Business hopping at year-old West Okoboji brewery

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Posted: Friday, April 4, 2014 12:00 am

Quality, plus an attention to detail, has brewed up a successful new business for a couple of Schleswig (Iowa) High School graduates. Matt and Michaela Matthiesen have watched their beer-brewing operation grow from a hobby in homebrewing to a 6,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art brewery in West Okoboji with a head brewer and a supporting crew.

They opened West O Beer on Memorial Day weekend in 2013 and in less than six months were able to expand into bottling and keg distribution. In January, the Matthiesens tripled their brewing capacity with additional equipment, after first-year sales exceeded expectations. Now, they are adding new wholesale distributors nearly every week, to extend their reach into a three-state sales area.

What has it been like for the Matthiesens to watch the brewery grow from an idea on paper to a brewery that is in demand?

“Hard work that is still 100 percent fun,” Matt Matthiesen said. “This business has such dedicated fans, it feels like a large extended family. And as we grow, it's nice to see our craft being available in the areas where we have our roots.”

While the business continues to grow, he fondly remembers its beginnings as a homebrewing hobby he and Michaela began 10 years ago.

“We just loved it,” Matt said, adding that homebrewing and winemaking were hobbies of his father when Matt was a child.

“It became a hobby of ours and we, one day about six years ago, started talking about the possibility of a microbrewery and started writing a business plan,” he said. “One thing led to another, and here we are.”

While the two were writing the business plan for the brewery, Michaela's father, Joel Sailer, offered to help put the production in motion in his own unusual way.

“He planted about 40 hop vines on his farm, and he also grew several acres of barley that we used during the planning process,” he said.

“That was a lot of fun. Not a whole lot of people get into the hobby of brewing beer in that depth.

“We've received a lot of help through planning, construction and startup from family and friends.”

Jerry Lally, Michaela's uncle from Denison, Iowa, is another one of those people. He wired all of the vessels with temperature control probes and installed and programmed a digital control panel, allowing brewers to monitor and control the temperature of 900 gallons of beer at a time.

Matt and Michaela found the perfect location for their brewery in West Okoboji. Matt said the town not only has a viable customer base, but also an invaluable, spring-fed water source in West Okoboji Lake, which is filtered by the Milford water treatment facility, then carbon filtered a second time by West O Beer.

West O Beer recruited the services of former Cold Spring Brewery brewer Karl Schmitz as head brewer. Schmitz was attracted to the Matthiesens' demand for quality, and brought his own book of recipes to produce for the fledgling brewery.

“He has been very instrumental in our startup and early success,” Matt said of Schmitz.

“He's a phenomenal brewer and has been getting rave reviews.”

Matt said West O Beer produces its styles of beer mainly based on recipes Schmitz either wants to test or has developed throughout his career.

Matt said the quality and natural softness of the water paired with the best ingredients make a big difference in the finished beer that is put in kegs and bottles.

“We keep an open mind about the ingredients, because we can't find everything locally,” he said. “Our motto is to brew good beer and not worry about where the ingredients come from, but rather to find the best ingredients out there.”

And so far, Matt said, the attention to quality has led to favorable reviews from visitors to the taproom and a growing fan base on social media.

Matt added that they picked an opportune time to delve into the craft beer industry as the microbrewery population has grown exponentially in the last 10 years. But he said he also knew they would have to do their research in order to not become a statistic of small business failure.

As they approach the one-year mark, the facility is open year-round. In the tasting room, guests can relax with always-available popular brews such as their Pilsner Lager and Smoked Red, along with unique seasonal beers.

Visitors can tour the production room to see where Schmitz and two assistant brewers work. West O Beer is also reaching out to area vendors such as Ike Auen Distributing of Carroll, Iowa, as its areas of availability continue to expand. The beer is available in many locations in Iowa, with projections for expansion into southern Minnesota and the Sioux Falls, S.D., area.

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