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Beer Traveling: Kearney, NE

Jeff Bean

hophead, fisherman, and Nebraska-native


Kearney, NE stands as a living testament to the craft brewing revolution's success.  Situated in the middle of rural Nebraska, this town of 30,000 has not one, but two, brewpubs in its downtown.  Located not much more than a block from one another, Thunderhead Brewing Company and Platte Valley Brewery each make a selection of beers that cater to a local crowd, but also make for a nice stopping point along I-80.
We only had time to visit Thunderhead, but I'm glad we did.  It's a small brewery that clearly showcases one of the things I like most about craft brewing in America: the intentional nurturing of what geographers call a "sense of place."  Rather than locating their business in a ubiquitous building near an interstate cloverleaf, the owners, like so many other craft brewers across the country, decided to put their brewery in a unique old building in the town's historic downtown.  The second story of the brewpub has pool tables and windows that look out at the brick streets, railroad tracks, and grain elevators outside.  With beers like "Ceremony Tatanka IPA" and "Cornstalker Dark Wheat," the brands and logos of the brewery and its beers also celebrate local culture and geography.

In regard to its beer, Thunderhead does not deal in subtlety.  I started with the "Espresso Stout", which was pitch black, slightly sweet, and the highlight of our night. The coffee aroma and flavor were both extremely strong, much stronger than any other coffee stout I've tried (including Bell's Java Stout and Founder's Breakfast Stout), with roasted, almost burnt, flavors at the end.  Despite it's strength (around 7.5%), the beer managed to be highly drinkable

My girlfriend opted for the "Peach Wheat," which turned out to be more peaches than wheat beer.  The flavors and aroma were very sweet, and suggested a heavy hand with fruit juice.  The beer was pleasant enough for a taste, but lacked any complexity and would have been hard to drink in any quantity.  

Having really enjoyed Three Floyd's De Muerte at the Festival of Wood and Barrel Aged Beers, I was also curious to taste Thunderhead's "Jalapeno Ale."  The beer turned out to be a golden ale (rather than a bourbon barrel aged stout with chiles, as in the case of Three Floyds) and the aroma immediately brought to mind stadium nachos with pickled jalapenos.  This was another one-note beer, and the golden ale did not provide sufficient backbone for the peppers.  

IPAs are one of my favorite styles, and I rarely visit a brewery without trying their IPA.  The Tatanka differs from the other beers we tried in that it was somewhat understated.  While it didn't have the smack of fruity or floral hops that I look for in an IPA, it was exceedingly well-balanced.  The citrus notes of the hops came out toward the end of the glass, probably because my tongue had finally recovered from the coffee, peaches, and jalapenos.

I have a growler of Espresso Stout that we're going to open after dinner tonight, so it should be interesting to see what Matt and Rohit have to say.  I'm looking forward to it, and as well as to going back for another visit.  Next time I'm home I'll be stopping by Platte Valley Brewing, which is a slightly smaller brewery located around the corner from Thunderhead.

Next time you're driving cross-country on I-80, it's worth making a stop in Kearney, NE.  There aren't many other breweries between Omaha and Denver, and Thunderhead gets points for its great atmosphere, friendly service, and excellent prices.  The beers are hit or miss, but it's hard not to love the adventurous attitude.



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1 Comment

pqjulie said:

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find these and every other craft brewery in the U.S. and Canada at cheers!

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