What's on tap? Old Man River unveils four house brews

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A few weeks ago, Old Man River Restaurant and Brewery unveiled its first four house brews since re-opening in March. The selections include a “Red Horse” red ale, “Paddle Boat” porter, “Rocky Banks” IPA and “Romance the River” cream ale. (Photo courtesy of Old Man River)

Head brewer Dave Koepke helped bring Old Man River’s new beers to life, utilizing the establishment’s state-of-the-art, Austrian-made, copper equipment. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

Something new is on tap at Old Man River Restaurant and Brewery. A few weeks ago, the downtown McGregor business unveiled its first four house brews since re-opening in March.

The selections include a “Red Horse” red ale, “Paddle Boat” porter, “Rocky Banks” IPA and “Romance the River” cream ale, all brewed in the state-of-the-art, on-site facility.

“We’re covering all the bases,” said head brewer Dave Koepke. “We’ve got the hoppy. A lot of people like the ambers and the reds, and the cream ale for the light beer drinkers and the people who don’t like too many hops. Then there’s a dark beer.”

Koepke, who has 25 years of experience as a brewer and first met Old Man River owners Duane and Diana Vorwald when he owned a home brew store in Oshkosh, Wis., started the brewing process in November. He admitted it was a bit intimidating to pull up and discover the establishment’s Austrian-made, copper equipment.

“I was like, ‘What did I get myself into?’ There’s only about a half a dozen of these in the U.S. You’ll see a lot more across Europe, and even Asia,” he explained. “Even though you’re still brewing beer, it’s a little different.”

With little direction on how to operate the system, Koepke simply utilized his brewing knowledge to dive in, “pushing buttons and pulling levers” until he figured it out. He also cleaned and tested the equipment, which hadn’t been used in five years, determined which ingredients to use and where to buy them from, and developed a plan for continued brewing.

The first beer, the red ale, was brewed on Nov. 15. Within five days, all four kinds had been created.

“For a small place like this, that’s kind of crazy,” Koepke said.

A variety of grains can be utilized in brewing beer—rye, wheat and even corn in the case of the cream ale. But barley is the most common.

“A basic beer is barley and you crack the barley to expose the starch in the middle. My job as a brewer is to soak that at certain temperatures to activate enzymes. I’m just making food for the yeast. Basically, I’m converting starch to sugar, and then I use the grain to add water, strip out as much sugar as I can, put it in the kettle, boil it and add hops,” Koepke detailed. “When we’re done, we cool it down, pitch the yeast and pump it into the fermenter. Then it sits for a week or so. Then we’ll cold crash it and get the yeast to settle out, then pump it over into another tank—basically a giant barrel that will fit the whole batch. Then it’s on tap.”

The red ale and IPA were the first beers on tap, on Dec. 12, and the other two followed a couple days later. So far, said Koepke, the response has been positive: you can’t beat fresh beer.

“We want to get people excited, to come in and try the stuff,” he shared.

Koepke said Old Man River is uniquely situated to succeed. Beer will attract both locals and tourists.

“There’s definitely enough population to support it,” he noted, “but breweries are also destinations. People vacation from brewery to brewery, just to try stuff. McGregor, being the quaint, cute little town it is, a lot of people just driving through are going to stop. In a business like this, as long as the beer is good—and the food here is also great—I think it’s a constant draw.”

Moving forward, Koepke said Old Man River will continue to fine tune its beer, striving for a better quality, better tasting product. Eventually, though, they’ll look to experiment with different malts, hops and grains.

“At the beginning, you want things simpler. Don’t get too crazy,” he quipped. “Once you get that down, you start doing a little more innovation.”

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