Omaha's brewery scene today is an incredibly different one from the era when the Upstream Brewing Company opened its doors in 1996.
More people are into craft beer. More people care about local ingredients and seasonal cuisine. And, most of all, diners have lots of breweries to choose from all over Omaha instead of just one.
The Upstream has tried to meet those new demands. The kitchen works seasonal dishes, some with local ingredients, between the expected gouda beer soup and artichoke dip on its menu. And the Upstream's team of brewers keeps a list of seasonal beers rotating quickly — in a given year, beer lovers can choose from up to 50 small-batch beers, some using locally sourced hops, along with the brewery's signature beers like Dundee Scotch Ale and Flagship IPA.
The five or so seasonal beers I sampled on my recent visits were, by and large, great: inventive and tasty but still mostly approachable. The menu at the Upstream is at its best when it comes to the food that pairs with those beers.
Take, for instance, the dish that Upstream is probably best known for: Asiago artichoke dip. If you've had this dip even once (trust me, I've had it way more than just once) you know what you're in for: cheesy, creamy, caloric goodness with a side of charred house-made beer bread. Big chunks of artichoke punctuate the rich cheese, and spread across the yeasty bread, the dip is great.
UPSTREAM BREWING COMPANY
Address: 514 S. 11th St. and 17070 Wright Plaza. For this review, we visited the original Old Market location.
Phone: Old Market: 402-344-0200; west, 402-778-0100
Hours: Downtown: Monday through Thursday 11 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday 10 a.m. to midnight.
West: Tuesday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight, Sunday 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Hits: The list of creative, tasty seasonal beers is fun to drink through, and both the Upsession IPA and Bauman Belgian pale ale were favorites. From the menu, a burger arrived perfectly cooked and particularly satisfying.
Misses: Entrees could have used basic seasoning, and a Dennison cocktail arrived more chocolate martini than pre-Prohibition drink.
Drinks: A wide array of house-made beer, along with wine and a long list of cocktails. The restaurant also makes its own root beer.
Prices: Sandwiches run around $10 and entrees around $17, which felt a bit spendy for a brewery. Happy hour discounts are worth checking out.
Noise level: Vibrant, especially in the bar area
So was an exceptionally tasty burger. Lots of Omaha restaurants lay claim to Omaha's best burger, but this one sneaked up on me, with its wonderfully beefy patty, cooked perfectly to a pink center and seasoned with the right amount of salt and pepper that put an exclamation point on that meat, which owner Brian Magee said comes from Omaha Steaks.
The burger comes on a tender, house-baked bun with all the usual toppings. We paired it with a cup of the gouda beer soup, another classic I always associate with the restaurant. Like the artichoke dip, it's a comforting bowl best suited to winter weather, with its creamy, rich texture and hint of hops.
The Upstream's thin crust pizzas are always on special during happy hour, and I went with the barbecue chicken, which had plenty of barbecue sauce along with meaty mushrooms and a lot of chicken that, while tender, read somewhat bland. The restaurant has recently diversified its pizza list, adding flavors that include a potato pizza with leek, pancetta, ricotta, parsley and red onion over Alfredo sauce; and a picante pizza with garlic, fennel sausage, red pepper, chili flake, fontina and mozzarella. Next time, I'd choose one of the newer flavors.
We tried two of the menu's older entrees: mac and cheese, to which we added blackened chicken, and pork schnitzel, a recommendation from our server.
Both dishes arrived nicely cooked — after the wonderful burger during the first visit, I have no doubt that chef Jeff Everroad knows what he's doing — but they lacked the seasoning that made that burger so delicious. Tender, breaded pork schnitzel had a nice texture and a not-too-thick breading, but that crust also read slightly bland. So did the pasta in a big bowl of the signature mac and cheese, made with twisty cavatappi pasta. Blackened chicken, while spicy, tasted dry.
A plate of fried calamari, of which I had admittedly low expectations, turned out to be the star of the evening. Pleasantly chewy, perfectly fried, salty and not greasy at all, I found myself downing bite after bite. The dish comes served with a classic cocktail sauce and zingy, cool banana peppers. It did much to convince me that the Upstream knows bar food, especially appetizers made for sharing.
The Upstream has been working to revamp the entree section of the menu, and Everroad has come up with a wide array of selections that just rolled out last week, including maple syrup-glazed salmon served with Brussels sprouts; a portobello mushroom salad with ancho and coriander; beef stroganoff; and a delightful-sounding pork tenderloin with date jam, serrano ham and kale. These dishes, clearly, are his effort to keep things feeling current, which they do.
On a future visit, I'd try any of the lot.
Magee said one of the challenges of being a longtime Omaha spot is that so many diners associate the Upstream with specific dishes, a trait I certainly understand; I'm guilty of the same thing. The rotating daily specials — two at lunch and two more at dinner — are another way Upstream tries to offer its customers a wider array of choices.
There's some variance between the specials and the printed menu between the west location of Upstream and the Old Market location, but customers will always find the same list of seasonal beers, said Dallas Archer, who has been working at Upstream for eight years and is now the head brewer.
The Bauman Belgian pale ale was hoppy enough to please an IPA lover like me but still approachable enough for someone new to the style; Archer uses locally grown hops from Bauman's Hop Farm in Fort Calhoun to make this beer.
I also enjoyed a strong but fruity Upsession IPA, brewed with hops from New Zealand. And the house IPA, which is always on the menu, is another satisfying choice for hop heads. There are beers on the list, too, for non-hop-lovers: a sultry Chocolate Bottom Stout made with raw cocoa nibs, for instance.
And there's also a lengthy list of beer cocktails, of which I sampled the Dennison, a blend of Dundee Scotch Ale, Bulleit rye, Velvet Falernum, creme de cassis and whiskey barrel aged bitters. I didn't mind the drink's sweet finish, but at a place with such an inviting and creative list of seasonals, that's where I'd head for the most satisfying experience.
Magee said the brewery wants to do what it can to stay relevant: It's looking to package its beer, and he hopes, eventually, to add taps for guest brewers. It has redesigned the labels on its series of barrel aged beers in partnership with Secret Penguin, and will this spring unveil a new website. And it's going to continue to roll out fresh seasonal beers.
"From the beginning," Magee said, "beer was the goal."
That shows, especially when the Upstream serves so much solid bar food alongside it.