Food & Drink

Omaha Brewing Company mixes small-town atmosphere with big aspirations

It takes some effort to reach Omaha Brewing Company. 45-plus minutes of road separates this small brewery from the suburbs of north Columbus, and it feels every bit like an hour.

Along the drive to OBC, located in Omaha, Georgia, travelers zip past countless gas stations, a house decorated top-to-bottom in Bible verses that urges passersby to repent, and a corporate paper mill.

Then, suddenly, the town of Omaha appears. And not even 10 minutes past that mill, sits the brewery that calls this small town home.

After parking in the gravel lot outside, visitors step into the brewery. Inside, the blinding sunlight on a hot July day turns into relief as ice-cold air conditioning welcomes visitors into the low-lit tap room.

Visitors are greeted by, of all things, a lit-up Christmas snowman decoration. To its right, the tap wall and to its left, gray, faded and worn-down lockers. Indentations from old doorways and walls can still be seen on the ground from when the building served as a school for African-American children many years ago.

A bartender stands in front of a massive chalkboard, displaying all of the brewery’s signature brews. She greets visitors as they wander inside: Those from around the area are greeted by first name, and a “how’s it going?” Others, just the second part.

“The vision for the brewery when I first started it is the exact same as it was exactly the same as it was the very first day,” said owner and founder Robert Lee. “To create something for my family, and my community, and hopefully leave a legacy for them.”

OBC certainly has a knack for the peculiar, and that notion rests in the brewery’s core belief: the individuality of each craft beer, and the notion that craft beer “isn’t prevalent enough in the south.”

OBC, both Robert and his son Rob agree, does not specialize in just one type of brew.

Nada-Banana, a berliner weisse (a sour-flavored) beer, is Robert’s favorite, up there with Island Rain, the brewery’s hard sparkling water (think similar to Whiteclaw). Island Rain and Rush South, an American pale ale, are two of the brewery’s newer releases.

Lee did not start OBC as means to make a living. He works as a dentist — his practice not even a mile up the road — when he’s not running the brewery. He did not start OBC to build up and sell, either.

Lee said that, eventually, it will be passed down to his son, Rob. He said that he employs many family members at the brewery, “two sons, several nieces and a brother.”

“The other employees here are like my family members,” Lee said, “and that’s what we want.”

Lee said he started the brewery with the goal of being “truly family oriented.” Visitors will see dogs, children and families at the brewery on any given Saturday, Robert said.

But this small-town brewery has big aspirations, and it’s already acting on them.

Since its inception, the brewery has undergone its fair share of facelifts. The offices, which now lie in a much smaller corner of the old schoolhouse, originally served as the brewhouse. The Lees added a 13,000-square-foot production facility, and the schoolhouse, that has since been redone, is now the tasting room.

OBC was distributed only in Columbus for around two-and-a-half years, 2014 and 2015. Today, it distributes to “pretty much the entire state.”

In 2018, OBC expanded to coastal Georgia, from Statesboro, to Savannah, down to the Florida state line. A few weeks ago, the brewery signed with Alabama Crown, a distributing company based out of Alabaster, Alabama, which will allow OBC to distribute across the entire state. It expanded to the south Alabama market — Gulf Shores, Orange Beach — last week.

“Our focus is south of Atlanta, and then Alabama,” Rob said. “It’s a little bit different (not distributing north of Atlanta), but we’ve seen growth every year for five years, and it’s still growing, so I think we’re doing something right.”

The brewery fits right into the craft beer culture growing in Columbus and the surrounding areas, and provides a popular tourism spot for Stewart County.

Columbus has two microbreweries, or breweries that typically produce specialty beers and only sell products locally: The Cannon Brew Pub (though the Cannon also doubles as a restaurant, so it’s not technically a microbrewery) and a not-yet-opened brewery on 6th Ave. run by the folks at Chattabrewchee in West Point.

The Columbus Council voted to pass Columbus’ Unified Development Ordinance and alcohol licensing regulations to allow microbreweries and microdistilleries in certain city districts. The rule change opened the door for breweries and distilleries to operate in the Uptown, Central Riverfront, General Commercial and Light Manufacturing zoning districts in March 2019.

The Columbus Convention and Visitor’s Bureau presents the city as a “food destination,” according to president and CEO Peter Bowden. Microbreweries, such as OBC, fit right into that.

“I just got back from an extended trip and I saw towns much smaller than Columbus have multiple types of craft beer,” Bowden said. “... I think with Fort Benning, we keep track of about 1.9 million visitors per year to the city, and then the locals, it provides a vibe for the city that we’re on that trend for providing a specialty product for folks.”

Stewart County manager Mac Moye says OBC is contrary to everything he’s learned about rural tourism.

“They’ve been successful in drawing people to a remote area,” Moye said. “My hat’s off to them. On any particular given Saturday afternoon, they’ll have 100 vehicles in their parking lot. I walk around and the tags are typically a lot of Fort Benning people, a lot of Columbus people, and a whole lot of Atlanta people. Quite a few out of Alabama.

“I see, typically, a dozen states represented (in the tags).”

Robert said the brewery plans to expand further to add housing, a campsite, a winery and a distillery. The ultimate goal is to distribute in three states (Georgia, Alabama, Florida). The winery will come first, then the distillery, though Robert did not provide an exact timeline.

“They’ve established something I didn’t think was possible: a family-friendly atmosphere around their alcoholic beverage,” Moye said. “It’s pretty incredible.”

Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.