"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!

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

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Newlyweds in the Old World: Edinburgh

To read about the previous leg of our honeymoon, Glasgow, click here.

Edinburgh

Finally, after a week and a half of boozing across the Emerald Isle and Caledonia, Nicole and I hopped our last train, careened across the countryside to our honeymoon’s final destination: Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle from the foot of Arthur's Seat
In Scotland’s capital city, we visited nary a brewery but an ample number of beer bars and pubs.  The first of which was Malt & Hops, a miniscule real ale pub on the banks of the Water of Leith near Edinburgh’s northern coastline.  A “watering-hole-in-the-wall,” Malt & Hops is dark, cramped, and timeworn—exactly what I want in a traditional pub!  Enough spaciousness, bright lighting, and newfangled décor!  A pub reminiscent of a refugee camp is best because, in a way, that’s what pubs are, a refuge from the weather, from work, from life in general.  Leave your worries at the door, frein, they’re not going anywhere. 

Having polished off our pints at Malt & Hops , we headed to the adjacent Leith Beer Co., another beer bar (albeit more modern than the previous one), this one hosting a pub quiz.  Longtime readers know Nicole and I are semi-avid Geeks Who Drink attendees and, not to pat ourselves on the back, we’re pretty good at it.  Pretty good at American pub quiz, at least; at Leith Beer Co., where the questions skewed towards a U.K. audience, we floundered like a three-legged dog in a vat of Jell-O.  What are the ten top-ranked high schools in Edinburgh?  Name the British soap opera character based on the picture?  Och!  I don’t even know soap opera characters from the U.S.!  Needless to say, we blew it.  However, the night wasn’t a total loss.  We did enjoy one particularly astonishing beer from Williams Bros. Brewing Co.: Fraoch Heather Ale.

Name one of these characters off the top of your head and I'll give you a dollar
Oh, sweet nectar of the Celtic gods!  In past posts, I decried the lack of true, original Scottish ales on our honeymoon.  German lagers?  American IPAs?  Pshaw!  Certainly, I had a few Scottish/Scotch ales up until this point but this, this gruit ale, this style predating Christ by at least 2,000 years, this is real Scottish beer!  Okay, fine, Williams Bros. unquestionably took creative and contemporary liberties with their take on this ancient ale but the soul of Fraoch still lies in tribal Scotland.  Full of natural, local ingredients such as heather flowers, sweet gale, and little (if any) hops, Fraoch is sweet like honey, grassy like a fresh-cut lawn, and peaty like a fine Scotch whisky.  It’s a beautiful and enduring beer.  The flavor is uncommon to the American palate and that’s what makes it a true Scottish original.  An equivalent to Fraoch isn’t easy to come by stateside.  It was my favorite beer of the trip—until I tried Alba from the same brewery.

Additional information on Fraoch
But I’m ahead of myself.  Before I talk about Alba, allow me to speak on the venue in which I imbibed it.  Wildest Drams, on the famous Royal Mile, is an underground establishment devoted to local game meat, artisan whisky, and craft beer.  The ambiance is stark but the employees are friendly, knowledgeable, and, if it’s not too busy, eager to talk beer.  We actually went to Wildest Drams on two separate occasions we were so impressed with the place and, on the second day, our server took a seat at our table and chatted us up.  In one humorous exchange, Nicole mentioned her affinity for darker ales to which our server replied (and I paraphrase),”I got the perfect beer for you!  It’s called Cutthroat Porter from a place called Odell in Colorado.”  Nicole and I smirked, gave each other a knowing glance.  Indeed, Cutthroat is a phenomenal beer but it’s also available at every bar within a 50 mile radius of our house; we’d prefer a local favorite and, telling our server as much, he substituted his first suggestion with Orkney Porter from Highland Brewing Co., which turned out to be my third favorite beer of the entire honeymoon.  It’s rich, chocolate-y, earthy, oily black, and the ABV is so high it burns the back of the throat.  It’s quite the robust porter, bordering on Russian imperial stout territory. 

But Alba stole the show.  We told our server we wanted an inimitably Scottish beer and, after dismissing everything we’d already tried, we eventually came to Alba Scots Pine Ale from Williams Bros.  Oh, mama!

This is good beer
Spiked with spruce shoots and bog myrtle (another name for sweet gale), the pine beer was initially brought to Scotland’s shores via Viking marauders.  If you’ve ever gnawed on a spruce tip or, if camping, ever made pine needle tea, you probably think you know what Alba tastes like: bitter, resinous, dank, astringent.  You’d be wrong.  I can’t explain it but, far from being harsh, Alba is mellow, herbal, and—believe it or not—fruity.  I couldn’t help but taste blueberries when I drank this beer.  As far as I know, not a single berry made its way into the brew but, nonetheless, that flavor pops up.  It’s a wonderful, wacky beer, something not readily available in the U.S. and something not easily replicated.  Should you find yourself in Scotland, don’t leave before ordering an Alba.

This is great beer
Although it didn’t produce any “Holy cow; that’s amazing!” beers for me, The Hanging Bat beer bar is also an advisable stop while in Edinburgh.  A tri-level taproom, the bar’s at street level, there’s an elevated seating area a half-flight up and, below the elevated section, the “cave” of the Hanging Bat a half-flight down.  There are windows between the upper and lower levels so people can look down/up on other customers as they enjoy their respective ales.  At the very back, one can stumble upon cutest damn biergarten in the world: about the same area as a large closet, blanketed with AstroTurf, and whimsically-painted kegs as seats.  The Hanging Bat proffers a healthy dose of both cask and kegged beers so traditionalists and modernists alike have many quaffables from which to choose.

We also had a pint or two at The Sheep Heid Inn, Edinburgh’s oldest pub (so they claim), and The Bow Bar, a premier cask ale pub serving old-fashioned, hand-pulled beer in a quaint and comfy Old World setting.
                           
General musings on Edinburgh

·         Of the four major metropolitans we visited on our honeymoon (Dublin, Belfast, Glasgow, and Edinburgh), Auld Reekie was my favorite.  There’re several reasons but I’ll concentrate on the big one.

The Hanging Bat's biergarten
Every city was saturated in history, medieval architecture, and world-famous sites so, in that regard, all four were comparable.  Likewise, each lied near the coast and, while neither Ireland nor Scotland boasts an avid beach culture, the ocean spray and sea-faring lifestyle were a component of each municipality.  Where Edinburgh pulls ahead is in the terrain.  Dublin’s flatter than Oklahoma.  Belfast, like Denver, enjoys mountain views on the outskirts of town but not much topography downtown.  Glasgow is home to a few steeply sloped streets but it’s all rolling hills—nothing juts up in any dramatic fashion. 


Hermitage on Arthur's Seat
Edinburgh, on the other hand, is home to Edinburgh Castle which sits precariously atop a 260’ cliff-face, Calton Hill, a monument-specked rise affording awe-inspiring views of Old Town, New Town, and the Firth of Forth, and, most impressive of all, a towering 822’ extinct volcano known as Arthur’s Seat surrounded by suburbs and neighboring Holyrood Palace, The Queen’s home away from home.
·         It’s a bit unhip to partake in a guided excursion whilst visiting a foreign city—it’s such a tourist thing to do.  Still, I can’t speak highly enough of Sandemans New Europe tours.  The basic tour is free but they also offer specialty tours at a cost (usually, it’s a pub crawl but Nicole and I opted for “The Dark Side” tour which covered murders, folklore, and other spooky stuff) and the information they dole out is a smidgen more interesting than what’s in a high school history textbook.  I can’t remember everything I learned on the tour but here’s a smattering of the most fascinating:
o   In the city’s medieval buildings, one might notice stairways with one off-kilter step—an ancient alarm system.  Welcomed guests would be warned of the tricky riser and tread upon it accordingly.  Thieves and home invaders, however, oblivious to the trap, would misstep and take a tumble which, at the very least, would make enough noise to warn the homeowner (at the most, the intruder would break their neck).

After the white step, the heights of the risers change
o   J.K. Rowling wrote her first Harry Potter book in an Edinburgh coffeehouse.  That coffeehouse was owned by her brother-in-law thus she’d sit all day, drink free java, and write her eventual best-seller.  Apparently, Rowling drank her helpful relative out of business because that coffeehouse closed shop prior to Potter hitting it big.  But, even today, that doesn’t stop every coffeehouse in Edinburgh from claiming, “J.K. Rowling wrote here!”
At least one coffeehouse is tired of the B.S.
o   Have you seen the Disney movie Greyfriars Bobby?  Well, that actually happened and a life-sized statue of the loyal Skye terrier sits outside the graveyard walls where his beloved master’s interred.  Amongst the castles and soaring spires of Edinburgh, this diminutive dog effigy remains the most photographed object in town.
  
 Greyfriars Bobby
·         Haggis: chopped sheep liver, heart, and lungs mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, and spices.  It’s the national dish of Scotland and, along with kilts and bagpipes, the international stereotype.  It’s also really good.  Not tolerable, good, tender, and juicy.  I indulged in haggis on three separate occasions, once in Glasgow and twice in Edinburgh (it was a hot dog topping at The Hanging Bat).  Granted, I never had it served in the customary fashion i.e. encased in a sheep’s stomach but, regardless, I ate haggis and I’d do it again in a minced-meat heartbeat.

Haggis dog!
Musings on Edinburgh’s beer scene
·         According to our Wildest Drams server, Scottish beer geeks are none too fond of BrewDog.  They take umbrage to the fact that, as BrewDog grew from a homegrown operation to a multinational brewing giant, they lost their high standards of quality and abandoned their most loyal supporters.  Apparently, the BrewDog flagship line-up once tasted much better in the days before they started getting weird and putting beer in dead squirrels.  I have nothing with which to compare this opinion; I’ve only had recent incarnations of BrewDog beer, never the supposedly superior versions from times long past.  It’s a viewpoint most American beer geeks can understand, though; we all know at least one craft brewery that’s grown a little too big for their britches. 
Arthur's Seat from Calton Hill
·         Somebody once asked me how real Scottish ales compare to American interpretations.  The simple, honest, and cop-out answer is it’s impossible to tell, I drank mostly cask ale in Scotland and, since U.S. breweries/bars usually serve from kegs only (with exceptions, of course), to compare cask to keg is a fool’s errand.  They’re too dissimilar to make any worthwhile appraisal.  Tweaking temperature and carbonation makes a single beer completely different from even itself.  However, I can comment briefly on the reverse: how well does Scotland imitate American beer styles?  I downed a few American-style IPAs and, since such beer isn’t native to Scotland, it wasn’t served in the usual Scottish way, cask.  Ergo, a more exact side-by-side comparison can be made.  In short, the best Scottish-made American-style IPA equates to a pretty good American-made American-style IPA; I felt most of them were either too stingy on the hops or, on the opposite end, showcased more hop bitterness than hop flavor.  Close, but lungs shan’t be marred by cigar smoke.           
    
Favorite beers from Edinburgh
Punk IPA infusion tower
·         The aforementioned Fraoch, Orkney Porter, and Alba.
·         Schiehallion by Harviestoun Brewery.  A spiced and herbed beer.  Very pleasant and easy to drink.  Enjoyed at the Leith Beer Co.
·         Scot-oberfest by Luckie Ales.  I just like the idea of a Scottish-made German lager served on cask.  Enjoyed at The Hanging Bat.
·         Punk IPA infused with shortbread, whisky-soaked oats, and toffee by BrewDog.  I appreciate infusion towers; they’re a fun means of altering familiar beers without having to completely re-brew it.  Enjoyed at BrewDog: Edingurgh.
·         Kelpie Seaweed Ale by Williams Bros.  I was expecting a more briny flavor but, actually, it’s just a rich, dark ale.  Its name has a double meaning, too.  To the American reader, the connection between “kelp” and “seaweed” is obvious but, to the Scottish mind, the word “kelpie” conjures more fantastical imagery such as a malevolent, shape-shifting, water horse, faery thingy.  Enjoyed at Wildest Drams.

Róisin was also very good.
Alas, the honeymoon is over.  Nicole and I have settled into our regular, old married life.  The adventure behind us, the ordinary day-to-day drudgery awaits.  We trekked the wilds of The Highlands, we biked the coastal beauty of Northern Ireland, we walked the hallowed aisles of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and we explored the authentic pubs of Ireland and Scotland.  But now?  Now we’re back home.  Back home in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains.  Back home where the sun shines as often the rain falls in Dublin.  Back home where rustic escapes can be had after but a few minutes’ drive from my front door.  Back home where the beer flows more abundantly than the great river from which our state derives its name.  Back home again in Colorado. 

Yeah, I think we can keep the good times rolling.         

Prost!

Chris

Chris covered the beer part of the trip pretty well so I’ll share with you what else we did in Edinburgh such as our hike on Arthur’s seat.  The peak offered gorgeous views of Edinburgh including Edinburgh Castle in the distance and Holyrood Palace at the base of the mountain.  It was a fairly easy hike, it could only be made more difficult by navigating the hills on a unicycle, something one man happened to be doing.  During our entire hike there was a guy flying by on his one-wheeled contraption and I was plenty amazed—it takes a lot talent to keep balance on a bumpy dirt trail.

Away he goes!
Just as I have a passion for beer, I also have a passion for yarn.  On every trip I find locally produced yarn to use in future projects.  As we wandered the city, I found Kathy’s Knits which had a great selection of yarn from Scotland and other parts of the U.K.  I found a few skeins (which nicely cushioned the bottles of whisky we were bringing home) and we went on our way.

Lastly, once, when we were out and about one afternoon, I found a shop peddling some cute clothes.  I decided to leaf through their selection but, as I was looking at the shirts hanging on a rack, a giant spider ran across the shirt at lightning speed.  Without saying anything, I turned and speed-walked right out of the store.  I tried to explain to Chris that the spider gave me a dirty look as he ran by, but he didn’t buy it [ I tried to explain to her that, without spiders, there wouldn’t even be a Scotland; it’s true, read about it here ~ Chris].


Nicole

The Heart of Midlothian, the entryway to a now-nonexistent prison/execution site.  It is customary to spit on the heart for good luck or to show disdain for the former place of incarceration.  It is the only place in Edinburgh where it is legal to spit on the streets.  
This crap is Scotland's "Second National Drink" after whisky.  It tastes like bubble gum, it has more sugar than Coca-Cola and, in Scotland, it outsells Coca-Cola.  And it's terrible.

Edinburgh is the birthplace of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the world's most famous detective.  References to his work can be found all over town including a pub called Moriarty that's next door to The Hanging Bat.  This statue stands somewhere near where the author was born but nobody is exactly sure of the true location (not even Sherlock Holmes).
The Queen's Edinburgh getaway, Holyrood Palace. She was actually staying there at the time of our visit.