How To Be A Happy Beer Traveler
Don and Janet Webb considered themselves lucky to find the New Mexico IPA Challenge—a traveling, three-day festival in July featuring 10 India pale ales—but it wasn’t pure luck that they ended up sampling the field at Blue Corn Café & Brewery in Albuquerque.
The Webbs, who live in Seattle, found a surprising taste of home because they already practice good beer traveling habits. They prepared in advance, they asked questions, they were adaptable, and they were willing to drive a few extra miles.
When Don was laid off from his job at McGraw-Hill earlier this year, he decided to use some of his severance to take a beer odyssey. He first headed across the northern states, then south to Chicago and over to Cleveland before working his way southwest. He then traveled north from Arizona to complete the journey at the Oregon Brewers Festival in Portland at the end of July.
Janet joined him for part of the trip, flying into St. Louis and then back home from Las Vegas. They used two books to navigate their way: Eat Your Way Across the U.S.A. by Jane and Michael Stern, and The Beer Lover’s Guide to the USA by (full disclosure here) the authors of this column. (A side note: the Sterns’ books are an essential resource for our travels as well.)
The Webbs had no plans to eat or drink in Santa Fe or Albuquerque, but a nasty afternoon summer thunderstorm caused them to spend a night in eastern New Mexico. The next morning, they consulted their guidebooks and decided to have breakfast at Horseman’s Haven in Santa Fe and lunch at nearby Wolf Canyon Brewing Co. When they discovered that Wolf Canyon had shut down, they quickly figured out that Blue Corn-Santa Fe was just up the road.
At Blue Corn, a server told them, “If you like hops, you should go to Second Street” (Brewery, also in Santa Fe). And at Second Street, they were told “if you like hops,” then the IPA Challenge was beginning that evening only 50 miles down the road in Albuquerque.
The Challenge offered up nine New Mexico breweries serving 10 IPAs, and part of the first American Beer Month Challenge Cup. The first brewery to sell through a keg of IPA won a nifty trophy crafted to look like a fermenter. Blue Corn-Albuquerque won possession of the cup until next July, when the competition will be held again.
It was an event for locals—for those who wandered into the respective pubs and for beer lovers enticed to venture out on a weekday evening to sample 10 IPAs in the same spot. Homebrewer Bill Aimonetti was only half kidding when he walked into the Blue Corn courtyard and said he stopped because “I could smell hops from the freeway.”
Because they live in Seattle, the Webbs’ opinion of the beers being offered gained immediate weight. “People go nuts for (IPAs) in Seattle,” Don said. “This is like being in the Northwest.”
He was introduced to Rod Tweet, the Second Street brewer whose IPA was State Fair gold medalist in 2001 and silver medalist in 2002. “As soon as I tasted (Tweet’s IPA), there were all the hops I like,” Don said. “This truly reminds me of home.”
Rules to Travel By
Everybody has his or her own favorite beer traveling story. It may be the time a brewer invited them into the cellar for a special tasting. It could be an outstanding meal (with proper beer pairings). It might be a conversation they heard while eavesdropping on regulars. It is often as simple as finding an outstanding beer.
Don and Janet Webb wandered into one of those stories, but they didn’t get there totally by accident. We can’t guarantee that following these seven rules of good beer traveling will get you to an event similar to the IPA Challenge, but they will give you a better chance.
1. Do your research first. The most obvious guidebook is ours, but it has been three years since the manuscript went to the printer. Several regional guidebooks were published in the 1990s but their timeliness is also fading, and they tend to focus more on breweries and brewpubs than bars. The most timely books are from Lew Bryson, with his Pennsylvania Breweries book available now and a New York guide in the works.
You don’t have to stop at beer-specific books. General travel books include places with a wide beer selection, historic saloons, etc. Though you may think of them as simple, the AAA guides have plenty of such information. We bookmark those pages or put copies of the information in a notebook (our guide originated from such a notebook).
The Internet is loaded with information that may be more timely, containing more consumer recommendations than you can find anywhere else. But it can also be just as out of date and biased.
If there is one rule that will keep you a happy beer traveler: Confirm that a place is open before you try to visit.
2. Check out the local resources. When you arrive in a new town, grab the free local weekly (it will likely focus on entertainment and dining). Look for reviews and listings, but also be sure to read the advertisements. Then look in the Yellow Pages. If there is a local homebrew supply shop, call them and ask where they drink beer and shop for beer. Check the phone book for breweries and brewpubs, then taverns. You might find something appealing in display advertising, but there’s also a chance that the name will tell you something about a place: Jack’s American Alehouse, Ludwig’s German Beer & Dining, etc. If you are feeling particularly bold, give the local distributors a call, ask them what they sell and who their best clients are.
This is also the time to make sure you know how to get where you are going, and it doesn’t hurt to get directions even if you printed out a map from the Internet. When in doubt, call the establishment.
3. Ask questions. When you check into a motel, ask the clerk about beer. At lunch, ask your server about beer. People like to talk about beer, and you never know what they will tell you. Not only will socializing improve your bar or brewpub experience, but in those settings, there’s a better chance of running into a person with special beer knowledge. Ditto for beer store patrons. It doesn’t have to be a one-way street. Perhaps you can provide information about an area the person you are talking to will visit soon, or in a beer store, comment on beers he or she has wondered about but not had a chance to sample.
4. Find out who the beer guy is. It can be as simple as asking the bartender. He or she may be the expert, could summon the brewer or beer buyer, and might even point you to a customer at the end of the bar.
5. Ask the right questions. Once you get used to asking questions, you’ll quickly learn it’s important to ask the right ones. The server at the lunch counter where you eat may have no idea what you mean by flavorful beer. Somebody else may direct you to a brewpub with great beer but dreadful food, or vice versa. You don’t want to head to a restaurant that doesn’t allow smoking if you want to have a cigarette with your beer, or vice versa. The best way to learn is when you head someplace based on a stranger’s advice and think “I should have asked about (smoking or a children’s menu)” to write that down. After a while you’ll have a good checklist. You’ll still have to phrase your questions to take into account personal biases—one person’s idea of a great beer selection is 100 taps on the wall, while another will send you to a spot with 20 well-maintained, well-selected taps.
6. Watch the clock. First, you don’t want to show up someplace when it’s not open. Find out what days an establishment is open, then what hours. Second, the ecological balance of many great brewpubs-bar-restaurants changes during the day. Happy hour may be inviting and not quite loud, dinner more sedate, the early evening a time for locals, and late night younger and louder. The best way to find out? Call and ask.
7. Travel with a portable cooler. We’re not talking a big heavy Coleman that holds a case or two, but something you can fold in your luggage when it isn’t full of beer. You may use it to carry home a growler that you buy at a brewpub. You could find a six-pack of beer you can’t get at home, or discover a favorite new beer.
Just as the Webbs were happy to find a taste of home in New Mexico, you may enjoy finding a taste of the road at home.