Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Beer Pilgrimage to Worship the Gospel of Hops...Hopluia

Small towns dotting the idyllic Great Plains landscape of Nebraska have been home to some of the most famous products in American history. From Kool-Aid to TV dinners, Nebraskans have been coming up with some of the most beloved creations used over the past century. There must be something about Nebraska's peaceful gently rolling countryside that allows you to clear your mind and experiment with your ideas. This quiet landscape may also be why Nebraskans call life here "The Good Life". One aspect of this good life is the fact that beyond Omaha and Lincoln most of the towns are small, and some are flat out tiny. Our last road trip took us an hour and half southwest of Omaha to Cortland, Nebraska, a town of 400 residents that has a brewery cranking out one of the regions great creations, Hopluia.

Spilker Ales of Cortland, NE
You heard that right, a brewery in a town of 400. 4th street cuts through the old business district in this town of 15 streets and that is where you'll find Spilker Ales. For 20 years now Spilker Ales has been the brewing company owned and operated in Cortland by Sam Spilker. Spilker is a Cortland native who, after obtaining a Biochemistry degree from Colorado State University, knew that brewing beer was his calling. The unique part about the brewery is that after 20 years it remains the same island of misfit parts as it was when beer originally started to come out of it. The only difference is that some new misfit parts have been added. This is by no means a critique at all, it's endearing to walk into what Sam himself calls a "Frankenbrewery". As much as I love walking into a brewery with copper kettles, Spilker Ales is equally impressive for it's Macgyver-esque use of whatever can be obtained for a reasonable price. If the beer comes out right, then that really is the only thing that matters.

We were lucky enough to be able to tour the Spilker Ales brewhouse and have some of their signature Hopluia last week. I say lucky because the brewery itself is not open to the public on a regular basis. Spilker Ales opens the brewery once very 12-15 months to the public. Obviously in this region you can still get a Hopluia at many taverns, but like when the Virgin Mary appears in a tree trunk in rural France, when you get the rare chance to make a pilgrimage you should take full advantage.

We walked into the brewery not knowing at all what to expect. We knew that Spilker Ales offered only Hopluia (or were pretty sure) so our first chore was to get our hands on some of the good stuff. Walking through the brewery to the taps, we passed brewing machinery not seen in any tour we'd been on. Some parts of the brewery looked like a juiced up home brewery. There were 2 bottling lines (and when I say lines I don't mean assembly style) that fill one bottle at a time by hand. We passed the old kettle that had been used so much that it was repurposed for sanitizing the brewing equipment. The secondary fermenters were repurposed champagne tanks that are thick enough to allow for a unique high pressure finish that helps make Hopluia special. This really was a Frankenbrewery and we were loving every minute of it.

I really wanted to "hop" in
After checking out the tanks, we began the drinking portion of the evening. Hopluia was the beer of choice (and only choice until March 2015, more on that in a second). I'd had the "Gospel of Hops" before in Omaha, but was very excited to have it straight from the brewery and then learn more about it at the same time. The taste was as unique as always, but also not overly bitter for people who may see a beer with the word hops right in it and get scared away. The name we Hopluia is derived from the fact that Spilker Ales adds an extra dry hop session of 80 pounds of hops during secondary fermentation allowing the extra hop flavor to mix in with the malt and get trapped in the already near finished brew.

Hopluia has been described as an American Pale Ale by some and an IPA by others, but I think that it deserves it's own alternative category. The color is near amber and unlike other pale ales the malty caramel flavor and hints of things like apples and raisins are present. Apples and raisins? Yup and it all goes to the quirky unconventional methods that Hopulia is brewed. The malt is milled on a hand grinder, the mash is hand stirred with paddles like an Olympic rowing team, and the wort is boiled by direct fire vs. steam heat creating a much hotter boil that caramelizes the malt bringing out more flavor. Put that together with an unpredictable yeast strain and a mad scientist as the brewer and you get, well, the "Gospel of Hops".

Cheers to Hopluia
We had a great time at Spilker Ales, learned some lessons from Sam, and drank a few great beers before heading out. Lucky for us, we won't have to wait over a year to make a pilgrimage to Cortland again. This spring Spilker Ales will be adding a new brew to their lineup. Sonar will be out in March. Sonar will be as creative as Hopluia and though I don't want to give it all away, you may order a Sonar at one Omaha bar and have a completely different flavor experience at another. It's all about creating a new hop experience at Spilker Ales and if you want to enjoy a great lesson and blow on a homemade alp horn than you should hop on down to Cortland this spring. If you can't make it, make sure when passing through Nebraska you ask for some Hopluia, and always rise when the gospel is being poured.