Having to say goodbye to the amazing people and craft beer of Fort Collins was difficult. In the past two years, I have been there twice for a grand total of 25 days. It was the focal point of my summer craft beer odyssey and I will definitely be back there again. The only thing tempering the slight lump in my throat as I drove away from Fort Collins, with the mountains in the rear-view mirror was the comfort that everything from here on out until I arrived home would be a new experience. The idea of meeting new people and trying new craft beers was invigorating. My first stop in Nebraska was Kearney. It was a nice stopping point to break up the drive to Lincoln and it had a craft brewery called Thunderhead Brewing Company. After Thunderhead, it was off to Lincoln for a tour at Empyrean, a brewery that I was really excited to see.
The weather in Kearney was quite the rude awakening from the mild and low 80s in Fort Collins. I was not prepared for 97 and humid. I put the ice machine in the hotel through the ringer as I had to make sure my ever-growing collection of beer stayed cool in the car. After being pleasantly surprised by the burgeoning craft beer scene in Kansas, I had high hopes for Nebraska. Other people had mentioned Thunderhead as a place to go and so I was hoping for good things. I noticed that it was also a brewpub so I unloaded the car, took a little bit of a rest and then headed there for dinner.
Thunderhead was relatively busy for a Sunday night. It has an upstairs that can accommodate a large number of people. I saw a spot at the bar and after snapping a couple pictures, sat down and inquired about a flight. The server was a very helpful and nice college student who was working towards a degree in drama. She was knowledgable about the beers and did a great job of keeping the crowd at the bar happy. Along with the friendliness of the bartender, there was a regular seated to my left named Wendell. Wendell runs a carpet and flooring business in town and loves Thunderhead Brewing because of the friendliness of the people who run in and the craft beer. Wendell and I chatted for a while about craft beer in town. He was also willing to give me a couple of suggestions about places to go when I got to Lincoln and Omaha. Wendell was friendly and a perfect ambassador for the Thunderhead brand. It was also his recommendation that I try a calzone and it did not disappoint. Wendell had to get going and he wished me luck on the rest of my trip. People like Wendell, a local willing to dispense his wisdom and hospitality, that allowed me to find the best places to enjoy craft beer on my adventure. If you glean anything from these posts it should be to make sure you go out of your way to talk to the locals. They will not only point you in the right direction, but will usually do so with a smile and kindness akin to that of a long-lost best friend.
Thunderhead has been a mainstay in Kearney since 1999. Their beers are available in liquor stores and at the brewery in cans. They had a solid number of beers on tap, although they were out of their most popular brew, the Leatherhead Red Ale. The bartender set me up with a flight board of goodness consisting of a Peach Wheat Ale, Jalapeño Ale, Cropduster IPA, Nitro Stout, Cornstalker Dark Wheat, Pilsner, Grand Cru and a Hefeweizen. You can tell that Thunderhead has been crafting beer for a long time. Their beers are unique and each have good things happening. My 3 favorites were definitely the Stout, Pilsner and Dark Wheat. The Stout had a lot of roast and a touch of sweetness to it. The Nitro made it smooth and velvety. The Pilsner was clean, crisp and incredibly refreshing. I thought that the Dark Wheat was probably my favorite of the three and had a lot of depth to it. The malt and roast character in it was good, but not heavy. A perfect beer for the oppressive heat and sated my appetite for something dark without totally weighing down my palate. As I was working my way through the flight, another gentleman came in and sat down next to me. He appeared to have already had a couple of bowls of loudmouth soup because he would not stop asking me what I was doing. That is fine, I love to engage with people when I am taking notes and it certainly wasn’t the first time that happened on the trip. What made it difficult to interact with him was that he was enjoying himself so much, he sounded like he came straight from a major oral surgery complete with the high dosage of painkillers. He would ask a question and I would have to have the supercomputer in my head attempt to translate what he said and try to reply in a polite manner. Eventually I figured out that he was asking me if I get paid for writing in my notebook and blogging about craft beer. I told him that was not the case at all and then he laughed and questioned why I would go on a trip like this if I wasn’t getting paid for it. The truth is, there was no amount of money in the universe that could adequately equal the experience, knowledge and friendships I gained from this trip. Trying to explain this to the guy next to me would have been difficult given the state he was in. Luckily, he stumbled off not to long after he got there and I was back to my flight. It was time to call it a night, so I settled up, thanked the bartender for her hospitality and headed back to the hotel.
The next morning, it was time to pack the car, get ready for the 2 hour drive to Lincoln and hit the road. The drive to Lincoln seemed longer than any of the drives prior to this point in my trip. I was starting to get a little homesick and the combination of loading and unloading my now 4 large coolers of craft beer was starting to be a tiresome. I got into Lincoln around 3 in the afternoon for my meeting with Ben, a Sales Manager for Empyrean Brewing Company. He was waiting for me at the restaurant Lazlo’s, which is the brewpub at Empyrean. Ben is affable and enthusiastic, the perfect person to show me around the brewery. This tour was arranged by the same person that helped get me into Odell and Funkwerks, so I was excited to see which areas of the brewery I was going to get to see.
We started in the brewhouse. The brew kettles and the mash tun are located on the other side of the brewpub separated by glass windows. From there, we took a right and were now in the grain room. The grain silo is right above us outside and the spent grain is sent outside via a pipe. As we stepped outside, the spent grain was being collected by a local farmer and the truck was driving away to deliver it to some very lucky animals. Many breweries do this as a way of keeping their disposal costs down and it works out great for the farms because they get to feed their livestock a very delicious and healthy product.
Our tour continued to the downstairs where they have rows of fermenter tanks that lead to a loading dock. As we were going around, I learned that Lazlo’s was the nickname of one of the owners who looked like Peter Boyle’s character from Where The Buffalo Roam, a movie based on the life of Hunter S. Thompson that also stars Bill Murray. I thought that was interesting because anytime I see that name, that movie reference is exactly what I think of. I learned that Empyrean also owns a software company and is involved with the JL Beers franchises. The brewery is just one branch of a bigger company, but is very successful. It started back in the early 90s and was actually the state of Nebraska’s first brewpub. Since then, it has grown by leaps and bounds. They brew a lot of beer here and it is widely available in the Midwest.
Our tour continued onto the bottom level of the brewery to the keg washer, bottling line and, perhaps most important room, the lab. They are incredibly serious about quality control at Empyrean and their goal, like that of many other craft breweries, is consistency and quality. Empyrean is not a huge place, but they are still able to maximize their space and make a lot of beer. They were busy washing kegs as we were walking through and some of the guys were getting ready for an upcoming beer festival. It is “all hands on deck” at Empyrean and that is what makes it feel like more of a family than just a place to work.
After the tour of the brewhouse, it was over to the bar at Lazlo’s to sample what they had on tap. Ben generously set me up with a complete tasting flight of all their beers. He had to make his way back to the office and asked me if there was anything else that I wanted. I asked him if he had any tin signs for sale and he went and checked. He came back a minute later saying that they were currently out of them. We said our goodbyes and I thanked him profusely for spending so much of his time showing me around. He turned me over to Mike who was tending bar and told me I was in good hands. He wasn’t kidding. Mike was really knowledgeable about all their beers and was a great guy to chat with as I tasted my way through the Empyrean craft beer flight. Not more than ten minutes after Ben left, he texted me saying he would be back at the bar in a few minutes and that I should not go anywhere. I had a flight of craft beer and a plate of onion rings in front of me, I wasn’t going anywhere. He arrived and he said that he felt bad that they were out of tin signs and so he head a bunch of other stuff for me to take home. Openers, signs of their main beer brands and an incredible wall hanging of their logo painted on the top of a barrel made up this amazing package of Empyrean swag. I was beyond speechless. The fact that he put all that stuff together is proof of how much he, and the rest of the Empyrean crew, care about their patrons.
The beer flight was tremendous. A sensational mix of their main craft beers along with some of their seasonal and experimental ones. One of their seasonals that I had never had the pleasure of trying was the Domino Effect, a nice beer to kind of signal the move from summer to fall. The flavor was really nice because it had a nice balance between malty and hoppy flavors. It was incredibly smooth and easy drinking. They also had a Beer Quest Peach Cream Ale, a recipe from a Darren Berry, who won the 2015 Omaha Beer Quest’s Summer Ale themed contest. His beer was brewed on the big system and featured on tap at Lazlo’s. This beer had a refreshing flavor, with a aromatic and sweet notes from the peaches. This was a great craft beer option to combat the heat of the summer. The Mango IPA is a hop lover’s dream. Nice Mango flavor followed with a big hop flavor. Another perfect summer beer. I have been a fan of their Burning Skye Scottish Ale ever since I tried it at a beer festival a while back. Having it on tap was really a treat. The malt backbone of this beer is the perfect canvas for a perfect amount of smoke. Neither flavor overpowers the other and the result is a pleasurable drinking experience. My favorite of the main beers was the Luna Sea ESB. If you are craving an ESB, then the balance of this beer along with the bready malt notes will definitely have you wanting more than just a pint.
As I was enjoying my beers, I started talking to a couple of people who happened to be from Chanhassen, MN. We started talking about our favorite places to go for beer back in our home state as well as how awesome the Empyrean craft beer experience was. Eventually, it was time for me to get on the road to Omaha for my final night of the trip. The travel was winding down, but there was still a little bit more fun to be had on the beer trail. Prost!