Beyond the Pint
You love beer. That’s a given. But how do you show beer you love it on a deeper level (besides reading a magazine that is all about it)? Whenever you travel, be it for a family vacation or a work trip, you always seek out local brewpubs. Maybe you’ve gone so far as to attend the Great American Beer Festival in Denver to explore tasty but short pours from coast to coast. You probably even have a beer kit you received as a gift because all your loved ones know you love beer. What next? Don’t just show your love, show your devotion.
Last May, none other than homebrew guru and Brewers Association president Charlie Papazian led a retreat in Maine for a small but fervent group of beer nuts to learn more about the beverage we love and, well, get even nuttier. This year, he returned to his getaway off the coast of Maine, which he calls “Beer Island,” and went beyond the inaugural beercation’s four-day bonanza wherein he poured 88 beers of commercial creation and his own homebrew.
This led me to ask our beloved “CP” where else a devoted beer pilgrim can visit to soak up not just suds, but true beer culture. Among his recommendations were McSorley’s Old Ale House and the August Schell Brewing Co. for its 150th anniversary. Schell’s is celebrating this milestone all year long, but the real sesquicentennial festivities will be September 17th to the 18th, which, Papazian points out, is “unfortunately the same weekend as the Great American Beer Festival” in Denver. And since he is a co-founder of the GABF, it’s easy to predict which festival he’ll be at.
Going back to McSorley’s Old Ale House (15 East 7th St., New York, NY), it’s as fine a place as any to sit, drink and think about the storied history of ale in this great land. Founded by Irishman John McSorley in 1854, it is old without being among, say, the 10 oldest bars in the U.S. But McSorley’s Old Ale House is a throwback all the same. They boast that, “from Abe Lincoln to John Lennon [has] passed through McSorley’s swinging doors.” Pass through them yourself and the bartender will ask you, “Light or dark?” He’s not asking your general preference should your tastes lie above or below 20 on the 40-point Standard Reference Method (SRM) chart of beer coloration so as to steer you toward their selection of pale ales or porters. You literally have two choices, the light or the dark ale.
I shared a few glasses (they only serve mugs, not pints) with beer writer Peter LaFrance who had invited me to join him for a few rounds. The fact that he started writing about craft beer in 1984, some 20 years before me, is a testament to this gathering spot, with sawdust on the floor and dust cascading steadfastly from the bric-a-brac adorning the walls. Sure, there are beer bars more 20th or 21st century, but only cocky folks think they’re too good for the fundamentals.
And fundamentals are precisely why Papazian’s other recommendation, August Schell’s, is still in business. The August Schell Brewing Co. (1860 Schell Road, New Ulm, MN) is situated about 100 miles southwest of the Twin Cities. It is the second oldest family-run brewery after D.G. Yuengling & Son Brewing Co. (5th and Mahantongo Sts., Pottsville, PA, established in 1829). August’s great-great-grandson, Ted Marti (August’s daughter married George Marti) runs the show with help from his three sons.
I have made the pilgrimage to the brewery, where a muster of peacocks purportedly descended from the ones that August kept strut around the grounds; the same goes for the penned deer in the gardens. If you can’t make it to the 150th Anniversary this September, plan on going in February when the extremely Germanic town of New Ulm celebrates Fasching (German Mardi Gras) and Schell’s puts on its annual Bock Fest where they’ll stick a red-hot iron in your mug of bock to caramelize the sugars and keep you toasty.
There’s also the August Schell Museum of Brewing, but for a full-blown one, visit the National Brewery Museum (209 S. Main St., Potosi, WI). And what better location than in an actual former brewery? Naturally, expect the repurposed Potosi Brewery to house artifacts from its former brand, but the museum and research library aims to be a resource for historians, fans and avid collectors of breweriana―anything and everything to do with brewery collectibles from signs and trays to promotional fishing poles and neon lights.
The most enduring example of breweriana is the beer can itself. This year marks the 75th birthday of the vaunted vessel―the Gottfried Krueger Brewing Co. in New Jersey test-marketed the idea on Richmond, VA, shelves in 1935. As it begins its resurgence among craft brewers such as Oskar Blues and Surly, it is organizations such as the Brewery Collectibles Club of America (BCCA), American Breweriana Association (ABA) and the National Association of Breweriana Advertising (NABA) that are commemorating the lofty can’s diamond anniversary.
There’s more than one person who has turned his basement or old family room into a semi-public beer can museum, but only one who stores them on the outside. The Beer Can House (222 Malone St., Houston, TX) is where homeowner John Milkovisch adorned his house with over 50,000 cans starting in 1968.Today it is preserved by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art. Tours are offered on weekends only.
How about museums that double as bars? Ye Ol’ Watering Hole (287 Pleasant St., Northampton, MA) has amassed over 4,000 specimens from cone-tops to pull-tabs. They don’t mind if you just want to take a stroll down beer can memory lane and not belly up. The same goes for Grumpy’s (860 Warm Springs Road, Ketchum, ID), a burger bar which lines its walls and ceiling with cans all donated by serious collectors that have visited Sun Valley. I went to a wedding here and the couple had their Sunday brunch at Grumpy’s (chalices of beer start at $5), thus adding a spot from a non-beercation onto the beer map. Just don’t expect a stellar selection of beers to drink at either bar.
As long as you’re in Idaho, cruise east about 150 miles to Idaho Falls. Idaho farmers plant more than half a million acres of barley and wheat a year. Most of this, naturally, goes to the large breweries and Idaho Falls has towering grain silos for both Anheuser-Busch and Grupo Modelo. A-B grows and malts so much barley (often in contract to companies such as Great Western Malting) that their grain bins, including 10 silos that hold some 200,000 bushels and are adorned with a mega-mural of their iconic Clydesdales, are a part of the landscape along Interstate 15.
A representative at Great Western Malting named Ruby told me that a great place to check out is the Aberdeen Research Center (1691 S. 2700 West, Aberdeen, ID), home to the National Small Grains Collection (NSGC), itself a part of the National Plant Germplasm System which is a subset of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Ruby said the facility stores grains from around the world that date “back to when Jesus was born.” Tours of the Aberdeen Research Center and the NGSC, which began in 1897, are available weekdays for no charge if set up in advance by calling 208-397-4162. Afterward, drive an hour east to roll by fields of barley at the foot of the majestic Grand Teton.
To see, and especially smell, beer’s other beloved ingredient, cruise through Oregon’s Willamette Valley. An agricultural paradise, area hop growers provide some of the aromatic hops craft beer lovers jones for. Most hop farms are only open to brewers, so check in advance if you want to stroll among the hop bines. Goschie Farms (7365 Meridian Rd. NE, Silverton, OR) is a third-generation family business, started in 1885. Gayle Goschie began growing organic hops, which brewers love picking fresh for wet-hop beers. Harvest season runs late summer to early fall, generally mid August through mid September. That’s the time to call Gayle at 503-873-5638 and let her know you’d like to swing by for a few fragrant minutes.
Once you’ve felt the soil beneath your feet, the barley in your hands and smelled the hops in your nose, take your love of beer to an even deeper level and make the stuff. Few homebrewers ever go pro, and for those wanting to learn to brew at a professional level, one institute of brewing learning that offers extension classes available to the lay brewer is the University of California, Davis (1333 Research Dr., Davis, CA) near Sacramento. Log into extension.ucdavis.edu/unit/brewing/ to see their classes beginning with “Brewing Basics,” which is primarily for those looking to take the next step beyond extract brewing. “Intensive Brewing Science for Practical Brewing,” is a four-day course where students “build understanding of the technological and biochemical aspects of the brewing process, including raw materials, malting, brewing, fermentation and finishing” along with “engineering concepts, sanitation, sensory evaluation and quality control.”
As an added bonus, the course is co-instructed by Dr. Charles Bamforth, a renowned malting and brewing science professor and the first Anheuser-Busch Endowed Professor of Brewing Science who, as an added bonus, is as humorous and entertaining as he is knowledgeable. My friend Jesse studied with Dr. Bamforth as an undergraduate and quotes him to this day.
Finally, so long as you’re in California, several attractions (though woefully not deemed official historical landmarks) in and around San Francisco make the Bay Area the birthplace of the craft beer revolution. Alas, the site of the New Albion Brewing Co.― America’s first microbrewery―in Sonoma does not even feature a historical marker. (I think it’s now a custom sign company.) But Anchor Brewing (1705 Mariposa St., San Francisco, CA) was revitalized as the first craft brewery when living legend Fritz Maytag rescued the 70-year-old brewery in 1965. They offer tours twice daily on weekdays―call 415-863-8350 for reservations, as the tours tend to fill up weeks in advance. The tour is free, educational and concludes with a session in the hospitality bar.
The city’s oldest brewpub, the San Francisco Brewing Co., just shuttered after 25 years, but Buffalo Bill’s (1082 B St., Hayward, CA) and Triple Rock nee Roaring Rock (1920 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, CA), opened in 1984 and 1986, respectively, still stand and offer great brews and grub. The original owners, brothers John and Reid Martin, still run Triple Rock. Brewmaster Rodger Davis has catapulted their beer menu beyond resting on their laurels as a pioneer to an industry-leading innovator specializing in West Coast-style hoppy pale ales as well as an expanding barrel-aging series. I’m told that management is working on a new location to showcase this last fact.
This summer, or next fall, winter or spring for that matter, when you fill up the gas tank, think about going somewhere to take in brewing history. Go experience beer culture you can’t find on a barstool. Go beyond the pint.
Brian Yaeger, who now writes our regular Beer Traveler column, is also a Beer Examiner and book author.