AMANA, Iowa (AP) — Carroll Zuber remembers the day a quarter-century ago when he found a man snooping around his new brewery. "Can I help you?" Zuber asked him. The stranger, it turned out, was the head brewer for Budweiser and he had made the trip up from St. Louis to check out the beer-making facility in Amana.
Microbreweries were all but unheard of in those days, and the King of Beers had caught wind of an operation being set up in Iowa.
"There was no competition for those big guys," Zuber said. "A little micro like us, even though it was a spot on the wall, it was a spot. And they look at spots, don't kid yourself."
When Millstream Brewing Company opened in 1985, Zuber said it was one of only four microbreweries in the U.S. After Prohibition, corporations such as Budweiser dominated the industry, and the three or four brewers that had once operated in Amana in the 19th century had long been closed, Zuber said.
As Millstream celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, nearly 1,500 craft breweries now are in business nationwide, according to the Brewers Association, and the Amana brewery continues to grow in production and prestige.
Earlier in April, Iowa's largest and oldest microbrewery earned one of just 90 gold medals awarded at the World Beer Cup in Chicago, a competition that included 3,300 varieties of beer from brewers in 44 countries. Millstream's Schild Brau, one of the brewery's two mainstays it has produced all 25 years, took first place in the Vienna lager style category.
Although the brewery had collected plenty of awards in past years, including 13 for the Schild Brau, this was the pinnacle in Millstream's history, brew master Chris Priebe said.
"When my kids were born, that was probably more exciting," Priebe said of accepting the medal in a Chicago hotel ballroom April 11. "But other than that, I don't know."
It had been nearly a century since the last brewer in Amana closed when Zuber and partners James and Dennis Roemig hatched the idea of going into the beer-making business in the 1980s.
Several years before, in 1975, Zuber had taken a trip through Germany where he stopped at several small breweries, all of which he said were serving higher quality beer than what he could find back home. "Why can't we do that?" he thought.
Zuber, a financial planner at the time, began working with his friends, the Roemig brothers, owners of the Colony Inn, to build what would become Millstream just off the main drag in Amana. They toured breweries across the nation, talked with beer experts, and Zuber even spent a day at a world-renowned brewing school in Munich asking questions.
"We thought, 'Hey, other people have done this, we can do this, too,'" Zuber said. "It almost became — well, it did become an obsession. We not only wanted to make beer, we wanted to make good beer."
Finding equipment for a small-scale brewery when few others existed proved to be an obstacle, and the industrial pieces at the auctions they attended were too big and too expensive. Instead, they drew up specifications, had tanks and vats hand-made and even scoured brewery scrap heaps to cobble together a brew house. Much of that original equipment remains in place at the brewery today.
The Amana men also were missing an even more critical component to the brewery: someone who knew how to make beer.
Zuber called upon an old acquaintance, Joe Pickett, who had run a brewery in Dubuque, and coaxed him out of retirement in Chicago to come to Amana. Pickett helped get Millstream up and running before he died in 1985. His son, Joe Pickett Jr., came to the brewery and helped complete his father's work, Zuber said.
When Millstream won an award at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver in the brewery's first year in operation, Zuber requested an extra medal, which he gave to the Pickett family.
"Joe wore that medal in his casket," Zuber said.
The original trio of owners sold Millstream to a Cedar Rapids couple in 1998, but their stint proved short-lived. Tom and Teresa Albert, and brewers Chris Priebe and Aaron Taubman bought the brewery from the couple in 2001 and have operated it the past decade, though Taubman has since departed.
Before they took over the business, Teresa Albert was a school teacher for Clear Creek Amana, and Tom Albert was working in the hospitality room at Millstream and running a photography business.
"My husband and I were driving one day, and I looked over and said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if we could buy the brewery?'" Teresa Albert said. "And he said, 'I've been thinking that, too.'"
With no experience in beer making, the Alberts partnered with Priebe and Taubman, who were trained brewers and co-workers with Tom at Millstream at the time.
Their early years were far from smooth, Teresa Albert said, and in 2001, they had to dump as much beer as they produced because of infections in their supply. They pulled out of all their markets except for Iowa City and Cedar Rapids, and it took two or three years to establish the consistency in the quality of the beer they sought.
"Five years into it, we noticed our customers were coming back, we were seeing more sales and we were seeing more consistent growth because people were starting to trust the brand name again," Teresa Albert said. "It was a long battle, but it was worth it going into that fifth year when people were saying, 'Millstream, man, that's good beer.'"
Millstream produced 1,240 barrels of beer in 2001. Ten years later, the owners are aiming for 3,000 barrels after producing 2,600 in 2009.
The brewery also ramped up its distribution in the past year, going from a single Iowa City distributor to five outfits in Central and Eastern Iowa. Millstream beers can now be found in restaurants and stores in nearly two-thirds of the state, Albert said.
These days, the brewery churns out five varieties of beer year round and five more seasonal brews — far more than the original two recipes of Millstream Lager and the Schild Brau it opened with 25 years ago.
In celebration of its 25th anniversary, Millstream is bottling a special Dopple Bock that takes advantage of Iowa's new change in law allowing brewers to make high-proof beers. The Dopple Bock, which will be released May 1 at the brewery, will have a 7 percent alcohol-by-volume makeup.
Zuber said the current owners have done an admirable job of building upon what he and his partners started 25 years ago.
"It's just like any other business — you have to have a dream, then you go for it," Zuber said.