Beer and Eagles in Iowa

Waking up in the Madison suburbs on the second morning of our trip , one might think  exploring the bustling beer scenes of Madison or Milwaukee was next on our itinerary. But no, we had other plans. Merideth and I were headed to Decorah, Iowa.

Visiting Decorah wasn’t a completely random choice. Our good friend Renee was born and raised in Decorah. After years of  hearing stories of this magical place,  we took the opportunity of being somewhat in the neighborhood to experience it for ourselves.  The fact that Decorah had two breweries added the beer to our travels.

Crossing the mighty Mississippi River at Praire du Chien into Iowa, our first  visit to the Hawkeye state officially began.  We pressed on through the rolling hills of mid Iowa and reached Decorah late morning.


With only two breweries to visit, we had plenty of time to  explore our friend’s hometown. Walking down the street in small town middle America made me feel I had been transported back to an earlier, simpler time. A feeling reinforced by the fact that we had no cell coverage so had to rely on a paper map for navigation.

Merideth and I  strolled along Water  St., the main drag through downtown Decorah. Well-known for its Norwegian heritage, we popped into the Vesterheim,  the national Norwegian-American museum and heritage center. Usually on a go go go schedule, I am sure Merideth felt a bit odd being allowed to wander around the gift shop.

Perfect cure to the heat
Perfect cure to the heat

The not-for-Californians heat and humidity we expected on this trip was in full force. Lucky for us, first on the agenda was the Whippy Dip, an old school ice cream stand on the edge of the downtown. Coached by Renee, we already knew what we were going to get, the Peanut Butter Cup “Tornado”, ice cream topped with candy. What she failed to mention was that they were HUGE. Per usual for us, Merideth and I each ordered our own. That first teeth numbing bite of ice cream took the edge off the swelter.

Continuing our walk, we crossed the Upper Iowa River and reached what could be called the town’s “brewery gulch” (brewery quarter?) since both are located just across the span.  Still needing time to finish our massive ice creams, we bypassed our planned first stop, Toppling Goliath, to check out Dunning’s Springs, a 200 foot waterfall located just down the street from the brewery.

Dunning's Springs
Dunning’s Springs

Passing the family picnicking at the base of the falls, we climbed the set of stairs to take us to the top.  The rushing sound of cascading water accompanied the scraping sound of plastic against Styrofoam as we attempted to power through the  ice cream.  With the stairs ascended and descended, ice creams in different states of completion, communing with Iowa nature was complete.  We were ready for our first ever Iowa brewery visit.

Founded in 2009, Toppling Goliath  quickly built a national reputation for their hoppy and barrel-aged beers.  Through our Decorah connection, we were familiar with one or two of their offerings.  However, the excitement of visiting this highly rated brewery wasn’t necessarily the opportunity to try their full lineup of beers, rather the promise of air conditioning. We lingered as we entered, enjoying the surge of cool air before moving up to the bar.

Toppling Goliath flight

A  sample flight of seven beers in hand, our next decision was where to sit. The taproom had an invitingly spacious, trellis-covered, hop vine-lined patio that normally would have beckoned us. Most of the customers chose that route. But, we had plenty more of the day to experience hot and humid so chose comfort of the air conditioned bar area.

Toppling Goliath: Our first Iowa brewery
Toppling Goliath: Our first Iowa brewery

The flight ranged from Dorothy New World Lager, a California Common to Seltford Stout on the dark end. Living up to their marquee “we brew hoppy here”, four of the five in between highlighted my favorite beer ingredient.

Merideth, true to form, liked the Dorothy. The star for me was always going to be PsuedoSue. And as we heard the bartender explain to every customer, I was treated to a special version dry hopped with Galaxy.  A big fan of the citrus/tropical fruit notes of Galaxy, I enjoyed a pint or two (maybe three) of PsuedoSue.

With a few pints under our belts, we decided to leave our air-conditioned  sanctuary and set off for further adventures.

Decorah is ringed by a 11 mile paved path, the Trout Run Trail, which is an excellent springboard for explorations of the area.  With a few more hours until the second brewery, Pulpit Rock, opened, we continued our trek along the section of the path that runs along the  Upper Iowa River on the north side of downtown.

Off the beaten path in Decorah
Pig in a car

Here the path follows the wide green flood plain banked by levees on each side of the river. Hiking into the bluffs in Palisades Park, we tried to get a panoramic view of the surrounding countryside. Unfortunately, all we could see were the tress that lined the trail.

Loopy Lynn at Pulpit Rock
Loopy Lynn at Pulpit Rock

Returning to brewery gulch early evening , we found Pulpit Rock already hopping for a Monday. Or what I imagined what a hopping Monday night looked like in Decorah.  While Pulpit Rock’s outdoor seating appeared perfect people watching location, we again selected the cool, air conditioned bar.

Grabbing seats at the bar, we ordered a sample flight. A few sips into the first sample Preikestolen, a Blonde Ale, lo and behold, Renee shows up.  Thus, our visit to Pulpit Rock became less about the beer and more about catching up with our friend.  Letting her know how we got along in her old stomping grounds, Merideth and I almost felt like locals chatting with Renee.

I did enjoy  their IPA, Saftig. But my go to was Loopy Lynn, their hazy, Citra and Eureka hopped Double IPA.

Renee was kind enough to give us a quick driving tour. We were able to get our panorama view.

Evening in Decorah
Overlooking Decorah

The following morning, we still had one more culinary item on our Decorah tour,  the  best cinammon roll in Iowa. The purveyor, Ruby’s, was conveniently located only a block from our hotel and I was waiting at their front for their 7am opening time. Not learning the Whippy Dip lesson from the day before, I excitedly ordered two of the frosting laden treats.

Bready, gooey, sticky deliciousness! For the second day in a row, a sweet treat was too much for Merideth. I, on the other hand, finished mine.  And maybe Merideth’s.

Shocking to believe, there is more to Decorah than ice cream, beer and cinnamon rolls. In 2007, the Raptor Resource Project set up a webcam overlooking a Bald eagle’s nest on the outskirts of town. Four years later, the live stream of the daily activities of the adults and their eaglets became became the most watched live stream ever. So well known, when Merideth told a local friend we were going to Decorah, she assumed we were going to see the eagles.

A couple of baby eagles
A couple of baby eagles

Hopped up on loads of sugar, Merideth and I drove to the fish hatchery to find the famous Decorah eagles. Described in the local tourist map as being across from the hatchery, we parked at the small visitor-looking center opposite. Merideth and I wandered around the area trying to find the eagles. No luck.

Knowing we had an over four hour drive ahead, I was ready to give up.  Merideth not quite ready to throw in the towel, suggested we cross the main road. And there it was right along Trout Run Trail. High up a tree, Merideth pointed out a huge mass of sticks that made up the nest. Not something we normally see, spying the two eaglets sitting near the nest put a exclamation on the short amount of time we spent in Decorah.

We only lingered a few minutes watching the eagles. Then it was back in the car and on the road to explore another new state.

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Silver Lining

A part of life is friends moving away. Merideth and I were reminded of this recently when some good friends relocated to Minnesota. First feeling depressed, then resigned, Merideth and I turned disappointment into opportunity and booked a beer trip to the Upper Midwest.

Merideth and I felt a bit bleary-eyed when we landed in Minneapolis just after 5am on Sunday morning. Grabbing a quick cup of coffee, we bundled in our rental car and headed east towards some dark, menacing clouds on the horizon. Our destination was Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, the home of Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Company.

After just under two ours on the road, it was reassuring to see a water tower with Chippewa Falls in big block letters.  Our first task  was to get breakfast.  Entering the old school diner, Chippewa Family Restaurant, we definitely got the ‘you’re not from around here’ look. Despite this, we figured we were in the right place as every other customer was greeted  by their first name upon entering. The service was quick and friendly, the coffee bottomless and the eggs and polish sausage hit the spot. We were ready to conquer our first ever beer travel day in Wisconsin.

An idyllic setting

Not quite. Still an hour to the opening of Leinie Lodge, the brewery’s visitor center, we took a quick half hour nap in the car followed by a walk along picturesque Duncan Creek.

Returning from our walk a few minutes before 10am, this otherwise deserted sleepy town suddenly buzzed with cars. Thinking that we were going to be the only people drinking beer at 10am on a Sunday, all these cars had a singular destination, the Leinie Lodge parking lot.

When the doors opened, there were about 20 people waiting to get in. Just wanting to have a beer, we bypassed all the people lining up for what I thought was the tour signup and bee-lined straight for the bar. We quickly learned our first lesson of Wisconsin beer travel. We couldn’t just a buy a beer at the bar. We needed to go back and purchase one of the tasting/tour/glass packages. Deflated, we went back towards the entrance and joined the back of the line.

Surviving the five minute delay, Merideth and I headed back to the bar with our wristband and tasting glass in hand.

Cheers Jim!

Visiting Leinenkugel had a special place in our heart. In 2008, our local paper ran an article about our beer adventures. From the article, I received an email from Jim Leinenkugel, who lived nearby. The great grandson of the brewery founder, he wondered if we wanted to meet for a beer. Over beers and stories about the old days, we became friends. Sadly, Jim passed away in 2014.

We toasted our friend Jim with Leinenkugel Original, their classic old school golden lager inspired by the family’s 1867 recipe.

With my second beer, I ordered the India Pale Lager. Hopped with two popular varietals, Citra and Mandarina Bavaria, I’ll admit I was surprised to see Leinenkugel doing an IPL.  The beer was quite good. Similarly, Merideth follow up beer was BeerGarten Tart , Leninkugel’s take on a Berliner Weisse. We agreed that it was the closest re-creation of the style this side of Berlin.

Our first Wisconsin brewery

On return home, I learned that Jim was buried in the family plot in Chippewa Falls. Visiting him would have completed our trip to Leinenkugel. I guess we will need to return to Wisconsin.

In our years of beer travel, the biggest change, besides the sheer number of breweries, is the advent of technology, especially GPS. While reaching a brewery became much easier, the journey at times can be confusing. In the old day of paper maps, we saw the beginning and end in one picture and for the most part knew where we were along the way. Today, with GPS, the understanding of the journey has diminished, we know our present position and the next turn, but lose the big picture.

This came into play in our three hour drive from Chippewa Falls to New Glarus. Clearly driving down every two lane highway, passing every dairy farm and small town in Wisconsin, Merideth and I both worried silently that technology would lead us off the edge of the earth. Or at least we were not on our way to New Glarus, WI. It wasn’t until the last five minutes of our long drive did we breathe a sigh of relief as we passed a road sign that read New Glarus. Our destination was seven more miles down the road. At that time we confided in each other the feeling we were lost.

The courtyard at New Glarus

As we wound up the road to New Glarus’ hilltop brewery, I’ll admit I didn’t know what to expect. Reaching the parking lot, what appeared before us was quite outside the realm off all expectations. Thinking we were visiting a smallish Wisconsin brewery, we in fact had been transported into a re-creation of a small European village. As we walked up the path into the central courtyard/village square, we could see two men blowing on Alphorn to complete the feeling that we had accidentally drove to Europe. Stupid GPS!

With one Wisconsin brewery under our belts, I wasn’t going to act like a rookie again. Merideth and I walked up to the ticket booth and purchased our glass and taster tickets like we were Wisconsin beer travel veterans. However, as the wrist band was being placed around my wrist, I couldn’t resist asking if I could start a tab. The response was a friendly “no” with a gentle tone that acknowledged my lack of experience in the state.

New Glarus ticked

Properly banded, glass and tickets in hand, Merideth and I grabbed a couple of beers from one of the several beer stations and sat ourselves at a table on the edge of the courtyard in the sun.

One of our worries about this trip was humidity and the effect it would have on our delicate California constitutions. But the rainy weather that we had experienced earlier in the morning had produced a very pleasant afternoon to drink beer.

New Glarus is one of those larger than life brewery names for beer travelers. Our previous experience with New Glarus was  drinking Raspberry Tart at home in California.  We explored their unknown beers with a bit of excitement. The famous Spotted Cow, Moon Man Pale Ale, the two lagers, Two Women and Totally Naked, and finally Bubbler, a Hefeweizen, were tasted.

After a sample or three, we decided to explore the grounds. There were a number of paths that took us to faux ruins and various seating areas. The only reference I could think of was Stone’s World Bistro in Escondido; completely different except both were make believe lands.

As we traveled back down the winding drive, I felt a great deal of beer traveler satisfaction and accomplishment.  We finally ticked off New Glarus.

Merideth’s hole-in-one on 17

Merideth and I finished up our afternoon in New Glarus with a round of golf at Swissland Minature Golf. A challenging course aptly themed with a wedge of Swiss cheese obstacle on the tenth hole was made a bit more difficult by standing water on a couple of holes.

It might have been the jet lag or the distraction of cute goats but Merideth did not have her A game. I took control of the round early with a hole-in-one on the par three third and never looked back. An ace on 17 was too little too late for Merideth as I cruised to a five stroke victory.

On a day that began with a midnight departure from Phoenix airport, we finished up with dinner at Vintage Brewing, a brewpub in Madison, WI. The following morning, we would be off to Iowa.

Ending our first Wisconsin beer travel day

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