CORALVILLE - As Backpocket Brewing Co. kegged the first batch from its shiny new microbrewery here this week, brewmaster Jake Simmons knows he’s going to have to make and sell a lot of beer.
That’s because Backpocket has one of the most modern and expensive brewing facilities in Iowa, financed by the city of Coralville at a cost of about $5.5 million. Just the base lease payments on the facility will amount to nearly $450,000 a year.
But Backpocket has a few things going for it. It is the only microbrewery in a thriving Big 10 university community, with a facility that’s as close to perfect as Simmons could hope to operate.
The craft beer industry is riding a crest of strong demand that has pushed up the number of microbreweries in Iowa from 15 to 25 in the last four years. In addition, Backpocket’s brews have a good reputation from the owner’s original brewing establishment, Old Man River Restaurant & Brewery in McGregor.
“It’s built for volume, obviously, and we’ll have a number of sources of revenue,” Simmons said.
In addition to selling keg beer to distributors, the microbrewery will have bottled beer and tap beer in its own tap room/pizza pub. It will host entertainment and beer-tasting events that they anticipate will attract hundreds of craft beer enthusiasts.
Simmons said the brewery will have a maximum capacity of about 25,000 barrels per year.
It will be no small feat to sell that much beer. The state’s oldest and top-selling microbrewery, Millstream Brewing in Amana, sold about 4,600 barrels last year, even though sales rose 20 percent over 2010 levels.
What you need to know:
- Company: Backpocket Brewing Co.
- Address: 903 Quarry Rd., Coralville
- Website: backpocketbrewing.com
- Hours: Currently 11 a.m. until close on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and from 4 p.m. until close on Thursdays, but are expected to expand.
“He’s got more guts than I do,” Millstream co-owner Teresa Albert said. “But I wish him the best. He’s got some good beers.”
Simmons began brewing about four years ago at Old Man River. His father, James Simmons, and Old Man River founder David Strutt are Backpocket Brewing’s financial stakeholders.
Most of the beer bottled in Coralville will be sold under the Backpocket Brand, bearing names such as Slingshot that describe favored possessions that fit cozily in the back pocket of a pair of trousers.
The microbrewery also has a contract with Schlafly to produce for the St. Louis-based small-batch brewery. It has been working to expand beer distribution through stores and will supply the beer for the Old Man River Restaurant & Brewery.
The first batch out of the Coralville brewery was a speedy serving of American wheat ale, destined for this year’s FRY Fest, the annual fan kickoff to the University of Iowa’s football season sponsored by the UI athletics department and the local visitors bureau.
Simmons doesn’t ordinarily offer an American wheat, but needed to have beer for yesterday’s event.
“We just started brewing here, and American wheat is about the fastest beer we can produce,” Simmons said, explaining that the start-to-finish brewing time is about two weeks.
Millstream’s Albert fielded an urgent call from Simmons when he was trying to secure enough ingredients to brew the wheat beer about two weeks ago. She said Millstream was happy to help, although she couldn’t resist joking that it would take her three days to make the delivery.
Simmons said the microbrewery’s tap room is intended mainly to gain exposure for Backpocket’s beers and obtain feedback from customers and isn’t expected to generate large-scale sales. It has been open since late June, serving beers brewed at Old Man River and craft beers from other brewers.
Most tap room visitors start out by ordering flights of different beers in small glasses. The experience lets them size up and compare different microbrews they may not have tried before.
Simmons grew up in the Des Moines area and studied microbiology in college before deciding on a career in brewing. He works closely with Bob Wagner, who runs Backpocket Brewing’s tap room.
Simmons said Backpocket imported much of its brewing equipment from Germany because the German equipment had a higher level of automation that “allowed for consistency and more control of the process.”
“That’s the key to making good beer,” Simmons added.
The company’s biggest volume beer is a dunkel, or dark German lager beer. Simmons said the next batch after FRY Fest will be an oatmeal stout.
Backpocket’s lease agreement with the city gives it the option to expand the building and construct another 15,000 square feet. Backpocket can buy the building from the city any time between the third and 10th anniversary of the deal.
The brewery expects business to improve as more visitor-drawing attractions open in Iowa River Landing. A new Homewood Suites by Hilton Hotel and a University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics outpatient medical clinic are expected to open this fall.
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