Iowa City Brewlab brings family chemistry

By Chase Castle

Drew Letcher wasn’t planning to parlay his computer science skills into starting his own brewery when he graduated from the University of Iowa in 1986.

Thirty years later, however, he and his son, Nathan, will host the grand opening Saturday of the Iowa City Brewlab, the fruits of a seed planted two years ago when the two backpacked across Europe.

“It was time for a career change and it was on the bucket list to start a new business,” said Drew Letcher, who had previously spent more than 20 years in software design. “I just have a passion for brewing and craft beer. That’s why I’m in it.”

He said he originally planned to open a brewery in North Liberty under the name Paha Hills. In the end, however, the availability of the Brewlab’s current space across from the New Pioneer Food Co-Op on Washington Street was too good to pass up.

“So we decided to change the name to something that would tie into the community,” Drew Letcher said.

Science of discovery

Falling in line with that theme of the unexpected, an accidental occurrence in the brewing process has already led to one of the brewery’s quirkier beers.

Among the brews that should be on tap Saturday is a Belgian-style pale ale called “String Theory.” In addition to invoking the physics concept that strives to describe the creation of the universe, the name also references a happenstance ingredient that created the beer itself.

Having previously worked at both Lost Coast Brewery in Northern California and Six Row Brewing Co. in St. Louis, Nathan Letcher, 32, is no amateur brewer. Yet while making a batch during his current duties as brewmaster, he made an imperfect cut along a perforated plastic malt bag, which is sewn shut with a string. When one of those ties made its way into one of the vats, String Theory was born.

“It’s harmless,” Nathan Letcher said of the discovery, noting that all of the mash tuns that process grains contain filters that sift out undesirable elements long before they reach anyone’s drink.

Other beers on the horizon include American wheat ales, Hefeweizens, blonde ales, English bitters, German Alt beers and different types of pale ales – arguably the de facto favorite among Millennial drinkers. Darker beers like Baltic porters and imperial stouts are also in the works, as well as a Belgian tripel called Cookies that may become the brewery’s calling card.

While in Belgium, the father and son met another North American who raved about an unusually named “Cookies” beer, served exclusively at a small pub in the northwest part of the country.

The Letchers soon travelled to Bruges, where they located the described cobblestone square and a quiet alley, which had a cryptic sign above it that simply read “Cookies.” The men followed the pathway to an unmarked door, which revealed a staircase winding down multiple floors before eventually opening into a basement bar, where everyone was drinking the exact same beer.

“And it was definitely one of the best beers I had ever had,” Drew Letcher said, adding that the bar’s boisterous atmosphere was likely enhanced by Cookies’ “big beer” ABV of 12 percent.

The beer model

Drew Letcher said the brewery will initially distribute to local bars and restaurants, and hopes to eventually bottle special releases and seasonal beers to local grocers.

Although the brewery has been hosting “guest taps,” where local breweries sell their beers, since November, this weekend will mark the beginning of the Brewlab’s own beer sales.

To start, the Letchers plan to brew two batches a week with their 7-barrel system, initially pumping out about 450 gallons weekly. That would roughly put the Brewlab on pace with the inaugural year of Lion Bridge Brewing Company in Cedar Rapids, which produced about 600 barrels, or roughly 19,000 gallons in 2014. Last year, Lion Bridge more than tripled that output to about 2,000 barrels.

The Brewlab presently has a part-time staff of about 12 and three full-time employees.

Late last month, the Brewlab opened its deli, which carries sandwiches of small-plate items including cheese, specialty breads, homemade soups and cured meats. Many of those dishes will draw on locally-grown ingredients, including some sold at the Iowa City Farmers Market, which operates twice weekly during May through October at the nearby Chauncey Swan parking ramp.

Beyond beer

In addition to the science theme at the BrewLab, which features a black slate bar top and science lab tables scattered throughout, the brewery also plans to embrace social studies. A local home brewing club is already using the space for its regular meetings, and Drew Letcher plans to organize a fermenting club to teach the public how to properly jar kimchi, sauerkraut and other fermented favorites. He’d also like to establish “project” groups hosted by the Brewlab the where public could learn to brew their own beer and experiment with unconventional ingredients.

“It’s more about supporting the craft beer community and being part of the culture of that community,” Drew Letcher said. “It’s not just about selling beer or making beer. It’s a social thing. A human network – the original network.”

Drew Letcher said his background as a software engineer overlaps with quality control practices essential to brewing a consistent product. Because of his son’s biochemistry background, Drew Letcher said he’s particularly interested in hosting tasting sessions at the BrewLab that would involve sensory analysis, where the lab could examine how different consumers identify and response to ingredients differently.

He also plans to develop software that could be used by small-scale breweries to monitor quality control and sensory analysis.

“You could say I’m on hiatus right now,” Drew Letcher said. “I would definitely like to get back to that at some point.”

Although similar software already exists, most of it is too expensive for all but the largest brewers in the country. Ultimately, that the information collected would be compiled into a database that could provide valuable information for other brewers and potentially even suppliers or consumers.