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.  

 

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