I got a chance to sit down and chat with Aaron Bush, who is the head brewer at Infusion Brewing Company in Omaha, Nebraska. It was a late Friday afternoon and probably the hottest day so far this summer. Aaron came out from the brewing area, sweat covered, but a big smile one his face. As we shook hands, I knew this was going to be an interesting next hour or so.
My curiosity quickly got the best of me, so I had to ask Aaron how his brewing journey began. Aaron started out home brewing around 17 years ago. The very first beer he selected to brew was a Pilsner. With high expectations, Aaron anxiously awaited opening that first bottle to get a taste of what he had created. "It was terrible" said Aaron, "I remember telling my wife that I had put the rest of the bottles in a garbage bag". I can completely relate to this, because this was exactly my first but only experience brewing beer. Aaron then continued on with the story that he couldn't bring himself to getting rid of the first batch. Then one day his wife told him it was time to either drink the beer or dump it into the garbage. Aaron decided to put a couple of bottles into the fridge and try them out later that day while grilling. "Time" said Aaron. I asked him as to what he meant by that. Aaron continued on, "Time was all the beer needed to finish." Aaron then went on to say how this first experience taught him how important patience is in brewing. Some of the steps especially during brewing days happen quickly with lots of action on those days. But the key to a great beer is in the final steps of the process and allowing it the time it needs before pouring into a glass and enjoying that first sip.
"Was there one specific type of beer that you wanted to focus on?", I asked. Aaron explained that for him, it wasn't about taking one recipe and tweaking it for months, it was more about exploring all kinds of beers. This made complete sense to me especially in your early brewing years when you want to delve into all of the possibilities. Also what better way to learn than to try different things. I followed up that question with "What was your most important thing that you wanted to get out of each batch?" I found the answer to be very intriguing. Aaron discussed how he wanted there to be a specific characteristic that people would taste and remember in the beer. I have to say that is probably the main reason why I like craft beer so much. I can remember having my very first pint of the Dominican Brown Ale from Infusion. There was chocolate, coffee, cinnamon, and coconut notes that make this beer so special to me. A special taste that brings me back for more!
So many questions started coming into my head that I wanted to explore with Aaron. My next one was, "How did you learn to make all of the different styles of beer?" Aaron told me it was a lot of research time. Books were a good starting point. Hours of listening to craft beer podcasts by some of the greats like James Spencer - Basic Brewing Radio helped also. Spending time in the home brew supply stores provide a place to ask questions about different hops, malts, etc. "What about the internet?", I asked. Aaron with a smile on his face said "You can't believe everything you read on the internet". Aaron then went on to say that the internet did help with finding some places where he could purchase malts, hops, etc. for brewing that he couldn't find locally. But in the end, practice is what makes the most difference. "Just keep brewing" said Aaron.
So from home brewer to brewing for Infusion had to be a big step. I was very curious to get Aaron's take on this. Aaron explained that for him, he now knew that every step of the process had to be repeatable. With a lot of great experience from home brewing, it was time to take that knowledge and see what it could be at a larger scale. Aaron then went on to say that right away he noticed that good beers even got better due to making sure that each step of the process was being done the same way. I started to think that this had to be a part of why Infusion has become so successful. I needed to learn more!
I then asked Aaron if he could take me back in time and walk me through the early days of Infusion. Aaron talked about getting the brewery and taproom up in running in Benson in 2013. For those who haven't been to Infusion in Benson, I highly recommend taking the tour. The brewery is in the building that once was Olsen's Meat Market. Sorry back to the story... Aaron went on to explain that the goal was to produce enough beer to keep the tap room supplied. For a new brewery that seems like a very reasonable goal. "So what were some of the first beers you offered?", I asked. Aaron listed off several in which these are some of them:
Maiden Voyage American Stout
Anything Goes Blonde
Butcher Block Brown Ale
Second Base Pale Ale
Pulley Man Pale Ale
Sand Stone Wheat
Dean's Red Sled
Bedford Park Black IPA
Camaraderie Blood Orange IPA
I love the names and the stories behind them such as Joel Porter. This beer was named for the metal craftsman who did everything around the bars including the handrails and taps at the brewery. He is the wizard of stainless steel! Joel even created a 5 liter steel keg mail box for the Benson location.
Pulley Man Pale Ale named after Doug Deshazer. Doug was instrumental in the construction work to turn Olsen's Meat Market into the Infusion Brewery and tap room in Benson. Doug has an amazing collection of barn pulleys. Doug has captured the history of pulleys in a museum in Crofton, Nebraska. Check out this great article written by the Omaha World Herald.
Dean's Red Sled was named after Dean Dobmeier who was a brewer from Jobber's Canyon. Dean gave the recipe of the Winter Red Ale to Infusion. Dean has been more than a great friend to Infusion, he has also been an instrumental mentor on how to run a brewery.
Camaraderie Blood Orange IPA was named after the collaboration with Odell Brewing Company in Fort Collins, Colorado. This IPA is part of an annual trio of IPAs that also includes a Red IPA and the South Pacific Pineapple IPA. Some great names I know I will never forget!
So I remember visiting Infusion in Benson in 2015 for the first time as part of a tour for Omaha Beer Week. There was a lot of buzz about the popularity of the beer. "So Aaron what was the main catalyst for the explosion of Infusion beers in bars and restaurants in Nebraska?" Aaron said "Believe it or not it was a small batch of Anything Goes Blonde with some Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans in it". This beer is what all of us now have come to know as Vanilla Bean Blonde. I told Aaron I think I understand the attraction of this beer. For many who are use to light beers, Vanilla Bean Blonde gives them a chance to try a craft beer similar in color. Once they enjoy a pint of the wonderful flavor, they can throw out their light beers. Aaron then went on to say that 12 Infusion tap handles in Omaha quickly grew into 400 over the state of Nebraska. Wow that is insane growth! Quickly Infusion outgrew the brewing capacity of the Benson location and opened a second location in Southwest Omaha. The second location is in a warehouse (as seen in the picture above) with room to build out the needed capacity to try to keep up with the demand for their brews.
One of my favorite questions to ask a brewer is - "So what are some of the craziest ingredients that you have put into a beer? Being an extremely creative guy, Aaron had a pretty good list that included:
Skittles in an IPA
Gummy worms in a Belgium brew
Other various candy used in darker beers
I really love the fact that Infusion over the years has done several different things to promote new brew ideas. The Ice Box Series was a favorite of mine to get to try some new beers in small batches. Danger Stout came out recently as a small bottled batch that was crazy popular. Last but not least is the Summer Bean Fest where not 1 but 8 different Vanilla Bean beers are available for a day. I told Aaron I thought it was really cool to get to see, hear about, and taste the creations from Infusion.
Time was running short so the last question for Aaron was, "So what has it meant for you to be a part of Infusion from its inception?" Aaron replied, "It meant a lot to be part of something from the very start. It is like being on a construction crew starting at the ground floor and building a skyscraper." Aaron went on to describe that he gets to use his passion of brewing beer and learning everyday. Aaron then said "Infusion has been a great place to be at because of the people. Everyone works hard to deliver quality beers in a very fast paced time of the craft beer industry. As a group we get to spend time together to come of with new and exciting ideas for that next beer."
I can say that I personally enjoy getting to meet everyone that works at the brewery. I volunteered for the Summer Bean Fest and you get to see first hand how much work and effort goes into an event like that. But this is work that is going on behind the scenes each and everyday that as consumers we don't get to see. I now have a better sense of a day in the life of a brewer. I also now understand even more why the beers at Infusion are top notch!
Aaron, "Is there anything else you would like to add?" Aaron's smiled and said "I am a lucky man most of all because I have a wife who understands." What a great way to wrap up our conversation!
Find some time and stop in Infusion at their Benson or Southwest Omaha location. I know you will enjoy the people there as well as a pint or two of some of the best craft beer in the Midwest!