By Dennis Dunham
I grew up in Ohio on Stroh’s. I went to Penn State (IC Light pumpers!), so probably the first good beer I had was Leinenkugel’s, courtesy of my brother-in-law from Wisconsin. My dad grew up on a farm drinking dandelion wine, so I didn’t get it from him. He did drink scotch, though. In his later years, I tried to interest him in dark craft beers, but he never caught the bug.
My maternal grandmother emigrated from Bohemia, an orphan at 15. Even after 70 years in the United States, everything was “too cold,” “too sweet” and “the beer too thin.” I now know what she meant, though I didn’t like my first oatmeal stout, bowling at the student union in Madison. I eventually developed a taste for the heartier beers, and my wife, from Pittsburgh, now drinks stouts and porters exclusively.
I may have simply stumbled upon my initial brewpub experience, a place in Grayling, MI, one night driving north on I-75. Or did I stop along U.S. 2, traveling to a Duluth Dukes baseball game? The history is muddled, but all memoir is fiction. I started collecting brewpubs.
My first bout of collecting began with espresso bars in the mid-90s. I was traveling throughout Minnesota for work, and always looking for (and rarely finding) good espresso. I had a precocious, then-10-year-old, programmer son. We purchased the domain name espressobars.net, and he set up a database of places in Minnesota claiming to brew espresso. My goal became to test espresso and write reviews for the site. Sometimes I received free shots as the site gained traction.
My other current collection is baseball stadiums: I have, thus far, been to 19 major league stadiums (some now retired) and seven minor league parks.
So, was my first brewpub in Grayling, or Twin Ports Brewing in Allouez (Superior) Wisconsin, back when it was in the Choo Choo bar? Or was it South Shore in Ashland, before The Depot burned down and they moved? Whichever the christening, soon following came Town Hall, Rock Bottom and Great Waters in the Twin Cities. I still visit Great Waters—the chains, not so much, although the Rock Bottom on Grand, in Chicago, is a wonderful exception.
In 2004, my travel increased dramatically and I found myself with enough airline miles to sit up front, and in enough cities to start truly evaluating the various craft beer cultures. In 2006, I purchased the business I worked for, in part to fine-tune my travel to hit more brewpubs. Before every trip, I search for at least one new outlet to explore for porters and good food. And find them I have: in 27 states and 80 cities, in towns with fewer than 2,000 people, and in places like Chicago, St. Louis, Houston and Seattle.
I find them in old hotels and rail stations, in strip malls and gas stations, even a former church. Steel sheds, movie theaters and old department stores, too. On three coasts and in the desert, in suburbs and on Liberty Avenue. I find them on ratebeer.com and beer100.com, and in The Brewing News and All About Beer, or through Google and by word of mouth. I have been back to more than 40 and only walked out of one. I even drove 900 miles in one day to get back to one of the best (Beaver Street Brewing in Flagstaff, AZ).
Brewpubs are the complete package: beer, food, people who like beer and people who talk about beer! Traveling is not fun, but I have spent a couple of afternoons in Missoula that more than make up for canceled flights and airline food.
Twin Ports is now Thirsty Pagan. Allendale’s is on its third or fourth name, and several places have closed for good. Some are now just restaurants. Brewpubs seem to fare worse in college towns; most kids won’t pay $4 for a beer, but KBC, West Virginia Brewing (now Morgantown) and Gentle Ben’s are happy exceptions.
I favor porters, but also enjoy the occasional wheat or rye and a range of IPAs, and I almost always have dinner (OK, sometimes lunch) with my beer. I have padded the list with a few tasting rooms—I couldn’t leave off Big Sky on a technicality!
I have had great beer and bad beer and sour beer, and, at a waitress’s suggestion in Minneapolis, tasteless beer (as in, “you have to try the porter; it is utterly tasteless”). The food is often good, the chains consistent, and the best places independent and in surprising locales such as Winston-Salem, Rapid City and Louisville, or the old Falstaff plant in St. Louis.
Back home in Duluth, MN, looking out at Lake Superior and sipping a Big Boat Stout, or a Scanlon IPA or a Coal Car (uh, sorry, “Burntwood Black” these days) Ale, I get a hankering for a wheat or a blonde IPA. I go to Delta.com and think, “I am sure I need to go to Kansas City.” Sounds like the start of a great trip.
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