While much of the midwestern part of the country has been considered a the “hole in the donut” of craft beer in between the wild west coast, Colorado and the growing east coast – over the past 10 years or so there have been some really great brews coming from there. Summit in MN and Boulevard in MO are larger examples. I just hadn’t had the chance to get there – and finally I had the opportunity – in this case Omaha.
In 2012 Nebraska was 41st out of 50 states in craft brewing by volume, but with 19 breweries/brewpubs for their relative sparce population they ranked 15th for breweries vs. population. (An interesting contrast to NE’s neighbor Colorado, ranking 3rd and 5th respectively).
I wasn’t able to wander the state but in the Omaha area I visited a Rock Bottom, “Upstream” in Omaha and “Nebraska Brewing Co” in nearbye Papillion. I noted the Rock Bottom cause though it’s a national chain, they usually have some intriguing beers created by local brewers with some lattitude offered by the management. Plus it’s fresh and so I wouldn’t just skip it. The special Saison there was nice, with a hint of fruit.
Upstream Brewing is a local chain of two brew pubs, named after the literal meaning of “Omaha”, started in 1996. The place in the trendy “old town” section and was huge, offering some expected and unexpected brews worthy of note.
The first beer sampled there was “Ransom Saison” which was aged in a gin barrel from the Oregon’s Ransom Distillery. (Turned out that the “barrel aged” theme would follow me though my visit.) The botanicals from the gin added an interesting twist to the light bodied saison. I liked it, and at 5.7% ABV I could enjoy a 20 oz.with my Omaha Steak.
Upstream likes to play with barrel aging, and sold special bottles as well — featuring a series of their Belgian styles aged in Templeton Rye barrels. I brought a couple home – as based on their abv (10 – 12%) these bombers needed to be shared. On the lighter side the Heisenberg “India Pale Lager” was a delightful snappy lager with some tasty hops from start to finish.
On to Nebraska Brewing – which I had heard of a couple of years ago when a bottle of their oak aged imperial stout (“Black Betty”) made it to a local bottle shop. Daunted by the requested price of $23 I passed, but noted the brewery. Located in a mall about a $40 cab ride from downtown Omaha, it turned out to be more than worth the effort.
The brewhouse was in full view in the small restaurant/pub, with beer tanks crouching all around the bar. After confirming with Brian the barkeep that this was and is the sole source of all Nebraska Brewing Company beer, I started checking out the stacks of barrels in the middle of the floor, and the squads of 22oz bombers with intriguing names like “Sexy Betty”, “Hop Goo” and “Romancing the Cone”. Yeah, this was the place.
Sam Riggins the brewer came by and happily talked about the brewery’s national renown. Currently running more than three batches a week throught their tiny 10bbl system, they are churning out a surprising number of different beers. I think I counted 8 on draft, and of course all the bottles.
There were some really nice “standard beers” like their Cardinal Pale (“my favorite” said Sam – “sort of a cult beer in Omaha, it’s got all the late addition hops you want…”) it was clean and refreshing. The “experimental” beer on tap was the “White IPA” a work in progress said Sam. It tasted pretty good to me (and to my friends stationed at the bar that afternoon), with oats, hints of coriander and orange peel – and of course, lots of herbal, earthy hoppiness.
Like all successful craft breweries, Nebraska is expanding – a new brewhouse and tasting room is in the planning stages – with a canning line, 30bbl brewery with possible expansion to 60bbl. After 6 years Nebraska Brewing is ready to grow. Sam mentioned that their notoriety includes being hot on the beer trader sites for the specialty aged beers – their owner even garnered a seat at the the “Brew Gods” event at Philly Beer Week.
Bu it’s not all “beer geeks” at NBC, Sam noted that 75% of the customers are only vaguely aware that they even brew beer – it’s just their local favorite restaurant.
OK, then the bottles. I was challenged but rose to the occasion first with “Sexy Betty” – which Sam told me was just bottled this week – a version of their “Black Betty” oak aged imperial stout. What made it “Sexy” was aging in brandy barrels. Man, it was smooth – and elegant, and strong (10%). Liquorish, tobacco, some candy fruit. I shared this with my new bar-friend who was a member of the “beer club” who then helped me out with a free beer voucher.
Since I wasn’t driving (and would be flying – on a plane) and had just been treated, I figured sharing one more bottle would be needed. I had to try “Romancing the Cone” a west coast IPA aged in Oak. A mere 7% ABV allowed me to at least remember the taste and how the oak mingled with the floral bitterness to add complexity without overwhelming.
These are not your everyday brews, but this isn’t everyday either, I enjoyed the barrel ride. So, when in Omaha – give these places a try and enjoy what the midwest has to offer, from “everyday” beers to crazy wooded bombers, there’s lots to like out there.