It was just after 8 a.m. on a recent Friday when I walked into my office for the day: Great River Brewery.
Scott Lehnert, who wore a Great River T-shirt and his long beard in a bun, greeted me with a big smile.
“Ready to make some beer?” he asked.
Of course, Lehnert would be doing most — eh, all — of the brewing and I would be doing a lot of observing and following him around, trying not to drop my notebook in the mash tun.
On this day about three weeks ago, Lehnert was going through the first steps of making a special release beer, brewed in partnership with the Quad-City Times. It’s called, fittingly, the Deadline Cream Ale.
Sitting on the patio of Great River Brewery, one of my go-to spots in Davenport, I have often looked at the brewing system through garage door windows and, depending on the time of day, caught glimpses of brewers in action.
And, more than once, I’ve asked myself, “What’s the story behind this beer?”
Spoiler alert: A lot more hard work, and less beer drinking (though, there is some of that), than many of us may think.
Ahead of the Deadline Cream Ale tapping party scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 11, I thought I’d share some of the story of making this beer — and some of what I learned about the brewery — with you.
'A lot of waiting'
The evening before I was scheduled to join Lehnert for a day of brewing, I stopped by the brewery to pick up a four-pack of 483 Pale Ale and saw Paul Krutzfeldt and Dawn Lehnert, who co-own the brewery with Lehnert, sitting on the patio.
Dawn Lehnert reminded me to wear rain boots and clothes I don’t mind getting dirty.
I soon realized why.
In between all of the cleaning — there is a lot of cleaning and sanitizing involved — and actual brewing, things can be plenty messy.
To start the day, Lehnert walked me through the process of filling the mash tun, a large vessel where the “mashing” (or hot-water steeping) happens. Lehnert filled it with barley, flaked corn and flaked oats, which would be converted into fermentable sugars. He told me that the liquid created from the mashing is called the wort, so I added that to my list of new vocabulary terms.
As the mash tun did its thing, we waited.
“A lot of brewing is waiting for the next step,” he said. “You can’t rush any part of it. You’ve got to take your time.”
Since we had some spare time just before 11 a.m., Lehnert suggested some breakfast beers. Over half-pints of Oktoberfest in the tasting room, we chatted about how his daughter is learning how to drive, his favorite music and his weekly Taekwondo classes, which he said he practices to stay in shape for the “very physical job” of brewing. He doesn’t wear a FitBit anymore, but when he did, he was clocking between 15,000 and 20,000 steps per day.
And then I asked him, “How’d you get into brewing, anyway?”
Great River's beginnings
His wife, Dawn Lehnert, got him a homebrewing kit as a wedding gift. He got more into it and learned a friend of his from Drake University, Paul Krutzfeldt, was working at a brewery and dreaming of owning his own.
Soon, it wasn’t just a dream.
In 2004, the group opened Old Capitol Brew Works, which included space for a brewery and restaurant, in Iowa City. As the brewery grew, the owners decided they wanted to focus more on beer and less on food, so they relocated and rebranded as Great River Brewery, which opened in 2009 on East 2nd Street in Davenport.
“When we saw this space, we knew it was perfect right away,” Lehnert said. "And now this part of Davenport is a destination."
Since then, the brewery has become a popular gathering place for Quad-Citians and visitors, a fact Lehnert is proud of.
“We love making great beer,” he said. “We also love that this is a place for the community. People come here when they’re having a good day or a bad day. They come here to enjoy something we made, and that’s really cool.”
As our beers emptied, Lehnert assures me he rarely has a beer this early in the day.
“You’d be surprised,” he said. “I wait until I get my work done.”
'You can't be late'
Lehnert checked his phone. It was time for the next step: Moving the wort over to the kettle to boil.
“You can’t be late for any part of this,” he said, "Or, it won’t turn out right.”
Later, Lehnert gave me the honors of adding the hops to the kettle.
He also gave me the honors of climbing in the mash tun — thankfully, the vessel’s temperature had lowered to the mid 70s — to clean it out with a small broom and dustpan.
“It’s a rite of passage for a brewer,” he said.
Near the end of the eight hours I spent with Lehnert, it was time to start the fermentation process, during which yeast is added to convert the sugars in the wort into, yes, beer.
And then, there was only more waiting to do. Lehnert said I should come back in a couple weeks to check up on the beer.
As I walked home from my day at the brewery, I realized, all of a sudden, how tired my body was from simply being on my feet all day. And I thought of something Lehnert told me earlier in the day.
“So many people think of brewing as kind of a romance,” he said. “When people ask to see back here, I’m like, ‘Are you sure you want to see behind the curtain?’ It’s not as fancy as you might think.”
In peeking behind the curtain, my appreciation certainly grew for what Lehnert does, and for what all brewers do.
“Brewing is a lot of work, and it’s a young man’s game,” the 48-year-old Lehnert said. “But this is my life. I care about it. I’ll do it until I can’t anymore.”
'I can't wait to try it'
Two weeks later, I went back to the brewery to try the unfiltered version of the light-bodied cream ale right from the fermentation tank.
Lehnert said the beer will taste “much different” by the time it’s officially tapped.
“I have an idea of how it’s going to turn out, but not totally, because we’ve never made it before,” he said. “I can’t wait to try it.”
Lehnert pointed out that the cream ale isn’t a super well-known style of beer; New Glarus Brewing in Wisconsin makes one called the Spotted Cow.
“A lot of people probably don’t know what it is and that makes it even more fun,” Lehnert said. “It’s fun when you’re making new things and getting people to try new things.”
For me, that's part of the fun of going to Great River and the other dozen or so breweries in the Quad-Cities: Trying new kinds of craft beer and figuring out what you like and don’t like. But I, like most people I meet at breweries, don’t go to those places just for the beer.
What I love about sipping a beer, with a friend or stranger, is that nobody seems to be in a rush. The stress of the day is gone, or at least, on pause. There’s time to take in the view of the Mississippi River or dig into a light or serious conversation. And if I may tie in our beer’s name, there’s often no deadline involved in those moments.
As I was finishing this story (and very quickly approaching my deadline), Lehnert sent me a text saying, “I am filtering the Deadline today!”
I told him I’m excited to try the finished version at the tapping party. Hopefully, we’ll see some of you there, too.