A new industry is brewing in rural Nebraska.
It’s the kind of industry that attracts busloads of tourists, yet also encourages local residents to connect. It provides jobs to long-time residents and lures new workers to town. It generates sales locally and brings outside money into the region.
The business involves brewing, serving and sometimes even bottling and distributing beer. But, it’s really about connections, entertainment and having fun.
Breweries and craft beer have been around for decades in metro areas and other states, but lately they have been sprouting up across rural Nebraska.
Thunderhead Brewing Company opened in Kearney nearly 20 years ago setting a model for later breweries. Loop Brewing Company opened in McCook in 2011. Hastings now boasts two breweries, First Street Brewing Company and the recently opened Steeple Brewing Co.
But, in the past five years, breweries have been opening in the smallest of Nebraska towns, and in some instances, on farms outside of town. Scratchtown Brewing Company opened in Ord in 2013. Kinkaider Brewing Co. opened north of Broken Bow in 2014. In 2015, Bootleg Brewers opened its brewery complete with overnight accommodations in rural Taylor. In 2015, two more opened: the Bolo Beer Co. in Valentine and The Well/Brush Creek Brewing in Atkinson. And in Holdrege, Lost Way Brewery will begin serving beer this month.
The recent trend of rural breweries started with Scratchtown Brewing Co. in Ord, which opened in 2013.
Caleb Pollard, co-owner and Chief Mover of Units at Scratchtown, said a brewery brings many benefits to rural Nebraska, and it’s just plain fun.
“Do you know what’s great about having fun?” Pollard said. “It’s fun! We are really in the business of bringing people together and having fun.”
Pollard ditched his big-city commute in large eastern Nebraska cities in 2008 and moved his family to Ord, population 2,078.
“I was tired of the rat race, and we wanted to raise our family in a small town,” Pollard said.
A job opportunity that allowed him to follow his passion for rural economic development opened up in Ord, and a trip to the town secured the decision.
Five years later, Caleb and his business partners opened Scratchtown Brewing Co. in downtown Ord. The brewery has become a tourist draw, a job creator and what Caleb calls (in economic development lingo) a dual-primary economic driver. The company bottles and distributes beer out of Valley County, which brings new money into the region.
The brewery draws tourists from near and far. On any given weekend, Pollard said small 10-passenger buses or large 60-passenger buses bring visitors of all ages and backgrounds who are looking for a good beer and a unique small-town experience.
“You have to make fantastic beer,” Pollard said. “But you also have to provide an experience that people want to be a part of.”
And, that’s what Pollard and his partners (Mike and Julie Klimek, Michelle and Jade Stunkel and Caleb’s wife, Christina) give them.
The busy “tourist” season from Memorial Day to Labor Day draws beer drinkers from Lincoln, Omaha, Kansas City, Minneapolis, Denver and beyond. Many stay in one of two local hotels, fill their cars up with gas in Ord or stay and enjoy area lakes and outdoor recreation. Ord is located in the center of four great recreation areas: Calamus Reservoir, Sherman Reservoir, Lake Ericson and Davis Creek. Happy Jack Chalk Mine is also nearby.
During the off season, locals keep the brewery hopping.
“We want to bring people together to break bread, but our bread is beer,” Pollard said.
Farmers, bankers and professionals mingle together at Scratchtown, and even the local bridge club, whose average age is 75, meets at the brewery every second Thursday of the month.
“They are like adopted grandmas,” Pollard said. “They are these awesome ambassadors for us. It’s what community is all about.”
Pollard plans quarterly beer suppers that feature beer pairings to reflect the food that is served that night. The 50 tickets to the October beer supper sold out in three hours. The guests sit at a long common table, and the focus for the night is the building of relationships.
“Beer is this wonderful communal beverage,” Pollard said “For us, sharing it among friends and celebrating the harvest and one another is core to what we want to do.”
Pollard said he is grateful for the support local residents have given to the brewery. And, in turn, the brewery gives back. Each year, Scratchtown partners with the local cattlemen to organize a BBQ with proceeds benefitting the local food pantry. Pollard said the brewery supports two main charitable causes – food insecurity or hunger and literacy.
Besides the beer supper, Scratchtown offers events nearly every month. One of biggest events of the year is the Scratchtoberfest, which typically draws 850-1,000 people and fills up every hotel and bed and breakfast within 15 miles.
The events are part of an overall marketing strategy that also includes social media. Pollard stresses the importance of spending as much time working “on” his business as much as he works “in” his business.
“One of the things I always said to other business owners is you can’t rely on your open sign for your marketing,” Pollard said.
Kinkaider Brewing Co.
Kinkaider Brewing Co. in Broken Bow opened December 2014, and it has had a similar impact on this small Nebraska town with a population of 3,539.
Beer drinkers have traveled from all 50 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, to this farm brewery just north of Broken Bow.
“To someone who lives in Chicago, we are literally in the middle of nowhere,” said Cody Schmick, one of four business partners involved in the brewery.
Schmick said many who visit Kinkaider are looking for experiences that are “real” and “genuine.”
“They want to know who’s making their beer and who’s making their food and how it’s being cultivated into this restaurant,” Schmick said. “People are getting sick of the mass produced chain restaurants. They want to know who’s putting their heart and soul into something.”
On most days or nights, visitors will find one of the owners (Brewmaster Dan Hodges, Barry Fox, Nate Bell or Cody) there who can share the Kinkaider story.
From Kinkaider’s outdoor patio, guests can view the outdoor entertainment stage on one side and the beautiful Nebraska Sandhills on the other side.
“You sit out on the porch overlooking the Sandhills,” Schmick said. “I think it’s one of the best places in the state to drink a beer.”
Kinkaider has also been well received by the local community. It got its start with crowd funding largely made of up Broken Bow residents.
“We could have opened in Lincoln or Omaha,” Schmick said, “but we feel like being out here has given us an edge because it’s getting us those destination people and those beer-seeking people, and it’s reaching those people who have only been exposed to Bud Light or Busch Light.”
Kinkaider has already expanded to include a tap room in Grand Island. With the two locations and restaurants and the bottling and distribution of Kinkaider beer from the Broken Bow location, the brewery provides jobs for about 80 people.
And, Schmick is proud that Kinkaider Brewing Co./Broken Bow is etched on every bottle and every shirt that is sold, bringing more recognition to the rural Nebraska town.
Kinkaider also relies heavily on social media and event marketing to draw in customers. The Kinkaider Octoberfest Celebration typically attracts more than 1,000 people. Other large events include the St. Patty’s Day Party in March and Kinkaider Palooza in February.
Brush Creek Brewery, Atkinson
One of the state’s newest breweries is The Well/Brush Creek Brewery Company in downtown Atkinson, population 1,249.
Brewery Owner Rodney Keim grew up in Omaha but always treasured the time he spent with his dad hunting on a ranch north of Atkinson.
In 2012, Keim and his wife, Alisha, purchased the Brush Creek Ranch and moved to rural Holt County from Denver to start their life in rural Nebraska. Six months after they moved to the town, they purchased the building at 102 N. Main Street in Atkinson with plans to open a brewery.
They opened The Well restaurant and taproom in that location one year ago, and the response has been positive. Tourists and residents of all ages and social statuses enjoy beer, pizza and giant Bavarian pretzels at the new brewery.
It also attracts people like him, who are seeking connections and a simpler way of life.
“We get a significant draw from young professionals who are moving back to the rural community,” Keim said. “There’s been kind of this exodus from the big metropolitan area. They don’t want the hustle of the big city life, the traffic and the crime. But, they don’t want to give up their luxuries.”
Craft beer is one of the luxuries. The Well’s interior décor features rough-sawn wood, old whisky barrels and an element of class. The atmosphere, like that of the other rural breweries, makes guests feel like they have just stepped into a trendy big city brewery.
“People just can’t believe this is in such a small community,” Keim said. “This could be in rural America, but at the same time it could fit in a bigger metropolitan area.”
All of the labor needed to construct the trendy brewery was hired locally, giving another boost to the local economy.
In addition to great-tasting beer, The Well takes pride in serving brick-oven style artisan pizza with changing specials each week. The Cattleman’s pizza has been a guest favorite lately. And, they make homemade giant hand-tied Bavarian pretzels that taste perfect with beer.
Keim said the great food and beer coupled with a nice overnight stay in the local Sandhills Guest House Hotel provide a great experience.
“It really changes their perception of what is offered in small-town America,” he said.
The Well/Brush Creek Brewing Co.
102 N Main St, Atkinson