Traveling Tuesday: The Alchemist – Waterbury, VT

This summer my wife and I spent a week in New England driving around, camping, hiking in the mountains, seeing the sights, and, of course, sampling the fine beer that region has to offer.  One of our stops was Waterbury, Vermont, in the northern half of the state smack dab between Montpelier and Burlington. Our first stop in town was the Ben & Jerry’s factory and headquarters, which is one of those places that is so unabashedly fun and happy and delicious that even the most road-hardened traveler can easily overlook how touristy it is.  I mean, they have a graveyard for their retired flavors where visitors can pay their respects.  Yeah, it’s a pretty neat place, and Ben & Jerry’s from the source is every bit as delicious as you can imagine.

Our other stop in Waterbury was The Alchemist brewery. If you’ve never heard of them, you may have heard of their legendary singular product: Heady Topper.  It’s possible you’ve never even tried this beer and you’ve still heard of it – before our visit I was in that boat.  Heady Topper is a double IPA that is loaded up with hop flavor that isn’t too overwhelmingly bitter.  It was famously rated the #1 beer in the world by Beer Advocate.  And just to take the mystique over the top, it is sold in 16 ounce cans that encourage you to drink directly from them (somewhere, a beer snob just felt a great disturbance in the force).

Did I mention THIS IS THE ONLY BEER THE ALCHEMIST MAKES?  Long story short, they used to have a brewery in the basement of a pub where they made many beers, but it was destroyed by flooding from Hurricane Irene in 2011.  Then they moved to their current production facility where they devote themselves to this one beer.

We visited on a Monday to find the canning line in full operation.  We were treated to samples in mini-snifters from their small bar and gift shop.  As we watched the crew working the canning line and sat enjoying what really is a delicious, world-class beer, we noticed a strange thing.  People kept coming in, often forming a line, to buy Heady Topper by the case.  Mind you, a case runs you $72, or $3 a can.  Some purchased so many cases they needed hand-trucks to haul their spoils away.  Yeah.  I guess I don’t need to tell you that the black market for Heady Topper is beyond ridiculous.

Apparently the neighbors were none too happy about all the traffic and line-forming, because The Alchemist just announced they will close their retail operation at the brewery in order to “avoid a neighborhood dispute.”  They’ll keep the brewery running and are exploring other options for retailing their beer, beyond their already extremely limited distribution network.  Until they figure that out, the elusive Heady Topper just got a little harder to come by.

-John (#13)

The Alchemist

Traveling Tuesday: Phantom Canyon Brewing Company – Colorado Springs, CO

Late this summer I took a backpacking trip through Colorado and eastern Utah, hitting up points of interest like Arches National Park, Canyonlands NP, Mesa Verde NP, and the ‘million dollar highway’ along the Rockies through central Colorado.  On my way back to Denver, I stopped in Colorado Springs for a quick lunch and some much needed liquid refreshment.  I thank the fine folks at Phantom Canyon Brewing Company for overlooking my scraggly beard, slightly funky odor, and wilderness-worn hiking clothes…all of which, I suppose, passes for ‘business casual’ in outdoor-loving Colorado.

The brewery and pub is located in what looks like a recently revitalized area of Colorado Springs, which is about an hour and change drive south of Denver. A door into the production facility was open, making the whole street outside smell of sweet, mashing grain.

 PCBC has a wide selection of beers that rotate regularly. They were happy to let me sample anything and even encouraged it for some of the more interesting offerings.

After 5 days of eating canned, boxed, cured, and other non-perishable foods, a great pub salad was in order. The hefeweizen dressing was fantastic.  They also offer 10 ounce pours (I love it when brewpubs do this), so I was able to try a couple different beers and still be more than fine to finish the drive back to Denver.

 The historic building was once a hotel, so it’s very open on the inside.  The 2nd floor has an incredible billiards hall (so sorry the photo I took didn’t turn out), and the 3rd floor is a banquet hall.

Happy Travels!
-John

The Better Beer Vacation

As I was lamenting on my blog yesterday, most of us with kids are suddenly aware of the dire truth: school’s out, school’s out, teacher let the monkeys out.  So, while the majority of us adult-types will—no doubt sullenly—continue our daily grind to put food on the table, our children will be running about free and unencumbered.

It’s just not right.

What this calls for, then, is obviously a soul-cleaning journey of personal growth: a vacation to a beach somewhere.

But let’s be honest – even the beach is really for the kids, right?  Sure, the water’s fun and everything, and it’s nice to relax and read a pulpy paperback while your skin magically transforms from its wintery shade of "guppy belly white" to a much more painful tint such as "furious crimson."

Still, the now-sore-but-hopefully-not-blistered adult needs somewhere to turn for, you know, grown-up vacation enjoyment?

The answer, for most of us, anyway, should be obvious: local craft beer.

Clearly, the idea of sampling the local craft brews whenever one finds him or herself in a strange and foreign place is not novel, by any means.  The regular Traveling Tuesdays feature here on Hoperatives is a testament to that.  Beer lovers typically search out great beer wherever they might find themselves.

Unfortunately, of the all the Hoperatives contributors, I’m probably the only one who hasn’t written a real Traveling Tuesday post.  Because…um…well, because I don’t often go anywhere.  And the places I do happen to go don’t often have a brewpub nearby.

Yes, it’s a curse.

Imagine my joy, then, as I found myself booking a fancy summer beach vacation, with overnight stops in beer-friendly cities along the way.  No, that joy wasn’t really about beach.  Yes, admittedly, it will be fun to visit the coast with the kids and build sand castles and, um, whatnot.  Really, though, my school-boy giddiness was because as I clicked the "submit" button for our hotel reservations, another half-dozen tabs in my browser were already open, each with a map covered in little blue dots of possible craft beer wonder.

Which got me thinking: have you every taken a road trip completely dedicated to craft beer?  Looking at a map of the craft breweries in the US (like these), it seems to me such an adventure is just begging to be undertaken.

In fact, I’ve half a mind to cash in my 401k, buy an RV big enough to require its own zip code, name it the Craft Beer Crusader, and play connect-the-dots with that Breweries of the US map. 

Who’s with me?

Ok, so maybe that’s a little unrealistic.  But the craft beer vacation isn’t.  So, have you ever planned a trip around a craft brewery or two?  What are your summer vacation plans for the year, and how does better beer fit into it?

I, for one, am setting out to gather a little Traveling Tuesday research.  Oh, and I guess we’ll show my kids the ocean while we’re at it.

Hopefully you’ve got some awesome plans too.

Pud’n

Traveling Tuesday: Iron Hill Brewery – Lancaster, PA

My wife (#102) and I (#13) found ourselves in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for a wedding, and we were looking for a place to grab a nightcap with friends after the reception.  Iron Hill Brewery was well recommended online, and we’re very glad we went.  If you’re ever in Lancaster and looking for a great beer, you owe it to yourself to visit them.  They have several other locations in Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey.

The brewery and restaurant has a very modern feel, featuring lots of outdoor seating.

We loved the mural that walks through the brewing process, and that you can peer into the brewery.

All the house beers are solid – the Vienna Red and Raspberry Wheat are particular highlights.

The samples are generous and include their seasonal and special brews.

We were also especially impressed with how knowledgeable our waitress was about all the beers – definitely the sign of a great brewpub!

Traveling Tuesday: Better Cerveza in Peru

Hoperatives Erin (#102) and John (#13) got married this summer and spent a 2 week honeymoon in Peru.  While not treking through the mountains and the rainforest, they were out searching for great food and drinks (including, of course, some beer).

John enjoying the most popular beer in Peru: Cusqueña.  It’s a standard lager with a good malt backing and nice hop finish. Very refreshing.

Peru didn’t have much variety in terms of beer options, but there was no shortage of interesting and delicious beverages. Inca Kola is the nuclear yellow, bubble-gum flavored soft drink from Peru. You can usually find it at Jungle Jim’s and sometimes at some Krogers. Make sure you brush your teeth afterward!

Cusqueña also makes a dark “Malta” variety. The overt sweetness of the malt was a little too much. It reminded me of when I’ve made a really malty homebrew and it hasn’t fully fermented and/or conditioned yet.

What pairs well with Peruvian beer? Cuy, of course! What is cuy? You probably don’t want to know.*

We avoided alcohol most of our time up in the mountains because we were more than 10,000 feet above sea level and needed to acclimate to the thinner air. Happily, one of the best ways to prevent and treat altitude sickness is by drinking delicious coca tea. Peruvians have been growing coca for over 5,000 years, but the US’s lust for cocaine in the past 50 years or so means that coca is banned in our country. Sad face.

Feeling adventurous? Seek out a hole-in-the-wall bar where only the locals go, and ask for some chicha. Chicha is a homebrewed corn beer adored by people in the mountains (you won’t find it made commercially). Traditionally, corn is chewed and then spit into a bucket – the maker’s saliva helps instigate the natural fermentation process. I was assured that most people no longer make it this way…but I’m dubious of the truthfulness of that.
Our chicha was served directly out of the primary fermenter – notice it is unfiltered, and there’s about an inch of yeast/setiment at the bottom of the glass. Despite the low alcohol (usually only 1-3% ABV), the aroma is very alcoholic. It smells like a fermentation tank at a bourbon distillery (think: Maker’s Mark tour). Surprisingly, the taste is mildly sweet and incredibly refreshing.  It has a kind of soft drink quality to it.  And at ~35 cents for this entire glass, you’ll have more than enough money left in case you need a chaser.

After 4 days of hiking in the Andes Mountains, you better believe that we celebrated our arrival at Machu Picchu with a Cusqueña!…and some chicha.

Salud!

-John (#13)

*Before you pass judgment, ask yourself: is eating the muscle and flesh of a chicken/pig/cow (or whatever your culture finds it okay consume) really any different?

Short Hops: October 8th, 2009

Forbes.com: Beer’s Level Playing Field

St. Louis Business Journal: Anheuser-Busch introduces wheat beer nationwide

Men’s Journal: The Top Five Beer Towns in the U.S.

Seattle Beer News: Men’s Journal’s Top Five Beer Towns = Fail
And now, for a different point of view… Personally, I think Asheville, North Carolina should be on the list. Portland and Asheville recently tied as Beer City USA.

Time: Why Nondrinkers May Be More Depressed

East Coast, West Coast, No Coast! Coming to Louisville

We had been hearing about this upcoming event in bits and pieces recently and then Hoperative #132 Mitch Morrison was able to track down some more information for us. Here’s what it is: a gathering of beers and beer people from the East Coast (Dogfish Head), West Coast (Stone) and No Coast (Louisville’s own Bluegrass Brewing Company). Greg Koch, the owner of Stone, will be in attendance and is bringing some never-before-seen-in-Louisville beers including Old Guardian Barleywine aged in Red Wine Barrels, Smoked Porter with Chipotle, Cali Belgique, Vertical Epic 090909, 2006 Double Bastard aged in Bourbon Barrel, and more. The beers from Dogfish Head and BBC haven’t been pinned down yet, but we’ll update as we hear more.

This great beer event is going held Saturday, Sept. 19th, beginning around 5:00 (so you have to choose between this and Oktoberfest Zinzinnati). The location is the side street next to Flanagan’s Ale House (934 Baxter Ave.) in Louisville. Besides the great beer, they are also promising live music and lots of “food specials made specifically with Stone, Dogfish, and BBC brews.”

The organizers are quick to point out that this is not a competition, but rather a celebration of great beer from across the country. We’ll post more news as we get it!

Short Hops: September 8, 2009

Reason.com: Drink Yourself Fit

Hoosier Beer Geek: Upland Coming Soon To Indianapolis

Caught on Tape: Outrageous Woman Steals 20-lb Case of Beer Under Dress

Did you know?: Amazing uses for beer

St. Louis Post-Dispatch: Pricing is a craft for small brewers seeking a balance

● And finally, a cartoon from Cyanide and Happiness (Explosm.net) submitted by Jared Whalen (Hoperative # 14 and Hoperatives.com contributor)

Penny’s Beer Travel Journal

Ever wanted to take a European beer trip? Hoperative #105 Penny Gates and her husband Hoperative #36 John Graff have done that several times now. Penny shared her travel journal with us from their most recent trip.

April 16
We landed in Amsterdam at Schipohl Airport–a large airport, in terms of the amount of traffic. We had to go through passport control—there were about four agents for ALL of the persons who had to have their passports checked. Talk about a bottleneck!

We arrived in Munich at 11am, took the subway to the main train station (45 minutes), and then a train to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, on the German/Austrian border, in the Alps. The trip was two hours and was beautiful. We stayed in an efficiency apartment, which was perfect for us.

We had one of the best meals of our trip that night—a game goulash, with boar, venison, juniper berries, and schnitzel.

April 17
John in the snow
Took a train, then a cogwheel train to the top of the Zugspitze (10,000 feet in altitude). This is the highest peak in Germany. Garmisch is a big ski resort, and there was still enough snow on the ground for people to ski at the top. The train trip is about 75 minutes to the plaza at the 7000 foot level. It winds through a mountain tunnel for part of the trip. When we arrived, we were two of the few people without skis or snowboards. It was windy and COLD and blowing snow. We then took the cable car the rest of the way to the top. Took pictures of John standing beside the sign for the highest beer garden in Germany—in the snow. We then had a wonderful lunch at the restaurant on the lower plaza—crispy duck and curry chicken.

Instead of taking the cogwheel train down, we took the gondola—a 10 minute ride, which was breathtaking. We could see all the scenery we missed while we were winding through the mountain tunnel on the way up.

That evening, we took an initial foray with the rental car to Ettal, about 11 km from Garmisch, where there is a monastery and a gorgeous church. The monks have been brewing beer since at least 1100 or 1400, and they also run a hotel and a school. Wonderful evening sipping beer and looking at the Alps.

April 18
We drove through Austria to Neuschwanstein—one of “crazy” King Ludwig’s castles. The town is a real tourist trap. Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwanstein are the only reasons people come here. The setting for the castle is beautiful. The procedure for touring the castle is a good exercise in how to herd large groups of people who may not speak either German or English. The interior of the castle itself is a tribute to Wagner and excess.

We drove to the town of Fussen for lunch—and ice cream for John–then drove on to Rothenberg. This was a three hour drive, mostly on the German interstate system (which, collectively, is the autobahn). It was raining for most of the drive. We were going about 70 mph (the speed limit) and people were FLYING past us.

We found the hotel in Rothenberg with very little trouble (no small accomplishment). After dinner, we took The Nightwatchman’s Tour, which was very interesting and a lot of fun. The guy who does the tour is a German actor who was out of work (surprise) and started doing these tours. He does them every night—one in English and one in German. He provides a lot of history about the town, the people who lived and worked there, etc. from the time of its financial heyday (1100) to World War II.

April 19
At breakfast, we sat with a couple from Australia who were spending three months traveling in Europe. They spent 30 hours flying to get from Australia to London! We drove to the airport in Nurnberg to drop off the car, took the subway to the train station, and then took the train to Bamberg—about three hours total travel time.

Bamberg was our base for five nights. We had an apartment in the old part of town. We went grocery shopping—accomplished with the help of other customers who spoke English! I tried to order a pound of sliced turkey from a deli clerk who spoke no English, and I completely forgot that they measure things in kilos, not pounds—oy!

We went to one of the two most beautiful beer gardens in Bamberg the first night—Spezial. It was a beautiful evening, although cool. This place is on a hill, near an observatory, and has a beautiful view of Bamberg. We ended up sitting with a couple who spoke English very well, from a town an hour south, who just wanted to be outside for the evening. It was a wonderful way to start a visit to Bamberg!

April 20
Did some touristy things in Bamberg today, including a walking tour. We caught up with the guide who does the Bamberg tours for Beertrips for dinner. We noticed signs at all the restaurants for “Spargel”–asparagus, specifically, white asparagus. Apparently, white asparagus is a really big springtime treat in this part of Germany. Who knew? Dinner was white asparagus and potatoes—no pork.

April 21
Christian, the tour guide, picked us up at 9am for a driving tour of the countryside outside Bamberg. He said we would be three or four hours driving through what is called Franconia-Switzerland. We had an amazingly wonderful day. He took us EVERYWHERE and we talked a lot about Germany and US culture. Christian spent many years in Morgantown, West Virginia, and has remained in contact with his friends there and in Minneapolis. We saw an old mill, climbed 300 steps nearly straight up to a cave and an overlook above the Riesen River, and had lunch at a typical SMALL German restaurant/brewery in the middle of nowhere.

When Christian picked us up, he explained that there was a small hole in the muffler of his car, about which he was embarrassed. Rather than have his 13 year old car fixed, he was taking advantage of the German program to promote car sales—cash for clunkers. But his car would not arrive for several more weeks. Towards the end of the day, rounding a turn, there was a loud “clunk.” The muffler fell off the car—near the middle of the car. Christian went to a nearby business and procured two pieces of wire and a pair of pliers (“tweezers”). John crawled under the car and wired the muffler back in place.

John
Dinner tonight was at the other beautiful beer garden in Bamberg—Greifenklau. A family joined us at our table—it is common to sit with people you do not know if there are no empty tables—a woman and her two adult children. The mother and daughter had just arrived that afternoon from St. Louis, connecting through Cincinnati. The mother grew up in Bamberg, and left in the late 50s/early 60s to move to St. Louis, and they were there to visit family.

April 22
John did laundry and Penny spent several hours photographing. In the afternoon, we took a 15 minute ride to Forchheim. We had a true “German moment” at the train station. When we walked in, there were no customers in the train station, and there were about three or four ticket agents. We stood in front of the line, waiting to be summoned to one of the desks. Two of the agents advised us, in a combination of German and English, that we first had to take a ticket. What?! We stood back, punched the machine and took a ticket, then stepped up to the white line on the floor. The ticket agent then punched some button on the machine next to him, and called out our number. We looked at our ticket, saw that we had the correct number, and advanced to the counter. Good grief.

Forchheim is well known for its beer kellars. There is a small mountain/large hill outside of town that has between 10 and 20 beer kellars, half of which do not open until May 1. The breweries brewed their beer at the locations in town, then took the beer in barrels to this location, to lager in tunnels dug into the hill, keeping the beer at an even temperature all year. People then took picnics to the beer kellars and bought their beer there. Now, it is one beer kellar after another, all open air establishments. We had the good fortune of being invited inside one of the tunnels by a server who lived in Tennessee for a while—it was really interesting. These beer kellars have been in existence since the 1800s.

At our last stop, we heard the sound of live music approaching. It turned out to be a jazz band, marching down the street. We were approached by a man who recognized us from Schlenkerla a couple days earlier—another establishment in Bamberg. He and his friend (who were retired Army, and had been based at the large American Army base in Bamberg) were married to sisters, and their brother-in-law was getting married. Their father-in-law plays in the band that showed up and the reception was at this beer kellar. We had a good chat with them.

April 23
More walking around Bamberg in the morning. In the afternoon, there was a small beer festival—Tag des Deutschen Bier—at the town square. All the brewers have a tap in this tent, and there is food for sale. We spent quite a bit of time talking to a doctor from the DC area and a man from outside London, who were just there for this event. We were there from noon until 6pm. Whew!

April 24
Munich?
We took the ICE train (high speed) to Munich. After going to the apartment where we were staying, we did some touristy things in Munich, and spent the afternoon in Englishcher Garden, which is the Munich version of New York’s Central Park. There are three large beer gardens in this park, and we enjoyed having a beer and watching the people and the swans. Then we took the train about half an hour south of Munich to a beer garden in the country. A jazz band plays there most nights. John wanted the Steckerlfische (fish on a stick), but that booth was closed.

April 25
A day trip to Salzburg—two hours by train. This was the only disappointment of the whole trip. I’m told that Salzburg is wonderful, and that our experience was atypical. My impression of Salzburg, in spite of the beautiful architecture, is that it was very touristy/junky. Unfortunate. The only saving grace was the Augustiner beer garden. A WONDERFUL experience. You pay for your beer, pick out your mug, rinse it in the fountain, and then get your beer. There are all kinds of food stands in side—anything you want.

April 26
Left the apartment at 6:45am Munich time (12:45am EDST), and arrived home at 11pm local time (after a two hour delay in Detroit)—a long day!