My neighbor, Greg, is a big beer aficionado. He brews his own beer - and he does a pretty good job of it, too. We have quaffed many a beer over the past few years hanging out at each others house. Although our tastes vary a bit, we also have some ideas as to what both of us like. For over a year, Greg has been raving about a new brewpub over in the Iowa City suburb of Coralville - Backpocket Brewing - telling me he knew that I'd like the place. We've both been talking about heading over together at some point, but we haven't done it. However, on a recent Sunday trip to Iowa City, Cindy suggested that we head to Backpocket Brewing to give it a try. She knew that Greg and I had been talking about going to the place and he talked so adamantly about the beer and the pizza at the brewpub that she wanted to give it a try, as well.
The background story of Backpocket Brewery is sort of interesting. Well, to me, at least. It starts out in the picturesque Northeastern Iowa river community of McGregor. In 2007, McGregor natives Dave and Marci Strutt decided they wanted to build and develop the finest brewpub in the state of Iowa. Dave Strutt was working with the Weitz Company - a large Des Moines-based construction company - as Sr. Vice-President/General Counsel. Along with a Des Moines friend, James Simmons, the Strutts bought the somewhat famous "Diamond Jo" building in McGregor. Built in 1888 by "Diamond" Jo Reynolds, an entrepreneur who owned steamboats, mines, grain elevators and other properties in a number of states, it housed his offices for his steamboat operation that ran up and down the Upper Mississippi River. The Strutts and Simmons transformed the old building into a state of the art brewpub complete with a brewing operation that was built in Austria by the Salm company. At the time, there were only two other breweries in the Western Hemisphere that were using Salm equipment - one in Canada and the other in Brazil.
It so happened that James Simmons' son, Jake, was looking to get his start as a brewmaster. Jake Simmons had a degree in microbiology and was going for his PhD at a college in St. Louis. About three years into his program, he decided that he didn't really need his PhD, so he went to work in the private sector in biotech work. The money was good, but his first love was homebrewing beer. Simmons quit his job and worked as an intern for a couple years on the quality control team at Schlafly Brewery in St. Louis. He left there in 2007 and went to work for a brewery out in Maine. When the Strutts and James Simmons opened the Old Man River brewpub in January of 2008, Jake Simmons was named the brewmaster. Focusing on German-style beers, Jake Simmons wanted his beers to have a signature taste that wasn't overpowering.
Jake Simmons still had ties at the Schlafly brewery and that company was looking to outsource some of their beers to help increase Schlafly distribution in the Midwest and Southeast. In the summer of 2011, Schlafly signed an agreement with Simmons to produce some of their beers. The only problem was that the Old Man River brewery was running at capacity and couldn't produce any beers for Schlafly. Simmons knew he had to build a new brewery from scratch.
Simmons looked at the Iowa City/Coralville area, as for a city with a major college - the University of Iowa - it had a large beer drinking population, yet no active brewpub. With his father and the Strutts financing the venture, Simmons built a 15,000 brewery with a 25,000 barrel capacity complete with a tap room and a beer garden.
Backpocket Brewing opened just over a year ago. To help run the tap room, Simmons hired Bob Wagner, an Iowa native who had been running the Piece Brewpub in Chicago. The concept for Backpocket - pizza and beer - is similar to what Wagner was doing in Chicago.
The regular beers at Backpocket Brewery all have names of unique items that people have put in their backpockets over the years. Their Slingshot is a German dunkel beer that is dark in color, but has a light lager taste. The Wooden Nickel is a Scottish-peated ale with a German definition. The Pennywhistle is a wheat-based beer with the spiciness of cloves and cinnamon. The Jack Knife is a hoppy German-style of beer that is reminiscent of an India Pale Ale. And the Golden Coin is a lighter German pilsner. They also make seasonal beers at Backpocket including an Oktoberfest. All the beers at Backpocket follow recipes based on the German Beer Purity Law that has been in place since the 1500's.
Backpocket Brewery is located in the Iowa River Landing development at the end of East 9th Street in Coralville, in front of the Marriott hotel. (see map) There's a pay parking lot off to the side, but we went around the roundabout and parked on the street on the side of the brewery/tap room. It was a warm, yet, windy day and the umbrellas for the tables in the beer garden in front of the brewpub were all put away. Two young ladies didn't mind the wind as they enjoyed their beers in the warm Spring sunshine.
There weren't too many people in the tap room at Backpocket. As my wife always says, "Why would you want to be inside drinking beer on such a beautiful day?" It looked like many people shared her philosophy.
We took a seat in one of the booths that were along a low brick wall that separated the dining room area from the bar area. There are floor-to-ceiling tinted windows that let in a lot of natural light during the day.
The brewery was very visible with the large fermenting barrels in the back area of the tap room. Backpocket bottles their own beer and has a large bottle capping machine. A number of their beers are available at bars, restaurants and grocery stores in Eastern Iowa.
Our server, Alex, came over to great us. He asked if we'd been to Backpocket before and we told him, no, but we'd heard good things about the place. Right off the bat, he told us that they were out of their Slingshot Dunkel and the Jack Knife German pale ale. "We had a pretty good Friday night and Saturday," he explained.
I ended up ordering a Wooden Nickle while Cindy got an iced tea. "Iced tea," I asked incredulously. "I thought you wanted a beer."
She said, "I know. But they don't have a real pale ale on the beer menu. Besides, I'm a little tired and if we get a pizza and I have a beer I'll get sleepy." (Actually, they did have the Schlafly American Pale Ale on hand. I'm guessing they're brewing it for Schlafly's.)
The menu at Backpocket is pretty limited - pizza and salads. They had something about a burger that is grilled on their outdoor patio circular fire pit, but Alex sort of explained, "Uh, yeah, that's not even going on yet. We're gonna do that sometime, but we're not doing it today." The pizza is a Neapolitan-style 10" pizza that is baked in a special oven that is heated to 900 degrees (F). They have five or six signature pizzas including a margherita pizza and something called the "Meatza" - sausage, pepperoni and bacon. We decided to get a "build-your-own" pizza - sausage and pepperoni. It's $7 bucks for a plain cheese pizza and 50 cents for each ingredient. $8 bucks is pretty cheap for a pizza.
Because the oven is so hot, it certainly didn't take long for our pizza to make it to the table. The hand-tossed pizza had a thick and chewy edge-crust with slight charred marks. But the inner crust was thin, but not crisp.
I got to looking at the individual slices of pizza and I thought, "Wait a minute... Where are the toppings?" The sausage chunks were pretty small and there wasn't many of them. And there were only two - or possibly three - slices of pepperoni per slice. The pizza, itself, tasted very good. It certainly passed the "Does it taste good with a beer?" test that I use for every pizza. But we were sort of laughing over the paucity of any type of toppings. I said to Cindy, "Well, I see how they can get away with pizzas for $8 bucks. They don't put any toppings on them." It could have been an excellent pizza had they stepped up and put some more toppings on it.
We had no problem finishing the pizza and realized that we probably could have gotten two pizzas if we were really hungry. But a half-pizza each was fine with us for a somewhat late lunch that day.
Aside from the skimpy toppings on their pizza, I was impressed with the whole experience at Backpocket Brewery. We had good service from Alex, the pizza did taste good as did the Wooden Nickel beer that I had. Well, I guess I would have liked to have tried the Slingshot Dunkel, but I can do that on my next visit. Or I can pick some up at a store or try some at a bar that has it available in the Quad Cities. Backpocket Brewing is doing well and I think they'll be doing well for a long time.