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The Antelope

Kearney embraces craft beer options

Dave Schaben, head of tours and son of co-owner of Thunderhead Brewery, stands in front of the masher in the warehouse at the Thunderhead Brewery location in Axtell, Nebraska.

Thunderhead, McCues keep local brews on tap

BY Brett Westfall

Craft beer in Kearney, Nebraska is more than just a big named, skunky smelling, fabricated, and ordinarily domestic brew. It’s a culture within itself that more people are joining.

In an area close to the center of the consecutive 48 states in the United States, Kearney, Nebraska, has approximately 33,000 residents that are seeing an upswing of craft beer popularity. Since 1999, Thunderhead brewery has been Kearney’s craft brewery that started during a time when craft beer wasn’t looked at by most. In June 2018, McCues taproom opened with plenty of lines that sell all Nebraska craft products, with the main emphasis on the craft beers. McCues and Thunderhead are two huge influences in Kearney and the surrounding area have made the community proud and are now some of the best places to go for anyone that want to try something new.

Crafting beer is an interesting process that craft beer breweries allow a unique change to create products. The difference between the usual large named beers and craft beer has to do with not just the local community pride, but the ingredient changes during the process. “Most people around this area probably still prefer to drink domestic products like Busch Light but there is a growing appreciation of craft beer from the newer college generation and around that age,” said Professor Allen Thomas of the UNK Chemistry department. Professor Thomas used to teach a class dedicated to brewing beer talked about why craft beer is slowly becoming popular and how the taste of craft beer can change based on the process and it allows for greater freedom for the craft beer companies. “Certainly, places like Thunderhead Brewery and Platte Valley, who both brew their own beer, I think it introduced people to this new type of style.”

With more freedom to create new types of tastes through the brewing process, craft brew companies change the process of when ingredients can be added or boiled away depending on the type of beer that is going to be produced. “The primary difference that I am aware of for Ale’s and IPA’s that are used a lot to create these new craft beers compared to the pale lager that is in big named domestics is the type of yeast,” said Thomas. “Based on temperature, the yeast can work better at depending on what is going to be produced, but there are longer processes and temperature changes for different types of beer, but primarily, it is the type of yeast used to distinguish what craft beer places use compared to big name domestic companies.”

Like all drinks, taste is an important part if a consumer is willing to buy the product as well as the color of the drink. Professor Thomas said, “There’s really only a couple of different types of barley that is used in beers and companies will cook the barley and depending upon how long it is cooked, that’s where beers get their color from. The Flavors are coming from chemicals that are produced during the cooking process of that barley. Much like when someone cooks bread, the crust has a certain flavor to it, like a bitterness and that comes from the chemicals during the cooking process. Those main parts are pretty important during the long process in creating beer and it’s what these craft beer companies can experiment with as well as towards the end or in the beginning, they add sugars that add a little extra to the beer.”

The larger craft beer places that are well known around the Kearney area were built towards the late 1990s and even in the early 2000s. Thunderhead Brewery was one of the original businesses that continues to brew and sell their own product with rising success. Now in Axtell, Nebraska, for cheaper prices for land, less than twenty-minutes away from Kearney, Thunderhead Brewery operates and is proud to be a part of the community and the growing interest in craft beers.

“So many people have helped the spark into craft beers, I think in large part because based on the seasonal ingredients and the constant change in styles, people want something new,” said Dave Schaben, head of Thunderhead tours, a manager, and son of co-owner of Thunderhead Brewing, Trevor Schaben. “You can always try a different beer with us that isn’t just an IPA, or a lager, that have distinguished tastes. But you can’t have different a Coors Light or Bud Light because once you have them, they aren’t going to change like craft brews.”

The Thunderhead Brewing Company has a large consumer base around the state of Nebraska and now have two draft houses in Kearney and Omaha. They also serve pizza that can be paired with their many beers.

“Back when we started in 1999,” Schaben continued, “nobody made craft beer here because they were the typical ‘Bud’ drinkers or ‘Coors’ drinkers. We created the ‘Golden Frau Honey Wheat,’ which kickstarted everything at that point. We had a great opportunity to make unique beers at that time and to get someone to drink a nice, clean pilsner was hard for people out here. But with time, things are changing I feel.”

“Managing this brewery is way 

different than I thought it would be,” Schaben said. “There are so many things that people don’t think about in the back-end process when drinking our beer, which is awesome, they should enjoy it, but it is sweaty, hard-work. We have to deal with what feels like every government agency that has ever been made for inspections. From city, state, county, and federal levels, there are many inspections, and so… much… paperwork.”

 “The family aspect and the process of finishing a good batch, knowing people will love it, is amazing,” Dave Schaben said. “I think that is what we offer, a chance to constantly change while maintaining a strong tie to the local area and family.”

In Kearney, Nebraska, downtown on the historic ‘bricks,’ a staff of over thirty people work at the Thunderhead Brewery draft house that serve an always steady customer base. “Usually, we have twenty-three tap handles in which usually only two, depending on the seasons, are guest taps,” said Layne Dowhower, Bartender of Thunderhead Brewery tap house in Kearney. “Craft beer is in a good place right now. It’s rising, the competition around Nebraska among other companies is all friendly, everyone hopes to succeed, and the actual breweries get to experiment with new stuff while their main, ‘go-to’ products are out there selling. It’s like successful, creative freedom.”

A big-name rival in Nebraska to all craft brew places is Kinkaider brewery, which, for how big the company is becoming, maintain a strong local, community tie to all of Nebraska and Thunderhead hopes to do the same. Dowhower said, “I mean we would love to be better than everyone else, who doesn’t, but everyone is cool around in this business and we may all be competitive, but we all love beer and the social setting that craft beers bring. It’s harder to drink a craft beer fast, especially if it’s for a party or something, because in here, people who drink craft beer want to relax and even just talk to someone new. It’s a strange, social thing now.”

“Everyone has different opinions,” Dowhower continued, “which is why Thunderhead has almost over twenty taps at a time. As a bartender, you get to serve the beers as if they had a personality, get to know the flavors, and distinguish that taste to determine what type of person might like it if he or she are coming in for the first time with questions. People can just talk about beer, relax, and we can take care of what beers you would want based on the things you tell us. I don’t see big name places being able to adapt and change like that.”

Seeing the success of Thunderhead’s location in Kearney over the years, one block away, another, immediate successful business, McCues opened up in June 2018. Once an old grocery store for decades and before that, a previous location as a brewing warehouse, the new laid-back, rustic taproom opened with great praise. 

“The four owners knew what they were doing when they opened this place up,” said Ethan Fitch, Bartender at McCues. “They have glass lines to the kegs in the big fridge in the back that go under and up into our thirty taps that we are almost always rotating because people like to drink these types of craft beers and ciders now.”

Fitch has only had five kegs that were not tapped before he had to change it since he also started back in June and it’s because he feels people want this kind of laid-back environment now more than ever. Fitch said, “Since craft breweries are smaller still, they can experiment with different hops and people like this new change. You can’t change a fixed recipe from the bigger names. There are even craft breweries popping up that aren’t distributing yet around the area that are good too and hopefully we’ll get them on the taps soon.”

All the alcohol at McCues is from Nebraska companies. The taproom primarily sells out of the craft beer. “We carry beers from all over Nebraska that people around here love,” Fitch said. “We have beers from Boiler, Kinkaider, Thunderhead, Farnam House, Prairie Pride, and even more all from around here all the way to Omaha. Everyone that like beer or even somewhat like beer come in and try the new stuff.”

Friendly competition, unique taste that comes from the process, and a happy, relaxed social setting is what has been driving the rising craft beer businesses around the Kearney community and around. With the success of Thunderhead and McCues that strictly sell craft beer and not big named domestics in an area that is still primarily dominated by the domestic beers, it should be interesting to see how big the businesses will become as craft beers continue to rise in popularity among the new generations.

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