An outsider wouldn’t expect to discover much good craft beer in Iowa, a state best known for pigs and corn. Yet go to the American Legion hall in Solon, population just more than 1,000, and you’ll find World War II veterans drinking beer like that found in Germany.
Rather than brewing a light-leaning beer to appeal to mainstream tastes, the partners in Solon’s Stone City Brewing Co. decided to make a distinctive product. That doesn’t mean they’ve gone with massively hopped beers as in the Northwest or the big, malty beers that homebrewers delight in making. Instead they sell classic, true-to-style lagers and ales that are unfiltered and bottle conditioned.
Skeptics told brewer Jeff Allen, “You’ll never sell beer with mud in the bottom.” But while it took some time to educate retailers, there have been no complaints from consumers.
Take last year’s Solon Beef Days, held just after the brewery opened in July 1996. When festival goers wandered into the brewery, partner Mark Brower would say to them, “Just try this. I’m going to give you free beer.” The visitors would move on to the festival beer tent only to return to the brewery and announce that they needed a real beer, Brower says.
“We knew then we had it beat,” he recalls. Now the tasting room stays open until 8 p.m. on Fridays in the summer, and it’s regularly packed.
While the beers may be true to classic styles, you wouldn’t mistake this for a classic brewery. Brower, Allen, Sally Allen, and Luke Ames spent many months turning a former Chevy and John Deere dealership into a microbrewery. Because they did nearly all the work themselves, it cost them only $500,000 — a fraction of what the brewery is insured for.
Only the tax determination tank, the heat exchanger, and the bottling and kegging apparati are equipment originally meant for a brewery, and they were purchased used. Dairy tanks, bought through a dealer, are at the heart of the 16-barrel system. The tanks became brewing equipment only after Brower and Allen made many shopping trips to local junk yards in search of parts.
“There are four or five junk yards around here that let you sort through stuff,” Brower says. “You can find a lot of perfectly good burners.” Often, the owner will let go of the old furnace burners for a dollar or so.
There are three converted tanks in the brewhouse — the mash tun, the hot liquor tank, and the brewing kettle. “You cut the bellies open, rip out the insulation, and put in burners,” Brower says, describing in seconds what it took the two of them, working full time, six weeks to accomplish.
“We use direct fire on everything,” Allen says. “I want to get a good, rolling boil. That puts flavor in your beer.”
Although the equipment isn’t traditional, the brewery is set up so Allen can use a traditional gravity-flow process to transfer the beer. The mash tun sits above the hot liquor tank, and the brewing kettle is over to the side. “I feel that if you aerate it, you ruin it,” Allen says.
Walls separate the brewhouse from the fermenting and conditioning area. Ales and lagers are fermented at 58° F. “That’s at the upper range for the pils, but the yeast works at that (temperature),” Allen says. It doesn’t affect the bock, which is brewed in winter.
All of the beer is naturally conditioned, primed in the tax determination tank, then kegged or bottled. The only fining Allen does is adding Irish moss to the brew kettle. After packaging, the beer spends two or more weeks at 58° F before it is hand delivered to retailers. The six-head Gai bottler, purchased from a defunct Colorado brewery, can do a case a minute, but labeling by hand takes much longer.
Bottling is worth the effort, however: Stone City sold 140 barrels in its first 5.5 months of operation, then added the bottler in early January and sold 560 barrels in six months, all by self-distribution. By early July the brewery was up to 43 accounts, as far away as Keokuk, on the Mississippi River, and including the local Legion hall. “The last three came to us,” Allen says. The partners keep busy just satisfying existing accounts, and in mid-summer they considered buying vertical fermenters to supplement the dairy tanks, which are wider than they are tall and take up a lot of floor space.
Stone City’s year-round beers are hefeweizen (originally called “Wheat” so as not to confuse the uninitiated), Iowa Pale Ale, and Artist Colony Ale. Seasonals include the hoppy Stone Bluff Pils, a maibock, and a bock.
“The Wheat took off, but what really surprised me is that the dark beer took off, too,” Allen says. Jeff and Sally Allen’s 14-year-old son, Jason, makes the brewery’s root beer.
Hefeweizen is a traditional Bavarian hefe made with more than 60 percent malted wheat and hopped with Saaz. It has pronounced citric, clove, and banana flavors from the German yeast. The high percentage of wheat gives it a hearty body. Iowa Pale Ale is a British-style pale ale made mostly from two-row, some Munich, and “several other malts.” It’s about 5 percent alcohol by volume, and Allen estimates the IBUs are in the mid-20s. Both the pale ale and Artist Colony Ale are fermented with European ale yeast. Artist Colony is a brown ale made with a variety of malts, including chocolate. It’s reminiscent of Newcastle Brown, which it replaced on tap at The Sanctuary in Iowa City, the state’s best beer bar.
Artist Colony Ale was named for painter Grant Wood’s old art colony in Stone City, the brewery’s namesake and the town where the partners originally had planned to open a brewery. As it turned out, Solon offered things Stone City didn’t, such as better water, affordable property, a sewer system, and natural gas.
The partners all grew up in and around Cedar Rapids. Each had useful skills to contribute going into the business. Jeff Allen has a degree in microbiology. Sally Allen, who works full time in a credit union, does all the bookkeeping and financial work. Mark Brower, Sally’s brother, was a mechanical engineer, and Luke Ames has experience with plumbing and electrical work.
Until a few years ago Jeff and Sally Allen lived in Colorado, where Jeff was a laboratory manager and homebrewer who became friends with several craft brewers. He decided he wanted to start a microbrewery, but there were already 40-plus operating in Colorado by 1995. So he went back home to Iowa, which had only one distributing microbrewery. “I decided to come out here, where there was nobody,” Allen says. “People kept saying ‘it’ll never work there.’”
The partners have no grand illusions. Growing to 15,000 barrels sounds like plenty to them. “One of the things we worry about is losing that hand-craftedness,” Brower says.
By doing so much of the work themselves and avoiding the debt that burdens so many startups, the partners are free to make their own choices. “We don’t have to go faster just to stay alive,” Jeff Allen says.
Which is fine with the guys down at the Legion hall.
Stone City Brewing Co., 220 S. Dubuque St., Solon, Iowa. Call (319) 644-1360.
Stan Hieronymus and Daria Labinsky are authors of the Beer Travelers Guide, which lists more than 1,700 brewpubs, bars, and restaurants in the United States that serve flavorful beer.