Two roads diverged in a wood, and I―
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
Robert Frost must’ve known what he was talking about. In fact, the original draft of his poem likely could have ended, “And that ale has made the difference.” For when you find yourself at a crossroads, about to embark on an epic beer voyage to well-trodden destinations like California or North Carolina, consider the grassy path that wants for wear. Virtually all major beer towns have something in common―they’re on Interstates where you speed in, then speed out of town. Slow down; don’t move too fast. The Blue Highways below steer you to smaller breweries and beer cultures that know how to make the good times last.
Redwood Coast, California
In the Golden State, the San Diego Brewers Guild rattles off 25 distinct breweries operating in SoCal county, where Stone, Lost Abbey, and AleSmith steal the show to the point where masterful breweries like Ballast Point are afterthoughts. In Northern Cali, the birthplace of craft brewing (Anchor, New Albion and Sierra Nevada kick-started the revolution by 1980), the Bay Area remains at the forefront of passion and creativity, led by Russian River, Speakeasy, and brewpubs like Triple Rock that refuse to rest on their laurels. There are close to five-dozen breweries around the San Francisco Bay Area. The funny thing is, while it’s called “NorCal,” if you folded the state in half, the bay is not much above the halfway line. Exploring true Northern California requires a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway, revealing the Redwood Coast that harbors the spirit of small, independent breweries. As wine country gives way to redwood forests, you reach Mendocino and Humboldt counties―most famous for their “green” economies, but proving that cannabis’s legal cousin, Humulus lupulus, is another great reason to visit.
Highway 1, better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, lays claim as the most scenic road in America. Fort Bragg welcomes beer travelers with North Coast Brewing (455 North Main St.; northcoastbrewing.com). There’s a brewpub directly across the street from the production brewery that serves raw oysters from nearby Hog Island in Point Reyes and clams steamed in their Blue Star Wheat. For dessert, if torn between getting the Old No. 38 (dry Irish stout) brownie or the Old No. 38 ice cream, ask your server to make it à la mode. Then pair it with Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout. Better yet, have ’em bring a bottle of “Old Raspy” XII aged in bourbon barrels.
Eventually, the PCH slowly jogs through exceptionally twisty turns surrounded by coastal redwoods en route to Highway 101. It cuts directly through Humboldt Redwoods State Park and, just before returning to the coast, Eel River Brewing (1777 Alamar Way, Fortuna; eelriverbrewing.com) offers a respite. Eel River opened in a former lumber mill in 1996 and three years later became the first certified organic brewery in the country. Enjoy an array of organic ales in the beer garden along with beer-battered fish (or chicken) and chips.
During the Gold Rush, miners exclaimed “Eureka!” when they struck gold. Visitors strike liquid gold every time they step foot in the Lost Coast Brewery (617 Fourth St., Eureka; lostcoast.com). Just as the area beckoned odd characters over 150 years ago, residents and dwellers in this town are far from any big city for a reason, but that only ensures an interesting time if you settle in for a night at the bar, sipping Downtown Brown, Tangerine Wheat, or maybe a rare, remaining keg of their 20th Anniversary Ale.
Along the Lost Coast, one elegant lodging option in Eureka is the Carter House Inn (301 L St.; carterhouse.com), comprised of four Victorian homes adjacent to Arcata Bay and Old Town Eureka. This pet-friendly inn has its own restaurant, Restaurant 301, specializing in locally sourced slow food. The chef’s tasting menu, which the courteous staff seems happy to split, includes eight courses and is more than enough to feed two. Best of all, if it’s not busy, they’ll even serve it to you in the plush chairs by the fire. Emphasis is on the wine menu, including their house Carter Vineyard selections, but their limited beer list features Eel River and a draft selection from the brand new Redwood Curtain Brewing. Keep in mind that breakfast is included for guests and it’s more upscale than the grease bomb you might be craving if you overdid it at the Lost Coast pub the night before.
A few miles north, the more charming town of Arcata has a town square where you’ll find the Hotel Arcata (708 9th St.; hotelarcata.com). Listed in the National Record of Historical Places, its rooms run just over $100 a night and it’s a short walk to a redwood-filled park across the highway. An even shorter walk for dinner, hit Folie Douce (1551 G St.; holyfolie.com). Try one of the wood-fired pizzas that giddily fall under California cuisine (one is topped with local chanterelle mushrooms, gruyere and white truffle oil; another features salami, brie and apricot jam).
Redwood Curtain (550 G St., #6; redwoodcurtainbrewing.com) is the area’s newest brewery, which opened in December 2009. Rather than focus on traditional California hop bombs, the brewers proffer malt-forward Belgian and British styles. Incidentally, in case you leave their tasting room still sober―and shaggy―note that at Skidmore’s Barber Shop just blocks away (211 G St., 707-822-5234), Dena offers free beer with a haircut. She keeps a case of Mad River Steelhead Imperial IPA and some other locals in the minifridge. Mad River Brewing (101 Taylor Way, Blue Lake; madriverbrewing.com) is a short jaunt to the east and they operate a tasting room where you can sample their GABF-award winning beers that collectively earned them Small Brewery of the Year in 2010.
While in Arcata, don’t miss the opportunity to visit one of the world’s finest meaderies, Heidrun (55 Ericson Ct. #4; heidrunmeadery.com). Meadmaker Gordon Hull makes sparkling meads out of single-source honeys, mostly from California such as Avocado Blossom and Eucalyptus Blossom. Since 1998, Hull has been brewing these drier meads that are great substitutes for champagne and would be happy to show you around if you set up an appointment in advance. Hurry, since he’s planning on moving south to Marin County by the end of 2011.
Finally, a few exits north on Highway 101 puts you in McKinleyville. It’s not very well known, but Six Rivers Brewing (1300 Central Ave.; sixriversbrewery.com) is a mellow brewpub with more locals than beer pilgrims. In addition to standard offerings like IPA and pilsner, order a sampler flight to taste Kona Moon Porter (it’s one of the few coffee beers where the character of the coveted Kona beans shine through), Chile Pepper Ale (likely only for fans of hot beers who don’t think Cave Creek Chili is a beer), and Raspberry Lambic (a good gateway for those looking to cross over from sweeter wheat beers with fruit). It doesn’t hurt that its pints can be quaffed while overlooking Humboldt Bay.
Outer Banks, North Carolina
Think North Carolina beer and you think Asheville, named BeerCityUSA by Charlie Papazian two years running, as a result of an admittedly unscientific poll on his Beer Examiner blog. Breweries such as Highland, French Broad, and Wedge (and nearby Pisgah) keep the focus on Asheville. You can follow I-40 east with a respite in Winston-Salem for some of Foothills’ Sexual Chocolate, then carry on to Big Boss, Triangle, and the exciting new Fullsteam who are keeping the Triangle area hopping. But “North Cackalakey” offers much more. Far east of Raleigh, continue driving along highway 264 beyond Farmville, where Duck Rabbit works its dark (beer) magic and you’ll see that just because those are the breweries that put NC on the map, the state runs all the way to the Atlantic. There, a series of barrier islands constitute the Outer Banks―known as OBX―with its own worthy beer culture.
The OBX covers roughly the upper half of North Carolina’s Atlantic seaboard, beginning with Bodie Island―technically part of the peninsula and no longer an island―where you’ll find Kill Devil Hills and Kitty Hawk. It’s been known as the birthplace of aeronautics ever since the Wright Brothers pioneered manned flight among the sand dunes of Jockey Ridge, the largest living dunes east of the Mississippi. Hang gliders consider it a mecca to this day and take it from someone who’s tried it―it’s both exhilarating and relaxing. If you go with an instructor, it’s so safe I’d send my grandmother up. Check out Kitty Hawk Kites (kittyhawkkites.com) in Nags Head for lessons and flights.
For Phil Wayland, owner of Chip’s Wine & Beer Market (2200 N. Croatan Highway, near milepost 6 in Kill Devil Hills; chipswinemarket.com), his store is where just about every vacationer comes to buy Carolinian beer to bring home as a souvenir. Phil runs the beer side, which he has grown to stock over 450 craft beers making it the largest selection in the OBX. (His wife, Laura, runs the wine side, which has over 2,000 bottles.) Customers take advantage of the fact that he offers singles so they can compile a mixed six-pack.
For a taste of liquid Outer Banks, visitors (and supportive locals) flock to Outer Banks Brewing Station (600 S. Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills; obbrewing.com). Wayland says it’s a favorite eatery and he raves about their fresh seafood including mostly creatures caught nearby such as tuna and shrimp. North Cackalakey Fried Shrimp uses a beer batter consisting of their flagship Ölsch (a light Kölsch-style ale). Brewmaster Scott Meyer went forward with this beer because it’s the perfect light refreshing beer no matter how rigorous the pastimes that built up your thirst. Meyer notes that his wheat beers are also popular in the summer, none more so than the seasonal Lemongrass Wheat, which earned a silver medal at the 2010 World Beer Cup. Wayland includes Moondog ESB as a fave but also enjoys bigger, darker beers. OBBS’s Mack Daddy Chocolate Stout, brewed with three kinds of dark chocolate, fills that bill. Incidentally, OBBS has a tiny bottler and always makes one style available per season, so in the summer months that Lemongrass Hefe flies out the door as well as off Chip’s shelves.
Weeping Radish (6810 Caratoke Highway, Grandy; weepingradish.com), which opened in 1986 originally in Manteo, is North Carolina’s oldest craft brewery. They brew Bavarian styles according to the Reinheitsgebot purity law, and the adjoining brewpub is a tribute to sustainable farming and ranching. Just across Dowdy Bay from the town of Duck, Weeping Radish is a great place to pick up fresh beer, produce, and house-smoked meats for a beach picnic. Meyer says their butcher is so authentically Bavarian that he doesn’t even speak English.
Weeping Radish founder Uli Bennewitz has been such a trailblazer that Paul Sharron credits Bennewitz with inspiring his new venture: a nanobrewery. Sharron, along with his wife, runs Full Moon Café (208 Queen Elizabeth Street, Manteo; thefullmooncafe.com), which serves draft-only beer in downtown Manteo, with nine of the 11 taps pouring North Carolina beer. This spring, look for a house-brewed dry Irish stout and an English brown ale―both in the sub-five percent ABV session range―to round out the in-state taps.
Surfing, sea-kayaking, and ATV-riding are the area’s main draws and certainly work up a thirst that can only be slaked by draft beer. One of Wayland’s favorite places is the Red Drum Taphouse (2412 Virginia Dare Trail, Nags Head) with “nothing but craft on tap,” or at least you’re not likely to find domestic macros. Among the 18 taps, look for rarities from across the state. Wayland also suggests Barefoot Bernie’s (3730 N. Croatan Highway,Kitty Hawk; barefootbernies.com), because they also rotate through new craft beers, which is impressive for a sports bar that otherwise makes its money on nothing but mainstream beers and frozen drinks. The menu sports yellowfin tuna tacos and fresh caught mahi mahi (in case you went out fishing and somehow came back empty-handed).
For high-end dining, Wayland loves Adrianna’s(207 Queen Elizabeth Ave., Suite 5, Manteo; adriannasrestaurant.com). This waterfront restaurant opens for the season in March. Naturally, it sports an amazing wine list, but he assured us they stock “a huge selection of craft beers as well.” Of the 10 taps, they’re almost all craft and well-chosen imports. North Carolina gets plenty of love in the form of Duck Rabbit Milk Stout or Strawberry Ale from Carolina Beer in Mooresville. “Order the blue crab along with the shrimp,” advises Wayland. “They get tons of good stuff out of the Gulf Stream.”
As for getting your day started before all the relaxing and beer sampling, hearty fare is the order of the day at Stack ’Em High (1225 N. Croatan Highway, Kill Devil Hills and less than three miles down the road at 3801 N. Croatan Highway, Kitty Hawk; stackemhigh.com). “They’re locally owned and serve just outstanding pancakes,” says Wayland, not to mention local “OBX specials” that typically incorporate crab like the lump crabmeat omelet and a few “redneck specials.”
Finding accommodations in the OBX, as is the case everywhere, is a matter of taste and budget. If you choose to stay in the more populated areas, there’s Colony IV by the Sea (405 S. Virginia Dare Trail, Kill Devil Hills; motelbythesea.com), which is the No. 1 rated hotel on tripadvisor.com. A more romantic option, further south along the coast, is the White Doe Inn (319 Sir Walter Raleigh St., Manteo; whitedoeinn.com). Wayland points out that the further south you go, the more the restaurants and accommodations become upscale. Perhaps this is why the wild horses of the Outer Banks choose to romp and graze on the islands.
Brian Yaeger recently moved to Portland where he homebrews and is exploring the beers of the Pacific Northwest.