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.

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.

———

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.).  

———

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.

The Legend of Man Voyage

April 4, 2016 § 3 Comments

Man Voyage was established in 2013.  My pal Jared and I needed a way to celebrate our impending fatherhood and a three day road trip in search of good food and beer seemed like the way to go. It’s since become an annual excursion, one of the trips I most look forward to and a focal point of this young blog.

I was recently contacted on Facebook by a guy in Manchester who saw our show at the Castle Hotel last March.  The random string of words he plugged into a Google search led him to my tour diary, which coincides with Man Voyage III.  He asked specifically about the name and while we didn’t put much thought into it before, the time seems right for a more extensive definition and official mission statement, as we approach our fourth installment and once again, my friend has reason to simultaneously celebrate and panic as he and his wife prepare to welcome their second child (congrats, guys!).

Man Voyage [/’män voi’äZH/]
(noun)

  • A renewal of friendship and general recharging of mental, emotional and spiritual batteries through good food and libations on the road.
  • A road trip with an awesome name.

There are no rules per se, as that would take away the fun and go against the spirit of Man Voyage. There are, however, a few particulars we adhere to:

1) A focus on all things local: food, drink, lodging, shops, even gas stations when possible.  Chain establishments are only permissible in times of desperation.

2) A heavier use of back roads over major highways.  Man Voyage is as much about the journey as it is the destination.

3) Exploration of the unfamiliar and the discovery of new things are important aspects.  The majority, if not all of the stops should be new.

4) A celebration of song: each year I make a mixtape (well, iPod playlist… this isn’t the 90’s anymore) with a travel/exploration/carpe diem theme.  Sample excerpts include Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” and Social Distortion’s “Live Before You Die.” And of course “Born to Run.”  That’s been on all of them.

5) A leisurely pace: everyday life is rushed enough.  We want to make the most of the time we have but it’s important to slow down, stop to take pictures of roadside oddities and soak up the scenery on those back roads.

We depart next week for Ontario, where we’ll play our first gig for the Great White North in Kingston, explore Prince Edward County and the 1000 Islands before heading home through Sackets Harbor and the eastern reaches of New York’s Finger Lakes. Come along with us on Instagram:
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@theoracularbeard
@theagingcynic

¡Viva Man Voyage!

Man Voyage III: UK & Ireland

June 7, 2015 § 7 Comments

Man Voyage III came early this year, and completely by accident.  I was slated to go on tour abroad with my folk/blues/roots duo Rattlesnake Gospel for five dates in March, alongside London singer/songwriter Chris Stringer.  Shows were booked and my plane ticket was purchased when the other half of RG had to withdraw due to a serious flare up of his Nomad’s Disease, which moved him to four different cities and from one end of the country to the other within a few months’ time.

(Side note: Nomad’s Disease is a laymen’s term for the medical condition Icantstayinoneplaceforlonggodforbidthepeoplewholovemegetusedtohavingmearound
imsuchaselfishjerkyesjakedavisandstephaniekeelerimtalkingaboutyou-itis. You’ll want to avoid those who have Nomad’s Disease, as symptoms such as broken heart and pangs of guilt may be quite devastating. Fortunately as the name suggests, those affected with the disease will ultimately leave you anyway so it’s not often a problem).

We began promoting as a singer/songwriter tour with two solo acts when a bright, bearded light shone at the end of the tunnel: my Echo & Sway comrade was available and interested in joining us. Jared and I travel well together, and the chance to take Man Voyage international and have some TE&S tunes to play alongside my solo material sounded like one hell of a trip.

LEAVING ON A JET PLANE

We stopped at Old Forge Brewing Company in Danville for lunch en route to JFK airport in NYC, because if you’re not starting the day with food and beer, you’re not doing Man Voyage properly. Breakfast burger with rosemary bacon and syrup was among the best brunch items I’ve ever had and paired beautifully with a Beligan pale ale. Jared’s hot bleu cheese burger and white IPA were equally tasty. We’ve been to Old Forge several times and the consensus remains the same: food, beer and service are all top notch, but their music selection kills the atmosphere. Imagine a playlist made entirely of classic rock songs you’ve heard enough to last two lifetimes, and you’ll have an idea. Every brewpub should strive for that little something that sets them apart from the rest, and playing the same generic crap you hear in every bar everywhere ain’t the way to get it.

Several hours later we were wading through the shit storm that is NYC traffic. We crawled at five MPH for a solid 90 minutes due to an accident on Belt Parkway and arrived at JFK about five minutes before our flight took off. Aer Lingus managed to get us on a flight three hours later (with a penalty fee of course) and we settled into the airport lounge in the meantime for a few drinks. I expected draft beers at the airport to come with a hefty upcharge but I was floored by our $26 bill for two 20 oz microbrews. For that price I was expecting the bartenders to serve them topless.

DAY ONE: LONDON, RISE 46

I slept on the plane for the first time ever on an international flight, thanks to a valium and the aforementioned world’s most expensive 20 oz beer. We woke up refreshed and took the Tube (Brit speak for subway train) from Heathrow into Covent Garden, central London. Many tour guides list the Tube as an attraction in itself and I can’t argue with that – there’s a wealth of culture to be observed on even a short 20 minute ride. The rich, poor, drunk, stoned, spoiled, nice, rude, timid, loud and belligerent all grace the Tube at some point in the day.

Covent Garden is a bustling area, full of restaurants and shopping. We met Chris Stringer at his shop, where he graciously took us for a much needed coffee at local roastery Monmouth, a post office for currency exchange, Tin Pan Alley (Denmark Street) where bands like the Rolling Stones and Sex Pistols have recorded at Regent Sounds Studio, and Forbidden Planet (nerd paradise) for comics before showing us the Cock. The Cock was quite big but we found a spot that felt nice. We rather enjoyed the Cock, and if I lived in London I’d be at the Cock frequently (the Cock is a pub with an unfortunate name, providing us with endless jokes for the duration of the tour… exhibit A). They serve exclusively Samuel Smith Brewery beers; Old Brewery Bitter, Double Four Lager and India Ale all hit the spot after hiking through Covent Garden and Oxford Circus all morning.

We stayed our two nights in London with Chris and his gal Charley, both lovely hosts at their flat in Seven Sisters. Before I go any further it must be said just how much we’re going to miss these two. Admittedly we all had some reservations going in – what if we don’t get along, and we’re committed to spending a week traveling together? It took only a few short hours for those fears to subside and all of us to start asking what we would do without each other after tour.  We enjoyed hot showers and quick changes of clothing before heading back to the Tube for an hours’ ride to Battersea Rise, south London for our first night at Rise 46.

Rise 46 was a decent show and great warm-up tour opener, but easily the most lackluster night we had. Great PA and soundsystem, stage lighting and classy atmosphere were among the highlights, along with a sizeable crowd. Their payment scheme was unlike any I’d encountered before – they pay £4 per person you bring in, provided they sign in at the bar and register as an audience member of the band. It didn’t sound like a bad deal, but it’s awkward hassling your audience repeatedly to walk upstairs and put in writing why they came to the venue. And what of the rest of the crowd who wandered in for drinks and stayed because they enjoyed our performances? “Hey, thanks for listening. I really appreciate that you’re here and enjoying my songs. Now would you mind taking a walk upstairs and signing a guestbook so I can get paid a little extra?”

We and our audience were also jostled around quite a bit during the sets, in favor of small groups who had “reservations in this area.” The seating consists of two very long couches lining the sides of the long narrow room with barrels to set your drinks on. It looks nice, but how does one reserve an “area” of the room? “Yes Mr. Maitre’d Sir, I’d like to reserve the left arm of this couch, along with the adjacent two feet and barrel numbers four and five. WAIT! No, I like barrel number six better. Please swap out barrel number five for six.” Several members of our audience (who had properly registered as such per the aforementioned instructions, by the way) were relocated. If that weren’t enough, the bar staff showed us the registration sheet when we went to collect, and it was ridiculous – name, date, phone, email, and band you’re seeing. Who the hell wants to fill out a questionnaire just to listen to someone play a 45 minute set? We played to damn near a full room and got paid for the 10 who remembered to fill out their lengthy survey.

Nevertheless, tour had begun. Our first audience was attentive and intrigued, the drinks were tasty (I’m absolutely not going to mention that a bartender at an establishment boasting a cocktail list so extensive should know enough to put a maraschino cherry or orange slice garnish in an Old Fashioned), we’d played well and had fun, which for two unsigned artists on their first international tour is pretty much the only point. Just after my set, Jared and I realized we’d been so busy all day we’d forgotten to eat. After spending years mocking stupid Americans for traveling to other countries only to eat what they could get at home, we ducked into a McDonald’s for a quick bite. I can still feel the shame but we didn’t want to miss Chris’ set, and we were pleasantly surprised to see it’s quite different: the portions are smaller and less greasy with virtually no salt. As a bonus, the UK franchise features a Cadbury Egg McFlurry that we don’t, so I’m not a total hypocrite.

We headed back to Seven Sisters with The Jam’s “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight” stuck in our heads, and laughing as an extremely drunk gentleman made himself at home on Jared’s lap. We rang in the evening with nearby Dixy Chicken takeout and a few bottles of Hobgoblin Ruby Ale before collapsing. Tomorrow we would take London by storm.

DAY TWO: LONDON, BIDDLE BROS

So, by “take London by storm” I actually meant sleep until noon. Jet lag must’ve hit us hard, because I woke up at 11:50 with Jared still snoring on the floor, next to a note from an errand-running Chris with instructions to text him if we required coffee and/or any sort of breakfast items.  Jared adjourned shortly after to a local coffee shop to make use of their WiFi while Chris and I spent the next few hours silk screening tour posters. A total pain in the ass, but it gave us time to chat about life, jobs, family, friends and of course, the Cock.

We’d researched a number of attractions on Atlas Obscura and food/drink destinations on Beer Advocate, the majority of which we didn’t have time for since we’d slept so late. With a 99% rating on BA, we figured CASK Pub & Kitchen in Pimlico was a solid bet for dinner. Boasting 10 drafts, 10 cask ales and some of the best burgers in London, it more than delivered. We shared an assortment of pints from Acorn, Beavertown, Salopian and Evil Twin breweries alongside two Heat burgers (buffalo and bleu cheese) and my Elvis burger, with peanut butter, bacon and a fried banana.

Back at Chris and Charley’s, we pre-gamed for the gig with Desperados, a “barrel-aged lager” (yea right) blended with tequila. Much like the Elvis burger, I tried it only out of sick curiosity but finished because I needed something to wash down my potato chips. We hopped on the Tube to Hackney and found Biddle Bros, a wonderfully simple dive with a friendly staff and great music room behind the narrow entryway bar, pumping some great soul/R&B tunes through the soundsystem. I almost didn’t want to turn it off to perform. They serve ales by local brewery Pressure Drop, and their pale may be the best beer I had all week. It was perfectly balanced and went down smooth, so smooth in fact that when barman Sammy kept bringing fresh pints I kept drinking long after I’d had my fill.

Following Chris is no easy task as he’s damn brilliant, but the set flowed much easier than the night before, likely thanks to a more relaxed atmosphere and welcoming staff. The crowd was great as well, notably Peter, who sat front and center in a Wyle E. Coyote “Super Genius” t-shirt and inserted his own harmonies into our songs, and Ryan and Farrah, who challenged us to a chess game post-show and were made to look like fools when they were beaten by my drunk ass. The booker paid us without our having to ask, thanked us for the music and invited us back anytime. Jared came up for a few TE&S tunes and Chris got the place singing along with his set closing cover of Duran Duran’s “Rio.”

We stayed to hang out with everyone long after we should’ve gone home, as we had a 9:00 bus to catch to Worcester. We stopped at a corner store for beers and drank them on the sidewalk waiting for our taxi (it’s eerie how liberating it feels to drink out in the open after a lifetime of dealing with our archaic liquor laws). The Dixy chicken didn’t sit as well after all of the Pressure Drop but I’ll be damned if I was passing it up on our last night in London. Charley felt as miserable as I did, but at least we were in familiar territory on the one night we picked to overdo it. From here on out, things were much more civilized.

DAY THREE: WORCESTER, MARR’S BAR

The travel gods were not smiling on our tour. The Tube stop we needed to get off to connect with our bus was under construction so we had to go one further and walk back, causing us to miss said bus. There was another leaving 90 minutes later, giving us time to grab a small breakfast at a nearby Wetherspoon’s. Fine if that had been the end of it, but our connecting bus at Birmingham broke down, prompting the company to arrange for taxis to the train station, then to Worcester from there.

We arrived a few hours later than planned, giving us just enough time to check into The Osborne House B&B (our lodging splurge of the week), shower and change before a rushed but delicious Indian meal at Rajkot. It was much more formal than we’d anticipated and we hated rushing through dinner to make sound check (which we were already fashionably late for) but we were all craving Indian and it was the highest rated in the city. Butter chicken, Vigan Bahar and Kabuli were among the best Indian I’ve had, and the complimentary pakora platter with four chutneys was fought over and devoured in moments.

The Marr’s Bar is a great venue, designed by musicians who know exactly what performers are looking for. The 5k sound system and lighting rig are run by an in-house sound engineer who made sound check a breeze. Sundays are strictly acoustic and they had the place done up right, with candles adorning each of the tables and low lighting above, putting all of the focus on the stage. Local indie folk/pop trio Richard Clarke & the Rafters opened the evening with a tight 50 minute set, blowing us all away despite their claims of being unrehearsed. Each night was proving better than the preceding, as our sets were our best yet, and for our biggest crowd.

We swapped music and stories with the Rafters during set breaks and enjoyed a few beers with some locals, most notably a character named Laura who quickly established herself as our biggest fan. She rushed the stage twice, bought us a round of drinks and danced the night away. She also demanded we take her photo with our tour EP sticking out of the top of her dress. She’s clearly a promoter and proved to be much better at marketing than us – we just had our merch sitting on a table.

Post-show we were all craving Indian food again, undoubtedly the result of gulping down our dinners without fully appreciating them (it appears I’ve resorted to fabricating excuses to eat more Indian food). Foregate Street downtown is lined with takeaway shops, unfortunately all closed by the time we left Marr’s Bar. Chris and Charley settled for a Domino’s pizza, while Jared and I split a pie from the creatively named Pizza Shop. Unsurprisingly, both were underwhelming. The others retired to the Osborne House while I took a late night stroll through the backstreets of Worcester to catch up on some much needed alone time.

I found a quaint little church garden barely lit by nearby lamp posts, sat on a bench under an ivy-covered trellis and spent an exorbitant amount of money talking to my wife on my international cell phone. The tour was going well and I couldn’t have been happier with the company I was in but goddamn did I miss my wife and kid.

DAY FOUR: MANCHESTER, CASTLE HOTEL

We awoke refreshed after our first good nights’ sleep in days – Chris and Charley were more than generous allowing us to crash on their couch and floor respectively but nothing beats a comfortable bed, and never was that more apparent than after all the sitting on planes, trains and buses we’d been doing. We convened in the common room for our full English breakfast of eggs, sausage, bacon, beans, tomatoes and a french press of coffee (I’m happy to go along with local customs 99% of the time, but the idea of tea being an adequate substitute for coffee is nonsense).

I rarely go the B&B route. I’m not a morning person, and I’d rather eat my breakfast in peace without chatting among strangers about grandchildren and stock trades but we had a great morning with Rick & Josie Osborne. We swapped travel stories with Josie and laughed at Rick cooking us breakfast in his overly garish “It’s 5 o’clock Somewhere” tie-dye t-shirt. How ironic that the Englishman was the one looking most like an obnoxious and uncultured American.

Rafters drummer and all-around gentleman Dan Bramhall met us at the Osborne House with his lovely family and took us into town to Bolero for coffee and reminiscing about the previous nights’ gig. Damn good espresso, somehow needed even after the full french press at breakfast. Dan’s little boy Ruben warned us not to go on to Manchester, as there’s a lion roaming the streets who would eat us upon arrival. We convinced him that Jared is a lion tamer and would use his whip to keep him at bay, at which point Ruben cried because he didn’t want us to hurt the lion. Make up your mind, kid – are you more concerned about us, or the lion? Toddlers are so irrational.  We spent the remainder of the day collaborating on song lyrics to the next Echo & Sway (featuring Chris Stringer) hit single called “There’s a Lion Loose in Manchester.” Ruben will receive a songwriting credit for inspiration.

The East Midland train ride to Manchester was a highlight of the week. The seats were comfortable, none of us were sleepy or hungover and we enjoyed some nice conversation, endless dirty jokes and some beautiful scenery out the window. We arrived at Piccadilly station and quickly stumbled upon Empire Exchange, a wonderful mess of collectibles, memorabilia and old junk. Magazines, books, CDs, vinyl, antiques, jewelry, postcards, and a healthy selection of porn are just a small sampling of what you’ll find in there. After spending way too much time looking for souveniers to take home, we made our way to the Northern Quarter, where we ditched our bags at the Castle Hotel and headed out in search of nourishment, i.e. food and beer.

Pie & Ale serves almost exclusively what’s in their name, and they do it well. We grabbed a table and were about to ask for a beer menu when the bartender invited us up for a full sampling of their six cask ales (plus two other drafts) and poured us liberal tasters to share. There were some great bitters, pales and stouts from craft breweries all over the UK, including Blackjack (Manchester), Sonnet 43 (Coxhoe), First Chop (Salford), and Weird Beard (London). When we couldn’t choose just one for a pint, he offered a flight of three 8 oz beers instead. More establishments need to have such varied drinking options. The pie was magnificent as well, particularly the featured “What’s Up Croc?” with gator, andouille, peppers, onions and cajun gravy. I’m really going to miss this place.

Manchester’s Northern Quarter is a hipster’s paradise. Vintage boutiques, tattoo shops, bars, restaurants and cafes in all shapes, sizes and colors stretched out as far as the eye can see, most of them marked with vibrant graffiti. They have a Forbidden Planet as well, run by fascists who want to make sure your comic shopping experience is as miserable as possible. Admittedly we didn’t see they were closing at 5:30 when we walked in about 10 minutes before but damn man, all you’ve got to do is politely say “Sorry guys, but we’re closing in 10 minutes. We’ll be opening again tomorrow at 9:30 for all of your comic book, action figure and assorted nerd needs.” They verbally accosted us as if we were attempting to shoplift the eight foot Iron Man prop in the display window. Maybe they were speaking in character, I don’t have enough comic knowledge to know.

We caught up with Mountain Song at the Castle and got acquainted over sound check with the wonderful Lucinda. She’s one of the most patient and professional sound engineers I’ve ever seen work and though Chris and I only needed a few minutes (a single acoustic guitar and vocal combo doesn’t take long unless you’re really picky) she made it a much less tedious process for the full band than it tends to be. Afterward we grabbed a few beers in the main bar area, chatted with some locals and marveled at the Castle’s killer jukebox, loaded with Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding and Manchester legends like The Smiths, Buzzcocks and Joy Division. It rivals my two favorite jukes, The Khyber (Philadelphia) and Chanticleer (Ithaca).

The show was the best of the tour, hands down. We damn near packed the room with an attentive and respectful audience, fully focussed on our every word and holding their applause long after each of us left the stage. It was one of the best crowds I’ve ever performed for, solo or with any group. Chris and I collaborated with Mountain Song drummer Alex Palmer on an impromptu cover of the Hold Steady’s “First Night” and knocked it out of the park, save for one lyric I flubbed. Mountain Song were loud, intense and fucking brilliant. My ears are still ringing.

We mingled awhile afterward, attempting to personally thank everyone in the audience for being there. I can’t overstate what a superb gig this was; I’d fly back to Manchester just to play for that crowd again. I had some very enlightening conversations with John the Scaffolder, who bought me several obscure Irish whiskies after my set and chatted me up about life. I was also treated to about six pints by a very friendly, drunk older gentleman named Paul. Even as he stood watching me sip the initial beer, he kept repeating his need to buy me a drink and paid ahead for several rounds. When he wouldn’t stop ogling at the bartender and repeating phrases like “she needs banged real good” loud enough to be overheard, I suggested she not pour any more beer for me but take his money and keep it as a tip. Sorry, Paul.

We waited in the rain for a cab and took a 15 minute ride to Mauldeath Road, passing a filming location for scenes from Captain America: The First Avenger along the way. We were welcomed into the humble abode of Alex Palmer and Lisa Smith for the evening, where we shared their living room with Miles, a very friendly border collie, and Lily the cat, who did her best to make Jared uncomfortable (watching Jared pretend to not be awkward around cats is one of my favorite pastimes). We chatted awhile before settling in, and I drifted off astounded at our good fortune, to be in the company of such kind and generous people.

DAY FIVE: DUBLIN BOUND

As if they hadn’t done enough, our gracious hosts allowed us to invade their bathroom and shower in the morning. Alex walked us to a nearby Wetherspoon’s, where I somehow resisted the temptation of an early morning pint with my breakfast.  After fighting his greatest of morning enemies (quote of the day: “Cold butter is my nemesis!”), Alex bid us adieu and put us on a bus back to Piccadilly where we braved Forbidden Planet again, poked around a few vintage boutiques, book stores and spent yet another 45 minutes in Empire Exchange. We apparently hadn’t gotten our fill of looking at dusty old shit the day before.

We took a train to Manchester airport where we encountered some of the friendlist staff I’ve ever come across. Our boarding agent laughed off our failure to stop at the baggage check area before boarding (apparently required for all non-UK passport holders) and feigned slapping us in the face. Jared even made a new friend in a TSA agent who was more than happy to relieve him of two bottles of beer he couldn’t transport when he decided not to check his bag. The guy even smiled for a photo while holding them and big surprise, he had a beard.

We stood in line for what seemed an eternity to board the plane, cracking cattle slaughterhouse jokes with a gal behind us, who turned out to be the tour manager for A Place to Bury Strangers. She invited us to their gig at the Workman’s Club that evening which unfortunately, we didn’t make. We were led outside to meet the plane on the tarmac where the wind damn near blew us to Dublin. Awhile later we were being entertained by the safety lecture when I wondered, as I always do, who in the hell actually needs instructions on how to fasten a seat belt?  A child perhaps, but surely a parent could assist them in most cases.  Moments later the gentleman seated next to Jared, easily in his 50’s, asked us for help.  Wow.  I passed out shortly after boarding and slept until we landed, pissed that I missed takeoff. It’s my favorite part of the flight.

The Airlink double decker bus from the airport dropped us a few blocks from the Avalon House, the hostel where we booked private rooms because we’re all too old to be sharing sleeping space with 18 year old backpackers. Our room had two beds and a sink, with a community bathroom down the hall that was surprisingly clean and kept up. We’d promised to take a plunge into Sandycove’s 40 Foot swimming hole if we amassed enough followers for our tour Instagram page, but later decided that using the Avalon House showers was more punnishment than the 40 Foot would be.

Chris and Charley caught up on some relaxation time in their room while Jared and I headed across the street for a few beers at the Swan, a locals pub with a fireplace in the back room to warm us from the rain pouring outside. Jared and I travel together well and often, and though we were beyond happy with our tour comrades it was nice to catch up a bit just the two of us. We reconvened later at the Mercantile for dinner, where we had a delightful spread of seafood chowder (the best of Jared’s life) and a Thai, Indian and Piri Piri chicken assortment. And beer… good God, do we love beer.

We hit the Dame Tavern after dinner because good God, do we love beer. The Dame is a warm, cozy little pub that probably fits less than 30 people. We enjoyed some Guinness and Galway Hooker pale ale before trudging back to the Avalon House where Jared and Charley retired for the evening while Chris and I hit the Swan for one last pint. Within a half hour we witnessed two extras from the set of 1992’s Singles storm the place with a ukelele and video themselves serenading some locals, followed by a party of tuxedo clad gentleman persuading the entire bar to sing “Happy Birthday” to their 90 year old buddy, who sat at the bar swinging his Guinness around looking like he was having the best day of his life. There was no better way to end our first night in Dublin.

DAY SIX: DUBLIN, BRUXELLES

We had a surprisingly decent nights’ sleep in our closet-sized room. Too decent in fact, we slept in way too late like our first morning in London and lost a good portion of the day. Jared and I dragged our asses out of bed just before noon and walked a few blocks south to Gerry’s Coffee for our first full Irish breakfast, similar to the English only with the added black and white puddings, and what seemed like a full loaf of bread. Even as we ate the pudding we had no idea what the hell was in them; truthfully I’m still not sure. I’ve been tempted to Google it but I think I’ll keep the mystery alive.

We headed to Temple Bar, which apparently comes alive at night with stag and hen (bachelor and bachelorette) parties and all sorts of other drunken hooliganism but during the day is quite lovely with its cobblestone streets and old buildings with decorative facades. We enjoyed some Bailey’s coffees at Cappuccino Bar (another fine establishment with a fantastically uncreative name) while laughing at the massive lot of hopefuls in line to be extras on Vikings, most of which looked like they’d be horribly out of place on a show with said name. When you think of a show called Vikings, do you think of metrosexual looking dudes with $50 scarves and $100 haircuts? Or girls with 10 pounds of makeup and Dolce & Gabbana leather jackets? I think not. We were pulling hard for the tall, portly guy with long scraggly hair and oversized Thin Lizzy t-shirt.

We dropped in for a quick pint at the Foggy Dew (on recommendation from my buddy Wal Lira, tattooer extraordinaire at Classic Ink Tattoo in Temple Bar), swapped a few stories with a dapper gentleman at the bar, and hit our third Forbidden Planet of the week (followed by Sub City Comics on Dame Street; we’re looking into a local Comics Anonymous chapter for Jared upon returning home) before heading to Ireland’s oldest pub, the Brazen Head for dinner and beer because good God, do we love beer. Built in 1198, it houses a maze of chamber-like dining rooms and bar, with a nice beer garden outside we would’ve loved to sit if it hadn’t been for the pouring rain. We grabbed a table by the fireplace and ordered a few bowls of Beef & Guinness stew, which were amazing and paired quite well with our pints.

By the way, a tip on how to not look like a complete dipshit of a tourist: don’t go to a pub in Ireland and order a fucking Irish Car Bomb. The bartender went easy on some moron by simply denying him rather than tell him to leave for being such an offensive jackass. First of all, if you’re over the age of, say 25, you’re too old to be doing that crap anyway – just order some whiskey and a beer and drink them seperately like an adult. Second, even if you don’t know exactly what the term references, doesn’t the phrase “Irish car bomb” suggest something of violence that maybe the Irish people don’t want to be reminded of? Suppose the Europeans invented a cocktail called the 9/11 – it’d be bold and equally offensive for them to order it here in ‘Murica, right? But I digress.

The Porterhouse Brewing Company is a maze much like the Brazen Head, with the added bonus of being three stories so while you jockey for position somewhere in one of their many bar rooms you also get your cardio in by climbing several flights of stairs. It’s a classy place though, with hand-carved wood everywhere giving a modern twist on the traditional Irish pub look. There was a guitar, flute and mandolin trio playing traditional Irish music in a booth on the first floor, but unfortunately nowhere to sit or stand anywhere near them. The TSB (bitter) and Hop Head (“beyond the pale,” whatever that means) were quite tasty and if we hadn’t a gig to get to we would’ve stayed to try a few others. If you’re sampling, don’t get too comfortable in one particular area, as their beers are spread throughout their many draft systems. I asked the bartender which he’d recommend and he steered me toward the TSB – then sent me down two flights of stairs to get it.

Another tip on how to not look like a complete dipshit of a tourist: it’s cool if you want to tour the Guinness factory while in Dublin, but when you go to another brewery that boasts nearly a dozen of their own brews, don’t order a fucking Guinness. You’re doing yourself a disservice enough with the “Guinness Is Good For You” t-shirt, “I Love Guinness” baseball cap, Guinness factory gift bag and sandals/white socks combo. I’m assuming that somewhere between entering the factory and finding the gift shop you probably drank Guinness. Why even bother going to another brewpub if you’re just going to order the one beer you can find anywhere in the city? But again, I digress.

For our last night on tour, we were the featured acts for the Zodiac Sessions, a sort of open-mic-by-invitation at Bruxelles, a legendary music bar that’s played host to Oasis, Paul Weller, Depeche Mode, 50 Cent, Ronnie Wood and Thin Lizzy, whose Phil Lynott is immortalized in statue just outside the front door. We’d planned to eat at the venue but were told upon arrival the kitchen had just closed. One of the locals recommended us to the “best pizza in Dublin” just up an adjacent alleyway at Pizza Stop. My instincts told me a place with such a generic name didn’t have the best pizza in Dublin but what the hell, we were hungry and it was 100 feet away. I wouldn’t give it any awards but it wasn’t too shabby. Their Italian dinners looked better and if we’d had more time I would’ve tried one of those instead.

The Sessions are run by Barry “Jazz” Finnegan, a photorealistic artist known the world over for his large scale charcoal portraiture. He was swell and maybe the only person that night who wasn’t a complete tool. We attempted to mingle with the other performers in between sets and were treated like outsiders from the onset. They all huddled together in one booth, save for the guy who opened the evening but we noticed no one talked to him either. One of them ran the sound board and I could barely muster a grunt out of him during setup. It was all very clique-ish, like we were back in high school trying to find a seat in the cafeteria and we weren’t welcome at the cool kids’ table. We sat together in the corner undeterred, drinking our beer and poking fun at what a pompous bunch of idiots the rest of the room was (hey, we did that in high school too).

Our sets were good and drew favorable reactions from the crowd, but nothing was going to top the Castle gig. Manchester was the official end of tour and Dublin was a bonus. Barry was extremely gracious, inviting us back anytime and while I’d love to sit and have a few beers with the guy, I would’t play this gig again. The email we received after booking describes the Sessions as “a community we are creating for musicians to come down, have a drink, play a few tunes, laugh and meet other musicians.” Barry aside, everyone treated us like we needed to work for their approval. Sorry fellas, I’m not an insecure teenager and I don’t need your acceptance. None of you were nearly good enough to warrant that level of arrogance anyway.

We were hoping for one more pint at the Swan before turning in but most Dublin pubs close early, by 11 or 12. The Long Hall was nearby but done for the evening as well. Their bartender recommended a nearby late “pub” called the Globe, which turned out to be a trashy dance hall with shit for beer. We did get to take in the sights of young, sweaty Dublin bumping and grinding, and a couple with at least a 20 year age difference in the midst of what appeared to be a public audition for softcore porn. There’s no way they weren’t stuck to the bench by the end of the night.

DAY SEVEN: HOMEWARD BOUND (ALMOST)

Delicious as the full breakfast was, we were all in the mood for something different by the time we got our asses moving the next morning so we hit up Tolteca for tacos y burritos before heading back to Temple Bar. I hadn’t necessarily planned on getting tattooed but I’m always open to the idea, so when my friend said to stop in before heading to the airport I was more than happy to oblige. It was great catching up with Wal and if you want a much cooler souvenier from Dublin than a t-shirt, Classic Ink will do right by you.

We shared one last round of pints, exotic chicken and seafood chowder at the Mercantile before saying our goodbyes to Chris and Charley. We were hoping to merely get along well enough to tolerate each other for a week on the road, and now we’re contemplating a Kickstarter fund to fly them across the Atlantic for the US version of Radio Silence. Keep your eyes open for that. We jumped into a cab shortly before 2:00, where the driver told us we had plenty of time to make our 4:20 flight. What should have been a 25 minute drive to the airport turned into a little over an hour when our cabbie suddenly realized that half the city was leaving Dublin for an early start to the Easter holiday weekend. I’d mentioned before the travel gods hadn’t been smiling on this trip, and now they were outright shitting on it.

The next flight to New York wasn’t until the following morning at 11:00, which meant either sleeping in a chair at the airport or springing for a local hotel room. We found the Dublin Airport Manor nearby for $40 (plus a $12 cab ride) so we took our chances, not expecting much at that price but we were pleasantly surprised. The room was huge, beds were comfortable and the shower was the best we’d had in a week, much needed after the previous two mornings of prison-esque Avalon House facilities.

Since we were laid over another night we briefly contemplated taking a cab back into the city, but there was a binder full of food delivery menus and a list of alcoholic beverages available from the front desk, and after all of our travel woes, a meat-loaded pizza, spicy wings and bottle of cheap red wine was a damn fine way to ring in the evening. Our TV got about six channels and at one point our options were Irish politics or the last installment in the Twilight series. Maybe it was the wine, but we quickly got caught up in how fantastically awful Twilight is. The acting and dialogue are so terrible it’s like watching them all parody themselves. We were laughing out loud at scenes I’m sure were supposed to be sad, but it’s hard to tell when none of the actors have more than two facial expressions.

I’ve never seen Shameless, or know how the two brands compare but the UK version came on next and was hilarious, but in a way that was actually supposed to be funny, unlike Twilight. We were begging for another episode when it ended. It appears to be on YouTube and I look forward to streaming as many episodes as I can.

HOMEWARD BOUND (FOR REAL THIS TIME)

We weren’t taking any chances so we arranged for a cab to pick us up four hours before our flight, despite only being four miles from the airport. Somehow the cab ride was $7 more than it had been the day before, but at this point we didn’t care enough to question it. We checked in, went through customs and made it to the boarding area where I realized I’d been on vacation all week and never had a breakfast beer. I ordered a Guinness with my chocolate chip scone… breakfast of champions. After an eight hour flight, we sat in NYC traffic for two hours. Welcome home.

It was an amazing trip, but I returned home with the conclusion that as much as I enjoy playing shows, I’ve largely outgrown touring. Once upon a time it was an adventurous alternative to higher education and/or entering the workforce. It didn’t matter that I’ve been to Atlanta twice and couldn’t tell you anything about it… I got drunk and played a show in a smelly club, and somehow it was otherworldy different than getting drunk and playing a show in a smelly club in Pennsylvania. I’ve always taken pride in the fact that I’ve seen a great deal of the country, but only as it rolled by the window from the backseat of a van, and as the years pass I’m beginning to wish I could do all of that travelling over and make more out of it.

I suppose my tastes have changed as I’ve gotten older. My professional and semi-professional musician friends who tour frequently will regale me with their tales of the road and the two spare hours they had to grab a sandwich and explore the four block radius surrounding the venue and while it used to be the most exciting prospect I could imagine, it’s not enough for me anymore. It’s as alluring to me as a cruise – sitting on a boat for days where you can go to the movies, play mini golf or any number of activities you can do at home, then docking in an exciting location for mere hours, maybe a day or two if you’re lucky.  I’d tour again, especially with this crew but it’s nothing I could do on a regular basis.  If I’m playing abroad I think I’d rather have a few shows in a concentrated area so I have a bit more down time.

I wanted to slow down a bit and breathe, to enjoy Chris and Charley’s company without worrying about making bus schedules and sound checks. I wanted to focus less on how to get more people out to the shows and more on what else we could eat, drink and look at. I don’t care so much that I was in London for two days and didn’t see Big Ben or Westminster Abbey, but thinking about all of the Indian food and cask ales I didn’t get to enjoy makes me sad.

Still, it’s always a pleasure to travel with Jared, and we made some great new friends. We ate and drank very well and played quite possibly the best gig of my life in Manchester (definitely top five). It was another fantastic travel chapter I’ll never forget but I’m very much looking forward to returning Man Voyage to its truest form this August, with its trademark slower pace and relaxed vibe.

Man Voyage II: NY’s Hudson Valley & CT Ale Trail

May 8, 2015 § 2 Comments

Last year I contributed a write-up to The Oracular Beard about Man Voyage, an annual three day male bonding jaunt my pal Jared and I embark on every August. The piece focused on the inaugural 2013 trip around the Delmarva peninsula and northern Maryland, in search of good food, craft beer and the settling of nerves as we both inched closer to fatherhood. Without even discussing it we knew Man Voyage would become a yearly affair, and I’m happy to report that our 2014 venture into New York’s Hudson Valley and down the Connecticut coastline was bigger and better yet.

The journey evolved a bit this year with the addition of hiking, hard liquor and an Echo & Sway gig, but the spirit remained the same. For a full manifesto please read Man Voyage I: The Delmarva Peninsula.

Day One

We began by climbing I-81 into Northeastern PA (or NEPA if you want to sound cutesy) for a stop at Dante’s Deli in Childs, just outside of Honesdale. Their six pack has some good reviews on Beer Advocate and we were anxious to try some bottled brews by recent Carbondale startup 3 Guys & a Beer’d.  Clever wordplay there. The selection wasn’t as abundant as BA suggested but we managed to score two of the 3 Guys beers and some singles from NY breweries we’d never tried. Not an hour into the trip and we’d already delved into the Combos supplied by Jared’s lovely wife so we weren’t hungry enough to order food but it smelled good, and the lady who ran the register was more than friendly and jumped at the chance to chat us up about 3 Guys brew, even telling us where we could get it locally on tap.

A big change in the journey this year was a heavier use of back roads over major highways, inspired by Jared’s 35 mph cross country moped journey in 2010, and the lack of any interesting scenery during last year’s trek along a large stretch of I-80. This is Man Voyage after all, we’re not in a hurry – why shouldn’t we take the road less traveled and enjoy some of the fine scenery this country has to offer? And so we headed east via NY Route 6 into the boonies, where we stumbled upon a delightful second stop.

We were ambling through Bethel, NY when Jared noticed a tie-dye colored sign for Catskill Distilling Company.  Why was this place not listed on any of the Hudson Valley beer/wine/food trail guides I read through? We made a quick turnaround and found a gorgeous rustic tasting room, well stocked with seven liquors distilled on premise and a two-story picture window with a view of all the action. The gal behind the bar was quick to fill us in on their brief history, winning an award for best bourbon in a competition they didn’t enter, and created by a completely sober distiller who has more interest in breeding horses than he does hard liquor. Tastings varied between $2 and $4 per, save for the feature of the day (gin) which was free. Jared isn’t much of a liquor guy but left with two large bottles of gin. Just goes to show that when it’s made well, spirits can grow on even the most loyal of beer loyalists.

Turns out this weekend was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, so we got to see several couples around town who’d dusted off the outfits they wore to the festival and were sporting them once again. They looked about as graceful as you’d imagine. And if you’ve ever wondered what Bethel Woods looks like where Woodstock was held, it’s just a field.

Java Love is just up the road in White Lake and though we were only three hours in on the first day, we needed to fuel up for our afternoon hike. The shop is situated on a steep hill overlooking White Lake, in a converted old house. There’s not much room inside but you walk in to the smell of fresh roasted coffee, which was quite tasty. Jared got the bottom of the pot and it didn’t quite fill his cup so the kindly, heavily tattooed barista offered to top if off with an espresso at no extra charge rather than make us wait for him to brew a whole batch.

Gaby’s Cafe in downtown Ellenville, NY has rave reviews on Tripadvisor, many calling it the best Mexican they’d ever had. An oversell if I ever read one, it certainly set the stakes high and unfortunately didn’t deliver. Not bad by any means, but I suddenly feel for everyone who’s never had better Mexican than this. I realize not everyone has the means or desire to travel to Mexico but I’ve had more authentic everywhere from Toronto (El Trompo) to South Dakota (Guadelejara’s), and even our local Rey Azteca (State College) beats the hell out of Gaby’s. The margarita was fantastic though, and the people watching from our outdoor seating was outstanding. Ellenville must be a major bus stop point for this area, as most every shop downtown advertised Greyhound tickets and the main drag was bustling with colorful characters.

A five mile hike after large plates of Mexican cuisine doesn’t sound like the greatest idea but hey, we were hiking in the woods… plenty of room if some sort of emergency should arise. The Mohonk Preserve in Grandier, NY has several miles of hiking trails, some even fit for us not so experienced trekkers who just want to enjoy a few hours in the great outdoors. The Undercliff/Overcliff carriage road hike on the West Trapps Trailhead is a five mile loop with fantastic views of the Hudson Valley below, and rock climbers above. We’re both fairly new at this whole trying-to-stay-in-shape-so-we-can-keep-up-with-our-rapidly-growing-kids thing, but we finished the loop feeling only slightly tired, and only a bit humbled after crossing paths with two 60+ gentleman on bikes who chuckled when we asked if we were at the halfway point. I guess retirement brings out your inner smartass.

We rested up a bit at the evening’s digs, Highland NY’s Atlas Motor Lodge before heading out for a well deserved dinner and beers. The Motor Lodge was a fascinating combination of Eastern tranquility and crazy cat lady chic. The lobby and hallways were decorated with Buddhas, dragons, red and gold curtains, and had soothing Asian music coming through the entryway speakers, with the added charm of several resident felines roaming the property (insert token gag about cats in Chinese food here) being stuffed to the gills around the clock by a woman in a bathrobe, presumably the owner. Nonetheless, I like no-frills hotels. So long as they’re not overrun by bed bugs or other unexpected living things, a $40 pricetag is much better than paying for the name of a chain hotel with no personality, especially when you spend as little time in the room as we do. We essentially need a bed and a shower.

Mill House Brewing Company was a short drive from Highland across the Mid-Hudson bridge into beautiful downtown Poughkeepsie (it’s hard to convey sarcasm in text, so I’ll clarify: downtown Poughkeepsie is anything but beautiful). The bridge drops you right into the ghetto, where we nearly ran over an apparent drug deal going down in the middle of a cross street as we turned to find the brewery. Ahh, the comforts of home. A quick loop around and a few blocks back toward the bridge and we were welcomed by the glowing lights of the brewery sign from the second story patio where we asked to be seated outside.

The food and beer at MHBC were pretty good. I’d even say our kielbasa with garlic pierogies and caraway sour cream was great, and oak-aged Scottish ale, black IPA, PK Pale and Velvet Panda stout on nitro were better than average. The terrace is nice, as is the dim lit brick and iron bar area where we enjoyed our last beer after rain chased us inside. And yet, something about the place just doesn’t feel authentic.  We both picked up a very unorganic vibe, and the best way we could describe is that it seemed like they had no interest in opening a brewpub until it became the cool thing to do. Maybe it was just us, we can be picky bastards. Either way it’s worth a stop, and certainly the bright spot of downtown Poughkeepsie.

Day Two

We grabbed a fantastic breakfast at the Walkway Cafe, a two block walk from the motel toward the river. Fresh, made-to-order omelettes and french toast while we sat outside to let the crisp morning air wake us a bit, then coffees to go on a short walk down the hill toward the Walkway Over the Hudson.  We couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend the morning than a stroll across the river with miles of Hudson Valley views.

It’s a good feeling when the first stop of the day sets the bar high, and Two Roads Brewing practically shot it into the stratosphere. Similar to Harrisburg’s Appalacian Brewing, it’s a large warehouse on an industrial outskirt of Stratford, CT. The long tasting room is situated in the midst of their brewing and bottling operations, with glass picture windows all around so you watch everything happening from the bar. They have set tasting flights of four flagships and two seasonals, with a general rule that if it’s not too busy, they’ll pour whatever you want. We tried nearly everything in tasters while splitting a full pour of double IPA and there wasn’t a bad beer in the bunch. The Czech-style pilsner was especially tasty.

Two Roads doesn’t do food but they have alternating food trucks parked out front on weekends, which sounded awesome but we were a few hours too early. The bartender offered us a binder of menus from local restaurants that offered delivery and we waited for what seemed an eternity for a few sandwiches from Gaetano’s, only to be greeted by a rather testy deli employee who demanded the brewery remove them from the binder because they don’t deliver. He then handed us our bag of sandwiches, which had “GAETANO’S DELI – CALL AHEAD FOR FREE DELIVERY” printed on the outside. The same logo was printed on the wrappers and napkins. Seems like an odd logo choice for a deli that doesn’t deliver. Maybe they’re not even called Gaetano’s and it’s all a ruse. The sandwiches were good though. (UPDATE: nearly six months later and I Googled the deli to find their website still advertising free delivery.  You can’t make this shit up).

We were getting ready to leave when one of the managers stopped us to compliment Jared on his beard. Before I could mock the public display of beard camaraderie he offered us an impromptu (and quite extensive) private tour of the brewery, and let us into the gift shop to buy beer and souveniers when it wasn’t scheduled to open for another few hours. I’ve long been saying the facial hair phenomenon has overstayed its welcome, but on this day, even I was grateful for Jared’s beard.

If Two Roads set the bar high for the day, Thimble Island Brewing Company brought it crashing down. A 40 minute ride up the congested Connecticut coast to Branford and hidden in a small and unassuming industrial complex, it has absolutely no brewery feel to it. Rather it feels like you’re drinking in your buddy’s basement bar: the decor is as random as I’ve ever seen, the walls adorned with everything from sports memorabilia and music posters to photos of “I Love Lucy” and beer-themed plaques worthy of a frat house. Plus a random 4-foot light up Darth Vader on the floor.

Again I realize we can be picky bastards, but the decor wasn’t our only beef. You don’t offer tours on Fridays? Fair enough, but then who’s this group you’re bringing in to show the brewery tanks, talking to about your beer and offering samples from a special bottle of aged brew? Probably your friends, and that’s fine – perks of being chummy with the brewer, but maybe you shouldn’t do that in front of us regular people who drove five hours and included your establishment on our manly brewery tour. It was out of the way and practically a complete waste of time… practically. Their three offerings – amber ale, IPA and stout – were all very good, but their 97% rating on Beer Advocate is completely unwarranted.

We needed a pick-me-up after sitting in traffic to and from Thimble Island, and we were granted one by Coalhouse Pizza, also unassumingly located in a strip mall a few miles off of I-95 in Stamford. There are fewer combinations in life better than pizza and beer and Coalhouse does it exceptionally well. Check their menu for their unconventional pizza combinations and NY/CT-centric draft list and know I’m not exaggerating when I say the four hour drive from central PA would be worth it for a pie and a few pints. As if that’s not enough, the walls and tabletops are decorated with large-scale prints of R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country and the sounds of good ol’ early Americana fill the place and spill out onto the patio.

Jared had previously been to the Peekskill Brewery in NY and spent much of the day’s drive raving about their honey chipotle wings. We hadn’t eaten in almost 45 minutes, when we’d wolfed down nearly an entire pizza with a massive amount of toppings so we were due for some more grub. The room forms a U shape around the bar and everything is bare bones concrete and steel, making it one of the loudest pubs I’ve ever had a beer in. The noise was seriously deafening; I was struggling to converse with Jared sitting three feet away. We kept it light with an IPA and a honey saison, both good but nothing remarkable. He wasn’t kidding about the wings though. They alone were worth the stop, and among the best wings I’ve ever had.

We ended the day’s festivities on a great note with Newburgh Brewing in Newburgh, NY. Another warehouse brewery, this one was a little more difficult to find with its back alley entrance and lack of neighborhood street lights. We made our way to the second floor and found a nice wide open space filled with German-style long beer tables, an assortment of arcade games and billiards and a long bar with 12 selections on tap, half of which were session beers. Saison, Hop Drop DIPA and Berliner Weisse were great but I was anxious to try the C.A.F.E. Sour. The acronym is Coffee Acquired From Ethiopia, and I’d read just days before we left that Thrillist named it one of the best and most unique beers in America. A sour beer infused with coffee sounded like a strange combination, but it’s worthy of the accolade.

Even the best brewpubs too often settle for lackluster live music, but Dan Stokes is anything but. He plays songs you know, but haven’t gotten sick of – we walked in to a Colin Hay tune and heard Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, to name a few. I asked if he knew any Tom Waits, expecting to maybe hear “Ol’ 55″ if anything. Instead he politely obliged with “Hold On”, “Heartattack and Vine” and “Drunk on the Moon.” All while wearing a kilt, no less. We relaxed to the songs of one of our favorite singers over a game of bumper pool, the rules of which we made up after Googling the actual rules proved them too hard to follow. Jared claims he won but I’m pretty sure I kicked his ass.

We retired to the New Windsor Motel, another no-frills joint stuck in the late 1980’s with floral pattern comforters and pink bathroom fixtures. Still, it was cheap and clean, with comfortable beds to collapse on and chat about our fantastic day marred only by the Thimble Island experience, and our tandem near heart attacks brought on by some asshole driving the wrong way on the bypass and nearly crashing into us. We ate our Coalhouse leftovers and drifted off to the sounds of traffic outside, wondering just how fashionably late we’d be for our brunch gig in the morning.

Day Three

An Echo & Sway gig is a unique thing. We’re not the most refined duo; we don’t practice often due to families, jobs, other musical and creative ventures, and life in general. We’re often unrehearsed (and in this case, barely awake) but there’s a lot of heart and soul in what we do, and it’s always a good time. We were scheduled for noon at Sweet Pea’s Cafe in New Windsor, with a pre-show breakfast at 11:00. Though just a short drive from the motel, we were still fashionably late at 11:20. Thankfully they anticipated as much, posting a start time of Noon-ish on their Facebook while playfully ribbing us with the line “you know how musicians are.” I liked them already.

The owners and staff at Sweet Pea’s were among the friendliest bunch we’ve encountered at any venue. They welcomed us with smiles and waited on us hand and foot, never letting our coffee get cold. We played to a sizeable crowd for two hours and then they packed us a lunch to go, which saved us when we got stuck in construction and starving around Matamoras for an hour. Everything was delicious and we couldn’t have asked for anything better. If you’re in the Hudson Valley, Sweet Pea’s is worth seeking out. They’ll treat you right.

Every day’s got to have a hiccup, and Saturday’s was worse than the Thimble Island debacle. We drove about 20 minutes out of our way to find Westtown Brew Works & Hop Farm, a relatively new startup. Their website advertised them as being open, with Saturday tasting hours from 11-6. There are also a number of photos of the property, growlers, people sipping beer out of tasters and a list of their current selections. Imagine our surprise when we climbed to the top of their long dirt driveway to find an unfinished barn and rather motley looking crew sitting around a card table smoking cigarettes. After a few minutes one of them trudged over looking like that creepy stoner uncle that shows up occasionally at family barbeques, and the conversation went something like this:

Us: “Are you open?”
Him: “Naw. Few weeks yet.”
Us: “Your website says you’re open.”
Him: “Yup we gotta change that.”
Us: “Do you have any beer we can sample while we’re here?
Kind of a long drive to get out here.”
Him: “Naw. Not open yet. Few weeks.”
Us: “What kinds of styles are you brewing?”
Him: “Few differn’t ones.”
Us: “Okay. Um, are local brewers gonna use your hops too?”
Him: “Yup.”
Us: “Uh, okay. Thanks.”
Him: “Yup. Few weeks.”

No exaggeration there. He had no interest in chatting about their farm or anything beer related, so why they started a hop farm is beyond me. I felt foolish, like maybe we should’ve called ahead but when it’s August and the website says TASTING ROOM OPEN SPRING 2014 in big, bold letters, we assumed that well, they were open. Maybe we caught them all in a game of strip poker, but he couldn’t have hustled us out of there faster, it was a very weird vibe. I began to fear Leatherface running out of the barn towards us, so we left promptly. A bigger waste of time than Friday; at least Thimble Island had beer to drink.

A long stretch of I-84 across PA brought us to our last stop of the day, and the best IPA of the trip at Wilkes-Barre’s Breaker Brewing Company.  Breaker resides in an old schoolhouse atop a hill in a residential area, easy to bypass so be on the lookout for a big horse on rollerskates outside the door. The main bar area is a nicely lit room with hardwood floors, pub tables fashioned out of old church pews (a pew I don’t mind sitting in one bit), photos of the area’s coal mining heritage on the walls and a large chalkboard with the daily food and beer offerings on display. The attentive gal at the bar was quick to get us beer menus and chat about their unorthodox brews, like Blackberry Jalapeno ale, chocolate mint ale (ale, not stout or porter), and grapefruit ale. They’re fond of flavor experimentation and while I can’t say I’d enjoy a full pint of some of the aforementioned, they were worth sampling.

The regular pale ale was quite thirst-quenching, but none of it mattered because the Mosaic Hop IPA became the only beer we cared about. Hell, it pretty much trumped every beer we’d had the previous few days. The citrusy hops punch you in the face in the very best way. I’m not great at deconstructing little nuances in beer flavor (it’s why I don’t write more reviews on Beer Advocate) but if you gave up beer for a solid month then took a sip of something like Yuengling Lager, for a moment it would be the best beer you ever tasted. Well, we’d been drinking delicious beer for three straight days and that’s what the Mosaic Hop IPA was, but it didn’t last a moment… long after the first sip, even after the growlers we brought home were empty, I’m still confident in saying it’s one of the top five best IPAs I’ve ever tasted.

Speaking of growlers, Breaker is the first brewery I’ve seen to offer a more fun alternative to recycling plastic milk jugs.  In our short time at the bar we saw several patrons forego the traditional glass vessel and opt instead to carry their beer home in empty Galliker’s containers.  With my son downing gallon after gallon of whole milk like there’s a shortage, I think I’ll be tossing some of the empty jugs in the trunk of my car before the next trip to Breaker.

We returned home to my little boy running around the driveway waiting for us, and my loving wife’s homemade “Welcome Home Beer Bros” sign hanging in the window. We unpacked the car and divvied up our beer and souvenirs, then Jared headed home to his lovely family. Later that night when our little hurricane was asleep and my wife and I were catching up over a few pints of Mosaic Hop IPA on the couch, I thought about how important Man Voyage has become, and will continue to be. Some dudes bond over ball games, hunting, fishing, poker games, strip clubs… we take in the best food, drink and scenery this land has to offer, and I couldn’t be happier with our choice of hobby, or the sense of fellowship it brings. What’s better is that in about 20 years, we’ve got two more dudes to add to our annual jaunt, and share in the joy that Man Voyage brings.

Actually, maybe we’ll bring them along in 16 years and make them drive.

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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