Note: This profile originally appeared in issue 69 of BeerAdvocate Magazine
Beneath a sloped roof in the corner of the small town of Amana, Iowa, lies the beating heart of the village. There, Millstream Brewing Company sits amongst a bevy of historical sites and artisans’ shops where it quietly churns out some of the finest beer in the region.
The little brewery has found an harmonious blend between traditional German lagers and experimental American Ales, and it is getting harder and harder to keep the place a secret.
“People have to know we are there to find us, and they do,” says Teresa Albert, who is part-owner along with her husband Tom and brewer Chris Priebe.
Amana was founded as part of the Amana Colonies – a string of seven villages in the area that were originally designed as self-sufficient communities that separated themselves 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 was born in nearby East Amana, just about two and a half miles from where he would eventually own a brewery. As an Amana man, he understands the nuances of functioning in a small community. He was able to call on his neighbors for help with building the indoor seating area at the brewery, and 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. We also do a bike ride, (the Tour de Brew), and that money comes to the bike trail. We’re involved with (the community). We’re just pretty big here in Amana. It’s fun.”
As the village is something of a mid-western tourist attraction (it is often compared to Amish communities because of its self-sufficiency), a lot of Millstream’s business comes from tourists. However, the locals have grown to love the hometown product since it first arrived in 1985. Part of that is because the locals love the beer, but also because the brewery is working to make Millstream an exciting spot in the community.
“We did live music and food every weekend this year,” Teresa Albert 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 what it supplies to the town’s annual Oktoberfest. The German celebration is one of the most popular events in the region, and the traditional German Märzen Priebe brews is the official drink.
“There’s a big barn (in town) that they renovated and they call it the Fest Hall,” Tom says. “That’s the hub of the Oktoberfest. There’s straw bales all over, and it’s really cool… They pretty much exclusively do our beer. 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 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 in 1985 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 there. Priebe was working there as a brewer, as was Aaron Taubman. Tom Albert was still 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 long-held dream of owning her own business.
“I have always, always wanted to own my own business,” Teresa says. “I said (to Tom), ‘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 1, 2001. Taubman eventually moved on, leaving Teresa in charge of sales, Tom in command of managing 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 positive 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 there are few sins worse than rushing the lager process for traditional German beers. In an area replete with locals from German lineage, that sin would be glaringly obvious to everyone.
To ensure that the beer is not rushed, Millstream boasts 28 fermenters for its 20-bbl 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, serves as the flagship beer for Millstream. It fits in nicely with the locals’ tastes, and has garnered accolades from many sources with 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 it claimed three GABF medals, including gold in 1989.
Millstream’s portfolio includes a bevy of German beers, such as 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 cap on ABV for beers produced and sold in Iowa from 6% to 15%. It allows Priebe to brew beers like his Pumpkin Imperial Stout, which tipped the scales at a modest 7.6% ABV. It also allows him to experiment with unique 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 don’t like smoked beers, so I’m going to try to brew one I like,” Priebe says. “It’s sort of the beers I get to play with.”