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Before we start… a couple of beer events are happening this weekend. Four Firkins is hosting the first Minnesota screening of Beer Hunter: The Movie, a documentary about beer writer Michael Jackson, at Republic Seven Corners. Proceeds will benefit Parkinson’s research. Also this weekend at Seven Corners, you can play bocce on the patio as Town Hall gets covered in sod.
Cheers to… Iowa!
Here at Toast HQ, we sing the praises of new brewers in Northeast. We fawn over organic whiskey in Wisconsin. We Instagram the new seasonals from New Glarus and haul them back over the border like trophy bucks. We root for the success of new spirit makers in the Twin Cities.
And all the while, we forget to check in with our neighbors to the south. What even comes to mind about Iowa’s reputation for alcohol?
Piestengel! The rhubarb wine from the Amana Colonies. As late as 1982, Iowa still made more wine from rhubarb than grapes. It typified what Iowans wanted to taste in what little wine they drank: something ripe, sugary, and unchallenging.
So we’ve been happy to observe more quality Iowan products on the shelves of our Metro bottle shops. The state has been making the same type of progress as the rest of the North Coast: loosening regulation, an explosion of wineries and small breweries, with distillers not far behind.
We figured a road trip was in order to get up close and personal with the state of Hawkeye hooch. Enjoy our notes from the road. Zum wohl!
Iowa’s New Reds
Since the days of piestengel domination, the state has taken to planting the newly engineered cold-hardy grape varieties. Iowa now has over 100 wineries fed by 1,200 acres of vineyard, both figures greater than the same in Minnesota or Wisconsin. The largest portion of the state’s wineries are in Southern Iowa, where the few slightly warmer days make a difference.
“It’s just easier to grow things down here,” says Bob Wersen, owner of Tassel Ridge Winery, “With our weather, we think we can do better with these grapes.” Tassel Ridge is likely the state’s largest grape grower. The winery outside of Leighton, about 50 miles southeast of Des Moines, tends to 67 acres spread across three vineyards.
“We’re all pioneers,” says Wersen. “[We’re] growing grapes that didn’t exist a decade ago in some cases. Marquette was 2006 when it was announced. I took a real gamble at the time, I bought 9 acres worth of nursery cuttings. That turned out to be a good bet.”
Marquette has emerged as arguably the Midwest’s finest red wine grape, and it makes the best two reds at Tassel Ridge. Their Marquette Rosé is stewing with red berry fruit around plush tannin. It’s an apt stand-in for, say, a Provençal or Southern Rhone rosé.
Their best red, the 2009 Marquette, is well composed for as young as it tastes. It’s developed a fine blueberry-plum nose, and the body is supple and round, well balanced after 11-month stints in two different types of oak, with a subtle spice developing on the finish. Released three years after its harvest, the 2009 looks to develop nicely with another year or two in the cellar.
“It’s a journey,” says Wersen, on producing dry red wine in Iowa. “We’re not there yet. We’re not any place I’m comfortable with.” Tassel Ridge, like all regional wineries, has some duds in that category. One of their wines, made from a grape called Sabrevois, was a reminder why most people haven’t heard of a grape called Sabrevois.
So like most wineries in the region, Tassel Ridge’s top seller is a sweet pushover. It’s called Red, White, & Blue, a blend of Concord and Catawaba juice purchased from upstate New York that Wersen’s wife calls “grape jelly in a glass with a kick.” Like it or not, sweet wines still pay the bills in Iowa and, for that matter, much of the Midwest.
But as Iowa wineries accrue vintages and become more familiar with these new grapes, expect Tassel Ridge to be among the red wine producers helping the state shake its piestengel past.
If you’re nostalgic for, or curious about piestengel, there’s plenty to be had in the Amana Colonies. The traditional German villages along the Iowa River still produce fruit wines that taste either flirty and pleasant or something like “melted-Karkov-Jell-O-shot-blended-into-a-wine-cooler.”
During your next visit to the Colonies, you’d do well to stick with beer. While your mother pops her head into to fourth antique shop of the afternoon and promises this time it’ll only take 10 minutes, consider spending a pleasant hour at Millstream Brewing. It was the first modern microbrewery in Iowa when it opened in 1985. Relax with a pint on their patio, amid hop-covered trellises and soft polka music.
Millstream sways with confidence toward malt-forward beer (certainly a nod to their German heritage), making beers with purity and focus, and treating hops like a necessary evil. Their Iowa Pale Ale has a flavor more assertive in body than bitterness.
The Toast favorite among Millstream’s brews is John’s Generations White Ale. It’s a largely wheat-based brew named in honor of the beloved “Dirty” John’s Grocery in Iowa City. This is a white ale with integrity in its build, creamy and substantial, with echoes of those Belgian spices and classic orange and coriander additions. It’s a credit to an easily abused style — a Blue Moon you’ll want to drink more than once in a blue moon.
Scott Ziller, co-owner of Peace Tree Brewing remembers when his brewery’s pale ale was, along with Millstream’s, one of the only Iowa craft beers on the market. “We never anticipated things would get this big,” says Ziller, gesturing at Peace Tree’s brewery space, which looks nearly stuffed to capacity. “We just wanted to be a good local company.”
He and his partners were unsure of what to do with the space they owned on Main Street in Knoxville. They were considering everything from laundromat to indoor storage center, when the idea of a brewery surfaced. Ziller, an avid homebrewer, couldn’t have been happier.
After hiring a professional brewer, Peace Tree began selling suds in Iowa City (that’s where we first encountered them, at Short’s Burger & Shine). Four years later, they’ve built a presence all over Iowa and began their foray into Minnesota this past spring. It’s now the fourth state on their books, and they’ll need a facility upgrade if they add a fifth.
Hop Wrangler is their flagship you can now find around the Metro. It’s got a bigger body than many pales, with a citrus bitterness that turns into a faint spice from the Belgian yeast. We also really enjoy their Red Rambler, an intriguing, malty amber full of walnut and toast flavor.
Ziller says Peace Tree is bringing its A game to Autumn Brew Review next month. Hopefully that’ll involve some of their Cornucopia, a brew that utilizes the sugary water from boiled sweet corn stalks.
But you know what else you could do with all that corn in Iowa? Turn it into whiskey. That’s what Cedar Ridge is doing. Perched on a quiet hillside midway between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, it’s the only winery / distillery in Iowa and the state’s first distillery since Prohibition.
Their bourbon is about 75 percent corn, with a remaining mix of rye and barley. It’s only aged two years, less than some aficionados prefer, but indicative that they’re aiming for a lighter style of bourbon. The spirit is clean and promising, with some really nice honey and tropical fruit aromas. Wood and spice define the body that eases to a frictionless escape.
Those who prefer a denser whiskey will want to check out Cedar Ridge’s single malt series. It’s a run of Scotch-style whiskey, made from 100 percent malted barley, that gets portioned into different finishing barrels. Barrel 7 had contained Madeira, which left the whiskey with a spicy, Sherry-like finish. Barrel 8’s Hungarian Oak rendered it mellow like a bourbon.
Also be on the lookout for their Clearheart Gin. It’s a Dutch-style genever with a flavor more coriander than juniper. It’d make for a nice change of pace from London Dry in your gimlet or collins.
You can find at least their bourbon on sale at many fine Metro bottle shops. Email The Toast if you’re in need of a specific locations.
Tassel Ridge Winery
1681 220th St
Leighton, Iowa 50143
Peace Tree Brewing Company
107 W. Main St
Knoxville, IA 50138
Cedar Ridge Winery & Distillery
1441 Marak Rd
Swisher, IA 52338