Man Voyage VI: New England

September 17, 2019 § 1 Comment

In 2016 I was winding down Man Voyage IV with my best pal and Echo & Sway comrade, Jared A. Conti AKA The Oracular Beard in the upper reaches of New York’s Finger Lakes.  We were chatting at length on the last stop of our three day beer & brewery pilgrimage with a knowledgeable server at Genesee’s Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market when he wholeheartedly recommended, nay commanded us where to go next: Vermont.  

His claims that Vermont breweries were churning out some of the best beers in the country weren’t entirely unfamiliar to us.  Any craft beer drinker worth his/her weight in IBUs knows The Alchemist Brewery’s Heady Topper is one of the most highly rated & sought after IPAs on the market, and it more than lived up to the hype when a friend gifted us a few cans years ago.  My wife & I received a case of assorted bombers from Rock Art, McNeill’s and others as a wedding present from a Brattleboro-based friend, and Hill Farmstead’s unpasteurized farmhouse ales are the only exceptions from the “drink local” rule we adhere to during our visits to Philadelphia.  As I reflected on all of this, I began to wonder why we hadn’t made this trip sooner.  

Initial Google searches pointed us toward Burlington, Stowe and more northern locations.  We were hoping to stay central & southern due to time constraints so as always, we dug deeper to find some gems that haven’t yet been touted by the national beer press and looked forward to the journey as much as the destination.  And journey we did: the past few years we’ve combined Man Voyage with some Echo & Sway tour dates, losing travel & leisure time to radio interviews, promotional efforts, load ins & soundchecks, etc. For the first time in years, we were getting back to basics: eating, drinking and combing America’s highways & backroads at our own pace.  

I recall a time, maybe a decade ago when we had visited most of the breweries & brewpubs in Pennsylvania, save for the bigger cities.  My wife & I would open the latest Ale Street News to the map page, cross off the newer ones as we made our monthly treks and it seemed fairly manageable.  Now there are over 300 scattered throughout the rural parts of the state and in trying to find somewhere new on our way out of northeastern PA, we had nearly half a dozen to choose from.  We went with Nimble Hill Winery & Brewery in Tunkhannock because, well, they were the only place that was open at 11:00 on a Tuesday morning.  

That’s not to say we didn’t enjoy our visit.  Options may have been scarce but Nimble Hill made for a fine first stop: not so exceptional that it wrecked the curve but good enough to whet our appetites for the long day ahead of us.  Located unassumingly off of Rt. 6 N it couldn’t have been easier to find. It doesn’t look like much from the outside; like a consignment shop or antique barn but it opens up into a beautiful wood-lined tasting room with matching bars & wine racks, and a corridor that wraps around to a smaller room with nearly a dozen beers on tap.  We each built our own 4-beer sampler, with a nice mix of IPAs, porters, Belgians and sours. Considering the brewery aspect of the business is relatively new, there wasn’t a bad one in the bunch and a few – particularly the Midnight Fuggle (robust porter) and Oud Bruin (brown sour) – were even great.  

The woman behind the bar sensed our need for manly reflection and gave us our space to chat, but checked in periodically while tending to both spaces.  The decor isn’t exactly our taste (generic beer themed signage in that “Live, Laugh, Love” style) but it’s got a welcoming vibe and some solid brews. The free popcorn was a nice bonus.  We packed up a few singles to go and continued east.  

With a 7+ hour drive to reach our evening’s destination we relied a bit more on major highways than we would have liked, but we cranked up the tunes and let the miles fly.  We’re generally forward thinking dudes so when we reminisce, it’s for good reason and there’s none better than Cartoon. An area staple since the early 1980’s, the folk & bluegrass quartet featured Jared’s uncle on bass, vocals, & songwriting duties.  Performances at State College’s Central PA Festival of the Arts served as an annual reunion of sorts for their family, and were the catalyst for Jared’s interest in forming our musical partnership. I’d heard a few songs here & there over the years but strangely we’d never played an album start to finish… with nothing but uninspiring stretches of highway laid out before us, it was the perfect day to listen to several.  

We made our way to Clemson Bros Brewery in Middletown, NY for a quick lunch bite.  Housed in a beautifully restored factory building from the 1800’s (where family descendants made hacksaw blades), it looks to be the cornerstone of a neighborhood in transition, like so many breweries in small American towns.  Middletown doesn’t look particularly rough but a bit sparse, and the Clemson building really stands out. Just inside you’re greeted by brewery tanks and brick-walled surrounds in a decent sized barroom that gives way to a long dining hall with pew seating and chandeliers (brewpub staple: classic rock on the sound system?  Check). I’d read good things about the parmesan truffle fries, and those sentiments were echoed by two locals at the bar: they talked us into ordering a large platter with our two pints, and we carried it all outside.  

The fenced in beer garden behind the building is stunning with a newly installed full bar, picnic tables, string lights, clinging vines climbing brick walls and overhead industrial piping running through an old rope & pulley system, likely remnants of the building’s factory days.  A fresh rain shower kept everything nice and damp, so we had it all to ourselves. The fries were delicious as suggested, and we took a crowler of session IPA to go. A delightful if lonesome Tuesday lunch visit; it’d be nice to see that outdoor space alive & hopping.  

We stopped for gas on the way out of Middletown and happened upon the New York, Ontario & Western Railway Company train station, built in the late 1800’s but gutted by fire & closed for good in 2004.  The shell of the former O&W hub is a sad & beautiful landmark in a Richardsonian Romanesque style (thank you, Wikipedia), befitting a listing on Atlas Obscura.  We walked the perimeter but thought better of jumping the fence to better explore the inside; Man Voyage has not included any arrests to date and we wanted to keep it that way.  There are some fantastic photos on I Ride the Harlem Line.  

More major highways brought us to New Britain, CT where the relatively new Five Churches Brewing offered us a chance to get in on the ground floor, so to speak.  Named for its location between the steeples of five churches, it’s an open second floor space with light pouring in from large factory windows and a panoramic view of downtown.  If you’re going to limit your menu to one item, wood-fired pizza is probably the best choice and theirs is stellar. We ordered the daily special (poutine pie: gravy, mozzarella & tater tots) and took a few pints outside. 

It’s definitely a rough neighborhood.  The first thing we saw while exiting our vehicle was a dude pissing in a trash filled alley. From the balcony we also had a prime view of some shady dealings involving a decrepit apartment building and several cars with tinted windows. Breweries & brewpubs can do so much to revitalize areas by adding jobs and stimulating the local economy.  It’s encouraging to see them set up shop in communities like this that can truly benefit, and I hope the change is exponentially positive for everyone. 

We contemplated a few rounds of Guardians of the Galaxy pinball or squeezing into the photo booth for some Man Voyage commemoratives but pressed on, happy knowing that we’d strictly adhered to Commandment #5 posted in the stairwell: Thou shalt absolutely enjoy your time with us here at Five Churches. Enjoy our time we did.  The ESB and IPA were both tasty, and I’m sure the quality will only improve as the brewery gains traction.  The pizza couldn’t get any better.  

It was getting dark by the time we reached Greenfield, MA so I can really say nothing of the town except parking was easy & convenient, in a bank lot after hours.  I can, however, say many positive things about our experience at The People’s Pint brewpub on Federal Street. Admittedly I was sold on the place upon learning my late hero Anthony Bourdain had once dined there with his crew off-camera; I’m not sure what circumstances led to that but I can see why he would’ve appreciated the place.  It was lively for a Tuesday evening, but not obnoxiously loud… dim, but Jared could still read his beer menu (scroll down to our 2018 afternoon at Ann Arbor’s Jolly Pumpkin brewery for the scoop on that)… locally focused, but very welcoming to visitors. There are an abundance of bicycle parts adorning the walls, seemingly random until we learned that partial proceeds of certain beers benefit a local bike shop & association.  We knew it the moment we sat down: if we lived here, this is where we’d spend our evenings.  

The People’s Pilsner and Training Wheels session IPA were fresh, quaffable brews, served up in moments despite the crowd our waitress had to wade through.  Our food was served up equally fast: pulled pork tacos with cilantro cream sauce, and whatever Jared got. I can’t remember because the tacos were so fucking good I was temporarily unable to focus on anything else. Quite possibly my favorite meal of the trip.  I think Jared got some sort of Szechuan noodle bowl and the few bites he shared were good, but those tacos were so fucking great they warrant multiple fucks. We enjoyed it all to the sounds of Dinosaur Jr., Guided by Voices, Fugazi and more good stuff over the sound system.  We felt embraced as we do at our own Broken Axe Brew House back home; The People’s Pint is truly the perfect name for this place. If you’re anywhere in the Mid-Atlantic/New England regions, find time to visit. And order the fucking tacos.  

I don’t feel as though we can properly judge Whetstone Station Restaurant & Brewery in Brattleboro.  Much of the appeal is the second story deck complete with outdoor bar & fire pits that overlooks the Connecticut River, and it was too dark to enjoy the waterfront view by the time we arrived.  The bartender grumbled when we took more than 20 seconds to peruse the draft menu, trying to choose one of their four house beers among the other dozen guest taps. Maybe there were more of their own inside but one would think they’d be available in the extremely expensive looking outdoor space that’s clearly the focal point of the restaurant. The Penguin Porter and, um, whatever Jared got were okay.  We didn’t order any food for fear of further upsetting the bartender by needing two minutes to look at a menu. Again, it feels wrong to judge too harshly considering we technically didn’t even set foot inside but the vibe was a bit pretentious and a real letdown after our wonderful experience at the People’s Pint.  

A friend of mine who once lived in Brattleboro raved about McNeill’s Brewery, describing it as “random,” “unorganized” and “strange” but also “one of the best breweries I’ve ever been to.”  If that weren’t enough of an endorsement, he gifted my wife & I a few of their beers for our wedding, and their oatmeal stout remains one of the best I’ve ever had in the style. I’d been looking forward to it all day, and it did not disappoint in the least.  

Anyone I’ve ever talked beers & brewpubs with knows that my favorite bar in all the world is the Wharf Rat in Baltimore.  It’s a divey, kitschy British pub full of old sailor relics, whose patrons don’t fit in at any of the trendy, touristy spots in Fells Point.  I once asked the bartender what time they opened in the morning. She stared at me blankly for a minute before muttering “Whatever time all the old Navy guys line up outside to drink beer and watch the Price is Right.” I immediately made it clear to my wife that this is now my retirement plan: TPIR over lunch beers at the Wharf Rat, Monday through Friday.  Rerun days included.  

McNeill’s is Brattleboro’s Wharf Rat counterpart.  These are my favorite types of bars: dark & quirky but 100% authentic, with no apologies or attempts to be something they’re not. Don’t like what they have to offer?  Move along. We sat for a few minutes before the bartender emerged from outside: she’d been one of half a dozen people smoking in front of the place. She hooked us up with a couple of beers and again, I paid no attention to what Jared ordered once I spotted a proper British ESB on cask.  When done right it’s my favorite style: easy drinking, low ABV% and perfect balance of malt & hop bitterness. The Oliver’s ESB at the Wharf Rat is in my top three all time favorite beers and from the moment we set foot inside McNeill’s I had a feeling they would do the style justice. They did.  I could’ve sucked back three or four of them easily.  

The clientele was equally charming: mostly McNeill’s staff settling in for post-shift drinks with friends who came to meet them.  One girl had sliced open her thumb doing prep work in the kitchen, and fixed up a makeshift bandage at the bar while shooting tequila, a Guatemalan fella detailed the foibles of his love life in broken English while the bartender poured herself a drink for each one she served.  The entire room emptied onto the sidewalk outside to smoke at least three times in the 45 minutes we were there while shouting back at us to “not steal anything” and instead of simply putting an out of order sign on a disabled urinal in the men’s room, they chose to write “STOP: don’t pee, you will die.”  We spotted a cabinet with a dirty sheet tacked to the front where the door should be, covering a small drum kit. When Jared asked what type of music they typically booked someone answered “Uh, I dunno. Whatever.” The Beastie Boys played over the sound system all the while. There was no better place to end our night.  

We retired to our evening’s digs, The Colonial Motel just a few miles up the road.  Cheap, no frills, park-outside-of-your-room accommodations with two comfortable beds and a shower.  We didn’t even turn on the TV. Lights out.  

After a fantastic night’s sleep and full, hot breakfast we wandered downtown in search of coffee and followed some locals into Mocha Joe’s on the main drag.  Admittedly it’s a generic name but we could hear Tom Waits’ “Bad as Me” playing from outside, and by the time we ordered our espressos and coffee from the barista wearing the same Descendents t-shirt I had on, we were tapping our feet to Charlie Feathers’ “Can’t Hardly Stand It.”  Posters of jazz musicians line the walls and there are stacks of art & music publications everywhere to leaf through. It’s an aging hipster’s paradise. Coffee is damn good too.  

We poked around town a bit, bought some books & political buttons for the revolution to give to our kids and stocked up on Vermont microbrews at the Brattleboro Food Co-op for our wives before walking back to catch the waterfront view we’d missed the night before.  It is indeed gorgeous, with a stream cascading through a lock that runs underneath the main street into the river. We followed some worn looking railroad tracks a short distance to a cove of graffiti covered rocks descending to the water. It was the perfect place to enjoy some relaxing quiet time before spending the rest of the day on the road.  

If you’d told me while I was looking at stops for this trip that Long Trail Brewing Company would be one of our favorites, I’d have laughed at you.  Their beer has been available in PA for years and it’s never been terrible, but not particularly noteworthy either. I wouldn’t have even considered it but I read so many positive things, and it was on our way up north.  

At long last, we traded the highway for some scenic back roads.  The weather was perfect for a rural drive out to Bridgewater Corners, an absurdly adorable name for a town if I’ve ever heard one, like the fictional small town in a sitcom like Little House on the Prairie. Long Trail is a large, beautiful space with an outdoor beer garden, lawn games, fire pits and small walking trail that leads down to the Ottauquechee River.  They’ve obviously got big money for the type of renovations and distribution they boast but somehow it feels like a smaller & more intimate place. We sat outside on the deck overlooking the river, and each ordered up our own 4-beer sampler, both heavy on the brewery exclusive options.  Everything was fresh & tasty, and even the beers we’d previously not overly enjoyed in bottles were fantastic on tap.  

My fish tacos with mango chipotle slaw & green chile sour cream were great but for the first time on this trip I was envious of Jared’s food: a shaved pork loin sandwich with maple beer mustard & a CBD infused house sauce.  They’re two of the best condiments we’ve ever tasted, and Jared paid extra to have some of each packed into small containers to go. I’d have bought a gallon of each if I could’ve. Long Trail was a pleasant surprise that completely subverted our expectations.  There’s a summer music series on the patio and as our criteria for most gig applications is based on food & drink, it’s likely The Echo & Sway will be throwing our hat into the ring one of these years.  

We headed north, relieved to still be on the types of roads where a 30 mile journey would take us 50 minutes.  We were greeted in the Drop In Brewing parking lot by a dog who sat briefly at our feet then headed inside, turning his head back to see if we were following him.  It was either a total coincidence or they have this dog very well trained. It’s a small space with a few couches, two or three tables and a wraparound bar. Countless bottles & growlers from New England breweries line a set of shelves that run nearly the length of the room, and the brewer’s excellent taste in music is on full display throughout with concert posters of the Ramones, Clash, Frank Turner, Alvvays and more.  

The dog directed us to two seats at the bar (that may not have happened) where the bartender handed us a binder with the day’s offerings.  I went festive for Christmas in July with a Christmas Cake ale. So many holiday beers are thin bodied spice bombs but theirs is a tasty dark brown ale brewed with raisins, currants, almond essence and some other things that keep it from tasting like a light beer with a cinnamon stick in it.  The bartender & bookkeeper chatted us up about Vermont breweries while I strummed a Stratocaster propped up in a corner near the front picture window (it’s always awesome when a brewery offers live music but I have no idea how they’d host a decent crowd with their size & layout… maybe we’ll have to try and organize a long weekend with a gig at Long Trail to find out).  

They have a small cooler with a build-your-own mix ‘n match, and they discounted one of my cans because the label had been manually applied slightly crooked during a labeling machine malfunction.  Totally unnecessary but much appreciated. Solid brews, friendly staff and a fun atmosphere… so glad we dropped in (their name appears to be a nod to the start of a snowboarding run but it works well for dad jokes too).  

It seemed like most of these places were in the middle of nowhere but Foley Brothers  Brewing truly felt secluded.  A few miles and some twists & turns off of Rt. 7 brought us to a cozy tasting room in an old barn next to a farmhouse B&B.  Vines climb damn near every tree, post & vertical service (even the outhouse), there’s a gorgeous garden area with lawn games and a decorative arbor that overlooks the back of a golf course.  The whole property is stunning. 

We ran through everything on tap with a combination of two 5-beer samplers, poured one at a time to leave room for a little discussion.  There was a heavy focus on single hop IPAs, a delicious oatmeal stout and my favorite of the bunch, the Earl Pale Ale brewed with black tea.  I’m generally not a tea guy but it turns out it’s fantastic when brewed into beer. We took our last samples out to the garden and relaxed in a few lawn chairs; this view even makes the golf course look pretty.  We snagged a few 4-packs of pounder cans and continued south. I would definitely look into staying at the B&B sometime in the future. I can’t imagine anywhere more beautiful to wake up, and the oatmeal stout would make a damn fine breakfast beer.  

We made one last stop en route to our AirBNB at Madison Brewing Company in Bennington.  We hadn’t eaten since Long Trail (admittedly only because neither of the two stops that followed offered food) and in trying to pace ourselves with take home purchases, we realized we hadn’t picked up much at all.  Madison looks nice, if a bit ordinary at first glance with wooden floors, brick walls & bay windows, and the classic rock playing didn’t do much to distinguish it but it’s got it where it counts. The Old 76 English Strong Ale and Ju-C double dry hopped IPA are both exceptional.  At this point in the day all we wanted was some good ol’ bar food and the No Bones About It chicken strips drenched in melted cheese & maple chipotle BBQ hit the spot. It took less than ten minutes of driving for us to regret only buying one four pack of the Ju-C.  For the second time that day our expectations were completely distorted. The lesson? Don’t judge a beer by its label.  

Man, were we on a roll.  The only thing that could quell a damn near perfect day was a lousy AirBNB experience and really, how bad could a crash pad above a nano brewery be?  

Yet another drive to the middle of nowhere on what have to be some of the loveliest back roads this region has to offer brought us to the Beer Diviner in Petersburg, NY just as the sun was setting.  Perhaps it’s a different situation during weekend hours when the brewery is open but stepping out of Jared’s vehicle this peaceful Wednesday evening, all we could hear were crickets and a babbling brook in the woods interspersed with the clanking of brewery equipment inside.  Wednesday is brewing night and after getting us settled into the space upstairs, proprietor John invited us inside for a few complimentary pints and glimpse into his brewing process.  

John is a laid back fella, and we enjoyed sharing a few beers with him over discussion of our travels, and how he earned his name: during a stay in a small African village years ago, he was tapped (pun absolutely intended) by natives to figure out how to brew beer for everyone.  Once successful, they dubbed him the Beer Diviner. You could hear the pride in his voice, and listening to him tell this story is one of my fondest memories of this trip. We retreated upstairs after a few tasty pints (Belgian dubbel and IPA), left a window open to take in the night air & sounds of the surrounding woods and drifted off to a playlist of Tom Waits ballads. 

The only downside to being this far out in the boonies was a lack of breakfast options.  We made an impromptu dash to Albany after a quick Google search produced an enticing looking brunch at the Iron Gate Cafe.  In one of our finer moments we drove right past the “Valet Only” sign in the garage and parked ourselves. The attendant was fairly annoyed when we confessed though changed his tune when we overtipped him to compensate for our stupidity. 

We walked through an iron gate (imagine that) into a beautifully landscaped garden with a brick pathway and overhead string lights.  It’s 20 feet from bustling Washington Ave but feels a world away. The Morning Madras mimosa (cranberry & orange) is a fruitier cocktail than I’d typically order but what the hell, it was early.  Jared’s a Bloody Mary guy, and his Bayou Bloody came with a big ass shrimp. We both ordered french toast stuffed with an absurd amount of Vermont maple sausage, eggs & cheese with homefries, on our waitress’ recommendation.  She said it was a lot of food and she wasn’t kidding. We were, fittingly, stuffed. I went to check out the inside and saw three different Iron Gate t-shirt designs based on Ramones album covers. Pretty great for a spur of the moment find.  

Sloop Brewing has two locations: a former IBM factory in East Fishkill NY, and the weathered post & beam barn on an apple orchard we visited in Elizaville.  Another welcome country drive to the back of beyond, and another farm brewery with a fantastic view for miles. We arrived not long after opening and it was quiet, with only one other person at the bar.  There were maybe 10 beers on tap, many of them different variations of the hazy NE IPA. We would’ve preferred a bit more diversity but the few we sampled were delicious. Jared partook of their two sours; not my favorite style but the red sangria was decent (as with wine, I preferred it to the white).  The bartender was a bit temperate but it was early and he looked pretty focused. This location’s only food option (aside from chips & a few other bagged munchies) is hot dogs and if we hadn’t just eaten enough food to last us two days I may have gotten one. The artwork for their beer releases is striking, and displayed on posters throughout the barn.  In keeping with the dad jokes… I’d sail on this Sloop again anytime.  

Less than a mile from the PA border, Port Jervis NY is not a town I would’ve guessed to have a brewpub as terrific as Fox N Hare.  Perhaps I’d never been to downtown proper but in the few times we’ve passed through for gas it didn’t seem like much more than a stopover town.  Now I know better. Fox N Hare is stunning from the moment you walk in: plenty of places have their brewing tanks & equipment in full view somewhere, but theirs is in a pit with a birds eye view just inside the door. The layout of the restaurant is equally unique, situated in a U-shape around a long, narrow bar in the center, all brick & iron with industrial piping overhead.  Their full bar has a great selection of bourbon & whiskey; too bad I was driving.  

We were told to seat ourselves and chose a table right next to the open garage door window.  We made it through half of our beers (Primitive Pilsner and Hop Forward IPA) before the sun baked us enough to convince us we should move to the bar.  The menu has some innovative sounding dishes and I’d read rave reviews about the buffalo brussel sprouts but we were still full after our massive breakfast.  We settled for sharing a Blackberry Blossom sour before hitting a comic book shop nearby on our way out of town. Yet another bright spot; Fox N Hare is a gem.  We’ll be sure to return, hungry next time.  

We hadn’t planned on stopping again but not long after leaving Port Jervis we began to get hungry.  During Man Voyage II in 2014 we had a few interesting experimental beers and the absolute best IPA of that trip at Breaker Brewing in Wilkes-Barre, and conveniently we were cruising that way on 81-S around the time food started to feel like a possibility.  Breaker is situated on a hill in a residential neighborhood, in a renovated old schoolhouse. It’s grown a bit since our last visit; we arrived early in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday, got the last parking spot and table inside.  

All that was left of the several unconventional beers we had last time was a blackberry jalapeno ale, which we put in a sampler with a few IPAs, a pilsner and porter.  The pilsner was solid and everything else was good but nothing jumped out at us nearly as much as the Mosaic Hop IPA did five years ago. The food was bangin’ though, especially Jared’s buffalo chicken balls.  We didn’t stick around long; maybe brewpub fatigue was setting in, or we were just anxious to get home and see our families a bit before work/reality bit us in our asses the following morning. Don’t get me wrong, we enjoyed the place but had maybe invested too much hope in having that Mosaic again.  Still a worthy visit.  

We missed the shows, and even all of the pain in the ass promo work that goes with them but were happy to revisit the reasons we started taking this trip in the first place.  It’s more relevant now than ever with our political climate the way it is: living in this country sucks sometimes, but watching it go by in a blur out of the car windows while stopping periodically to patronize the hardworking, innovative culinary institutions that represent its heart & soul with one of my best pals make me proud to be here, and reflect on the good things in life.  Returning home with a case’s worth of various New England beers didn’t hurt either.  

 

Man Voyage V: Ontario & Midwestern US

October 19, 2018 § Leave a comment

August marked year five of Man Voyage, my annual male bonding trip & tour with my best pal and Echo & Sway comrade Jared A. Conti.  The MV intro has been done to death and I’ve nothing new to add so you can read the full mission statement here if you’re so inclined (the gist: we drive, talk, eat & drink).  With the shit show that is our current political climate, we decided to get the hell out of Trump country for a few days and hightail it to Ontario where, if our previous visits have been any indication, we’d be in for a refreshing and much more tolerant change of pace.  We struck gold.

Man Voyage rule #2 requires a heavier use of back roads over major highways, and we started our day with a beautiful drive up through rural Pennsylvania and New York, twisting & turning our way through glorious stretches of landscape that would make Ansel Adams blush.  Interspersed with melancholic little ghost towns and the eccentric characters who occupy them, it’s poetry in motion: one minute you’re coasting by endless fields of sunflowers, the next you’re admiring a woman walking her dog in nothing but her underwear and a thick winter coat before entering a sleepy tourist town full of chalets, anxious for the ski season to start.  The highways are faster but not even half as interesting.

We met our friend, alt-rocker James Martin at Big Ditch Brewing in Buffalo for a quick lunch before crossing the border.  It’s a relatively new brewpub, and looks to be a cornerstone for a neighborhood in resurgence.  You can see a ton of potential in the empty warehouses lining the surrounding blocks.  We lucked into street parking half a block away and immediately spied the brewery’s garage-style doors that opened into a sidewalk patio; we liked the place already.  Service was a tad slow for a Thursday afternoon but we probably wouldn’t have even noticed if we weren’t worried about a potential holdup at the border.

I always appreciate a brewpub that offers a smaller size option, for times like these when I wanted to try a few different beers but didn’t want to commit to a whole sampler in case again, potential border holdup.  We shared a handful of 5oz pours including some signatures (Hayburner IPA, Excavator rye brown) and seasonals (Squeezer dry-hopped sour kolsch, FC session wheat IPA and Cinnamon Apple amber) with not a bad one in the bunch, and the FC was exceptional.  I kept it light with a turkey club while Jared went whole hog with a bacon wrapped meatloaf, which I was grateful for – it gave me an opportunity to mooch a bit.  Don’t feel too bad for him; James offered up half of his pastrami sandwich as a parting gift so he made out just fine.  Swell guy, Mr. Martin.  His material has a distinct 90’s feel so it’s not for everyone but if you’re into bands like The Cult, STP and Bowie’s Nine Inch Nails collaboration phase, James Martin might just tickle your ears.

Crossing the border is always unpredictable but we needn’t have worried: we zipped through in about two minutes.  We even got an agent with a sense of humor, ribbing us for going to London (“Listen fellas, I’m not saying there’s nothing there, but basically there’s nothing there”).  We resisted the signs for breweries, wineries and distilleries that lined Queen Elizabeth Way and stayed the course all the way to our Airbnb just three blocks from downtown London.  It was a flawless first Airbnb experience for both of us.  We rented a two-story carriage house with a full bathroom, kitchen and complete privacy. Jared took the loft bedroom upstairs (complete with an outdoor deck) and I crashed on the sectional couch downstairs that was so comfortable it may as well have been a bed.  Our host knocked once to tell us we could pull our car up a bit more into the driveway but aside from that it was like we had the run of the place.

En route to the first of our two gigs that evening we stopped to get re-energized at Locomotive Espresso, just up the block from our Airbnb. Truly the heart & soul of any local community, it’s amazing how these independent coffee shops all have their own quirks and special touches, yet offer the same sense of familiar comfort from town to town. Locomotive is no different with its worn-in wooden floors & fixtures, soft pendulum lights, small pastry & sandwich selection, engaging staff and welcoming vibe. Their special touch?  An old locomotive hauling bags of coffee beans on a looped track suspended from the ceiling.  We’re suckers for a commitment to a theme and the only thing we would’ve liked more was if the train had been running.  The barista offered us a choice of two different espresso roasts for our double shots and Jared got a coffee as well.  Everything was dark, strong & delightful.  We had a gig to get to but two minute walk + the promise of fresh donuts = we’d be back in the morning.

We drove a few blocks south to Grooves Records for a short promotional set in anticipation of gig #2 later in the evening.  Like the neighborhood cafe, local record stores always seem to offer a glimpse into the local flavor despite not being terribly different from one another.  My younger self was way into the dingy atmosphere of a cluttered underground shop but the older my eyes get, the more they appreciate a bright, organized space like Grooves with the music on the sound system kept to a non-deafening level.  They had a great selection of local & regional artists right up front and were spinning Canadian treasures the Tragically Hip periodically during our setup & shopping times.  They offer performers a discount on all purchases and I’ll be forever kicking myself in the ass for not abusing that privilege to fill what little empty space we had left in our vehicle to the brim but hey, burgeoning adult here.  I responsibly only purchased a few used soul albums and the newest Tom Waits ‘Blue Valentine’ reissue… goddamn, being an adult sucks sometimes.

The staff was friendly and helpful in having the PA set up for us ahead of time so all we had to do was plug in my guitar.  The booker warned that a weekday afternoon spot in the summer before the university students came back would be a hard sell for an out-of-town band but if nothing else, we saw it as a chance to get loose and tune up for our evening gig after six hours in the car.  It was sparsely attended to say the least, mostly by shoppers who paused to give a quick listen on their way out but we did earn one loyal observer toward the end.  He plopped down on the floor directly in front of us and listened intently for the duration of the last song, with a look on his face excited & engaging enough to let us believe our art had truly spoken to this lost soul searching for meaning in this harrowing journey we call life, and that his salvation & solace would be found in the poetry of an Echo & Sway song… then we finished, and he spoke.

Boy, did he speak.  It would be impossible to recount everything he said but for several minutes he rambled incessantly about our songs, my guitar, his guitar, Jared’s beard and current trends in facial hair, the fact that my hair is thinning but he liked my hat, other color hats he thinks would work for me, Jared’s shirt, something about chocolate chip cookies, whether or not I’ve ever heard of Johnny Cash, whether or not this store carries Johnny Cash because he’s “not real well known,” garbage and littering, and tattoos, which thankfully brought things to a climax as he declared tattoos OK for men, but not women.  We were still trying to process the first thing he said when we heard a loud “WHAT THE FUCK?” from the back of the store.  The girl who’d been cataloging stomped up as we were attempting to refute such an offensive remark, but then he made it worse: “Well, I guess they’re OK on women some places, just not on their public real estate.”  I can’t even gesture or mime the way he did for maximum effect.  She handled it like a champ by sternly growling at him “Is there anything I can help you find sir?” as if she wanted to embed a few records into his head, and we couldn’t blame her.  He went on a brief search for albums by the unknown up-and-comer Johnny Cash but sensed the abrupt change in the atmosphere and quickly showed himself out.  If there’s some mental illness issues there I hope he gets some help… if he’s just an asshole, I hope he gets hit by a bus.  We chatted a bit about Canadian music & culture, she recommended a spot to get a few local beers and we were on our way.

Our continuous search for unique venues wherever we go wielded Taproot, a performance space above the Root Cellar gastropub in the Old East Village neighborhood, just a few blocks from our Airbnb.  The venue was forthright from the beginning that their pay scheme wasn’t the most lucrative for touring bands, and we’d likely make bigger bucks elsewhere but they dug the album and offered us a gig, suggesting we secure some local support to help fill some seats.  We reached out to folk collective Esther’s Family and in quite the happy accident, they were able to finish their debut EP in time for the gig to double as their album release show.

The space is beautiful.  Newly restored wooden floors with matching bar & seating, brick walls and lamps made of repurposed bicycle parts make it feel fresh and weathered all at once.  Farm-to-table fare from the Root Cellar and organic beers by the London Brewing Co-op round out the menu and would’ve ensured we took the gig even if we weren’t making any money at all.  We ordered one of those trendy charcuterie boards with a slew of delicious meats & cheeses, veggies, breads, nuts and dips our simple palates couldn’t identify but enjoyed thoroughly nonetheless. There’s a larger selection of London Brewing beers downstairs but we were content alternating our way through the Norfolk Red IPA, London Lager and Tolpuddle Porter, careful to pair each properly with their food platter counterparts to emphasize the subtle flavor notes… ha, I’m kidding.  We shoveled it in and poured beers on top of it all, finishing it faster than we ought to be proud of.  What a damn fine dinner.

EF arranged a sound tech for the evening who had us plugged in and ready to folk ‘n roll in mintues.  We eased our way through much of the album (have you heard it yet?  Stream it here) before turning the evening over to the band of the hour.  I love groups that can’t be simply defined by genre and while it’d be easy to shoehorn them into the folk category, there’s something about EF that gives ’em that little something different.  Frontman Lliam Buckley commanded the room with the charismatic charm of a old timey minstral, and the quartet kept pace nicely with bass, keys, cello and drums.  They were a bit scattered but still incredibly tight despite limited percussion as the drummer had lost his scuffle with a kitchen knife earlier that day.  They filled the silences during tuning & adjustments with jokes and lighthearted stories, and had us fully engaged all the way through their show-stopping medley of MGMT’s “Electric Feel” with “Funky Town.”  Their new EP ‘High Fantastical’ is a great mix of poetic lyrics and romantic melodies, and we can’t thank them enough for sharing the evening with us.

We’d passed up the earlier recommendation of Milo’s Craft Beer Emporium because we were uncharacteristically attempting to improve our time management skills before the gig, but the Grooves staff had spoken so highly of it we ventured over for a nite cap and a late bite.  In a decent sized town with a university and a college, Milo’s feels like a more of a locals place: many of the patrons looked closer to our age, scattered throughout booths & smaller tables in the main dining room but seemed to be mingling with one another.  The vibe was friendly & fun.  When we told our waiter the Grooves staff had recommended the place we briefly chatted about records which led to him asking what we’d purchased, and just as we began to peruse the menus we heard ‘Blue Valentine’ begin to play over the sound system… he may have just been negotiating a big tip but shit, he was going to get one.  We ordered up a few lighter Ontario beers (a pilsner & a sour from breweries I wish I could remember) and some sort of boneless curried chicken from the late night snack menu we were in no way prepared to enjoy as much as we did.  I can’t speak for anything else but this was far from standard pub fare, and if we’d been hungrier I would’ve ordered a few other things to try.

We retreated to our pool house for a fantastic nights’ sleep.  Our host communicated quickly in the morning to coordinate a check out time, and within an hour of our leaving she’d left several kind remarks about us in a review on my profile.  We’d love to return to London for another go-around with EF and I can’t imagine staying anywhere else.  We nabbed our morning caffeine and some homemade donuts at Locomotive before heading west toward Sarnia to cross the border into Michigan.

Rt 402 might’ve saved us 20 minutes but we drifted a bit slower on the farm road alongside, enjoying some breathtaking views of dozens of wind turbines in the distance.  We stopped at Refined Fool Brewing Company in Sarnia for lunch and hopefully a few to-go beers, as we hadn’t yet purchased anything to bring home.  Refined Fool is a large industrial loft-style space, with nearly an entire wall open to outdoor seating and colorful murals throughout.  The bartender welcomed us immediately, gave us the run down on beer tasting options and directed us across the room to order food from Burger Rebellion.  She apologized several times for the multi-line food court setup, as their #1 complaint is people having to place two different orders but hell, there are burgers & beers in the end… the dumb shit people complain about.  We were still waking up so the Uprising breakfast burger (fried egg, bacon, hash brown, ketchup & maple syrup) with two tasting flights (four 5oz beers) hit the spot.

We constructed our flights based primarily on the beer titles.  We wanted a good mix of styles but of the four IPAs on, chose “And Then Bernice Flipped the Canasta Table” because well, an absurd amount of effort devoted to nonsensical titles is a hell of a lot more interesting than the IBU count… further proof that while we enjoy good beer, we could never be referred to as “snobs.”  Much of the draft selection was available to go in bombers so we filled a few boxes and headed for the border.  As always, Canada bats a thousand and if the winters weren’t so cold, I’d move here in a heartbeat.

The Blue Water Bridge crossing was only a slightly longer wait than the day before. Our agent didn’t have quite the sense of humor as his New York  counterpart but let us through quickly and though I’d looked up a few potential beer stops along the way, we made a beeline for Ann Arbor to get settled and try as many of their five breweries as we could squeeze in.  All the highway travel was necessary but damn was it getting old fast.  We lucked into a parking spot right in front of our evening gig so we took a few minutes to scope things out; it’s one of the few we’ve booked over the years that required a signed agreement and though probably harmless, we wanted to make sure we weren’t getting in over our heads… turns out it’s just a nice space in a well preserved building and they want to keep it that way by weeding out the riffraff.  We ventured off to celebrate our subsided fears by drinking beer.

My wife and I have long enjoyed bottles of assorted Belgian styles from Jolly Pumpkin Cafe & Brewery and with Jared’s ever expanding palate allowing him a new appreciation for sours, we hit there first.  Grabbing two seats at the bar in the main room we immediately noticed the fulfillment of three requirements for every nice but ordinary brewpub in America: dark wood, dim lighting & classic rock (henceforth to be known as the brewpub three), though the chandeliers made of old kitchen utensils were a nice touch.  The plain atmosphere was more than made up for by our charismatic bartender who, from the moment she handed us our beer menus, playfully ribbed Jared without abandon when he casually muttered to me that he wished the print were larger. Now I understand it’s a college town but she was way more amused by this than she ought to have been but even Jared loved every moment of her shameless laughing: “Larger print?  How old even ARE you?!” She proceeded to giggle a bit each time she walked by as we sipped our Bam Biere and Oro de Calabaza, and injected the the experience with that little something extra we’re always looking for.  We tipped her well and passed on the bottle selection since we didn’t see anything we can’t get at home.  While any beer is better on draft we were hoping for a few brewpub exclusives but hey, can’t win ’em all.

We walked a few blocks to the Beer Grotto, hoping for some fresh pints from other regional breweries we wouldn’t have time to visit.  Their website mission statement describes them as “meddlers and experimenters, beer geeks and craft cocktail purveyors, friendly faces with discerning palettes. We’ve been thrilled for some time to offer a great selection of craft beer from all over. But we have a larger mission these days: to be much more than just a cozy taproom to imbibe at. We’ve truly become obsessed with fostering an approachable environment that celebrates progressive ideas, friendship, and of course, tasty drinks of all kinds” … we found them to be slightly above grumpy, begrudgingly pouring beers whilst attempting to communicate as little as possible and avoid all eye contact, though that’s based on one quick visit and all we wanted was to drink beers outside so we didn’t really give a shit.

We ordered up a few IPAs by Michigan’s Eternity and Avron breweries at the cafeteria-style counter, were granted permission to take them outside before being immediately met by a sign on the patio that instructed all glassware must be handled by a server.  We were confused and while I’m sure we could’ve crept to a table unnoticed we didn’t want to be disrespectful so we waited a few minutes for a highly trained purveyor of the serving arts to gracefully deliver our glass vessels of alcoholic nectar so as not to disturb the delicate balance of the established directives (READ: our awkward college-aged waiter spills 1/3 of my beer while clumsily dropping them on the table, barely apologizes and tells us if we want anything else we have to go back in because we’re outside of some designated patio area and table service isn’t offered).  The beers were tasty and the ivy-covered brick walls are very pretty but the whole thing was more trouble than it was worth.  Onward.

Jared went to browse comics at Vault of Midnight while I, with the hostess’ permission but still a vague aura of annoyance, grabbed an outdoor table at Grizzly Peak Brewing Company (am I missing something?  Why doesn’t anyone want you to sit outside in this town?) I probably didn’t need a third microbrew within an hour but I had been cheated out of 1/3 of my previous beer after all.  I’m loving the trendy beer of the moment; the New England style hazy IPA that everyone’s brewing these days and GP’s was exceptional. I ducked in to use the bathroom and sure enough the brewpub three were satisfied.  Sometimes you can set your watch by this stuff.

I’d been looking forward to Frita Batidos from the moment I read about it on a Michigan food blog.  Fast-casual Cuban inspired food & cocktails sounded like a can’t-lose situation.  We ordered up two chorizo burgers topped with shoestring fries, sweet chili mayo, avocado spread, muenster cheese and egg (another trend sweeping the nation I’m more than happy to partake in at every opportunity) and some crisped plantains with cilantro-lime salsa to go, and ate on the back porch of our B&B.  It was a gloriously delicious mess I would seriously consider having shipped to my house if anyone in Ann Arbor would be willing.  Cuba’s been on my list for a long time and Frita Batidos helped move it up a bit, especially with new regulations that make visiting easier.

Speaking of our B&B, we checked in quickly so we could eat before our food got cold.  The Cadgwith Too is located a few blocks from downtown, unassumingly on the corner of Third & Mosley.  We tried the B&B thing a few years back in Sackets Harbor and found the lower price & inclusion of breakfast most appealing, if slightly awkward: I’m guessing many B&B owners are used to guests being older, able to swap stories about grandchildren, etc.  The Sackets Harbor folks were sweet but didn’t have much to say to the tattooed troubadour and bearded poet.  I was hesitant about this place only because I could find very little about it online – reviews, listings, praise and criticism were all scarce, as if it existed in name only.  We took a chance because the price was right, and hoped it was just a case of the place being modestly old fashioned.  We arranged the date promptly through email, sent a deposit check and couldn’t have been happier with the accommodations.  Comfortable twin beds in a private room with shared bath (though to my knowledge we were the only guests), complete privacy, peace & quiet with a spacious back patio overlooking a park where we could slop down our Frita Batidos.  If we’d had more time before the gig I would’ve taken a nap in the hammock.

When I emailed Crazy Wisdom Bookstore & Tea Room in February I was just looking to get a feel for the place and see if we’d be a good fit, so I was surprised when Michelle replied and said they were booked through 2018 and started into 2019.  Damn, this must be a highly sought after gig – who books that far ahead?  I started looking elsewhere until she contacted me again a week later, saying she’d listened to the album, thought we’d fit in well and had spoken to the local guy who had the date we were after – he was willing to move his show to fill a cancellation she had later in the year, and that freed up this evening for us.  Class act, that one.  Between the booking fiasco and aforementioned performance contract with more than a dozen caveats we were cautiously optimistic but needn’t have worried.

The tea room is a cozy, bright space on the second floor overlooking the main drag, and Michelle greeted us warmly upon arrival to get us set up and couldn’t have been more helpful or nice.  We intentionally planned this stop before the fall arrival of MU students, as I imagine they’re every bit as fervent as our Penn State crowds in PA, which bode very well for our leisure time but not so much for the gig – Michelle had warned how thin the summer crowds could be, especially on nice nights and this one was damn near perfect.  Still, while not packed to the rafters we had a few folks who stayed for the majority & chatted during the set break, and we sold a few CDs.  Michelle offered to have us again anytime we’re willing to make the trip, which will give us a great excuse to go back for more Frita Batidos.  Overall a superb time where our only real inconvenience was supplying our own PA.  A gig as established as this one could probably benefit from having an in-house sound system but we had enough fun we’d lug ours back again.

The coffee was delicious but more beers were needed to quench our thirsts after a two hour set.  Unfortunately we chose Arbor Brewing just around the corner and regretted it almost immediately when for the third time, our simple desire to sit outside and drink a few beers in the summer air came rife with unnecessary complications.  For fuck’s sake, most of the restaurants in town offer outdoor seating, so why did it so often seem like they didn’t want us to sit there?  I understand maybe they want to save the tables for diners, afraid they won’t make much on a check of just a few beers but it was late, peak dining hours had passed and three of the four tables outside were open.  The hostess resentfully complied, and when we asked our waitress if anything less than a full pint was an option, she treated it as an imposition on par with asking for one of her kidneys.  The kicker through all of it was the one IPA was actually really good, and we wanted to take some home.  We’d seen a cooler just inside with six packs but that particular beer wasn’t in it, so we inquired about a growler: “I’m sorry but we don’t fill growlers with our higher alcohol beers.”  We doubled checked the ABV on the menu, and it was a little over 8%.  I’ve no idea what they found so offensive about two middle aged dudes who just wanted to sit quietly, drink beer and chat but it seemed they were actively working to get rid of us.  Fuck this place.

Since Arbor made it clear they had no interest in feeding us, we followed the light a few blocks up the street toward a large TAPAS sign, calling out to us like a beacon:  Eat!  Share!  Have a drink, outside on our patio without judgment!  Aventura is a bit upscale and it wouldn’t surprise me if their clientele is comprised largely of well-to-do professors and UM staff with too much money to spend but it’s got an authentic European feel and friendly staff WHO DIDN’T FUCKING COMPLAIN WHEN WE ASKED TO SIT OUTSIDE.  We practically had the patio to ourselves under the partial roof & string lights, and ordered up another cheese/cracker/jam/bread/vegetable menagerie, a few Spanish lagers and a glass of red wine, which our waitress brought in its own little carafe and poured into a glass at the table… again, the kind of elegant touch some stuffy conservative probably feels all self-important over but us salt of the earth types see as an extra dish that’s gonna need washed.  Nevertheless, a perfect late night snack and excellent way to end the evening.

After a fantastic nights’ sleep we enjoyed a heap of scrambled eggs, bacon & toast courtesy of Jeff at the Cadgwith Too.  He checked to make sure we didn’t need anything but gave us privacy and left us to check out at our leisure.  We’d have preferred to forego one of the more uninteresting drives in the country across Ohio on I-80 but I was hoping to make it home in time to catch the last baseball game of the season with my family in State College, and there were a few easy beer stops just off the highway.  Back in 2011 we stopped in Toledo en route to a wedding in South Dakota for lunch & beers at the Maumee Bay Brewpub, and our collective memories placed Toledo somewhere in the “filthy shithole” category.  Searching for the Black Cloister Brewery though, we found the downtown to have a weary, welcoming charm with new murals adorning the sides of historic buildings still bearing old storefront signs.

We arrived just as they were opening the doors (sorry to have been those guys; we really do try to avoid it whenever we can) and were welcomed into a large Abbey-style hall with sweeping arches and minimalist decor.  There was classic rock playing but the atmosphere easily evades the monotony of the brewpub 3 thanks to a few key touches in its large medieval style chandeliers and sprawling mural depicting historic war scenes interspersed with little pop culture blips like the Death Star.  We ordered up a Helles Angel lager & Pale Rider IPA and couldn’t even sit to drink them; the building dates back to the late 1800’s, it’s got soul in every nook & cranny and we couldn’t help but wander.  Tasty beers as well, this place is too cool.  Sometimes beers before noon are the best beers, especially on a rainy morning.

*Side Note* A guy from Toledo wrote to call me an asshole when I referred to his city as a cesspool after our 2011 visit… dude, I divided my time growing up between a ghetto in central Baltimore and a rural PA farm town where the locals went apeshit and offered thousands of dollars in reward money to apprehend some hooligans who tipped over Santa’s hut in our town square…. no actual vandalism was done, they just tipped it over.  I’ve still got a great deal of pride about both, yet I can’t help but laugh when someone makes a comment like “you grew up in Baltimore in the 80’s, how did you make it out alive?!”  The point: it’s obviously hard to pass judgement based on these little pocket stops, and rest assured any insulting words are more comedic effect than serious slander. 

I remember an old joke from the Drew Carey Show where he responded to someone’s insulting of Cleveland with “looks like somebody needs a trip to Youngstown for some perspective.”  Like much of the rust belt, time hasn’t been kind to Youngstown.  The burden is everywhere, in the burned out buildings, littered highways and lost, desperate looking souls wandering the side streets.  It looks a lot like our town.  There’s nothing like a visit to church to lift one’s spirits, however, and much like Church Brew Works in Pittsburgh, Noble Creature Cask House has taken the religion out of an old house of worship and replaced it with food & drink, something I find much easier to put my faith in (side note: Jared is quite devoted to his faith, and I’d never want anyone who finds their way to his blog from here to think otherwise… my heathen ways are my own).  Noble Creature is much smaller and more intimate than CBW, with lots of light coming in the stained glass windows and some pew seating in addition to long high top tables and traditional bar at the head of the room where the altar would’ve been (fitting, yes?).

They had a good selection of eight or nine beer styles & a few sandwiches listed on a chalkboard and since we weren’t in Ann Arbor anymore, we were welcomed to sit outside where they gladly delivered our muffaletta & Cuban sandwiches each with a healthy handful of chips.  The bartender even smiled while doing it!  I’ll be damned.  Food was simple but damn tasty, and the Bohemian Pilsener, IPA and saison were all flavorful & seasoned enough you’d never know they were a newer brewery.  Posters advertised live original music, DJs spinning punk, ska & new wave and bring-your-own-vinyl nights.  Do they have a scene here?  Shit.  We were hoping to chat with the bartender a bit about it but they were getting busy.  They have a nice stage at Black Cloister too; looks like a few shows over a long weekend in Ohio is something we should look into.

That, my friends, is all she wrote.  We did a three hour haul back to State College, where Jared dropped me off at Medlar Field at Lubrano park where I reunited with my family, we gorged ourselves on much sausage & beer and watched the State College Spikes lose the fourth home game we attended this season.  Post-game fireworks over the stadium while “Born to Run” played over the loudspeaker…  perfect end to a perfect weekend.

A few photos by Jared.  More to come.

Otto’s Pub & Brewery: a Quintessential Central PA Brewpub

October 11, 2016 § Leave a comment

Otto's

Photo pirated from elsewhere on the internet

It’s hard to believe it’s been over five years since I wrote a scathing review on Beer Advocate of the newly relocated Otto’s Pub & Brewery, just up the road from their former Atherton Street location on the outskirts of State College.  They’d just moved into the much larger Quaker Steak & Lube building, solving many of their problems (namely their parking issues) but abandoning the charm and quaintness of the smaller brewpub my wife and I had come to love over the years. I’m not typically averse to change and am more than happy for their success but the bigger, louder restaurant overloaded with big screen TVs and cocktails with names like Screaming Orgasm all read like just another sports bar rather than a unique independent.

Fast-forward to the present and we visit more often than ever.  It started as a quick and easy dinner option after our weekly grocery run to the nearby Wegman’s and Trader Joe’s plaza – after all, their beer was still top notch, if often limited to their flagships and single guest tap, presumably due to brewing constrictions caused by the big move.  The menu was also a fraction of what it had been but again, we assumed it would expand as they became more settled into the new digs.  Over time though, we realized we were visiting so often because we wanted to, not just for the convenient location.

It’s still got TVs everywhere and they’re often broadcasting sports I have no desire to watch while I eat but we’ve accepted we’re in the minority where that’s concerned (especially in State College where, as I’ve indicated elsewhere on this blog, they’re fanatical about football and prone to rioting over it… it’s likely a crime to not have TVs in your establishment to show PSU games).  But it’s also got enough going for it that the pros far outweigh the cons:

  • The beer is consistently great.  Their flagship brews are standouts, and make the most of everyday styles to please casual drinkers and aficionados alike. We’re not huge red ale fans but their Red Mo is a fantastic anytime drinker, and the Mount Nittany Pale Ale, Slab Cabin IPA and Double D DIPA are better than most.  Even their Spring Creek Vienna style lager is a solid representation of a style I don’t overly enjoy.  They have two casks that alternate bitters, IPAs and the ever-popular Jolly Roger Imperial Stout. Best of all, they started churning out a great assortment of seasonals and one-offs once their brewing operations were firing on all cylinders again, and they’ve been better than ever.  Their Apple Tripel, Schwarzbier, Hefeweizen, Ottonator and Winter Warmer variations are all beers we look forward to each year.  There’s even a house-made root beer.
  • The food is as consistently great, and comes fast even during peak dining hours. The menu changes seasonally but maintains a number of “Otto’s Favorites” items like the cobb salad, beef on weck, black bean burrito (with optional chicken, steak, shrimp or pulled pork but equally delicious vegetarian style) buffalo mac ‘n cheese and beer brined smoked chicken. They also added wood fired pizza with a half dozen pies to the regular menu and a special to accompany their weekly features (my personal favorite: chorizo romesco manchego with red onion and roasted red peppers).
  • Much of the menu is locally sourced, a plus in any restaurant (and not a “hipster thing” as I’ve heard it referred to in my small-minded small town… eating local and fresh supports your community’s economy and is better for you… it’s just good sense). There’s a bulletin board in the lobby with a list of local vendors they utilize, everything from Hog’s Galore farm in Philipsburg to State College’s own Gemelli Bakery.
  • Their kids’ menu beats the shit out of every kids’ menu you’ve ever seen. Criticize Jamie Oliver and his annoying accent all you want but having something for kids other than chicken strips and fries ain’t a bad idea. Otto’s offers salmon with lemon herb butter, pasta from local Fasta & Ravioli company, quesadillas with cheese or beans and mini wood fired pizzas next to classics like PB&J and yes, chicken fingers, though they can grill them instead of frying.  $5 buys an entree plus a side (chips & fresh salsa, whipped potatoes, jasmine rice, apple slices, carrots & dip, among others), a drink and a warm chocolate chip cookie for mom & dad to split on the way home (before you call me a monster: our kid gets babysat by his grandparents all week and is fed ice cream and sweets on a daily basis.  Plus, we paid for the dinner… the damn cookie is ours).
  • They train their staff extremely well.  From the hostesses to the bartenders we’ve never had anyone be remotely rude to us, and most are exceptionally friendly.  The wait staff are keen to talk up their pub club benefits but have never been pushy about it.  Even the cooks working the pizza oven are more than accommodating when Enzo insists on staring, mesmerized by the fire and the assembly of pies.
  • Live music and entertainment: though I don’t believe we’ve actually seen a band here (if we’re in SC for weekend music we’re usually downtown to catch one of our friends’ bands at Zeno’s or the Darkhorse), I’m a fan of anywhere that supports live, local music.  It’s the folk, blues and Americana that typically accompanies a brewpub atmosphere and that’s not a bad thing. On select Sundays they have a magician that walks the dining room, though he won’t make you feel bad if you politely refuse his services because your kid’s just not ready for that yet (Enzo’s tendency to stare blankly at the unfamiliar would probably just bum the guy out).
  • The gift shop:  They’ve got every style beer glass imaginable, each imprinted with the name and logo of the corresponding Otto’s beer.  Shirts in all colors and sizes, growlers & caddies, beer-infused soaps, shampoos, chocolates and other assorted confections, and a Pennsylvania-centric takeout beer selection.  It’s the perfect gift shop for regulars and out-of-towners alike.
  • Firkin Friday: every Friday at 5:00 they tap a fresh cask, usually one of their flagships that’s been dry hopped with different varieties, or something more experimental.  They’re even priced slightly less than one of their regular pints, ensuring that they’ll go quickly – it’s usually kicked within the hour.
  • Everything is fairly priced. Dinner for the three of us plus a round of beers is usually between $30-35.  Ordering a 1/2 price pizza on Sundays makes it cheaper yet.

Otto’s doesn’t have the best of everything. I prefer Selinsgrove Brewery’s chili, Riepstine’s Alpha Deuce IPA and Elk Creek Cafe’s atmosphere to any of Otto’s counterparts, but they strike an impeccable balance of everything we enjoy.  In a region inundated with great options, Otto’s satisfies on all levels, and is somewhere I’d take an out-of-town visitor to without hesitation every time.  If they had one dining area without any damn TVs, they’d be better yet.

Keuka Lake, NY

August 1, 2016 § Leave a comment

May’s weekend in the Finger Lakes with my wife was my fourth trek to the region in the last six months, lending more credibility to the notion that it’s like a second home.  It’s not drastically different from central PA, full of beautiful wide open spaces and stunning glimpses into nature with an abundance of available outdoor recreation, so it’s really a testament to the fine food & beer that we’re willing to make the drive so often.  Lake Seneca has been our go-to for many years and it was hard to imagine visiting the area without hitting all of our favorites, but discovering just how good Prison City Pub & Brewery is on Man Voyage in April gave us proper motivation to explore elsewhere.  It was about damn time to head slightly west of the norm and explore Lake Keuka’s brewery scene.

We found Brewery of Broken Dreams just outside of Hammondsport, a short drive down one of those back roads that looks like it doesn’t lead anywhere.  Nestled in the basement of a historic stone country house, the tasting room features a cozy corner fire place, a few seats and a long wooden bar.  One of two kind and knowledgeable bartenders welcomed us promptly despite being fairly busy and offered a tasting of any six beers for $5 ($6 to keep the glass, which we did).  It’s a bold move for any brewery to not have an IPA on tap but we didn’t mind at all.  Most were lower in ABV but quite flavorful, our favorites being New Moon (dunkel weizen style), Floating Leaf (brown porter, very unique take on the style) and the Wise (old ale).  We paid $1 extra to sample an additional special draft of Triskaidekaphobia, a strong ale brewed with 13 ingredients exclusively for Friday the 13th and not available for takeout due to its limited quantity, so of course it was my favorite. There is no food available but they encourage you to BYOS (bring your own snacks).  We purchased a growler to bring home the Wise ale – we don’t need another in our collection but couldn’t resist the crying loon logo.

The turnoff for County Road 76 leading up the trail isn’t well marked or particularly inviting so we mistakenly drove alongside the lake on Rt 54A for 10 minutes before we realized it wasn’t going anywhere, wondering how much some of the lakeside properties sell for despite their dilapidated states.  We backtracked and enjoyed a much nicer view when we caught up with the trail en route to Steuben Brewing, a family-run farm brewery in Hammondsport. The unassuming shed-like outward appearance gives way to an inviting albeit loud and somewhat cramped tasting room and spacious back deck with a sprawling view of the lake.  Coco’s Cafe Food Truck was parked next to the back deck and offers a nice array of burgers, sandwiches and snacks.  We had a few sliders (chicken & turkey) and split an order of sweet potato fries with honey mustard, all for about $10 and more than enough for lunch. They also advertised Pale Ale Cupcakes made with Steuben beer we later regretted not trying.

The beer listings were a bit chaotic, in three different places on two separate chalk boards, confusing us as to what was available.  To be fair though, they were extremely busy and it would have been a challenge to keep everything promptly updated. Someone tended to me immediately and was more than helpful, setting us up with a four beer sampler of NY Pils, Hometown Brown ale, Double IPA and Belgian Blonde. They brew everything with at least 20% New York malt and hops and it’s all got that small batch freshness to it, the Double IPA in particular standing out.  I see old fashioned popcorn carts popping up (bad pun absolutely intended) in more breweries and Steuben is no exception, offering up a fresh batch just in time for a post-lunch snack. A duo was prepping for live music just as we were leaving, to the sound of some drunk moron repeatedly yelling out for “Truckin'”.  Real original dude, I’ve definitely never heard that song before.  At least wait for them to finish setting up before yelling out your absurdly cliched requests.

Abandon Brewing had our favorite atmosphere all weekend.  A big converted and weatherproofed barn done up with string lights, resting on a sizeable farm with a view of their hop vine trellises on one side (naked this time of year) and the lake on the other.  There’s also a large pavilion and deck outside though the cold weather prevented us from enjoying either of those.  The tasting room inside has a nice wraparound bar, plenty of picnic tables for shared seating and is all watched over by a resident yellow lab, making the rounds and hoping for complimentary peanut scraps to be dropped.  They tempted us with way too many delicious sounding beers, forcing us to pay for two samples in addition to our flight of six.  Nice variety of styles, divided into flagship and Woodshed (special & seasonal) drafts, and a heavy focus on Belgians:  Peppercorn saison, Belgian Golden Strong, Abbey Ale and Belgian Rye were among our favorites, though the Black Rye IPA and Berliner Weiss stood out as well.  I was debating the last beer to finish assembling our sampler when someone approached me and strongly suggested I get the porter.  It was less a suggestion and more a forceful demand, practically bullying me into choosing it, arguing that it’s “the best beer I’ve ever tasted and you’d be a damn fool not to get it.”  It was a perfectly good porter but nothing about it made me feel my life would be more empty if I hadn’t tried it.  Way to oversell it, guy.

We made our way into Penn Yan and checked into the Colonial Motel for a change of clothes before dinner. They stole my wife’s heart immediately with their resident feline, greeting us upon check in and roaming the office.  Simple digs and much of the furniture is dated (save for the newly remodeled bathroom) but as per usual, we don’t care.  It’s quiet and clean, the owner is friendly and there’s a killer view of the lake from the shared porch.  There’s also a stone patio out front with lounge chairs and our queen room included a kitchenette, all for under $100 without the required two night minimum so many hotels in this region require, even in the off season.

We stopped at LyonSmith Brewing in downtown Penn Yan before heading to Geneva for dinner.  I couldn’t pass up a brewery specializing in beers of the United Kingdom, some of my favorite styles.  LyonSmith is fittingly located in a basement on a revitalized section of Water Street downtown, and does well to capture the vibe of a UK pub while putting their own spin on things.  Interestingly enough the owner shared with us his choice to focus on these particular styles didn’t come from an inspirational visit to the UK but rather a desire for consistancy: most breweries offer a worldly range of ales & lagers, inevitably experimenting with a Belgian style or two, etc. While I’ll never complain about variety, these styles are their forte and LyonSmith is dedicated to perfecting them.  We’d done a fair amount of tasting already, still had dinner and late-night cocktails to get to so we settled for splitting a pint of Rylie pale ale, and I was immediatley reminded of the great beers we enjoyed on tour throughout the UK & Ireland the previous year.  The English bands on the sound system were a nice touch (the Pogues and Madness in particular). LyonSmith chose their specialty well; I only wish we’d had time for more.

We didn’t expect Kindred Fare to be located in a strip mall, though that tainted its mystique only until we stepped inside.  Expansive but minimally decorated with brick and aged barn wood, it’s an inviting space if slightly noisy.  The hostess offered us two seats at the counter with a view of the kitchen, which I’ve always been leery of, wondering how the staff feels about customers watching their every move but she talked us into it.  Just after we placed our drink order one of the cooks slid us a few complimentary slices of tasty ramp flatbread, effectively killing my concern for the kitchen staff’s feelings in lieu of getting free stuff.  The southern style half chicken satisfied my weekly fried chicken craving with an upscale touch of hot honey sauce and jalapenos.  My wife enjoyed her salmon as well.  The craft cocktail menu was temping but I chose one of the pre-fixed “Tap & Spirit” pairings, with a 10 oz local beer and local spirit for $8 (Naked Dove doppelbock and Myer Farm rye whiskey).  The bill wasn’t cheap but definitely worth the splurge.

It was dark by the time we arrived in downtown Geneva, after a quick coffee at a nearby Tim Horton’s, the Dunkin Donuts of Canada… alas, there was no better coffee to be found. Lake Drum Brewing specializes in sours and ciders, spins vinyl on a turntable behind the bar (they also decorate with it) and has a dim, enticing atmosphere I’m sure we would have enjoyed more another night.  This one, however, was marred by an overly boisterous group of the bar’s regular patrons, dressed to the nines like they just came from a crowning ceremony for the Douchebag-of-the-Month award at some pretentious country club, throwing elbows and crowding everyone else out of getting served, several of them shouting “What are all of these people doing in OUR bar?  This is OUR bar!”  By the time I wedged in to order I picked a sour and cider at random, neither of which were memorable but several selections are guest taps, so they might not have even been theirs. Bars get crowded and sometimes your only option is to stand and get bumped into, but it’s another thing entirely when the locals are visibly unhappy with your presence and trying their damndest to force you out… mission accomplished, you bunch of asshats.  None of that is Lake Drum’s fault but I’d only give it a second go-around early enough in the day to avoid another shitstorm like that.  Here’s hoping it’s not a regular thing.

The next morning we headed east to hit the Ithaca Farmer’s Market, a fixture on our visits here we weren’t about to forego just because we were on another lake. Most farmer’s markets are pretty similar but there’s something special about Ithaca – probably just my sentimental side recalling the many visits with my wife early in our relationship but I enjoy this one more than most. Sure, there are a few pitfalls: the parking is a complete pain in the ass and the stench of patchouli occasionally overwhelms the nostrils when a particularly potent hippie walks by, but the grounds are stunning with hand painted benches and a roomy pier outside. Folk/bluegrass musicians setup throughout the pavilions, which host vendors offering everything from fresh fruits & vegetables to meats & cheeses, wine & ciders, art, crafts and pottery and a delicious array of ethnic food.  We’re often unformfortably full after squeezing in Khmer Angkor Cambodian, Thai Palace, a cuban sandwich, falafel, Dennis’ Homemade Ice Cream, apple cider donuts and/or any number of other things.  The pièce de résistance, and a reason in itself for us to drive 2.5 hours to the market is the breakfast burrito at Solaz.  It’s easy to find – just look for the longest line.  I’ve no idea what they do to make it so magical but it’s hands down the best breakfast burrito I’ve ever eaten, including anything I’ve had in the southwest.  I could go on but I don’t want to oversell it the way that guy did with the Abandon porter.

The Ithaca Commons is a pedestrian mall, recently renovated with all new landscaping & local art and occasionally featuring street vendors and performers.  It’s full of unique shops but we go mainly for Petrune and Angry Mom Records.  Petrune is a vintage boutique carrying clothing and accessories dating back to the Victorian era alongside vintage style reproductions.  Among my favorite items I’ve found are my 1960’s brown houndstooth tweed jacket ($30 in  near mint condition) and a wooden sea captain hand-carved in Italy, whom we named Ciro and put in my son’s nursery sophisticated young gentleman’s room.  Prices are fair, especially given their location and they’re usually spinning decent tunes (early 60’s Atlantic Records soul interspersed with Phil Collins and Hall & Oates?  It’s like they stole my iPod).

Speaking of decent tunes, Angry Mom carries on the tradition of fine record stores like the ones depicted in movies like High Fidelity, Pretty in Pink and Empire Records, and written about on the Aging Cynic.  If you were lucky enough to grow up in the glory days of these establishments and they weren’t among your favorite places to be, you obviously lack good taste and kindly click here to go spend time among your own kind. There aren’t many of these places left to sift through a dozen haphazardly organized 7″ records out of sheer boredom, buy a used CD for $4 because the liner notes are slightly warped (Night Marchers’ See You in Magic) or discover a new band playing over the sound system and immediately march to the counter to ask who it is and what aisle you can find it in (the Neanderthals’ Latest Menace to the Human Race).  I struggle to remember which day is trash day but memories like that are vivid as they come.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve said it: patronize and cherish these places before they’re gone for good and Amazon is all we have left.

The only thing I enjoy shopping for as much as vintage clothing and records is alcohol, and Finger Lakes Beverage is among the finest purveyors of the elixir of the gods (beer only, but it takes nearly an hour to get out of the place as it is… liquor and wine would make it an all-day affair).  The beauty of FLB is in both their selection and availability: hundreds of craft beers from all over the world are neatly organized by region and able to be purchased by the case, six-pack or single bottle.  If that’s not enough there are a dozen draft beers for growler fills, bombers and glassware, snacks and soda.  We typically do a mix of singles bottles, leave with a case’s worth (including a few bombers) and spend between $50-60.  The staff has always been knowledgeable and friendly, quick to answer questions or make suggestions.  One of the finest beer outlets I’ve come across anywhere.

Ithaca Beer Company has exploded in recent years, growing exponentially and constantly being distributed to new markets as a result.  I’m either showing my age or sounding like some dumb hipster but we’ve been visiting long enough to remember its former location in a one-room building just off of Rt. 13 (now Green Tree Garden Supply), manned by a lone bartender and offering free tours pretty much whenever you wanted them.  Many was the time we’d be the only ones in the place, chatting about beer, listening to Hank Williams and sampling everything on tap while mulling over our purchases.  The times they are a-changin’, and while we miss the simplistic charm of the former location it’s largely been for the better.  They built a massive brewery & warehouse down the hill behind the old building and added a full bar and restaurant. The beer is as good as it’s ever been (though we’re both bitter about the apparent discontinuation of our two favorites, spring seasonal Ground Break and winter seasonal Cold Front), and like any good brewpub they feature a few draft only selections in the bar. We shared a few Belgian Golden ales and cask IPAs with locally sourced and seasonal (of course) cheddar burger and garden pizza.  A damn good lunch that more than filled us up for the ride home.

They need to build bridges across these lakes.  It’s going to get harder to decide which direction to take our day trips in if we keep discovering worthwhile places on each one.  Guess we’ll just have to take them more often.

Man Voyage IV: NY & Ontario

April 29, 2016 § 5 Comments

This being the fourth year, I’m struggling to come up with new introductions for Man Voyage.  The destination may change each year but it’s always about two friends hitting the open road to eat, drink and take stock of our lives. Read the full manifesto here and click the “Navigation” tab to read previous entries.  In the meantime, we’ll get right to the good stuff from this year’s trip through the Finger Lakes & upstate New York, the 1000 Islands and Prince Edward County, Ontario.

We stopped for a quick lunch at Grist Iron Brewing Company, in the very familiar Finger Lakes region of New York.  We spend so much time here for shows and day trips it’s a sort of second home, and we were anxious to try Seneca Lake’s newest brewpub again.  This was Jared’s second visit, my third and we appreciate it more each time.  The Front Porch IPA is better than I remembered (stronger too, at 9% ABV) and the Big “O” Organic Smash pale ale is the best beer I’ve had from them yet. Southwest mac ‘n cheese and a hot cup of chicken mushroom soup rounded out a nice lunch, and that elevated view of Lake Seneca never gets old. Our bartender was very knowledgeable of their brews and told us about upcoming expansion plans to add a bigger outdoor space for live music and overhead protection from any inclement weather.  Grist Iron is such a great addition to the flourishing brewery scene up here.

I-81 N would’ve gotten us to Wood Boat Brewery in Clayton, NY about 30 minutes earlier but we opted for the gorgeous lakeside drive of Rt 3.  The water was obscured by trees for a good while but once it opened up, that view made it hard to focus on the road.  Clayton is a waterfront town on the cusp of the 1000 Islands in upstate NY, small and quaint with an antique boat museum and general fascination with watercraft, fitting given its location.  Wood Boat is no exception, adorning every surface with vintage boat signage and memorabilia.  Not necessarily our thing but their commitment to the theme is commendable.  Their spacious outdoor deck provides a good view of the waterfront (just a block away) and would’ve been ideal for dining if it’d been less windy and just a bit warmer. Music is subtly pumped through a few outdoor speakers – mostly overplayed classic rock, but that’s our nitpick.

It feels very much like a neighborhood place; most of the other patrons were locals but that’s not to say it wasn’t inviting.  Our waitress was quick and attentive, applauding us for choosing the two best beers on the menu (IPA and oatmeal stout).  The brick pizza oven has an opening on the bar so they get pushed right out when they’re done. Our personal pizzas (sausage & pineapple, pulled pork & coleslaw) were fantastic and big enough we took a few slices to go. Clayton might be a short detour en route to the 1000 Islands but it’s definitely worth the stop.  The best part of their commitment to the theme?  The pizzas are shaped like boats.

Crossing the border at Wellesley Island is much faster than Niagara Falls.  There were four lanes open and our agent waved us through after a few routine questions.  Once again we opted for the scenic lakeside Route 2 over the quicker 401 – it was much too nice of a day to spend looking at nothing but highway traffic.  We arrived in Kingston, found the Confederation Place Hotel on Ontario Street with relative ease, nestled our car into their underground parking lot and ventured up to our fifth floor lake view room for a quick change of clothes.  I didn’t realize when I booked online that the hotel is owned by a chain (Howard Johnson’s maybe?  I saw it posted in the lobby but can’t remember) so technically we broke our ‘go local’ rule, but at $63 for a lake view room two blocks from our gig that evening it was hard to care.  The underground parking was $15 extra and if we hadn’t had the gig gear to haul we probably would’ve researched other nearby options. The room was clean & quiet, the bed was comfortable and the shower was hot… all Man Voyage hotel needs met.

We had a round of pre-gig beers at Stone City Ales downtown, where we experienced our first minor hiccup.  Upon entering we were greeted by a friendly gal at the walk-up counter who asked what she could get us.  Next to the counter is a partition with a clear glass door leading into the bar and seating area – every state/country/province has their own set of strange liquor laws so naturally we assumed that, for whatever reason, we had to order our beer here and take it into the bar.  We ordered an Uncharted IPA and Single Simcoe IPA, she handed us two bombers and told us to have a nice day.  We asked if we could have them opened for consumption at the bar and she looked at us like we were mental patients… yes ma’am, we are from out of town. Turns out we should’ve just walked through the clear glass door in the first place. We had a round in the bar and took our bombers home with us; not so much a minor hiccup but rather a dumb mistake that resulted in more beer.  Everybody wins.

It was a short walk to Musiikki Cafe, an excellent coffee/whiskey bar and even more excellent gig.  Owner Chris and sound man Alex welcomed us upon arrival, concocted a plan for me to play my solo set unplugged in the window front downstairs then move to the 2nd floor stage for the Echo & Sway later in the evening.  The bar downstairs blends an extensive combination of coffee and cafe staples (espresso, lattes, americanos, etc) with whiskies of all qualities, though I did spy several top shelf brands and a few that were unfamiliar to me.  They’ve also got other spirits and mixers for a small selection of cocktails, and a weekly discounted whiskey feature – this week it was J.P. Wiser’s Hopped, dry hopped in the same fashion as an IPA.  A harmonious blend of whiskey and beer properties, it was quite tasty but would probably be just an occasional sipper for me.  Band members are allotted two free drinks each, and I spent mine on a top-notch Old Fashioned and a bottled blonde ale by a Canadian micro I can’t remember.  Jared went with two of the Hopped whiskies, neat… classy guy, that one.

The performance space upstairs is equally stellar, with a small stage at the head of an elongated room.  Interesting side story: one of the cafe’s regular performers was carrying a cello on his back when he was hit by a car.  The cello was destroyed beyond repair, but saved his life in the process.  He donated it to Musiikki, who made it a stage backdrop with orange lights strung throughout. There’s also a chandelier of sorts fashioned from an old wooden door, freshly painted and affixed with small lanterns. The room is lit almost exclusively by those two pieces during showtime.  There’s also a wall for bands to sign and a single keg with a local pilsner on tap.

The gig was superb.  I had a loyal crowd for my solo set and several who stuck around after (namely Kevin and Julie, who sat with us) to chat about our tunes and travels, and life in Kingston.  The crowd fluctuated upstairs for the TE&S part of the evening, many coming and going but seated and attentive in between.  As our set was winding down we were flooded with a large group who not only insisted we continue, but with more original songs no less. Sore fingers and hoarse throats notwithstanding, we’d have been damn foolish to ignore a request like that.

We hung around awhile to mingle and enjoy another round of drinks. We shared stories of traversing the UK with a group of English girls and talked about everything under the sun at warp speed with a particularly fiery Aussie named Christine, who bought us a round of cocktails and proceeded to drink all three of them herself.  Our new friends directed us to Mr. Donair for late night eats, where we assembled a massive platter of poutine topped with tzatziki & sweet sauces, cucumbers, peppers and extra cheese.  Likely a terrible idea come morning, but bordering on genius in the moment.  We retired to our room exhausted but grateful for such an evening.  Unique spaces and fun audiences like this beat the shit out of nightclubs and run-of-the-mill bars any day, and are reasons in and of themselves for independent artists to play music and tour.

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We awoke refreshed and not nearly as digestively screwed as we’d anticipated following our poutine bomb.  After a quick toast & juice breakfast at the hotel we headed back to Musiikki for our morning espresso.  There were a half dozen other cafes downtown but we wanted to take a better look at some of the local art on their walls and patronize them again for giving us such a great gig.  Jared chatted beans and roasting with the morning barista and we grabbed some local literature before moving on.  I’m overstating it for a reason: Musiikki is too fucking cool.  We picked up some gifts and assorted nerdery at Novel Idea Books and Kingston Gaming Nexus before heading out. These stores seem to be thriving and it’s always nice to chat with small business owners in other towns. As always: shop local, folks.

After another beautiful waterfront drive along Rt. 33 we arrived at MacKinnon Brothers Brewing in Bath, a wonderfully chaotic little farm brewery and tasting room. We’d no idea where to go once in the parking area but we wandered the grounds, observing the brewing area and gorgeous rural setting until we spied a small shed with a bar and handmade stools inside.  The bartender couldn’t have been friendlier as she began pouring us samples of Crosscut Canadian ale, 8 Man English pale, Red Fox summer ale (brewed with a touch of beet juice, giving it a nice red hue), Origin German-style Hefeweizen and Wild peppermint stout.  Not a bad one in the bunch. One of the brothers came in and joined us for a full beer simply because “it’s Friday, and it’s lunchtime.”  Can’t argue with logic like that.

We could’ve used their new fully functioning bathroom facilities if we’d arrived two days later, but the roadside port a potty with resident farm dog chaperone suited us just fine.  We took home a few small growlers (Origin and Wild) and a set of coasters handmade from tree branches on their property and imprinted with their logo.  It was a beautiful start to the day.

I’m not sure I’d ever ridden on a ferry before this and I’m positive I’d never driven onto one.  We envisioned it being much more of a pain in the ass but the Glenora Ferry was smooth sailing all the way; the best option from Bath to Prince Edward County, and the most scenic.  It’s free and departs the end of Rt. 33 (Loyalist Parkway) every half hour.  Once the boat was in motion we got out to walk around and snap some pictures.  The ride was only a few minutes but it beat just sitting in the car.  Once we docked the gates opened and we picked up Rt. 33 on the other side.  I’d love it if this were a part of my daily commute.

We’d planned to make the Inn at Lake on the Mountain part of the beer tour before discovering they wouldn’t be open for the season until May 1st. Disappointing but the mystery of the lake itself is interesting and the view is even better.  We made our way into Picton for a snack and round of beers at County Canteen, a cozy little spot on the main drag with hardwood floors and exposed brick inside, and a small patio with funky lanterns and string lights out front.  Vegetarian rice paper rolls with peanut dipping sauce were great alongside a Muskoka IPA and Flying Monkeys Pilsner, and they had a nice enough variety of Canadian microbrew on tap we likely would’ve stayed for a few more if there weren’t many more attractive looking places to stop that day.  Our waitress/bartender was sweet but we found it odd when she told us they “don’t start giving out our WiFi password until peak season.”  Seems like an odd policy but whatever.  We bought a few gifts for our boys at Books & Company two doors down and made use of theirs while petting the resident bookstore cat.

A few short miles (well, kilometers) down the road was Barley Days Brewery, housed in what appears to be a small airplane hangar painted up like an old barn. We stayed longer than we’d planned thanks to a generous bartender who let us try everything though we only paid for one sampler (four liberal pours for $1, a damn good deal in itself), and a patron who wanted to chat with us while downing a few pints of cherry porter himself.  Their dark beers were among my favorites, particularly the Ursa Major Black IPA and Scrimshaw Oyster Stout.  Others could take a lesson in brewing with maple syrup: I find most in the style too sickeningly sweet and despite many reviews suggesting their Sugar Shack ale is the same, I found it perfectly balanced between bitter and sweet. The gift shop is loaded with local food items we were tempted to take home but weren’t sure what we could legally get through customs, though we did buy a bottle of hot sauce made by the bartender as part of a side business.  Two of the friendliest people we met, she even offered to call ahead to our next stop to make sure they were still open. Ahh, the perks of traveling in the off season.

We should have had her call 66 Gilead Distillery because he was locking up when we got there.  The grounds are beautiful, on a farm with some antique accents and animals running around.  In keeping with the generosity we’d experienced in Ontario thus far, he gladly opened back up to give us a few samples and talk in great detail about the ingredients and making of each of their spirits.  He really knows his stuff as we got a pamphlet’s worth of information on each one.  The Crimson Rye whiskey and Loyalist Gin were great and I was contemplating a purchase until I saw the price list. I’m obviously not averse to spending decent money on well-made liquor but with the money I’d already spent (and intended to spend) on alcohol this trip, between $50-$70 for a single bottle was a bit much. If Jared hadn’t already intended on buying vodka I probably would’ve sprung for something just to thank the guy for opening back up.  Next time I’ll ease up on beer and fit one of their spirits into my budget.

Our first of two food disappointments this trip was missing out on Terracello Winery. They’re rumored to have fantastic red wine and pizza that rivals Italy and we’d only eaten the spring rolls at County Canteen thus far.  Their advertised hours were 12-6, and I even emailed ahead to make sure they’d be open since it’s not peak season, which they confirmed.  We arrived shortly before 5:00 on Friday and they were closed, with nobody in sight.  It’s understandable that they’d quit early if things were slow but it still sucked.  Jared grew tired of me bitching about wanting pizza so he fished our Wood Boat leftovers out of the back.

It was about an hours’ drive to Gananoque Brewing Company in downtown Gananoque, not far from the border.  We were hungry after missing out on Terracello pizza (look Jared, I’m still griping about it) but couldn’t pass up one last Ontario brewery.  We’d had so much remarkable brew and the Gan was no exception.  Jared went in while I parked our car on a nearby street and I arrived a few minutes later to find him already sipping on a canned Bell Ringer IPA, also on draft but on a faulty tap line. I ordered a Coopershawk pale ale and we kicked back in their picture window seats, lined with comfortable cushions and pillows. Their were spent grain and hop pellets all over the floor and a perfect view of the brewing action, directly behind the bar with nothing to separate them but some kegs and stacks of malt bags.  We chatted about ‘Murica with a few locals at the bar before raiding the fridge for some takeout cans of IPA, Naughty Otter lager and Black Bear Bock. The bartender comped our round of beers to make up for the faulty draft IPA, which was incredibly generous considering it didn’t affect my beer at all.  We shoved the last of our Canadian money in her tip jar and left wondering if everyone in this country is as friendly as all of the wonderful people we’d met in the previous 24 hours.

Border patrol was a bit more harsh on our way back through.  “Why would you drive SIX HOURS from Pennsylvania to only spend ONE NIGHT in Ontario?  What were you DOING up here?!”  Just doing his job but still a bit unnerving.

I’d never stayed in a bed & breakfast until our UK tour last year, when we wanted to splurge for a nice stay in Worcester and all of the boutique hotels were either booked or overpriced.  Staying in someone’s house and socializing with other guests when I’m usually a grumpy asshole in the morning never sounded too appealing, but we took a chance and were pleasantly surprised.  Sackets Harbor B&B was more of the same: a big house on a quiet street owned by a nice couple who didn’t make two scruffy young hooligans feel out of place.  They welcomed us late at night, coordinated a time for breakfast, gave us a key for the front door and sent us out for dinner, asking only that we not make a ton of noise if we got back too late.  We were the first guests of the season and had the place to ourselves.

The Hops Spot and Sackets Harbor Brewing Company are located side-by-side, two blocks away on the main street downtown.  The former is supposed to have dynamite food so we’d planned on dinner & drinks there and additional beer at SHBC afterward. Again, advertised hours until 10, and we arrived at 9:00 to a closed building (only now when I’m checking the website do I see “RE-OPENING APRIL 27, 2016” … damn these places with seasonal hours).  Better than Terracello, that was at least posted online and we just didn’t see it.

SHBC was extremely hit or miss.  Per the instructions at the host station, we wandered into the bar to be seated for dinner but couldn’t find a bartender anywhere.  We only saw people drinking until we realized the bartender was one of them, nestled in a far corner sharing rounds with patrons.  We paid no attention, as sipping a bit on duty is both a perk and part of the job.  After five solid minutes though, we tired of waiting so we seated ourselves at a table, then waited another 10 for her to bring menus and take our drink order.  She was a sweet gal but also flat out drunk. She had difficulty focusing her eyes and began slurring her words. I wouldn’t care how much she’d had if she could still function but it took her a ridiculous amount of time to check on tables, as she rarely left her corner of the bar.

All of the waiting wouldn’t have mattered if the beer and food were exceptional but much of it was pretty ordinary.  They have an atmosphere and feel that cater to locals but the quality of a tourist brewpub.  1000 Islands pale, St. Stephens Stout and Barstool Bitters were decent but underwhelming, as were Jared’s seafood chowder and fish tacos.  I will praise their willingness to cook a rare burger – my Adirondack with bacon, cheese and apple slices had a good amount of blood in it and was damn tasty. I’ll assume the excessive imbibing and subsequent inattentiveness from the bartender isn’t a regular thing and I certainly won’t fault them for the overabundance of obnoxious popped collar frat boys because brewpubs attract all different types of clientele.  The atmosphere is cozy and inviting but I expected a little more from a place that, as I discovered via Liquid Alchemy‘s review, has been around since 1995 (Side note: read Liquid Alchemy’s review.  He has many positive things to say about SHBC and per the comment the owner left on this page, it sounds like we visited on an off night.  I’ll definitely give it another go next time I’m in the area.).  

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We had a hell of a good night’s sleep and piping hot showers the following morning at the B&B.  We were also in bed by around midnight so we could get a decent nights’ sleep and still make our 8:00 breakfast time.  Fruit, cereal, juice, freshly baked banana bread and made-to-order eggs and bacon all made a great breakfast.  Mary and her husband were kind hosts who made us feel welcome to socialize while granting us our own space.  Everything was very casual.

We’d planned to walk off our breakfast via the self-guided tour along the hiking trails at Sackets Harbor Battlefield State Historic Site, a block away from the B&B. It began that way until we wandered down by the water and discovered a more scenic, if much more precarious and possibly illegal trek on some jagged rocks underneath an outcropping of cliffs.  We walked until a blockage kept us from going any farther, both of us narrowly dodging several spills into the frigid water as we stepped on the slipperier rocks. There were no signs we couldn’t take the walk though it was certainly off the beaten path.

Weedsport in the northernmost reaches of the Finger Lakes is a small town that time hasn’t been kind to.  Strongly reminiscent of our once booming lumber region of central PA now a shell of its former self, much of Weedsport looks like a ghost town. Many of the buildings downtown are worn and decrepit with empty storefronts, but the same way local favorites like Avenue Coffee and Broken Axe Brew House have helped to revitalize our downtown, I imagine Lunkenheimer Craft Brewing Company is breathing some new life into this one. Located unassumingly behind the Old Erie restaurant on the main drag, Lunkenheimer houses a small brewing operation behind what looks to be a handmade wooden bar and draft system, accented with growlers from other NY state breweries. We grabbed a six beer sampler for $5 and planted ourselves at a table outside – we wanted to chat with the bartender but it was just too damn nice out.  None of the beers blew us away but were all decent enough, the Hoppy Little Kolsch being a favorite and very easy drinker while sitting in the sun. Seems like a place with a lot of potential that I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again in a few years, once they’ve developed their craft a bit more and Weedsport hopefully has more to its downtown than a vape shop.

A 15 minute countryside drive south, Auburn has some nice brick streets, boutique stores and  the original Genesee beer sign in its downtown.  They’ve also got Prison City Pub & Brewery, another relatively new addition to the area serving beer so damn good they tailored the food menu to their brewer’s selections.  It’s hearty fare: burgers, sandwiches and the like, with some small plates and appetizers to share. The pork belly tacos with house-made kimchi & avocado lime sauce were my favorite meal of the weekend.  Jared had a lighter lunch of everything pretzels with queso sauce & beer mustard and while everything was delicious, the focus really is on the beer.  The berliner weisse has made a stateside resurgence in the past several years and while my favorite of the style is still Nodding Head (Philadelphia), Prison City’s Klink was tart and refreshing.  The Bleek Warden Belgian strong pale and 4 Piece pale were both sessionable enough to enjoy a few pints but still packed with flavor.

They really went all out with their theme, an effort we always appreciate. From the lock & key logo to their wall of mugshots for pub club members, the prison details are ever-present.  Our waiter was unbelievably friendly, apologizing for our two minute wait and hustling to take great care of seemingly every table in the place by himself with occasional help from the bartenders.  Prison City is fantastic and I only wish it were closer to the Watkins Glen/Hector/Lodi areas we frequent so we could include it on every trip.  We got a later start than planned thanks to our impromptu hike in Sackets Harbor so we passed up Good Shepherd Brewing Company, just a few blocks away.  Next time.

We walked a few blocks north to the Thirsty Pug Craft Beer Market, located in the Genesee Mall.  The mission statement on their website reads:

Here at the Thirsty Pug, beer is our passion. We carry only the best craft beer available and promise you’ll always leave with a great product. Our constantly growing and rotating inventory ensures a fresh and diverse selection. Our knowledgeable staff is happy to assist you with beer selection, food pairings and even designing your own beer tastings at home! Come explore the complex, diverse world of beer and experience the Thirsty Pug advantage.  

They couldn’t have chosen truer words to run their business by.  I’ve no idea if the guy working was the owner or just an employee but he was ecstatic to be talking beer with some locals when we walked in and shifted the conversation to us when they left. Thirsty Pug has a killer selection and I bought much more than I’d intended, with a great mix of styles from all over the world and from several breweries I’d never heard of.  Everything is neatly organized by style and most are available to buy in singles. They have a few draft beers as well, and I enjoyed a Liquid Crystal hoppy farmhouse ale from Brooklyn’s Grimm Artisinal Ales while Jared poked around the rest of the mall.

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Another year, another round of first rate establishments discovered in our small corner of the world.  As if the gentleman at Thirsty Pug wasn’t helpful enough, he may have given us a few ideas for next year.

Man Voyage I: The Delmarva Peninsula

April 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

*Circa 2013*
Originally appeared as a guest post on The Oracular Beard.  Please click here to visit the original and have a look around, but don’t stay too long – you may start to itch or develop a rash.

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This past August, my pal Jared and I took a three day road trip up through NY’s gorgeous Hudson Valley in the second installment of Man Voyage, an annual tradition that began in 2013 to celebrate our impending fatherhood. The trip evolved a bit this year but the basic premise remained the same: a general recharging of the batteries through good food, craft beer and a renewal of friendship. Afterward he asked me to write a guest blog entry for TOB and though I don’t share his enthusiasm for facial hair, I’m more than happy to oblige.

It wouldn’t feel right to omit the first chapter, so we’ll begin with 2013’s Man Voyage I: the Delmarva Peninsula. Part II will follow suit, and I’m hoping these entries are up to the high standards Jared sets with his writing, as I’d love to make this contribution after each years’ trip.

First of all, let’s make sure we’re pronouncing it correctly: like Bon Voyage, only we’re two dudes on a trip celebrating our manhood, so it’s Man Voyage. If you think it’s a stupid name, you’re clearly not manly enough to understand.

As the summer of 2013 was winding down, we began to realize how excited, nay woefully unprepared we were for this greatest of changes about to besiege our lives. What better way to calm our nerves than to talk the whole thing out on the open road, stopping occasionally to indulge in some food and brew? We pride ourselves on going local wherever we are, and Man Voyage was going to embody that spirit.

Delmarva is a term for the peninsula that shares land between Delaware, Maryland and Virginia (clever, right?). It used to be a wasteland for decent beer – in all the years my wife and I vacationed in Ocean City the best we ever found were European imports at the Irish pub on the boardwalk. I poked around on Beer Advocate and found a few new places had opened in the years since, and I’m happy to report that Delmarva has finally joined the world of craft beer, with some damn fine establishments so far.

Fordham/Dominion and 16 Mile breweries would’ve added a few more stops but we skipped them.  Fordham/Dominion was once the exclusive craft beer they served at Rams Head Live in Baltimore – I tried several at a Hold Steady show and none impressed me. I bought a sixer of 16 Mile once on a whim and downright hated it. If you’d whole-heartedly recommend either place please share; I’d love to make this trip again and will include them next time.

Dogfish Brewings & Eats is a Rehoboth staple. There’s a reason their beer is so widely distributed and renowned – I’ve long been a fan of Sam Calagione’s innovative brews, and their take on simple styles like the pale ale (Shelter Pale) and the IPA (60 Minute) stand out more than most, and the food at the restaurant has never disappointed. We met our friend Tom at his Milford, DE apartment 40 minutes north of Rehoboth (he and his lovely wife Maria were kind enough to let us couch surf for the night), and he drove us the rest of the way.

The only negative is word’s gotten out about this place.  Arriving after 5:00 during peak season, I expected a wait but I’d never seen it like this, on a Tuesday night no less.  We waited an hour to get seated and could barely squeeze in at the bar in the meantime.  And it wasn’t just busy, it was overrun with drunk frat boys and family men deep into their mid life crises, wearing their sunglasses indoors, whining about the lack of sports on TV and holding entire conversations exclusively via dick and fart jokes. One in particular repeatedly harassed the hostess about his wait time, attempting to woo her into seating him sooner by draping his creepy, sweaty arm around her.  I offered my condolences and asked if this type of malarkey was common. “More often than I’d like,” she responded with a frustrated smile. It’s a shame really. The bitter part of me wants to blame Sam’s involvement in the “Brewmasters” show for overexposing the brand, but my sensible side knows it’s just damn good beer and the morons would seek it out eventually.

Aside from that unpleasantness it was a damn fine visit. Previously, my only complaint was their lack of one-offs or draft only selections. For such a renowned brewery, they only ever had their flagship brews, maybe a seasonal and some aged bottles. This time around they boasted a whopping 19 beers on draft, four of them brewpub exclusives. This is what I’ve always expected from a place with the production capabilities of DFH. Ever the IPA loyalist, Jared had the 120 Minute, which is delicious and smooth but it’ll knock you on your ass. The 15% ABV is really well hidden in the flavor and it sneaks up on you quick. The Firefly (session pale), Stewed (strong English style pale) and Piercing Pilsner were all very quaffable, the pils and Firefly tasting especially nice on a hot summer night (we’ve since seen the pilsner in bottles in PA).

Some genius in the kitchen deserves a promotion for stuffing an onion ring with bacon and putting it on top of a burger – maybe this is already a trend and I’m late to the party but it’s the first time I’ve encountered this miracle of burger innovation. And just when I thought it couldn’t get better, they actually cooked it rare – Wisconsin cheddar, bacon stuffed onion ring and a little bit of blood.  The other highlight was our dessert of Choc Lobster, a beer I admittedly was prepared to order based on the name alone. I balked when the waitress told us it was brewed with live lobsters in the kettle – I don’t care for lobster, but she insisted it was the perfect dessert beer. She wasn’t lying – a chocolate porter with an aftertaste of ocean.  Sounds funky but I’d drink another in a heartbeat.

A post-dinner dip in the ocean was the perfect end to the evening, for me anyway. I’d poked fun of Tom and Jared for not having the nerve to get in, though they didn’t spend the 40 minute drive home soaking wet with nothing to dry off with. Maybe the joke was on me.

After a refreshing nights’ sleep Maria prepared a lovely scrambled egg and sausage breakfast. We stopped in downtown Milford at Dolce, an extremely welcoming cafe and bake shop, snagged some piping hot coffees to go and took them on the downtown river walk through the shopping district, along some boat docks and a public park. It was quiet and scenic, and a relaxing way to spend an hour before heading south to Salisbury, MD for Evolution Brewing.

Evolution didn’t open until 12:00 and it was only an hours’ drive to Salisbury, so we had some time to kill.  Fortunately in the very small town of Laurel, DE we stumbled upon Attic Fanatic, a very large antique mall sprawled out over a few buildings. We were looking to kill maybe 30 minutes and wound up inside almost two hours. Antique malls are always a mix of useless junk and things you can’t believe someone would want to get rid of. Me, I go for vintage clothing and furniture, 50s/60s bric-a-brac, vinyl, old photos and postcards, and they had plenty. If we’d been driving a small pickup truck instead of Jared’s Ford Focus I might have walked out with a mid century end table or even a small dresser.

A few miles later we saw a road side coffee stand called Muggs & Juggs: Bikini Barista.  Is this a thing I wasn’t aware of?  I love boobs as much as the next guy but this is laughable.  Isn’t it enough we have Hooters to appeal to the lowest common denominator?

Evolution is a rather large building with a nice palm tree façade, houses a more formal sit-down restaurant and tasting room with a long bar, a few pub tables and table top video game console with all the classics – Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, even Mappy. We played a few video games over beers until we got hungry enough to order some lunch. Best sandwich on the trip was a toss-up between the DFH burger and Evolution’s glorious Wednesday special of a $5 brisket sandwich. Slow-smoked and tender with a house-made root beer sauce, Jicama apple slaw and a big pile of fries. The bartender offered us a locally made cajun dipping sauce for the fries and I dumped it on the second half of my sandwich as well.

The beer at was every bit as good as the food. The IPA was delicious, very hoppy but balanced and thirst quenching after coming in out of the heat. The ESB was good but I’ve got to learn to stop ordering ESBs.  My favorite representation of the style is Oliver’s ESB at the Wharf Rat in Baltimore, and thus far no other has lived up to it. The brewery exclusive Wandering Monk Belgian Pale Ale, however, was exceptional. A lot of traditionalists, even some whose writing I admire (I’m talking to you, Lew Bryson) aren’t keen on the style but Belgian Pales and Belgian IPAs have really grown on me and if I’m in the right mood, have become my go-to when trying a new place.

The Prelude Belgian Gold (also a brewery exclusive) sounded tasty but a bit high in ABV after we’d already had a few pints. The bartender poured us a 4 oz sample size and didn’t even charge us for it. Add in a friendly chat with a down-to-Earth local who congratulated us on procreating, offering us some wisdom he’s acquired after raising three daughters, and the bar was set quite high for the day.

Tall Tales Brewing Company in Parsonburg, MD, was an easy 20 minutes up Ocean Gateway toward Ocean City.  They have the benefit of sharing their building with a landscaping company so the place is really done up, though we were both disappointed in the lack of the “tall tales” theme. Aside from a few small logos printed on the beer menu, there’s nothing of it to be found. Rather the atmosphere is a bit industrial for our taste; the bar area and tasting room have a sort of corporate feel, and the men’s room looks like something that yuppie couple from Beetlejuice would’ve had installed in the house after Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin died. It’s all very sharp, just not our style.

Anyway, that’s a small complaint. The beer was tasty – we had the Some Beach Island Ale, a nice session Blonde ale with Kolsch yeast, the Excalibur IPA and Bonnie & Clyde DIPA, and Paul Bunyon Pale. The Paul Bunyon was probably my favorite – very citrusy hop character like an IPA but a bit smoother and balanced like a pale. It seems like one of those all-around good beers that craft beer snobs and fizzy yellow piss water drinkers alike could agree on. The bartender couldn’t have been friendlier, chatting us up about their brews and renovation plans to put a massive patio and fire pit area out back before sending us on our way to Burley Oak Brewing, just up the road in Berlin.

Either the bartender at Tall Tales needs some help with her directional skills or we just weren’t paying enough attention.  She attempted to guide us to Burley Oak by telling us to “turn right at the big produce sign a few miles up the road.” By “big” she meant “slightly larger than an average street sign” and by a few miles, she meant 15.  It was a small hiccup, and well worth it. Burley Oak was one big open space with a long bar, a few tables constructed from old barrels and a display area with a ton of merchandise (though hell, how many different shirt designs does one brewery need?).  Christmas lights bordering their detailed chalkboard draft list and a cutout picture window view of the brewers in action are both nice touches.

Their beer was some of the best on the trip, with fun names to boot – Aboriginal Gangster (IPA with New Zealand hops), Waffle Stomper (Belgian IPA), and Golden Sex Panther (lemongrass & basil saison, admittedly not as fun to drink as it was to order…I settled for a sample). Small-batch stuff is always the best; most I’ve found aren’t quite as good as our nearby Selinsgrove Brewing Co, only served in-house, but Burley Oak is close. Everything tasted like it had just been tapped moments before we arrived.

After just a passing glance at each, Tall Tales seems to cater more to the flourishing summertime tourist crowd whereas Burley Oak had a more local feel. Burley Oak’s event calendar features original singer/songwriters and bring-your-own-vinyl nights rather than the run-of-the-mill karaoke and Jimmy Buffet tributes that overrun most beach vacation spots. The drawback is slightly less focus on the travelers – which isn’t to say the staff at Burley was the least bit unfriendly, just more eager to chat up the regulars they know will be back every week. It’s more an observation than a complaint – the bartender was quick to offer refills and answer questions so if he’d rather chat business with the guy who owns the jet ski rental place down the road it’s fine by me.

Two and a half hours and a drive across the good ol’ bay bridge later and we were in my home-sweet-home-away-from-home of Baltimore. I’ve written countless songs about my love/hate relationship with that city, and being there with my wife, family, friends, and anyone I care about is centering in a way I can’t describe.  My sister lives in suburban Catonsville and was a very gracious host, so we treated her to dinner at the newly opened Heavy Seas Alehouse downtown, just off Little Italy.

The Heavy Seas brand has been a Baltimore staple for years but until recently they’ve only had a tasting room and tours at Clipper City Brewery in Halethorpe, just south of the city. The alehouse looks like a revamped old warehouse and impossible to miss with the giant Heavy Seas logo shining down Bank Street.  It’s gorgeous inside, all rustic looking wood to compliment the brick walls, large scale beer posters and ship memorabilia hanging everywhere. Since there were three of us we decided to order an assortment of the snacks and small plates to share: cured meats and cheese with mustards, soft pretzels with beer cheese sauce, prosciutto with apple compote and ciabatta crisps. Everything was good but not as filling as we’d hoped; we were hungrier than we’d realized and should’ve ordered sandwiches or dinners.

The beer was top notch as always, matey. I was thrilled they still had their summer seasonal Red Sky at Night on tap. Saison with Belgian yeast and candied sugar, goes down smooth with a warming, boozy finish.  We gulped down a few beers, filled a growler with their Marzen lager for later and headed back to the ‘burbs for some video games and Netflix before passing out on the couch.

You can count on three things in life: death, taxes and every coffee shop ever employing at least one mopey hipster with unkempt hair too tired to take your order because he hasn’t had his coffee yet.  Bean Hollow in historic Ellicott City is no exception.  Sad emo barista looked physically pained after writing our short order of two coffees and one muffin. Top notch brew though, and the girl behind the counter was much more awake and friendly.  We took our coffees on a stroll through Taylor’s Antique Mall (since closed), and headed on toward Frederick for our last stop of the day.

Brewer’s Alley in downtown Frederick was the first brewpub established in Frederick County, in 1996.  Maybe that statistic set our expectations a little high but we didn’t enjoy our experience there at all. We sat on the patio outside. Our waitress took forever to come over, and was bored and annoyed at answering our very simple questions about the menu. She interacted the same way with the other patrons, and after listening in a bit I discovered most of the other servers were the same way. I asked the hostess where the bathroom was and she grunted and pointed without looking up. Maybe there was a unanimously hated announcement or new policy instituted by management that morning that had everybody reeling; either way they all gave sad emo barista a run for his money.

The visit would have been salvaged by a decent meal and beer but those weren’t great either. Pale ale and IPA tasted so similar I wondered if the bartender accidentally poured the same beer twice.  I ordered the cask IPA next figuring I couldn’t go wrong with a cask beer and was wrong again. Aside from having a better mouthfeel from the cask pour it was one of the most unexciting IPA’s I’ve had. Fish tacos and pulled pork sandwich were decent enough but nothing I’d make an out-of-the-way drive for. I don’t mean to totally run the place down but how it scores an 89 (“very good”) rating on Beer Advocate is beyond me. It would take a lot of steady rave reviews over a decent period of time for me to go back. The rest of downtown Frederick is nice though. Tree-lined and clean, with a quaintness despite the constant bustling of traffic.

The Man Voyage manifesto was accomplished. We ate and drank heartily, most of it very, very good, and what wasn’t all that great didn’t matter. The driving in between, singing Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits and Van Morrison tunes, imagining the mistakes we’ll make in the years to come while championing each others’ strengths and positive attributes, giving encouragement and wondering how our kids have any chance of leading normal lives with us as their fathers.  That’s the stuff Man Voyage is made of.

Beer and food too…because who wants to think about all of that on an empty stomach?

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