Millstream Brewing Co.

From the Source by | Oct 2012 | Issue #69

In the small village of Amana, Iowa, tucked among historical sites and artisans’ shops, Millstream Brewing Company is quietly churning out some of the finest beer in the region. During the nearly 30 years they’ve been open, Millstream has found a harmonious blend between traditional German lagers and experimental American ales, and it’s getting harder and harder to keep the place a secret. As co-owner Teresa Albert puts it, “People have to know we are there to find us, and they do.”

Community Roots
The town of Amana was founded as part of the Amana Colonies—a string of seven German villages in the area that were originally designed as self-sufficient communities, separated from the rest of society. Church services, and many other activities of daily life, were conducted in German. The colonies became more open to the general public in the early 20th century, but many of the locals still speak German, and the community remains tight-knit.

Tom Albert (Teresa’s husband) was born in nearby East Amana, just about 2.5 miles from where he would eventually own a brewery. As an Amana local, he understands the nuances of functioning in a small community. Friends and customers volunteered to help build the indoor seating area at the brewery (in exchange for beer, of course), and Albert returns the favor with events for the community.

“We started a beer festival, the Iowa Beer Festival, and we get 1,200 people at the brewery,” Tom says. “It’s just Iowa products, and we do have some homebrew clubs that come to it as well.” Millstream also runs the Tour de Brew, a bike ride that helps fund maintenance of the local bike trail.

Often compared to Amish communities, the village is something of a Midwestern tourist attraction—which means a lot of Millstream’s business comes from tourists. But the locals are the heart of the business, and the Alberts work to make Millstream an exciting spot in the community. “We did live music and food every weekend this summer,” Teresa says. “A lot of that was for the locals and the community. They show up every Saturday. I think one Saturday [in August], half the crowd was locals. That’s something we can do for them.”

Perhaps Millstream’s biggest contribution to Amana is the town’s annual Oktoberfest. The German celebration, held in a renovated barn dubbed “Fest Hall,” is one of the most popular events in the region, and the traditional German Märzen, made by Millstream’s brewer, Chris Priebe, is the official drink. “They pretty much exclusively do our beer,” Tom says. “We go through maybe 40 kegs on that Oktoberfest weekend. That’s just there. That’s not counting the restaurants and here [at the brewery].”

In Good Hands
Priebe and the Alberts are not Millstream’s original owners. The brewery was founded in 1985 by Carroll F. Zuber and his partners, James and Dennis Roemig. Under the guidance of Joseph Pickett, a legend in Iowa brewing for his rehabilitation of the famous Dubuque Star Brewery, Millstream opened as the first brewery in the Amana Colonies since Prohibition.

Another couple purchased the brewery from the Roemigs and Zuber, but lost interest shortly after, when their son decided that he did not want to brew. Priebe was working there as a brewer, as was Aaron Taubman. Meanwhile, Tom Albert was trying to figure things out after being laid off from the Amana Refrigeration plant, and had taken a job in Millstream’s tasting room. The interim owners were prepared to sell, and Teresa saw a perfect opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of hers.

“I have always, always wanted to own my own business,” Teresa explains. “I said, ‘So, wouldn’t it be cool if we could afford to buy the brewery?’ We approached the brewers the next day and talked to them. We said we are interested, but we will not buy it if you won’t buy in with us. We don’t know anything about making beer. And they said that was fine, because they didn’t know anything about selling it.”

Tom, Teresa, Priebe and Taubman joined forces and purchased the brewery on January 1st, 2001. Taubman eventually moved on, leaving Teresa to manage sales, Tom to manage production and Priebe at the helm of brewing operations. “It was just kind of one of those things where you have this tragedy in your life, and you turn around and a lot of positivity came out of it,” Teresa says. “We just love it. We work together so well. Chris brews and I sell, and Tom is the glue that gets it from the tanks to the distributor’s truck.”

Tradition + Innovation
Priebe understands that in traditional German brewing, there are few sins worse than rushing the lagering process. In an area packed with locals from German lineage, that offense would be glaringly obvious. To ensure that the beer is not rushed, Millstream boasts 28 fermenters for its 20-barrel brewhouse.

“That’s kind of our identity,” Priebe says of the traditional lagers. “It’s very important to us. I found that if you shorten the lagering time, it’s detrimental to the beer. Our Schild Brau Amber, because of the amount of caramel malt in there and the lager yeast we’re using, it has a lot of sulfury, harsh flavors in it when it’s done with primary fermentation and maybe after three to four weeks. It notably smoothes out up to five weeks.”

Schild Brau, a Vienna Lager, is Millstream’s flagship beer. It fits in nicely with the locals’ tastes, and counts among its accolades a gold medal from the World Beer Cup in 2010 and four medals from the Great American Beer Festival, since Priebe has been the brewer. Prior to his tenure, Schild Brau claimed three GABF medals, including gold in 1989. Millstream’s portfolio is heavy on the German beers, like the seasonal German Pilsner and widely popular Oktoberfest, but also drifts into the realm of experimental brewing with some of Priebe’s Brewmaster’s Extreme Series beers.

The special-edition lineup was designed to celebrate 2010 legislation that raised the ABV cap from 6 percent to 15 percent for beers produced and sold in Iowa. The law allows Priebe to brew beers like his Pumpkin Imperial Stout, which tips the scales at a modest 7.6-percent ABV. It also allows him to experiment with ales that might not otherwise see production—such as the upcoming English-style Barleywine made with smoked malt that he has planned for the holiday season.

“Generally, I don’t like smoked beers, so I’m going to try to brew one I like,” Priebe says. And judging by the rest of his beers, it’s safe to say others will like it, too.

The Brewhouse
20-bbl Specific Mechanical steam-jacketed brewhouse
Eight 40-bbl tanks (four unitanks, four dish-bottom tanks)
Twenty 20-bbl tanks crafted by a local welder in 1995

What’s On Tap
Schild Brau Amber: A Vienna-style Amber Lager with traditional caramel notes and a smooth taste – 5% ABV
Iowa Pale Ale: Millstream’s first IPA was “too hoppy for its time,” says Teresa, so the beer was modified to become the Iowa Pale Ale, a hoppy beer with a strong malt presence – 6.2% ABV
Back Road Stout: A smooth Stout that took gold at GABF in 2011
Windmill Wheat: An easy-drinking American Wheat beer – 4.5% ABV
John’s Generation Belgian White: A Belgian Witbier named after the biggest craft beer retailer in the area
Oktoberfest: A traditional Märzen lagered for a long time in preparation for the popular festival – 6.5% ABV

What He Said
“The beer is ready when the beer is ready. There’s not a whole lot I can do to speed things up. There are some beers, the lighter beers that maybe you can get away with aging a little less—our Wheat beer is one of those that maybe can go four weeks. But usually the beer is ready when the beer is ready, and I try to make sure I keep up with anticipated demand.” – Brewer and co-owner Chris Priebe