Brewery Showcase | Front Street Brewery
What does it mean to nurture an established craft beer brand into a new era? In such a rapidly expanding and evolving industry as American craft beer with 4,000 breweries and more coming online each day, how does a brewery pay respect to an identity it created while simultaneously working to push that identity into new territory?
These are the questions Front Street Brewery Brewmaster Matt Engelhaupt is tackling on a daily basis. Front Street is the oldest brewpub in Iowa and the second oldest brewery in the state. Clearly there’s heritage in that. Tradition. But even so, Front Street is about to undergo a massive expansion that is poised to transform the brewery from a local Quad Cities area favorite to a major regional player with goals of becoming a Midwest brewing powerhouse.
“We want to be a Revolution or a Greenbush. We want to be one of those regional breweries that reaches into Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana,” says Engelhaupt, who became co-owner of Front Street just two months ago after working as the head brewer of Iron Spike Brewing in Galesburg, Illinois, a small brewpub Engelhaupt helped start in 2013.
On a cool Sunday afternoon the day before the Fourth of July, we taste through some of Front Street’s beers at their taproom overlooking the choppy Mississippi River. I try some of the brewery’s staples like their Raging River Pale Ale – a perfect meld of orange citrus and bready malt – and their new Citra IPA with a tropical, peachy aroma that explodes from the class the second it’s poured. Engelhaupt adjusts his ballcap as he explains the joy and terror of taking the wheel of such a beloved institution.
“We’re really excited about it, but this is also one of the most difficult things to do,” he says. “But expansion is always really, really scary. You’re really biting off more than you can chew. We could keep things as they are and do fine, but we also want to grow. It’s a really sharp double-edged sword.”
Front Street was founded in 1992 by Steve Zuidema and his wife Jennie as a small brewpub in a post-industrial part of downtown Davenport. The brewery focused on traditional English and American styles – their flagship being Raging River, which has slowly evolved into a wonderful rendition of a West Coast pale ale ala Sierra Nevada Pale – with a focus on neighborhood, community, and serving as a local gathering place for fine beer and conversation.
Brewing on a 7-barrel system, Zuidema and a dedicated staff spent the next 20 plus years building the brewpub into a household name, garnering several local and state awards for their flagship pale, along with variants of their standard stout and porter. Front Street underwent its first large expansion in 2012 by opening a 15 barrel brewhouse and taproom in a modern, airy space adjacent to an indoor, year-round farmers market, moving production out of the brewpub and allowing Zuidema to focus on increasing the capacity and variety.
But since 2012, amidst the huge explosion of craft beer nationwide – hell, worldwide – Front Street has been content with producing high quality beer for a city that’s been both highly receptive and appreciative to the craft Zuidema and his staff have worked so hard to hone.
Then, last year as Zuidema and his wife were looking at the prospect of retirement, Engelhaupt, who was fresh from leaving his first professional brewing gig at Iron Spike and on the hunt for a new brewing project, saw an opportunity to open a new chapter for a brewery he’s known and loved for years.
“Steve has really been my brewing role model and something of a father figure,” Engelhaupt explains. “He really helped me make the leap from homebrewer to professional. I’ve known him for years now and consulted with him on opening Iron Spike, and when I approached him about opening a new brewpub after Iron Spike, that’s when the idea to take over Front Street came up.”
Engelhaupt met Zuidema during a Quad Cities brewery tour while sourcing inspiration for his own start-up a few years before. The two had an immediate connection, bonding over beer styles, brewing philosophy, and what craft beer meant to them, and Zuidema quickly became something of a guidepost for Engelhaupt as he continued to learn and develop as a brewer.
“I was just a homebrewer brewing 5 gallon batches in my kitchen, and he taught me how to go from doing those 5 gallon kitchen batches to 500 gallons,” says Engelhaupt, who fell in love with craft beer working at Stone Brewing in San Diego while attending graduate school for architecture.
After a period of tending bar, cleaning tanks, and helping around Stone’s brewhouse, he dove headfirst into homebrewing before returning to the Midwest to be closer to family. He spent several years dialing-in his technique and recipes and decided to go pro after a chance encounter with Dogfish Head Founder Sam Sam Calgione at the 2008 Craft Brewers Conference in Washington, D.C. where Calgione’s praise cemented Engelhaupt’s desire to enter the professional brewing game.
“He tasted my beers and told me I’d be nuts if I didn’t start a brewery,” Engelhaupt recalls. “For me, that was it.”
Fast forward eight years, Engelhaupt is now guiding a brewery with a loyal following and long-standing brand recognition through its most aggressive growth period ever. In a mere 1,500 square feet of space, Front Street will soon operate a 30 barrel brewhouse with several 15 barrel fermenters, effectively doubling the brewery’s capacity. In addition, Front Street will begin canning and distributing their core lineup of beers later this year via a mobile canning line, and the taproom is also set for expansion and will feature an event space and beer hall-esque dining space with an emphasis on artisanal, wood-fired pizzas.
Ask Engelhaupt what characterizes a Front Street beer – both under Zuidema’s watch and now his own – and he’ll say: “Quality. We make beers we believe in, beers we want to drink. We respect the ingredients. We don’t try to dictate anything. If you listen to the ingredients, they’ll tell you what’s going on. That’s what it’s really about.”
But Front Street is also about precision. There’s a subtlety to each beer, a gracefulness – yes, even to that new IPA dry-hopped with 25 pounds of Citra.The beers are balanced, drinkable, and toeing an interesting line between respecting the past and what Zuidema built and looking toward the future with what Engelhaupt envisions. You can taste it in the glass – elegance and daring at once.
It’s a perilous, delicate stance to take – catering to a devoted core of regulars while trying to attract a new generation who don’t remember a world without the phrase craft beer – but just as we finish talking, Engelhaupt takes me behind the bar to the brewhouse and pours me a sample of the new batch of stout fresh off the brite tank. It’s roasty coffee, dark and milk chocolate all day long with a nice, crisp bite at the finish that washes away dry and clean. The mouthfeel is rich and creamy without being overbearing, and I immediately want to sink multiple pints during a cold, winter afternoon in Iowa.
The beer is one of their staples, Engelhaupt explains, and has been there from the very beginning but hasn’t been on in some time due to demand for the last batch – and yes, Engelhaupt is working from Zuidema’s original recipe. Engelhaupt pulls a small pour from the tank and tastes it. He smacks his lips, looks around the taproom, decides it ready.
I watch from behind the bar as he kegs the new batch and taps it before telling the bartender it’s OK to offer pints to patrons, all of which are watching eagerly as the stout is added to the electronic tap listing on a TV screen above the bar. Seated there, you see a long-time regular everyone refers to as Cowboy Bill. There’s a couple of young twentysomethings in flip-flops and fedoras. There’s a husband and wife with a young toddler strapped in a baby carrier to the husband’s chest. Each with smiles on their faces as they wait for the beer to be ready for their glass.
Remember that peril I was talking about a moment ago? That delicate, if not dangerous balance of the old and the new? One look around the taproom on any given Sunday at the different walks of life enjoying Front Street’s beer will tell you this brewery is going to be just fine.
Front Street Brewery
208 River Drive
Sun-Thurs: 11:30am – 10:30pm
Fri-Sat: 11:30am – 11pm
Mon-Fri: 3pm – 10pm
Sat: 10am – 10pm
Sun: 1pm – 9pm