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Nebraska Makes Delicious Beer: Nebraska Craft Brewers Guild

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To kick off this summer’s “Nebraska Makes Delicious Beer” series here at CornNation, I sat down with Colby Coash from the Nebraska Craft Brewers Guild. Colby, like myself, is a part of Blue Blood Brewing here in Lincoln, Nebraska.

If you’re new to the site, or have joined us since last summer, check out the previous installments in this series here.

This summer will look a little bit different. As I learned in my conversation with Colby, there are over 50 breweries now operational in the state of Nebraska. It would be very difficult for us to keep up with all of them. Therefore, the state will be split into four areas to talk about the breweries in those areas: Lincoln, Omaha, the Tri-Cities (Grand Island, Kearney, and Hastings), and the rest of the state. There are breweries everywhere!

CornNation: Briefly describe your role with the Nebraska Craft Brewers Guild.

Colby Coash: The guild needed some organizational support with regard to just the association itself, the members, growing the membership, adding new associate members, just organizational support. I understand the industry, of course, understand some of the needs, understand the regulation and some of the law behind it. I’m able to support in that role as well. Several months ago they engaged with me just to help do that and so I’ve been doing that for the better part of this year.

CN: And what is your title with the Guild?

CC: Right now it’s just the Association Manager.

CN: So tell us about the Guild, how it came to be and what it’s purpose is in the state of Nebraska.

CC: The guild’s been around for many years and when it started there were just a handful of breweries, less than ten, and these were small business owners who were jumping into the new world of craft brewers and the decided to form an organization to advocate and support their industry. It started out fairly informal where these business owners would get together on a quarterly basis to drink beer, talk about their industry and support each other. Over time as the industry has grown, their mission has grown into educational opportunities, networking opportunities, advocacy for their industry. It’s gotten a little more formal with an executive committee and committee membership. Just trying to move the industry forward and speak with one voice is important to the guild. That can be a challenge because there are different types of breweries across the state. There are breweries connected with restaurants. There are breweries that distribute. There are breweries that just serve in-house. There are breweries in large communities, breweries in small communities. So, everybody’s got a different business model, but the Guild realizes that they’re stronger when the speak with one voice, they’re better off when they can work together. They can help each other learn and support (one another). The Guild, or rather the brewers, are not competitive with each other, which may surprise a lot of people. The realize that if Brewery A converts a domestic beer drinker into a craft beer drinker, then that person will go to Brewery B and Brewery C and D and so we look at it as a partnership where we all work together to try to build the industry.

CN: I know I’ve talked to other brewers around the state and the word “coopetition” comes up, the idea that if you have a product that people enjoy. You mentioned the idea earlier that a rising tides lifts all ships. You look at a place like Colorado and people know Colorado for craft beer. Correct me if I’m wrong, but if people come to Lincoln and have a Blue Blood or a Zipline and like it, then they’ll see Lincoln on another label and they’ll remember that good beer they had and want to try another Lincoln beer.

CC: Yeah. Breweries in the community and in the region work together all the time. If they can bring a beer drinker into even their competitor’s location, then they’re gonna go across the street to their location. Craft brewing’s a unique industry because it is about drinking beer and enjoying beer, but it’s about the experience. It’s about trying something new. Brewing is an art as much as it is a science and so people appreciate beer as an art as much as they would appreciate a painting or music. The people that brew beer, it’s a passion for them. People want to be apart of that, and you can’t really be apart of big beer, but you can be apart of your local brewery, and people like that, and the local connection. Local is, taking the idea of sourcing your food locally. Buying locally, not just in beer, but in all industries, is taking off, and so the consumer is really driving that. This is all being driven by the consumer. If the consumer wasn’t out there and buying these products and drinking these beers, you wouldn’t see the growth that we’re seeing.

CN: What kind of projects does the Craft Brewers Guild get involved with?

CC: It varies. One of the main things we’re focused on is education within its membership. Whether it’s the science of brewing, the regulation of brewing, the business of brewing, the marketing of beer, supporting each other, a big project within the Guild is providing educational opportunities through conferences. Partnerships are a big deal within the Guild, whether it be collaboration in beer-making, which is kind of unique. Two competitors get together, two brewers from different breweries get together and they decide that they’re going to put their heads together to craft a beer that they can cross-label and say that this was made by this brewery and this brewery and they work together on that. Advocacy is another big thing that the Guild works on is promoting the industry as a whole as I mentioned. Those projects continue to grow. Marketing, I think, of craft beer across the state is really on the radar right now because there are breweries popping up across the state, but the fastest growing part is really in the rural part of the state. The big metro areas, Lincoln and Omaha, will continue to have some pop up (Lincoln now has ten breweries!), but the biggest part of the brewing segment has been west of Lincoln and that’s been cool to see. We’re starting to see that the needs of a rural brewery are different than an urban brewery and so trying to address those in an industry-standard way.

CN: How many breweries are members of the guild?

CC: There are exactly 48 breweries in the guild. A small handful are breweries in planning. They haven’t served beer to the public yet, but are months away. I’m proud to say that there are only three or four breweries in the state that are not members. That’s part of my responsibility is to bring them into the fold. Many are so new they don’t know it’s an option yet.

CN: So that means there are 51 or 52 total breweries in the state. How many are new in the last year?

CC: At least, within the last twelve months, at least ten or twelve of them.

CN: You’re talking about 25% growth in a year. That’s incredible.

CC: Yeah. Absolutely.

CN: So, let’s talk about LB632, this last year. There was a lot of talk around that and a lot of people didn’t know what that meant. What is the status of 632, and what was the Guild’s role in fighting 632?

CC: The status of 632 as we sit here today in June of 2017 is that the bill has been amended in this year’s legislative session, and it was amended in a positive way to the Guild. In other words, the provisions in the bill the Guild opposed were amended out of it, however, it did not finish the process as far as getting to the governor’s desk to sign. That can still happen next year. It can still be amended next year. The Guild’s position at this point is the Guild likes the way the bill sits now. If it passed, the Guild would be fine with that, because the bill’s changed. If the bill changes again, it could go backwards. The Guild will oppose it, but like I said, as it stands now, the Guild’s happy with the way it stands, it just hasn’t passed yet.

CN: Talk about the two specific components of the bill that the Guild opposed.

CC: Brewers understand this, and we’ve worked with this for years. As the law stands right now, breweries are not allowed to self-distribute, meaning you can’t take your finished product from your manufacturing facility directly to a retailer, even if that retailer’s location is across the street. It has to go through a distributor, and so the part of the bill that was problematic for the Guild was that because it has to go through a distributor, the law would mandate that the product would have to go to the distributor’s warehouse before it could be delivered. If your distributor’s in the same community as where it’s going to be delivered, it’s not that big of a deal, but if your distributor is located across the state from where you manufacture, the beer has to make a several-hundred-mile round trip. From the brewer’s standpoint, is that a big deal? Not necessarily because it’s out of their hands, but what it does do is adds cost to the distribution tier which gets borne by the manufacturer and, ultimately, the consumer, which is unnecessary. The Guild opposed that. It can still be done. The opposition was more about the process the bill was introduced, without input from the industry, consulting the Guild, and things like that. The Guild’s position was this can be handled through rules and regulations rather than through state law.

The second part of the bill that was erroneous in the Guild’s eyes was the limit on retail locations. Right now the manufacturer is allowed up to five retail locations where they can self-distribute if both are wholly-owned by the manufacturer. The previous year, that was unlimited, but a bill limited that to five. That was negotiated, I was part of the negotiation (Coash served in the Unicam), but 632 was going to roll that back and limit that, which would limit the growth of craft beer (It should be noted that the same senator, Tyson Larson, who introduced LB632 had his name on the bill the previous year). That provision also was amended out, so that’s where we sit.

CN: Are there other regulatory or legal obstacles to craft brewing growth in the state?

CC: The regulatory obstacles vary by region. Every brewer, as I mentioned earlier, has a different business model. Many brewers in the Guild don’t distribute. In other words, they don’t package their beer and send it to a retail location, so their needs are different than a large brewer who are trying to package their beer and distribute not only across the state, but across state lines. There are some regulatory hurdles federally. The excise tax is huge. Those are things they always look at. Large breweries probably don’t like, I won’t say don’t like, but probably wouldn’t find it advantageous to self-distribute, but small breweries might. Is that a barrier to growth? I don’t know. Some states do it that way. Right now the Guild just works within the parameters it has in front of it.

CN: Are there regulations that have been passed that have helped the growth of craft beer in Nebraska?

CC: I don’t know about regulations. The law has certainly changed. The law has changed in the last couple years creating, for example, the Craft Brewing Board which was established in 2016. That was a bill that provided for some funding for grants and things like that that will push the industry forward. The University has done a couple things that are really helpful. For example, through the Ag Research and the Department of Ag at the University extension office are totally dedicated to hops growing in our state, which is really cool. Kind of that whole idea of farm to glass, so certainly there is movement and support from legislative effort, the ability to have additional retail locations without the extra burden of distribution. Those have been helpful. Regulations are passed by the Liquor Control Commission. That process is pretty transparent, pretty inclusive, so the brewers have always had the opportunity to weigh in on those kinds of things. We’re still a new industry in Nebraska, so the regulations, the core regulations that were put in place were done in the late 80s to early 90s, and we have around 50 now. There’s challenges to catch up with the kind of growth that I don’t know if the Commission saw possible when they got the rules we’re operating under.

CN: That’s all I’ve got for you. Thanks Colby!

CC: Of course.

While we won’t be profiling breweries as in-depth as in years past, we will try to update you on changes and additions to the breweries we’ve profiled in the past, and give you information about the new breweries all across The Good Life.

Follow the Nebraska Craft Brewers Guild on Twitter and Facebook.