Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Nebraska, makes me think of Bruce and Beer

(the Woodmen Building, as seen in About Schmidt, is a part of Omaha's prominent skyline)
Whaaaaat, you say? Springsteen is New Jersey/Northeast and Beer is "so" not the midwest/plain States, right? Mostly wrong on both accounts, but entirely wrong in the keen eyes of a beer hunter (lower case with deference to the one and only original and capitalized The Beer Hunter).
Heading to Omaha, Nebraska for the first time, there were several other things that also come immediately to mind. From Woodman's (y'know....Jack Nicholson--Dear Ndugu--About Schmidt....right?), Omaha Steaks, College World Series, to Warren Buffett, there are some icons in Omaha. Lately, George Clooney called Omaha home in the Oscar-nominated Up in the Air. But, as my noggin' is oft-oriented toward the barley and the hops, I recalled 2008 GABF days of wandering the Midwest/Plains region of breweries that I'd never drank from. One of my very first beers at the first session of the '08 GABF was Upstream Brewing Company's Grand Cru. I couldn't figure when and how I'd ever get to Omaha, so I drank many samples from Upstream (Gueuze and Grand Cru from Nebraska), Blind Tiger (Kansas), Gella's Diner (Kansas), Millstream (Iowa), and 23rd Street (Kansas) just to be sure I'd never forget what there is to find around those parts. My day job as taken me many places, mostly major metropolitan areas and mostly around the perimeter of the country---from Boston to Raleigh/Durham to Atlanta to Tampa to Birmingham to Dallas to Phoenix to San Francisco to Seattle to Chicago, just to name a very few around the edges (queue it up: I've been ever-y-where, Man). And, now it's taken me to Omaha, smack in the middle of the country and its "heartland". Come through TSA at the Omaha airport and you're greeted by an Omaha kiosk, perfect for taking/shipping Omaha Steaks products home. Taking the hotel shuttle from the airport downtown and you pass the future home of the soon-to-relocate baseball stadium for the College World Series. From many points downtown, the skyscaper marquee announces Woodman's and what I thought was a fictitious business name as it prominently greets visitors to the city skyline. Walking into the heart of the downtown business district (let's see, how to describe a brisk walk in 5 degree weather, the high for the day? 'refreshing' might be an exaggeration!), you pass the famous statues of bison and geese shown in Up in the Air. Never had my meeting with Warren Buffett, but I understand that his office is located a bit to the west of downtown near Beer Corner USA. Wonder how many times he wanders in for liquid refreshment?!
And, in the heart of the bustling Old Market district, you'll find Upstream Brewing Company. Admit it: You were beginning to wonder if this was a travel advertisment for Omaha, eh....and if I'd ever get to the beer matters at hand? I ventured across town (the temperature might have dropped to 3 or 4 degrees fahrenheit by the time I made the 5 block walk from my hotel, but it was actually feeling warmer, because the winds had died down).
Upstream Brewing is located inside a converted firehouse. As you might imagine, this makes for a pretty expansive footprint inside for both brewing and restaurant operations. And...they sure have made optimal use of each square foot. Feeling a bit like Denver's Wynkoop brewery, it's likely one of the largest brewpubs I've ever been inside of. Upstairs at Upstream, like at Wynkoop, you'll find exposed wooden rafters and a lineup of pool tables, seating area for both bar and restaurant, a bar, and an open floor looking through into the first floor space. Plus, plenty of windows to look out to the outdoor street life below. Back down on the street level, having a set of external and internal doors is a wise move to help keep out the nasty, blowing cold winter Nebraska winds. The to-go cooler is to the right, stocked full of goodies I'll tell you a little bit more about farther down below. The entry-level space opens up to both the left and right with a large square bar taking up most of the left third of the first floor space. With the naturally high ceilings of a firehouse combined with an opening into the second floor space, the presence of 'space' should be lost on no one at Upstream. After checking out the second floor, first floor, and all of the nooks and crannies, I settled in at the bar for a slow, progressive dinner. Okay, most progressive dinners wander from restaurant to restaurant...let's just say I did a slow progressive crawl through the menu sampling different foods and beers and pairings along the way. What does that mean? Well, it means that I began with an easy beer that I wanted to unwind with and enjoy the subtle flavors of without food getting in the way. Upstream has a full list of beers that spans the flavor spectrum from the typical to the atypical. I started my long session off with their cask-conditioned IPA. During happy hour, all beers were $2.00---so this made for an inexpensive way of getting into their menu of beers.
Nearing the end of the hand-drawn beer, I ordered a plate of lightly fried cheddar cheese curds. They were served with a dipping sauce which was described as blueberry and habanero, leading me to think spicy which, in turn, led me to think IPA. Well, the sauce was a bit disappointing as neither very sweet nor very spicy and actually the cheese was nice by itself. The Flagship IPA was pleasing as what I would call a solid straightahead IPA. I soon thereafter followed up with a small bowl of chili that promised a wallop of cumin flavor in the sour cream and it did, in fact, bring some decent flavor that went nicely alongside the remainder of my IPA. Though, there was a part of me that can't wait for a return visit so that I can try the much talked about Smoked Gouda and Beer Soup. I took a break from my food as I got into a Firehouse Red Vienna-style lager and watched two ice sports on two of the many TVs scattered around the bar area. Ice Hockey and Curling. Couldn't be more of a contrast in ice sports, now could there?! It was actually fun overhearing a guy next to me explain and defend to his group of friends the beauty of the sport of Curling. Seems he played it for a time as an intramural sport in college. Who knew... Anyways, as I got into Decimator Doppelbock, I put in an order for an 1/2 pound Omaha Brewer's Burger. It came out a little more well done than my preferred medium-rare, but I figured with a couple of toppings (mushrooms and bacon), I'd skip the lettuce, tomato, and ketchup and that the famed Omaha Steaks burger would measure up in terms of flavor and texture. Guess I'd say that while there was nothing particularly offputting in the sandwich, it certainly underwhelmed. Made me wish I'd gone with my second entree choice off the menu...either the Black Bean Veggie Burger or the Jackson Street Jambalaya...both highly-recommended by the bartender. So then to wrap things up--even though ordering dessert at a restaurant for me is usually an anomaly rather than the norm--how could I say 'no' to the Fruit Crisp? Knowing that there was a NED Flanders Red on the menu, this seemed like an obvious exception to make. Served a la mode, this was a dessert combination made in heaven. But, guess what? I'd only taken a sample size of the funky/tart/sour Belgian. Thing was, I really wanted to try their homemade root beer. Plus, just the night before was a four fest of sour beers and Tomme Arthur at Monk's...how could I forget?! (And, as if I hadn't already loaded up sugars/carbs by this point...but hey, I needed my energy for the following day!) The brewery-made root beer was real winner, marked by its distinctive bark flavors and so NOT cloyingly sweet. This helped to put the exclamation point on this very satisfying meal. Oh wait, perhaps the exclamation point was really the three friends that I was sent home with from the beer-to-go cooler. Remember?!?!? Earlier I told you we'd discuss this later....well, now it's later! Remember the Upstream beer I'd mentioned having at GABF 2008? Do you think I was happy to find it in the cooler? But, wait! Do you think I was even more excited to find vintage-dated bottles in the cooler!? Yes...and...you betchya! Of course, I couldn't be satisfied to find one that I wanted to take. After all, isn't the checked bagged limit 50 pounds??? So, here's the take-home tally: (1) 2007 Tripel; (1) 2007 Grand Cru; and (1) 2006 Gueuze.
(I believe I should stay for the magic show next time to see how the magician makes the playing cards stick to the ceiling simply by flinging them up there)
I could save the rest of this for another story/posting, but I think I'm ready to dump and run on you here. So here come another couple of tidbits for your enjoyment. I think that somewhere in the past, I've mentioned to you the beauty of finding a Goose Island pub in Chicago's O'hare airport. And...that they (usually) serve one of the brewery's standout beers--Matilda. File this under 'Did You Know.' As in, Did You Know that the liquor license at O'Hare (and maybe all airports for all I know) applies to the entire airport property. This means that when you can't finish your beer in time--or when you'd simply like one to walk with through the airport-- that (at least at O'Hare) they'll put the beer into a plastic cup for you to go! Call me naive or simply uninformed, but I was totally surprised, impressed, and pleased to hear this during my last trip through Chicago. During this trip, I didn't require such service. With close to 3 hours to kill at the airport before catching my connection home, I was able to safely find a home for 3 Matildas and 1 Oatmeal Stout...oh, and an adequate sandwich as well. Alright then, for the last word here. Gas Station Convenience Stores in Omaha. Beer, of course, springs to mind immediately after (or during) pumping gas, right? And, Craft Beer at that, right? When I asked at the bar at Upstream if there was any decent place to go for takeout/retail beer, the best answer they could muster up was "maybe over at the gas station at 13th and Jackson streets. You might want to try them." Well, when the post-sundown temperature was again flirting with the big Zere-Oh, I was skeptical about making a 2 block walk out of my way to find Michelob Ultra and Blue Moon. But, it turned out be well worth it. The name is Cubby's and the worthy beer selection can come close to competing with the best supermarket selections in Pennsylvania. Well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration, but don't be fooled because we're talking about a gas station convenience store here. No pictures here to document the visit, but instead picture this: A rear beer aisle filled half with interesting/craft/micro/imported beer. Think along the lines of multiple Smokestack Series brands from Boulevard, all sorts of New Belgium beer including La Folie, a small lineup of Goose Island goodies including Matilda, Pere Jacques, Sofie, and Bourbon County Stout, as well as quite a few stellar Belgians from overseas. Knowing that my small checked bag would only hold so much, it turned out to be a La Folie that made the cut...until next time. Until next time indeed......
(the joys of flying during wintertime includes a de-icing in Chicago and a very rough landing in Philly)
(more icons of downtown Omaha)

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