Heavy dark lagers. Smooth oatmeal stouts. Light and fruity wheat beers.

The popularity of full-flavored craft beers and the numbers of people who brew them have grown substantially in the past 30 years. In the early 1980s, fewer than 100 craft breweries were operating in the United States. Today, more than 2,400 dot the country, accounting for 6.5 percent of the volume sold and 10.2 percent of the domestic beer industry’s total retail dollars in 2012.

Craft beer sales in 2012 totaled an estimated $10.2 billion, up from $8.7 billion in 2011. That’s a 17 percent growth.

One doesn’t have to look too far to see the trend here in Iowa.

The state is now home to more than 35 breweries, eight of them in Greater Des Moines alone. Confluence Brewing Co., Exile Brewing Co. and 515 Brewing LLC all opened their doors within the past year.

And even more home brewers and beer enthusiasts are attempting to turn their hobbies into businesses, said Dave Coy, president of the Iowa Brewers Guild and Raccoon River Brewing Co.’s head brewer. Coy said at his last count there are 14 breweries “in planning.” The phrase covers a broad spectrum, from someone voicing a desire to open a brewery one day to a brewery getting ready to open its doors.

“People want locally produced products,” Coy said. “The farm-to-fork food movement is similar to what’s happening with beer and wine.”

Jessica Dunker, president of the Iowa Restaurant Association, agreed. She said unique craft beers can also bring in big business to the area or to a restaurant that offers them on the menu. Citing statistics from this year’s National Restaurant Association survey, Dunker said about 48 percent of dollars spent on beverages at bars and restaurants go toward beer.

“What you’re offering to drink is a big decision driver,” she said. “People want good food paired with good beer. It’s becoming as common as pairing food items with wine.”


More than fizzy yellow stuff

John Martin, head brewer and co-founder of Confluence Brewing, believes the growing independent craft beer movement is fighting back against America’s more traditional beer culture, which has been dominated by Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors.

“People understand there’s more to beer than just the fizzy yellow stuff they’ve been drinking,” Martin said. “I’m not putting down Bud or Coors, they put out a consistent product, but people want more.”

Martin and his friend Ken Broadhead opened Confluence in October 2012. A former project manager at Graham Construction, Martin said the two dreamed about opening a brewery of their own for years before they finally put together a business plan in 2011.

Confluence Brewing, which has three flagship beers and several seasonal offerings, has been producing and selling more barrels with each passing month, Martin said. He brewed 56 barrels in February and hopes to be up to 100 barrels per month by the end of the year. Confluence is also increasing its reach, selling its original brews at 35 offsite locations, including a few in eastern Iowa.

But this trend is far from new. Sixteen years ago, there was another surge in craft beer tastes, and Court Avenue Restaurant and Brewing Co. opened its doors, making it the first brewpub – a restaurant and brewery – in Des Moines, said Carl Wertzberger, the restaurant’s general manager. Raccoon River Brewing opened shortly after.


Legislation opens the tap

Wertzberger credits a recent change in state law as a contributing factor to Iowa’s budding craft beer industry.

In 2012, the state Legislature passed a law allowing Iowa breweries to make and sell beer with an alcohol by weight (ABW) of up to 12 percent. Previously, Iowa breweries couldn’t brew any beer with an ABW above 5 percent.

But the state could sell beer produced outside Iowa with a higher ABW through its Alcoholic Beverages Division, so brewers felt they were at a disadvantage and lobbied to change the law.

“There is a wider range for brewers to make and sell,” Wertzberger said. As for the newly opened breweries, he believes “the more the merrier.”

“The more knowledge they have about craft beer, the more fondly they’ll think of it,” he said of customers.

Coy said the change in legislation helped open up many new styles of beer in Iowa. But lobbying to change the law brought more than just new types of beers to Iowa. It also brought organization and strength to the Iowa Brewers Guild.

The group started about seven years ago, but gained speed when brewers and distributors were able to rally behind the legislation.

The Brewers Guild now puts on the Craft Beer Festival and hosts the craft beer tent at the Iowa State Fair. Like craft beer, the festival has gained a steadily growing following in the past three years. So much so that Coy believes its current location on the Locust Street bridge may soon be too small.

“We’ll need a new venue because of the number of brewers and attendees,” he said.

The success of the Craft Beer Festival has allowed the Brewers Guild to get enough “money in the tank” that it can start looking for an executive director, Coy said. Right now, the guild is all volunteers. The group would also like to conduct an economic impact study to see what kind of effect craft beer is having on the state’s economy.

“It’s just another step toward becoming a real, professional organization,” he said.