Photos by Zak Neumann
The new Big Grove Brewery and Taproom, 1225 S Gilbert St, welcomes guests into what Danny Standley, the managing partner of Big Grove, likes to call his “cool house.” The space aims to make guests feel at home, but unlike the conventional home, it brews its own craft beer, is staffed by a top-notch chef and maintains features of the lumberyard that previously occupied the building.
The new Iowa City location of this Solon-based brewery opened Wednesday, March 15. On a Friday afternoon, one week after opening, the space was buzzing.
From the street, the building looks like a newly painted warehouse with a Big Grove symbol on it. Biking to the brewery for the first time, I followed the driveway to the back where the building is lined with massive garage doors that I can imagine trucks once backing up to. I parked my bike at one of five long bike racks next to the open patio. The back lot, currently filled with dust and gravel is almost a wasteland, but by summertime, the Big Grove partners plan to transform the space with trees and landscaping.
“We hope to have people bring picnic blankets and hang out on the lawn with their beer, with their friends, with their dogs,” Standley said.
Big Grove is the first of several planned commercial and residential building projects in the area. The rezoning of an adjacent lot will bring apartments and commercial space, and behind that the city intends to construct a new park and improve the already existing bike trail.
After locking my bike, I walked towards the patio and through the front door to be greeted by a hostess named Iowa Keller (”Yeah, I’m kinda famous around here for my name,” she said. “My mother was pretty crazy.”). Keller described the unique openness of the building as “European-influenced” like an old German beer hall.
The dining room and bar — with a max capacity of 500 people — is one big, open room. The design is a mix of old and new, with shiny, modern brewing tanks visible along one wall and Edison-style light bulbs hanging from a lowered tin ceiling above the bar. Windowed garage doors, an echo of the building’s lumberyard past, open onto the back patio that seats about 111 people.
“I have been describing the layout of this place as ‘my cool house,’” Standley said of the design and layout. “You start with our merch area, which I like to think of as a coat check, except, hopefully you take something with you.”
“Then, what is one of the first things you do when you go to a friends house?” he continued. “You grab a beer.” So the first structure you run into is the bar, stocked with house and local brews as well as cocktails.
Emily Salmonson, the social media manager who is taking up some bartending, walked me through some of the beers on tap, including Big Grove’s Arms Race Pale Ale, Barleywine, West Main Wheat (“with a citrus zest and honey floral finish”), the Nitro Milk Stout Zadar! and the Imperial Stout Pralines and Richards, which Salmonson said is her current favorite. “It is like praline and cream” with roasted pecans and almonds, she said.
“We brew beer that we like to drink,” Standley said, describing the beers as “a mix of hop-forward beers and experimental beers, like the barrel-aged sours.” His favorite: the Big Grove IPA.
Standley continued his house tour, asking “What do you do after you have a few beers?” You go and grab a snack, he said, heading towards the kitchen and dining area.
Behind the open serving window — where guests can see waiters dashing to and fro carrying tacos and international street food (including an array of gluten free and vegetarian options) — is Chef Benjamin Smart. Smart, an Iowa City native, worked at a variety of restaurants in Iowa City and an internationally-acclaimed spot in Seattle, the Herbfarm. Smart, who is also a partner at Pullman, was named one of the top 30 chefs to watch in 2016 by Plate Magazine.
While the brewery’s Solon location features farm-style American food, the Iowa City spot has a more international flare. Back in the kitchen, while stirring 30 gallons of local milk to create a house-made paneer cheese, Smart described the inspiration behind Big Grove’s Iowa City menu.
“This is stuff I just really like to cook at home, stuff with bold flavors, with a lot of Mexican and Indian influences,” Smart said.
He was showing a newly-hired prep cook how to make the paneer. We both looked on as Smart poured vinegar into the warm milk, which began to congeal into fluffy curds, like ricotta. He scooped it into a cheesecloth with a mesh spoon — called a spider (“I have no idea why,” Smart said) — then squeezed the extra liquid and pressed the cheese into a pan.
With a kitchen staff totaling about 25, Smart emphasized the importance of being able to teach his staff how to make all these foods, including the paneer and house-made mayonnaise.
“One of the reasons I wanted to make our own foods is, well, because it is fun, and because it gives me an opportunity to show the workers how these things are made,” Smart said. It gives Big Grove an edge, he added, and helps create a workplace where people are engaged and excited to be part of the process.
Making food from scratch does add to the workload. For opening week, Smart worked up to 100 hours, double his typical work week of about 50-60 hours: “I’ve had two days off the whole month of March,” he said.
Following a bowl of curry topped with the grilled paneer cheese out of the kitchen, I arrived in the dining area where people gathered around tables that look like slices of tree trunks. The open-style seating was intentional, to encourage people to feel at home.
“We want people to be able to mosey over to a table to eat, to sit by who they want to sit by and just feel comfortable here,” Standley said.
Three more stops on Standley’s tour were what he called the the living room, the game room and the backyard.
In the corner of the living room, a mountainous collage of old, donated speakers set the scene for a stage that will host predominantly Americana music and some bluegrass. The living room also boasts a large, technicolor mural of different animals, most notably a big blue bear and a spin off of Iowa’s state flag: a bird with a banner in its mouth reading, “Our craft we prize and our roots we will maintain.”
The game room, which overlooks the patio, features shuffleboard and ping pong tables.
And the backyard, though currently a barren dusty expanse, will be transformed by summertime into a literal “big grove,” with trees and plantings that will bring the space closer to the original landscape that inspired the brewery’s name. (According its website, Big Grove Brewery is named after the “expansive hardwood timber stand covering nearly 30 square miles that ran along the Iowa River” a few miles north of Iowa City during the early days of settlement.)
Standley said he envisions the backyard as a way to transport visitors somewhere else, where they don’t hear the traffic and don’t realize that they are standing in an industrial area anymore. He envisions patrons sipping their beer under the shade of the trees.
“We hope that this is a place where people will come and spend an afternoon here, just to hang out and have a good relaxing time,” he said.