ICYMI: Craft Brewing Business turned 10 this year, and we are celebrating our 10th anniversary with craft breweries that also launched in 2013. In Cheers to 10 Years, we’ll learn how these brewing businesses have made it work for a decade, and how they plan to keep it going. Cheers to 10 Years!
With a foundation of high-quality beer, great food, community investment, and genuine Iowa hospitality, Big Grove Brewery has grown to see considerable success in its first decade. Big Grove is among Iowa’s top craft beer producers, and it ranks in the top 3% for barrel production nationally.
“Everything has changed over the last 10 years,” says Matt Swift, Co-Founder and CEO. “ We went from a brewpub in a small town in Iowa to approaching the top 100 breweries in the US, expanding to 4 locations and employing 40 to 400.
The brewery itself launched in 2013, as a 3.5-barrel brewhouse in Solon, Iowa, and focused on freshly made craft beer and elevated pub cuisine. But its real roots trace back to the late ‘80s.
Faye Swift opened Sluggers Neighborhood Grill in Coralville in 1988, one of the first sports bars in the area, that she ran successfully for 20 years. That success included surviving a flood in 1993. Unfortunately, in 2008, Sluggers wasn’t as lucky, and the restaurant so many considered a community staple had to close its doors.
The Swift family, as their name might suggest, devised a new action plan, launching Reds Alehouse. The philosophy of this new spot was “No Crap on Tap,” as Matt Swift, started meeting with Doug Alberhasky, owner of Iowa City’s legendary beverage retail store ‘John’s Grocery’, who offered import and craft beer options.
Breweries were sending their biggest and best beers directly to Reds because of the positive response and excitement the restaurant garnered. As the success of Reds took off, the interest in opening up a brewery was growing for Matt.
The Growth of Big Grove
Then-brewer Bill Heinrich and Matt had found brewery equipment in Colorado and Indiana but were still searching for a location.
The city of Solon was looking for a facelift, and the city was very responsive to opening a brewery. A restaurant on the corner of Main Street was in significant disrepair – the perfect location. They bought the building, leveled it, and Big Grove Brewpub in Solon, Iowa, was born.
Four years later, the brewery opened a 28,000-square-foot production facility, anchoring the Iowa City Riverfront Crossings redevelopment project, and it now maintains a platinum green certification.
“Deciding to go Iowa City was a giant leap,” Matt says. “We went from 40 employees 3bbls to a 28,000 square foot facility. At that time in Iowa, few were brewing at that size.”
Twenty-five minutes from its first location, Big Grove’s production facility and taproom became an eastern Iowa area staple, renowned for fresh, on-trend craft beer and vibrant social scene. The space has soaring ceilings, huge overhang doors, and outdoor fire pits, creating an eclectic and trendy atmosphere.
Big Grove has racked up some notable medals along the way, including a gold medal for Easy Eddy, its flagship Hazy IPA, GABF Bronze for Festbier, and Citrus Surfer Fruited Wheat.
“Great beers come not from the recipe itself but from the refinement of the process,” according to Andy Joynt, Brewery Director and Big Grove Partner. “The truly elite level is in the refinement of the process, the pH adjustment, the crack the mill gives to the grain, and the pump speed throttling up or down, all in pursuit of better. These are the kinds of things that take beer from good to great.”
In 2019, Big Grove became the official brewery of RAGBRAI, the largest river-to-river bicycle ride across Iowa, pushing the brewery to statewide distribution.
“We always like to look for local features to connect with and a river seemed right,” he says.
In 2022, during RAGBRAI, Big Grove opened a third location in the capital city of Des Moines. Big Grove found itself again preserving architectural elements of a renovated space, including a modern patio, ample event space, a 7-bbl brewhouse, and a vibrant taproom.
“Des Moines was a big capital investment and our furthest location away from Iowa City,” Swift notes.
Ans there is more! A fourth taproom is planned to open in Cedar Rapids this December (early construction photo below).
The original partners continue to operate the company with additional operating partners for Iowa City, Des Moines, and a soon-to-be-open Lagerhaus-style brewery in Cedar Rapids.
What’s worked for Big Grove?
We’ve focused a lot on the business so far, but Big Grove has always been more than a business. Another key piece of the brewery is giving back to the community. “I never approached Big Grove like a big business,” Matt said. “I treated it like a business that impacted our customers and community. I think about the impact of the locations on communities, our places giving people something to belong to, and our charitable impact.”
Big Grove For Good is the charitable arm of the brewery, establishing grant programs, charitable give-back beers, and opening doors to non-profit organizations. The brewery chooses to focus on three areas:
- Trees, trails, and water
- Equity and equality, and finally
- Their backyard, supporting “local organizations that make our communities a better place to live, thrive, and have opportunities.”
“We’ve also learned putting people in the wrong seat can quickly cause you to lose your culture,” says Doug Goettsch, Co-Founder, and Operating Partner. “Make sure you’re putting the right people in the right seats so they understand your commitment and share your excitement.
What’s changed most over the last 10 years?
“The number of people,” says Doug Goettsch, Co-Founder, and Operating Partner. “Quality attracts quality. People have popped up when we’ve needed someone in a critical position. We keep finding people who want to do a good job and be in service to people. You only get into the service business with thick skin and broad shoulders.”
Key turning points or decisions to note?
Dave Moore, Chief Growth Officer, and Partner, who joined Big Grove in October 2016, points to three pivot moments: “The mentality shift from being a restaurant to being a brewery, the decision to open up a Des Moines taproom, and the decision to not stop brewing beer during COVID. During COVID we made 6-new beers a week, canned it all, put new labels, lost money, and didn’t lose enough to qualify for any grants.”
“We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve learned from them,” says Goettsch. “I’ve learned I can only control what’s in our four walls, quality service, food, and beer as long as we try to get better every day. Quality first, always. Plus, focusing on raw materials costs, we don’t cut the costs of ingredients. Instead, we design menus that hit the mark on taste and style but also help revenue.”
Are you making any changes to prep for the next 10?
“We’re opening up a production facility 3x what we can currently produce,” Matt says. “It’s a larger facility that we cannot run from. It’s going to be critical to be intentional with our growth.”
“Yes, we are adapting to the next ten: the right people in the right seats,” Moore says. “It’s leaders asking themselves, “can we get to $1 million? Can we get to $100 million? Getting from 0 to ten was harder than going from ten to $100 million.”
“Getting out of the way and letting younger, smarter people run this company,” Goettsch says. “I’m 56 years old and now that we have a successful company, my goals are different.”
Cheers to 10 years! If your brewery is turning 10 and wants to cheers, drop me a line at [email protected]. Tell me your story …
• What’s changed over the last 10 years?
• Key turning points or decisions to note?
• Are you making any changes to prep for the next 10?
Here are some more Cheers to 10 Years features: