If you’re anything like me, your vacations include a liberal dose of beer. Why else would I have taken not one but two trips to…wait for it…Delaware?! All across the country, the craft beer revolution is sprouting copious breweries producing small-batch beers for the local population. And for the road-weary traveler.
Iowa is no exception.
At present, there are 55 breweries sprinkled across the state of Iowa, and there are at least another two dozen breweries-in-planning on the horizon. Beer Travel is “a thing,” and the Hawkeye state has plenty to offer both “staycationers” and those from further afield looking to explore Iowa’s blossoming beer scene.
Well-schooled in Iowa’s beer landscape after researching my recently released guidebook, Iowa Pints: A Guide to Iowa Breweries, people frequently ask me about my favorite Iowa brewery. I shrug my shoulders and liken it to comparing my children. That said, I do have recommendations. Lots of recommendations, depending on the nature of your trip.
First off, let’s say you’re a Beer Lover like me. If so, check out these places:
Backpocket Brewing Company (Coralville)
Launched in 2012 by Brewmaster Jake Simmons, Backpocket brews primarily German beer-inspired lagers, though they’re not afraid to deviate from rigid tradition. Though I love their Gold Coin (helles) and Slingshot (dunkel), one of my favorites is their Wooden Nickel, a peated bock that is something of a Scottish/German hybrid beer. And they throw down a pretty good IPA and stout from time to time.
Confluence Brewing Company (Des Moines)
Homebrewers-turned-pro John Martin and Ken Broadhead opened Confluence Brewing Company in 2012 and quickly became a local favorite for Des Moines beer enthusiasts. Martin appears incapable of brewing a bad beer, whether you’re a fan of a clean, light lager, a hoppy IPA, a roasty stout or a quaffable Oktoberfest. The taproom’s proximity to Gray’s Lake makes for a great place to enjoy a cold one following a bike ride.
Peace Tree Brewing Company (Knoxville)
Known for their stubby bottles, sweet branding and cool team of employees, Peace Tree received one of the industry’s biggest honors when it won a World Beer Cup gold medal for its flagship Blonde Fatale Belgian Strong Ale in April of 2014. Whether hanging at their funky taproom or around my grill at home, I seem to reach for their Red Rambler American Amber Ale, though the slight Belgian twist on many of their beers adds nuance and intrigue to their lineup.
Toppling Goliath Brewing Company (Decorah)
If you’re a hop head, then Toppling Goliath is probably already on your radar. Owner Clark Lewey started the Decorah brewery in 2009 simply because he couldn’t find an IPA on tap after a survey of a four-county area in his neck of the woods. With a penchant for hop-forward beers, Toppling Goliath has made a name for itself not only in Northeast Iowa (where you can now find an IPA on tap), but also across the US and overseas.
West O Beer (West Okoboji)
Brewer Karl Schmitz caught my attention with West O Pilsner and West O Smoked Red when I tried them at his inaugural appearance at the Iowa Craft Brew Festival in Des Moines in 2013. I’m not the only imbiber who responded to them, and I’m pleased to have West O among Iowa’s family of breweries. Located in the tourist friendly Okoboji region of Northwest Iowa, West O’s taproom is must-visit after a day on the lake.
Other breweries and reasons to visit them:
You like history and/or architecture? Check out some of the oldest brewery buildings in the state: Albia Brewing Company (Albia), Franklin Street Brewing Company (Manchester), Lost Duck Brewery (Fort Madison), Front Street Brewery (Davenport) and Worth Brewing Company (Northwood). Bonuses: Mason City Brewing Company (Mason City) attracts Frank Lloyd Wright buffs and you’ve got to check out the Czech Village neighborhood inhabited by Lion Bridge Brewing Company (Cedar Rapids).
Food and beer make a lovely couple and you’re constantly on the hunt for the next great pairing. Give these kitchen-solid breweries a try: Big Grove Brewery (Solon), Exile Brewing Company (Des Moines), Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewery (West Des Moines), Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Company (Des Moines), and SingleSpeed Brewing Company (Cedar Falls).
In addition to the aforementioned Toppling Goliath, check out hoppy libations from these breweries: Big Grove (Solon), Rock Bottom (West Des Moines), Peace Tree (Knoxville), 515 Brewery (Clive), and New American Brewing Company (Ankeny).
Iowa has a great bicycling culture, and these breweries are particularly biker-friendly due to their proximity to trails: Great River Brewery (Davenport), 515 Brewery (Clive), Firetrucker Brewery (Ankeny), and Confluence Brewing (Des Moines).
Some of my favorite breweries are near some great places to camp: Keg Creek Brewing Company (Glenwood), Toppling Goliath (Decorah), Twisted Vine Brewery (St. Charles), and Boone Valley Brewing Company (Boone). In addition, Great River Brewery (Davenport) is the most outdoor-friendly brewery in the state, offering their tasty wares in cans, perfect for camping, the beach, golf courses and other outdoor pursuits.
“Traditional” Tourist Destinations
Millstream Brewing Company (Amana), West O Beer (West Okoboji), and Lake Time Brewery (Clear Lake).
About the author
The author of Iowa Pints: A Guide to Iowa’s Breweries and Diary of a Part-Time Monk, J. Wilson is a Certified Beer Judge, an award-winning homebrewer and was named the 2012 Beer Drinker of the Year by Denver’s Wynkoop Brewing Company. Headquartered in Adams County, he edits a beer blog at brewvana.net and works for the Iowa Brewers Guild.