A lot of young people who go to school at Wayne State College grow to love the neighborhood atmosphere the community of Wayne provides.
For Greg Ptacek, when it came time to find a place to start a local brewery, Wayne just felt like home.
This fall, the 31-year-old beer brewer will open the Johnnie Byrd Brewing Company in space adjacent to the 1912 Emporium on the corner of Second and Pearl streets in downtown Wayne, coming to town after spending the last four years as economic development director for the city of Neligh.
It’s a reconnection to the community for Ptacek.
“My wife and I are Wayne State grads and both my parents and my wife’s parents went to Wayne State, so there’s always been a draw to this town,” the Osceola native said. “It just feels like home.”
Ptacek graduated from Wayne State in 2008 with a degree in political science and history, then earned his masters in public administration at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
He had planned on a career in politics, either as a policy representative or a legislative aide, “but that’s not where life took me.”
Ptacek had taken a class taught by Wayne Area Economic Development director Wes Blecke at Wayne State College, and the idea of getting involved in economic development appealed to him. After working in management at Target in Norfolk, he became Neligh’s first economic development director in 2013 and learned a lot about starting and growing new business.
“As I helped mentor businesses and startups, there were always questions in the back of my mind about what kind of business I might want to start, and a brewery was something that I’ve been interested in,” he said. “Just the act of creation and the sense of community in a tap house is something I felt I wanted to bring to a community and to be able to engage my creative cooking side and share those creative juices.”
Ptacek figured that if he wanted to start a brewery, he needed to learn more about brewing beer. Before long, he had tried more than 60 different recipes, everything from a lighter-tasting beer to a dark lager.
“I’ve seen a lot of successful models that have shown that this could be a viable business in Nebraska in any location, and I saw a need for it here in Wayne,” he said.
And so, earlier this year, he turned in his resignation as Neligh’s economic development director and is now hard at work constructing his brewery and marketing the Johnnie Byrd Brewing Company through its website and Facebook page.
Having a number of younger entrepreneurs in the community was one of the many attractions Wayne had for Ptacek.
“With people like Mark (Kanitz) and Lucas (Rix) and Jennifer (Claussen) already doing well in their businesses here, I think there’s a good supportive culture here for small business,” he said.
Ptacek had connections with Rix through their work together at Target and in other statewide young businessman leadership groups, and so when Rix and Kanitz bought the old fire hall on the corner of Second and Pearl streets and the original plan for a brewery fell through, he wasted no time getting hold of his old college buddy.
“I knew of the facility when a brewery was first rumored to be going in, and when that fell through I talked to Lucas right away about it, then loaded up the wife and kids in a minivan and came to look at the place,” he said.
His wife, Kelly, is a teacher in Neligh and will hold down the family fort there with their three kids while Ptacek works to get the Johnnie Byrd Brewing Company ready for a fall 2017 opening. The family plans to move to Wayne sometime next year, he said.
The name of the business is a nod to his grandfather, who had a band called the Johnnie Byrd Orchestra that was a regional draw many years ago.
“Our last name means ‘little bird’ in Czech, so he called the band the Johnnie Byrd Orchestra,” Ptacek said. “The name of the brewery is a homage to him.”
Once the first brews are ready to go, Ptacek expects to have a handful of options available and will rotate different flavors on a regular basis in a three-barrel system that will brew about 100 gallons of beer.
“I’m not going to have any lagers right away, because it takes up to six weeks for them to ferment,” he said.
One of his first beers will be one of his personal favorites, a cranberry wheat beer.
“It’s like if wine and beer had a baby and it was raised by a Sour Patch kid,” he said in describing the beer’s flavor. “It’s not a sweet beer like you might assume with a cranberry, but it’s more a beer-wine hybrid.”
He said that the beers that will be brewed here will provide some interesting and fresh tastes for people who enjoy a good beer now and then.
“If you’re used to drinking Bud Light and you drink a stout, it’s going to taste a little different, and we’ll have people on staff who know their beer and can explain it,” he said. “It’s a matter of getting people to think differently about what good beer tastes like.”
For now, Ptacek said the brewery’s beer will be available only on site, but is hoping to find the right distributor at some point to market his beer in the region.
“With the current business plan, we’re not planning to bottle any beer the first three years, and you really need to find the right distributor for that because it’s a lot like a marriage,” he said. “It’s hard for a small brewery to get a foothold if you don’t have the right distributor, so for now we’re going to focus on Wayne and see where that takes us.”
With seating for about 40 in the tap room and a planned outdoor beer garden, Ptacek hopes the Johnnie Byrd Brewing Company will become a tourist spot and a gathering place for those in Wayne who want to enjoy a good beer now and again.
“A lot of people think that a brewery in a college town makes sense, but college kids aren’t our primary target,” he said. “I think this will be a good community facility that will provide a venue for people to come together.”