Brewing up much more than beer

BY ISAAC HERMAN | JULY 17, 2014 5:00 AM

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At the first step inside, it’s clear Coralville’s Backpocket Brewery is not the typical brew house. The Backpocket Taproom, in which patrons can enjoy the menu of pizza, burgers, desserts, and various craft beers, is directly adjacent to the brewery itself. However, venture closer to the back, and it becomes clear there are no walls or windows separating the space in which the beer is made and the space in which the beer is enjoyed; visitors can watch the process.

Stainless steel tanks full of hops, yeast, grain, and water operate to churn out their five distinct microbrews, bringing the process closer than ever to the thirsty consumer. In fact, some lucky customers even get a chance to toss in the ingredients themselves.

“Right now, we distribute our beer all over the state of Iowa, which is great,” said Andy Skelton, the manager of Backpocket’s Taproom. “By the end of the summer, we should hopefully be shipping to Omaha, St. Louis, and maybe Wisconsin.”

Backpocket certainly has no shortage of suds; the facility can churn out 2,000 gallons of beer per week, making it the largest brewery in Iowa. For the curious connoisseur, tours are available daily at 5:30 p.m.

Although the Taproom is the main draw, Backpocket offers a bit more this summer than a place to eat, drink, and be merry.

Combining film fanatics and beer buffs

The 15,000-square-foot facility boasts a large beer garden complete with a fire pit, grill, and yard games. But the biggest attraction lights up every Thursday night — Movies on the Beer Garden.

As soon as the Sun goes down, classic movies are played on a 17-foot screen in the back of the beer garden. Previous features have featured such classic comedies as Old School and Dazed and Confused, as well as more action-packed fare such as Jurassic Park and Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels.

“I love the movies; I’ve come in the last three weeks after work to see them,” said Henry Mullen, a frequent patron at Backpocket. “I can’t wait for this week’s; it’s one of my favorites.”

The movie in question? The Princess Bride, playing tonight.

A lot of the movies are selected by the staff, but a few are decided from a poll on Facebook before the staff members set the lineup, allowing customers to vote on what they wanted to see this summer.

“One of the fan favorites, that people really wanted to see, was Space Jam; that’ll be Aug. 21,” Skelton said. “Another one is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. For that, we’re trying to persuade one of our brewers to dress up as Cousin Eddie the whole day.”

Even more planned for summer and beyond

In addition to the film screenings, the brewery has a couple more events it waits to whip out of its Backpocket. Starting on July 20, it will hit the road with RAGBRAI, the annual bike ride across Iowa.

“Last year, we did our mobile beer garden throughout RAGBRAI, in which we would set up our beer garden in different places between the start and end towns,” said Backpocket operations manager Bob Wagner. “People can stop by and enjoy some craft beer with us before continuing the bike trip.”

While providing much-needed refreshment to the cyclists, Backpocket’s website sells club-cut cycling jerseys emblazoned with the brewery’s logo.

Keeping up with the sports theme, the brewery has another big event planned for football season as well: the second Big Ten Brewery Challenge.

“So what we do for the Big Ten Challenge is, for example, Indiana is playing Iowa this year in Iowa City, so we invite the guys from breweries in Bloomington to come down with some of their beer,” Skelton said. “After that, we kind of provide a haven for any Indiana fans who want to come down, and we have some little friendly challenges and beer tastings for everyone.”

The reverse occurs as well: when Iowa plays Indiana in Bloomington, some of the Backpocket brewers go down to challenge the Hoosiers in their home. The spirit is competitive, but the main point of the challenge is to forge connections to other breweries in the Midwest.

“Last year, a bunch of guys from Wisconsin came down, and we imported some of their beer and talked about collaboration,” Wagner said. “We looked to have a kind of Big Ten brewer guild kind of thing, where we make friends with other Big Ten breweries.”

This year’s challenge should forge even stronger connections, giving fans of craft beer a sort of Justice League of Midwestern beer workers.

Local beer gives way to local, organic produce

Those same fans of craft beer need some good food to soak up all of that brew. Backpocket events director Vanessa Drew figured that if people liked locally made beer so much, they would probably enjoy some locally made food as well.

“Last year, I noticed that Iowa City was turning into a hub for local and organic restaurants, so I decided to follow the trend,” Drew said. “We had some space behind the building, so I decided to build and cultivate an organic garden.”

The garden now provides the ingredients for a lot of Backpocket’s menu: fresh tomatoes, basil, and onions for the pizza as well as organic bell pepper, chives, and hops for the brewery.

Customers are often told the ingredients were picked merely 20 minutes prior to being eaten.

“I had done home gardening before with my mom, growing up in the suburbs,” Drew said. “I had a little experience, so I thought I might as well try it. So far, it has worked out pretty well for us.”

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