Local beer and pizza aficionados who want to visit the nation’s top small brewpub don’t have far to travel. It’s just a few blocks north of downtown Columbus.
ZwanzigZ, a signature pizza and beer destination restaurant that’s been a local favorite for years, is in the national spotlight this month, with its craft brewery taking small brewpub of the year Oct. 6 to 8 at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, Colorado.
Brewmaster Mike Rybinski and assistant brewer Trent Fleener also were named the Brewers of the Year in the small brewpub category.
It’s the first time an Indiana brewpub has won the national award since the festival created it in the late 1990s.
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And for owners Kurt and Lisa Zwanzig, it represents just how far their business has come, from a tiny, one-room pizza shop on the outskirts of Columbus to a bustling community landmark that has taken craft beer brewing to a new level.
“We’re still smiling,” Lisa Zwanzig said as she described the days following the award announcement, an honor that was unexpected.
So unexpected in fact that the couple wasn’t even at the awards ceremony in Denver.
They had traveled from the festival on to Las Vegas, Nevada, for a vacation when their cellphones began pinging repeatedly at the same time with news about their national recognition.
The calls were from friends, customers, other brewers from around Indiana and even from those at the awards ceremony, congratulating them on the win, an epic achievement for a couple that has been in the craft brewing business for less than five years.
Rybinski was representing ZwanzigZ at the festival, sitting in the nosebleed seats far in the back in a large auditorium that was packed with brewers, politely applauding as the local company’s first two entries didn’t win a gold, silver or bronze medal.
As he settled back into his seat, he listened to the next list and was elated to hear “The Ticket,” the restaurant’s chocolate beer, as the silver award winner in the next category.
He turned to the gentleman sitting next to him and said, “That’s me,” before taking a very long walk down a set of stairs to the stage.
“I was kind of shaking. I made sure to find the handrail,” he said of the moment.
Each winner receives a long-honored traditional fist pump from Charlie Papazian, founder of the festival and former president of the national Brewers Association, and a medal, which Rybinski accepted and then went backstage to take a breath.
Before he could return to his seat, while standing against a backstage wall, the announcer said ZwanzigZ’ Frankenwald Eisbock had also won a silver, and he returned to the stage for another fist pump and another medal.
Rybinski then called the ZwanzigZ owners and told them he thought the brewpub could be up for small brewery of the year based on the two beers receiving medals.
He returned to his seat, and that premonition proved correct. He made the long journey back to the stage for the big awards as Twitter and text messages bombarded the Zwanzigs’ cellphones in Las Vegas again.
It was a moment the couple won’t forget.
They left the sandwich shop, where they had planned to eat, and sat outside. Lisa was crying and Kurt was overwhelmed at what their business had just achieved.
“There’s an inclination in craft beer — how far can we reach as fast as possible,” Kurt Zwanzig said. But that’s not what he and Lisa had set out to do, he said.
“We made a conscious choice — and we talked about this — that we would have a smaller footprint and have lots and lots of styles of beer,” he said. “The award was for smaller brewpub and we are relishing that. We made that commitment to stay in those boundaries.”
That’s because the other choice is to make fewer styles of beers on a larger scale, Kurt Zwanzig said, something that the couple feels would limit Rybinski’s ability to craft new tastes, and the brewery’s creative reputation that is gaining national attention.
Since opening, ZwanzigZ has brewed more than 70 different styles of beer. However, there are about 20 on tap on a daily basis in addition to signature sodas and its specialty pizzas and sandwiches.
ZwanzigZ’ well-known and unusual chocolate beer, The Ticket, won against 44 competitors. While some might expect a dark-colored beer to represent the chocolate, Rybinski playfully made it a blonde beer, to play to your senses and be a surprise. The beer is advertised as one that even non-beer drinkers would like.
The Frankenwald Eisbock, a concentrated beer created by freezing it to allow the water which turns to ice to flow to the top and then be removed, was second out of 29 entries. In four years, Rybinski said he’s probably made only two batches, usually in the wintertime.
“It’s not a beer you can make quickly over and over,” Kurt Zwanzig said. “It’s takes a month in the fermenter.”
Julia Herz, craft beer program director for the national Brewers Association, said a medal at the festival signifies the winner producing world-class quality beer to the umpteenth degree.
More than 1,700 breweries competed at the festival in Denver, submitting more than 7,000 beers in more than 90 categories. Nearly 300 judges take three days to evaluate the entries before the awards ceremony.
“When you win one medal, it signifies you are firing on all cylinders,” she said. “When you win multiple times, you ware making world-famous, high-quality beer.”
Brewpubs that win the coveted breweries of the year become destination locations in the beer world, with beer fans seeking them out on their travels, Herz said. Only 200 medals are given out at the festival each year.
Credit to the brewer
Kurt and Lisa Zwanzig give Rybinski the lion’s share of the credit for the craft brew success, saying Rybinki’s creativity and tweaking of formulas has been key to their success.
Kurt Zwanzig and Rybinski both have engineering backgrounds, meeting as college roommates at Northern Illinois State, with Kurt studying acoustical engineering and Rybinski pursuing electrical engineering.
Their paths parted back then, with Rybinski moving on to work at a small bewery in DeKalb, Illinois, and later as a brewer at the Walter Payton Roundhouse near Chicago for 13 years, where he was a four-time medalist in the World Beer Cup. Kurt Zwanzig said Rybinski won gold in 2000, 2002, and 2004 and a silver in 2006 and anyone would be hard-pressed to find an individual who had won back-to-back golds.
At about the same time the Zwanzigs were considering adding the craft brewery to their pizza restaurant, Rybinski became their go-to guy in picking out equipment.
Rybinski would stop in at Columbus while traveling to the Kentucky Derby to see the Kurt and Lisa, and invited them down for derby weekend, where Rybinski agreed to begin brewing for ZwanzigZ.
“We started talking about pizza and beer, and I wrote on a napkin, ‘You make the pizza, I’ll make the beer,’ ” Rybinski said.
The friendship and Rybinski’s beer-exploration talent has now led to national recognition, something Lisa Zwanzig said was always “meant to be.”
“Mike brings a talent that you don’t find these days,” Kurt Zwanzig said of his brewmaster. “We just want to provide a platform for him to explore his creative ideas.”
The next steps in exploration is the couple’s recent purchase and planned renovation of a 10,500-square-foot warehouse building at 315 12th St., which will become ZwanzigZ’s new office and storage space, freeing up valuable space at the Lafayette Avenue brewpub.
ZwanzigZ now stores needed ingredients and materials at four different storage units, and will save time and money by rehabbing the building and having more space to buy, store and move in bulk, rather than in small batches.
“Mike will have all the space he needs to explore all he wants,” Kurt Zwanzig said of Rybinski’s ideas, which have included using multiple turkey cookers to make batch after batch of oatmeal stout, and the beginnings of what could be the company’s next invention, s’mores beer.
There will also be more room to barrel-age beer blends that require it. One-time used bourbon barrels are used for some of the beers to age and the new warehouse space will allow the company more space to accomplish that, Rybinski said.
The entire ZwanzigZ staff will celebrate the brewpub’s success in an after-hours celebration Oct. 23, which is normally a staff meeting.
And there is an inkling that the ZwanzigZ that Columbus knows and loves might have expansion plans in the future, although the owners are keeping mum about that.
For right now, Kurt and Lisa Zwanzig are celebrating the moment of national recognition, not just for themselves, but for Columbus as well.
“We love Columbus,” Lisa Zwanzig said. “We do have plans, but we never want to let go of what makes our craft beer special.”
Where: 1038 Lafayette Ave., Columbus
Features: Specialty pizzas and sandwiches, along with more than 20 craft beers and sodas on tap.
Hops: Features Columbus, Centennial and Cascade hops, grown at the brewpub and featured during Columbus’ historic garden tour.
For a list of craft beers and more information: zwanzigz.com
7,227: Beers entered at the Great American Beer Festival, Oct. 6-8 in Denver, Colorado
50: States represented by breweries and brewpubs entering the competition
264: Judges from 12 countries who awarded the medals
60,000: Overall attendance at the Great American Beer Festival
3,800: Number of beers poured in festival hall
For more: GreatAmericanBeerFestival.com
Other Indiana breweries that brought home a medal from the Great American Beer Festival included:
Daredevil Brewing Co., Indianapolis, for Vacation Kolsch
Sun King Brewing Co., Indianapolis, for Cherry Busey Oud Bruin
Carson’s Brewery, Evansville, for RIPA Double Red Ale