A month ago, I got an email from a guy named Paul Kavulak, co-founder and brewer at Nebraska Brewing. He wanted to know if he could send some beer. (Answer: hell yes.) I forgot about the exchange until I received a sort of crude box, hand-lettered in Sharpie, a couple weeks later. Inside were two 750 ml bottles, wrapped in paper grain sacks. There was no information whatsoever about the beer--no press release, no stats sheet, just the beer. In an ever-more-sophisticated market for fine ales, I am used to all kinds of clever packages and pitches. So: no press release? Grain sacks?
I immediately liked Paul.
Nebraska Brewing is located in Papillion, a suburb of Omaha, spitting distance from neighboring Iowa. (This is relevant to me mainly because I map the Midwest according to conference boundaries, and that's right on the Big 10/Big 12 line.) Nebraska, you might think, is no one's idea of a brewing mecca--but you'd be wrong. According to not-too-recent stats, its 16 breweries made it the 13th most breweried state per capita, ahead of Pennsylvania, California, and Massachusetts. We have now reached the extent of my knowledge of the Cornhusker State.
The brewery produces a pretty standard line-up of regular ales, but they also have a barrel-aging program. They sent me two beers from this series, which Paul says should be available in Oregon.
Chardonnay French Oak Melange a Trois
A melange of three? Three what? I thought for awhile that "trois" was an allusion to the style of beer--a tripel--but the brewery calls this a "strong Belgian-style blonde ale." The riddle is yours to solve. As for the beer, a chard-aged tripel is a tall order. Wine barrels are tough to work with. They contribute substantial sweetness to any beer--though I'm not sure if this is actual sweetness or a trick of esters. In any case, wine barreling a beer has its risks. French chardonnays may be subtle or bold--and one imagines that delicate versions, like delicate pinots (the other famous Bergundian grape), would work well.
Unfortunately, in the case of Melange a Trois, it's too much of a good thing. The base beer is excellent. Extremely lively, producing a mousse-like head, and full of interesting spicy esters. It is a sweet beer, though, and here comes the trouble. The oak and wine add harmonious notes on the front end--the esters are having a fruity party--but it ends with a heavy, sweet note. The beer comes in at 10%, and I wonder if it wouldn't benefit being a little more slender and austere before hitting the wood. I'd call it a B- on the patented ratings scale--a near miss--though it's worth point out that the five reviewers on BeerAdvocate were all in deep love.
Black Betty Imperial Stout
The next beer was an imperial stout. I waited until a couple nights ago to have it, as a storm hammered rain down outside. Nothing is quite as delicious as stout in a storm--even if it's a pre-winter, 48-degree storm.
Although bourbon barrels are used too often in my view, imperial stouts age beautifully in them. The roasted malts balance the sweet whiskey, and the alcohol from each do a seductive little tango. I had high hopes for Black Betty, and she delivered. Betty pours out creamily, and rouses another mousse-like head (a potential vulgar motto springs to mind, but we'll leave it unsaid). The nose, even fresh out of the fridge, is dense with bourbon and roasty malts. It begins sweetly, a bit of cola, a bit of plum, and there's a vanilla note that runs throughout. The blance comes with fairly insistent roast malt and hop bitterness; they work with the sweetness to produce a dark chocolate treat. It is a hair sharp with alcohol and could use a few months longer to soften. I'd give Black Betty an A-, and imagine that after a year or two in the bottle, it would be a solid A. Interestingly, the BAers give Black Betty a yawn.