Beer on the Rails: The Simple Pleasure of Train Travel
Beer is going places. Literally—you can now find respectable selections of beer on airplanes, ferry boats and cruise lines. Delta now offers seven new lagers and ales on board its domestic flights, cruise ships are serving custom beers, and the Denver International Airport hosted a pop-up airport beer garden last year, complete with beer flights.
More beer options on land, air and sea are a good thing, but on a recent trip over the course of two months from Seattle to Los Angeles via the Amtrak Cascades (servicing Vancouver, BC, to Eugene, OR) and the Coast Starlight (from Seattle to Los Angeles), I confirmed a long-held theory: Trains offer the superior form of beer travel.
There are the obvious amenities—room to actually stretch your legs, Wi-Fi on board many routes, outlets for every seat, no security lines or fights over where to fit your overhead baggage—as well as the laid-back luxury and induced relaxation of taking 11 or 16 or 36 hours to travel somewhere.
As for enjoying beer on board, with a certain amount of discretion, bringing a six-pack or a bomber of beer on board is a viable option, if not exactly encouraged. (According to Amtrak’s “Private Stock” policy, passengers may bring their own alcoholic beverages on board but can only consume them in a sleeping cabin, for which they must have a ticket.) On-board options are decent—usually one or two regional options served in the café car alongside Heineken, Corona and Bud. While riding the Coast Starlight, you can enjoy a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, and Stone Arrogant Bastard is for sale on the Pacific Surfliner, which runs from San Luis Obispo to San Diego.
More so than most forms of transportation, long-distance train travel also encourages conversation with strangers. While watching the sun rise just north of Sacramento, I met a retired man traveling from Florida to Monterey with a small, fluffy dog, named Big Dog because he purportedly has “girlfriends in every county” and an appetite for St. Louis-style ribs. In San Francisco, I learned that if you can count the bolts on a train car’s wheel, it’s moving slow enough to jump on (an interesting estimation, but definitely not a recommendation).
But mostly you just have time to daydream while watching city outskirts and suburban backyards, canyons and coastal views, and acres of artichokes or berries pass by. Therein lies the glory of train travel: While rarely the most efficient form of transportation, it is traveling for the sake of traveling and offers a chance to literally enjoy the ride. There is a destination, but it’s likely still a ways away, so you might as well enjoy a beer.
Best West Coast Station Stops for Beer
Another bonus of beer train travel? Train stations are more likely to be located downtown and within walking distance of breweries, bars and bottle shops—perfect for a pre-departure pint or BYOB pick-up. Here are some must-hit station stops while traveling the West Coast:
Pacific Central Station, Vancouver, BC: Visit the recently opened Steel Toad Brewpub & Dining Hall in Vancouver’s Olympic Village and grab a pizza or stock up on bottles at the impressive Legacy Liquor Store. Or try a few tasters at Brassneck Brewery and fill up a growler to go.
King Street Station, Seattle: Start with a Space Dust IPA from Seattle’s iconic brewery, Elysian Brewing Co., at its SoDo (south of downtown) outpost, Elysian Fields, a five-minute walk from King Street Station. Or head to Pioneer Square, less than a 10-minute walk, for a round at Collins Pub, a laid-back bar with a solid selection of West Coast craft beers.
Union Station, Portland, OR: Walk over the Willamette River to Upright Brewing (15 minutes) for farmhouse and sour ales or downtown to Bailey’s Taproom (10 minutes) for a well-curated selection and to ogle the digital tap board that displays how much beer is left in each keg.
Eugene Depot, Eugene, OR: Eugene’s downtown Amtrak station is less than five minutes’ walk from the Tap and Growler taproom, Steelhead Brewery, about 10 minutes from The Growler Guys and 15 minutes from Oakshire Brewing Public House.
Jack London Square Station, Oakland, CA: Get off in Oakland for a stop at Beer Revolution, featuring 50 rotating drafts, and The Trappist, one of the best beer bars in the Bay Area with a drool-worthy tap list, backyard beer garden and perfect presentation for every pour.
Santa Barbara Train Station, Santa Barbara, CA: This pleasant coastal college town is very walkable—Figueroa Mountain Brewing Co. in the trendy Funk Zone, home to a bevy of wine-tasting rooms, is just five minutes from the station, and nearby Lucky Penny features pizza, sandwiches, coffee and beer.
Union Station, Los Angeles: Union Station is among the most beautiful Amtrak stations on the West Coast, with an old-school glamour feel and stretches of palm trees out front. Beer spots within walking distance are not as impressive, but Sunset Beer Co., a bottle shop with a small draft selection and cozy tasting room, and Mohawk Bend, a largely vegan restaurant with loads of craft beer options, are a short drive away in Echo Park.
Various Stations, San Diego: If you step off in Oceanside, Bagby Beer Co., a spacious brewery, beer garden and full-fledged restaurant, is a 10-minute walk from the station. The downtown San Diego Station is a 15-minute walk from Bottlecraft Beer Shop and Tasting Room in Little Italy, and not much farther from Ballast Point’s new tasting room and kitchen.
Finally, it would be remiss not to mention Paso Robles, home to Firestone Walker, or Chico, birthplace of Sierra Nevada, as station stops. Both are beyond walking distance, but you can call a taxi and spend an afternoon touring and tasting at two of California’s most notable breweries.
This story appears in the March 2015 issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Heather Vandenengel is a freelance beer and travel writer and news editor for All About Beer Magazine.