An Iowa Refresher

Our friend and Iowa native, Renee Brincks, reports on the beer scene in
America’s heartland
. Renee can be found on the web at

Fields and hills and barns and stuff

I’ve lived in California for nine years, but every year I still spend a few months in the pretty corner of northeast Iowa where I grew up. My home base there is a farm outside of Decorah. Yes, there are corn fields, and there also are hiking and biking trails, canoe-friendly rivers, limestone bluffs, lush hills and trees that blaze gorgeous shades of orange and red in the fall. Seed Savers Exchange is based there, and remember that eagle cam that captivated people this spring? That’s in Decorah, too.

Park view

Recently, beer drinkers have been toasting start-up breweries and better distribution of popular brands, as well. Anchor Brewing pioneer Fritz Maytag is an Iowa boy, but until about ten years ago, his home state was lacking when it came to beer. Budweiser and Busch Light were the norm, and I know more than one person who considered Coors Light to be a “dark beer.”

Thankfully, things have changed.

Photo by Toppling Goliath Brewing Co.

When I arrived in Decorah this June, I was eager to visit Toppling Goliath. The brewery launched two years ago, and I’d already become of a fan of their Tsunami Pale. In a community where beer menus were limited for so long, introducing stouts and ambers and bitter brews isn’t necessarily easy – it takes a little coaxing to get customers to look past the Bud Light. These days, however, several local restaurants pour Dorothy’s New World Lager, the lightly-hopped Toppling Goliath flagship that’s an easy-drinking 5.5 percent.

I caught up with high school friends at the Toppling Goliath tap room, where we took advantage of the warm summer night by sitting outside. The outdoor patio there is perfect for happy hours and live music; the brewery also hosts home brew club meetings and airs all sorts of sporting events. I ordered a pint of Golden Nugget IPA. It earned an unofficial “best Iowa IPA” nod during a spring tasting at Short’s Burger and Shine in Iowa City, which dedicates its 10 taps to Iowa beers, and it will definitely be a go-to when I’m in town.

Tap Room in the Hotel Winneshiek

The other visit I’d planned for this trip was the Tap Room in the Hotel Winneshiek. My parents have fun stories of this place in the 1970s, and there was a lot of buzz about the bar’s June re-opening. A cozy redecorating job and an Iowa-focused beer menu made the Tap Room a nice place to kick back with Peace Tree’s Hop Wrangler. I sampled releases from Millstream and Toppling Goliath, too, a our table of friends shared the smoked trout dip and a bowl of truffle popcorn.

Guns and booze

One afternoon, my parents and I took a day trip to two little towns along the Mississippi River, about 40 miles away. Our first stop was Stark’s Sport Shop in Prairie du Chien, Wisc. The store sells beer, spirits, wine and Wisconsin cheeses, along with outdoor gear, boat parts, fishing rods, lures, hunting supplies, guns…a whole wall of guns, in fact, hung right over rows of vodka and whiskey. The store’s signature t-shirt even says, “Mixing guns and liquor since Prohibition.”

I’m not from a family of hunters, but we’ve been coming to Stark’s since long before I was old enough to order my own beer. We sometimes swung through on Sunday drives when I was a kid and my parents were stocking up on bottles for backyard get-togethers. I asked to visit this time, because I knew that Stark’s sells New Glarus. There were several options on the mix-your-own-six-pack shelves, so I left with Spotted Cow, Moon Man, Two Women, Dancing Man Wheat, Totally Naked and Fat Squirrel. I also grabbed a few bottles of Bell’s Best Brown Ale, which I can’t get in San Francisco.

From there, we crossed back over the bridge into Iowa to grab lunch at Old Man River in McGregor. It’s another example of how far Iowa has come in terms of craft beer. Here, in a town of about 875 people, is an outfit turning out solid German-style brews. Owners recently announced plans to expand with a 25,000-barrel-per-year production facility near Iowa City.

Tasters at Old Man River

My standard order at Old Man River is “The Iowa,” a steak burger topped with bacon and blue cheese. I washed it down with a taster set – samples of helles, hefeweizen, a German pale ale, a smoky Scottish lager and the brewery’s popular dunkel, plus a splash of root beer that worked well as dessert. With baseball on the bar’s flat screens and an art and food affair happening in the park across the street, it was a festive afternoon in McGregor.

My two-week Iowa adventure included a few other beer stops back in Decorah, starting with pints and pizza at McCaffrey’s Dolce Vita (this June, USA Today named their pizza the best in Iowa) and sandwiches at T-Bocks. Toppling Goliath, Schell’s and Leinenkugel are among a dozen brands on tap there, and the bar has a range of seasonals and specialty bottles. I also made a quick survey of the refrigerators at Oneota Co-op, which carries great local, organic food along with Stevens Point, Sierra Nevada, Big Sky and other labels that were unheard of in Iowa just a decade ago.

It was a refreshing trip, thanks to fun family time and great weather (San Francisco’s foggy summers just can’t compete with Iowa’s sunshine…). Good beer options give me even more to look forward to when it’s time for the next stay.

There’s Something About Seattle…

Our friend and freelance writer Renee Brincks reports on the Emerald City.
She can be found on the Interwebs at

I’ll admit, I’ve got a crush on Seattle. You sometimes see sun, rain and snow all in one day. Flowers bloom even during the winter. Public transportation makes exploring really easy, and each neighborhood has its own coolness and character – plus a few good pubs. I sampled the local beer scene during my first Seattle visit in 2010, and was quick to say yes when a Fremont friend needed a house sitter this February. Thanks to great people I’ve met through beer friends and festivals, I landed at Sea-Tac with a full set of plans.

The view of Seattle from the Columbia Center observation deck

The adventures kicked off when I caught up with Dave of Urban Beer Hikes at Maritime Pacific Brewing. It was my first visit, and the bartender was pouring $3 pints to celebrate the Jolly Roger Taproom’s first anniversary. I had an Islander Pale and a Jolly Roger on cask, and then sampled the special release, vanilla-bean aged Navigator Weizenbock. We soon pulled tables together to accommodate friends like Chris, who writes about beer and such himself, and ordered some snacks. Seattle is a terrific city for cheap nights out, because many bars and restaurants hold twice-daily happy hours with $3 pints, $3-$4 appetizers and other deals. While Maritime’s fried ravioli was my favorite, I couldn’t leave without ordering beer-battered bacon. Wow…yes, it was as unhealthy as it sounds, but tasty.

At Fremont Brewing’s Urban Beer Garden

From there, Dave, Chris and I took the Burke-Gilman Trail to Fremont Brewing’s Urban Beer Garden. When I stopped in last year, the doors were rolled open and summer sunshine streamed in. This evening, the doors were down and a line of beer lovers waited at the taps while others filled every seat in the place. After an Interurban IPA, a few of us made the mile walk to Bottleworks to end the evening with pizza, Big Time saison and a shared bottle of Rodenbach.

The Leary Traveler’s Deschutes dinner featured five well-paired courses

My next big beer outing was a Deschutes dinner at The Leary Traveler. The Traveler has good food (try the open-face breakfast sandwich available on weekends – yum), a good bottle selection, and six regular and four rotating taps. I claimed a corner table with Chris, Dave, who tends bar there, and Dave’s wife Mandy, who works over at Brouwers. The first pour was a surprise: Black Butte XXII. As Mark, the local Deschutes rep, explained, the anniversary beer was scheduled for 2010 release but never hit stores because the chocolate didn’t dissolve correctly. It didn’t hurt the taste – the beer was smooth, with a bit of chocolate and spice – but the visual presentation didn’t meet brewery standards. So, they canceled the release, bottled a few cases and decided to share it only when someone from Deschutes could tell the story and watch the pours.

Five excellent food courses followed, paired with Miss Spelt, Green Lakes Organic Ale, Red Chair and Black Butte. Dessert was the star: a chewy homemade graham cracker dipped in chocolate and toasted sesame seeds, filled with marshmallow, and served with Abyss imperial stout.

Our first Urban Beer Hike stop, The Dray

The highlight of my Seattle trip came a few days later, when Dave and his dog, Link, organized a beer hike for our Deschutes dinner crew and another friend Chris, who also works at The Traveler. Afternoon snowflakes spoiled our West Seattle plans – the city’s public transportation doesn’t always stay on schedule when it snows – so we stayed closer to home. Several soccer fans were watching an Arsenal-Stoke City match when I ordered a Pike IPA at our meeting spot, The Dray. It’s a small bar, and one of those cozy neighborhood places where everyone seems to know each other. We shared a bottle of black label Girarden Gueuze before moving on to 74th Street Ale House. Though the menu listed tempting happy hour appetizers, Link couldn’t come inside, so I had Laurelwood’s Workhorse IPA and we moved on.

Taking a break to warm up at Uber

After a torta stop at Barriaga Llena, we settled in at Uber. More snow was falling by now, and we warmed up around the fire while sampling – with four-ounce pours for around $2 each, it’s easy to create your own impromptu tasting menu. Then, it was off to Kangaroo and Kiwi. There’s not an extensive beer menu here, but one Chris and I relived our Australian university days over Coopers Pale, he and the other Chris went head-to-head at pool, and we all took third in the bar’s trivia contest. When it ended, we bundled up and went to Park Pub a final stop and a Big Al IPA. Altogether, we walked about three miles, sampled beers from Washington and beyond, and hiked home in three inches of snow – a rare thing for Seattle, I’m told.

While in town, I also stopped by my Capitol Hill favorite, the Stumbling Monk, drank Fremont’s Abominable Ale at People’s Pub, and ate at Molly Moon’s, Top Pot, Paseo and Palace Kitchen. Still, there are several places that I didn’t get to visit, and a few people (Philippe, are you reading this?) I didn’t get to see. That’s the thing about Seattle, though. It always gives you good reasons to return.

Big thank yous to my Seattle friends – especially Charyn, Dave, Mandy, Link and Chris D. – for making my week so fantastic. Even if Dave did make me do a Bart Simpson shot… Thanks to Chris and Merideth, too, for letting me invade their blog.

Link, sporting a beer collar that Mandy made for him

Things To Do on                raveable

Beating the Heat in Indy

Our friend and native Midwesterner, Dave Ratcliff, reports from
this weekend’s 15th Annual Indiana Microbrewers Festival

There are two things a visitor to a beer festival in the Midwest should know. The first is that an opportunity to sample numerous craft beers from states like Ohio, Michigan, Kentucky, Illinois, Pennsylvania and beyond is an opportunity to taste high-quality beers from an area sometimes overlooked in the beer enthusiast community. The second is that timing is everything.

Drink (and shop) local

Each summer, the Brewers of Indiana Guild holds a beer festival in Indianapolis. With a little luck and perfect timing, it’s possible to avoid the oppressive summer heat that annually visits this part of the country. This year, though, Mother Nature had other plans.

On a clear and sunny July day in the Indianapolis suburb of Broad Ripple, I attended the 15th annual festival. With the temperature at 91 degrees and the heat index at 97 degrees, a cold craft beer was something myself and the other attendees at the sold-out festival were craving.

Festival time in Broad Ripple

It was no accident that my first beer was a kolsch. Chicago’s Goose Island was perfectly positioned directly inside the entrance and their Summertime Kolsch was the perfect starting beer. While it didn’t improve the temperature, it did reinforce my belief that a well-made beer can make even a very hot day bearable.

Standing in the much-needed shade under one of the tents all the vendors were stationed in, I began to explore the scene around me. While taking a sip from my tasting glass (made from actual glass – something the plastic-loving organizers at other beer festivals could take a lesson from), I learned that the majority of the Indiana-based breweries were grouped together in a separate area.

I headed to that area immediately where Three Floyd’s, Upland, Lafayette and Indianapolis’s own Sun King and Oaken Barrel more than hold their own against breweries in other Midwestern states and beyond. The highlights were the Two Dave’s IPA (no relation) from Columbus’s Power House Brewery, the brilliantly-named Loopy Lupilin from Mishiwaka (brewed in the town of the same name), and the dry-hopped Ol’ Woody Pale Ale from Fort Wayne’s Mad Anthony. With so many good beers to sample, it was an excellent way for myself, fellow craft beer drinkers, and any other hardy souls to brave the unforgiving temperature.

Trying to stay cool...

Although many of my fellow festival goers chose to sample the numerous stouts and porters, I kept it hoppy. A noteworthy exception was my sample of the Bourbon Barrel Smoked Bock from Louisville’s Bluegrass Brewing Company. I visited this brewery about ten years ago and I was happy to know that they are still producing quality brews.

The day’s longest lines were found at Sun King. By maintaining a constant presence in social media and by having its product available in numerous places around Indianapolis, Sun King celebrated its first anniversary by brewing what might be its best beer to date: the 10% ABV/100+ IBU Cream Dream III: The Search for Hops. Special kudos for having an employee pour it to people waiting in line. Keeping people happy with good beer and good customer service are musts for every successful vendor at a beer festival.

After tasting a few more samples, it was time to claim victory for my taste buds and admit defeat against the sun. I left the festival with my glass, a few t-shirts, and a desire  for a tall glass of ice water in an air-conditioned room. I also left with a sense of pride in the heartland’s contribution to craft beer. I hope that all craft beer lovers who usually fly over this part of the country will schedule some time to visit one of the Midwest’s numerous microbreweries and land a well-made beer… no matter what the weather is.

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!