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Episode 16: How Peace Tree Brewing Company Successfully Launched During the Great Recession

Peace Tree Brewing Startup Story

November 16, 2018

At the height of the Great Recession in 2009, Megan McKay decided to build a brewery in the small Iowa town of Knoxville on the edge of Greater Des Moines (DSM).

How Peace Tree Brewing Company Came About

“We had bought a building the year before and we were trying to shine up our hometown. We had the insurance agency across the street.” Peace Tree Brewing Company Owner Megan McKay told Startup Stories DSM podcast host Christina Moffatt. “Things were looking pretty blighted. It wasn’t a place that you could attract young workers or really a place that was exciting to live and so we were basically trying to clean up our neighborhood from the standpoint of how could we protect our insurance business and keep a community vibrant for the long term.”

Nobody rented the building after they bought so they decided to use it themselves. A brewery checked all the boxes creating a hub for tourism and a good quality of life factor.

More: How Peace Tree Brewing Company Added Flavor to DSM USA

McKay had no commercial brewery experience. So, she went out to find good industry partners, figured out what she didn’t know and hired to fill that expertise.

“I think the common thing with all businesses is relationships,” McKay said. “It’s about building those relationships so you can have good vendors, you can have good staff relationships, get the network in place so you can go out and get the City on board, get your customers on board and those sorts of things.”

The venture was originally named Whitebreast Brewing Company by Meghan’s Dad after a local recreation area. Legend has it, the Knoxville park was itself named after a bear that used to roam the area. However, five days into the job their brewmaster shared his doubts about the “Whitebreast” name after he heard feedback from vendors.

A visit back to the history books brought the local story of the Peace Tree where Native Americans and settlers would meet. The tree, until very recently, was still present and could be seen submerged in the waters of Lake Red Rock which was created in 1969. Dad was won around to the new name. However, the 500-year-old tree was uprooted in July, 2018 by flood waters.

Thinking Big

As they prepared to launch, their focus turned on their customer base. If they were going to do go ahead with the project, they’re knew they were going to have to go bigger.

“There was no way a town like Knoxville, Iowa, which is known for Sprint cars and Busch Light is going to be able to support a craft brewery and taproom. So, we’ve got to be able to get customers from outside of Knoxville,” McKay explained.  

Peace Tree Brewing Company has since expanded to the Historic East Village in Downtown DSM and Grinnell. The business now employs 14 full time and 35 part time employees.

What makes Peace Tree’s success even more noteworthy is the owner herself. Only two percent of breweries in the U.S. are solely female owned, according to McKay.               

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Startup Stories DSM

Startup Stories DSM is a podcast featuring conversations with entrepreneurs who share both their victories and failures on their paths to success. It is produced by the Greater Des Moines Partnership.