Excitement brewing in local beer scene

BY BEN MARKS | MARCH 25, 2015 5:00 AM

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Local beer enthusiasts are hopping with joy because with the planned opening of Paha Hills BrewLab this summer, Iowa City will once again join the ranks of the rapidly growing Iowa beer scene.

On July 1, Drew Letcher and son Nathan plan to open Paha Hills BrewLab at 505 E. Washington St., directly across from the New Pioneer Food Co-Op.

Paha would be Iowa City’s first local brewery since Old Capitol Brew Works & Public House moved its brewing operation to Davenport in 2009.

“The mind-boggling thing is with the amount of craft-beer sales happening in Iowa City, there has been no brewery opened up there,” said the Cedar Rapids New Pioneer Co-Op’s beer expert Joseph Servey.

Prior to working at the newly opened store, Servey spent the last five years in Iowa City and was the former Iowa City New Pi “beer guy” as well.

Servey described the local beer scene as an exciting and vibrant time.

Over this past year six, new breweries have opened up in Iowa, and in Cedar Rapids, four new breweries are planned to open by this summer — including Iowa Brewing Co. and the Quarter Barrel.

Kathleen Serino, the current Iowa City New Pi beer expert, said it seems like new breweries are popping up “every week or month.”

“This will be a huge deal; students will be very attracted to it, and we have a lot of people who are into local beer right now,” she said.

Backpocket Brewing, which opened in the Iowa River Landing in 2012, has been the only area brewery since Old Capitol Brew Works. Jake Simmons, the Backpocket founder and brewmaster, said he doesn’t foresee any competition between the breweries.

“Usually, more local beer increases interest and demand,” he said. “There are places like Colorado with much more mature craft-beer scenes that have no problem with competition.”

Letcher, who worked as a software developer prior to his journey into beer, said he became interested in brewing after Nathan, a bio-chemistry major and future brewmaster of Paha, introduced it to him a few years ago.

Eventually, after some time spent brewing at home, Letcher decided to turn it into a business.

“Living in cubical city isn’t all that fun or satisfying,” he said. “Brewing beer and being a part of the beer industry is a lot more interesting.”

Letcher said both he and his son are deeply interested in the science behind brewing and fermentation and so, appropriately, the brewery will feature a science laboratory theme, including old science tables and other lab equipment and decorations.

The brewery will host home brewers and “fermentos” club meetings for fermenting enthusiasts.

Because of an Iowa City City Council ordinance which prevents any new bars from being built in downtown Iowa City closer than 500 feet from each other, Paha will also operate as a small restaurant, serving foods that go along with the fermentation theme such as sourdough, cheese, kimchi, and pickles.

“It’s a really hot business right now, and part of what I think is a thriving college town environment,” said Jeff Davidson, the Iowa City economic-development manager. “We think something of that scale, done for the clientele that [Letcher is] seeking is a really neat thing for downtown Iowa City.”

Serino said she believes Paha’s location will help develop the area it’s in.

“Being just outside of the downtown proper will be a nice change, maybe draw a little bit of traffic away from the immediate downtown area and highlight what we have here,” she said.

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