Monday, November 9, 2015

Iron Tap: Bringing More Craft Beer to Waconia!

I moved out to Waconia in 2004.  Since then I've really grown to love my new town.  However, when I first moved here there was a serious lack of two things: craft beer and decent food.  In the past two years we've finally had some improvements in the beer front with Waconia Brewing J. Carver Distillery, and Schram Vineyards & Brewing popping up right in town.  These options have been a drastic improvement for me (a super beer geek) over the many "drinking-man's bar" options downtown. Not to disparage those particular establishments, but craft beer has not been a priority for them up to now.  But here we get to the focus of my story--Waconia now has its first craft beer bar and restaurant!

Iron Tap opened this summer in the space previously occupied by one of my favorite restaurants Terra Waconia.  [A little plug--Terra's new project Terra Truck now provides Chef Craig Sharp's excellent food around the West Metro.] The building has been a restaurant for over a hundred years and did require some significant remodeling and updating for Iron Tap to go in.  They also purchased the space next door and built a fairly impressive multi-tiered patio area which is bright and airy, and now includes an enclosed three-season section.  The actual indoor dining area is still somewhat small, with a long bar across from the doorway hosting 30 craft beer taps.  The floor is finished concrete and the walls are rough paneled wood.  Metal pipes form the Iron Tap sign behind the bar and also make up cool industrial looking light fixtures.  The overall effect is rustic but clean and comfortable--perfect for a small town like Waconia.

The owners of this new establishment are Greg and Bria James, and Greg was kind enough to share a beer or two and tell me more.  Greg himself grew up in Indiana, spent time in Colorado, and has now been here for about 9 years.  He's traveled extensively for work and has enjoyed checking out breweries in the places he visits.  Upon moving here, much like myself, he was dismayed at the lack of good food and drink options in our area.  Greg and Bria talked at that time and decided, "Waconia needs a restaurant!"  Other than working as a server in the past, Greg doesn't have much direct restaurant management experience.  To avoid many of the common pitfalls he's made sure to surround himself with people who have experience and know what they are doing.  The James' are also open to criticism and have already made several changes since opening based on feedback from visitors.

View from the top tier

Shall we talk food?  One of the things they've changed since opening is hiring a new chef--Robert Underwood, formerly at Crave.  With a seasoned chef at the helm they envision a changing menu over time with favorites and also new dishes depending on the time of year and ingredient availability.  At this point they have a focus on house smoked meats as well as classic fare like burgers, salads and pizzas.  From personal experience their beer battered onion rings are stellar!  I'm also a fan of their Big Tom--a brisket sandwich topped with white cheddar, bacon, BBQ, and one of those fantastic onion rings.

How about beer?  So many bars boast 20 taps but have all versions of macro lagers, or worse macro beers imitating craft beers.  When formulating their plan for Iron Tap, they specifically did not want to be "just another dive bar."  I can tell you this--Iron Tap has an Eric Wentling approved list of really good craft beers!  I've had Surly's Todd The Axe Man, Bourbon County Stout, Alesmith Speedway Stout, and more on tap there.  Greg notes that he wants to focus on local beers but doesn't want to lose sight of excellent regional breweries like Deschutes and New Belgium.  I would say at least half of the tap list is Minnesota based, often including things I haven't seen at other Western Suburb bars like Tin Whiskers' Wheatstone Bridge.  I asked Greg if he's had difficulty getting our smaller town drinkers into craft beer.  His response: "We started out carrying a few mass-market lagers but were able to pull Coors Light off the taps after 2 months.  People are buying Todd and other craft beers.  I'm happy that these beers are selling and that I can put on tap what I like!"  For those who need them (or who may be hipsters), Greg does keep a stock of macro cans including PBR ready for all takers.

So what kinds of beer does Greg like?  He mentions that his tastes change and he always likes trying new things, but right now his favorites are double IPAs and Russian Imperial Stouts.  Way to go big or go home!  I made sure to ask the difficult desert island beer question of him: coming from Indiana he has special place in his heart for Three Floyd's Zombie Dust.  I can't fault him on that choice!

This summer has been about getting the restaurant and bar open, but what lies in the future for Iron Tap?  Short term, they just enclosed that part of the outdoor seating area which should help out with capacity in the cold winter months.  They would also like to make sure their servers know more about craft beer, including brewery tours, tasting sessions, and possibly Ciccerone training.  I hope they follow up on this, as I've been to bars with large numbers of beers and servers who know nothing about them.

Thanks to Greg James for meeting up with me and taking the time to talk about Iron Tap!  I'm happy so far and have high hopes for the future.  If you are in Waconia, come check out our new craft beer and food destination--and try out the rest of the city's fun options while you are at it!

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