Beer Geeks in the Heartland

Our trip to the Great Nebraska Beer Festival gave us the opportunity to explore the Omaha beer scene. Not generally a city associated with the craft beer revolution, good beer can definitely be found in America’s heartland.

Our very first brewery in Nebraska

We previously visited Omaha in 1992. At that time, I half-jokingly told a friend who played baseball for Cal, that if the team made the College World Series, we would go. Long story short, Cal made the CWS. In the infancy of our beer travels, I vaguely remember checking to see if there were any breweries in the area. There were not.

The sample flight at Lucky Bucket

This trip was going to be different, though, and there was an air of excitement as we parked our rental car in an industrial park in the Omaha suburb of La Vista. The first stop, our 741st brewery, would be our very first in Nebraska. It had been along day of travel and our excitement might have been compounded by Merideth and I craving our first beers of the day. The honor went to Lucky Bucket Brewing.

Enjoying a pint of Cunningham Kriek at Lucky Bucket

The tasting room was already busy when we arrived late Friday afternoon. We grabbed the only available table next to the distillery and quickly ordered the sample flight.

There were six beers in the flight. While based on our history you might assume that the Lucky Bucket Lager and IPA would be each of our favorite beers, neither were. In one of those rare occasions, we agreed that the Cunningham Kriek was the star. From their Single Batch Series, the red-brown Kriek had a really pleasant, dry, fruit character. While not as tart as I like my Krieks, it was a great introduction to the diversity of the Nebraska beer scene.

Nebraska Brewing

Nebraska Brewing, host of the festival, was our next stop. Located at the end of Shadow Lake Towne Center’s faux main street shopping area, the cookie-cutter mall exterior contrasted sharply with the cozy, pub feel of the interior.

Merideth and I only experienced Nebraska Brewing in the context of the festival. Despite the frenetic air with festival goers coming and going, I got a strong sense of a neighborhood, family-friendly establishment.

Enjoying an IPA on the patio at Nebraska Brewing

They were popular at the Firestone Walker Invitational this past June and since then, I have had a number of “you HAVE to try their beer” recommendations from friends. However, unlike most every other brewery stop, we never did order a sample flight.

While Merideth pin-balled between the Infinite Wit and EOS Hefeweizen, I stuck with their IPA. With 2010 World Beer Championship Silver medal to its credit, the 6.5% ABV and 65 IBU IPA had a wonderful floral nose and a ‘did-I-just-finish-another-one’ drinkability. It could easily hold its own in the lineup of IPAs on the West Coast.

Obviously, we need to return to Nebraska Brewing in the future to try its full lineup.

The second largest labor monument in the United States

In our schedule, we had one free day, Sunday, to explore Omaha. Despite the midday heat and humidity, the draw of a Lewis and Clark landing site had Merideth and I strolling along the scenic river front walk located downtown. While boats cruised up and down the Missouri River, we tried to take in all the scenery.

Lewis and Clark were just one of the draws in the 23 acre park. For me, its most impressive feature was the labor monument, the second largest of its kind in the United States.

Upstream Brewing in the Old Market.

We could only survive about an hour under the blazing sun. Luckily, I planned our walk to finish up in the cobbled streets of Omaha’s Old Market. The city’s arts and entertainment district, the Old Market was home to our last brewery stop of the trip, Upstream Brewing.

Housed in the district’s 1904 firehouse, the blast of air conditioning was a most welcome feeling as we passed through Upstream’s front doors. After enjoying the cool air for a moment, we settled down at the dark wood bar to drink some beer.

The sample flight at Upstream

The ten brew flight was the largest and most diverse of the trip. Three fruit beers and a chocolate Saison rounded out the more familiar Pale Ale, Red Ale, and IPA selections. Merideth’s favorites, the crisp Groll Bohemian Pilsner and the refreshing I Don’t Know Tropical Saison (flavored with hibiscus flowers and passion fruit) paired perfectly with the hot and humid weather.

A pleasant Omaha evening…

I quickly identified Capitol Pale Ale as a favorite until I tried Flagship IPA. The copper-colored brew had delicious citrus and pine hop flavors. If I learned one thing on the trip, it is that the West Coast-style IPA is alive and well in Nebraska!

As the afternoon heat of the day broke, Merideth and I were able to finish our heartland beer adventure on Upstream’s expansive patio. Enjoying a few brews on a pleasant Midwest summer evening, it was a relaxing way to end our whirlwind trip.

View all the Omaha images

Great Nebraska Beer Festival

Thanks to our friends at The Roaming Pint, Merideth and I had the opportunity to beer travel to Omaha, Nebraska for the first time. The Great Nebraska Beer Festival was looking for someone to talk about beer travel in one of their seminars. When Brian and Maria couldn’t do it, they suggested us. It was an opportunity to not only introduce ourselves to a new audience and sell Merideth’s book but more important, to try a bunch of Midwest brews. The whole thing was just too good to turn down.

The Shadow Lake Towne Center parking lot transformed

Shadow Lake Towne Center in Papillion (pronounced pa-PILL-yun) was the home of the Great Nebraska Beer Festival. Overnight, the empty parking lot in front of the Dick’s Sporting Goods transformed into a small tent city for the beer festival. The eighty or so breweries were grouped in six tents throughout the fenced in area.

Before the festival opened, Merideth and I wandered around trying to get the lay of the land. As I noticed all the brewers greet each other warmly via a handshake or hug, an odd feeling came over me. We didn’t know ANYONE. Most of the beer fests we attend are on the West Coast, where we do know everyone. We’re some of those people giving each other hand shakes and hugs. Not so in Papillion, Nebraska. We were definitely going to need all of our anti-wallflower powers.

Rain, rain, won’t go away…

The week prior our journey to Nebraska, we checked the weather regularly. As the week progressed, the chance of rain went from a paltry 10% to 80% the day of the festival. Sure enough, once the festival kicked off at noon, a steady rain began to fall.

We quickly learned a new lesson in our lives as book purveyors. It is very difficult to sell books at an outdoor beer festival in the rain. Despite the realization that book sales were going to be slow at best, all was not lost. There were all those new beer to try…

Best of show came from Cigar City

One of the hidden gems for us was Cigar City, not available in California. At the festival, a hand scrawled ‘CIGAR’ and a soggy program opened to its beers was the only designation for one of the biggest cult breweries in the country.

Cigar City Cucumber Saison won my best of show brew. I’ve had a cucumber beer and soda before but both were so subtle that my taste buds had to search for the flavor. Cigar City’s Saison, on the other hand, had a VERY pronounced cucumber taste. If they had added a bit of brine, I would have professed it the best beer ever made.

Peace Tree Brewing from Knoxville, IA

Given our friend and contributor, Renee is from Iowa, we made sure we tried some brews from her home state. Pom Pom Shaker, a Pomegranate Sour from homebrew club Iowa Brewers Union made my list of top 3 brews of the festival.

Peace Tree Brewing from Knoxville, IA had me won over before I tried any of their beers with their Partridge Family-esque bus. Their beers were pretty good as well, with the Red Rambler Red Ale and Hop Wrangler IPA tickling our fancy.

Throughout the afternoon, while Merideth (wo)manned the covered book table, I wandered out into the festival’s intermittent showers in search of beer. While some of the brewery names sounded familiar (Boulevard, Free State, Tallgrass), others like Ploughshare, Morgan Street and Beaver View, I had never heard of.  On each journey, I would bring back two beers for us to try.

On our list of notable brews…

Other notable brews we tasted…

  • Cask Mango Watch Man IPA – Empyrean Brewing, Lincoln, NE
  • Zesting the Cone IPA – Nebraska Brewing, Papillion, NE
  • 8-Bit Pale Ale – Tallgrass Brewing, Manhattan, KS
  • Schwarzbier – Morgan Street Brewery, St. Louis, MO
  • Powerhouse Pilsner – Gottberg, Columbus, NE
  • Saison – Funkwerks, Fort Collins, CO
  • Ethan’s Stout – Blue Blood Brewing, Lincoln, NE
  • The Griffin (Hefeweizen) – Grimm Bros. Brewhouse, Loveland, CO
  • Kölsch – Schlafly Brewing, St. Louis, MO
Blind Tiger’s beer dispensing back pack

Topeka’s Blind Tiger opened our eyes to a beer festival first to us, a beer dispensing back pack. I never saw it loaded but I assume it held a five gallon keg. All during the day, one of the brewers wandered around with a keg strapped to his back filling empty taster glasses to appreciative festival goers. I availed myself of this great service on several occasions when I found myself with an empty taster glass.

Obviously, Merideth and I were disappointed that the weather didn’t go our way. But in the end, we met some great people and drank some wonderful beer at the Great Nebraska Beer Festival.

View all the images from the Great Nebraska Beer Festival

An Iowa Refresher

Our friend and Iowa native, Renee Brincks, reports on the beer scene in
America’s heartland
. Renee can be found on the web at

Fields and hills and barns and stuff

I’ve lived in California for nine years, but every year I still spend a few months in the pretty corner of northeast Iowa where I grew up. My home base there is a farm outside of Decorah. Yes, there are corn fields, and there also are hiking and biking trails, canoe-friendly rivers, limestone bluffs, lush hills and trees that blaze gorgeous shades of orange and red in the fall. Seed Savers Exchange is based there, and remember that eagle cam that captivated people this spring? That’s in Decorah, too.

Park view

Recently, beer drinkers have been toasting start-up breweries and better distribution of popular brands, as well. Anchor Brewing pioneer Fritz Maytag is an Iowa boy, but until about ten years ago, his home state was lacking when it came to beer. Budweiser and Busch Light were the norm, and I know more than one person who considered Coors Light to be a “dark beer.”

Thankfully, things have changed.

Photo by Toppling Goliath Brewing Co.

When I arrived in Decorah this June, I was eager to visit Toppling Goliath. The brewery launched two years ago, and I’d already become of a fan of their Tsunami Pale. In a community where beer menus were limited for so long, introducing stouts and ambers and bitter brews isn’t necessarily easy – it takes a little coaxing to get customers to look past the Bud Light. These days, however, several local restaurants pour Dorothy’s New World Lager, the lightly-hopped Toppling Goliath flagship that’s an easy-drinking 5.5 percent.

I caught up with high school friends at the Toppling Goliath tap room, where we took advantage of the warm summer night by sitting outside. The outdoor patio there is perfect for happy hours and live music; the brewery also hosts home brew club meetings and airs all sorts of sporting events. I ordered a pint of Golden Nugget IPA. It earned an unofficial “best Iowa IPA” nod during a spring tasting at Short’s Burger and Shine in Iowa City, which dedicates its 10 taps to Iowa beers, and it will definitely be a go-to when I’m in town.

Tap Room in the Hotel Winneshiek

The other visit I’d planned for this trip was the Tap Room in the Hotel Winneshiek. My parents have fun stories of this place in the 1970s, and there was a lot of buzz about the bar’s June re-opening. A cozy redecorating job and an Iowa-focused beer menu made the Tap Room a nice place to kick back with Peace Tree’s Hop Wrangler. I sampled releases from Millstream and Toppling Goliath, too, a our table of friends shared the smoked trout dip and a bowl of truffle popcorn.

Guns and booze

One afternoon, my parents and I took a day trip to two little towns along the Mississippi River, about 40 miles away. Our first stop was Stark’s Sport Shop in Prairie du Chien, Wisc. The store sells beer, spirits, wine and Wisconsin cheeses, along with outdoor gear, boat parts, fishing rods, lures, hunting supplies, guns…a whole wall of guns, in fact, hung right over rows of vodka and whiskey. The store’s signature t-shirt even says, “Mixing guns and liquor since Prohibition.”

I’m not from a family of hunters, but we’ve been coming to Stark’s since long before I was old enough to order my own beer. We sometimes swung through on Sunday drives when I was a kid and my parents were stocking up on bottles for backyard get-togethers. I asked to visit this time, because I knew that Stark’s sells New Glarus. There were several options on the mix-your-own-six-pack shelves, so I left with Spotted Cow, Moon Man, Two Women, Dancing Man Wheat, Totally Naked and Fat Squirrel. I also grabbed a few bottles of Bell’s Best Brown Ale, which I can’t get in San Francisco.

From there, we crossed back over the bridge into Iowa to grab lunch at Old Man River in McGregor. It’s another example of how far Iowa has come in terms of craft beer. Here, in a town of about 875 people, is an outfit turning out solid German-style brews. Owners recently announced plans to expand with a 25,000-barrel-per-year production facility near Iowa City.

Tasters at Old Man River

My standard order at Old Man River is “The Iowa,” a steak burger topped with bacon and blue cheese. I washed it down with a taster set – samples of helles, hefeweizen, a German pale ale, a smoky Scottish lager and the brewery’s popular dunkel, plus a splash of root beer that worked well as dessert. With baseball on the bar’s flat screens and an art and food affair happening in the park across the street, it was a festive afternoon in McGregor.

My two-week Iowa adventure included a few other beer stops back in Decorah, starting with pints and pizza at McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita (this June, USA Today named their pizza the best in Iowa) and sandwiches at T-Bocks. Toppling Goliath, Schell’s and Leinenkugel are among a dozen brands on tap there, and the bar has a range of seasonals and specialty bottles. I also made a quick survey of the refrigerators at Oneota Co-op, which carries great local, organic food along with Stevens Point, Sierra Nevada, Big Sky and other labels that were unheard of in Iowa just a decade ago.

It was a refreshing trip, thanks to fun family time and great weather (San Francisco’s foggy summers just can’t compete with Iowa’s sunshine…). Good beer options give me even more to look forward to when it’s time for the next stay.