"Beer in Colorado" is dedicated to that divine elixir born of the marriage of water, malt, hops, and yeast as interpreted
by those living in Colorado. Follow the author as he visits every brewery in the state, creates experimental homebrews,
attends beer festivals, tries interesting beers from around the world, and spreads the good word of beer. Prost!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Great Lake, Great Beer: Pt. 4

To read Part 3 of our Lake Michigan beer adventure, click here.

With a carload of people, Nicole and I, along with my parents, siblings, and siblings’ significant others, headed inland to “Beer City USA” AKA Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Grand Rapids calls itself “Beer City USA” because twice it won Charlie Papazian’s famous (now defunct) internet poll.  I’m not sure if winning a web-based popularity contest warrants a metro-wide rebranding, even if Grand Rapids did claim the top spot more than once.  Don’t misunderstand, I think very highly of the beers made in Michigan’s second largest city; it’s just that I also think the “Beer City USA” poll is an inexact crock and should be given little credence.  I can hardly blame the municipal government for latching onto the moniker, though.  “Beer City USA” sure as hell beats Grand Rapids’ official nickname—“Furniture City.”


Iffy though Grand Rapids’ beer accolades might be, I applaud their branding efforts.  Disregarding the “Beer City USA” poll, it remains a fine town for ale and lager.  Why shouldn’t Grand Rapids advertise that fact?  Why shouldn’t there be billboards erected hours outside city limits informing drivers of the beer destination that lies ahead?  Why shouldn’t they be proud of their brewing culture? 

Do you know who doesn’t laud their breweries with such enthusiasm?  The more obvious beer hotspots like San Diego and Denver.  I’ve seen a few brew signs go up around the Mile High City during Great American Beer Festival season but, besides that, Denver’s beer culture is implied, hardly ever stated plainly.  Why is the situation as such?  Is it because the tourism boards of San Diego and Denver focus on the more evident draws (e.g. the beaches of San Diego, the mountains of Denver) and beer just isn’t on the radar?  Are they protecting their civic reputation by downplaying the cities’ affinity for mind-altering substances?  Are they keeping beer culture hush-hush, underground, trying not to oversell it so as to retain the “cool factor” of the brewing industry?  I simply don’t know.  All I know is, driving the eastern plains towards Denver, I’ve never seen a billboard extolling my city’s strong craft community (although it does seem change is on the horizon). 

Inside Founders
Our first brewery was the biggest and most famous in the area, Founders Brewing Co.  What can be said about Founders that beer geeks don’t already know?  They’re a juggernaut of the craft beer world, they’ve got a contender in Beer Advocate’s top 10 highest-rated beers list, and it was the most recommended brewery when I asked where in Grand Rapids I should visit.  Chances are you’ve had Founders even if you don’t live in a state where they distribute (e.g. Colorado). 

My M.O. when it comes to drinking at well-known breweries like Founders is never ordering from the year-round menu.  What’s the point?  Why talk about All Day IPA when every other beer geek’s probably already had it?  I want to bring something new to the conversation.  Go small and go rare whenever you can; be a beer adventurer, take the ale less traveled by.  For me, that meant Barrel Aged Spite—a beer far removed from the flagships.

Barrel Aged Spite
I drank Barrel Aged Spite in the Founders taproom with its handsome, curved bar constructed of rustic wood.  A chili beer, Barrel Aged Spite lost much of its peppery bite from its rest in the barrel, the flavor is heavier on oak and bourbon, but it’s still an interesting, creative beer with at least a little spiciness left to tingle the tongue. 

Our next Grand Rapids brewery, while boasting far less fame than Founders, is becoming a larger part of the collective craft beer consciousness.  Collaboration with New Belgium Brewing, achievements in LEED certification, a devotion to French and Belgian ales, and a taproom built in a refurbished funeral chapel with stained glass windows, vaulted cross-beamed ceilings, and a bar shaped in a Gothic pointed arch will get any brewery some recognition and Brewery Vivant deserves every ounce of acknowledgment they accrue.


Taking our seats at a long, wooden table—one of many that outline the edges of the bar area—our group settled in with an order of frites, a charcuterie platter, and several footed glasses of fine Franco/Belgo ale.  Most notably, the sour-tinged Farm Hand saison, the aptly named Sgt. Peppercorn Rye (the titular ingredient is not to be ignored), the powerful and lavish Whisky Rooster aged in Jack Daniels barrels, and The Cheetah, a merciless Belgian strong dark ale that, with 14.2% ABV, can drop a beer geek quicker than its namesake drops a Thomson’s gazelle.  Brewery Vivant’s beers are so good they seem inspired from on high.  They don’t simply serve the beer in a holy space, the recipes are equally divine. 

Inside Vivant
Keeping the brew tour train chugging along, we finished our beers at Brewery Vivant and skedaddled to Harmony Brewing Company, a neighborhood pub-style watering hole with an interior accented with worn timber and a pleasant roadside patio with vibrantly colored picnic tables on which we staked our claim.


There was one aspect about Harmony I particularly appreciated.  Berliner Weissbiers have slowly climbed the ladder of obscurity and to the near-forefront of advanced-palate craft beers; the sour beer trend is in full swing and the revival of Berliner Weisse is partially to thank.  However, even though American brewers have resurrected the German native’s career, Berliner Weisse in the United States typically misses a key component: the syrup.  In Berlin, people traditionally order the demonymic drink with Himbeere (raspberry syrup) or Waldmeister (woodruff syrup) to sweeten and tone down the beer’s acidic sharpness.  In America, we drink Berliner Weisse straight-up, no syrup.  Syrup’s usually not even an option; brewers make the beer and omit the condiments.  Thus, when I saw a selection of homemade syrups accompanying Harmony’s Grand Jollification Berliner Weisse—juniper, strawberry, cherry, black rose tea, and probably a few more—I jumped at the chance to drink like a true German.  I went with the juniper syrup and, overall, I don’t regret my decision.  Nicole, however, has the nose of a bloodhound (in ability, not appearance) and thought the syrup/beer combination smelled like old cheese and fungal feet.  Now, I usually defer to Nicole's olfactory prowess but, in this case, I have to disagree.  I thought the juniper syrup added a refreshing coniferous flavor.  In the end, I still favor my Berliner Weissbiers “American-style.”  The syrup adds too much sugar for my liking.  What I relish in Berliner Weisse is its tartness; I’m not looking to ruin that with counteracting saccharinity.
Grand Jollification with juniper syrup
Our last brewery in Grand Rapids was Schmohz Brewing Company, situated in a drab, gray building trimmed in maroon awning.  It’s a dark, dive bar atmosphere and unrefined with its cafeteria chairs, drop tiled ceiling, concrete floors, and pinball machine in the corner.  It emits a vibe more akin to a biker bar or factory worker's pub than a craft brewery. 


Inside Schmohz
That’s not a condemnation, mind you, merely an observation.  In fact, I’d prefer if more breweries plopped their operations into dingier settings, got back to the roots of the craft beer revolution.  The industry as a whole has become too polite; it’s very nearly lost its edge.  However, when the taproom looks like the headquarters for Hell’s Angels or an illegal gambling den, it re-instills the sense of adventure once prevalent at all small brewing operations.  I admire Schmohz for retaining craft beer’s anarchistic spirit.  Not everyone must follow suit, a chic brewery here and there is fine, but I appreciate that the down-to-earth aura of craft hasn’t completely evaporated.  Also, Schmohz’s John T. Pilsner was pretty good; nothing too fancy, it’s straightforward and it gets the job done just like the building in which it was birthed. 

John T. Pilsner
That sums up Nicole and I’s Lake Michigan beercation.  We drove back west, stopped in cooler-than-you’d-think downtown Omaha to enjoy the rooftop patio at Upstream Brewing Company, and finally arrived back in Denver.  We had ourselves a rollicking good time skirting along the shoreline, visiting great Midwestern cities, and partaking in local beer but, no matter where we go, we’re happy to hang our hats in Colorado.  It’s our home.  It’s where our favorite beers are made.  It’s where we want to end up at the end of any journey.  I credit the Lake Michigan area for its undeniably vivacious beer scene but nothing can tear me away from my Rocky Mountain brews.  

Prost!

Chris    
Upstream in Omaha
            
Schmohz lacks a bit in subtlety
Case in point

Monday, September 8, 2014

Great Lake, Great Beer: Pt. 3

To read Part 2 of our Lake Michigan beer adventure, click here.

With a view like that, who cares about the house itself?
Having crossed the sixth state line of our beercation, Nicole and I finally arrived in Grand Haven, Michigan, where we’d spend a week celebrating my parents’ 40th anniversary with sun, surf, and suds.

We—including my parents, my two sisters and their boyfriends, my brother and his wife and kids, and my two maternal aunts—stayed at a rental property located in the cul-de-sac of a long, snaky road that wound through the dunes and past impressive beach homes all with commanding views of Lake Michigan.  Like so many of the houses on that secluded stretch, our domicile was massive; built atop a hill, surrounded by woodlands, shoreline adjacent (via a steep, sandy downhill), and featuring a pool, our place was a palace—a very tacky palace. 

Enjoying the beach
Everybody agreed the size and location of the house was primo.  The décor, however, left much to be desired.  The black, white, and red color scheme, akin to a cold and emotionless modern art gallery, was anything but homey.  The cavernous main floor with nary a soft surface echoed like a high school gymnasium; each toe dragged across the concrete floor screeched like a Chihuahua at the vet’s office.  Privacy was clearly not a priority during construction, either, as bath tubs sat before large, curtain-less windows, balconies and toilets were separated by nothing but clear panes (again, curtain-less), and most of the bedrooms had glass doors with curtains—sheer, see-through curtains.  It was an exhibitionist’s playground and a family vacationer’s hell.  Overall, the place exuded the ambiance of somebody with a lot of money and no taste; it looked like a house in which the snooty neighbors in Christmas Vacation might live.

Odd Side's taproom
We overlooked those obvious deficiencies, though, when we overlooked something else: the vastness of the lake from our soaring perch among the trees.  The beer made us all more forgiving, too.  Most of the time, the family and I imbibed poolside or lakeside because that’s what the trip was all about—relaxing, lounging by water, and drinking copiously.  But, Grand Haven and nearby Spring Lake are both homes to craft breweries and, being so conveniently located, their siren call was enough to coax us from our private retreat and into their public taprooms.
A touch insensitive (but funny)

Odd Side Ales sits across the street from the Grand River channel and is located in an old piano factory that’s since been turned into a multi-tenant shopping and dining center.  Its taproom uses light sparingly; with worn-wood floors and timbered pillars and ceilings, even the beaming summer sun had a hard time penetrating this dark alcove.  It’s a decidedly rustic, non-modern, and convivial space.  Juxtaposing Odd Side’s traditional charms were vivid beer posters advertising tongue-in-cheek, pop-culture-referencing, and mildly-offensive labels: Morningwood Stout, Oh, Me So Hoppy to Wheat You (billed as “A derisious wheat ale with a hoppy finish that lingers long time!”), Bean Flicker Blonde…etc.  If you don’t understand why these are funny/uncouth, look them up on Urban Dictionary—I already had to explain them to members of my family and I’d rather not relive the experience.  Do your own research.  

Like, a whole bunch of Odd Side beers
Many, many flights were downed at our table so it’s hard to remember details on any particular beer.  I recollect Wheatermelon, a spritzy and refreshing watermelon wheat beer, Mayan Mocha Stout, a thick and luxurious dark beer, and the Pineapple IPA.  Even if the specifics evade me, I don’t remember being disappointed by anything at Odd Side.  

Old Boys’ Brewhouse, the other brewery in the area, resides on the tip of a peninsula jutting out into the braided, meandering Grand River.  Only 1.8 miles from Odd Side, Old Boys’ was actually the closest brewery to our rental property even though it’s technically in a different town.


Approaching Old Boys’, I felt both over and underwhelmed.  The stilted grain silo and cavernous three-story vestibule kept my eyes turned upwards as if I were entering a cathedral.  On the other hand, I couldn’t shake a feeling of mundaneness; yes, it’s a big entrance but it’s basically a blank brick wall with a few windows.  Immense though Old Boys’ might be, it’s featurelessly immense.  Plus, I realized after spotting the bone-shaped logo, Old Boys’ is another dog-themed brewery.  Can we please, as the collective brewing community, stop doing that?  I love dogs but naming your brewery for the family pet has been done to death.  It’s passé.  It’s trite.  It’s not original and it ensures you’ll blend in with the herd rather than stick out.  Just quit it.  When The Onion has enough fodder to satirize craft brewers for uncreative canine appellations then that’s a pretty good indication the trend is over.  Old Boys’ was founded in 1997, before the practice became rampant, so I’m actually going to give them a pass on this one; it might have been a novel idea in the late 90’s when they first opened.  All you new breweries, though?  Keep Fido out of it.

Old Boys' patio
Nicole and I sat on Old Boys’ back patio and my opinion of the place became increasingly more positive.  The patio’s laid out near an expanse of lawn terminating at the river’s edge.  A boardwalk skirts the banks and leisure boats putt-putt through the narrow strait, headed for the docks on either side of our little protuberance of land.  The overall atmosphere is not unlike that found at a mid-level country club.  I felt I ought to be wearing a knitted white vest, tennis shoes, and a visor.  Can we get a croquet set over here?   

My interest was further piqued as I perused the beer menu.  Wow!  I wasn’t expecting such advanced beers; from the ho-hum exterior, I’d assume Old Boys’ merely brewed the standards—IPA, amber, a non-confrontational stout or porter, and a lighter offering—usually a wheat.  Basically, I predicted gateway craft beers, nothing unconventional.  Surely, these brewers don’t cater to radical palates and yet, there they were in front of me: Irascible, an American wild ale aged in Bourbon barrels with Michigan-picked cherry juice added, The Flapjacker, a maple syrup-infused brown ale, Magnum Breakfast Stout, a hefty beer showcasing Sumatran and South American coffee and Ugandan vanilla beans, and several more Nicole and I didn’t have the alcohol-tolerance to order (we had to drive home, after all). 

Left to right: Irascible, The Flapjacker, & Magnum Breakfast Stout

Old Boys’ is truly old at 17 years—a geezer by craft beer standards—but it can be taught new tricks; there’s nothing weary about Old Boys’, their beer is fresh, experimental, and young at heart.  To them I say, “Good boy!  Stay (in business)!” 

Old school dune buggy
As I mentioned earlier, the majority of the week centered on drinking at home, floating in the pool and lake.  We even visited the city beach but the wind was ferocious and nobody wanted to stay very long (here’s a tip for drinking at the beach where alcohol is technically not allowed: bring craft cans because the high school kids who enforce the beach laws are only accustomed to big domestic brands; they won’t immediately comprehend the design of, say, Sun King Brewery’s Sunlight Cream Ale unless they get a really close look at it).  We took a few other excursions to ride the dunes at Silver Lake and to boost Nicole’s roller coaster count up and over the 100 mark at Michigan’s Adventure where a perennial favorite, Shivering Timbers, has been thrilling guests since 1998.  It was on our final day when we really got into the craft beer groove.  Driving an hour east to the state’s premier craft beer city, we arrived in Grand Rapids and visited four of their esteemed breweries.

But we’ll get to that in a later post.

Prost!

Chris      

Odd Side's wall of beer posters

Friday, August 29, 2014

Great Lake, Great Beer: Pt. 2

To read Part 1 of our Lake Michigan beer adventure, click here.

Chi-Town skyline from the White Sox stadium
Lake Michigan to the left, endless cornfields to the right, Nicole and I drove south from Milwaukee and into Illinois to indulge my second great geeky pleasure: roller coasters.  Six Flags Great America in Gurnee (a smidgen north of Chicago) recently built Goliath, the world’s steepest and fastest wooden coaster.  It did not disappoint: smooth as silk, peppy, and featuring one-of-a-kind elements such as a wooden dive loop and a “zero-g stall,” Goliath isn’t quite as awesome as its smaller, older brother Outlaw Run (Outlaw Run’s setting in the forested Ozark mountains enhances the already-epic ride much more than the bland, open tarmac on which Goliath sits) but it’ll instantly shake-up any coaster geek’s top 10 wooden coaster list.  Marring our time at the park were three factors resulting in a frustrating conclusion: a) it was Saturday, b) we were near America’s third largest city, and c) Six Flags is notoriously inefficient in moving people through queues.  Add it all up and what you get are torturously long waits; we only got four coasters under our belts before needing to continue on towards Chicago.

U.S. Cellular Field
We spent two half-days in Chicago during which time we took in a White Sox game, visited the Shedd Aquarium, and took a stroll on Navy Pier.  Unfortunately, we didn’t hit any Windy City breweries.  In keeping a road trip schedule, sacrifices must be made.  I’m aware of the fabulous beers we missed in Chicago but we neither had the time nor, because a long car ride awaited us, the irresponsibility to hop from brewery to brewery; it’s really not smart to chug a bunch of beers and then drive crowded metropolitan highways (or drive anywhere for that matter).  Another time, Chicago, another time.

A Chicago-area brewery, however, we did hit.  Crossing over state lines into “The Region” (the traitorous northwestern section of Indiana which identifies with Chicago culture more so than Indiana culture, my barely-farcical disdain for The Region stems from the fact I’m a true, corn-fed Hoosier tired of hearing people claim they’re “from Chicago” when they were actually born and raised in the Crossroads of America; you live in Indiana—deal with it), we stopped in Munster to check out one of America’s most famous, most respected,  most influential craft breweries: Three Floyds Brewing Co.

And what a mistake that was.

Don’t get me wrong, Three Floyds brews some of the best beers one can ever hope to imbibe.  Whether it comes from bottle or from tap, drinking Three Floyds is almost a religious experience.  My advice: leave it at that.  Drink their wares at bars, restaurants, and at home but don’t “meet your heroes” and actually visit the brewery.  You’ll regret it. 

This is as close as you can get to Three Floyds before the employees start bawling at you
First, it’s packed fuller than five sumo wrestlers in a Fiat.  You can’t fault a business for being popular, right?  Good on ‘em for attracting the crowds!  Three Floyds is at fault, though, for how they manage said crowd i.e. poorly.  The staff is as brusque as they come.  When we muscled through the front door, we told the host we were just here for drinks, assuaging our presence by forgoing food.  He responded with an eye-roll so pronounced his face could have been mistaken for the spinning wheels of a slot machine.  “Huh, story of my life!” he said.  Oh, sorry, bro; didn’t mean to cause you umbrage (this is where my eyes start to roll).  Shortly thereafter, another customer wedged through and walked right into the taproom to which our sour host retorted, “Now what the hell does this guy think he’s doing?” and took after the interloper like a bouncer chasing a velvet-rope-ducker.  Feeling a bit bristly from the encounter, we opted to grab a few bottle from the to-go window (the guy running the window was pleasant enough) and hightail it out of there fast with Deesko! Berliner Style Weisse Beer and Floyd D’Rue in hand.

Was it a one-time interaction?  Am I making too much of what was probably a rare incident?  Well, my sisters and their boyfriends visited Three Floyds the day before and reported the staff’s same crappy attitude.  Furthermore, take a glance at their Yelp page; its overall score is high because many reviewers focus solely on the beer, not the service, but Three Floyds would get six stars if it weren’t for the one and two-star reviews saying exactly what I’m saying: the people that run the taproom are jerkwads, rude beyond belief.  Understandably, managing a crowd of inebriated customers wears thin quickly yet, somehow, other breweries pack their taprooms with hordes of drunkards yet still keep their poise—why can’t Three Floyds?  In sum, the back-of-house brewers are to be commended for their tremendous, award-winning beers while the front-of-house staff are to be slapped across the face with a hot vintner hose (don't actually do that, though; I don't want to be blamed for your impulsive behavior).  

Greenbush Brewing Co.
My faith in the brewing community was restored an hour up the road in southwestern Michigan.  From what little we saw of Sawyer, it is Norman Rockwell’s wholesome imagination come to life.  A pastoral paradise.  A bucolic wonderland.  Drive about half a mile off I-94, past the travel center and chain restaurants, through a scarcely-populated, forested neighborhood, over the train tracks, and a rustic community amid the fields reveals itself.  It’s so quaint with mom n’ pop shops and rural churches it makes your summer cottage in the mountains look like a crack house.  Railroad adjacent is a former auto shop/plumber’s shop/Laundromat/video rental/garden store/coffeehouse turned brewery and, might I be as bold as to say so, among my favorite non-Colorado breweries in America: Greenbush Brewing Co.

Interior at Greenbush
Interior at Greenbush
Greenbush is a meeting of industrialism and the respectable demeanor of a country gentleman.  There’s corrugated metal on one wall, wainscoted, dark wood panels and doors on the other wall.  Open ceilings with exposed steel girders and timbered boards soar overhead as Edison bulbs sway languidly over the bar top.  Storefront windows adorn the street-side of the taproom as brewing vessels sit stoically in the back.  As if the interior wasn’t intriguing enough, there’s also the side patio overlooking a small meadow of flowers both wild and cultivated.  Oh, and the staff was very, very pleasant.

Left to right: Mulehead, For Pete's Sake, & Distorter
And the beer?  Divine.  I’d already been impressed with Greenbush’s bottled beer but drinking at the source was an even more gratifying experience.  Mulehead was a refreshing and peppery saison, For Pete’s Sake, a pale ale infused with basmati rice, offered an inventive twist on a classic style, and Distorter, a rich and decadent porter, embodied the rare instance in which a dark beer’s so good it can be enjoyed in the heart of summer.  Nothing from Greenbush disappointed and it’s a wonder more people aren’t talking about them.  That’s a good thing, actually; I prefer if Greenbush remains a Shangri-La of craft beer, hidden not in the Himalayas but rather in the farmlands of Michigan where only the devout, determined, and deserving beer geeks may seek it out and drink of its elixirs. 

Reluctantly, Nicole and I left Greenbush, merged onto the highway, and, heading up the shoreline instead of down, made tracks towards our week-long layover in Grand Haven where my parents’ 40th anniversary party would linger from a Sunday to a Sunday.  The fun’s just begun!  Stick around for more posts about what else happened on our Lake Michigan voyage.  

Prost!

Chris

Shedd Aquarium
Shedd Aquarium
Behind the scenes at Beer in Colorado!
Near Greenbush; see how damn cute this town is?



Monday, August 25, 2014

Great Lake, Great Beer: Pt. 1

What a frenetic summer!  First, in early June, Nicole and I got hitched; all the planning and rehearsing and bachelor(ette) partying made for a whirlwind of a time.  Then, we had a week’s rest before jetting across the Atlantic for our fortnight-long honeymoon in Ireland and Scotland.  Flying back home to Colorado, we had 16 days (unless you count the weekend wedding we attended in Alamosa) before once again leaving town and hitting the road, this time heading to Lake Michigan for my parents’ seven-day 40th anniversary party.  As is our M.O., Nicole and I made a beercation of the journey.


One-and-a-half days of driving took us across the prairies of Nebraska and Iowa from Denver to Madison, Wisconsin and our first brewery of the trip: Vintage Brewing Co.  A standalone building in a shopping center, one expects a brewery in such a pedestrian location to serve anything but the unusual; how adventurous can the nearby suburbanites be?  Appearances can be deceiving.  How often is a sarsaparilla-spiked strong dark Belgian ale on the menu?  A root beer beer, if you will?  I’ve only seen it once and it was at Vintage.  A well-balanced beer, the sarsaparilla in Sarsaparilla Killa didn’t overpower yet still lent its unique flavor to the otherwise traditional ale defined by dark malts, dark fruit, and exceptionally high alcohol volume (9.8% ABV). 
Sarsaparilla Killa

Also, the chicken and waffles at Vintage were phenomenal!  Living in Colorado is the best, I’ll never move away, and I appreciate the fit and active lifestyle of its citizens but, once in a while, I need to get my hands on some downhome, fatty Midwestern comfort foods.  I’ve had fried chicken in the mountains and I’ve had fried chicken in the flatlands—the former’s got nothing on the latter.  Our meal at Vintage was a welcome reprieve from the healthy. 

The beer here's good but, dang, the building looks so contrived
Our next beer stop in The Badger State capital was The Great Dane Pub & Brewing Co.  Although the brewery has four locations around the Madison area (we were at the Hilldale one), not every beer is available at every location; to drink everything Great Dane makes, beer geeks must circulate through all four incarnations.  It’s a clever ruse ensuring each of the Great Danes is, if even by an iota, distinctive; a strategy preventing the feeling of homogenization.  It’s good they did that, too, because the ambiance at Great Dane was a little too cookie-cutter, too faceless for my liking; it didn’t appear as though blood, sweat, and tears went into its construction, it looked like somebody with a lot of money simply plopped it down in a shopping center, pre-built.  Instead of collecting curious taproom gewgaws by scouring garage sales and consignment stores, it looks like they randomly picked mass-produced faux-antiquities from the same catalog T.G.I. Fridays uses to adorn their trash heaps of walls.  That’s how it felt, at any rate.  Regardless, the German-style saison (an innovative idea, at the very least) and Tangerine Dream (a blast of fruity flavor like a whole orchard stuffed in your mouth) were decent.


The best Madison brewery we appropriately saved for last.  One Barrel Brewing Company, a nano-brewery (if you couldn’t surmise that fact by its name) with a glass cubicle for a brew room, is nestled in a space once belonging to the old neighborhood grocery store.  With exposed brick walls, dollar bills pinned to the ceiling, and trendy art adornments, One Barrel’s taproom is an authentic beer geek destination, nothing pre-fab here.  It has personality both in terms of atmosphere and clientele.  This isn’t the corporate brewpub where businessmen congregate for happy hour and guzzle training-wheel beers; it’s where the true disciples of craft go for suds of a more adventurous nature.  I ordered the tart and tingly Falcor blackberry sour and, before it was poured, I took a quick restroom break.  When I got back, the bartender told Nicole, “Yeah, I didn’t card him because no underage drinker would knowingly order a sour beer.”  That’s a pretty airtight policy, actually.
Inside One Barrel

Before moving on I’d like to note that, while Denver loves its bicycles, Madison has an even more passionate pedal-powered culture.  Sure, everybody in Denver rides a bike but where do they ride?  On the sides of busy streets, weaving through traffic, hopping the curb and riding the sidewalk, and thoroughly pissing off motorists and pedestrians alike.  This is not the case in Madison.  There, they have an extensive trail system, reaching from the center of town out to the rural outskirts, making the dangerous and fury-inducing practice of road biking completely unnecessary.  Half the bridges we drove under were bike overpasses and, as we cruised through neighborhoods, nearly every block sported a bike crossing that poked out from the woods behind people’s backyards.  The trails spider-web the entire city so only the most oblivious cyclists, unknowing of safer, more convenient options, can be found on the streets of Madison.  Share the road?  Pfft!  Get your own road!  In Madison, that’s a reasonable request.

Nicole and I bade adieu to Madison and continued eastward, allowing the fishy aromas of the Great Lakes to be our guide.  After an hour and a half on the interstate, we arrived at what was once the premier American beer city, the doyen of our nation’s brewing scene, the original slaker of the working man’s thirst.  It’s nicknamed Brew City, an appropriate appellation and perhaps the only municipal epithet cooler than Denver’s own Mile High City.  I speak of none other than Milwaukee.

I used to live in the Midwest and I don’t want to move back there but, if I’m forced to, I could stand to live in Milwaukee.  I predict that statement took a few Milwaukeeans aback; the people most disparaging of Milwaukee, it seems, are those who live there.  The locals had a difficult time assimilating the fact anybody’d choose to visit Milwaukee.  They had to make sense in the face of the illogic: Vacationing outsiders?  Does not compute.  They’re probably locals, too, beholden to Wisconsin by work, family,...etc.  They’re not actually here because they like it.  We met this frame of mind several times.  For example, when Nicole went to purchase the collectable Wisconsin mug from Starbucks, the man behind the counter supposed we bought it for a visiting relative, not for ourselves as a vacation keepsake.  Once, a bartender saw Nicole’s Colorado shirt and said something to the effect of, “Oh!  I love Colorado!  Do you get out there to visit much?”  No, we live there!  And we, like you, also love it there.  However, we’re travelers and we enjoy seeing the world—even Milwaukee. 

Don’t be so hard on yourself, Milwaukee; you’re a fine city.  You’re big but not too big, you’re alongside the majestic shores of Lake Michigan, and, heck, you got breweries!  Not just the Big Four of Miller, Pabst, Schlitz, and Blatz (yes, it still exists), either—just as smaller Colorado breweries eke out a niche in the shadow of Coors, so, too, do Wisconsin craft brewers in the town made famous by your granddad’s favorite domestic brands. 

Our flight at Water Street
Our first sudsy stop in Brew City was Water Street Brewery which, while adequate, didn’t stick out in my mind as exceptional.  We ordered a flight and most of the beers were decent enough; the Raspberry Weiss was tart and refreshing, the Old World Oktoberfest fit the style guidelines expertly, and the Belgian Peach Ale was loaded with the eponymous fruit.  There were certainly stand-outs but, in the end, most were neither bad nor good—only acceptable.  Pretty good jambalaya there, though.  I did like the curb appeal of the place with its brewing equipment situated up front in the picture windows near the entrance.  The process of making beer is on full display at Water Street and I’ve always applauded that sort of transparency in craft brewing.

I love Lakefront's riverside setting
The brewery that really impressed was Lakefront Brewery.  Lakefront is readily available in Colorado, I don’t need to explain their beers to you, merely go out and buy a six-pack for yourself.  It is exceptional beer, of course, but what makes Lakefront extraordinary is the building itself.  For one, it should be called “Riverfront” since it sits on the banks of the Milwaukee River, abutting a walkway that skirts the water for miles in both directions.  Furthermore, Lakefront is halfway under the Holton Bridge, an iron trestlework monster which, in a feat of clever engineering, has suspended under it a smaller bridge for bikes and pedestrians plus a bunch of swing sets using the sooty, crisscrossed, metal underbelly in ingenious ways (check out the pictures).  Lakefront was once a decrepit coal-fired power plant until the brew crew moved in and revitalized the space.  Signs of its former self are easy to spot; Milwaukee’s industrious past lives on in Lakefront.  The taproom is wide open with soaring ceilings and exposed HVAC, old brick walls cocoon drinkers in old-timey comfort, windows look out over the river and suspended walking bridge close enough to shout salutations at passing cyclists, and a stage set up and ready to host the next polka band—it’s the perfect beer hall for an Oktoberfest celebration or, really, any party.

The bridge under the bridge
Awesome swings under the bridge

Nicole and I didn’t get out to Glendale to visit Sprecher Brewing Co. but Sprecher was kind enough to visit us in Milwaukee.  Red Arrow Park, a half-block of sod surrounded by pillars of glass, steel, and concrete, was a tour stop on Sprecher’s Traveling Beer Garden, a German festival on wheels.  The brewery parks a blazing-red, old school, beer dispensing fire truck on the grass, sets out a couple of Porta Potties and benches, and lubes up local passersby for two weeks at each location.  When two weeks are up, Sprecher packs it up and drives to the next place. 


I have no idea what kind of permits needed to be pulled to make the Traveling Beer Garden a reality but more breweries should take Sprecher’s idea and run with it.  Who doesn’t love a beer garden?  The sun, the booze, the camaraderie—it’s everything that’s right in this world!  In Germany, in both the past and into present day, the beer garden is more than an outdoor pub, it’s where the community gathers to celebrate life and attain a sense of belonging.  In this ever-alienating world of technology, when we’ve all got our noses buried in smartphones, Sprecher transports us to a time before social media when people were plain social, a time when it wasn’t weird to prost a total stranger, it wasn’t uncouth to spill a few globules of beer on yourself and others, when the commonality of relishing the moment connected people with more strength than their differences could separate them.  I’m nostalgic for a time that, truthfully, passed before I was born but, all the same, I yearn for the good ol’ days.  Denver breweries?  City of Denver officials?  I put it on you; any one of the city’s 240 parks can be improved with a traveling beer garden.

Fire truck taps
We visited one more brewery on our way out of Milwaukee, St. Francis Brewery, and then pointed south on our reverse J-hook path to the other side of the lake.  Stay tuned for more on our Midwestern exploits.

Prost!

Chris

Milwaukee Art Museum
Outside Lakefront's front entrance
Coors Field's brewery in the right field is better but Miller Park's level-to-level slide is cool, too
The Traveling Beer Garden in Red Arrow Park
A hearty prost from the beer garden