We were very excited to be included in the Mid-America Publishing wine/beer insert! The insert went into 25 small-town Iowa newspapers the first week of May. To see the full insert, please click here to download the PDF. To read our article you can also just read it below here. We’d like to thank Greg Forbes of the Hampton Chronicle for the great job he did on the article!
Fat Hill Brewing owners place emphasis local beer, community engagement
By Greg Forbes
For Fat Hill Brewing owners Jake Rajewsky and Molly Angstman, being third place is preferred.
In this instance, “third place” doesn’t mean a bronze medal – it means owning a location where friends and family can unwind after a day of work with good company and meticulously crafted beer.
“(A friend) used to talk to us about your ‘third place,’” said Angstman. “If home is your first place and work is your second place, where do you spend the rest of your time? The third place is where you spend your time voluntarily, because that place makes you happy or enriches your life in some way.
“I think a strong community has lots of great third places, ” she said, “and we love being one of those here in Mason City.”
A crafted community
The husband and wife duo opened the downtown Mason City brewery on December 7, 2016 after leasing the building at 17 N. Federal Ave. in March that year. The two immediately began refurbishing the inside, constructing tables and other furniture and perfecting the recipes that would eventually flow through the taps. The turnaround was hectic, they said, and pretty much non-stop, except for one occasion.
“We actually married here (in the building) on Nov. 12 and opened on Dec. 7,” said Rajewsky.
As they worked to complete their brewery, Molly and Jake knew they wanted to not only provide a high quality product but also be a contributing and upstanding member of the Mason City business community. Their attention to quality, cleanliness and a friendly environment that encourages strangers to meet one another reflects that desire.
“We just think that our taproom is providing something good for the community,” he said. “You see a wide variety of people in here and that’s one of the good things about our taproom. At one point, I could be talking to a CEO of a local bank and across the bar, I could be talking with someone who just got off the factory line.
“One of the most satisfying things for us is when those people who have never met before talk and become friends,” he added. “That’s what we mean when we talk about building the community.”
To further foster that sense of community and belonging to all who walk through the doors of Fat Hill Brewing, staff offer a wide array of activities including live music, arts and crafts and a book club. Angstman said those activities draw in a new clientele who arrive for a particular event and become more familiar with craft beer and their fellow patrons in the process.
“For example, at our book club, we’ll have 12 people who don’t know each other sit at a table and talk for a whole hour and that’s just magic,” she said. “In this day and age, we may not necessarily even know our neighbors so just spending some time with some new people in a casual, no-pressure setting makes folks feel more at home in their city, more connected.”
The focus on community is apparent in more subtle ways, as well. Perusing the menu, a patron can find some nods to Mason City’s history and area producers. Bank Demon, an imperial stout released in the late fall, pays homage to a spooky piece of Mason City lore. Legend has it that a slab of marble at a bank drive-thru once had an eerie marking that resembled the devil.
“We just like to bring a little bit of Mason City history in here,” said Angstman.
Rajewsky said that, when possible, he likes to craft new beers using local ingredients. A honey kolsch, a basil pale ale and an aronia berry saison have all used fresh ingredients cultivated from friends’ productions. Rajewsky said he’s able to experiment with those styles because of the fact that everything is made and sold out of the brewery. With six flagship taps and a few that rotate depending on the season, he said he’s able to get his hands dirty and explore new and different ingredients.
“Selling out of the taproom, we can play around with different recipes, styles, barrel aging…so we try to have six of the same on tap but the other six or seven taps, we rotate,” he said. “That’s why we do things like brew with local honey or partner with friends.”
Rajewsky said the focus on local ingredients in the beer is another step to support the community and provide support to businesses that have taken a similar leap as they did.
“I’ve been trying to get more and more active in the local food scene,” he said. “We produce beer locally and we’re always looking for more local ingredients. We would love to talk with (producers) about partnering and we want to let people to know that if they have something interesting, to get ahold of us.”
Angstman added that the emphasis on local ingredients, in itself, is a community-oriented detail. Before they opened, Angstman said they issued a survey on the brewery Facebook page asking what kinds of beer people were most interested in. Beer with locally sourced products was the most popular response.
“It’s a constant challenge to get the right amount at the right time, so we really try,” she said.
“People who care about where their onions are grown probably also care about where their beer is brewed,” Rajewsky added. “When they see the people who make the thing they’re consuming, that’s important.”
Rajewsky keeps his approach to brewing simple – make something expertly crafted and don’t settle for just “okay.”
“I do as much research as I can,” he said of his process before trying a new recipe.
He said his brewing career has allowed him to see how much of an ingredient is needed and how intense an ingredient might shine through in the finished product.
He said most beers pass his personal taste test but some have met an unfortunate fate.
“We’ve had to dump four batches,” he said. “It hurts every time but that’s part of the quality control. If you talk to a brewery who said they have never dumped a batch, they’re either lying or they’ve served bad beer.”
The staff, he said, even takes steps to make sure that “bad” beer doesn’t make it to the customer.
“There are a lot of off flavors in beer and we’ve done off flavor training with staff,” he said. “There are flaws in the brewing process and if you know what to look for, you can find it. We just try to make sure to take steps to make sure the boil has proper ventilation, to make sure the yeast can clean up after itself.”
Rajewsky said that it’s not just the seasonal and unique beers that require some trial and error. Even with the “core six,” he said, the product may come out with a different flavor profile because of the hop used. Depending on the season, he said, Rongorongo, a fruity IPA, may taste a little different than it did in the previous batch.
“Sometimes, the mosaic (hop) is more papaya or sometimes it’s more mango,” he said. “We’ll always do a test to see if an ingredient keeps the beer on brand.”
“None of this is accidental,” added Angstman. “This is all on purpose. Every flavor you get from the beer is because Jake wants it to be there.”
The meticulous testing and tweaking results in products that entice beer enthusiasts and make new fans. With the core six and a rotating cast of characters, Fat Hill offers a range of beers that appeal to all customers and with a staff full of Cicerone-certified Beer Servers (roughly the beer equivalent to a level one wine sommelier), each customer can find something that fits his or her palate.
“Customers come here to get educated, they want to know more about beer and want to know more about beer in general,” he said. “They want to know where the good beer is and when they recommend something, it holds weight.”
At the end of the day, Rajewsky said Fat Hill staff takes the brewery seriously in order to give customers an experience that fosters enthusiasm for beer of all levels. Patrons at Fat Hill are encouraged to either drink leisurely or pick apart the subtle flavors that come in each glass. No matter the reason someone enters the door, Rajewsky and Angstman said there’s always one underlying goal they have for each visitor.
“Beer is supposed to be fun,” he said. “We want to make sure we connect with the casual drinker and the most expert of experts.”