Brave New Brew

BY BEN VERHILLE | APRIL 10, 2014 5:00 AM

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To the west, farther than the barren wasteland of Ames, rests the land of the Cornhuskers — more importantly, the home of Zipline Brewing Co. 

Located in Lincoln, Neb., Zipline's story has been one of supply falling short of demand. Founded in November 2012 by Marcus Powers, the company began brewing purely for the drafts. 

Powers was limited to distributing mostly to Lincoln because of a lack of brewing capacity.

Originally, his company's sales were exclusively draft beers, but he began bottling the product in late 2013 and has since doubled production. He sought a solid support base from the draft beer before moving on to new markets in Omaha, the Tri-Cities, and then crossing the border to Iowa.

"The craft-beer market in Nebraska is big, full of beer lovers, and it's a market that isn't satisfied with typical light beers," Powers said, following a trend found in Iowa. 

"Iowans have a great appreciation for craft beers," Powers said. "Our goal is to keep distribution within five hours of the [Lincoln] brewery to keep the beer fresh and costs down."

Iowa City is just within that range. Neighbors in Cedar Rapids might have to wait a couple more years before they have access to these craft brews.

One of the brews in particular, the Copper Alt — a hybrid between ale and lager — Powers said, has been a top seller. "About 40 percent of our sales come from this beer alone," he said. 

Not only skilled in craft beers, Powers is also part of the Colorado-based Brewers Association's Sustainability Committee, and he will speak at the 2014 Craft Beer Conference this month in Denver.

Locally, beer aficionados at John's Grocery, 401 E. Market St., have seen a growing enthusiasm among both beer enthusiasts and casual drinkers for Zipline.

Chris Moore, one of the many beer gurus at John's, has noticed the brand's popularity.

"[Zipline beers] have been surprisingly popular," Moore said. "7.1 percent beer at $8 for a six-pack is worth it. There are other craft beers from Nebraska, but [Zipline] has had the best response of all of them."

And how John's came into contact with the new brewery, sometimes a reputation can be a connection. Doug Alberhasky, Johns's store manager and Bier Guy made that link.

"[Zipline] sought us out, being very small and growing in its home market," he said. "They knew that Iowa City was going to be a place it could get some traction and grow as it got bigger."

Further, IPA beers typically sell well in Iowa, as shown by the sales at John's.

The New Zealand Pale Ale is Zipline's top seller at John's, Alberhasky said. "We will definitely be carrying it as long as it can make it."

While the bottled beer enjoys strong support from Iowa City facilities, a larger demand for the tap version has taken place at craft-brew haven Red's Alehouse, 405 N. Dubuque St., North Liberty. There, all of Zipline's beers sold out in the first week. 

Brandon Ryan, the service manager at Red's Alehouse, noted a noticeable spike in sales during its launch party for the beer.

"We had 200 percent of our specialty-beer sales during the release," Ryan said.

The facilty had carried the Black IPA, Nitro Pale Ale, and New Zealand IPA.

"The majority of the beers sold out within two to three days; the rest were gone by the end of the week," he said. "We pick the craft beer that nobody else carries."

Ryan noted that craft beers in particular require special consideration about serving and storage. 
"We make sure to keep [the beers] at the proper temperature and serve with the appropriate glassware," Ryan said. "We also self-clean the lines after every keg to avoid residue from previous beers that affect the flavor. We pick crowd-pleasers based on the season."

Red's partnership with beer distributors Johnson Brothers of Iowa, Inc. connected them to Zipline. 

On the way to an Omaha Beer Conference, Jeff Finney — head of the beer division at Johnson Brothers of Iowa Inc. — initially toured Zipline while stopping over to help with a draft system at the brewery.

While there, the Johnson Brothers team tried the beer and was amazed at the quality of the product.

"We thought they had the best beer in Nebraska, and we hadn't even heard of them before," Finney said. "After meeting with them to discuss future campaigns, a partnership in Iowa was the next logical step. It appears that they are concentrating regionally, protecting their home base and expanding to nearby states that make sense. They spent time in Iowa City and Des Moines, and the market was a good fit."

Although the Johnson Brothers' preferences don't always resonate with the customer, Finney said they were really impressed with the sales of the beers at both bars and grocery stores, with help from their packaging.

But the fun doesn't end in Iowa City. When asked what comes next  Finney said, "I think they will stay regional, based on their size and mission."

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