Life happens to all of us. For me the pace appears to accelerate the older I get. There seems little time to sit back and reflect on where we’ve been and where we’re going. On this Black Friday filled with holiday memories of Thanksgiving Thursdays gone by, I feel a great need to take pause and look around a bit.
Today I feel like a proud papa as we release our very first bottled beers in the history of our small family owned brewery. It feels like just yesterday we were drawing brewery plans on a piece of blank paper in Mark and Mendy’s dining room while the wood crackled in the fireplace and the smell of turkey and sausage sage stuffing filled the air. Pals was still a dream back then. A dream that started about 16 years ago in basements and garages where Nickademus and I used to brew and split 30-gallon batches of Explosive Fruit Ale, Palgian Pales, and batch after batch of Dry Irish Stouts (that never seemed quite right without the nitro creaminess). Those dreams always assumed that we would be bottling 22oz bombers of beer on Day 1. Well in the immortal words of John Steinbeck “The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray.” Those original brewery plans had Nick and I brewing and bottling beer together for a Michigan market that was already craft beer savvy due to the efforts of accomplished breweries like Bell’s (Oberon, Two-Hearted IPA), Founders (KBS, All Day IPA), New Holland (Dragon’s Milk, The Poet) and Dark Horse (Raspberry Ale, Black Ale), and Olde Peninsula Brewpub (Raspberry Wheat, Midnight Stout). If you’ve never experienced these amazing beers, they are all still brewed today and are worth seeking out. Those were the beers we cut our teeth on and tried to emulate as we fell in love with the wide, wide world of beer styles beyond the light lager. God bless the brewers that came before us.
Fast forward more than a decade and Amy and I were taking the almost unthinkable step of quitting our comfortable paying jobs cold and moving to the middle of nowhere….er (cough!)….Nebraska. I had no idea how to build a brewery and neither did Mark although he had participated in building a house. Surely it couldn’t be that much different to design and build a brewery? Our original business plan had Mendy making 20 pizzas per week in the kitchen, Amy slinging a few beers behind the bar in the evening, and me brewing beer in the brewery several times per week. The brewery build-out was a challenge. Who knew that plumbing pipe placement could have such a dramatic impact on the final space layout? The bar ended up two feet deeper than the plan, therefor, we lost a couple of tables and seats. The RO water tank didn’t fit where the drawing had it back in the brewery and ended up in the space where the bottling line was supposed to go. The firewall ended up right behind the kitchen and prevented us from building it bigger. People from town kept asking us “Why are you building the brewery way out there?”. The 6,000 square foot building I recommended quickly became 5,000 square feet as costs greatly exceeded our budget. The taproom shrunk. The brewery shrunk.
The day the brewing equipment arrived I had no idea how we would get it unloaded and into the brewery without damaging it. We couldn’t afford pro riggers so we did what I’ve come to learn Nebraskans just do. Mark called up some friends and everyone showed up to help along with a crane and a forklift. God bless the farmer is a true statement. God bless the railroaders and the electrician and the wives too. I had to cover my eyes as the process for unloading each piece of equipment was carefully planned, argued over, tweaked, began, tweaked again, and completed. We celebrated. I breathed a very large sigh of relief. A big thank you from the bottom of my heart to the Jerry’s, Todd, Scotty, and the farmer brothers from Hershey (and their cheering wives). Without their selfless giving of time and tractors I’m quite sure the equipment would still be on a truck somewhere.
So now I’m staring at a pile of brewing equipment, pipes, valves, and fittings wondering how the heck am I going to figure out how to put this all together from this crummy little drawing. Enter good ole’ Bob Sharon from Charlie’s Plumbing. He stopped in, took one look at the pile, and said I’ll be back tomorrow. We’ll get ‘er done. He was right. The two of us assembled the brew system in one day. God bless the pipe fitter who had once put together a brewery or two.
There wasn’t much time to celebrate that victory as it was time to order malt, hops, yeast, and schedule the brew system trainer to come. When Dalton arrived from American Brewing Equipment out of Lincoln it was pretty cool to find out he had grown up in North Platte. I knew we were in good hands. Step one was to passivate each piece of equipment using strong acid. Good thing I remembered to order the gloves and safety glasses! By day two we were brewing Jerry Light. Talk about mixed emotions. On the one hand it was the culmination of much planning, nail biting, and hard work and clearly something to celebrate. On the other we were out of money and I really needed to be able to pour those first batches of beers to what we hoped were thirsty customers. I was nervous. In case you haven’t noticed I’m fairly particular about my beer. It needs to be just the way I planned it. Well the plan was to brew four days in a row and fill all of the fermenters. The first brew day I fell into bed after a 16-hour day completely exhausted physically, mentally and emotionally. After the second day lasted 14 hours, I was driving north on Buffalo Bill and the tears started to fall out of nowhere. I just couldn’t see how I was ever going to figure out the equipment. We had no procedure, a seemingly endless number of valves to open and close at just the right time, and I was completely lost.
Day 3 dawned with a new determination. I was going to figure it out or die trying. It was time to brew the Irish Stout, arguably my favorite beer. I guess third time’s the charm. Things started to click. By the time Dalton left at the end of the week I was feeling better. Two weeks later the Irish Stout was creamy and smooth just like I had dreamed it could be. It was St Patty’s Day 2017 and our first soft opening was a private event. We cashed our first sixtel of Irish, hooked up a half barrel, and poured… nothing but foam. Another keg and the same result. The best laid plans….
Pals officially opened to the public about a week later and we quickly realized we were in over our heads. The four owners were working every night because the minimal staff we had hired to serve 5 pizzas a night and a few pints couldn’t keep up with the sudden demand for pizza and beer. The service suffered. We were overwhelmed and understaffed. Tempers flared. We hired some good people. God bless the Mitchell’s, Nates, Andreas, Rachels, Tyler's and Alissa’s in the world along with many others too numerous to mention. I’m pretty sure Mitchell and Andrea had more experience in the service industry than all of us owners combined by a factor of 1,000. We gradually came together and found our way. We owe those early employees a great debt of gratitude for helping us when we needed it most.
And it was about that time when fate intervened in my life on a fateful May night. My Anna Street neighbors and I had just finished our evening beer and I decided to investigate the raucous laughter exuding from the campfire next door. And the jolliest campfire sitter was none other than the goose, Tom Gies, jobless, cancer free, and living on bonus time after a long bought with Multiple Myeloma. He was a homebrewer. He wanted to do something different. He was just what I needed. Old school work ethic and a sense of humor. He has tools. A whole garage of them. Thank God for the cancer survivor. Tom and I went to fun every day. We were living the homebrewers dream making beer for a living. Eventually the business of running a brewery and taproom got to the point we just had to train Tom to brew and he’s been our brewer ever since. We added Zac Terry a bit later. Tom and I started out calling him Thor since he’s built like a tree trunk. The three of us have become quite a team and our beers wouldn’t be the same without either of them. I doubt we would have bottled beer to sell today if not for their hard work and dedication. God bless the brewers!
And so here I sit in the Pals taproom on a cold rainy November morning. Listening to live acoustic music as the hum of voices echoes off the cedar wood on the walls. We opened at 9am and there were actually customers waiting at the door. In my opinion the bottle release beers are excellent examples of their styles. The boys did an amazing job. The labels look good but I’m still fretting about everything. What if they don’t stick over time? What if the bottles explode? What if….. The reality is there will always be what-ifs in life. What if we quit our jobs and nobody comes to the brewery? What if we expand and we lose the taproom feel? What if we’re dead tomorrow? Life happens to us all.
Before I close I would like to thank some folks without whom our first bottle release would likely never have happened.
My beautiful and hard-working wife Amy who has always supported me and my crazy dreams despite all my flaws as a human being. She is and always will be my rock.
Mark and Mendy for their willingness to start upon this dream with me. Without their help Pals would have never been built and the pizza would not be what it is.
Our other business partners Pete, Rebecca, Dan, and Kevin for having faith in us and their level-headed wisdom and guidance.
My long-time homebrewing friends Nick, Aaron, Karl, Chris, Dan, Steve, Mark, Jeff and all of the club members of KLOB who slogged and sipped their way through those early homebrews.
The contractors from Axxent Builders, Charlie’s North Platte Plumbing, Knoebels Refrigeration, Platte Valley Excavating, and JR Hewgley who built Pals from the ground up.
Bob and Barb for selling us this beautiful piece of land here in the Platte River Valley.
All of our amazing Pals employees past and present who make Pals what it is.
To our closest friends and partners who volunteer selflessly whenever I come calling whether it’s serving festival beer or labeling our first bottles. Misty, Chris, and Tina I can’t thank you enough for all of the time you’ve given to Pals.
And last but not least, to you the customers who have made Pals and North Platte truly feel like home. Life happens to us all and today as we release our first beers in a bottle, I can’t think of anyplace better to be living it.