Monday, March 10, 2014

There's No Place Like Home: A Visit With {Omaha Brewing Company}

Set to make their debut at the upcoming Georgia Craft Beer Fest in a few weeks, Omaha Brewing Company might be the only Georgia brewery you have to drive through Alabama to get to.

About 20 miles south of Columbus on the Alabama-Georgia line and a stone's throw from the Chattahoochee, Omaha emerges almost out of nowhere amid a stretch of undisturbed pines and swampland scrub. Unlike other places I've visited, the location almost begs the question of place. Why here? Why Omaha for a brewery? With a deep and personal family history tying the owners to the town, it's not a question that goes unanswered for long.

I recently got a chance to spend a weekend in Omaha with my family to preview the brewery and try their beers. As with other small, locally-owned Georgia breweries I've visited, there's a sense that the beer is more than just a business. Even in its unfinished newness, Omaha Brewing Company seems to gleam with promise, offering potential commerce to an area that's long gone without.

Robert E. Lee and his wife Stephanie Lee, the brewery's owners, warmed their hands while we talked fireside. Beneath the old oaks on the plot where his grandmother's house once stood, Robert told tales of growing up in this small Georgia town. He attended school in Omaha's one-room schoolhouse where students from first through fifth grade would complete their lessons under the direction of a single teacher. He still retains ownership of much of his family's land.

The Lees approach outsiders and each other with such familiarity and deep Southern regard that it's easy to feel at home in their presence. They've informally adopted their brewer, Nick Fowler, as one of their own. "He's like one of our sons now."

Formerly employed by Red Brick Brewing in Atlanta, Nick says he's lucky to be living on the property his boss's late aunt once called home. A working electric organ (a Wurlitzer) that once belonged to her still stands in the dining room and provided hours of entertainment for my four-year-old son. With only minutes to commute to work, Nick says he enjoys having time to hunt and fish here, and the space it allows his dog Simcoe (who is often by his side) to be a "free-range puppy." 


In a way, looking at Omaha is like looking at the stars. It's hard to know which fires are still burning and which have gone out. At night, amid the hums and howls of humans and animals alike, the town seems alive with ghosts.

A town that flourished during the cotton boom has since been left to vouch for its own, seemingly skipped over by the census bureau in 2010. Robert says he's watched the population fall from about 350 to just over 100 residents in recent years, many of whom are still blood relatives.

The people, perhaps here more than other places, seem to live by an unwritten code. They take care of each other. They make do, and in some instances, they make their own rules. Neighbors offer up the gutted boar laying on the back of their pickup. In the lazy and unexpected warmth of a February afternoon, an old toilet becomes target practice on a derelict and blocked off bridge. Along isolated backwoods roads, open container laws might be more of a suggestion than a rule.

But isolation also comes at a cost. A recent fire destroyed a large pavilion on part of the Lee property. Nick says the fire department in Lumpkin, fifteen miles away, didn't even know where Omaha was. 

Introducing herself as "Blue Jeans," Stephanie shook visibly as they assessed the damage, reclaiming a "welcome home" sign from what remained of the pavilion. "It's hard--this is the first time we've seen it," Stephanie said, squeezing my shoulder. Offering her apologies, she expressed gratitude for the safety of their son (who'd been sleeping there up until the night before the fire). "It was home to us. It will be again. We are so blessed." 

It's taken me far too long to distill the experience of visiting Omaha. That Wurlitzer shook loose too many long put away memories, maybe. Or it might have just been the overlap of days drinking good beer that made it hard to untangle some perspective from the poetry that's wrangled my brain the last few weeks.

It's easy to fall into the sky when it looks the way it does in Omaha. To want more of the stillness, slowness, and quiet that I got in those few days there. To want more time amid the vastness of the world above we can only see when the lights are turned out.

Late at night, Nick takes us out to the family's hunting field to get a look at the sky. Beneath brilliant starlight, he tells me it took a while to be convinced, but he knows that "even in places like this people can understand the story of craft beer."

And with approachable, well-crafted beers already in the works (I got to sample more than my fair share of the Hoppy Wheat and Hefeweisen) it's a story that's easy to believe. A recent graduate of Siebel's World Brewing Academy, Nick is in a unique position to make his mark and seems set on doing just that. 

The beer...

Oma-Hop: A hoppy wheat session ale with a light body, low IBUs, and huge citrus hop aroma and flavor (coming entirely from Citra hops), it's an easy-drinking, hop-forward delight that could very well be a gateway glass to another world for many novice craft beer drinkers (in my humble opinion).

Nada-Banana: The Weiss beer is a German style, done in a slightly modified method Nick came up with that uses low alpha bittering hops, and a large addition of cascade at flame out, fermented at higher temp (76f) to promote the banana esters from the Weihenstephan yeast.

Confirmed brews on deck include an oak-aged Imperial IPA, and a Jack Daniel's barrel-aged Imperial Stout (the last of which I can say firsthand is surely going to send some beer-geek hearts aflutter).

Stay tuned....

No comments:

Post a Comment


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...