LIQUID ASSETS: Out of the Garage and into a Brewery

liquid

Out of the Garage and into a Brewery
Keg Creek Brewing Company
Story and Photography by Mike Brownlee

A pint of brown ale sits at the bar—just the right amount of foam at the top. The liquid settles nicely in the glass. A good pour. The beer is smooth and pleasant with a hint of hops in the aftertaste. One of the four regular products of Keg Creek Brewing Company, the brown ale is delicious.

“Craft beer is about tasting new and different styles,” says John Bueltel, a co-owner of the Glenwood, Iowa-based brewery. “You have to be willing to experiment.”

“When you get a good taste, with some flavor to it, you drink slower, you savor,” adds Art Renze, one of Bueltel’s partners.

Last summer, friends and home brewers Bueltel, Renze, Randy Romens and Grant Hebel left the garage to open Keg Creek.

“I’ll never forget that first day, never forget that date,” Romens says of their September 22 opening. “I thought it would get easier after that.”

Sitting at a table at their tasting room, Bueltel and Renze laugh at the thought. Business for the brewery has grown exponentially during the year after inception. The friends hold regular tasting room hours—often to a full house—and lead tours of the brew room for people who call ahead. At the brewery, they sell growlers of their wares—half gallon or four pints—and they’re working on a design and labels for the individual bottles they hope to offer soon.

Keg Creek beers are on tap in Omaha at the Crescent Moon, Brass Monkey, and Jazz: A Louisiana Kitchen; in Glenwood at Vine Street Cellars; in Council Bluffs at Buffalo Wild Wings; and at several bars in Lincoln and Des Moines. “We thought we’d serve a few people in the tasting room, get a few kegs out there,” Hebel, the head brewer, says. “That hasn’t been the case. The biggest surprise is the number of people that support us and have been willing to try the beer, try new things. We’re growing quicker than we thought we would.”

Taking It to the Drinkers

On a Tuesday night, patrons with a refined beer palate file into the Brass Monkey, a neighborhood bar at 36th & V streets. Hebel, Bueltel and Renze have set up a table on the far end of the bar with about six growlers of their wares ready to be poured for interested tasters.  It is also the first night the bar has Keg Creek on tap.

“First, they’re just great guys,” said Maria Tworek, who owns the Brass Monkey with her husband, Kevin. “And they make great beer.” Whether it’s in a small plastic cup or a pint, many in the packed bar have a Keg Creek beer in their hands.  The three men work the crowd, talking beer, laughing. And that’s without Romens, the guy they call their “socialite,” although Bueltel is a close second for the title, if not a debatable first. “There’s a degree of satisfaction in talking about a beer you made,” Hebel says at the event. “It’s nice to come out and explain our beers, meet the patrons that’ll be drinking Keg Creek. We hear what they like and don’t like. I love making beer, but I like the backside more, talking to people about the beer.” Hebel takes a sip from the pint in his hand. “Market research,” he adds with a grin.

Turning Passion into Business

After years of home brewing, the men’s knowledge and expertise grew, as did a devout local following. An idea fermented in their heads. “Maybe all home brewers sit around saying it’d be great to have a brewery,” Bueltel saya. “But for us, this has always been a dream.” So they opened Keg Creek.

Along with the four staples—brown ale, wheat, India Pale Ale (IPA) and stout—Keg Creek produces a specialty beer about once a month. They’ve concocted a black IPA, a lager and a Belgian-Scottish ale aged in a wooden bourbon barrel, as well as other selections.

Though they’d made beer for years, they soon found that running a brewery was something new. In 2009, Bueltel retired after 30 years as an art teacher atGlenwoodHigh School. He flipped houses on the side while teaching and spearheaded the renovation of their building, a multiple-month endeavor last year.

An Army veteran and a veterinarian, Hebel still works part time at theOmahaBestCarePetHospital. In January, Renze “retired” to solely work at Keg Creek after 33 years with Mid-American Energy, while Romens went from a 22-year stint in the Army to a gig with the Army Reserve, where he has been since 2007.

When they brewed their first batch, the four entered an industry on the rise. Preliminary numbers count about 1,949 operating breweries in theUnited States, according to the Brewers Association, the national organization of craft breweries. That number is up from 1,689 in 2010 and 1,546 in 2009. Over the first half of 2011, the most recently available numbers, craft brewers sold an estimated 5.1 million barrels of beer.

InIowa, four new breweries opened in the last three years, bringing the Iowa Brewers Guild total to 26 (including Keg Creek). There are 15 breweries in the Nebraska Craft Brewers Association, the highest number in at least 20 years, according to Paul Kavulak, president of the association and founder of the Nebraska Brewing Company in Papillion.

Kavulak said despite an increase in operations and barrels filled in the past few years, craft brewers produce only 1% of beer consumed in the state. “When you say that, you realize there’s room for a hell of a lot more breweries than there are,” he says.

That growth is possible, he says, because the palate of theNebraskadrinker increasingly refined during the last five years. “We’ve educated people and they’re consuming appropriately. There’s more of a market inNebraskanow.”

While the Crescent Moon was the only craft-beer bar in the area for years, a number have opened recently. The challenge for craft brewers, Kavulak says, is staying relevant.  “The beer geeks walk in, they want what they haven’t had yet. Our fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations were brand loyalists. They wanted a Schlitz or a Miller,” he says. “So these days, it’s difficult to maintain a tap handle. Easy to get one, the real test comes with longevity at a bar.”

Keg Creek is ready for that test. Renze says the unexpected growth is nice, but they’ll take it slow—don’t want to tap out the market too quickly. Their philosophy: Specialty beers should appease beer nerd wanderlust, while quality staples should continue to be popular.

At the brewery, Renze pours a glass of brown ale, a glass of wheat and sits down.

“Quality control,” he says, a grin on his face, before taking a sip. Bueltel bounces around the room before settling into a chair. Romens pops into the production room every so often, checking on a keg filling. They share jokes at each others’ expense, interrupted only by Romens’ trips to the keg.

Hang around the guys for a while and it becomes apparent Keg Creek Brewing is a dream realized. There’s hard work, sure, but these four friends figured out a way to make beer, drink beer and have fun. And get paid for it.

RECIPE

SIRLOIN STEAK IN BEER AND MOLASSES MARINADE

Keg Creek Brewing Company
111 Sharp St.Glenwood, IA
712.520.9029
KegCreekBrewing.com

Tasting Room Hours
Wednesday–Friday: 4pm–10pm
Saturday: noon–10pm

Mike Brownlee’s beer palate refined tenfold during work on this story and he looks forward to further ale exploration. But he enjoys the occasional Bud Light. The Council Bluffs native tells the stories of the people, places and events of southwest Iowa as a reporter for his hometown newspaper, The Daily Nonpareil. Follow him on Twitter @mikebrownlee.

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