Peace Tree Brewery puts Knoxville
at the forefront of Iowa-crafted beer locales
By Jared Curtis
Peace Tree Brewery plans to brew between
1,800 and 2,000 barrels in 2011. Photo
by Jared Curtis
Five years ago, Scott Ziller found himself
in 5,000 square feet of potential trouble. The
building he had bought and was offering for
lease in downtown Knoxville was generating no
interest, and plan B was, well, non-existent.
But then something happened on the way to the
distillery, if you will. An idea that has turned
Knoxville into one of the fastest, and most
popular beer drinking destinations in central
Iowa. That idea was Peace Tree Brewery.
"I was a homebrewer and a craft beer drinker,
but I never thought I'd be running my own brewery,"
said Ziller, who co-owns Peace Tree Brewery
with his wife, Megan McKay Ziller, and her father,
The McKays, who spend their days at McKay Insurance,
are not the most likely candidates to run a
brewery, but once the seed was planted, there
was no turning back.
"We had purchased the building a few years
prior and had it for lease, but we didn't have
any takers," Ziller said. "So we started
thinking of ways we could fill the space like
possibly putting in a laundromat."
A chance occurrence led them into a different
kind of suds.
Peace Tree employee Taylor Evans prepares
bottles for shipment.
"Dan came into the office one day, and
I think he was reading about the craft beer
boom in the Wall Street Journal, and said how
about a micro brewery?' " Ziller said.
"A month later we were in Boston at a craft
In a little more than two years, the brewery
has exploded in popularity and doesn't show
any signs of slowing down. Praise of Peace Tree's
beers continues to be heard, and they are quickly
becoming one of Iowa's favorite beers.
"Our most popular beer is the Blonde Fatale
from Peace Tree Brewing," said Kirkwood
Lounge bar manager Nick Barsetti in a July "Belly
Up" column. "We have trouble keeping
it in stock."
With fewer than 8,000 people residing in Knoxville,
the idea of opening a brewery might be considered
a risky concept. But the owners, who had been
residents for years, knew the community would
be receptive to the idea and the opportunity
to help grow and expand the downtown district.
"Knoxville has been a very supportive community,
but in the last 20 years the population and
local businesses have decreased," Ziller
said. "Some friends of ours opened an independent
book store, and we wanted to follow their lead
and open something unique to the area as well."
Labeling and bottling are completely
on-site in Knoxville. Photo by Jared Curtis
When searching for a name, the history of Marion
County was important to the owners. Ziller said
while looking through history books, they read
about a giant sycamore tree, known as the Peace
Tree, located near the town of Red Rock, which
is now located under Lake Red Rock. The tree
had been a meeting place for Native Americans
as well as a landmark for fur traders to bring
their goods. It was also once the site of Indian
peace treaty negotiations, and there is speculation
that the tree marks the Red Rock Line territory.
"Once the whole concept came together,
we knew we had made the right choice,"
Ziller said. "Peace Tree was a great name,
and it had a great connection to the town. Once
people heard the name, we heard lots of stories
about the area."
Along with the name, the brewers also paid tribute
to the location of their brewery.
"Our building is an old Nash Rambler dealership,
which is why we named one of our beers the Red
Rambler," Ziller said. "Plus, the
building was an ideal fit for us because we
wanted something in the downtown area rather
than something on the outskirts of town."
The brewery created its first beer, Hefeweizen,
in March 2010. Shortly after came three of its
four staples — the Red Rambler, the Hop Wrangler
and the Rye Porter. Soon after, the fourth staple,
Blonde Fatale, was released.
"Joe Kesteloot, our head brewmaster, created
about 30 different beers initially," Ziller
said. "That's when we knew we needed the
The taproom opened in the front part of the
building, as the back of the space housed the
brewery. The building is 5,000 square feet,
with 3,800 dedicated to the brewery.
"We started opening the tap room one night
a week," Ziller said. "We had eight
beers on tap, and within four or five hours
we'd be out of beer."
As they continued to run out and the demand
increased, the owners knew they were on to something.
Scott Ziller, co-owner of Peace Tree
Brewery, shows off some of the fan favorites.
Photo by Jared Curtis
"People started showing up to the tap
room early, waiting to get in," Ziller
said. "The amount of people showing up
was a surprise, but it also helped in the brewing
decision process, hearing feedback from all
The taproom is open Thursday and Friday from
5 to 10 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 10 p.m.
Although they don't serve food, they offer local
cheeses and take-out menus from local establishments.
"We didn't want to serve food because we
wanted the focus to be on beer," Ziller
said. "We were packed on Thursdays, so
we knew we needed to expand the days. We have
a few live bands a month, and I think it's become
a unique meeting place for people in town."
Peace Tree will hold a tasting celebration from
3 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, Oct. 8 called
"Brews & Muse," which will feature
nine beers and a rare sampling, as well as live
music and food. Admission is $10 in advance
(at the taproom or midwestix.com) or $15 at
the door. The first 100 attendees will receive
a free collectable pint.
"It's a great way for us to give back to
the community and provide something fun for
people to do on a Saturday," Ziller said.
Tours of the brewery are also available upon
"We offer tours as often as we can,"
Ziller said. "We encourage people to call
ahead or just ask when they stop by the tap
The brewery has not only drawn thirsty Iowans,
but beer enthusiasts from all over the world
have made the pilgrimage to Knoxville as well.
"We've seen a lot of people who are traveling
through the state take a special detour to visit
us," Ziller said. "We've had people
stop in from Hawaii, Israel, Canada, Japan and
China, all with great feedback."
The brewing process
In 2010, Peace Tree brewed 750 barrels (a barrel
holds 31 gallons). In 2011, it hopes to brew
between 1,800 and 2,000 barrels and release
3,000 barrels in 2012.
Head brewer Joe Kesteloot shows off
the various beer he's created at Peace
"We are currently expanding and hoping
that'll bring Peace Tree to full capacity,"
said Kesteloot. "We've been flattered and
humbled that the beer has taken off as well
as it has. We didn't anticipate the demand to
be this much for a few more years, so we're
a couple of years ahead of schedule."
Kesteloot worked for breweries in Illinois and
Minnesota before landing in Knoxville. A number
of factors drew Kesteloot to Peace Tree.
"I heard through the grapevine about a
brewery opening in Knoxville, so I decided to
chance it and jump in," he said. "It's
every brewer's dream to get in on the ground
floor because you get to watch everything grow
"I knew Iowa Craft Beer was on the rise
and it was close to family, so it was a no-brainer,"
he continued. "Plus, Scott, Megan and Dan
knew what they liked, but they said I had total
freedom to create what I wanted."
From the beginning, Kesteloot knew what he wanted
"I set out on a different course and created
unique beers playing off standard styles,"
he said. "My job is to create beers, and
luckily I'm obsessed with making the best and
most unique beer I can come up with."
With so much success so quickly, the increase
in demand can put pressure on a brewer. But
Kesteloot welcomes the challenge.
"I never thought we would grow that fast,
but I'm flattered," he said. "All
of the extra work and pressure is worth the
excitement we're building."
Originally, the brewery had its own van and
delivered the entire product to customers. Outside
of Knoxville, their first tap was located at
Shorts Burger & Shine in Iowa City.
"Getting out and selling the beer face-to-face
wasn't difficult, but some places needed a distributor,"
Ziller said. "We were delivering five days
a week, and distributors started to realize
the growth, and they were impressed that we
were doing it ourself. But once it got to be
too much, we joined forces with two distributors,
Fleck Sales and Iowa Beverage Systems, and we
have worked great together."
Peace Tree had around 100 accounts before working
with distributors. Now they have more than 250
in more than 50 towns and cities throughout
eastern, central and southern Iowa.
"We've had an overwhelming response,"
Ziller said. "Keeping up with demand is
a good problem to have."
The four staples (plus root beer) are available
in the bottle year round, and a few seasonal
beers pop up throughout the year including the
current flavor, aptly named Cornucopia, which
is made from Iowa sweet corn.
"I try to use as much local product as
possible, and Cornucopia is released as soon
as the sweet corn is available," Kesteloot
said. "I've also had a few farmers show
interest in growing hops."
The four staples can be found bottled almost
anywhere, but in order to try the specialty
and seasonal batches, visit the Knoxville taproom
where the entire product line is available.
Stimulating the economy
Beer drinkers aren't the only ones savoring
the new Peace Tree business. Knoxville City
Councilman Bob Wims believes the brewery offers
more than just beer.
"It's certainly brought people to our community
who might have never stopped here before,"
Wims said. "It's a unique attraction for
the city, and there has been quite a bit of
buzz about them."
Wims not only hears about the beer in town,
but also out of town on numerous occasions,
"I was at a Fourth of July celebration
in Pella, and I heard numerous people talking
about the brewery," he said. "It's
great for Knoxville because it's something that
no other town in Iowa can offer."
The location of the taproom in downtown Knoxville
has also boosted the economy, Wims said.
"It's a positive for the entire downtown
area. It's given that area momentum, and we've
been able to attract more businesses and restaurants
as a result," he said. "Upgrading
the downtown area is a slow process, but we're
working on it, and Peace Tree helps that process
as they are a unique attraction that draws people
"They've created a place to gather in town
and when you stop in, you'll always see someone
you know enjoying themselves," Wims added.
"They appeal to young families, which a
lot of establishments here are not doing. They've
handled the responsibility very well, and I
wish them continued success."
Along with the beer, Peace Tree is also brewing
"I'll admit I wasn't very well educated
about beers," Wims said. "But they
have been very eager and resourceful, helping
myself and many others understand the different
styles of beer."
Brewing into the future
As Peace Tree continues to grow, it has been
compared to New Belgium Brewing Company, which
started in 1991 and by 2010 had become the third-largest
craft brewery and seventh largest brewery in
the U.S., producing 582,000 barrels. New Belgium's
success is attributed to its quality product,
unique labels/bottles and quick growth.
"It's flattering to be compared to New
Belgium," Ziller said. "They offer
a great, quality beer, and people are drawn
to the culture, creativity and attitude."
The continued growth of the company can only
succeed with the support of local beer enthusiasts.
"It's important to get out there and support
local breweries and experiment with what Iowa
breweries are offering," Kesteloot said.
"I think people will be pleasantly surprised
by what the Iowa Craft breweries are creating,
and I think they are as good as anything being
brewed on the coasts."
Even though the company could expand in markets
outside the state, the owners' commitment to
stick to their roots adds to the pride Iowans
have for Peace Tree Brewing Co.
"When we started, we never had the intentions
of going beyond the Iowa border. We just wanted
to provide an economic boost to the community,"
Ziller said. "We've expanded this quickly
because Iowa customers want our product. We
can dream of becoming a regional brewery, but
right now we're focused on creating a superior
product. We've always been about quality over
quantity, and that'll never change." CV