The Epic Road Trip: Pt. One
It all began while enjoying beers on the deck one summer evening. The Great American Beer Festival was approaching, and we needed to make plans. Then it occurred to us: “Hey, why don’t we drive this year?” And so we did. We loaded up our Mazda Miata, put her top down and put on our beer traveler motoring goggles. Sixteen days, 4,100 miles and 13 states later, we’re back to report on our adventures.
So buckle your seat belt; we’re heading west and you’re invited along for a virtual ride.
The route from Michigan to Colorado runs along I-80, across the heartland. We know what you’re thinking: all that space between the Mississippi River and the Rockies is a beer desert. Fact is, though, there’s good brew out there if you take the time to look. Here’s a sampling of what we found.
You Call That Heaven?
Our first stop west of the river was Old Capitol Brew Works and Public House in Iowa City. Folks love their beer in Hawkeye country. In fact, at football games, the school band plays “In Heaven There Is No Beer” almost as often as the Iowa fight song. We rolled into town on a lazy Sunday afternoon and pretty much had the brewpub to ourselves. That gave us a chance to chat with the bartender over a pint and a half-price plate of nachos.
The conversation turned to this establishment’s interesting history. During the ‘70s, it was known for cheap beer and a biker clientele. More recently, it was another brewpub called Fitzpatrick’s. Then, a year ago, it was taken over by its present management. The growing lineup of house beers ranges from a Belgian wit to a nut brown ale, and there are also micro and import guest beers on tap. And something old, too―beer cans from yesteryear, which brought bad memories of our “starving student” days.
Our next stop required a slight detour off I-80 to Amana, originally founded as a religious community. It functioned along communal lines until the Great Depression and today it’s one of Iowa’s top tourist attractions. Oddly for a German-American community, Amana had a number of wineries but only one brewery. Three Amana residents founded Millstream Brewing Co. (the state’s oldest micro) in 1985. It’s a small operation with a tiny tasting room whose windows look into the brewery. The tasting room is filled with German-themed souvenirs, breweriana and six-packs to go, including a 20th anniversary doppelbock. We ordered an award-winning Vienna-style lager called Schild Brau Amber and a German-style Pilsner at the stand-up bar and took them into the outside beer garden. There we sat under hop vines at a wooden table mounted on a beer barrel and listened to German beer hall songs.
Mugging in Court
We reached Des Moines with darkness falling and thunderstorms crackling in the distance. Downtown we found “Des Moines’ Original Brew Pub,” the Court Avenue Brewing Co. It occupies the ground floor of a building that has quite a history. Established in 1881 as a saddlery, the structure has also housed a stove manufacturer, a glove company, and the Kaplan Hat Company (which the house hefeweizen honors). Court Avenue recalls the state’s brewing history on its brick walls with decorative labels inspired by breweries that fell victim to Prohibition. The pale ale is brewed using a yeast strain from the National Collection of Yeast Cultures in London―and you can’t get much more genuine than that!
We’ve seen mug collections at many other brewpubs, but here we found a cabinet full of mugs signed by passing celebrities, including Al Franken and Jerry Seinfeld. Before calling it a night, we struck up a conversation with the bar staff, who showed us around the brewery and told us that they, too, were headed to the GABF.
Big Game, Micro Beers
Entering Nebraska, we thought we’d timed our arrival into Omaha perfectly, missing the lunch rush as the Crescent Moon Ale House. But there was a snag: parking was a challenge, and we had to settle for a spot blocks away. The alehouse looks like a hole in the wall from the outside, but it’s warm and friendly inside with a loyal local clientele. Casual doesn’t begin to describe this place, where the bar staff wears Pabst Blue Ribbon T-shirts and the walls are filled with breweriana, both old and new. Crescent Moon has the widest range of beer in town and its specialties are micros from the nation’s heartland. Downstairs you’ll find the new Huber Haus, a beer hall that offers five German beers on tap. Before leaving, we learned a little trivia: according to local legend, the Reuben sandwich was invented right across the street.
We spent the night in Kearney, a town of 30,000 that happens to boast two breweries. A short drive took us through a gauntlet of chain restaurants and across the railroad tracks into the small cobblestone and brick downtown, where we located the Thunderhead Brewing Co. More than a century ago, this was a tavern operated by the Schlitz Brewing Co. Tied houses were legal back then and, according to the deed mounted on the wall, the building was sold in 1919, subject to one restriction: beer couldn’t be sold on the premises for 20 years.
Thunderhead has a small taproom downstairs and a larger room above. The taproom décor is simple, consisting of a World Beer Cup award, some liter-sized mugs and photos of thunderstorms over the plains. Little did we know that those photos were a preview of things to come. And the beer? It was a pleasant surprise. The lineup includes eight house beers, including a peach wheat and espresso stout. There are guest ales and house sodas as well.
Just a few blocks away is the Platte Valley Brewing Co., a four-year-old establishment across the street from the tracks. From our seats close to the picture window, we watched half a dozen freight trains rumble past as we enjoyed our pints. There were six beers on tap, including a Mexican-style lager, two wheat beers and an altbier. Close to the tap handles was a “Free Beer Tomorrow” sign and a small library of beer books.
Platte Valley is a Great Plains version of a British pub, a place where friends can gather and converse. Since it was Monday night, the football game was on and it was guys’ night out around the bar. Away from the bar is a comfy-looking fireplace and a game room. While we were there, brewer-owner Adam Drake dropped in for a pizza and a pint. Regulars said there’s usually a good chance you’ll see him tending bar and chatting up customers.
Someone once told us that that Nebraska was “where the West begins and the East peters out.” That was definitely true by the time we reached Paxton. Its downtown consists of half a dozen blocks, and its main attraction is Ole’s Big Game Steakhouse and Lounge, which has grown into a bar and restaurant that attracts tourists by the busload. Taking a closer look around―and the staff expects you to do so―we found a couple hundred other stuffed animals (everything from bison to zebras), along with photos of the various senators, astronauts and entertainers who’ve dropped by over the years. The collection started when founder “Ole” Herstedt mounted a deer head inside his tavern. Egged on by customers, Herstedt roamed the world in search of more exotic game.
As you might expect in a place like this, beef dominates the food menu, but we found soups, burgers and pub grub as well. In addition to national brands, the tap selections included Empyrean, Boulevard and New Belgium.
Shelter from the Storm
West of Paxton, Mother Nature let us know who remains the boss of the Plains. The sky turned an ugly shade of gray, and before long we were caught in a storm straight out of a Willa Cather novel. By the time we crossed into Wyoming, the air had turned chilly and more ugly clouds loomed on the horizon. It was clearly time to find a port in the storm: the Snake River Pub and Grill in Cheyenne. It’s located in the historic Union Pacific train depot, just south of the capitol.
The city greets visitors with some unusual street art, including a pair of giant cowboy boots mounted on the sidewalk. Inside the pub, the ambience is modern and airy, a far cry from the stereotypical Old West. Just inside the entrance, brewing vessels stand guard. Further inside, the stainless-steel bar fills an entire center island. Large picture windows on either side provide a view of downtown or, if you prefer, the train tracks on the other side. The décor (and a pint of the house ESB) soon put us into a mellower mood. Snake River’s rotating selection of six to 10 beers also includes an amber ale, a cream ale and a sweet stout.
Cheyenne was our last stop on I-80 before we turned south and headed toward Denver. We took a more southerly route home, which offered much more to discover (including a surprise or two!). We’ll tell you all about in the next issue.
Paul Ruschmann and Maryanne Nasiatka are writers and researchers who call Michigan home. They travel as much as their budget permits, visiting many of the great places where great beer is brewed and enjoyed.