In the last issue of All About Beer Magazine, we invited you to join our “Epic Road Trip” to last year’s Great American Beer Festival. We packed up our Mazda Miata, put the top down and started westward along I-80. But our way west was only half of the story. After all, we did have to go home eventually.
Since opening its doors in 1995, the Blind Tiger has become the largest brewery in Kansas, turning out more than 1,000 barrels per year. We entered through a reception area and saw a tiger—fortunately, not a real one—gnawing at a keg of beer. We passed him, and headed inside.
This time the highway heads back east, so buckle your seat belt again. And we’re off!
Before hitting the road, however, there was one last item of business to be handled. We asked the bellman at our hotel to have our Miata brought up from the parking garage. When it emerged from the garage, he looked at it, glanced over to our cooler and stack of luggage, and sniffed, “There’s no way that’s all going into that car.”
“Wanna bet?” we replied.
Of course, everything fit just fine. It always does. Had we bothered to collect all the packing bets we’ve made with bellmen over the years, we’d have enough money by now to buy a brand-new Miata, plus a set of luggage to go with it. Luckily for the bellhop, we merely smiled, handed him a tip and pointed the car toward our first destination, Colorado Springs.
Fun at the Phantom
In the heart of Colorado Springs’ downtown district, we found the Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. It occupies the Cheyenne Building, which was constructed in 1901 for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, and has since hosted a variety of tenants. But by 1993, the building was close to being leveled. That’s when John Hickenlooper, the founder of Wynkoop Brewery and a key figure in reviving Denver’s Lower Downtown, arrived on the scene.
Hickenlooper worked his magic at Phantom Canyon. Its interior is open and airy, with an “Old West” feel. Huge picture windows in the dining room look west toward the Rocky Mountains, which were at their most photogenic on this sunny Sunday. We were told that the view was even better upstairs, where there was a full bar, 12 tournament-style billiard tables and a jukebox. We knew we’d soon be leaving the Rockies behind, so we savored the view as we enjoyed a couple of hefeweizens (the pint of the day priced at only $2). The lineup at Phantom Canyon, by the way, includes eight other beers plus two cask selections.
Had we known how strong the wind would blow as we descended toward I-70, we might have waited another day. Luckily, the Miata was built for handling the road, and she did. Our next stop was Hays, KS—a place that, a week earlier, we’d have been hard-pressed to find on a road atlas and certainly wouldn’t associate with good beer. But last year, Gella’s Diner and Liquid Bread Co. put Hays on the craft-beer map. Gella’s celebrated its grand opening during the weekend of the GABF in high style, winning a silver medal in the British Stout category. Not only was that stout Gella’s first GABF entry, it was the very first batch of beer Steve Wyman brewed there. (You might recognize his name: Steve came to Gella’s from the Blind Tiger in Topeka—another stop on our itinerary.)
Hays is a town of 20,000-plus, with a state university campus and a medical center. Gella’s sits across from the Hays Arts Center in a downtown that’s coming back to life. Many of the area’s residents are Volga Germans, who still speak a version of that language. “Gella,” we found out, is slang for “That’s right, isn’t it?” Locals also refer to beer as “liquid bread” (why not? it has the same ingredients), and the menu uses bread terms to describe portions of beer. (For example, at Gella’s, a growler is called a “loaf.”) Guests can choose from an ambitious 14-beer menu that, fittingly, emphasizes German styles. How, we asked, did a first-class brewpub spring up in Hays? It turned out that some prominent townspeople invested in Gella’s, hoping that it would pay dividends in the form of a more vibrant community. Talk about a win-win situation!
Travelers of the South Wind
As we left Hays and got back on I-70, the wind howled from the south and stayed with us all day. (Did you know that “Kansas” comes from an Indian word meaning “people of the south wind”? Now we know why.) By the time we reached Topeka, we were a little frazzled, not to mention thirsty. Fortunately, the Blind Tiger Brewery was easy to find from the interstate. It’s on a busy cross-street south of downtown and, as an aid to navigation, you can see the Kansas state capitol from the parking lot.
The name originates from the Prohibition-era custom of displaying stuffed tigers to alert speakeasy customers that booze was available. This Blind Tiger, however, doesn’t need to advertise on the sneak. Since opening its doors in 1995, it has become the largest brewery in Kansas, turning out more than 1,000 barrels per year. We entered through a reception area and saw a tiger—fortunately, not a real one—gnawing at a keg of beer. We passed him, and headed inside.
Walking around the eight-level building, we noticed that the Blind Tiger’s brewing equipment was scattered throughout it. The brew kettle and mash tun stood behind glass, and the brewery’s World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Festival medals were on display in a trophy case nearby. Interestingly, the fermentation tanks are placed in the open, so customers can mingle with them.
Returning to the O-shaped wooden bar, we made our selections from the nine beers on tap. This being Kansas, there’s a wheat beer on the menu; the rest of the range extends from a very hoppy IPA to a full-bodied Tiger Paw Porter, and includes a beer on handpump. Pints were only $3. And here’s a tip for travelers: at the Blind Tiger, you can buy beer to go, even on Sundays, when Kansas liquor stores and gas stations can’t sell it.
Roll on, Columbia
Evening was coming, but we fought off our road fatigue, knowing that the wind was dying down—and that there would be good beer at the next stop: the Flat Branch Pub & Brewery (of Columbia, MO). The Flat Branch is the first brewery to operate in Columbia for more than 150 years. It’s named for the creek that provided water to the area’s first settlers.
The brewpub is inside a 1920s-vintage warehouse with a trussed roof that once housed Studebaker, Oldsmobile and Rambler dealerships. Fortunately, that doesn’t appear to be an omen; the Flat Branch has been in business for a dozen years. Inside, the brewing vessels stand to the side of a high-ceilinged barroom area. The front picture window opens up on a wood stone pizza oven. The oven, and the sight of someone hand-tossing a pizza, were enough to whet our appetites.
The Flat Branch’s location (a few blocks north of the University of Missouri campus) attracts a varied clientele. The warm late-summer weather lured most of them into the large beer garden filled, which was filled with tables underneath green and white umbrellas. It’s a quiet oasis in downtown Columbia. Servers were friendly and attentive, and the late-night happy hour—featuring half-price pizza and reduced pints—made it all the better. (Beer Traveling doesn’t have to bust your budget, you know.)
The beer menu, posted on blackboards above the reception area and in the barroom, listed eight beers, including British IPA, or “BIPA,” an English-style India pale ale brewed with only Goldings hops and a special British yeast culture. Also on tap was a Green Chile Beer, spiced with Anaheim and Serrano peppers, which the staff recommends with tomato juice. Flat Branch also distills its own single-malt Scotches and bourbon in small batches.
The next day, we meandered across the rest of Missouri, then southern Illinois and Indiana, before stopping for the night in New Albany, IN (just across the Ohio River from Louisville, KY). To our shock, we soon discovered we’d just entered “Time Zone Hell.” Officially, Indiana is on Eastern Standard Time, but our hotel was on Daylight Saving Time, to stay in synch with those who lived and worked south of the river. So, it turned out, was our destination: Rich O’s Public House. Were it not for some excellent directions from the gentleman who answered the phone there, we might have showed up near—or after—closing time.
Rich O’s is part of a complex that also includes the New Albanian Brewery, whose beers are available in the beer bar, and Sports Time Pizza. Its atmosphere was more like a college-town coffeehouse than a beer bar. The interior decor was Contemporary You-Name-It: hand-me-down wooden furniture, a few church pews; and, on the mustard-colored walls, diplomas from various institutions of learning; breweriana; Rolling Stone magazine covers; and—hey, this is Indiana—photos from basketball games. Not to be missed is the Red Room, a mini-museum inexplicably filled with pictures of Communist icons. It’s all tongue-in-cheek: after all, how subversive can a bar be if Willie Nelson is playing on the sound system?
And then there was the beer. The bottled beer menu ran a full 10 pages long and was arranged by country. The listing ran well beyond the usual suspects. We were pleased to find vintage ales such as J.W. Lee’s Late Harvest and Gale’s Prize Old Ale, not to mention ciders and meads. Even better, the ever-changing selection included bottle and draft specials listed on two blackboards in the main room. We spotted De Dolle Dubulier, Spezial Rauchbier, and Rogue Schwarzbier on tap; and four beers from the t’IJ brewery in Amsterdam, Uerige Doppel Sticke, and Indiana Oaken Barrel Saison in bottles. Pints, served in 20-ounce glasses, were downright cheap considering how rarely these beers show up on American menus.
The next morning we aimed the Miata north and turned on the autopilot as we traveled through familiar Ohio and then Michigan. We wondered if we’d remembered to leave a few beers in the fridge before leaving and hoped the grass hadn’t grown too tall in our absence. While it’s fun to be a beer traveler, there’s a lot to be said for the comforts of home.