Inspired by local agriculture, Popcorn Daze Cream Ale has fast become a favorite among Scratchtown Brewery patrons.

By Dario Bard

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Sometimes opportunity pops up when one least expects it. The story of Popcorn Daze Cream Ale is a case in point. It begins in 2010, when amateur brewer Mike Klimek lost his banking job in Omaha, Nebraska, as a result of the financial crisis. That bit of bad luck led him and his family back to his hometown of Ord, where Julie, his wife, had landed a well-paid position as a nurse practitioner at the Valley County Hospital. Klimek’s return to Ord also brought him in contact with Caleb Pollard, the then executive director of the Valley County Economic Development Board.

“I was doing a computer repair job here in Ord and shared some of my home brewing with Caleb,” recalls Klimek. “And he said, ‘You know, hundreds of thousands of tourists drive through Ord in the summer, so if we can sell a little bit of beer to them and then distribute it during the winter, I think we can make a go of this.”

Ord is a gateway to the Sandhills, a region of lakes and rivers that is a popular summer recreation spot for Nebraskans.

Thanks to Pollard’s suggestion, Klimek’s beer brewing hobby, which he had taken up in Omaha, morphed into a full blown business practically overnight. In 2013, Klimek and Pollard, together with Julie and Christina (their respective wives) and a third couple, Michelle and Jade Stunkel, established the Scratchtown Brewing Company. And they haven’t looked back since.

“Ord is a relatively small town with a population of roughly 2,000 people,” says Klimek. “We are on the edge of the Sandhills, though, with four lakes and a couple of rivers within a 40-minute drive. That brings a lot of tourist traffic through here. So for our first year, we thought we’d make 150 barrels of beer and distribute 40% out the door. As it turned out, our taproom here on premise took off. We sold 300 barrels all on premise and it took us 18 months before we could keep up with local demand and even begin to think about distributing.”

As the company’s brewmaster, Klimek has been busy. In three years, 70 of his beer creations have rotated through the Scratchtown Brewery’s six taps. His top rated beers include a hoppy Double IPA and a heavy-coffee Imperial Stout, but perhaps his most talked about invention is the Popcorn Daze Cream Ale.

The Scratchtown Brewing Company sells this unique Cream Ale just once a year, in late August, just in time for nearby North Loup’s Popcorn Days Festival. Popcorn Days is arguably the longest running public festival in the United States. The event was first held in 1901 to celebrate an especially prosperous popcorn harvest; Nebraska is the nation’s top popcorn-producing state. Today, Popcorn Days attracts 500 to 1,000 people from throughout Nebraska and beyond. This year, the event is being held from August 26th to the 28th.

IFT was fortunate enough to speak with Klimek just as he was preparing this year’s batch of Popcorn Daze Cream Ale. We chatted with him about making beer out of popcorn and of the success of the Scratchtown Brewing Company.

IFT: How did you come up with the idea of making beer out of popcorn?

Klimek: I have to give credit where credit is due. I’m much more of a craft beer fan than a brewer, so I am always reading and watching YouTube videos. And that’s how I came across this brewery in Indiana, Sun King, that makes a Popcorn Pilsner. That was the first time I’ve ever heard of a production brewery using popcorn, so I started doing research and found some material about making beer out of popcorn.

Then, when we were opening up Scratchtown Brewery, the Popcorn Days Festival was coming up and I had the popcorn beer idea in the back of my head from back when I was home brewing. I’d never done it before, but I figured I’d give it a try. So I called up Josh and Luke Zangger (Zangger Popcorn Hybrids), who grow popcorn and who I’ve known since grade school, and asked them for some product.

You know, being from Valley County, which is known as Popcorn County USA because it is the county that produces the most popcorn in the country, I tell people that popcorn is in the blood here. I grew up with the Popcorn Days Festival and ate popcorn and saw people growing it all the time. So I thought to myself, if I’m going to make a local beer, I ought to try and incorporate popcorn in it.

After all, brewing is really an agricultural process. It is all about taking agricultural raw material and making a product out of it. To be clear, Popcorn Daze is not 100% popcorn. We use 30% popped popcorn and 70% barley. We use 50 pounds of pre-popped popcorn to make a 100-gallon batch.

The Zangger’s are awesome to work with. They not only donate the popcorn for the beer, but they also dry-air pop it for us in their commercial popper; that way there is no oil or butter or anything that could mess up the beer.

When I first started working with popcorn, I decided on the cream ale style because it’s a good summertime beer. It is an old-style light golden ale that typically has flake corn in it. A lot of beers are brewed with flake corn, but not with popcorn.

IFT: What is the taste profile?

Klimek: It’s funny because when you tell people it’s popcorn beer, the first thing people think of is salted butter. That’s because they associate it with movie theater popcorn. Obviously, though, butter is not a flavor you want in beer.

With Popcorn Daze, what you have is a crisp, light beer that has an aroma with a hint of freshly popped popcorn. It’s refreshing, not very hoppy, and on the backend you can tell there’s popcorn in it.

It’s not an overwhelming popcorn taste. I wanted it to be balanced, so that you would realize popcorn was in it, but not feel that you were drinking a bowl of popcorn.

Honestly, when we first made it, I thought of it as more of a gimmick and I wasn’t sure we’d get the popcorn flavor in there. But it turned out pretty good.

IFT: The Popcorn Days Festival is coming up. How are you preparing for it this year?

Klimek: We are a small brewery and we typically make 100-gallon batches. We only brew the Popcorn Daze Cream Ale at the end of August, so that it coincides with the Popcorn Days Festival. The first two times, we made one batch per year. But this year we are making 200 gallons because it sells so well. I should probably make more of it, but it is hard to work with popcorn in the brewing process. When it hits the water, the popcorn jells and gums things up.

People do ask us to make it year round, but we choose to make it just for the Popcorn Days Festival. I think people like the novelty of it. It makes it special that you can only get it this time of year.

IFT: Where is it available?

Klimek: For right now, we only distribute in Nebraska, and I would say that 80% to 85% is sold on premise.

We have also taken it to a few festivals. Last year, Popcorn Daze was the first of our beers to sell out at the Great Nebraska Beer Fest in Omaha. People there had never heard of a popcorn beer before, so everyone wanted to try it.

IFT: What would you say is the secret of Scratchtown Brewing Company’s success?

Klimek: When we started out, we decided to go with a small brewing system because we didn’t know what the response would be and we didn’t want to invest a lot of money. When we opened, Scratchtown was the first rural brewery in Nebraska, and we made Ord the smallest town in the state with a brewery.

So we started out making not a whole lot of beer, and as it turned out, I underestimated the local market. The locals really responded to craft beer. Also, every weekend since we opened, we’ve had tourists coming from Omaha, Lincoln and other cities across the state and even some out-of-staters. In the taproom, we sometimes ask people, “What brings you to Ord?” And many of them are there to check out the brewery.

So we have been very lucky to have good word of mouth and a really good response to our beers.

Photo: Founder Mike Klimek holding a pint of Black Eye Imperial Porter, 2015 gold medal winner at the U.S. Open Beer Championship.

IFT: Would you say you expanded tourism in Ord?

Klimek: I think our presence does draw more people here. In the summer, there were always tourists coming through town, but now we are seeing more tourists in the fall and winter, and I think the brewery is part of that.

We try to do something at least once a month during the fall and winter months. Being a small town, there is not always something going on in Ord. We are three young couples running the company and we decided that if we wanted stuff to do, we could be the catalyst to drive that.

So Scratchtown Brewery has hosted a barbeque cook-off for craft beer week, where we partner with local cattlemen who donate the beef. We also did a local food pantry fundraiser, where customers who donated canned food or money got a beer on us. There’s a Saint Patrick’s Day Fest with live music and also a Polka Fest that is really popular with the Czech-Bohemian population around here. But our biggest event is coming up on September 10th. We call it Scratchtober Fest. It’s to celebrate the bar’s opening. We block off the street and have three bands with four to six food vendors. Last year, it brought in 1,000 people. Not bad for a town of 2,000. So that fills up the hotels here and the local eateries do well off it, too.


Photo: Founders of Scratchtown Brewing Company (L-R), Mike & Julie Klimek, Christina & Caleb Pollard, Michelle & Jade Stunkel.

IFT: What are the future plans for the Scratchtown Brewery and your Popcorn Daze Cream Ale?

Klimek: We are in the process of expanding the brewery and are looking at investing in a bigger brewing system to generate more product.

We’ve also talked about packaging Popcorn Daze as a bottled beer at some point. Every year we plan to make a little bit more of it because people expect it. People have even told us they have come to Ord just to try it. There will be a ceiling at some point, but for the next couple of years, I see us continuing to increase production.

Credit: Photographs courtesty of the Scratchtown Brewing Company
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Dario Bard, IFT Journalist