Over the past several years, an explosion of craft beer breweries has swept across the country, including four relatively new entries within Lincoln.

A craft brewery, sometimes referred to as a microbrewery, is one that produces a small amount of beer and is independently owned, with a special focus on quality, flavor and brewing techniques.

The grand patriarch of the practice in Nebraska is Empyrean Brewing Co., which in late 1990 became the state’s first brewpub with the opening of Lazlo’s Brewery & Grill in Lincoln. In 1997, Empyrean Brewing became a separate financial entity and today is widely recognized and distributed across Nebraska and several Midwestern states.

But it is the four “new kids on the block” that L Magazine will visit with in this and the September issues, beginning with Blue Blood and Zipline brewing companies.

Passion developed from home brewing

Both Brian Podwinski, president and co-owner of Blue Blood, and Tom Wilmoth, co-owner of Zipline, developed their passion for creating beer as home brewers.

Podwinski’s involvement began when a friend gave him a Mr. Beer Kit as a birthday present. After a while, Podwinski said he decided to try to do it right, which involved progressing to more advanced brewing equipment. After three years of more serious and involved brewing, he decided to try commercial brewing with Blue Blood opening in December 2011.

“I love beer,” Podwinski says. “As a home brewer you can be creative in the process – make beer … drink it. But with a brewery comes a whole new level of appreciation.”

Wilmoth and his partners Jim Gallentine and Marcus Powers were all home brewers. The three formed Zipline Co. in January 2012 with a common vision of what the market was missing. By November 2012, Zipline was in its production site and producing beer for Lincoln and Omaha.

Podwinski wants to produce good beer that people enjoy.

“Small breweries use more hands-on people in the actual brewing,” he says. “There is less automation. But craft beers are only a small piece of the market – 10 percent nationwide, with local craft breweries in Nebraska about 1 percent of the market.

“The Blue Blood staff members are guys who love what they are doing and love making beer,” Podwinski continues. “They aren’t chemical engineers. It’s not about PhDs like in big companies. They really care (about the product).”

“Craft beers offer variety – interesting flavors that can vary dramatically and the ability to try different things,” says Wilmoth.

Growth leads to planned expansions

The public’s embracing of craft beers is reflected in the industry’s growth, according to Wilmoth. In two-and-a-half years, Zipline is producing twice as much beer as its owners anticipated and is in the middle of brewery expansion, while Blue Blood is in the process of a major relocation and expansion.

Wilmoth acknowledges the importance of the impact Empyrean Brewing had in guiding local craft brewery startups.

“(With craft beer), it is nice (for consumers) to know the local people making the beer,” Wilmoth says. “It is a very relationship type of business.

“Also, the breweries in Lincoln all have something different to offer … slightly different in what they do. They each do their own thing.”

Podwinski echoes the value of the local connection. “The local aspect and support is important. It is the personal ties … people know us.”

Currently Blue Blood has 60-70 Lincoln outlets for its products, with another 60-70 sales sites outside of Lincoln. Podwinski said that Blue Blood has added distribution into Illinois this past spring.

Craig Reier, director of marketing and events for Zipline, said the brewery has 120 Lincoln outlets, as well as being almost statewide. He said that sites in larger communities in Iowa and South Dakota are also carrying Zipline.

Podwinski and Wilmoth both cite the cost and investment of starting up a brewery as being a very real challenge.

Keeping up with demand brings challenges

Maintaining the consistency and quality of the products is something that Podwinski lists as being a vital necessity.

Zipline experiences a similar issue dealing with the growth demanded by the market.

“It is easy to design a brewery,” says Wilmoth, “but not easy to anticipate the demands and to remain sustainable and address the demand.”

Blue Blood has six year-round beer options – the “usual suspects”: Ethan’s Stout, Big Log Wheat, All Hopped Up IPA, Wicked Snout (farmhouse ale), Pod’s ESB and Happy As Ale. Seasonal brews are added quarterly, with 6-4-3 Double Play Pilsner (a tribute to the Lincoln Saltdogs baseball team) available through the Saltdogs’ season. The brewery has a tap room open Wednesday through Friday, 4-9 p.m., and Saturday, noon-9 p.m.

At Zipline, four regular beers are always available: Kolsch (similar to a German Pilsner or Pale Ale), NZ IPA, Oatmeal Porter and Copper Alt (German hybrid ale/lager). Seasonals include India Red Ale (February-April), Country White (May-July) and Nut Brown (August-November).

Zipline also produces several limited variations and small-batch kegs, all available in the brewery’s tap room. Tap room hours are Wednesday and Thursday, 3-8 p.m.; Friday, 3-9 p.m.; and Saturday, 1-9 p.m.

Both breweries recognize another element of being “local.” Through community involvement and presence at such local events as Capital City Beerfest, Lincoln Beer Week and various other activities such as beer/bike rallies, Blue Blood and Zipline have achieved brand recognition.

According to Reier, social media and word of mouth generated by face-to-face connection with people at such events have been invaluable to connecting Zipline with its customer base. He adds that brewery involvement with events like bike rides or run clubs is “the beauty of beer as a social lubricant – to bring together different types of people where they can meet and form relationships.”

Moving to Robber’s Cave

Looking to the future, Blue Blood foresees a new and larger facility as it has purchased and is developing a location at Lincoln’s infamous Robber’s Cave.

With an estimated completion date of late September/early October, Blue Blood will move its entire brewhouse to the new site, create a new and larger tap room and add a full-scale restaurant.

Podwinski says that locating Blue Blood at Robber’s Cave really fits the brewery – his background in law enforcement prior to establishing Blue Blood is what contributed to the brewery’s name. He also reminds that the Robber’s Cave location once was a brewery site in the mid-1800s, followed by rumors of the area being a refuge for outlaws and robbers – hence its name.

“We’re looking to bring back some of the folklore of the place and the people who have been there by establishing Blue Blood there,” Podwinski says.

The Zipline name also seems to be somewhat legendary. According to Reier, one of the three brewery partners really liked zip lining. So much so, he built one of the aerial runways in his backyard. An incident occurred – not to be discussed! When there was discussion of opening a brewery and the risks involved in such a venture, the statement “remember the zip line …” was uttered. The brewery’s name was born.

Zipline is also undergoing expansion to increase its brewery size and bottling capacity, but it will remain in its current location.

“We want to catch up on the demand side and provide our customers with what they want, so that everyone who wants a Zipline beer can have one,” Wilmoth says.

Next month’s featured breweries

Lincoln’s Ploughshare Brewing Co. and Modern Monks Brewery will be featured in the September issue of L Magazine.

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