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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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