In order to understand the history of Peace Tree Brewing Co. you have to step back to 2001, well before it became one of Iowa’s top breweries.
Megan McKay, who would later become founder and CEO, was sitting in her father’s office at McKay Insurance Agency in downtown Knoxville, Iowa. Megan (pronounced MEE-gan) was born and raised in Knoxville and left after high school to earn a degree at the University of Iowa.
She didn’t plan to return to work in Knoxville. She had spent the first part of her career in technology and insurance and was debating her next steps. But plans changed overnight when her father’s business partner (her uncle) unexpectedly passed away. “My dad asked me to come back and run the operations side of the insurance business, so I did,” she said. “I was the fourth generation of the family business.”
Over the next decade, Megan worked at the agency, earned her MBA, and unearthed a passion for redeveloping Main Street Knoxville. Like many small Iowa towns, the city center was showing signs of economic downturns that had included the farm crisis, the 2008 recession, and a year later the closure of the city’s largest employer, the state’s Veteran Affairs Central Iowa Healthcare System. The town had gone from 8,200 people in its heyday to less than 7,200.
This decline was in full view for Megan and her father. In fact, adjacent to the family’s agency sat a defunct Nash Rambler car dealership that was once a crown jewel of downtown Knoxville.
It was clear the town needed a boost. The McKay family wanted to help drive people to live, work, and invest in Knoxville. They started to buy properties in hopes of refurbishing them, renting them, or living in them. First, they bought the building next to the car dealership. Then, the dealership—which was primarily storage filled with items related to its history as an Eagle’s Club bar, a staging site for 3M, and old medical equipment—went up for sale. They gutted it and tried to rent it.
The longer it sat empty, the more they became aware of how much they wanted to create a gathering place and a community for locals and visitors.
“It’s funny,” Megan said. “Today, I often get asked what type of problem we were trying to solve when we started Peace Tree. I’ve always given an unconventional answer. I wanted to bring excitement and vibrancy back to Knoxville. The added bonus is that we were able to do it by creating really great craft beer.”
Taylor Evans, who is the Des Moines taproom manager, has worked for Peace Tree for more than a decade. Peace Tree, he said, is the reason he returned to Knoxville after college. “Opening a taproom and brewery in a town of less than 8,000 was unheard of,” he said. “We all wanted to see Knoxville grow and have more opportunities for people. The brewery gave people a sense of pride.”
But that came later. The before was harder. Megan and her partners had very little knowledge of how to start a brewery. What they did have was a mixture of some home brewing knowledge coupled with Megan’s strong business acumen. In the spring of 2009, they attended the Iowa Brewers Guild to understand better how one might start a brewery. Then they went to Boston for the Craft Brewers Conference, which is hosted by the national trade organization, the Brewers Association. It was here where they started to look at buying equipment.
Peace Tree is Born
Piece by piece, they gathered what they needed and started to renovate the old Nash Rambler space. At that time, Megan’s partners started brewing in the kitchen, 10 gallons, then 20 gallons.
On October 10, 2009 they opened the brewery for the first time but only for a private event. It was the annual studio tour for the Red Rock Arts Alliance featuring artists showcasing photography, watercolors, poetry, and sculpture. This would be the first of many events in the coming years that would focus on embracing and promoting the arts.
Five days later, on October 15, the brewery quietly opened for the first time to the public with seven beers and root beer on tap. One of the first beers on the menu was Red Rambler, which was named for the Nash Rambler dealership and brewed to be approachable and easy to drink. “It was very popular in the taproom even from its first days,” Megan said. “I will never forget our opening because it was my dad’s birthday, and we celebrated by singing to him and raising a glass,” Megan said.
The timing of the opening was good because Knoxville had been selected as one of only nine Midwestern cities to host the 2009-11 Arts Midwest World Fest. Peace Tree was honored to host a jam session that week for the Isreali Ethnic Ensemble and local musicians. The jam session happened ahead of the group’s larger concert in town.
For the first few months, the taproom was only open one day a week, on Thursday nights at 4 p.m. By 7:30 p.m. they would sell out all of the beer. Six months after opening, on March 19, 2010, Peace Tree held its grand opening to celebrate brewing on their larger system and the official launch of their production brewery. One of the first beers they brewed on the larger system was a Hefeweizen.
Soon, Peace Tree landed their first restaurant account: Short’s Burger and Shine in Iowa City, the first place to feature all Iowa beer on tap. Peace Tree self-distributed during this time, brewing one day, packaging the next, and then putting it on a truck and delivering it. Red Rambler, Rye Porter, and Hop Wrangler were among the first beers to hit the market. “Those first years we were still working at the insurance agency and trying to get the brewery off the ground,” Megan said. ”Our first bottle hit the shelves in brown paper bags with little craft handles, because we didn’t know we needed to order 6-pack carriers eight weeks in advance.”
In 2011, Peace Tree signed on with their first distributor. Within three years, Blonde Fatale would earn gold at the World Beer Cup®, setting a path for success for the Peace Tree brand. The idea for Blonde Fatale emerged in 2010 when Iowa changed its ABV limits from 6% to 15%. It was spring and Peace Tree’s brewer wanted to create something in the Belgian style, which other Iowa breweries weren’t doing. Blonde Fatale hit the market at an 8.5% ABV, and became a leader in the Peace Tree lineup.
During this time, Megan’s goal was less about creating a bar in Knoxville and more about creating a family-friendly place. That was the inspiration for one of their first craft soda brews: root beer. “I thought it was important to come out as more than just a bar,” Megan said. “We wanted a non-alcoholic option, something to serve the entire family. Our root beer has turned out to be one of our best sellers.”
Since 2009, Peace Tree has created more than 150 unique beers: some sold on tap only and others distributed in the stores. Creating names for the beers alone has been a fun and collaborative process for the Peace Tree team. For years, they have added labels to one of the office tables, depicting the many labels of Peace Tree.
First 100% Woman-Owned Brewery in Iowa
Five years after starting Peace Tree, in January 2015, Megan bought out her partners and took over full ownership and management of the brewery, making her the sole owner of one of Iowa’s first craft breweries, and the first 100 percent woman-owned brewery in the state.
Soon, she expanded to a second brewery and taproom in Des Moines’ East Village, about 40 minutes northwest of Knoxville. The East Village, with the river and the state Capitol in view, was an up-and-coming area featuring historic buildings, boutique shopping, and restaurants. It would prove to be a good location since in time it has become one of the trendiest neighborhoods in Des Moines.
The Des Moines taproom has a modern industrial feel to the building, giving it the warmth of the Knoxville taproom, but with a more urban feel. Megan also liked the building because it had an outdoor patio and an area inside that could host corporate events, birthdays, and, oftentimes, fundraisers for important political gatherings.
“Our two locations are very different but we’ve become a real linchpin in the communities,” Megan said. “That feels good and it feels right based on our earliest goals. We have a lot of other breweries around us in Des Moines and that’s a good thing. I have always been a proponent of collaboration in the craft brew industry. We want people to enjoy coming to the East Village and taking a tasting tour from one taproom to another.”
In Knoxville, Megan said it became clear early on that she didn’t want the taprooms to take away business from local restaurants. “So we made a decision that we wanted to focus on beer,” she said. “We didn’t want to create a restaurant that was also a brewery. Instead, we wanted people to support the local communities by ordering into Peace Tree from other places.”
Peace Tree does bring in local food trucks frequently and also sells Iowa-made snacks daily, such as Farmer’s Best and Almost Favorite Popcorn, Milton’s Prairie Breeze cheese, and more.
The Grand Sycamore
During this era, Peace Tree continued to distinguish itself by carving a unique niche. “Our brand has always been associated with high quality, local, premium craft brewing as well as with art and nature,” Megan said.
Where did the inspiration for art and nature come from? It’s not hard to find the answer. On any given day, if Megan’s not at the brewery, you will likely find her at home. It’s here where art fills the walls and where you’ll find her working in her backyard where she loves to shape and craft the landscape.
Megan grew up just a few minutes outside of Knoxville, near Lake Red Rock where she spent her childhood enjoying the natural beauty of the area. The meaning behind Peace Tree’s name actually came from a tree in the lake that inspired her and her partners. The Peace Tree was a grand sycamore — estimated to be the 2nd largest in North America and more than 500 years old. The tree once stood majestically near Megan’s mother’s hometown of Red Rock. But in 1969, when a man-made reservoir was built, the town of Red Rock became one of six towns that ceased to exist, since they now lie below Lake Red Rock, which is just miles from the brewery. Historically, the tree was a place Native Americans met for generations before it became a meeting place for fur traders. Indian treaties were negotiated there. The tree has since lost its battle with nature, but still reminds Megan that her team’s focus is to make beer that is shared with friends and strangers alike. They want their taprooms to be places that act as a catalyst for conversations, new friendships, and important agreements.
As Peace Tree Brewery began to grow in popularity and brew a wider selection of beers, the team won gold medals at two of the world’s largest and most prestigious beer competitions. Blonde Fatale earned gold at the World Beer Cup® in 2014 and Get a Little Hazy won gold at the Great American Beer Festival® in 2021. These beers joined the ever-evolving lineup of year-round Brewer’s Special Release, Sour Wood Series, and limited release beers and non-alcoholic root beer.
Peace Tree has also found fans among those who visit Knoxville’s Sprint Car Raceway. In 2017, Megan and her team created 4 Wide Wheat, a salute to the city’s raceway and the loyal fans that flock here to experience Nationals at the Sprint Car Capital of the World. The Belgian-Style Wheat became so popular it’s now part of the brewery’s flagship lineup.
In addition to creating flagship beers, Peace Tree has become a leader in producing outstanding craft and spirit collaborations oftentimes featuring their top seller Blonde Fatale. Two of these partnerships have been with Templeton Rye and Foundry Distilling.
In 2013, Peace Tree created a barrel-aged Templeton Red, a collaboration with Red Rambler aged in Templeton Rye Whiskey barrels that was a runaway seller. Seven years later, they collaborated with Foundry Distilling of West Des Moines on a one-of-a-kind single malt whiskey crafted from the mash bill of Blonde Fatale. Aged in 30-gallon charred American oak barrels, the collaboration produced 1,000 bottles of Blonde Fatale Whiskey, a 100-proof spirit with notes of earthy, black tea, and sweet bread aromas. After two years of aging in oak barrels, Blonde Fatale Whiskey was released on March 27, 2021.
A Can Do Attitude
After facing the challenges of running taprooms during COVID, in 2020 Megan began creating a plan to expand brewing capabilities by installing a state-of-the-art canning line with the capability of packaging up to 45 cans per minute. That doubled the capacity the bottling line offered. Peace Tree’s first permanent canning system has given the brewery the ability to brew and package all of its year-round, seasonal, and limited releases into cans, bottles, and kegs in-house.
In 2022, while bringing the canning line onboard, Megan also committed to refreshing the Peace Tree brand. “We have always been known for an artistic look and feel. This brand redesign embraced that in a fresh new way. Since starting the business in 2009, we’ve maintained our drive to evolve, grow, and deliver something different to our loyal craft beer and root beer fans. This became the next step in our journey.”
Today, Peace Tree’s beers have expanded to include: Red Rambler, Blonde Fatale, East Village IPA, Get a Little Hazy IPA, Lake Loop Golden Pale Ale, Slightly Blonde (a slighter, lighter version of Blonde Fatale), 4 Wide Wheat, Grapefruit Groove American IPA as well as the Sour Wood Series and dozens of brewer’s choice and limited seasonals throughout the year.
By 2022, Peace Tree had earned its place among the top 10 largest breweries in Iowa, producing 4,500 barrels of beer per year, employing 13 full-time and 25 part-time people with wholesale distribution spanning across Iowa and Nebraska.
Creating A Gathering Place
As the brewery has grown, so has Megan’s dedication and involvement not only in Knoxville but in the state of Iowa. She sits on the Iowa Economic Development Authority Board and was recognized in 2021 as 40 Women to Watch in Iowa’s Hospitality Industry. She is also a past Board Chair of the Knoxville Hospital and Clinics, where she served three terms.
If you ask Megan the things she is the proudest of, it’s the way Peace Tree has enriched the Knoxville and Des Moines communities and played a role in changing craft beer in Iowa. “In the early days, you had to convince people why they should trust buying a local, craft beer,” she said. “That’s no longer the case. We have shown that we can make a world-class craft beer in Iowa.”
The other pride point goes back to the name Peace Tree and how it represents a vision to bring people together. “People want to find community and be social,” she said. “Not everyone knows how to do that or has a place to meet, talk, and share their lives. A brewery creates that comfortable, community space. We’re proud to be a gathering space where people come back again and again because they find a friendly face, great beer, and good conversation.”