Milestones in Motown

Our friend, fellow beer traveler and guest contributor
Matt Venzke joins us in the 500 brewery club

Just a few months after Chris and Merideth both visited their 500th breweries, Michelle and I recently reached major beer-hunting milestones of our own.  In late January, Michelle tallied her 400th brewery!  And just a few days later, I recorded my 500th!  (By “my rules”). And, of all places, it happened … in Detroit!

It was sort of an accident.  I had a week of work ahead in southeast Michigan, so Michelle and I made a weekend getaway out of it.   Of course, we always seek out the local beer scene when we travel, but didn’t realize we were close to such momentous occasions.

We actually started our weekend with a Friday night in Toledo, just south of the Michigan frontier.  The riverfront Maumee Bay Brewing Company was a welcome respite from the January cold.  Having rejuvenated the old Buckeye Beer brand, the brewpub is also home to a pretty cool collection of memorabilia from Toledo’s historic breweries.

On a frigid Saturday morning, we made our way into Detroit.  After enjoying a very interesting few hours at The Henry Ford Museum, we set out to find some savory beverages at Detroit’s four brewpubs.

Atwater Block was our first brewery in Michigan -- the 40th state in which we've visited breweries.

Our first Michigan brewery was the Atwater Block Brewery.  Despite its warehouse-like environs in an almost industrial area near the riverfront, Atwater has a nicely laid-out pub area (complete with a fireplace) overlooking a cavernous brewery.   And our midday snack was delicious!

After we checked into our hotel, we took a cab to two side-by-side beer destinations in midtown Detroit.  Traffic Jam and Snug bills itself as Michigan’s first brewpub.  With a family restaurant feel and a retro 70s groove at the bar, Traffic Jam offered three house beers.  Directly across the street, Motor City Brewing Works is a cozy, earthy place with wood-fired pizzas, a nice selection of artisanal cheese, and some house-made wines along with their lineup of at least a half dozen quality brews.

Michelle celebrated her 400th brewery with a Steam Tunnel Stout at Detroit Beer Company

Finally, we headed back downtown to the Detroit Beer Company – Michelle’s 400th brewery! An All-American brewpub nestled in the heart of the city, DBC had a bustling crowd on our Saturday night, and there wasn’t even a game on in the local arenas.

On Sunday, we caught the last day of the North America International Auto Show before Michelle flew home and I found my way to my work site for the week in suburbia.

Scoping out my options for the week, I was amazed by the number of area choices – at least 27 brewpubs within a 30-mile radius of Detroit!  But they are quite spread out.  One potential option for dedicated beer travelers in the area is Motor City Brew Tours, which offers transportation and tours to brewpubs and beer festivals.  Otherwise, like me, beer hunters are without the benefit of efficient public transportation outside downtown.  So without a designated driver to cart me around, I had to settle on one or two brewpubs each night, but still managed to sample several Detroit-area purveyors:

The Detroit area has a ton of beer choices -- the beer menu at Kuhnhenn Brewing Company alone would make any weary beer traveler giddy!

Big Rock Chophouse and Brewery is an upscale steakhouse that also happens to make a few of it’s own house beers.  On the opposite end of the dining spectrum, Kuhnhenn Brewing Company doesn’t offer much in the way of food (bring your own!), but has an amazing array of beer choices, and each I had was a work of art.  Black Lotus Brewing Company is a cozy and friendly neighborhood hangout, with a solid lineup of brews.  The hummus was good too!  Farther north, Great Baraboo Brewing Company has the feel of an American sports bar, with a half dozen of its own beers.  My longest drive was to Rochester Mills Beer Company.  Situated in an awesome historic building, RMBC adds quality guest taps to an impressive lineup of its own brews, and free pool tables add to the friendly, beery environment.  A little closer to Detroit, Dragonmeade Brewery immediately impresses the first-time visitor with a dizzying array of FORTY different offerings on tap!  I capped my week in Michigan with my 500th brewerythe Royal Oak Brewery, where my fish and chips and IPA served as the perfect celebratory meal.

All told, we were pleasantly surprised by the Wolverine State’s beer scene.  According to the Michigan Beer Guide, there are 76 craft breweries in Michigan, which ranks as the fifth highest total for any state!  Unfortunately, we barely scratched the surface.  We can’t wait to get back to check out more of what Michigan has to offer!

My Top Five of 2009

Our friend and fellow beer traveler
Matt Venzke reflects on his 2009 beer experiences

So I’ve wiggled my way into a spot as a guest blogger on the grooviest beer travel page in the world!  I am SO cool.   But now I have to answer to a task-master of an assignment editor (Chris).

Recently, he told me he would blog about their Top 10 new beer destinations of the year and suggested I contribute to the theme.  Since original ideas aren’t my forte, and because I want to suck up, I whole-heartedly jumped on the idea.

But I struggled to come up with TEN destinations of my own to highlight.  For one thing, I didn’t just get back from Australia.  In fact, I spent almost half the year in a part of the world in which beer drinking isn’t exactly a national pastime. Ultimately, it’s clear I’m only HALF as prolific as the incredibly cool Canham-Nelson duo, at best.

So, with those factors in mind, I thought it most appropriate that I offer my top FIVE beer destinations of 2009.  After much deliberation, here they are:

5 – Brauhaus, Abu Dhabi
In May, I finished my latest 376-day adventure in the Middle East.   I’ve spent a lot of time in the region in the past, and in some countries, alcohol is illegal altogether.  But even in such “dire straits” you can still expand your ex-beer-ience.  During a previous 4-month stretch in Kuwait, I hunted down and sampled 19 different non-alcoholic beers. It helped me keep my palate tuned, offered a welcome break to bottled water, and reminded me that it’s not all about the alcohol.   But thankfully, on my latest gig, I could at least occasionally sample some real beer – usually a can of Stella Artois or rare bottle of Warsteiner.  But my buds and I found a real oasis in the desert at Brauhaus, an authentic German restaurant with 6-8 quality lagers and weizens on draft.  This place helped me stay sane.  You can find an oasis in any beer desert.  (Runner-up: Hofbräuhaus, Dubai).

Back in beer world

4 – The Cone Bar, Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport
In many years of beer drinking, I don’t think I’ve ever savored a beer more than the three glasses of DeKoninck I had on the way home from my year away via Amsterdam.  The Cone Bar was one of the few places in Schipol that served something other than Heineken.  In addition to the lovely DeKoninck, they also had a Dutch witbier on draft. Visit quality beer stops at your travel way-points and encourage them to offer more than the usual, because nothing helps soothe the pains of travel like a good beer.

(Runner-up: Sweetwater Drafthouse in Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport).

Blue Mountain Brewery

3 – Virginia’s “Brew Ridge Trail”
Having spent several years living in Virginia, I can’t say that the Commonwealth has ever threatened to get anywhere near the top of the list of top beer states.  But Virginia has great potential as a beer destination, and during a short visit home this year, Michelle and I discovered more than great scenery in the beautiful, scenic, mountainous, northwest corner of Virginia.  Along with the incredible views of Shenandoah National Park, we enjoyed Devil’s Backbone Brewing Company, Blue Mountain Brewery and Starr Hill Brewery – all quality brewers worthy of the trip in and of themselves.  Support your local breweries!

(Runner-up: St. George Brewing Company, Hampton, Virginia – our former “local” continues to produce quality brews (their Stout and Porter are world-class) in the “beer desert” of southeastern Virginia.)

The crew at Ol' Factory Cafe

2 – The Monterey Beer Festival
Michelle and I really enjoyed our trip west to join Chris and Merideth as they hosted this great festival, definitely a highlight of our year in beer.   As a bonus, Chris was kind enough to cart us around to a handful of breweries we hadn’t yet visited

(highlight: Uncommon Brewers in Santa Cruz). Nothing beats drinking beer with good friends.

1 – Belmont Party Supply, Dayton, Ohio
My beer geekdom started 15 years ago.  In that time, I’ve lived in 6 states and in Europe, and traveled all over the place, so I’ve been privileged to experience a lot of beer in a lot of places.  But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that no matter where you are, sometimes the best ex-beer-ience is enjoying a good bottle of beer in your own living room.  Luckily I’ve found a decent retailer everywhere I’ve lived.  But Belmont is a standout; not only because of an incredible lineup, but most notably because they have one of the best selections of singles I’ve ever seen!  A good local retailer is key to your beer happiness!

(Runner-up: Bon Vivant Market, Smithfield, Virginia – my top choice in my former home, and one of my top three retailers of all time.)

I’m looking forward to another great year in beer in 2010, and hope you are too!

Defining Your Ex-beer-ience

We welcome our good friend, fellow beer traveler and 2008
Beerdrinker of the Year Matt Venzke as our first guest contributor.

So, Chris and Merideth have both visited their 500th breweries! Wow! What an amazing testimony to their love of beer! And an achievement that makes me jealous!

We both agreed that Ironworks Brewery in Lakewood, Colorado counted
We both agreed that Ironworks Brewery in Lakewood, Colorado "counted"

I should explain that the friendship my wife Michelle and I share with Chris and Merideth began (and we became huge fans of because they count the breweries they visit. We do, too! Combine that with that fact that we’re also both ardent travelers and childless dog lovers, and you can understand why we shared an instant camaraderie when we first met in person. Since then, we’ve lived vicariously through their experiences while having the good fortune of joining them on an adventure or two.

When we first met, my brewery count was actually higher than Chris and Merideth’s. In relatively quick order, however, it became quite clear that they’d both surpass me, which they did earlier this year. But as we spent more time together and compared notes on our brewery lists, we started discussing the “rules” of how we count our breweries.

I think we both agree on the fundamentals — count a visit to any location that brews beer commercially, whether large or small, with or without a tasting room, industrial or brewpub.

Although Chris downed the sampler at Southern Sun in Boulder, would he count it?  Although its a separate brewing location, its the same company (and some beers) as Mountain Sun across town.
Although Chris downed the sampler at Southern Sun in Boulder, would he count it? Although it's a separate brewing location, it's the same company (and some beers) as Mountain Sun across town.

But we realized our individual “rule books” have at least one key difference: Chris and Merideth will not count visits to multiple locations of the same brewing company. I, on the other hand, don’t care if a company has 15 breweries. I’ll count a visit to any of them, as long as they brew beer at that location. As of press time, I consider my brewery count to be 475 (in 39 states and 17 countries). But if I applied this Nelson rule, I’m actually only at about 463.

And here’s some other interesting questions of rules:

  • Do you have to set foot in the actual brewery? If the brewery proper isn’t open to the public, but they operate an exclusive taproom or visitor center elsewhere, I’ll count it as a visit. Chris and Merideth won’t.
  • Do you have to actually go in the brewery to count it?  What if it’s not open? I only count it if I enter the premises. Chris and Merideth … I’m not sure.  (Editor’s note: Chris and Merideth agree with Matt: a brewery counts on the list only if they enter the premises.)
  • Do you have to drink a beer at the brewery for it to count?  Obviously you’d want to. But I’ve also been to a handful of breweries that lacked a tasting room or bar and therefore didn’t have a chance to sample the product. I still count it.

Will their 500 brewery achievement inspire you to follow in their footsteps?  Is their on-going quest a model for yours? How do YOU define YOUR love of beer or measure YOUR life ex-beer-ience?