Grace: Omaha beer magnate pays homage to city's brewing history - Omaha.com
Published Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 1:00 am / Updated at 11:51 pm
Grace: Omaha beer magnate pays homage to city's brewing history

The obsession started in dumpsites and ditches. Anywhere someone might toss an empty can of Storz.

Bill Baburek was a kid then, a South Omaha boy who collected things. Stamps. Coins. Golf balls from Spring Lake Park. Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars.

And beer cans. Empty ones. Especially cans of Omaha brew that bore old German names like Storz.

And Falstaff, which still counted because the St. Louis-based beer was brewed in a dozen cities, including Omaha.

Falstaff had opened in an old Omaha brewery once known as Krug.

Baburek rescued the empties, cleaned them and stacked them on basement shelves he built with his dad. He tried to learn more about local names that were becoming harder to spot because of competition from the St. Louis-Milwaukee brewing juggernaut.

So he dived into old newspaper clippings, spending hours as a teenager in the downtown library looking for ads.

He would read about Prohibition, learning how brewers like Storz hung in there for the 14 years the federal government outlawed making and selling alcohol. And how brewers like Krug folded.

The hobby spawned a lifelong passion that Baburek has made profitable. He runs four, soon to be five, beer-themed establishments that pay homage to Omaha's beer past. He takes Omahans on “beer odysseys” to breweries from Kansas City to Europe. He teaches in a seven-week beer school at his package-craft-beer store, Beertopia.

He started annual beer festivals and supports events such a coming potluck, where craft beer must be used as a hot-dish ingredient.

On Sunday, Baburek will share his knowledge of local brew at a two-hour presentation called, succinctly enough, “Beer in Omaha: A History.” (Sorry, all seats are taken.)

Attendance ought to be mandatory for the trendy Omaha youngsters who think cracking open a can of PBR pays homage to their grandfathers. Pabst was among the brewing giants — based in Milwaukee — that crushed Omaha breweries with their advertising and market clout.

Pre-Prohibition mugs are among Bill Baburek's brewery collectibles. MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD

Not even Storz, which called itself “the orchid of beers,” could survive the Walmart of beers. The Storz brewery at 16th and Grace Streets once produced 650,000 barrels of beer a year. In 1960, one out of every two cans of beer sold in Omaha bore the Storz name.

But an aging Storz family, a workers strike and the sale of the brewery to investors who lacked beer knowledge chipped into that success. Then another sale and the rising national prominence of Anheuser-Busch and Miller.

By the time the Minnesota-based Grain Belt Breweries finally shuttered it in 1972, Storz's Omaha plant was producing fewer than 200,000 barrels a year. Wisconsin-based G. Heileman Brewing Co. bought out Grain Belt, shut down the brewery and moved Storz production to St. Paul. Storz beer never tasted the same after that, Baburek says.

“When it was no longer in Omaha, it was no longer Storz,” he said.

The recipe might have been the same. But different water. Different hops. Different taste. You couldn't get a fresh draft. You couldn't get a bottle.

Bill Baburek's collectibles include memorabilia from breweries such as Metz, Storz and Krug. MATT MILLER/THE WORLD-HERALD

“When your beer went into 12-pack cans,” Baburek said, “you knew the end was near.”

Baburek's beer can collection continued to grow. By 1981, he was featured in the old Sun Newspapers for having a 2,000-piece collection that included vintage cans of Falstaff empties that he and others donated to the Omaha brewery.

Baburek then was president of the Cornhusker Chapter of the Beer Can Collectors of America. The club still exists.

Falstaff closed its Omaha plant in the mid-1980s, and the popular Falstaff Inn & Hospitality House at 25th and Vinton Streets was demolished. In its place is the southeast Omaha police precinct.

Baburek spent a dozen years as a corporate trainer for First Data, traveling around the country. After hours on out-of-town trips, he would research pubs and breweries and sample local craft beer.

Then he bought a bar at 36th and Farnam. He quit First Data. And in 1996, he opened the Crescent Moon.

Since he can't serve Storz or Falstaff — or Metz, which had a shorter history in Omaha — he put up their signs all over the place.

FROM THE NOTEBOOK
Columnists Michael Kelly, Erin Grace and Matthew Hansen write about people, places and events around Omaha in their new blog, From the Notebook.

In 2006, Baburek opened German-themed Huber Haus downstairs, Max & Joe's next door (named for his late parents), Beertopia next door to that.

Later this year he plans to open a brewery at 6115 Maple St. in Benson called Infusion.

Baburek says it doesn't take long for a city's beloved institutions — like Peony Park, like Aksarben and, someday, like Rosenblatt — to become distant memories.

So he'll continue his boyhood hobby: Picking up the cast-off, cleaning it up and putting it on display.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1136, erin.grace@owh.com, twitter.com/ErinGraceOWH

Contact the writer: Erin Grace

erin.grace@owh.com    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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