Thursday, April 24, 2014

Small Town Pride and Great Beer at Keg Creek Brewing Company in Glenwood Iowa

Breweries come in all shapes and sizes. They also come from different geographical landscapes. Sometimes a hop off the highway can land you in a hidden gem of a brewery.

"Rural America" is a phrase used to describe towns dotting our great landscape. When people think of these towns, many think of farms, simple life, and hardworking people. I spent most of my childhood in a rural Wisconsin town. What I remember was a busy main street with great turn of the century facades. I remember Friday night softball games that my dad played in that brought out the whole town for beer, gossip, and bug spray. The town, though small, was thriving with people working and spending time and money at local supper clubs and taverns. Everyone knew each other and everyone cared what was going on in town. It was a simple childhood that helped shape who I am today.

Local shops make small towns great....
As the story has been told many times though, these towns hit a rough patch. From big boxes running local retailers out of town, to fast food killing the laid back pace of the supper club. Rural America received a modern face lift that many of these towns didn't ask for.

Civic pride would never truly leave these places though. A kid from town "A" would rather get in a combine accident than be caught saying something nice about town "B" (I’m looking at you Beaver Dam, WI). For many of these towns surrounded by fertile fields and red barns, an old idea (as historical as the towns themselves) has brought that pride and the local economy back to life: brewing beer. Not for fame or a huge buyout, but brewing to help a community find itself and be proud that the beer is its own.

...and great local breweries take these towns to a new level
Enter Keg Creek Brewing Company, the pride of Glenwood, IA. Glenwood is a small community in western Iowa about 30 minutes southeast of the Omaha metro area. It’s a small town off the highway tucked into the bluffs carved out by the Missouri River. Glenwood has all you could ask for in a small town. It features a town square dotted with shops, local restaurants, a local winery, a bowling alley, friendly people, and one hell of a local brewery.

How do I know all of this you ask? I learned it all directly from the friendly locals I met in the Keg Creek tap room. The people we hung out with in the tap room told us stories of bands that the brewery brings in to play in the tap room and the beer garden. They talked about being able to bring in their own food to throw on the grill and enjoy with their friends in the beer garden. Everyone talked about the July 4th event sponsored by the brewery which will bring great blues artists and bbq to Glenwood for a celebration of, well, community.  As I’ve said before, getting good craft beer at the tavern or liquor store is important, but I love to get a feel for a beer and who brews it straight from the brewery.

Warm and welcoming, just like the people inside
Keg Creek Brewing Co. is set in an early 20th century gas station not far from the main square in Glenwood. This little slice of brewing heaven in the bluffs serves six regular brews on tap and three rotating seasonal beers that all hit the mark. It is also home to brewers who love what they do and want to share their passion with you. The term "lucky" was the description I repeatedly heard in the tap room from the Glenwood faithful, and for my wife and I, lucky might have been an understatement. We set out seeking a few Friday night tastes and another brewer's take on craft beer, but what we found was one of my new favorite breweries.
We'll take one of each please!
We started our evening by meeting John Bueltel, the head brewer at Keg Creek. John, a former teacher an home brewer, started us off with a flight of the six  annual beers at Keg Creek: Wabash Wheat, Brick Red Ale, Breakdown Brown Ale, Sharp Street Stout, Keg Creek IPA, and Waseya Cream Ale. Down the line each one of Keg Creek’s beers are very drinkable.

The Wabash Wheat (named for the Wabash Nature Trail in the area) has a little less hop to it than other brews in the wheat category. The wheat still has a nice citrus note to finish and is very drinkable. It’s an easy drinking beer, great for someone who is scared of dipping into craft beer because they believe it is only bitter and has to be overly hoppy.

We moved to the red and brown ales, where we found 2 treats. I am big fan of brown ale, so I dove right into the Breakdown Brown. What I tasted was a huge surprise. This brown ale has more life to it than a traditional brown. John explained that on top of the usual brown ale ingredients, the Breakdown Brown has more bittering hops and a late hop addition to add a citrus finish that makes the brown more drinkable. I quickly became a huge fan of Breakdown Brown.

The Brick Red Ale was one of my wife's favorites. Background on my wife, she’s not usually a fan of Amber beer. The Brick Red is a smooth ale that drinks like a lager with all of the nutty aroma and caramel flavor of a red ale. Once again Keg Creek had taken a flavor that beer drinkers know, put their own subtle hop spin into it, and made a truly unique beer.

Hey, who stole the cream ale?
Cream Ale, IPA, and Stout were the last in the line. Many brewers don’t touch a cream ale, just as many don’t touch a lager (which you’ll find out Keg Creek does as well). A lot of people are not familiar with the flavor of a cream ale since it died off after prohibition and has just recently made a small revival. We were glad that these fine brewers made the decision to brew a cream ale. In general it’s a smooth, clean, crisp ale that can be described as almost a hybrid lager/ale.

In my experience, two camps of IPA fans are forming in America: 1) fans of the overly hoppy for bitterness, and 2) fans of overly hoppy for flavor. The Keg Creek IPA is a flavorful IPA, still bold, but not bitter for bitter's sake. It has more color than the bitter IPA’s and it has a nice caramel hint to it as well. For anyone that gets a little overwhelmed by bitterness, this IPA is perfect.

Last but not least was the stout. I love a good stout. I’ve been lucky enough to drink some craft stouts in London and California that I fell in love with. Keg Creek has done a nice job making all of their beers drinkable and unique for people who may not think that they enjoy a certain style of beer. Keg Creek’s stout, like the IPA, doesn’t overwhelm you with bitterness. This stout matches the stout bitterness with sweetness, adding to a real smooth relaxing finish. Stouts are heavy by nature, but this stout doesn’t weigh you down and packs so much flavor that you’ll easily order another.

Our brewing education from John Bueltel
In the midst of all of this beer tasting, John took us back into the brewery for a tour and a little education. Before heading into the brewery he explained the one and only rule of the tour: you can’t go into the brewery without a beer. (Good thing, we didn't want to put ours down anyways.) As in all tours we walked down the line of fermenting tanks, boiler kettles, and holding tanks. The real difference was the depth of the information John shared. It was very, very apparent to us that John loves brewing beer. From John's description of what was going on in his tanks at that exact minute it was clear that every bottle or glass of Keg Creek Brew you pick up is a refreshment made with handcrafted care. Not just that, every bottle that you buy has been hand bottled by the Keg Creek team in the brewery. No machinery, no assembly line, every bottle is touched and filled by one of the three owners of this brewery.

I wanna get seasonal, seasonal. Sing Along
 After our tour we still had seasonal brews to try. I don’t want to get into too much detail since they are seasonal and will rotate in and out, but what I will say is, like the six regular taps, these beers were outstanding and I wish that the 7th regular beer could be Keg Creek’s Maibock. This strong Helles Bock style lager immediately brought me back to time spent in bier halls in Germany. I know it’s only a spring offering around the world but I could drink Keg Creek’s Maibock year round. My partner in crime will also tell you that if you can get a hold of some of Keg Creek’s spicy high ABV Saison that you should grab it and enjoy its wonderful ode to Belgium.

The funny thing about our experience at Keg Creek is that I could go on for days and not run out of good things to say. As we were leaving we were lucky enough to meet the other owners of Keg Creek, Art Renze and Randy Romens. Like John, and everyone else in the tap room that night, they couldn’t have been more welcoming to a couple of out of town beer fans. If you live or travel in Iowa, you’re lucky, as you can find Keg Creek in many liquor stores and taverns throughout the state. If you live or travel in Nebraska you can find Keg Creek on tap in select bars which makes you lucky as well. But if you are planning a road trip and you love good hand-crafted beer, hop off the highway at the Glenwood, IA exit. Head through the town square and down Sharp Street to find the brewery that every beer fan in town described as something they feel lucky to have.