Tapping the trend: Okoboji Brewing serves up craft beer to region
OKOBOJI, Iowa -- According to the Brewers Association, 174 craft breweries opened in the United States in 2011. One such establishment is located in this neck of the woods -- Okoboji Brewing Company in the Iowa Great Lakes area. Situated on U.S. 71, across from Ferguson's Garden Center, Okoboji Brewing Company is turning out five varieties of beer in cans and operates a taproom, where new offerings can also be sampled.
Okoboji Brewing Company is the brainchild of three men who really haven't known each other for very long and yet have cast their lots together on this beer-making venture.
Donn Martens, who lives in Spirit Lake, Iowa, and his son, Cole Martens, who lives in Sioux Falls, S.D., had been home brewing beer for a number of years and had talked about turning their hobby into a business. Meanwhile, Eric DeKeyzser, another home brewer from eastern Iowa who had attended Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, was looking for possible brewing locales in northwest Iowa -- his wife's home territory.
"He thought Okoboji would be a good area for it," related Donn.
A mutual acquaintance put the men together, and they began the lengthy planning process to establish their own craft brewery.
"We got going in March of 2011," explained Donn, "but we had been working on it for way longer than that --doing the research, putting the business plan together."
"I was doing my MBA when I met these guys, and for my practicum ... I developed a plan for this," explained Eric. "So we did a lot of video conferencing, and it took two or three years to get everything set up."
Before they could think about brewing their first batch, the men had to secure funding and navigate the labyrinth of licenses that are required to produce and distribute beer on a commercial scale.
They also had to find an adequate location, purchase commercial brewing equipment and get it up and running. Initially, they contracted to have their first batches made at Great River Brewery in Davenport, Iowa, so they could get their beer on the market.
They were able to purchase used brewing equipment from the Ithaca Brewing Company in New York, and the canning equipment came from their friends at Great River Brewing when that company upgraded. There is a spirit of cooperation among the craft brewers, noted Eric.
"The brewing community is pretty friendly," he said. "... When you look at the brewing industry overall, we are a very small percentage of the pie."
"It's like a family," agreed Donn.
Now, the beer is being produced onsite, with Eric serving as the brewmaster and the brewery's only full-time employee. Donn and Cole still maintain their full-time jobs, putting in their hours at Okoboji Brewing on the weekends.
With its initial offerings, Okoboji Brewing Company tried to satisfy a wide variety of craft beer drinkers. Eric, Donn and Cole thought their flagship beer would be a golden rye ale called Boji Beach, but a farmhouse ale, Midwest Charm, has proved to be a bit more popular.
"Charm has such a distinctive style," said Eric.
They also capitalized on the rising popularity of American pale ales with Boji Blue, and put together a special brew for the University of Okoboji Winter Games.
The most recent addition to the Okoboji Brewing lineup is a Scottish wee heavy brewed with heather tips --Hole in Hadrian's Wall --which has been well-received.
"When the Romans were in Great Britain, to block off the barbarians they built this wall, but it was just four-feet high --that's Hadrian's Wall. A little kid could jump over it," explained Eric about how they came upon the unusual name.
"My wife works with a guy who has a stone from that wall," added Donn. "Maybe we can get it and display it here."
Different styles of beer take different amounts of time to produce.
"The darker it is, the higher alcohol content, the longer it takes to finish out," explained Eric. "But a typical turnout for us is two weeks. The Scotch is about four weeks."
When he's trying to develop a new beer, Eric begins by making some one-gallon batches, increasing to a five-gallon batch and eventually kegging his effort to get some feedback in the taproom.
"Part of having the taproom is to have fun with it and see what the public wants," he said.
One of Eric's current quests is to develop a beer for a niche market.
"One thing I'm looking at is creating a good gluten-free beer. There are some on the market, but they aren't particularly good," he said. "But sorghum, which is what you have to make it from, has a very distinctive flavoring, and the ones in the stores are all better than what I've been able to come with so far. With summer coming up, I've also been working on some summer styles."
The Okoboji Brewing Company owners, of course, drink all their wares and are reluctant to select a favorite.
"I'm an indiscriminate drinker," said Eric with a big smile. "I like them all. It depends on my day, my week, my mood. And when you're doing the canning, you always have a few that don't seal right or imprint right that need to be drunk up right away."
When it came time to decide on packaging for their product, there was one clear choice for the Okoboji Brewing Company owners. While most craft beers are bottled, some brewers have been making a switch to cans, and they decided the cans were a better fit for the Iowa Great Lakes resort area.
"The main reason was not being able to have glass containers on the lakes," said Cole.
"So cans were perfect, and our research showed that cans were making a comeback," Donn explained.
"Also, the storage is so much easier, and there is less weight for transportation," added Eric.
"You can take us everywhere," continued Donn. "There are just a lot of advantages to cans."
The Okoboji Brewing Company guys were also sold on the environmental aspect of their packaging choice. On the company website, a graphic shows the life cycle of an aluminum can and includes this testimonial: "Cans fill best, chill faster, are colder to the touch on hot summer days, stack best, are the most recycled and recyclable container, are lightweight and volume efficient, they maintain freshness, protect content from light, are tamper evident, have a long shelf life, are environmentally friendly, and are rigid and unbreakable."
Canning is usually done on Saturdays at Okoboji Brewing Company, with good reason. The canning process is more "manually intensive" than other aspects of the process, and for best results requires six pairs of hands to get the job done. Donn usually minds the taproom while Eric and Cole and a crew of volunteers -- enticed by the prospect of free beer -- get the beer into the cans and the cans into their imprinted plastic sleeves. Canning usually takes about 2½ hours with a break for lunch.
"We have some good, dedicated volunteers -- friends, family," credited Cole. "We wouldn't be able to do what we've been able to do without their help."
Once canned and labeled, the beer is ready to be distributed in Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. They also keg a percentage of the beer.
The next goal is to get product on the shelves in Minnesota, although that may take some time to accomplish due to distribution requirements in the state. Still in what they consider their start-up phase, Eric, Cole and Donn want to expand their distribution area gradually throughout the Midwest region.
Visiting the taproom
Eric, Donn and Cole have tried to strategically grow their business, and opening the taproom was the next step in the process -- accomplished just before Thanksgiving 2012.
Currently open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, they are gearing up for much more extensive hours when the resort season begins.
The brewery/taproom building was previously a rental store and a plumbing shop before that.
"We had to put in some plumbing and rearranged the bathrooms to get it up to code," said Cole. "It's a good size for a taproom, and we have room for expansion."
"We've talked about doing a beer garden and maybe having some festivals," noted Donn. "And we're right on the bicycle trail, so we will get some traffic from that."
The centerpiece of the taproom is its large bar, made from large felled trees -- not live harvested, the men noted -- with the bark still on the outside. The top has been finished with six coats of heavy-duty polyurethane, with one coat left to go when they find the time.
Behind the bar, 10 taps dispense the Okoboji Brewing Company product, including the mainstay beers, experimental varieties and one "sody-pop," a sarsaparilla also concocted on site. For the next batch, the men plan to add a bit more root beer flavor to the concoction.
Customers can help themselves to peanuts and pretzels, but there is not a kitchen attached to the taproom. However, Donn stresses that the establishment is "food friendly," meaning customers can order in a pizza or bring in their own snacks to eat while sampling the beers. A selection of board games offers entertainment for those who want to stay a while.
Growlers -- half-gallon containers that can be filled with draft beer -- are available, and Eric often pauses from his brewing duties to refill one if a customer comes knocking on the door when the taproom isn't open.
Besides selling ready-to-drink beer in the taproom, one section of the space is devoted to home-brewing supplies -- a nod to the three owner's home-brewing roots. A selection of Okoboji Brewing Company merchandise -- shirts, hats, glassware, coasters, cozies -- are on display for purchase, too.
Getting their beer enterprise up and running has entailed a lot of work for Eric, Donn and Cole, but it's been a labor of love -- love of good beer. They want people to sample their wares, check out the taproom and experience what they refer to as "summer camp for adults."
"We want to bring people back to that old Okoboji feeling," said Cole, explaining that they want to invoke a sense of nostalgia for the resort area.
"I'm thinking it's going to be nuts when summer comes," Eric said, obviously relishing the idea of having a taproom and patio full of people, enjoying the Okoboji Brewing Company experience. "It's work. But I wouldn't do it if I didn't love it."
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