The Little Brewery That Could

Mill, mill, mill. Mash, mash, mash. Boil, boil, boil. Crash, crash, crash. Ferment, ferment, ferment.

Center Pivot in Quinter, Kansas, was a single-barrel brewery. Barrel limitations did not prevent the brewer from turning out interesting beer styles with a twist. There were five beer styles, including ales with cracked pepper, green tea and even a brown ale named after Maizee, one of the brewer’s dogs. Rounding out the five styles were the Taw-Taw pomegranate wheat and the Main Street IPA.

But that was not all. There was a brewer, eighty-one inches tall. Steve was his name, teaching and brewing great craft beer were part of his game. In this little brewery in Quinter, Steve almost did not brew. This is the story, and it is true.

Steve Nicholson lived in Nebraska for years. This is where he met his wife, Ericka, who one day would become a bookkeeper for the little brewery. Teaching was his claim to fame, and coaching was his sport of choice. There came a point when Steve and his friends tired of drinking Michelob Amber Bock and Fat Tire. He and a coaching friend decided one day to start homebrewing. Close to twenty years later, Steve dreamed of opening a brewery in Nebraska. He continued to brew at home, refining his processes and experimenting with taste profiles. He pursued the possibilities but was unable to secure a home for his dream. Steve the brewer looked south and found a new place to teach and, best of all, a potential home for the little brewery. Main Street in Quinter lacked a sit-down restaurant and gathering place for the community. Steve said, “I want to build a place for families and large groups to come, be together and socialize.”

The homebrewer and aspiring pro brewer thought to himself: “Open in Quinter? I homebrew for my friends but have a mountain to climb. The town is dry, I cry!”

Steve respected the German heritage and diverse beliefs in the Quinter area. The challenge was to convince the Dunkard Brethren community that his dream of creating a space for everyone could work in this town of 911 people.

Debate was contentious, libations were not welcome.

Steve and the team behind Center Pivot found a way to create a space that was comfortable for everyone, with the dining room and brewery clearly separated. The greater Quinter community immediately pitched in to help. Newfound friends joined hands collectively, as they helped raise the roof of Center Pivot Restaurant & Brewery.

The calendar months fell away, close to forty-eight pages fell in a fray.

“We can make this happen,”2 Steve declared. He approached the space with an Americana flair, recycling materials and incorporating contributions from the community into the design. Doors, chairs, walls and halls came together with the help of new friends and neighbors. Local artists delivered Center Pivot coasters made from old hedge posts, a brewery farmers’ lounge came to life through use of a retired truck tailgate and beer flight trays were made from expired license plates.

Opening day neared; will they like my beer, he feared.

Comically, at the grand opening, Steve thought that the kegs of beer “must be leaking” because they drained so quickly. His beer was a hit! Steve reminisced, “Some of my ideas for beer styles have been a little ahead of the curve. I want my beer styles to be drinkable. The taste should be just enough to get your attention, but not a punch in the head.”

He boiled, fermented, filtered and slowly, slowly, slowly, the brews hit the taps.

Steve has accomplished this transition from homebrewing to pro, with a used one-barrel system that Copper Kettle Brewing Company in Denver had outgrown. He has continued to introduce styles with unique flavor notes to his followers. A winter beer, appropriately named Spruce is Loose, has hit the mark with the timely use of spruce tips and Norwegian old-style brewing techniques. Outside-the-box thinking prompted by a friend making Kahlua has resulted in a stout style called Veracruz, loaded with local coffee and Kahlua. If you become a regular at Center Pivot, know that your taste buds will be happy as new styles rotate through.

And the little brewery, named Center Pivot, you see…named after an irrigation system that pivots, creating crop circles within squares that a soaring hawk can see from up high while flying over Main Street.

As you visit the eight breweries in the “Smoky Hill Trail”4 chapter that follows, enjoy the three breweries that opened in 2021 in rural towns from Phillipsburg to Courtland. The 148-mile trek west on Kansas I-70 will end as you slow down, taking Exit 107 to Quinter. Pass the flower display in the vintage milk can straddling the center of Main Street and discover the little brewery with great beer down on the right. Walk in and Steve will greet you like a long-lost friend.

“All I want is for you to ask for a second pint.”

Center Pivot Brewery stands alone among all the breweries across our Sunshine State. This one-barrel brewery led by Steve Nicholson (owner and head brewer) brews some of the most unique and drinkable beer that I have enjoyed as I have written this book. Steve is a gentle giant, standing at six feet, nine inches tall—easy to spot whether at a beer festival or in his brewery. He also has three loyal partners in his faithful labs Milo, BB, and Maizee, who proudly complement the license plate while hanging out on the tailgate. Steve’s brewing approach starts with a focus on tradition, adding creativity and boldness that shows itself across his beer selection.

How did Steve arrive here? To create what he has in this rural Kansas town of 911 people was a tall task. He and his wife, Ericka, moved to Quinter knowing that Steve would step in as a teacher and coach at their high school. The couple had what could have been an insurmountable obstacle had it not been for their persistence, commitment and personable approach. Quinter shifted from a dry Kansas community to one that now supports Center Pivot. The single-barrel system came from the Copper Kettle in Aurora, Colorado. That restaurant and brewery had outgrown the equipment, which was exactly what Steve was looking for.

Expect five Center Pivot beers on draft complemented by a guest beer tap grouping that brings any style that might be your preference to the table. The creativity in his brewing has led to first-time experiences for me, starting with his Cracked Pepper Cream Ale and continuing to the Spruce Is Loose winter beer. Inspiration for any brewer can come from multiple directions. In these cases, a taste of an ale with pepper at the Great American Beer Festival started his hunt for the right balance, while the Spruce Is Loose beer originated in Norway and Scandinavia, later becoming a colonial recipe.

Nothing makes Steve feel better than when a customer asks for a second pint. He told me and my in-law, Kevin, “It’s not work.”  It is worth the trip to Quinter to be part of the local community that gathers at CPR&B, to have a meal, and to know that whatever Center Pivot style you choose will be enjoyed.