IOWA CITY — Fresh off RAGBRAI, Big Grove Brewery began fielding messages from beer distributors in Oregon, Colorado, Washington and elsewhere who believed their customers would embrace the product.
Thousands of people from around Iowa and the country had just been exposed for the first time to a handful of Big Grove’s brews during RAGBRAI. Big Grove signed a five-year agreement as the main beer sponsor of the statewide bicycle ride at the end of each July, meaning its beers were in virtually every official beer garden and many local bars and gas stations along the route.
But for now, Big Grove is saying no to anywhere not in Iowa.
“We are taking the philosophy of going deeper rather than wider,” explained Matt Swift, co-founder of Big Grove. “As far as our distribution goes, we want to make sure Iowa is completely saturated with beer before we take a leap to go to another state.”
Earlier this year, Big Grove — which routinely packs its Solon and Iowa City locations — attempted to raise its profile and grow its brand by aligning with one of the state’s signature tourism draws.
This comes at a key time when competition is increasing.
Microbreweries are opening in even the smallest of Iowa cities. Iowa has 114 native breweries and brewpubs or four breweries per 100,000 people aged 21 and older, according to the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division and the Brewers Association.
More are due to open.
Native gallons of beers sold each year has climbed each of the past five years, and 42 percent over five years to 683,858 gallons, according to the Alcoholic Beverages Division.
While overall sales in the $27.6 billion craft beer industry are up about 7 percent nationally, the Brewers Association also reports signs of saturation.
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The number of openings of brewpubs and microbreweries is declining, while the number of closures is increasing. However, openings still vastly outnumber closures — 1,046 openings and 213 closures, according to the association.
‘We are the small guys’
Big Grove Brewery, which opened in Solon in 2013 and added the significantly larger Iowa City location in 2017, was looking to set itself apart when it became the first Iowa brewery to sponsor RAGBRAI. Until this year the ride had turned to mass producers including Michelob Ultra and Goose Island, which is owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev.
“Half joking, I said, ‘I know we are the small guys, but this is something that would really align with our brand, and if there’s ever an opportunity, let’s have a conversation,” Swift said of early conversations with RAGBRAI director TJ Juskiewicz.
“Two or three weeks later, I got a phone call, and he said, ‘Matt, there might be an opportunity. What do you think?’ I said I’d love to align with an Iowa brand.”
Biking and craft beer have long drawn similar crowds. Juskiewicz said he thought his crowd, which can number well over 10,000 people a day, would appreciate the Iowa connection.
“It is great to work with an Iowa brewery like Big Grove,” Juskiewicz said. “Our riders really like to drink our local Iowa brews, so it made sense to partner with Big Grove.”
RAGBRAI and Big Grove previously had partnered on events, including the first series of official RAGBRAI training rides around the state. Big Grove helped host a ride called Big Rove in June.
The first step for Big Grove was developing a new limited release beer — an easy drinker called Tailwind Golden Ale — just for RAGBRAI, using the biking lingo for when a breeze is at your back. The can also served as a collectors’ item for some as it featured the RAGBRAI route and logo.
Because they ordered a printed can, they had to take a truckload or about 6,000 cases, which translate to about 140,000 16-ounce cans, said head brewer Andy Joynt.
Tailwind sold the most, but RAGBRAI fans also chugged through cases of Easy Eddy, a Hazy India Pale Ale; Boomtown, a cream ale; and Big Grove IPA, a West Coast-style IPA.
On the front end, the financial investment in both the sponsorship and brewing such a large quantity of beer for markets loyal to light domestic beer and that had little familiarity with Big Grove, raised questions about how it would go over.
Or, more likely, how much beer would they have left over.
RAGBRAI this year toured through southern Iowa communities including Council Bluffs, Atlantic, Winterset, Indianola, Centerville, Fairfield, Burlington and Keokuk.
But they believed the credibility of RAGBRAI would help convince the participants to give them a try, Swift said.
“It was a commitment on our part, but it paid off,” said Doug Goettsch, another co-founder.
The long game
Until this summer, Big Grove had some exposure outside Iowa City, but it was fairly limited. More than a year ago, they began canning their beers to be sold in stores, such as Hy-Vee — some of which also sell Big Grove apparel — and a number of bars carried their kegs.
Distribution was primarily focused in Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, Dubuque, the Quad Cities area and the Des Moines metro.
“We’ve never done anything on this scale,” Swift said of the sponsorship. “Really, it’s about long term. If you play the long game, what are the best brands in Iowa to be associated with.
“You have the Hawkeyes, RAGBRAI, the State Fair. The cool thing about RAGBRAI is it goes everywhere — side to side. You’re going to hit a lot of places you never been before, and we always felt like Big Grove would translate to any part of Iowa.”
Staff set out to determine how to use the sponsorship to maximize their exposure around the state.
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They forged new partnerships — Golden Eagle Distributing of Mount Pleasant signed on to supply the southern part of Iowa, and Doll Distributing supplied the western part of the state.
Staff rode along on RAGBRAI in Big Grove jerseys, and others spent time in local bars to personally introduce bartenders and customers to the beers.
The gamble paid off on the ride and appears to be paying off since, as many of the relationships have continued and their market has expanded.
On the ride, Big Grove outsold what several unofficial surveys suggest is Iowa’s favorite beer — Busch Light. In the beer tent in Atlantic, Big Grove sold 180 cases compared to 120 cases of Busch Light, according to Goettsch.
When asked about plans for expansion, Goettsch and Swift are not making commitments. They noted they still have room in their Iowa City location, even as production volumes have grown from 600 barrels in the first year to more than 10,000 barrels this year.
Their focus is brewing quality, developing stories for each beer and marketing the beers.
“We go out to other breweries all the time, to breweries outside the state,” Goettsch said. “You find a beer that has flaws, and it should not be served. That’s the case now. You are just not going to win if you do that. The beer you put on the market has to be good. That is the lowest bar.”
Josh Schamberger, president of Think Iowa City, the local tourism bureau, said Big Grove’s reach to grow their brand also could benefit the area as a whole.
“Beer tourism is very much a thing,” said Schamberger, who helped connect Big Grove and RAGBRAI. “You see it in Decorah, Kalamazoo (Mich.), Grand Rapids, Asheville (N.C.). People know the Big Grove brand and now even more are learning about it through the incredible partnership with RAGBRAI.
“Big Rove will be as popular as BACooN Ride (the RAGBRAI training ride) in a few years. All of that translates into people coming here to our community and spending money, having a great time and leaving to tell their friends and family.”
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