BELLEVUE, Iowa — For Kelly Hueneke and her family, opening a brewery was a concept that always had lingered on the somewhat-distant horizon.
It was a dream for someday, but not right away.
A few years back, however, a combination of circumstance and opportunism accelerated Hueneke’s plans.
“We kind of always knew we wanted to do something in this industry, to create a family brewery,” she recalled. “We always thought we’d do it eventually. But when this building became available, we knew it was the perfect opportunity. We jumped into it.”
Kelly and her husband, Nick, were among the four original owners who opened River Ridge Brewing at 118 N. Riverview Drive in 2016. The brewery is located in the heart of Bellevue’s downtown, just across the street from the Mississippi River.
Two years later, the business has become a favorite among passing tourists and loyal local customers alike.
NG THE BREWS
River Ridge Brewing operates a one-barrel brewing system capable of brewing 31 gallons.
Hueneke said the process begins with the malt, which is generally purchased from Brew Haus in Dubuque.
The malt instills characteristics like color, flavor and head retention of a beer. At River Ridge Brewing, multiple malts often are combined to create the unique taste that defines a particular brew.
The malt eventually is placed within a mash tun, where the grain is mixed with hot water through the course of about one hour.
The brewers then extract the sugar water, called wort, and place it within a boil kettle. During the roughly one-hour boiling process, other flavors can be introduced. Depending on the particular beer, this can include everything from hops, honey or orange peels.
The product is cooled down on a chill plate before being placed in a fermenter, where it will remain for 10 to 14 days. During fermentation, the yeast eats up sugars and creates the alcohol.
The owners and operators of River Ridge Brewing conduct the brewing in their spare time, often allocating hours to the process in the evenings after they have completed their work days.
From the beginning, it has been a labor of love.
“It does put a little pressure and stress on you, getting a brewery up and running when you are still working regular jobs,” said Nick Hueneke. “But it is something we really enjoy doing.”
ING THE FAMILY
The original quartet of owners at River Ridge Brewing included Kelly and Nick Hueneke, as well as Kelly’s brother, Jeremy Roth, and his wife, Nikki Roth.
The ownership group has subsequently undergone a change, with Jeremy and Nikki Roth leaving and four new owners joining the business.
Nic Hockenberry and his wife, Allison Simpson, fell in love with the brewery shortly after moving to Bellevue.
“We were new to Bellevue and started hanging out here,” Nic recalled. “These kinds of spaces are what you consider third spaces — it is not work, it is not home, but it is a place you can be with people in the community and with friends and meet new people too.”
Simpson had tended bar at River Ridge Brewing before eventually becoming a co-owner.
“This kind of cements Bellevue as our home,” Simpson said.
Simpson’s father and stepmother, Greg and Amanda Simpson, also have joined the business as owners.
The lineup of beers includes seven mainstays: A wheat beer, an IPA, a honey blonde, an amber, a raspberry, a stout and a pale ale.
Nick Hueneke takes pride in both the diversity and quality of these core beers.
“We knew we wanted to have our core selection of beers when we started out,” he said. “Those were our very first beers we ever put out and those have been our mainstays ever since.”
The brewery also incorporates a variety of seasonal and special-edition beers into the mix.
In some cases, the limited-edition beers were even more popular than expected.
Total Eclipse of the Hop, for instance, is an IPA made with local hops and other barrel-aged varieties. It was intended to be a one-time release coinciding with the solar eclipse.
It was so popular, however, that the owners have brought it back.
Many of the beers at River Ridge incorporate local names: Flatbottom amber pays homage to the Mississippi River, for instance; Iowa Bale Ale is a nod to the region’s farming roots.
Verna’s Honey Blonde, one of the brewery’s mainstay creations, uses honey from a local producers and even takes its name from a local inspiration — Kelly’s grandmother, Verna, who encouraged them to created a honey beer in the first place.
A new seasonal brew, christened Grandpa Al’s Pumpkin Ale, incorporates the moniker of Nick’s grandfather. The brew uses pumpkins that were raised in Al’s garden.
Kelly said such personal touches are much more than a gimmick. Rather, they speak to the essence of River Ridge Brewing.
“That’s what it really is about for us,” she said. “It’s about local and it is about family.”