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


  1. Cal,I feel like a novice beer drinker when I hang out with you. And I'm pretty sure that's not true.

  2. Great write up- cross referencing is one my main hunting pints for sure. You best nugget of wisdom- where is the nearest brewpub? "If I knew the answer and could give clear, fast directions, the brewpub was chosen for instead of something else."
    There have been many a time that I was spear heading a group and was unable to locate that hidden treasure brewpub in time to quell the mass's growl bellies and sore feet. Planning is key!


  3. Robin, you are definitely not a novice, but I obsess a bit more.

    Nitch, thanks for the response. Research on the road is no fun and generally doesn't lead to a great find. Cheers,