Thursday, June 27, 2013

How I research for a beer trip

Chicago with beer friends Scott, Al and Heather
at Haymarket Pub
While on a beer trip to drink some of Chicago's finest beer spots, I read along with the Colorado beer trip of Kris and Mag of Beer Musings from Portland. Specifically, I noticed that places I had in my head weren't showing up on their tour. I sent a note asking Kris how they design a beer trip—and it's significantly different from mine.  .

For comparison, here are my trip planning resources:

I generally cross-reference three sources to find a hit list of breweries.  First source is Beerfly on BeerAdvocate.  Now called Places, there's two basic ways to use it. By clicking on a city list, a shortened grouping of breweries and bars come up according to their BA quality rankings; just start at the top and work down to find interesting stops.  Another way to use the list is to click on the state or country, and then within that list, click on the city to pull up a locally comprehensive list of breweries and bars listed on BA. From either location, I start reading reviews (making adjustments according to my estimation of the reviewer).

Half of the 100 taps at Meadhall in Boston
Second, I like The Beer Mapping Project.  Either by Country, Region or City, the Google map fueled project gives a full geographic perspective of the beerscape while in the planning stage.  There are often beer locations that show up on Beer Mapping that don't show up on BA, and vice versa.  Beer Mapping has a different (and often lower) standard to be included as a beer destination, so this alters what's listed.  I find that this bird's eye view speeds the planning process.

And third, I read or listen to a lot of beer material, including Beer Advocate, All About Beer, Basic Brewing Radio and blogs.  At festivals, while I try to plan a hit list of new breweries compared to my taste database, I also recognize breweries on instinct.  At an early Great Taste, a friend once said near the end of the day "Wow, just following you gets me a lot of good beer."  Another example, my wife and I found ourselves in Vermont without a brewpub because the one I had picked out was closed when we arrived.  Searching BA on my phone, I recognized Three Penny Taproom on our route and we stopped on the strength of my gut feeling that it was good, which turned out to be a favorite of the entire trip. Later I realized that Three Penney is a regular advertiser in the BA magazine. However, because I don't keep or categorize my print sources and much of it isn't available online, I tend to rely on memory to recognize good beer destinations while using the previous sources.

One Voice Denver beer tour
starting at Amato's.  
On occasion, I use a fourth source: local references.  On the recent Chicago trip, a speechie friend lives near the neighborhoods we were visiting and offered a personal perspective that altered the drinking priority.  Another time a reference worked well, I beermailed the most active BA in London and not only got advice on where to drink but how early to get a spot for the New Year's fireworks at the London Eye (a peak travel experience for us).  Besides knowing someone local (or that has traveled there), the caveat of these recommendations is the beer knowledge and preferences of the friend or acquaintance.

Once a broad range of beer places are found, I start searching through the websites of the bars and breweries.  Making a stop at Stone World Bistro in Southern California, Wynkoop in Denver or the tour at Cantillon in Brussels are easy calls, finding a quality place like Ma Che Siete Venuti a Fa in Rome or Cerveceria de MateVeza in the Castro district can be a bit harder. Over the years, "reading between the lines" has become an important skill to see if the place is what I am looking for.  For example, I have a clear bias against any bar or brewpub that doesn't have a separate tab or location for the beer menu.  If beer isn't important enough to place a tab, then it's probably not important enough to visit.  After that obvious trick, the rest is using the website to determine the values of the brewery and whether or not I think they fit what my wife and I look for in a beer stop.  When reading reviews on BA or other locations, this same sort of reading between the lines is needed as well.  For any one place, BA members will be in different parts of their beer journey, present different levels of knowledge and have location and personal biases; in order to "read" for accurate information, these opinions clearly need to be weighed accordingly.

Lunch with Westveletern 12 at In De Vrede
Once I have a wish list, the logistics of the trip can be planned.  I often, but not always, will set up my own drinking map on Google maps. This can serve as a reference on trip, but mostly is used for seeing the space and knowing how to pair stops, plan a stop while being touristy or chose a hotel. I wish Google would allow the maps to print with clear labels for each point on the map, which would make it more useful when travelling.  My travel info is moving online with my phone and iPad, so it's becoming more useful domestically.  However, it doesn't help at all for international trips where everything needs to be printed.

On the road, there's two different times of beer stops we make on vacation.  Originally, the first type of beer hunting I did was simply knowing where the best available beer is when we needed lunch or dinner. While being touristy, it became almost a joke with my wife and I that she'd turn to me and ask "So, where's the nearest brewpub?"  If I knew the answer and could give clear, fast directions, the brewpub was chosen instead of something else. Recently, we started to go off the tourist path to incorporate high value drinking destinations (Westvleteren in Belgium, Brewery Ommegang in New York, Russian River in California) within the larger framework of our travel, though the non-beer itinerary generally takes precedence.
Chimay flight of 1992, 2002 and 2012
at Kulminator in Antwerp

The second type of beer stop is travelling to beer for the sake of beer. I have flown into Denver, twice, simply to drink at the Great American Beer Festival. Last summer, I flew to Brussels a week before meeting my wife and nieces in Paris for the main portion of our vacation. Easily the biggest beer only vacation, Brussels was a bucket list drinking trip.  My recent Chicago trip was purely beer, though we spent a few hours one morning at the Art Institute of Chicago and another walking around Millenium Park for a requisite "Bean" picture as our only distractions from the task at hand.

Overall, my process for these two types of beer trips has been as described above, except beer for the sake of beer destinations take a bit more planning and have a few unique logistical considerations.  A main factor is that bars and breweries tend to not be open in the morning, so sleeping in (which I don't do well) or finding additional touristy options will be needed.  Also, another limiting problem is when breweries offer tours.  In  Belgium, it was a struggle to find a tour to day each day for a week. And, finally, palate fatigue and pacing for a beer only trip needs to be considered to keep the trip fun and safe. Since the vast majority of my beer hunting in the past has been within the framework of other travel or festivals, my philosophy of beer dedicated trips is still forming.  I will update in future posts as my thinking coalesces.
Very dusty beer bottle collection at
Tuborg in Copenhagen

Which leads to my main reason for this post. On the Chicago trip, I started to suspect the my beer hunting, especially the dedicated beer trips, was rehashing what other drinkers had found. I recently came across Urban Beer Hikes and like the philosophy of earned drinking (and safety) through hiking. I am somewhat concerned with my over reliance on BA and that I am missing an opportunity to add unique, new experiences to my beer knowledge.  However, since BA is often local crowd sourcing at its best, it has repeatedly gotten me some of the best beer experiences of my life.  As a result of this cognitive dissonance and a fear that I might be missing out on ever better beer, I am looking to revise and improve my beer hunting system. I would love to hear from others about your favorite beery resources and beer hunting tips and tricks.

 Links to trips represented in photos:
2012 Belgium
2012 Colorado
2012 Copenhagen
2013 Chicago

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Bigfork Wilderness Bar & Liquor (Bigfork, MN)

The One Voice choir descended upon the town of Big Fork, Minnesota to perform at The Edge Center that evening.  Of course, the beer sub-group of the choir headed to Bigfork Wilderness Bar & Liquor.

For a town of 446 people (and tourists), the beer selection is pretty good. Ten taps with New Belgium Ranger IPA for the hoppy end with Fat Tire, Leinie's Honey Weiss, Nordeast and Shock Top as examples of the range. More than exceeding my expectations and my Ranger IPA was fresh, well served and the lines are clearly very well maintained.

The gang filled nearly every seat in the place.  What we didn't understand was the bar wasn't really a restaurant but a bar with a single deep fryer.  When the orders inevitably backed up in spite of the frenetic efforts of the staff, we took the bartender's advice and ordered a cheese pizza from the Pizza Palace across the parking lot. I walked over, ordered and they delivered to our table a local, thin crust pizza with a bit of spice that even went well with my Ranger IPA. Had we read the note on the food board that we could order from next door, it might have been better logistically for all.  Hindsight.

We so overwhelmed the place that glasses ran low and I drank from a plastic cup the whole time.  The beer was so well served that even the plastic cup had a nice lace.  On the way out, I specifically complimented the wait staff for the fine job they did handling the beer.  Not only was the hoppiest beer in the tap line fresh and clean, but I sipped on several others among our group and all were similarly well served.  

As a result of drink, laughter and a couple of games of darts (all of which I lost in spite of my best efforts), we saw very little of the town of Bigfork beyond the bar.  The walk over the bridge from the performance center to downtown was picturesque.  Many in the choir reported enjoying Scenic State Park and, while walking back, we caught our friends laughing under the bridge as they paddled their canoes back to the rental office.  And, the dusk drive from to our hotel in Grand Rapids on Highway 38 was so beautiful that I felt like we were hiking on that incredibly curvy road.  We may have to return to see what else we missed.  Overall, our stop in Bigfork was one of the most fun, relaxing times of the trip and, when I find myself this far into the Minnesota Northwoods again, I won't hesitate to stop for pizza and a beer in Bigfork.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Stout's Pub (Falcon Heights, MN)

612 Mary Ann with tap list
Rather than go to the St. Paul Summer Beer Fest today, I opted for the One Voice concert and to meet friends from my wife's choir at Stout's Pub for dinner between shows. With a summer thunderstorm downpour outside, it seems that I made the right choice—several wet and weary festivalers wandered in from the state fair grounds while I was there.

Walking into the pub, the Ommegang dinner is advertised and shows a bit of their beer knowledge to start.  Plus, I noticed later that the pub hosted a pre-festival Kegs and Eggs brunch as well.  The bar is clearly trying to be in tune with the beer community.  I settled in with a cardboard bowl of free popcorn on a corner stool of the larger rectangular bar, which is clearly the center of the pub, literally and metaphorically, as the restaurant surrounds both sides. Standard sports bar TVs all around for everyone. The decoration gives it a Friday's feel, but it's far too local and genuine for that comparison. In the mid afternoon of this rainy Saturday, the bar is over half full. The bartender's pitch of reduced priced happy hour appetizers explains the excitement.

Looking at the taps, I ordered the Castle Danger seasonal, which turned out to be appropriate for the day: Gale Force Wheat. The amber-orange beer with an off white head falls quickly with a clean lace. Not much of a nose, but where's there is fresh wheat and a hint of fruitiness. Full mouthfeel, carbonic twang and an orange, citrus flavor that matches the color. Very surprising. almost chewy. wheat beer and one that I would happily drink through the summer.

Well designed tap list of about two dozen that represents the basic range of drinkers from MGD Light and Apple Orchard Crispy Apple to Surly Furious and Pour Decisions Infidelity (out today). Towards the lighter end overall, but enough to keep most folks happy. With a clear bent towards Minnesota craft, I'm finding two local breweries that I haven't tried before, so hard to complain, plus there are two bonus firkins of Summit at the end of the bar.

Second draft is 612 Brew's Mary Ann, a German lager with ginger, a clear Gilligan's Island reference for those of a particular age. Shimmering yellow lager with a thin, stark white head. With a deep whiff, I can smell the ginger and light breadiness, but not a strong presence. Wait for itlight and refreshing while not thin, the ginger bites hard on the tongue. Ginger lovers will bask in this beer all summer.  Happy I tried it and a very strong addition to the local beerscape, but not a new favorite of mine. However, it does perk up my hopes for trying more 612.

With a group, got to try a range of food. Deep fried Pub Shrooms with remoulade sauce were excellent, and we shared Fried Hop Curds, the lightest, not greasy cheese curds I have ever had. The Wood Fired Pub Nachos and clam chowder soup, while good, didn't match up to the appetizers. Strong service by our waitress allowed us to eat quickly and relax a bit before heading to the show. Final pint of Summit Saga on cask was well served and a good choice to end my stop.

When at the bar, one of the five guys that ordered tequila shots gives me a stare for taking a picture of my beer with my iPad. I might be a bit yuppy for the bar but Stout's is a great local is St. Paul that seems to be working hard to serve a range of clientele, handling the beer with respect and providing a comfortable place for all.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Brigid's Cross Irish Pub & Restaurant (Bemidji, MN)

Brigid's Irish Pub
In 2005, I spent a week at the university in Bemidji for the Northwoods Writers Conference and spent a night at Brigid's having a few pints. When we found ourselves in Bemidji for a wedding and time to chat with friends before the reception, so I pulled Brigid's from my foggy recollection and we happily went down the street.

Oddly, I don't seem to have added a new beer to the database on that first trip, which may explain the three forays to the now defunct 1st City Brewery & Grill.  Based on this absence, Brigid's seems to have expanded its list and I had a chance to try my first drafts of Leech Lake.

Leech Lake 3 Sheet Imperial IPA

I ordered the 3 Sheets Imperial IPA on tap, which didn't live up to the bottle.  My suspicions point to two theories: it wasn't served as well or that the hoppy beer had languished a bit in the keg.  However, my wife's pint of the porter Driven Snow, also by Leech Lake, exceeded my expectations, so going to rule out the beer handling. Either the 3 Sheets changes a lot on draft or hoppy doesn't move that well up north.

Food awaited us a the reception, so we only tested the pints and the atmosphere at Brigid's this trip. A family friendly place, Brigid's Cross is clearly aiming to fulfill the traditional role of an Irish pub as the heart of the whole community. Named after St. Brigid, who is rumored to have turned milk into ale, the pub honors their patron by offering a free pint to customers on St. Brigid's Day (Feb 1st).   It was a pleasant experience and I would definitely give the food and some more pints a chance in the future.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Bud Light Lime Straw-ber-Rita (Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, MO)

We were at a wedding last weekend and a couple we were chatting with much of the night told a funny story that included a new "beer" called Bud Light Lime Straw-ber-Rita.  Aghast at the description, I of course had to buy one when I happened upon it while on a beer run.

Candy red in the glass without a hint of a head on the pour. Besides the advertised lime, the nose smells like a Shirley Temple with too much grenadine and a shot of fresh moonshine floated on top.  Syrupy sweet taste of strawberry and lime, but each is independent and not blended at all.  Raw alcohol aftertaste burns in spite of the obvious effort at a fruity cover up, leaving almost no discernible beer taste at all.

Maybe I should have tried the suggestion on the side of the can to pour it over ice so the taste would be muted and diluted. My wife admonished me for pouring it into a glass since drinking from the can would limit the affect of smell on the taste; as usual, she may have had a point.  Compared to craft beer tallboys that are just solid enough to pour once popped, this 24 oz can is clearly sturdy enough to hold and drink from while boating on the Mississippi or at a garage party when the folks are out of town. With the 8% alcohol clearly highlighted in green on a red background, the design of the beer seems to be little more than a cheap alcohol delivery system to bypass the taste of beer completely, at which is succeeds.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Denver Beer Co (Denver, CO)

Christmas in July chalk art work
7/10/12, 7/13/12

I originally heard of Denver Beer Co from a Brewing TV episode last spring. Walking in, I liked the vibe immediately.  The near wall facing the street is an entire bank of glass garage doorsnot sure if they came with the place or were added. Very flexible to maintain temperature, which was comfortable on both of our visits. And, I'm guessing that it would be pretty sitting at the bar in a Rocky snowstorm. Denver Beer Co works on a model becoming popular right now: serve great beer and have food trucks fill'm up outside.

When staying downtown, a thirsty traveler gets to Denver Beer Co by taking the free shuttle on 16th Street to its northwest end in LODO. Walk up the stairway to the park, over the bridge and then cross the freeway bridge. Just over the freeway, take a right and 1/2 a block later the pub will be on the left. Very easy but a little off the tourist path. I sit at the long, lovingly made bar and order a set up of samples for a very reasonable dollar a glass:

  • Leibling's Kolsch: clean and light, and very much to style with a slightly assertive hop and fruitiness for the style 
  • Kaffir Lime Wheat: struggling to imagine that I like this beer this much. Extremely pleasant lime taste blended with a wheat punch plus some peppery notes/spice. Can't tell, but might be from the yeast or the hops. At any rate, it's well blended and fun. Nothing wimpy about this beer. I'd drink a pint of this if I had more time.
  • Brett's Go-To Amber: hoppy amber with a healthy malt base, caramel and biscuit blending with a hop spice. Solid.
  • Double Trouble Belgian Dubbel: smooth, vinous, full bodied dubbel, strong spice underneath that supports the body; good, even on a hot afternoon
  • Ameri-IPA: an assertive west coast IPA with citrus, spice and underlying earthiness. Sharp hop bite on the mouthno apologies here. Good, but raw and not subtle. Perfect, if that's what is wanted.
  • Graham Cracker Porter: actually tastes like graham crackers but with a heavy roast across the top. Roast and strong sweetness and graham cracker fight in the nose; however, the taste is dominated by a sharpness that counterpoints the nose. Very nice and I can see why it won a medal. Complex and fun.
  • Belgian IPA: bring on the funk with a yeasty spice and pepper fueled IPA that blends well with a highly hopped beer.
  • The Wilderness RIS: a smooth Russian Imperial Stout with loads of flavor. Strong vanilla, sweet dark malt, amazing lace in a sample glass that adds up to an epic beer.  
  • Denver Beer brewhouse with a view
    The Wilderness on draft
  • The Wilderness Barrel Aged: the barrel adds a strong woodiness and the alcohol is very apparent. I really liked the RIS straight up, but the barrel does a lot for this beer in spite of being sticky sweet and a bit hot. Having this to sip on a cool winter would be transcendent. Amazing beer. 

With one GABF medal for the Graham Cracker Porter, Denver Beer Co is off to a very good start and I predict they will add more medals in the future.  Of the places I visited by myself on this trip, I specifically took my wife back to try the porter, which she appreciated. To offset the big beer, we shared a large and surprisingly light and fluffy $5 pretzel, which was delectable with or without the pump jar of spicey Gulden's mustard that comes along with it. I settled in and took a crack at a draft of the barrel aged The Wilderness. We chatted and sipped with a background of classic/alt rock track while checking out the local art for sale and the Christmas in July chalk drawings.

When I beer travel, I secretly make a list of brewpubs that I want to live by in retirement.  Besides great beer, a pub that makes this list is a place that I yearn to become a local, to belly up to the bar with a friendly face and the newest draft in front of me.  Happily, at the latest, I plan to visit again at the next GALA in 2016.  So, please, go to Denver Beer Co and drink here to make sure I can return some day.

Backcountry Pizza and Tap House (Boulder, CO)


Started our visit to Boulder at Backcountry Pizza and Tap House.  Advertised as the "most taps" in Boulder and they do seem to live up to the billing.  Better yet, the taps are well curated.  I had excellent drafts of Green Flash Founders Linchpin and The Bruery Trade Winds Tripel.

With good beer as a start, we started with an incredible soup: Arrogant Bastard Cheddar and Onion soup.  We ordered breaded eggplant parmesan sandwich that was good but wish I had saved room for more than one slice of the spectacular Mediterranean pizza.

In short, Backcountry is at the top of my list the next time I return to Boulder. And, I will be sure to start with the pizza.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Crow Peak Brewing (Spearfish, SD)


Earlier this year I was able to try Crow Peak beers while visiting family in Sioux Falls, SD. Based on that experience and hearing a podcast interview of the brewer, I was inspired to visit it on the way back from Colorado. I can't find the podcast I heard, but here's a youtube interview dealing with the business side of brewing. Combined with Firehouse Brewing down the road in Rapid City, the drive back via Wyoming and South Dakota allowed me to log two brewpubs and avoid the dreaded cross-Nebraska route. Stopping at Monk's House of Ale Repute earlier in the trip, I received some great advice to drive through Spearfish Canyon outside of town that added exponentially to the beauty of the trip.

Crow Peak looks like a woodsy lodge driving up.  Log pole ceiling inside the roomy restaurant as I sit down at the colored cement bar of red, black and grey/green.  The brewery is behind the bar, separated by glass and more field stone. Six taps of Crow Peak beer line the wall with clear information for all of them. Combined with the definition of a properly filled pint nearby, they are clearly attempting to educate the local population in all things beery. I also like the attention to detail of the glass washer before each pint is poured.  Locals seem to like a pub pour known as a "dirty IPA," which is 11th Hour IPA with Pile-o-dirt Porter in any proportion desired.  All of this plus the named pint club glasses points to a dedication to serving the regulars.  I just get a good feeling from the attitude of the place that they are working hard to do quality work.

On this trip, I took advantage of the half pints to try several  new Crow Peak beers:

  • Olde Crowe Winter Ale: 10 IBU, 5% ABV, light brown head that falls quickly over a dark copper colored ale. Malt, dark fruit and a hint of spice in the nose.
  • Up in Smoke Porter: 35 IBU, 6.5% ABV. Creamy tan head on a near black-brown porter. Assertive smoke and roast in nose. Smoke is full and lingers in the nose. Full bodied and a light spice hidden underneath the smoke.
  • Canyon Cream Ale: light ale brewed with local honey, super light, almost watery, very sweet. honey apparent and of a nice flavor, light spice in nose from 10 IBU or the honey itself. Super drinkable and a well done light beer.
  • Lean Horse Ale: light ale with a white head and barely amber body. Strong caramel flavor that's hinted at in the nose. Odd but interesting flavor and I can see how some would like it, but too sweet for me.
  • 11th Hour IPA: 70 IBU, 6.5% ABV. Big nose and a strong IPA. Citrus, especially grapefruit and a bit of passionfruit on top of a sweet amber to golden ale, back lit by the sun coming through the upper windows. 
Besides good beer, I do love local pizza.  So, I ordered a Oggie's four cheese for dinner: munster, mozzarella, swiss and cheddar. Boxes of pizza in the cooler with Lindeman's and personal sized wine bottles for those that demand it. The bartender pulled it out and into a small pizza cooker. Thin crust with a complimentary burnt flavor on the bubbles underneath. Cheese is a nice blend. Not fancy, but good bar food that fits the atmosphere of the place and my personal predilections, including the paper plate and napkins. Drank the 11th Hour IPA for dinner and it blends well with the pizza. My kind of place and happy I didn't wait to eat at the Firehouse later.