Thursday, May 22, 2014

Benson Brewery and Infusion Brewing Companies of Omaha aiding in the Rebirth of a Neighborhood

Booming suburbs are as an iconic of an image of the past half century of America as hot dogs and apple pie. Freeways leading out of downtowns are packed with people every day at 5 pm trying to get home to their quiet tree lined streets. Familiar franchises have popped up on every corner of every city of a certain size. When one lawnmower revs up in these neighborhoods, a chorus of garage doors can be heard opening as lawnmowers down the street are let out to make sure the uniformity of this landscape is being maintained.

When the mass exodus to the suburbs began, historic neighborhoods in every city suffered the same fate as the small towns that we have been chronicling. Family run restaurants suffered as the population moved to neighborhoods served by shiny new menus with goofy names and big drinks. The local pharmacy now had 2 names to deal with on every corner of the suburbs. The hardware store and local specialty shoe dealer suffered the same fate. Homes that once signaled an age of growth and hard work were reduced to being located in the place you really don’t want— or need– to go to anymore because they had become empty and a bit dodgy.

An example of one of these neighborhoods is the Benson neighborhood in Omaha, NE. Many people traveling to Omaha don’t hear much or make their way to Benson very often, or at least they didn’t. There is no cluster of hotels in Benson. The Henry Doorly Zoo and downtown entertainment district are off on the horizon for those visiting the area for events such as the College World Series. But this once proud Omaha neighborhood (that at one time was home to an amusement park and an iconic small town “Main Street” of local shops that shrank due to the suburbs movement) is making a proud comeback. Benson, which became a few streets of closed storefronts and “don’t go there after dark” talk, is now one of the premier districts to find genuine nightlife in Omaha. And one of the reasons for this revival is craft beer. Two new breweries with tap rooms have opened and have aided immensely to the continued growth of this great neighborhood, and the city as a whole.
Welcome to Benson Brewery 
Benson Brewery

Benson Brewery is a heavy weight even though it is one of the new kids on the block. It has only been open for just over a year and the head brewer, Andy Elliott, is in his first head brewing position. Elliott, a Colorado native, honed his craft by not only home brewing, but also spending his final semester in college as an intern for Odell Brewing in Fort Collins. With that experience under his belt he was offered multiple assistant positions, but when the opportunity arose to become the master of his own craft beer destiny he packed up and moved to Omaha. For the record, Omaha is lucky that he made that choice.

Boarding our first flight!
This Brewpub with growlers for takeaway and a beer garden that just opened for summer fun is located in the heart of Benson. Benson Brewery is located inside a turn of the century movie house. The inside is a mix of old and new with reclaimed flooring and beams along with modern lighting and a great bar to saddle up to. The brewing operation is enclosed in glass, running constantly between the brewery and a walk-in cooler out back.  New and innovative brewing techniques are on the horizon as well with clay pots and barrels at the ready to try new recipes and flavors.

A flavor for all 
The flavors, though, already jump out of your glass at Benson Brewery. I started with a flight of 4 and then also sampled from friends. My flight consisted of the Maple Street Porter (a chocolate porter so rich it evoked thoughts of Belgian Chocolatiers), the Brewers Duet Coffee Cream Stout (not overwhelmingly coffee flavored but well stouted), the Dirty Blonde ( a smooth golden Ale) and an Alt-Er Ego English Mild Ale (a hoppy ale with a nice citrus note).

All of these beers were full flavored without being overwhelming. The porter with its wonderful chocolate notes does not over or under do it. There is a perfect blend of beer, malt, and chocolate to make this beer a go-to when you arrive at Benson Brewery. The same can be said for the stout. I am not a huge coffee fan but the subtlety of the coffee pushes this cream stout to a higher level of smooth. The Benson Brewery, unlike other breweries, is not focused right now on having flagship beers though. There is a good rotation in and out of Elliot’s creations. At some point down the road there may be a full brewery cranking out regular selections to a broader audience. With that being said, I hope a few of the above selections stay on regular rotation.

Welcome to Infusion Brewing
Infusion Brewing Company

Just up the street from Benson Brewery is the Infusion Brewing Company and Tap Room. Infusion Brewing is located in another wonderful turn of the century building (this time a former butcher shop) that has been restored to showcase its history. Infusion Brewing is the brain child of Bill Baburek. Bill is the owner of 2 great craft and import beer bars in Omaha. The Crescent Moon (one of Bill’s bars) has been noted by many publications as 1 of the top 100 beer bars in America. With that history and love of craft beer, the next logical step for Bill was to open a brewery to bring his own recipes to the public. After finding the perfect spot in this burgeoning craft beer neighborhood, Bill’s dream was realized in the form of Infusion Brewing.

Let's take another flight!
With a seat secured and menu in hand I looked for 4 choices for my inevitable tap room flight. My flight at Infusion Brewing consisted of the Re-Fresh Wit (the signature pale Belgian Wit with its sweet orange easy drinking flavor), the Joel Porter ( an English Porter with a roasted malt hint), the Butcher Block Brown (a malty American Brown with a little bitterness that sets it apart from other browns) and a Vanilla Bean Blonde (a crisp blonde ale with a great Bourbon Vanilla flavor).

May the good beer be with you!
I had 2 favorites with the Butcher Block Brown and the Vanilla Bean Blonde, though I did enjoy my whole flight. The Butcher Block Brown was a nice escape from the standard brown. The hoppy bitterness with the traditional brown ale caramel hints make this beer a must try at Infusion Brewing. The other one I really enjoyed was the Vanilla Bean Blonde. It was smooth, almost like a cream ale with a wonderful vanilla aroma and flavor. Like coffee, I’m not a huge vanilla fan but this combo made for a very refreshing and fun taste. As stated, the rest of my flight was very good. The traditional Joel Porter was a nice, not overly heavy porter, and the Re-Fresh was what you expect from a very good wit bier (meaning it was much more drinkable then the macro imposters), but the brown and blonde were my favorites.

Both of these breweries have some fun seasonal and specialties as well. The Blood Orange IPA from Infusion Brewing truly takes a bitter west coast IPA and mixes it with an intensely strong orange flavor. The combo is a great match if you like bitter and sweet. Benson Brewery has a chai tea inspired brew called Karha T which must be sampled. Cinnamon, spice, Far East inspired, it is a beer for any temperature.

Taco Trucks! The perfect nightcap
Craft brewers around the country are innovative, creative, and inspired to do new and great things. These attitudes, and these 2 breweries, fit perfectly into a space (or neighborhood) on the rise. As Benson has woken up from its hibernation through new bars and fresh restaurants, these 2 breweries not only fit the new mold of the neighborhood but they also provide a vehicle to propel this neighborhood to new heights as the absolute place to be in town. When you come to Omaha (or if you live in Omaha already) head to Benson for a few beers, a food truck taco, and the chance to be a part of the area's revitalization.