed at Peace Tree Brewing in Knoxwille. Three friends needed to find a purpose for an old building they owned, and before long, with the help of brewmaster Joe Kesteloot, in 2009 the brewery was up and running; and in just five years its Blonde Fatale won the Gold Medal in the World Cup in the Belgian-style blonde ale category. Our whole town--no, the entire state of Iowa, celebrated.
Not long ago, I sat with J. Wilson at Peace Tree Brewing, a copy of Iowa Pints in front of us. In five short years the tap room at the Peace Tree already holds many memories for me. Lots of great conversation, fine beer, music, birthday celebrations, poetry readings, you name it. I guess you could say I’m a regular.
Over a beer, J. Wilson and I discussed the brewing industry in Iowa, and how it’s flourishing. And while it’s unlikely that David will topple Goliath, you never know. As we spoke, and as J. signed and pushed my copy of Iowa pints back to me, I knew that as my casual and family travels took me different directions across the state, there were 56 breweries waiting for me where I could briefly enter a warm community of kindred souls, and make new friends. I also knew that J. Wilson was exactly the kind of tour guide I wanted. A local.
My copy of Iowa Pints is now dog-eared, a tattered old friend in my pocket.