Can-do attitude: Local craft-beer scene remains strong after decade of growth

A vintage vinyl record spun around a turntable behind the bar at Jubeck New World Brewing

on a recent Friday night as customers chatted across the taproom. Creedence Clearwater Revival performing live long ago pumped out of speakers as Johnny Carlson poured craft beers into glasses and mugs.

“It’s very cozy here,” said the bartender. “There’s no TVs so it makes it easy to catch up with people. We have tons of records and people are bringing them in all the time.”

Carlson started working at the brewery about a year ago after leaving another job in the service industry. He traded a nightly uniform that included dress slacks for jeans and a T-shirt and hasn’t looked back.

“I was working in a supper club,” he said. “It was more formal.”

The craft beer brewing business in the tri-state area has expanded in the past decade. Ten years ago, Jubeck New World Brewing and Potosi (Wis.) Brewing were early leaders in the industry. Now there are many additional places for beer lovers to try local creations, both in Dubuque — including 7 Hills Brewing Co. and Dimensional Brewing Co. — and across the tri-state area, such as Textile Brewing Co. in Dyersville, Iowa, and Galena (Ill.) Brewing Co.

In some places, local breweries have opened up in small towns and provided an economic boost and an added attraction to out-of-towners.

Carlson pointed out the Brew House section of Jubeck’s building, where the original beers the establishment offers are made — amounting to about 12, depending on the season.

The craft brewery, one of the first in Dubuque, opened in 2014. Owner Jay Jubeck is planning to go all out next month to celebrate the business’s 10th anniversary.

“We’re planning a block party outside in front of our taproom location on Iowa Street between 11th and 12th Streets on July 13th, starting at 3 p.m.,” he said. “We’ll have live music all afternoon (and) evening along with food trucks, kids activities, special beer releases and more.”

Jubeck, a pilot, was working as a flight instructor at University of Dubuque and had several years of amateur home brewing experience before officially landing into the craft brewing industry. As a nod to his aviation experience, one of the beers offered at one time was called Flyin’ Solo Golden Sour.

A current aviation-themed offering is the Stratafortress IPA, which alludes to the Stratofortress B-52, a long-range bomber jet. Art representing some of the unique beers hangs on the brick walls around the brewery, with the Flyin’ Solo image close to an entrance.

The brewery offers memberships with perks for faithful followers as well as service for non-members.

Jubeck’s operation got off the ground through a grassroots campaign on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter that began in May 2013. After three months, a total of 175 people contributed more than $37,000 to the cause, according to the company website.

Connections are strong among customers and staff, according to Carlson.

“I love coming here when I’m not working,” explained the bartender. “I like it when tourists come. We had people stop by (recently) who had come to Iowa to visit the Field of Dreams.”

7 Hills Brewing Co., of Dubuque, is another cornerstone in the local craft brewing scene with an unconventional origin story. Owner Keith Gutierrez, a Clarke University graduate, moved to Dubuque from the Chicago area. Trained as an occupational therapist, he became fascinated by breweries while working in one as a server. In 2017, with little to no experience in restaurant management, Gutierrez founded his business in Dubuque’s Millwork District.

In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the service industry at a time when 7 Hills was still finding its niche.

“February 2020 was the first month we broke even,” said Gutierrez. “(COVID) didn’t slow us down because we were working extra hard learning how to adapt.”

He credits constant efforts to improve menus and changes to the establishment’s ways of serving people for its survival and eventual expansion. In 2021, the company opened 7 Hills North in Platteville, Wis. Later came 7 Hills West in Dyersville, Iowa.

In order to stay fresh in the changing landscape, Gutierrez believes he and other brewers have been diversifying their offerings. 7 Hills, for example, is carrying drinks other than beer and now also offers gluten-free fruited sour beers. The owner believes these fruit-flavored brews appeal to younger patrons.

The location in Dubuque also has recently taken over a nearby ballroom, which management is turning into an event center to bring in a different type of business. All the while, Gutierrez continues offering more traditional beers such as Town Clock Pilsner, which is a lager made from corn.

Jerry Anderson, owner of Bluff Brew Haus in Dubuque, has had a front-row seat to the craft brewing explosion in the region. After working as an engineer for 20 years, Anderson started his company on Dubuque’s Bluff street in 2006. It provides base ingredients and equipment to both home hobbyists and professional brewers. He estimates there are now a couple dozen commercial craft breweries in the tri-state area, compared to one or two when he first started the business.

“There’s a lot of people that love craft beer that don’t want to make it,” reflected Anderson. “I would say it’s half a science and half an art.”

By mixing different combinations of “wort” — the term for barley hops and water — the brewers experiment with different flavors, Anderson said. Yeast is then added to ferment the wort until it becomes alcoholic. Anderson gets the yeast he sells to brewers from laboratories that employ microbiologists to produce different types.

“You could brew for the rest of your life and still find endless combinations,” said Anderson.

Half of Anderson’s business comes from home brewers, and he also caters to home wine makers. Someone could get started in home brewing for as little as $100, Anderson said.

From simple beginnings, perhaps in a garage or basement, entrepreneurs continue to build craft brewing businesses that bring thousands of dollars into the local economy.

“I think they’re great for tourism,” said Dan Sullivan, vice president of membership for Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce. “(The breweries) have become a destination for people.”

All but one craft brewery in Dubuque is a member of the chamber, according to Sullivan.

Over the past 10 years, Jubeck has faced challenges and changes with the business.

“I would say that, overall, craft beer has become much more of a household term with greater customer acceptance,” he said. “I think the addition of other breweries in the area has increased the awareness of the craft beer scene and benefited the market as a whole. The industry has seen a bit of decline in recent years as other beverages (like hard seltzers) have become more popular, but craft beer is here to stay, and the level of quality and consistency of small craft breweries keeps getting better.”

Toward closing time at Jubeck New World Brewery, young men and women lounged by an open garage-style door that led outside. A soft breeze blew in from Iowa Street as some patrons were sipping locally made hard seltzers while others stuck to beer.

“We’re all in small business, and we like supporting a small business like this,” said Ben Muhlstein, speaking for the group of customers near the doors. “It’s getting money back into the local community. I think it’s a pride thing, too.”