SOLON– It’s a combination of rustic elements and contemporary design, urban chic meets country comfort. It’s a Friday night with old friends around the fire, topped off with new-to-the-world trendy craft beer.
It’s part five-star chef, part mom’s mac-and-cheese, born of a blend of talented individuals both raised in the Midwest and schooled by life in some of the most eclectic, metropolitan places in the world.
And it’s all in once place, right in the heart of Solon.
Big Grove Brewery will welcome patrons beginning Thursday, Aug. 29; a well-anticipated debut, judging by the number of people who stop their cars as they drive by, roll down the window and call out to any workers near the sidewalk, asking when the place will open.
It has happened a lot since the brewery began taking shape on the corner of Iowa and Main streets in Solon, and managing partner Doug Goettsch thinks it’s a good sign.
“We really hope to be an anchor that helps drive economic development here in Solon,” said Goettsch.
Building on the reputation of their other popular restaurants and beer pubs in the area– including Blackstone in Iowa City, Red’s Alehouse in North Liberty and the former Sluggers in Coralville– business partners Faye and John Swift, Matt Swift and Goettsch saw a great opportunity to bring something new to the area; not just a restaurant with excellent food and an interesting ambiance, but quality craft beer made right here at home.
For about two years, Faye Swift developed a vision for the design and character of the place, and her son Matt had the desire to open his own brewery after immersing himself in the craft beer culture that is gaining momentum here in Iowa.
The location in Solon became available, and with the city’s assistance– a significant tax rebate– and the expertise of Faye Swift’s architect-brother George Pappageorge of Chicago, the vision became reality. It came into focus with the fortunate convergence of other talented people, including Goettsch, executive chef Ben Smart, and brewer Bill Heinrich.
Goettsch– a native of Calamus– was director of corporate relations for the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley; Smart, a graduate of both the University of Iowa and the culinary arts program at Kirkwood Community College, served as executive sous-chef at Seattle’s fine dining location the Herbfarm, and Kansas City’s American, both restaurants that appear regularly on the culinary industry’s “best” lists; and Cornell graduate Heinrich spent time at Millstream Brewing, BJ’s Brewhouse in Reno and has run the beer list at Red’s Alehouse for the last 18 months.
Though the team that brings Big Grove its atmosphere, food and beer come with some prestigious credentials and experience, Goettsch wants patrons to find it all approachable.
“The idea is sort of refined comfort food,” said Goettsch. “People understand the menu. We have my mom’s deviled eggs, my own macaroni and cheese recipe, but we also have a slow-smoked, mustard-crusted salmon with melted leeks and crispy dumplings and glazed pearl onions. My whole idea was that we strike the middle of the road. I want a farmer and his wife and two kids to walk in the door, get cheeseburgers and fries, mom and dad get a really nice beer, and they walk out the door and say, ‘wow, it’s a beautiful place, it’s comfortable, the service is outstanding, the beer is phenomenal, and it doesn’t break the bank.’” Pizza is also on the menu, but it’s Neapolitan-style pizza from dough mixed right in the Big Grove kitchen, thin and traditional, baked in a wood-fired oven.
In creating the brewery’s relaxed character, much of the materials and details were crafted in this area. Custom tabletops were made by wood worker David Naso of Iowa City. The wood slab bar top is two tons of white oak from the English River valley, cut by an Amish miller near Kalona, the booths were built in Carter Lake, and metal work throughout the structure was done by Newport fabrication, with the building itself built by Corridor Construction. “It really is made by local people,” said Goettsch.
In keeping with the keep-it-local theme, many of the kitchen’s ingredients also come from just a few miles away. Executive chef Smart said buying from local sources helps keep the food fresh and simple.
“As much as I love fine dining, sometimes you wonder if killing yourself to find just the right flower to garnish a dish is worth it,” said Smart. “So I am excited to bring fresh, local food. I’m using ingredients grown right down the street. The cornerstones of the menu are really great burgers and really awesome pizzas, but I also want to highlight foods we have to offer in this area. It’s really simply prepared and really flavorful.”
In addition to mixing his own pizza crust dough, Smart also makes his own mayonnaise, sauces, pickles, breads and brioche right in house. Most of the menu is made in-house, in fact, with as many locally-produced ingredients as possible. Because local produce is seasonal, the menu will have some seasonal changes as well.
“Some people might be worried there is a pretention that comes with me cooking in such fine dining restaurants,” said Smart, “but good food is good food, and we are not going to give you a portion this small on a plate this big. I think once people taste it, they will understand the authenticity of my cooking. Everything on the menu is recognizable.”
Heinrich is equally comfortable that even if patrons aren’t familiar with craft beer, they will find Big Grove’s brews accessible.
Big Grove Brewery is a start-to-finish operation, milling its own grain for each batch. The first beer to come out of the tanks will be Solon No. 1, a wheat brew to be sold only here in town. Heinrich has also brewed an IPA, and the third beer will be a darker, richer variety. There will also be 14 craft beers on tap, with national brands sold in bottles as well. Tours of the small brewery will be frequent, and the glass walls allow viewing from the street, which Heinrich welcomes.
“I’m happy for everybody to be a part of this, because it’s a community effort,” said Heinrich. “We get to do our own thing, and try to tell our story with our own product.”
He looks forward to welcoming people new to the craft beer culture, but he also thinks it would be a mistake to underestimate people’s interest and knowledge of craft beer. “Either way, we get to be that point of contact. Craft beer is a different medium for communication, and it’s more fun when we can speak the same language. That’s one of our big privileges; to introduce people to something we really care about.”
The attitude shared by Goettsch, Heinrich and Smart is that Big Grove Brewery should be a place where everyone feels proud to be a part of its success, including its customers.
“The city was extremely important in helping us locate here, they’ve been very good partners,” said Goettsch. “Solon has a lot of things to offer. I think the community wants us to be here, and that’s why we put so much into the menu and creating the brewery. We want people to be proud of the beer made right here in their hometown. We think it’s a great place to be.”