Iowa Pale Ale, ‘loose-meat’ sandwich beckon travelers

Iowa Pale Ale and a "loose-meat" sandwich deserve more than a passing glance. / Illustration for AFR by Maggie Owsley

Iowa Pale Ale and a “loose-meat” sandwich deserve more than a passing glance. / Illustration for AFR by Maggie Owsley

Though I live in Brooklyn, I spent a good chunk of my childhood in St. Louis and call myself a Midwesterner. But, truth be told, I’ve only experienced Iowa in passing.

A close friend has great memories of family reunions at Lake Okoboji in the Hawkeye State’s northwest, and politically minded pals talk about campaigning for idealistic candidates in the run-up to the presidential caucuses. All I have to go on are a few driving trips through the hilly landscape, the greens and browns and blues blurring as I sped along the highway, stopping only for food, fuel and a brief overnight in a nondescript motel.

flag1-e1387275637193-300x233-e1389046495757-1 To make up for my minimal direct experience with the state’s current craft beer culture, I checked in with the Iowa Brewers Guild. Its treasurer — Megan McKay of Peace Tree Brewing Co. — reports the state has 55 operating breweries, with more in the works. In 2009, there were only 25.  But in 2010, the state relaxed a 6 percent limit on the amount of alcohol by volume allowed in locally brewed beers. The change enabled brewers to make a wider range of craft beers, many of which have higher alcohol content.

“We have seen great growth and continued excitement about craft beer in Iowa,” McKay says.

The brewing expansion is remarkable for a state with such a historically tenuous relationship with alcohol. An early stronghold in the Temperance movement, Iowa was one of the first states to enact prohibition laws, according to a Quad-City Times article on the state’s brewing history. It banned the production and sale of liquor in 1854, just eight years after achieving statehood and long before the federal Volstead Act, or Prohibition, took effect in early 1920.

Iowa Pale Ale  / Photo from Millstream Brewing Co.

Iowa Pale Ale is dry-hopped. / Photo from Millstream Brewing Co.

But, the state prohibition wasn’t enforced very well. Besides, tasty lager bier was part of the culture that German immigrants brought when they began arriving in the mid-19th century. To encourage these newcomers to permanently settle, the state legislature in 1858 eased its prohibition and allowed the sale of low-alcohol beer and wine.

During the next 150 years, Iowa would see several more prohibitions at both federal and local levels. Brewing never became a major part of Iowa’s industrial fabric, as in some other Midwestern states — until the craft beer boom of recent decades inspired some adventurous home brewers to dream bigger.

One of the resulting microbreweries and brewpubs is the Millstream Brewing Co. in Amana, a small town in east-central Iowa. The town also is home to the Amana Colonies, settled in 1855 by a German religious sect and now a magnet for tourists interested in their communal living and crafts. Brewing is among those crafts.

Millstream opened in 1985, becoming the first commercial brewery to launch in the area in 101 years. Brothers James and Dennis Roemig started it with a friend, Carroll F. Zuber, indulging their love of pristinely balanced European beers. In 2000, local residents Chris Priebe and Tom and Teresa Albert bought Millstream. Today, it produces a wide array of styles, including experimental, “extreme” and seasonal beers.

The Iowa Pale Ale, a more recent addition to the program, serves as a prime example of Millstream’s award-winning traditional approach. The ale is dry-hopped, a process in which fresh hops are added during fermentation for fresh, soft aromatic notes. It yields a medium-bodied, bright orange drink with a subtle, citrusy bite and a substantial cream-colored head. This pale ale is a far cry from the West Coast hop bombs that routinely annihilate American palates.

“Pale ales are turning into hoppy monsters, but our Iowa Pale Ale is more mild and about balance,” the brewery explains on its website. “It has enough bitterness to match the maltiness provided by the pale malt base.”

With an alcohol content of 5.7 percent, it’s fine for warm-weather sipping all day long.

Brewer Chris Priebe grinds grain for beer. / Photo courtesy of Millstream Brewing Co.

Brewer Chris Priebe grinds grain for beer. / Photo courtesy of Millstream Brewing Co.

Pale ales are versatile, pairing well with a variety of foods including gamey meats and spicy dishes. Iowa has them all. Kurt Friese, writing in “The Atlantic,” rebuts the notion that its cuisine is essentially a collection of meatloaf, casseroles and Jell-O molds. Though I appreciate Friese’s defense of his adopted home state and its vibrant food scene, he didn’t mention one of the state’s distinctive offerings: the “tavern” or “loose-meat” sandwich.

According to local lore, the sandwich – a simple combination of seasoned ground beef, mustard and dill pickle – was created at Sioux City’s Ye Old Tavern in 1924. The Maid-Rite Corp., a West Des Moines-based fast-food chain, introduced and popularized its version in 1926.

While Millstream has the widest distribution of any Iowa-brewed beer, it’s only available in Iowa, Nebraska and Minnesota. Luckily for the rest of us, Millstream offers its full lineup online through John’s Grocery Inc. of Iowa City or France44 in Minneapolis.

The loose-meat sandwich is sold everywhere, from fast-food stands to roadside dinners to inner-city lunch counters. It may not be particularly healthy, fancy or innovative, but it sure makes a wonderful roadside lunch — especially when paired with a cold bottle of pale ale.

Makes 4 to 5 servings

Iowa ‘Tavern’ or ‘Loose-meat’ Sandwich

Iowa's "tavern" or "loose-meat" hamburger sandwich dates back nearly 100 years. It's like a sloppy Joe without the sauce, its cooked, crumbled meat seasoned and served open-faced on a bun. This recipe was adapted from Eileen's, a blog by Eileen Beran of Kalona, Iowa.


  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 pound ground beef (80 to 90 percent lean)
  • ½ cup diced celery
  • 1 small clove garlic, minced
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons prepared yellow mustard
  • Water to cover, about 1 cup
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • White or whole-wheat buns
  • Yellow mustard
  • Dill pickles


In a large, cast iron skillet, heat oil over medium heat and sprinkle salt to cover the bottom of the pan. Add the ground beef and brown, crumbling it with a wooden spoon or spatula as it cooks.

When the meat has nearly browned, stir in the celery and garlic. Cook the mixture until the onion turns golden and the meat is well browned.

Stir the sugar, vinegar and mustard into the meat mixture and add just enough of the water to cover the meat. Reduce heat and simmer 15 to 20 minutes or until most of the water has cooked away. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Split the buns open, warm them in the oven and top with the meat mixture, serving the open-face sandwich with mustard and a sliced dill pickle.

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