LINCOLN — Since the dawn of time, Tim Thomssen said, beer has required four key ingredients. Lite is not one of them.
"Malted barley, water, yeast, hops are the four ingredients that define beer," said Thomssen, head brewer at Boiler Brewing Company, 129 N. 10th St., No. 8. "And only since Louis Pasteur have we recognized (yeast). For millennia, brewers made beer kind of like a sourdough -- they just kind of repitched a little bit of the successful batch into the next one. And I don’t know if it was an offering to the gods, or how they thought of it, but they were repitching yeast and they didn’t know it."
The Cornhusker State’s pioneers might have succeeded in brewing up some beer that included all the main ingredients, said Thomssen, a fifth-generation Nebraskan. But he’s pretty confident that Boiler Brewing's latest offering, Nebraska Native, is the first-ever craft beer made entirely from Nebraska-grown products. He is certain that this is his moon landing. And he said he couldn't have done it without luck and friends.
Here, ranked by degree of difficulty in locating them, are the ingredients that went into Nebraska Native, and the people who helped Thomssen along the way.
1A, barley. Technically, yeast should probably be ranked the most difficult ingredient to get in Nebraska, Thomssen said. Acquiring wild yeast typically involves foraging, trial-and-error, pure luck or some combination of the three. But Thomssen wouldn’t have ever considered the idea of making an all-Nebraska brew without a malted barley producer walking into Boiler Brewing Company and shattering notions of what was and wasn’t available around here. So malted barley gets top billing today.
In the early part of last summer, Zach Davy introduced himself to Thomssen at Boiler Brewing and volunteered that he was trying to get a malted barley company going in Nebraska. He had a family farm up by the South Dakota border, in Lynch, and lives in Omaha, where his malting company, Missouri Valley Malt (facebook.com/MissouriValleyMalt) is based.
“So he stops in the bar one day and says, ‘Hey man, would you be interested in Nebraska-grown malted barley?’” Thomssen recalled. “I’m like, ‘Hell yeah, I would.’ Because there’s no Nebraska-available malted barley. There’s no malting company. There is barley grown in Nebraska, but it’s not being malted.
“It only took about a millisecond to realize what I would do with Nebraska-malted barley. I would make an all-Nebraska beer. I didn’t have to think about it. So I can’t claim to be smart or visionary. Maybe opportunistic is the word.”
1B, yeast. Think about the dusty white fuzz that covers a blueberry.
“That (fuzz) you’re looking at is wild yeast,” Thomssen said. “That’s its ecosystem. It hangs out on the skin of a fruit, and it’s a spoilage organism for a fruit. Eventually the skin breaks down, it gets in there and it can consume the sugar from the fruit.”
It’s blowing everywhere, he said, Nebraska included.
“It’s very common, but -- there’s a big but," Thomssen said. “You’ve got a couple things going against you when you’re foraging for wild yeast -- it’s either gonna taste bad or it’s not going to ferment beer, or both. So you’ve got to get lucky to get both of those factors.”
Or you could be friends with a microbiologist.
Some five years ago, Thomssen, a Lincoln Lagers member well before Boiler Brewing Company opened downtown, was at a fellow homebrewer's place for a club meeting/brewing session. During that gathering, the Lagers later determined, the English ale Kim Theesen was brewing was contaminated by some wild yeast. (There were 80 apple trees on the property, and the owner, Doug Finke, had just made cider.)
Months later, when they cracked open bottles of Theesen's beers made during that gathering, the English ale didn't taste at all like an English ale.
“It had these wild, funky, earthy, tropical fruit and citrus flavors that were unexplained and not supposed to be there," Thomssen said.
Before they dumped the beer in the sink, Jason McLaughlin, a Lager and certified cicerone, said to hold that thought.
The carnival of flavors that wild fermentation yeast sometimes brings to the brewing process are more and more attracting -- and these are Thomssen's words, spoken proudly -- "the nerds."
"Adventurous brewers and adventurous drinkers like Brettanomyces," he said, referencing a specific type of wild yeast. "It produces new and unusual flavors that you are not accustomed to having in beer.”
McLlaughlin said this botched English ale hid some of those qualities, and suggested holding onto a yeast sample from that brew for further experimentation. A sample ended up in the freezer of Aaron Carnes for the next five years.
“He is a talented homebrewer and, conveniently, a microbiologist,” Thomssen said of Carnes. “So he’s a guy you want in your corner on a project like this.
"I had forgotten about this wild yeast. So I said: ‘Hey Aaron, I’m thinking about trying to forage for wild yeast. Is this something you’d be willing to collaborate with us on doing?' He said: 'Yeah, I’d love to. By the way, remember that wild Brett from (Doug) Finke’s house five years ago? I’ve still got that in the freezer.'”
Carnes was able to isolate the funky yeast and it ever-so-slowly fermented in a trial run.
"It was at that point we knew it was going to make beer," Thomssen said. "It’s happening. We can do this. ”
2, hops. Compared to yeast, hops is cake.
“Well in Nebraska, there is a pretty good hop industry,” Thomssen said. “It’s young, but it’s growing -- there’s (farmers) growing hops. You can get Nebraska-grown hops, no problem at all.”
For the Nebraska Native, Thomssen didn’t have to look far. At all.
“The hops is from my neighbor," said Thomssen, who lives on an acreage west of town.
3, water. “The water’s the easy one,” Thomssen said. “You just turn on the faucet.”
Bonus ingredient: Aronia berries. You don’t need aronia berries, aka chokeberries, to brew a beer. In fact, many brewers would shy from the sour-tasting berry. But for a unique Nebraska-centric offering with weird, wild reanimated yeast and experimental barley, the berry belonged. Thomssen got his from Herz Aronia Farm in Plattsmouth.
"That’s just one more ingredient that will make it more interesting, more local and a pretty color," he said. "It turns out it’s kind of a rosé.”
The final product, Nebraska to its core, filled two 31-gallon barrels. Boiler Brewing Company will begin selling the small batch of 32-ounce Nebraska Native bottles on Jan. 23.
Thomssen said the people who helped him create this beer might get an early sample, though.
“We’re definitely going to treat our friends right,” Thomssen said. “Because we couldn’t have done it without our friends.”