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There’s something brewing in Ellsworth …

Business creates beer for restaurant group

— Daily Freeman-Journal photos by Billie Shelton John Dunkin Jr. and Corey Birkey stand next to the large tanks where beer is brewed at Granite City.

Nestled quietly into the very northeast corner of Ellsworth is a business that reaches far beyond Hamilton County as it brews beer for all 37 locations of Granite City Food and Brewery that are in 11 states.

From the outside, it’s a simple, functional building, but it doesn’t take more than a few steps inside the door to begin to understand the size, scope, and efficiency of the operation that starts with wheat and malt in raw form. There are two-story silos to hold grain, stainless steel tanks big enough to hold the grown man who goes inside to clean them, bags of grain that weigh more than a ton that are regularly shipped to the Ellsworth site from Germany, and a laboratory for testing beer samples, all among the other equipment necessary for brewing beer.

There are seven full-time employees, including truck drivers, at Granite City in Ellsworth.

Actually what happens here is the making of wort to be sent out to the restaurants. “At the restaurants, they add yeast to the wort, and that produces alcohol,” explains Corey Birkey, brewery operations and logistics manager. “Basically, you could say we supply the basic product, and they add the seasoning.”

Brewing days

Shawna Glick, quality control and quality assurance laboratory manager at the Ellsworth plant, tests beer in the company lab.

Monday through Thursday each week are brewing days at the Ellsworth plant, where five batches are done five at a time. That makes 5,000 gallons of wort each brewing day. “It takes lots of attention to detail and to cleanliness,” Birkey notes of the process, adding that about one-third of all the wort produced in Iowa comes from Ellsworth.

“Brewing days start at 6 a.m.,” said John Dunkin, Jr., brewer for Granite City. “What’s unique about us is that we can do five batches at once. I look at this as I am cooking in a big kitchen by myself. “

Once the brewing is complete, the wort goes into 330-gallon tanks before it is shipped via the company’s trucks directly to locations in 11 states. “It’s a unique system that you won’t see anywhere else,” Birkey said.

The spent grain is picked up daily at the plant by a local farmer, who uses it as cattle feed.

With its corporate office in Bloomington, Minnesota, Granite City has been in the Ellsworth Industrial Park since 2005, shortly before Birkey started with the company as a truck driver. The site was chosen because of its central location and close proximity to Interstate 35, which easily in sight of the brewery.

Pictured are the raw materials for brewing: wheat in scoop and base malt on the right.

“We want our beers to test the same all over the country, with the same water source from the same place,” Birkey said about why all the brewing for Granite City is done at one location.

Samples from each restaurant location are brought back to the Ellsworth lab by the truck drivers who deliver beer to the restaurants. Sharla Glick is quality control/quality assurance manager for the company’s lab. “We test for bacteria in the samples regularly,” she explains. She also works with the yeast propagator at the plant. “We make our own yeast because it takes lots of yeast. It’s really condensed to send it to the restaurants. There’s only one other brewery in the country that does this.”

“Granite City is a good asset for our community,” states Greg Campbell, who has served as mayor in Ellsworth since 2012. “There’s a financial gain for the city because of the utilities they use. And they support special activities we have here, like donating product for our summer celebration.”

‘Good supporter’

Campbell, who has lived in Ellsworth since 2000, has served on the city council since 2004. He recalls that Granite City approached the council when they were looking for a site for their brewery in 2005. “The City Council worked out a package that was good for both of us,” he said. “Granite City was the second company to go into our industrial park.

“They are a good supporter of our community.”

The Craft beer trend is growing daily, and new breweries are going up all over Iowa and beyond, according to Birkey.

“Iowans like beer in different flavors,” adds Dunkin, who got his start with Granite City a few years back loading trucks part-time a few years back. “People want something fresh and new and local. It’s a big thing now. This is exciting.

“This is a fun industry,” he said. “Craft brewers are friendly with each other; they’re cooperative, not competitive. It’s like farmers who are always willing to help each other.”

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