Infused with good beer

It was a crisp evening in late October, and I was thirsty for a brewery I’ve never visited. Enter Infusion Brewing Company in the Benson neighborhood of Omaha.

It only makes sense that I enjoyed my experience. Infusion owner Bill Baburek has staked out a notable beer reputation in Omaha. After carving success at the Crescent Moon Ale House and Beertopia, Baburek turned his attention to another dream: owning a brewery.

When the Olson’s Market building came on the market, Baburek turned to Benson’s growing beer scene for the site of Infusion Brewing Company, which opened in 2012. While there is definitely a sense of history to the building’s restoration—highlighted by a series of large-format vintage brewery tin tackers—I found the use of lighter woods to impart a clean, modern feel to the taproom area.

More wrapped up in conversation with my drinking partners than tasting a flight and taking notes, I managed to wash four Infusion beers across my tongue for inspection: Butcher Block Brown, Vanilla Bean Blonde, Joel Porter, and the pint I purchased, Infusionfest.

The first two came from sips of my companions’ beers. The brown was good, and the Vanilla Bean was quite vanilla-y. Overly so, and a bit sweet, for my palate. The Joel Porter was quite good. Everyone I shared it with loved the roasty nuances of coffee, vanilla, and what I perceived as brewers licorice. It had nice body, and had I stayed longer I may have ordered one. At the time, I knew nothing of the beer’s makeup, other than it was a porter called Joel. I later looked online and found that it had been dosed with Hawaiian Macadamia Nut Coffee at flameout, which made all sorts of sense. Nice beer. I enjoyed it. The bulk of my time was spent with Infusion’s rendition of an Oktoberfest-style beer, Infusionfest. I was pleased. Packed with malt character, it was clean and utterly drinkable for a nice sit-down with friends.

Though my ability to visit Omaha seems limited, I learned on this trip that in the last few years, some of the new players—including Infusion—in the city’s beer scene have certainly helped to raise Nebraska’s game, and I look forward to a return visit.

BONUS: Benson Brewery is less than a block away.

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Benson Brewery pleases the guy in the cool shirt

Benson brewer Andy Elliott in the Hop Box on a Thursday Night.

I’ll admit it. I was wearing a really cool shirt.

When I walked in the door of Benson Brewery in Omaha last week, I was greeted by the brewer himself, one Andy Elliott. I’m sure he’s extra nice to everyone wearing a western shirt with hops embroidered on the shoulders, collar and sleeves, but, no matter, I was really pleased to walk in to such hospitality.

This was all a little funny and the absolute best of timing, because I’d just met some new friends, and we were checking out the Benson neighborhood together. Tongue planted firmly in my cheek, I’d described myself as “a beer drinker of some repute” earlier in the day. I don’t think they realized at first that my shirt was much cooler than me. No matter. Let them think it.

Though I tried my comrades’ Kolsches and brown ales, which were good, I migrated immediately to a pint of Brewer’s Duet, a solid coffee cream stout. Goodness, me, I was not disappointed! Roasty, full-bodied and absolutely scrumptious, I’d love to see this beer widely available in refrigerators all across my house. It was a winner for this stout lover. I was so happy that I completely forgot to check out the Stunt Dubbel.

While I didn’t taste the Hop Box Pale Ale, I did sit in the Hop Box itself, one of the coolest little multi-level, between-brick-buildings beer gardens with hops climbing skyward and lit after dusk by white Christmas lights. Not that the taproom itself wasn’t inviting as hell, but it was the perfect setting for beers and friends on a gorgeous late Oktober evening.

But before I got there, Brother Elliot ushered me off to the coolest part. What could be better that this beer garden? I thought as we passed through a gate just beyond the hop box. A locked alley door revealed something that promises to be fairly magical to beer nerds like me and a true source of excitement and pride for the brewmaster: a row of amphoras, 35-45 gallon clay pots, produced by potter Dan Toberer of Hot Shops Art Center in Omaha.

Inspired by Brasserie Cantillon, Benson Brewery is aging a number of beers in a bold experiment that just might get amazing. I’ll do my best to pay attention and give these a taste when the time comes, because, a sucker for a little beer history, I am bloody intrigued.

I did not eat on this visit, but my friends raved about the frites. I will return, and when I do the choices will be tough: they’ve got wild boar sausage, pork belly sandwich, a bacon jam blue cheese burger, and smoked pulled pork on the menu.

Decisions. Decisions. I’ll be back.

BONUS: Infusion Brewing Company is less than a block away. This neighborhood is definitely worth a visit.

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Farnam House, farmhouse, far-out beer house

At long last, I recently paid a visit to Farnam House Brewing Company in Omaha.

Located at 3558 Farnam Street, FHBC brewer Phil Doerr has an affinity for riffing in a rustic realm. Doerr holds up his pants with a saison belt—there were three pouring on my visit last week, and this is the dominion that helped Farnam House catch my attention when I first encountered them at the Omaha Beer Festival this past summer. In addition to the Grisette, Hop Harvest Saison and Pumpkin Saison, I found a Biere de Garde, O-fest, Belgian IPA, Gratzer, American Stout (both CO2- and Nitro-dispensed) and a Keller German Lager pouring from the taps.

I slowly and accidentally tried everything on the menu apart from the Belgian IPA, and found my favorites to be the Grisette, Biere de Garde, Keller German Lager (in an absurd tie for first place [though I ordered a pint of the Biere de Garde for what bonus points that action’s worth] and the Oktoberfest in second.

Wait, it wasn’t a tie for first. I think I liked the lager the best, then the a toss-up between the Grisette and the BdG. Wait, no. Wait. I don’t know. Those three beers were good at what those beers were being, and it really just depends on the weather, your food and your mood. On this Wednesday night, I was in the mood for a well-constructed Biere de Garde. But any other day, I could drink the hell out of those other two, let me assure you, Dear Reader.

In keeping with something of a farmhouse theme plopped in the downtown of a large city, there were windmill logos, wood everywhere and rustic light fixtures that make for a pleasant drinking environment.

Though I didn’t partake of the menu, the food looked good with but a cursory glance.

Our bartender was a peach. FHBC should make a spontaneously fermented peach saison and name it after him, because they’ve hired a nice guy who is both invested and knowledgeable. Spontaneously, Mr. Peach invited us to the basement to check out the brewing system, which was, let’s say, 12.5 barrels—give or take 2.5 barrels. There’s both stainless steel and wood down there, and thanks to checking out this nugget, I very much look forward to more frequent trips to Omaha.

BONUS: Crescent Moon Ale House and Beer Corner USA are less than a block away. Visit this neighborhood and make a night of it.

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Nebraska Brewing Company’s La Vista Production Facility

With all apologies to my buddy Paul Kavulak, I don’t make it to Omaha very often. This, despite the fact that Omaha and my more frequently visited Des Moines are equidistant from my front door.

My buddy Paul Kavulak will, in fact, get over this minor affront because he’s a nice guy, because he’s got bigger things to worry about than my visitation schedule and because I took this really cool photo of him tapping a cask (at right).

A hard working fellow that would probably not have amounted to much were it not for his lovely wife Kim (her job title is The Chick that Makes S#*t Happen), my buddy Paul Kavulak has his hands full with the growing and award-winning Nebraska Brewing Company. Founded in 2007 with the Papillion, Nebraska brewpub, my buddy Paul Kavulak’s notable Nebraska libation station (helmed by the talented Tyson Arp [below], who would be nothing without his cool dad, who is liable to show up at a party in his lederhosen) was hemmed in by the limitations of a 15-barrel brewing system when both brewpub patrons and out-of-state drinkers were awful darned thirsty for more and more of my buddy Paul Kavulak’s tasty beers.

In a spendy attempt to satiate the thirst of basically the whole wide world, my buddy Paul Kavulak coughed up for a 30-barrel production facility, barrel room, canning line, and a 24-tap tasting room. If that’s not enough, eight months in (the canning line launched on Feb. 14 of this year), my buddy Paul Kavulak just upgraded and bought four 120-barrel fermenters to help keep up with demand. Because thirst.

Finally, my beer drinking sidekick Kyle and I (joined by his beer drinking pastor-intern Peter, whom I convinced to wear ill-fitting plaid drinking pants) dragged our slow moving bodies out to my buddy Paul Kavulak’s new facility in La Vista. As usual, Tyson’s beers were delicious, Tyson’s wife Angela was nice as hell, Kim was sporting this really great smile and my buddy Paul Kavulak was happy to see us. It was like a family reunion with out all the macaroni salad.

Tyson gave us a tour and let us touch his DO meter, and since the day we accidentally showed up was on the occasion of NBC’s inaugural Dock-Toberfest (think Oktoberfest on a loading dock that spills into the whole brewery where you can eat brats, drink beer and chat with new and old friends), it was a pretty stellar and flavor-filled day.

As they say in small town newspapers, a good time was had by all, and, while the new facility was great and the beers tasty, I must, in fact, lodge two complaints against my buddy Paul Kavulak (whether or not they’re his fault): I didn’t get around to putting on a sumo suit and wrestling Kyle, and Tyson’s awesome parents weren’t anywhere to be found.

Maybe next time.

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I wish we had more English IPAs

Sometimes, dreams come true.

IPAs are really popular these days, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Personally, I often tip-toe around them because years of tasting beers has taught me about my own personal likes and dislikes. I don’t like certain hop varieties. At all. I don’t like Simcoe, Summit or Nelson Sauvin. I just don’t. I do like Centennial, Amarillo, Pacific Jade, Sorachi Ace, Tettnager and East Kent Goldings. And many more. I like more hops than I dislike, but when one of those bad guys takes a dip in the beer in my hand, I experience a wash of disappointment.

And often dream aloud: “Goddamnsonofabitch, we need more English IPAs in this world!”

And so it was that a dream came true this week. Victory Brewing Company sent me a bottle of their second Moving Parts iteration. Guess what! It’s English! Here’s what Victory says about the series:

“We like to mix it up. New flavors, new ideas, new ingredients; we welcome them all. In celebration of our penchant for prolific experimentation, we present Moving Parts: The Ever-Evolving IPA. Each release in this series (every four months) celebrates a tweaked ingredient or two, creating an endless array of possible flavor profiles. For us, Moving Parts are a good thing!”

This time, Victory has gone with Styrian Goldings, East Kent Goldings and Bramling Cross, and the result, for me, was a true pleasure. The beer was a beautiful copper color, with herbal hop presence over marmalade notes. Talk about Oktoberfests or Pumpkin Beers this time of year if you like, but this beer tasted like it was made for autumn. The color matches the turning leaves in the countryside. The herbal hops meld with the harvest dust in the air. And this thing is drinkable. It would perfectly accompany not only late summer grilling efforts, but also a turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie.

Long story short, this beer was good. Keep dreamin’!

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Reviewed: The Foodie’s Beer Book

The Foodie’s Beer Book

By Brooke and Luther Fedora

Skyhorse Publishing

I didn’t like this book.

Some of it had to do with personal preferences like I don’t care for the seasonally-divided and menu-geared layout of the book. Sometimes I just want to peruse a pile of entrees or beef dishes, for example, and this layout makes that impossible. Fine. I can deal with that. Once can overcome this by shooting to the index for an inspirational beef recipe. Oh, wait—not in this cookbook. There is no recipe index in The Foodie’s Beer Book. Bummer.

But there’s more. I just really feel like this is a 1990s-era poseur of a beer-leaning cookbook. I felt like the writers’  depth of beer knowledge in the history, ingredient rundown and beer characteristics sections was limited. I felt that even stronger when wheat beer, bitter, pale ale and IPAs were the only listings discussing what an “ale” is. And even further when porter and stout were included behind the “lager” heading (not that one wouldn’t be quick to lager a Baltic Porter, I fully understand).

But I nitpick.

Let’s talk about beer and recipes in a beer-geared cookbook. This book called for “dark beer” in a stout cake recipe. This recipe would have been really easy to suggest a specific beer for, but no. Not just beer style recommendation (like “stout” over “dark beer,” but a specific beer, say, Left Hand Milk Stout, for example. Want more examples? The following beers were suggested in multiple recipes as well: “dark ale,” “strong ale beer” and “amber beer.” To the authors’ defense, I should say that they once suggested Guinness, once suggested Harp lager, once suggested “Nut Brown Ale,” and once suggested Founder’s Double Trouble. And lest I forget, if you want to make peanut butter crème brulee, you’ll need to add ½ cup “beer.”

There are a few general beer recommendations at the beginning of each section/menu, not to mention brief descriptions of said commercial examples. In one case, I scratched my head to learn that Paulaner Oktoberfest is a “weisn” style and that hard cider is a beer when I had previously thought cider was cider.

Looking to a recipe for another layer of frustration, Easy Hollandaise Sauce calls for “1 tsp beer (pick the beer that complements your dish)”. One, that solitary teaspoon will likely go unnoticed and two, if I’m looking to a beer cookbook for guidance, I want to know exactly what beer to use and exactly why that makes sense. Seriously. Feed me answers, not questions.

Before I forget, I should mention one more thing: the photos are dark and uninspiring.

As I read through this book, I kept glancing around for a hidden camera and some tittering beer nerd filming reactions for some new reality show. Alas, this didn’t happen, and this book is for real. Maybe the authors of this book can cook, but it appeared a lazy effort for beer poseurs to capitalize on the success of craft beer, and I wouldn’t recommend purchasing it.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

Recipe disclaimer: I didn’t feel inspired to test a single recipe in this book.

Integrity disclaimer: I’m not writing this post while sitting in my underwear in my mom’s basement.

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Reviewed: We Make Beer

We Make Beer: Inside the Spirit and Artistry of America’s Craft Brewers

By Sean Lewis

St. Martin’s Press

They say the early bird gets the worm, and perhaps that’s why the craft beer segment is riding such a high these days. Those involved are working hard to make it happen. Though author Sean Lewis failed day after day to beat Blue Hills Brewery’s Andris Veidis to “the office” in the morning, he succeeded in capturing the spirit of the brewer and his mash paddle-wielding brothers and sisters in the industry.

We Make Beer, released yesterday, is Lewis’ journey into the fabric of the brewing industry, and something of a tribute to the toil, attention to detail and the inner workings of the people that are have engaged beer as a way of life.

That’s what it is: a way of life. Though Lewis interned at Blue Hills and threaded his close relationship with Veidis (chronicling the brewery from fledgling to expansion) throughout the book, he also traveled the country to taste and talk with names like Ken Grossman, Matt Brynildson, Jim Koch and many more.

Passion is an overused word in the craft beer realm, but it is the distilled descriptor that sums up the early mornings, late nights, scientific concentration, artistic exploration, business building, peer collaboration and fan engagement of America’s beer artisans.

While Lewis engaged a number of big-name brewers to discover the textures of the industry, he also pulled in a collection of lesser-known brewers and brewery owners to give the tome an even more everyman feel (visiting places like Nashville, Omaha, Santa Barbara and more). Within the context of making and selling the best beer possible, Lewis found a collective mindful of history, relationships and dancing taste buds on their march to a brighter future, regardless of the labor involved.

A quick read that pulls you in with people one can’t help but care for, We Make Beer is a well-written examination into what makes the craft brewer and the craft beer industry tick. Lewis put down onto paper a host of the tidbits that I’ve discovered in my own “walk with beer” over the years. Common to all of my dear friends in the industry are strong principles, hard work and, yes, more than a little passion. These traits reside within Lewis’ book as well, and I’d encourage you to give it a read.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.

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Little Giant returns…

The Little Giant Beer Summit returns to El Bait Shop for its second installment on Sept. 20, and while I’d recommend going because last year was a blast, I’d also encourage you to attend because I’ll be on hand from 3-5 p.m. signing copies of my latest book, Iowa Pints.
This year, the celebration the giant celebration of Iowa’s little breweries will feature nearly 40 breweries and over 70 Iowa beers on tap (rain or shine). You should go. What time? 3-7 p.m.
“I thought last year’s event could not be topped, but the quality and variety of the beers this year are nothing short of amazing,” said Jeff Bruning, founder of the event.
Some of the beers this year are Confluence’s Barrel-aged DBA Centennial, Peace Tree’s Sour Mash Saison, WestO’s CocO Stout, Backpocket’s Barrel Aged Barleywine and Exile’s Beatnik Sour Cherry Berlinerweiss, to name just a few. The new breweries at this year’s Little Giant are Big Grove (Solon), Captain’s Quarters (Adel), Deal Orchard (Jefferson), Firetrucker (Ankeny) and Lion Bridge (Cedar Rapids).
What: 2nd Annual Little Giant Beer Summit
When: September 20th, 2014 from 3 to 7pm.  Rain or Shine
Where: el Bait Shop, 200 SW 2nd Street, Downtown, Des Moines
Cost: FREE ADMISSION, $7 Commemorative Glass, $2.50 a ticket for a 5oz. draws or $2 a ticket when you buy 10 tickets


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Reviewed: Brew Britannia

Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer

By Jessica Boak & Ray Bailey

Aurum Press (2014)

I’ve been a fan of the Boak & Bailey beer blog since its earliest days. Launched around the same time as my own blog in 2007, I read Boak & Bailey’s beer drinking exploits regularly in those days, not because it was possible to read nearly every single beer blog in existence at that time (today, there are thousands of beer blogs, and who has time to read them all?) but because it was a good read. To this day, the husband-wife writing duo offer balanced analysis of beers, pubs, breweries and all topics related to beer. They write well. And they ask good questions.

At some point, clearly, they began asking serious questions about the evolution of British beer in the last few decades, and that toil has recently been released in the new Aurum Press offering, Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer.

The book chronicles England’s gobbling up of small, independent breweries by the giants, which began in the late 1950s and continued through the 1970s. This shift reduced consumer choice and, worse by traditional British beer drinking standards, brought cask (real ale) to the brink of extinction. Two consumer organizations emerged to dig their heals in: the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood (SPBW) in 1962 and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) n 1971.

Boak and Bailey conducted copious research and interviews with the vanguards of these movements to piece together the story all the way to the present. While CAMRA especially contributed to the rescue of cask beer, the present-day craft beer scene came from others. My snotty American mind has credited the American craft beer movement for influencing the Old World—and it does—but the Brits had their defiant others who didn’t brew cask for cask’s sake and explored taste for taste’s sake, ready and willing to pour keg beers and carve a new market with their independence. BrewDog’s low hanging fruit for their media savvy and success, but others like Thornbridge and Meantime have made notable contributions, as well.

This book really delivered. I saw familiar threads of information, but Boak and Bailey really fleshed out the details for someone like me, who possesses only an American’s cursory knowledge (despite paying attention like a fairly high-functioning beer nerd) of what was really happening on the ground in England all these years.

My only criticism came at the book’s end. It simply ended. One minute I’m reading about SPBW folks meeting (all these years later), and then I’m looking at an appendix. I felt like a tidy summary and look to the future could have been massaged just a touch to avoid such an abrupt stop.

Don’t let that stop you, however. Brew Britannia: The Strange Rebirth of British Beer was a good read, and a valuable addition to that staggering shelf of beer books you have.

FTC disclaimer: I received this book for free from the publisher.


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Mad Libs Beer Review: Jack-O Traveler Shandy

Kyle and I got together recently to play Beer Madlibs, brewvana’s  occasional series, in which I write down thoughts on a beer and plug them into the classic, childhood word game. It’s more fun than a pretentious beer nerd review.

Jack-O Traveler Shandy

The Traveler Beer Company

To speak more practically about this beer, I’d mention that at first blush, this beer’s aroma smelled exactly like a pumpkin pie, with balanced spicing that wasn’t off-putting like so many pumpkin beers. After that initial sniff and swallow, however, it really acted a lot like off-brand cola. With just a subtle hint of cinnamon and nutmeg. And sweet. Of the Traveler lineup, my favorite (which they also sent along with the grapefruited Illusive Traveler some weeks back) has been the straight-up shandy, Curious Traveler. I could drink a few of those lemony rascals.

FTC disclaimer: I received this beer for free from The Traveler Beer Company.

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