Beer: Melange a Trois, Hop God and Apricot au Poivre Brewery: Nebraska Brewing Co. Style: Belgian Strong Pale Ale, Belgian IPA, Saison ABV: 10.1 percent
Before last week, the following list contained everything I knew about the state of Nebraska:
Now, however, we can add a third bullet point: they know how to brew some damn fine beer. This additional knowledge was brought about by the entree of Nebraska Brewing Co. to our ever-growing craft beer market. The brewery, founded in Papillion, Nebraska (about 10 miles southwest of Omaha), has been churning out quality stuff since November 2007, but lack of space in the tiny brewpub kept distribution limited to just a few states. The recent opening of a production facility in La Vista, Nebraska (just north of Papillion) has remedied that -- the new spot is expected to boost annual production from 1,500 barrels per year to around 10,000. Nebraska's also announced plans to install a canning line for its four year-round beers -- Brunette Nut Brown Ale, EOS Hefeweizen, Cardinal Pale Ale and India Pale Ale -- as well as some seasonals. The cans should arrive on Phoenix shelves eventually, but some special releases are already here.
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It's the specialties we're going to talk about, for it's those brews that'll give you the best idea of Nebraska Brewing Co.'s style. See, at a time when most brewers were purchasing bourbon barrels in which to age big, sticky stouts and barleywines, Nebraska took a different approach. In their first year of operation, they picked up two used Chardonnay barrels and used them to store some beers, putting the focus on the development and integration of wine flavors. Nebraska now owns quite a few more wine barrels, but the three-part aging process the brewery uses them for remains the same.
The first beer to enter the Chardonnay-saturated French oak is a Belgian strong pale ale that, after six months of conditioning, is bottled and labeled Melange A Trois. Along with a delightful flavor blend that balances pears, apples and clove, the beer achieves a dry Chardonnay flavor winemakers should be jealous of -- which is probably why Melange A Trois won gold at the Great American Beer Festival in 2011.
After those barrels have been emptied, they're filled with Hop God, an IPA spiked with Belgian yeast that Nebraska started producing in 2008. The beer is again left to mature in the oak for six months. Now, aging hoppy beers -- and Hop God, at 108 IBU, is pretty damn hoppy -- is not usually recommended, as hop flavor tends to die out over time. But here, the tannic qualities and orchard-fruit flavors of the Chardonnay actually seem to concentrate the grapefruit, lemon peel and flower petal notes of the hops. Combined with the Belgian yeast's peppery phenols, the flavor is artful and complex.
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But we're not done yet! Nebraska gets one more use out of their Chardonnay barrels, this time filling them with Apricot au Poivre, a saison made with apricot purée and black pepper. By this time, the wine character of the barrel is pretty mellow, but the oak still adds vanilla notes to the brew's dry, peppery flavor. Some of the barrels have also become inoculated with Brettanomyces, so the bottles often also develop a wild, funky side.
Intrigued? Melange A Trois is on shelves now. Pick one up to drink now and one to drink alongside Hop God when it arrives later this year. And maybe grab some corn while you're at it. Gotta keep those huskers in business.
Zach Fowle is a Certified Cicerone. He works at World of Beer in Tempe.