Thursday, April 24, 2014

Small Town Pride and Great Beer at Keg Creek Brewing Company in Glenwood Iowa

Breweries come in all shapes and sizes. They also come from different geographical landscapes. Sometimes a hop off the highway can land you in a hidden gem of a brewery.

"Rural America" is a phrase used to describe towns dotting our great landscape. When people think of these towns, many think of farms, simple life, and hardworking people. I spent most of my childhood in a rural Wisconsin town. What I remember was a busy main street with great turn of the century facades. I remember Friday night softball games that my dad played in that brought out the whole town for beer, gossip, and bug spray. The town, though small, was thriving with people working and spending time and money at local supper clubs and taverns. Everyone knew each other and everyone cared what was going on in town. It was a simple childhood that helped shape who I am today.

Local shops make small towns great....
As the story has been told many times though, these towns hit a rough patch. From big boxes running local retailers out of town, to fast food killing the laid back pace of the supper club. Rural America received a modern face lift that many of these towns didn't ask for.

Civic pride would never truly leave these places though. A kid from town "A" would rather get in a combine accident than be caught saying something nice about town "B" (I’m looking at you Beaver Dam, WI). For many of these towns surrounded by fertile fields and red barns, an old idea (as historical as the towns themselves) has brought that pride and the local economy back to life: brewing beer. Not for fame or a huge buyout, but brewing to help a community find itself and be proud that the beer is its own.

...and great local breweries take these towns to a new level
Enter Keg Creek Brewing Company, the pride of Glenwood, IA. Glenwood is a small community in western Iowa about 30 minutes southeast of the Omaha metro area. It’s a small town off the highway tucked into the bluffs carved out by the Missouri River. Glenwood has all you could ask for in a small town. It features a town square dotted with shops, local restaurants, a local winery, a bowling alley, friendly people, and one hell of a local brewery.

How do I know all of this you ask? I learned it all directly from the friendly locals I met in the Keg Creek tap room. The people we hung out with in the tap room told us stories of bands that the brewery brings in to play in the tap room and the beer garden. They talked about being able to bring in their own food to throw on the grill and enjoy with their friends in the beer garden. Everyone talked about the July 4th event sponsored by the brewery which will bring great blues artists and bbq to Glenwood for a celebration of, well, community.  As I’ve said before, getting good craft beer at the tavern or liquor store is important, but I love to get a feel for a beer and who brews it straight from the brewery.

Warm and welcoming, just like the people inside
Keg Creek Brewing Co. is set in an early 20th century gas station not far from the main square in Glenwood. This little slice of brewing heaven in the bluffs serves six regular brews on tap and three rotating seasonal beers that all hit the mark. It is also home to brewers who love what they do and want to share their passion with you. The term "lucky" was the description I repeatedly heard in the tap room from the Glenwood faithful, and for my wife and I, lucky might have been an understatement. We set out seeking a few Friday night tastes and another brewer's take on craft beer, but what we found was one of my new favorite breweries.
We'll take one of each please!
We started our evening by meeting John Bueltel, the head brewer at Keg Creek. John, a former teacher an home brewer, started us off with a flight of the six  annual beers at Keg Creek: Wabash Wheat, Brick Red Ale, Breakdown Brown Ale, Sharp Street Stout, Keg Creek IPA, and Waseya Cream Ale. Down the line each one of Keg Creek’s beers are very drinkable.

The Wabash Wheat (named for the Wabash Nature Trail in the area) has a little less hop to it than other brews in the wheat category. The wheat still has a nice citrus note to finish and is very drinkable. It’s an easy drinking beer, great for someone who is scared of dipping into craft beer because they believe it is only bitter and has to be overly hoppy.

We moved to the red and brown ales, where we found 2 treats. I am big fan of brown ale, so I dove right into the Breakdown Brown. What I tasted was a huge surprise. This brown ale has more life to it than a traditional brown. John explained that on top of the usual brown ale ingredients, the Breakdown Brown has more bittering hops and a late hop addition to add a citrus finish that makes the brown more drinkable. I quickly became a huge fan of Breakdown Brown.

The Brick Red Ale was one of my wife's favorites. Background on my wife, she’s not usually a fan of Amber beer. The Brick Red is a smooth ale that drinks like a lager with all of the nutty aroma and caramel flavor of a red ale. Once again Keg Creek had taken a flavor that beer drinkers know, put their own subtle hop spin into it, and made a truly unique beer.

Hey, who stole the cream ale?
Cream Ale, IPA, and Stout were the last in the line. Many brewers don’t touch a cream ale, just as many don’t touch a lager (which you’ll find out Keg Creek does as well). A lot of people are not familiar with the flavor of a cream ale since it died off after prohibition and has just recently made a small revival. We were glad that these fine brewers made the decision to brew a cream ale. In general it’s a smooth, clean, crisp ale that can be described as almost a hybrid lager/ale.

In my experience, two camps of IPA fans are forming in America: 1) fans of the overly hoppy for bitterness, and 2) fans of overly hoppy for flavor. The Keg Creek IPA is a flavorful IPA, still bold, but not bitter for bitter's sake. It has more color than the bitter IPA’s and it has a nice caramel hint to it as well. For anyone that gets a little overwhelmed by bitterness, this IPA is perfect.

Last but not least was the stout. I love a good stout. I’ve been lucky enough to drink some craft stouts in London and California that I fell in love with. Keg Creek has done a nice job making all of their beers drinkable and unique for people who may not think that they enjoy a certain style of beer. Keg Creek’s stout, like the IPA, doesn’t overwhelm you with bitterness. This stout matches the stout bitterness with sweetness, adding to a real smooth relaxing finish. Stouts are heavy by nature, but this stout doesn’t weigh you down and packs so much flavor that you’ll easily order another.

Our brewing education from John Bueltel
In the midst of all of this beer tasting, John took us back into the brewery for a tour and a little education. Before heading into the brewery he explained the one and only rule of the tour: you can’t go into the brewery without a beer. (Good thing, we didn't want to put ours down anyways.) As in all tours we walked down the line of fermenting tanks, boiler kettles, and holding tanks. The real difference was the depth of the information John shared. It was very, very apparent to us that John loves brewing beer. From John's description of what was going on in his tanks at that exact minute it was clear that every bottle or glass of Keg Creek Brew you pick up is a refreshment made with handcrafted care. Not just that, every bottle that you buy has been hand bottled by the Keg Creek team in the brewery. No machinery, no assembly line, every bottle is touched and filled by one of the three owners of this brewery.

I wanna get seasonal, seasonal. Sing Along
 After our tour we still had seasonal brews to try. I don’t want to get into too much detail since they are seasonal and will rotate in and out, but what I will say is, like the six regular taps, these beers were outstanding and I wish that the 7th regular beer could be Keg Creek’s Maibock. This strong Helles Bock style lager immediately brought me back to time spent in bier halls in Germany. I know it’s only a spring offering around the world but I could drink Keg Creek’s Maibock year round. My partner in crime will also tell you that if you can get a hold of some of Keg Creek’s spicy high ABV Saison that you should grab it and enjoy its wonderful ode to Belgium.

The funny thing about our experience at Keg Creek is that I could go on for days and not run out of good things to say. As we were leaving we were lucky enough to meet the other owners of Keg Creek, Art Renze and Randy Romens. Like John, and everyone else in the tap room that night, they couldn’t have been more welcoming to a couple of out of town beer fans. If you live or travel in Iowa, you’re lucky, as you can find Keg Creek in many liquor stores and taverns throughout the state. If you live or travel in Nebraska you can find Keg Creek on tap in select bars which makes you lucky as well. But if you are planning a road trip and you love good hand-crafted beer, hop off the highway at the Glenwood, IA exit. Head through the town square and down Sharp Street to find the brewery that every beer fan in town described as something they feel lucky to have.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Supporting Local Beers and Local Brides at Seven Brides Brewing in Silverton Oregon

So I have to admit, I was a little disappointed to learn Seven Brides Brewing was not named after one of my favorite musicals, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  However, it still has a cute story behind the name and bless your beautiful hide, some delicious beers to go along with the name.  (Thank you to the two of you out there who understand my movie reference.) 

Seven Brides Brewing Silverton Oregon

Seven Brides is a brewery in Silverton, Oregon, just outside of Oregon’s capital city, Salem.  It celebrated its fifth anniversary in 2013.  As their menu explains, Seven Brides was started in 2008 by three dads and two uncles who decided they would earn money to pay for their seven daughters’ weddings by brewing and selling beer.  The first beers they brewed were named after each of the daughters.  Also, they are committed to using local products, including Oregon hops, yeast from Odell, and grain from Vancouver, Washington.

We visited the brewery because they serve lunch, brew beer, and are dog friendly.  Unfortunately, on a rainy day, their dog friendly policy isn’t really possible.  While our pooches stayed in the car, we ate lunch in this brewery’s simple dining area and sampled their brews.   The brewery’s fare is nothing fancy, but well executed, and the staff is friendly.  Seven Brides Brewing always has their signature lineup available, but also offers special selections as well.  I ordered one of the special selections, but was given the option of tasting it first.  Thank goodness, because it was not quite to my taste.  It was a dark beer with a strong taste of cherries, which in theory sounded good, but wasn’t a very good lunch choice.  However, Becky’s Black Cat Porter, one of the signature brews, was creamy, chocolaty, and delicious.   Seven Brides Brewing’s other signature brews include Franken Lou’s, a hoppy bitter IPA, Lil’s Pils, a floral pilsner, Lauren’s Pale Ale (LPA), a hoppy ale, Emily’s Ember, a red ale, Oatmeal Ellie, a coffee oatmeal stout, Paige’s Purple Wheat, with locally grown blueberries, Hazelblock, a hazelnut pilsner, Abiqua Black IPA, Drunkle, and Bridezilla, an Imperial IPA.  

Becky’s Black Cat Porter Seven Brides Brewing
Becky's Black Cat Porter
Silverton is a small town.  In fact, the city council was holding a meeting in the brewery while we were enjoying our lunch.  Salem and neighboring Silverton are usually bypassed by travelers for Portland or the Oregon coast, so our waitress was quite surprised we were spending part of our vacation in the area.  However, we had a great time in Salem and Silverton, and I highly recommend taking a day or two to visit the area, and while you’re there, visit Seven Brides Brewing and help these men fund seven weddings!

Seven Brides Brewing is located at 990 North 1st Street, Silverton, Oregon, and is open Wednesday through Sunday.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Lucky Bucket Brewing and Omaha-Real Beer for Middle America!

Omaha, somewhere in Middle America.

Every juke box in bars around the US and beyond has played this song for decades. Though “Omaha” may have only been used because it sounded right lyrically, it does make people wonder about this place described only by a vague geographic location. Where is Omaha (besides somewhere in Middle America), how big is it, what do people do there? I’ve seen About Schmidt, heard Peyton Manning bark out an audible, and I know it was a Normandy Beach, so why all the references to this town most people fly over? While we’re at it, I’ve never heard of an Omaha beer, what does Warren Buffet drink when he cozies up to the bar rail?

Let’s do a little Omaha overview before filling up your Lucky Bucket (clue on what’s to come). Don’t worry, this won’t be a street by street or museum by museum run down because that’s not who we are. What I will tell you is that Omaha has as many bar options as any medium sized city you’ll visit. From corner bars, to craft beer bars, to bier halls, and places with champagne on tap this city has you covered. It’s a city that loves events and hosts them with pride. The CWS is a must attend event for baseball lovers and those who just want to be welcomed by smiling folks on a hot June Day in the Heartland.  It’s a great city in the heartland to meet people and have a good time.

The "Macro" influence is still there, but going away!
With an over abundance of Czech, Polish, and German heritage running through Omaha’s veins, the popular drink of this city is beer. With that in mind, Omaha and beer were 2 words that didn’t go together for a stretch of around 20 years. With the closure of the final Omaha “Big 4” breweries the natives of this Great Plains town were tossed into 3 buckets (Milwaukee, St. Louis, Golden). Sure you could get a Boulevard from KC here and there or a Leinie’s from Chippewa Falls, but they weren’t everywhere and they weren’t local.

This left the door wide open for someone with a passion for real beer to step up and serve this city of beer drinkers some cold ones worth drinking again. In 2008 a group of garage brewers and brewpub employees tinkered with, drank a lot of, and perfected a pre-prohibition style lager. The Lucky Bucket Brewery was born so Omaha and beer could be words that went together again. Lucky Bucket (a name that gives a nod to the past before cans and bottles when you had to take your bucket to the local brewery to get filled) was also a way to keep these passionate brewers busy while the fine spirits that they had just begun distilling aged in barrels for a few years. Yes these brewers have a full lineup of lagers, ales, rum, and whiskey. They double as Cut Spike Distillery (a nod to the railroad history of the area).

Let's drink real beer Omaha!
Lucky Bucket today is available in 5 states and growing, but our favorite way to get to know a brewery is to take a tour and then hang out in the tasting room. So we bundled up for a winter Friday night in Omaha and headed over to the brewery. This Friday evening happened to be the kickoff of Omaha Beer Week (which included events at all of the new craft breweries and craft beer bars, a testament on how far Omaha has come in a short time) so the atmosphere was more than festive.

The tour was informative and enthusiastic. Like all craft breweries we’ve been to, Lucky Bucket’s employees were beaming with pride. Their mantra video shown before the tour was top notch and is a must watch for those passionate about beer.

We wound our way through bottling, packaging, fermenting and staging as all brewery tours do. The Lucky Bucket team engaged us with a complete brutal honesty that you find from teams of brewers that don’t put money before quality. The stories told ranged from hilarious mishaps with the German purchased bottling machine with no instruction manuals, to some of the original batches of lager that weren’t fit for a bottle. The care and time put in by this team shows in their beer, which happened to be the last stop on the tour route.

A fine selection in the tasting room
The tasting room was an extension of the brewery instead of a walled off room which we enjoyed. It made us feel like we were part of the brewery instead of being in just another bar. The selection (which is why people should tour breweries) was wider than what you find in the store or on tap all around town. Special beers, seasonal, and new flavors were on tap and ready to be tested in a flight or our favorite, in mason jars. You could also pick up bottles or growlers from the tasting room for consumption in home when you need something worth drinking in the house.

The first beer I grabbed was the original Lucky Bucket Pre-Prohibition Style Lager. As with our tour of Capital Brewery, the folks at Lucky Bucket are proud to be lager brewers and sell more lager than any other style. The Lucky Bucket Lager had real malt and hops flavor (unlike the macro brew lager) almost rebelling against what the public had been indoctrinated to what a real lager is supposed to taste like. This beer was golden in color and easy to drink. Not every craft brewery takes a swing at lagers, but Lucky Bucket takes that swing and knocks the lager out of the park, which is why this lager has won medals at various world beer championships.

We also tucked in to the Raven (Lucky Bucket’s black IPA) and The Heartland Wheat. The wheat was an easy drinking ale with a great citrus note and is made with some love of middle America with wheat from the heartland. It was crisp and refreshing making us long for summer while staring outside at the frozen February landscape. The Raven was a solid black IPA with a bitter citrus hop and the coffee and roasted malt aroma you’d expect in a black beer. This was a perfect warm up beer for the barren frozen landscape that we were still staring at outside.

The Lucky Bucket and Omaha experience is what you should come to expect in the American Midwest. Good people, world class hospitality, and in terms of Lucky Bucket you get top quality beer. Whatever you are looking for from a drinking establishment, you can find in Omaha, and because of the emergence of local craft beer like Lucky Bucket you can enjoy great craft beer all around town. Bring your friendliness, because nobody in Omaha is a stranger.

I think you better turn your ticket in
and get your money back at the door.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Chinese Beer, More Than Just Lagers

Boxing Cat Brewery Shanghai China

When you think of Chinese beer, you probably think of yellow, see-through beers like Tsingtao and Yanjing.  Chinese beers might not be high up on your list of favorite beers.  However, these standard Chinese beers do hold an important place and function.  What you might not know is that in addition to these traditional Chinese beers, China actually does have some really good brewpubs and craft breweries where you can enjoy more than China’s most popular beers.  On a recent trip to China we not only learned why traditional Chinese beer is good, but also where to find some excellent craft beers.

Traditional Chinese Beer

Yanjing Beer Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant Beijing China
Most Chinese beers are pale lagers.  Even if you like a darker beer, China’s lagers are actually best suited for pairing with Chinese food.  I read an interesting statement before our trip, and really found it to be true.  When eating rich, greasy foods, such as the quintessential Peking duck, the lightness and sweetness of Chinese lagers actually help cut down the grease factor, allowing diners to not to be overwhelmed by the richness of the dishes.  And in the end, who doesn’t want to be able to eat more duck?  When we dined at Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant, we ordered Yanjing Beer, and it paired very well with our Peking duck.

Interestingly, traditional Chinese lagers are often brewed with not just barley, but also rice, sorghum, and rye.  Also, instead of using hops, some Chinese beers use bitter melon to provide that slightly bitter taste.  Yanjing Beer is brewed with mineral water, hops, rice and barley malt.

Beijing Beer Bars

Baby IPA by Master Gao 31 Bar Beijing China
If you do tire of traditional Chinese lagers, Beijing travelers can venture over to the Houhai Lake area where there are a number of bars and clubs.  We opted for 31 Bar where we could sit, have a drink and listen to some live music.  Surprisingly, 31 Bar serves a few Chinese craft beers.  I ordered a local craft brew, Baby IPA by Master Gao.   Baby IPA is a medium caramel colored IPA with a light taste of hops.  A few doors down from 31 Bar is a quiet bar where you can play darts and choose from an entire wall of imported beers, including a number of Belgian brews and a few familiar American craft beers.

Shanghai Craft Breweries

When researching our travels to China, I found China has a few craft breweries, including Beijing’s Great Leap Brewing and Shanghai’s Boxing Cat Brewery and Shanghai Brewery.  We took the opportunity to stop in for lunch at one of the Boxing Cat Brewery brew pubs in Shanghai to try some more Chinese craft beers. 

Boxing Cat Brewery Shanghai China
Boxing Cat Brewery is a microbrewery with beer names following a boxing theme, so it was very appropriate that we happened to stop in while the Manny Pacquiao fight was being aired live.  While we watched the fight I had the Donkey Punch Porter, a brown porter brewed with cacao and ancho peppers.  The Donkey Punch Porter is made with six malts and three hop varieties.  It is a low alcohol dark beer with a subtle taste of chocolate and spice.  Romeo had the TKO IPA, a medium bodied IPA with a hoppy bitterness and citrus notes.

When traveling to China, a beer aficionado might not find the vast array of beers they’re used to in their hometown, but China does offer a surprising variety of beers, not only including traditional Chinese lagers, but also Chinese craft beers.  Visitors just need to do a little research ahead of time and keep their eyes open for the bars and brew pubs selling these unexpected Chinese beers.  Dark beer drinkers might even be surprised how much they can enjoy a nice Chinese lager when throwing down some crispy, greasy Peking duck and other richly sauced dishes.