I have now been in the rarefied air of mid-central Iowa for several days* and boy do I feel…cold? It’s Iowa in January and there’s just enough snow on the ground to remind me/you that it’s frosty outside, and it seriously discourages me from doing anything much outdoors, I can tell you that. A crisp breeze from the west will quickly convince you to go inside if you do wander into the unheated place accidentally or foolishly. *written in real-time posted a week later
I am currently solo at LUA Brewing in downtown-ish Des Moines, having a few 5 oz tasters, which is something I almost never do unless I’m trying to visit a bunch of breweries in one swing. It’s been a while, though, since I had the explicit goal of making the rounds in a place, and I’ve been given some keys to a vehicle and a mandate to enjoy myself. My friend and wingman is on family duty, as his wife developed a double ear infection or something entirely more painful than I’d like to think about, and they’ve got an 8 week old and two older boys to feed or hose down or feed baby goats, IDK (insert parenting duty here).
Why is it weeks and not months when talking about baby age? I don’t know, I’m a beer nerd and children are completely foreign territory for me. I like the ones that are a little bit bigger and don’t throw up on themselves (or me) all the time, he’s got two of those and they’re fun enough when the tiny one in blankets is sleeping. ANYWAYS, my friend insisted on flying me out, which is something that I’m extremely grateful and fortunate for, and got me a hotel room at a converted old folks home in near-bumfuck, Iowa (it’s the next town over), and the keys to an ’06 Range Rover that goes ‘BURRRBLE’ and so I told him to stay at home and do the attentive husband thing while I went out drinking beer, and…well, I made choices. He is successful and has a family and I get to go drink beer whenever I want.
I am pleased to see the general atmosphere of these places is great. I went to a small pizzeria next to a small brewery in a small town in Iowa and they made great food and the beer was tasty and I sincerely hope this is the way things are for most places around the country. I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s not, though, but that’s one of those posts we save for the crazy uncle thread on reddit. I have to be mindful of the things I say there, in some of these places, because Iowans tend to be conservative – despite knowing better – and I could get caught up in some drama for simply talking about facts. Still, I love how people try to pretend the beer they drink doesn’t have some sort of political underpinning, like they’re not making a conscious statement by the beverage they drink. I wonder what mine is?
I’m better than you..?
I have moved down the street to Big Grove’s DSM facility, and I say ‘facility’ because this place is enormous by most standards. It’s an older brick warehouse building with lots of updated renovation work and exposed modernization to the bones. There is a large brewing area on one end that is probably bigger than many primary systems at places I’ve visited. I was still in Cedar Rapids when Big Grove opened their first location in Solon, Iowa. Solon is basically right between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, the two quickest growing cities in the state (at the time), and the demand for craft beer was just starting to explode in 2013, so they have apparently found themselves with an excess of ambition and capital, with several large properties in Iowa already. They are ready for big growth, and I’m intrigued by the large scale they’re working on compared to their competitors.
I plan on visiting Confluence a bit later. They’ve celebrated their 10th mark recently, and there’s some similarities to consider, but also some differences in approach. In the same light, LUA has a whole different vibe than Big Grove, and they’re just around the block from each other. Exile is also nearby, and they’ve got a whole…different thing for themselves that’s a unique identity from the other places. If this feels familiar, I’m glad. My time in Portland was starting to feel a bit bland despite my best efforts to explore new breweries – there is only so much stainless steel and rough-cut pine you can absorb before it all starts to blur together. There is still a same-ness that bothers me here, but it’s understandable when you consider that small-town Iowa doesn’t have old large warehouse spaces that are also conducive to a brewing and restaurant operation that also has scenic views and/or character.
I mean…there are only so many roll-up window door-walls you can fit in a given space
It’s kind of strange to see the amount of effort spent to install glass-windowed roll-up doors on every wall, at both the new construction and old remodel spaces, since Iowa is freezing for more than a few months a year and the rest isn’t always ideal for outdoor dining. I shouldn’t be surprised, though – the last few years have proven the need for flexibility and the need to grab every dollar you can when you can, often by expanding however the local authorities will let you.
In Portland you find that a lot of street parking has been taken over by ‘sheds’ for dining. It was becoming more common before covid, but the relaxation of rules for these things has allowed many small business owners to expand their operating area without having to build anything substantial. There’s a permit they can get to take over parking in front of their storefront and then they’re free to build a platform. I could be wrong but from the range of designs and materials used to the placement you’d have to wonder how stringent the process was to get approval for these things; a few years after the pandemic’s first waves, many of these platforms are quickly falling apart, since they were made with plywood and left outdoors without much work done to have them painted or protected. Some blocks have derelict platforms, leftovers from failed joints that simply shut their doors and left that shit outside for someone else to deal with. The more industrious homeless folks take the good bits first, and then the rest just rots in the street, neglected, a reminder of how the city will chew you up if you don’t move fast enough. Over Christmas I rented a room to shelter from the yearly ice/snow storm, and there were the remains of a platform right around the corner from a fairly busy intersection – but this had been a personal effort, it seemed. There had been a tent, and inside the tent…I’m completely serious here… there was a full drum set. It was almost like someone had set up a practice space inside a tent on this little platform just randomly in front of someone’s house and left it for the storm to destroy.
I don’t anticipate that most cities in Iowa will have to worry about things like derelict dining platforms rotting in their streets, but the need for the massive roll-up doors and expansive outdoor seating is at best a wishful one. But maybe downtown Des Moines is this thriving monster of pedestrian consumerism, and the crumbling brick homes and apartments nearby are, umm, going to be gentrified soon? There are a lot of empty storefronts here. Some of the older homes are in bad shape and you know there isn’t a whole lot of help to be had if you’re struggling in Iowa.
Before I went downtown, I stopped by the family cemetery plot to visit grandma, and then by her old house, which…will be not long for this world. It’s a small house that was built a long, long time ago and there’s not much worth saving, sadly. I doubt you could even get a loan to buy the place unless you wanted to pay straight cash, and hey – I’m sure you could do that with some fat stacks. The location makes it a valuable plot, I’m sure it’ll hold a large modern home within a year or two. This has been a weird time for me, because in addition to all this stuff I’ve recently gotten back on that social media horse, to try connecting with people and stuff, only to realize it’s not…the people aren’t there. Fakebook is like a time capsule with living artifacts in it and I keep hoping for some reason it’ll work for what I want it to do but it never has and it never will. Eh?
You’re drunk, old man. Go home.
*Some time later* I find myself at a place called Exile Brewing. They’re right down the street from the other two I was at already, a half-mile, maybe. The heated seat in the Range Rover barely got warm, it was so close. Big Grove is a great place for gathering people, but in early January, the wind gets through those big window-doors and it was a bit cold for my comfort. I tried some beers and felt like moving on, so now I’m surround by CHRISTMAS, balls-deep in a hellscape of sparkly snowflakes and lights and decorations hung from strings every 2 feet. No joke, it’d be a bit of a nightmare for certain types of people. I am at a dumb point in my day where I don’t really find anything on the taplist inspiring and the plan to keep visiting breweries starts to fall apart a bit without effort. Why am I doing this?Surely there is something more productive I could be doing with this visit. Self-doubt is a killer. It follows me everywhere. (As I edit this, I know the in-your-face blitz of lights and gaudy decorations had a serious impact on my mood that night).
I ordered a big stout for some reason, but just a small pour because I’m conflicted. Jesus on a Forklift, 12.5% and eh? I dislike wasting beer but I’m not above leaving a pour behind because it’s just not working for me. I think the atmosphere of this place isn’t helping, now I’m hearing some latin Christmas samba shit, this isn’t the time for a quiet rumination on the beer. I’ve got to go. Maybe next time I’m in town Exile won’t be full-on sensory overload city. I realize they’re looking to stand out a little, but this sort of gambit is 50/50 and best used for a very limited time.
My last stop was Confluence brewing, a standout as far as I’m concerned, but their brewery and taproom are situated in an odd part of town and they don’t have a kitchen, so the place was almost empty when I rolled in after 5, maybe. I sat at the bar next to a guy who was interested in crystals and some interesting theories about radio waves. I run across these folks a lot, perched at the bar like it’s the neighborhood spot, theorizing on things with a…limited background knowledge. Or maybe a smaller vision than their theory requires to make any working sense (like ‘why would this thing you think be helpful to anyone?’). A lot of the time, these folks don’t get challenged in any helpful way, and just rely stuff they might have heard on certain ‘news’ networks, for instance. When you try to lead them to the ultimate conclusion of whatever theory they have, and show them some alternatives, sometimes you can have some great conversations. Like, why would ‘rich people’ pump chemicals into the air that they also breathe (it’s an old chemtrails argument that’s guaranteed to start a fight if you push it far enough)?
Anyways, it was entertainment while I sipped on some Ferryman’s Death By Chocolate. I had the un-flavored Ferryman’s in bottle-form and I honestly enjoyed it better. I also have a bottle of Ferryman’s peanut butter, so they’re working the barrel program pretty hard. There were multiple barleywines on tap, a personal favorite style of mine, but since I’d already had several tasters of great Iowa beer, I only had a few sips of the BW. Oatmeal cookies and monster cookies were great little stouts with a unique flavor that broke from the rest of the oat/milk stouts I’ve had lately. I had many miles to drive to get back to my crappy little hotel room in some tiny little township only accessible by 2-lane roads, and it was starting to get windy and snowy out.
It can be hard to navigate a path through these beer lists when you’re visiting with a very limited amount of time and sobriety to manage, especially when you’re out doing it alone. I’ve been doing it a long time, but it’s different here than my usual beering grounds around greater Portland. Each one of these breweries that I went to had an extensive list of styles on hand, with some a focus by each, but overall a general attempt to have several styles on hand. The IPAs here are alright, with the ‘NE HAZY’ being dominant. Most of the rest of the efforts are devoted to lagers and mild brown beers, depending on the brewery. You might not find something that gets your attention at a specific brewery, but since you can’t just walk down the street to a different spot, you’re left making choices and sometimes you find yourself enjoying a beer you wouldn’t normally have had. It’s a strange place to be in, and I’m sure it colors the local experience quite a bit, so I might have to come back to this topic at some point.
I wrapped my night up at a little place called Fender Brewing in Polk City. On the first night in town I’d had some of their beer at the pizza place next door, and I was hoping to talk to an owner or brewer or whatever. Instead, I got to harangue a bewildered stand-in who admittedly knew not much about the beers while a 5-pack of cougars talked post-holiday shit to each other on the other side of the cozy taproom. The snow had accumulated, and it was nearing 9pm when I finally headed out, after a quick sample of some other beers on tap and the not-unusual feeling that I had maybe frightened a local again. Smile and nod when I’m around if you don’t know wtf I’m talking about and eventually I’ll go away. Probably. I try to tip.
I SAID I’M TRYING
I am safely thousands of miles away now and can disclose my adventures on the return to the fields of corn. I had tried to broadcast my presence and hoped somebody (who I dunno anybody?) might come out or recommend something I hadn’t seen but as usual I am almost invisible to the algorithms and interesting people and women all at the same time, so nobody was interested. Or responded. Or even saw my tweets trying to share my posts and fakebook will probably throw that shit up in a couple of weeks. The few people who read my stuff say it’s good but I guess you’ve got to have some interest in any of this stuff and most of the people who do don’t take it as seriously as I do. Probably.
Recent updates to wordpress have of course obliterated my photos and layout so I’ve got to do all of that again. Yay. Maybe I should get another crappy regular job. Sigh.