Microbrew Road Trip Around America

05/28/2011

Sometime back in January or February, a buddy of mine (Eric) posted to Facebook that he wanted to go to Chicago at the end of April to see two of his favorite bands, The National and The Arcade Fire, play at UIC Pavilion. He just turned 30, and is moving from Dallas to Denver, and looking for a final hurrah. Then he asked if anyone else was interested in going. They aren’t my favorite bands, but I like them alright, and I was thinking a road trip might be fun, so I volunteered. I hadn’t been to Chicago since I was a fetus, so why not?

So that’s where it started – just a simple drive up to Chicago and back. But over the next few months it sort of snow-balled. Eric’s family is in Ohio, so we planned to visit them for Easter, and then over to Chicago for the concert Monday night. I was playing around with potential routes on google maps, and figured we could hit 9 states by going up one way and back another, and I thought it’d be cool to do something in each state. We’re both craft beer fans, so I suggested we find a micro-brewery in each state and sample the local beers along the way (in a responsible manner of course!). For Kentucky, we both agreed we would have to do bourbon instead, but we had a general theme. Eric works for Starbucks and is a bit of a coffee junkie, so we hit a few local coffee places along the way as well.

Beer and coffee and concerts – sounds like a plan, right? So here’s a quick log of our 7 day, 2500 mile trip!

Day 1

We took off from Dallas about noon on a Thursday and headed for Little Rock, our first stop. It rained the whole way there. We stopped for dinner at Vinos just outside of downtown, a cool little hole in the wall that brews several different ales up front, and is home to some very loud concerts in the back. The beers were great, and they have awesome pizza as well. So thumbs up for Arkansas.

From there we headed East to Memphis, and then on to Nashville Tennessee for the night. It rained the whole way there. We rented a house on AirBNB which worked out great. We were pretty tired, but I managed to talk Eric into heading downtown to get a late night drink at Boscos. Being a Thursday night right next to a college, I was surprised that there were only 3 or 4 other people there. But no matter, we got a couple of drinks in before they closed. Wasn’t terribly impressed with Bosco’s if I’m honest. Sorry Tennessee!

Road Trip Day 1

Day 2

Friday morning we stopped at a local Nashville coffee shop, Ugly Mugs, and then headed north into Bourbon country Kentucky. We stopped by the Maker’s Mark distillery for a tour and tasting, which was actually pretty interesting. I’m not sure how you perfect a whiskey recipe when you have to wait 6+ years for it to age, but I’m glad someone figured it out. After a tour of how they make it, I bought a small bottle and got to dip it in the signature red wax myself. It’s a nice little tourist trap souvenir :) This part of Kentucky is seriously beautiful, or at least it would be if it weren’t raining like crazy.

Are you sensing the other theme of our road trip yet? It rained almost constantly, across the whole midwest, for the whole week. In fact, Louisville and many other towns along the Mississippi were suffering serious flooding.

From Kentucky we headed north for dinner at Arnold’s, Cincinnati’s oldest bar. We found this great patio out back (which was covered, fortunately) where there was a live jazz band, and it was a really great atmosphere. The local beer at Arnolds was ok, but not great, but the music and food made up for it.

With some time to kill, and needing to do something indoors, we found a great little neighborhood in North Cincinnati with a movie theater (we’re also movie buffs) and saw Hannah, which was just awesome. We met Eric’s sister at a coffee shop nearby afterward, where I ordered a glass of Pinot Grigio as I’ve never like coffee. It was served to me in a child-size glass tumbler, which I thought a bit odd, but I guess this was too much of a hipster place to have wine glasses.

Day 3

From Cincinnati, we went up to Troy, Ohio, just north of Dayton, to visit with Eric’s family for the day. I got a nice tour of the town where Eric grew up (took about 5 minutes, it’s a small town!), and had dinner with his parents and extended family. After dinner, we partook in a bit of a family tradition with Eric’s brother in which we go find a bar for some pre-Easter imbibing. I guess “family tradition” might not be the right term, since his family is Baptist and his parents prefer not to know about what goes on in these outings, so maybe just a “sibling tradition.”

Anyway, we ended up at a surprisingly awesome bar for such a small town, the Leaf and Vine. It had a great wine selection, really great whiskey selection, not to mention beers, as well as a well stocked humidor full of cigars. There was also a live band playing, the lead singer of which turned out to be one of Eric’s old high school teachers. So we got a Skynyrd request in, and found a tucked away location to hang out and sample whiskeys.

Day 4

We visited the small Baptist church that Eric’s parents still attend for Easter services (which was… interesting for me), but in true small town fashion everyone there got to catch up with Eric after having been away for a long time. After a big family meal we set out for Chicago. We stopped for dinner in Indianapolis at a very cool little Belgian Brasserie (Brugge) for some local beers. I had a trippel which was I think 11% ABV or something ridiculously high (Eric drove the next leg), but it was very good! Great cheeses available there as well. We walked around the neighborhood to try a coffee shop as well, but being Easter almost everything was closed.

As we drove to Chicago, we realized we hadn’t really thought this Easter thing through when planning, so we started calling the various places we had considered going to that night to see if they were open. None of them were. But no matter, we persevered and managed to find a bar that was open on Easter, and even had some people in it! So we met up with Eric’s friend Sarah for a drink at Trinity (good name for a bar open on major Christian holidays, right?).

Local Chicago beer? Not so great. We were surprised to see that they had a Texas beer on tap though, Shiner Bock. In fact, we had seen it in most of the places we stopped. Apparently, at this bar at least, it’s one of their top sellers. Back in Texas we think of Shiner as a pretty small and local operation, but they’re everywhere!

Day 5

We spent a whole day walking around Chicago, which is where Eric attended seminary and had a few friends to meet up with. We started the day at Intelligentsia Coffee where I finally succumbed to the coffee thing and had most of a cappuccino. After being sufficiently over-caffeinated, we hit the streets to do a bit of a walking tour. We met up with a friend at Billy Goat Tavern under Michigan Avenue for some greasy lunch, and then went down to Millenium park to see some touristy stuff. We hit up a Chicago pizza place for dinner with another friend, and then grabbed a cab down to UIC for the concert. I mentioned earlier that Arcade Fire wasn’t really a favorite band of mine, but their show pretty much turned me around. Amazing live show! Go see them if you get a chance for sure.

Day 6

We waved goodbye to Chicago and headed south for St. Louis where we took a few hours to tour the city a bit. We visited the Arch, which I’m pretty sure is required by Missouri law, and also a couple of local coffee roasters. We then made our way over to the Urban Chestnut Brewing Company, a new micro-brew in St. Louis that had just opened a tasting room. Want to know what the best beers of the trip were? This was it. Really incredible stuff, so much so that I spent $60 on a couple of growlers to take with me. We cracked open the first one later that night at the hotel in Springfield (I had to invite friends over to help me with the second one after I got back to Dallas). Speaking of Springfield (MO), I’m sure there’s a nice part of town somewhere, but we never saw it. It was a rather unpleasant place.

Day 7

We got out of Springfield with all 4 wheels still on the car, and grabbed lunch in Tulsa at James E. McNellie’s downtown. I could only find one brewer in all of Oklahoma that’s currently in operation, Marshall, and they don’t have their own tasting room or restaurant like a lot of breweries. So we tried some on tap at McNellie’s, and I’ll just say that Oklahoma really needs to up it’s game. It was probably the worst of the trip. The tavern itself was pretty cool though, with several hundred beers on tap from around the world. Just skip the local brew and go for something from a far away country and you’ll have a good time.

While passing through Oklahoma on the final stretch back to Dallas we saw some of the effects of the last week’s series of storms. Trees snapped in half, foundation slabs without houses on them, debris scattered all over, with pieces wrapped around trees. Apparently many tornados had touched down recently, and the damage is quite surreal when you’re looking at it in person, and not just on the news.

We finally rolled back into Dallas that evening, with almost 2500 miles on the trip odometer. It was a great trip to end Eric’s time in Dallas, and he packed up and headed West to Denver a couple days later. If you’re the type of person who normally drinks a big-name beer brand that you find at the grocery store, I would encourage you to try and find some local brewers. Even the worst of the beers we had on this trip were better than anything you could get in a can at the store. Support the local guys who are doing this for the love of it! I recently sampled some new beers here in Dallas from Deep Ellum Brewing and Lakewood Brewing, both of which were excellent. Bud Light is beer for people who don’t know better.

And on a final note – I’m not normally the type that hits up a bar every day of the week, let alone 2 or 3, so please don’t think we’re alcoholics or anything. We had single drinks at most and took our time getting back to the car with the exception of a couple of places where we were settled for the night and not driving any more. We’re about tasting, not getting drunk. Don’t drink and drive kids!