ATKINSON, Neb. — It began with a home brew kit.
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t even Rodney Keim’s. It belonged to his friend.
But it was that kit that first piqued Keim’s interest in craft beer.
“I didn’t know you could make beer at your house. That was new information to me,” he told the Norfolk Daily News . “And what was really interesting was at the time, I really wasn’t much of a drinker at all — I just was fascinated with the process of how you make beer at your house.”
So, he snagged his own kit from Craigslist for $75 and began brewing beer in 2009 when he still lived in Colorado.
At first, he just passed the beer out to his friends. But it wasn’t after too many brew sessions that he decided, “You know, I think this is something I could do as a business.”
Of course, now he is.
Rodney Keim and his wife, Alisha Keim, own Brush Creek Brewing Company in Atkinson. The brewery and tap room opened Nov. 1, 2016. It was rebranded several weeks ago as The Well, home of Brush Creek Brewing Company because the couple added brick oven pizza to their menu.
The Keims purchased the Main Street building where their business is located shortly after they moved to Atkinson in 2012.
At that point, all Rodney and Alisha Keim knew was that if they were going to open a brewery, that’s where they wanted it — they liked the storefront and the big windows — but they had yet to figure out how they would pull off their goal.
They were in in uncharted territory.
After all, a town of a little over 1,200 people isn’t your typical brewery location.
Alisha Keim describes Atkinson as tight-knit.
That’s an important quality of the North Central Nebraska community, and one of the reasons she and Rodney Keim — who grew up in Lincoln and Omaha, respectively — like living there.
But there was something they quickly noticed about life in a small town.
“They go elsewhere to go for a nice dinner, or drive a few hours for school shopping,” Alisha Keim said.
That prompted a thought, and a goal.
“The more we can get people to come and stay, the more we can continue to build what’s tight-knit in the community instead of allowing it to dissipate,” she said.
She sees the brewery as something that could help do that.
Atkinson’s economic development director, Lou Ann Tooker, would tend to agree.
“Fifty years ago, economic development was more dependent on bringing in businesses. We went out there and searched to bring in specific businesses,” Tooker said. “Now, it seems like there’s been a shift and we’re now seeking to bring — especially in rural areas — we’re seeking to bring young people back to our communities.”
Along with them can come new business ideas, as was the case with Alisha and Rodney Keim.
That makes figuring out what attracts the younger generation essential. And as Tooker has found, it generally comes down to culture.
“It’s things for them to do — or for their children to do,” Tooker said. “It’s just a whole different way of thinking.”
In a nutshell, young families may be interested in leaving big cities, but they’re not interested in sacrificing big-city amenities.
That’s backed up by the results of a study Rodney Keim saw.
It showed that his generation and the next generation after were exiting major metropolitan areas for the romantic imagery associated with rural communities.
“So to have a brewery, which is something that they like in the bigger cities … to have that be in a small community, creates a serious draw for people to want to come out this way,” Rodney Keim said.
While crowd make-up and size varies, on any given night, 50 percent of Brush Creek’s customers are from out of town, Rodney said.
Tooker compares it to when she was younger. Back then, she and her friends would travel from town to town visiting quilt shops because it was an interest of theirs.
Now, she sees young adults taking a similar approach with breweries.
“I’m hearing from all these people who I work with throughout the state, ‘Oh, well now you have a craft brewery, so we’re going to go to Ord and then we’re going to go to Atkinson and then we’re going to go to Valentine,’ ” Tooker said. “So all these people are coming from out of town to visit this craft brewery.”
Ultimately, that can benefit the entire community.
Just down the road from Brush Creek Brewing Company on Main Street is a business that takes customers back in time.
RF Goeke Hometown Variety is what used to be commonly referred to as a dime store, with everything from toys to yarn to zippers.
But what it’s best known for is its old-fashioned soda fountain.
“It’s not like your fast food or your quick drive-thru soft ice cream places,” said Carol Hamik, one of the business’ soda jerks who works at a soda fountain. “You’re served by a soda jerk, who is dressed in appropriate attire. You’re also served in glass. … So it’s a little bit of a more old-school type thing.”
That makes them another attraction in Atkinson, as is the three-level gift shop, Something Special by Marilyn, just a few buildings away.
“We’ve been here for 23 years and we just try to carry things that other stores don’t usually carry in the area,” said Janelle Rossman, who owns the store with her mother. “We kind of try to be a little bit of a destination spot.”
Specifically, it’s the place to come if you want anything Christmas.
But something each of these places — including the brewery — sees as important in keeping Atkinson’s business community strong is promoting each other’s work.
“We have a bunch of people who will come in because they’ve heard of the fountain, and we’ll always tell them, ‘You’ve got to go down and see the Christmas store, Marilyn’s, and we have a cute little beauty shop and boutique across the street,” Hamik said. “We try to promote everybody.”
Of course, it helps their businesses, too, when the favor is returned.
“It’s nice to work together because we’re so far out in the country it’s nice to have more than one place to go,” Rossman said.
To Tooker, it’s this is an important aspect of economic development in a rural community. If you get people to come to the community, who might not otherwise, they’re going to see what else Atkinson has to offer.
For example, Rodney and Alisha Keim know they’ve had out-of-town customers who choose to spend the night after visiting them, which means they might fill up on gas or stop at another business down the road.
“We’ve had people that come through and they’ve thought about going through, but they like staying here so much — they like having the beer and we’ve been catering in food from one of the other restaurants — that they end up just grabbing a room at the motel and just camping here all night because there’s a brewery here and there’s not a lot around North Central Nebraska,” Rodney Keim said. “So from the town perception, we’ve created an additional draw that allows outside dollars to come into the town and help the town grow.”
Alisha and Rodney don’t mince words: starting their brewery has been stressful.
They’ve got three young children and have pulled their fair share of late nights. (It’s not been uncommon for their kids to have sleepovers at the brewery while they work, Alisha Keim said.)
But at the end of the day, when they see their customers’ reaction to the business, it’s fun.
“You always know who’s new because they walk in the door and they stop and they just start looking around and saying, ‘I can’t believe that this place is here,’ ” Rodney Keim said. “So seeing that kind of reaction out of people and, ‘Oh, this is such a great place.’ … Seeing people posting on our Facebook page and commenting, that’s the warm, fuzzy feeling I guess is that people do enjoy this place and they’re so glad that something like this came to their town that they never thought could.”
As customer Shannon Olberang puts it, the brewery is family-friendly, welcoming and adds value to the community.
There’s homemade root beer available in the tap room for children and non-drinkers, and the Keims tried to capitalize on their motto — “We’re about people before we’re about products” — with things like their pizza names. (They’re named after characters in life, such as “The Minimalist,” ”The Fun Guy” and “The Classy Lady.”)
Rodney won’t even be offended if someone doesn’t like one of his beers — there’s five to six on tap that change every week.
He just asks everyone give a new beer at least two sips because, in the end, it was really about creating a great environment to him and Alisha Keim.
“We wanted to create a place where life happens, genuine life on all different facets,” Rodney Keim said. “If it’s just this is your afternoon routine to come in and have a pint, OK great. Share your story with the bartender or server that is there. Or if this is where you want to show your family, ‘Hey we’ve got this in our town, let’s go do this.'”
Rodney Keim recalls one of his regular customers.
“We had gentleman the other day, a very regular guy, comes in all the time, he was working on a business contract, so he just brought his laptop and set it up on the bar, spread out his papers and he had a pint of beer. Fantastic, I’m glad we created that environment for him,” he said.
The brewery is a place where life happens, Rodney Keim said.
Information from: Norfolk Daily News, http://www.norfolkdailynews.com
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Norfolk Daily News.