Earthy, elegant and fresh. Rich and bold. Clean, subtle and exotic.
No, we aren’t describing a masterpiece on display in a museum or a plate of expensive food. Rather, it’s the science—and art—of beer. The beverage has been around for more than 7,000 years and appears in nearly every culture in the world. Central alumni are taking beer to the next level. Whether they are running taprooms, breweries or making their own, these three alumni are brewing their own take on beer and the industry.
Back when Jeff Bruning ’92 graduated from Central, he probably couldn’t have told you where he saw himself in 25 years, but he definitely didn’t imagine he would be part owner of 10 bars in Des Moines and owner of a newly opened brewery in Carroll, Iowa.
“I was a general studies major with six minors—I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I loved that Central offered me freedom to choose how to structure my time in college,” he says. “After being part of a downsize at an insurance company, I started looking for employment while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.”
Bruning turned to waiting tables in 1999 at Buzzard Billy’s in Des Moines, where he met the owners and brothers, Dan and Andy Massoth. Just a year and a half later, he was the general manager—and not too long after, partner. He and his business partners are now owners of Full Court Press Corporation, which owns many Des Moines hotspots, including El Bait Shop, The Royal Mile, Fong’s Pizza and, most recently, The Iowa Taproom, an all-Iowa beer taproom.
With the running of numerous restaurants and bars in the up-and-coming city comes a lot of responsibility. Full Court Press has about 700 employees—and just as many taps across all their locations—and Bruning oversees the staff beer-training.
“A lot of my focus is on how well the staff is executing their jobs to get the most out of what they do for us, and so they are motivated to make our places a success,” he explains. “I am constantly reading about flavors of beer, the economics of beer or about people in the beer industry to make sure I am up-to-date, but also to educate others on beer.”
Bruning declares himself “kind of a savant” when it comes to beers around the Midwest, always knowing where the best beers are located and pointing others in their direction. He even hosts a segment on KNXO-AM, a Des Moines sports-talk radio station, dedicated to all things beer. Bruning takes personal pride in knowing about the trends within the industry and then sharing them with others. He sees a very clear divide in the future.
“There has been a boom in craft brewing—it happened in the ’70s and ’80s and busted in the ’90s,” he explains. “But it has come back with a vengeance, and it is very much in tune with the natural and local movements. People are interested in what they are drinking. We are going the way of small is better, local is even better. I think we are just getting over factory beer—which hasn’t been around that long considering the extensive history of beer. It’s a lot more fun to buy something from someone you know than a convenience store.”
Bruning often doesn’t get to sit and drink a full beer, but he is on the front lines of the company. He tastes a number of beers, adding to Full Court Press’ evergrowing tap list. And with the numerous beers Bruning tries on a consistent basis, what kind of beer is his go-to?
“I enjoy a number of different styles of beers, including Helles, a German lager, and pilsners when they are done well. But what I really like in a beer is the technique,” Bruning says. “The brewing process is fascinating, and I want a beer that is plain, nothing to mask the flavor. When drinking a beer, I want to experience the art of brewing.”
MR. BEER JUDGE
It all started with a trip to England, and Loren Blom ’87 and his wife, Linda, were hooked. In 1997, Loren’s and Linda’s son went to England for the summer, and while traveling, they enjoyed experiencing local food and brews.
“We tried English ales for the 10 days we were there. At the time, we didn’t think we liked them but, when we returned home, we found that we didn’t like the beer that was in the fridge,” Blom says. “When we told our son that he ruined our taste for U.S. beers, and we were having difficulties finding good ales, he responded by giving me a beermaking kit for my birthday.”
Within a month, Blom made his first English Brown Ale—and while it wasn’t his best beer, it gave him “the bug.” With a basic Mr. Beer homebrew kit, anyone can make two gallons of ale at a time, all you need are standard kitchen utensils. Now, Blom has moved on to a larger-scale operation than in those early days, and it isn’t for the faint-hearted.
“The all-grain process I follow is a lot of hard work. It usually takes me six to eight hours to have a batch ready to start fermenting. That is working with hot or boiling water and heavy buckets of liquids,” he says. “But the fun part is sharing the ales with other people.”
And share he does! Blom and his wife taught a class for the Central RED Society, a program of classes at Central for alumni and community members interested in expanding their education on a number of subjects. The duo frequently gives presentations about home brewing as well as how to identify the characteristics of different types of beer, which they can do with ease as Recognized Beer Judges. Some people may fancy themselves top-notch beer connoisseurs, but Blom paints it as quite the challenge to be recognized on a competitive scale.
“The test was a three-hour blue book essay that included completing the competition forms on four different beers. We also took a 12-week online course that included the effects of water, malt, yeast and brewing processes on beer,” he says. After completing that course, the rules were changed. “They now have an online qualifying test of 200 questions to be completed in one hour. If you pass that test, you qualify for the tasting test, which consists of judging six different beers in 90 minutes.”
In the end, all test takers must score 70 percent or higher to pass. Now with extensive judging knowledge, the Bloms travel throughout the Midwest to beer competitions, including the Amana Colonies, the Iowa State Fair and the first round of the National Homebrew Competition in Minneapolis.
With craft brewing lighting up across the nation, Blom’s home-brewing 20 years ago was ahead of the times—and his adventures in hops can be traced back to a love of different cultures, which was firmly established at Central as a non-traditional student.
“I was 15 years older than the others in my graduating class. I was married, had a full-time job, owned a house and had two children when I graduated,” Blom says.
QUALITY BREWS: Q&A WITH BILL WESSELINK
Bill Wesselink ’98 rarely drinks a beer that isn’t of his own making. Since opening Dovetail Brewery in Chicago just a year and a half ago, it’s nearly all he ever drinks. With the brewery’s pilsner named one of the top 101 dishes and drinks in the Chicago area by the Chicago Tribune, it’s no surprise. USA Today 10 Best travel guide also named Dovetail to the top 10 best new craft breweries around the country in 2017.
Right now, Dovetail’s taproom is located on what the local chamber of commerce has dubbed “Malt Row,” due to the four to five breweries and distillery within a mile and a half of each other. The “über-local” feel is what Wesselink strives for, only distributing the beer in the immediate area and in Indiana. Wesselink shares his philosophy and take on the craft beer industry.
Tell us about Dovetail Brewery.
In 2012, I was taking a master brewing course that was half in Chicago and half in Munich, Germany, at the Doemens Institute. That’s when I met the other half of Dovetail, Hagen Dost. We hit it off and liked hanging out, researching, studying and eating weird things. We decided to open a brewery together.
We specialize in continental European-style ales and lagers. Our methodology is that we brew in a very traditional way. It’s not a short brew-day for us. We use a lot of quality materials to produce the best quality beer we can make because that’s the kind of beer we like to drink.
(The duo decided to stick mostly to what they like best—lagers. The craft-beer resurgence around the country often focuses on ales, a short-production beer, clocking in around two to three weeks. But Dovetail’s beers, all made by Wesselink and Dost, take anywhere from six weeks to six months to produce.)
How would you describe the craft beer movement and where do you see it going?
Lager is 90 percent of the beer that people drink. You can’t really hide flaws in a lager. If a brewer makes a mistake with an ale, you can add more hops to hide the flaw. The lagers are an easy drinking, lower alcohol content beer that pairs well with good conversation. Rather than a one-and-done beer or too much flavor that destroys your palate, what we hope and believe is that the market of the craft drinker will move more to the lagers like we make.
What is your day-to-day job for the brewery?
Hagen and I are the co-owners and only two brewers. All the beer that we produce, one or both of us makes. Beyond that, I do what every business owner loves to do: paperwork and payroll. Right now, I try to stay on top of new accounts so we can continue to grow in the area.