With sheets of rain blanketing our SUV, windshield wipers pounding out a mind-numbing rhythm, a stream of crimson brake lights ahead to the horizon and two stressed-out beer reps in the back seat on their Blackberries, all I could think was, “Man, I really need a beer.”
One of the main duties of any good beer trip roadie is to keep your beer superstars from going over the edge and ending up in hangover territory, so around midnight I gathered our group and headed to our hotel for a well-deserved night’s sleep.
Four beer dinners in four states in four days? This sounded like an intriguing, if not demented, concept back when Terrapin Beer Co.’s Dustin Watts and Chris Lennert of Left Hand Brewing invited me along as official press “beer roadie.” Our soaking on I-85 from Atlanta to Durham, aggravated by major traffic accidents in our path (one even involving a Hazmat squad), gave us all second thoughts.
The story of this epic journey really began after a beer festival three years ago, around midnight in some forgotten beer bar, when Dustin and Chris cooked up the idea of an annual, collaborative Terrapin/Left Hand brew―known ever since as the “Midnight Brewing Project.” Dustin explains, “Chris and I have been friends for years and really wanted to do something together with the two breweries. To me, our Midnight Project collaboration is all about friendship. Just as friendships evolve with time, so will this collaboration.”
Co-owner/brewer Brian “Spike” Buckowski of Terrapin in Athens, GA, journeyed to the Left Hand brewery in Longmont, CO, in 2008 to work with Left Hand’’s Ro Guenzel in the creation of a creamy, black rye lager called Terra-’Rye’Zd. Labeled and released by Left Hand during this first collaborative year, this beer, which was greeted with rave reviews by beer lovers in Colorado and Georgia, holds hints of chocolate and spicy rye.
Chris Lennert adds, “This collaboration is all about fun and friends. Terrapin and Left Hand have similar philosophies about brewing and enjoying ourselves while we run our businesses, so it makes sense for us to get together and throw some ideas into a collaborative kettle.”
In July of 2009, Guenzel paid a visit to Terrapin in Athens for round two of the Midnight brews. Amazingly, when Guenzel and Buckowski compared their independent notes for the proposed beer, the two recipes looked almost identical. The result, known as Depth Charge Espresso Milk Stout, weighs in as a rich, full-bodied dark ale with impressive notes of caramel, chocolate, roasted grains, lactose sugar and a smooth blend of espresso from Athens coffee roaster Jittery Joe’s.
I often describe Dustin Watts and Chris Lennert as beer brothers―both being imaginative, creative, energetic and personable representatives of their respective breweries who find true joy in sharing the “gospel” of craft beer at every available opportunity. Dustin and Chris, looking for a grand way to celebrate their collaborative Depth Charge in key markets and get their brews into the hands, mouths and minds of craft-beer fans, brainstormed a liver-wrenching series of four beer dinners up the East Coast. Our epicurean beer adventures took place October 26 to29, 2009 in Atlanta, Durham, NC, Richmond, VA, and Philadelphia. The idea of being a beer roadie and hanging out with these guys for a few days sounded like a splendid adventure, so I agreed to come along and document the events.
Day 1―Atlanta: Kickoff at Taco Mac
Dustin, Chris, Kerri Allen (my “Beer Wench” wife) and I began by making our way from Athens to Atlanta for dinner No. 1 at Taco Mac in Lindbergh Center near downtown. Taco Mac, very popular among Atlanta-area beer aficionados, comprises a chain of close to 30 locations featuring ever-expanding selections of craft beers, an extensive menu of tasty pub fare and a casual, fun, welcoming atmosphere.
After Chris, Dustin, Kerri and I set up the dining tables with brewery promotional materials and loaded a rotating set of photos featuring the collaborative brewing process and Depth Charge label on the dining room televisions. The excited crowd of beer lovers began to trickle in.
With the noise level rising to the official decibel level of “rowdy” before the end of the reception courses and beers, Dustin and Chris realized quickly that this could be a challenging evening to carry on beer discussion and promotion. But our pair of brewery heroes carried on with superb bravado―rotating through the room between courses, speaking to each table, making each attendee feel special and welcome.
Matt Deckard, Taco Mac’s corporate chef, consistently rises to the challenge of creating unique, flavorful, upscale menu items for special beer dinners. For the Terrapin/Left Hand dinner, chef Matt provided scrumptious food during the beer tasting reception, four courses and dessert. Each culinary creation―smoked duck pate, tuna poke, chorizo stew and goat cheese stuffed meatloaf, to name a few―accompanied a Left Hand or Terrapin beer. The mouth-watering chocolate/peanut butter dessert provided a sublime match to the rich sweetness of the Depth Charge.
Fred Crudder, Taco Mac’s beverage manager, remarked that the Terrapin/Left Hand event ranked as one of the best dinners ever held at his restaurants. “The really special element of this collaborative dinner was the excitement generated among the customers,” said Crudder. “The dinners we’ve done with each of these two breweries separately were successes, but this particular one had the added element of collaboration, which strikes a chord with craft-beer drinkers who like to see camaraderie between two of their favorite breweries.”
Day 2―Durham: Drenched and Delayed
After an early morning of being a dutiful roadie helping load T-shirts, pint glasses and boxes of Terrapin and Left Hand stickers into our SUV, we enjoyed a cup of espresso and took off up I-85 toward our next collaborative feast to be held that evening at Tyler’s Restaurant & Taproom in Durham, NC. We had no idea what lay ahead.
After hours of torrential precipitation and long, painful delays through two major accidents, a drive that should have taken us a little over five hours turned into an almost 10-hour, torturous crawl into Durham.
Just outside the city, our two beer celebrities, over one hour late to the Durham dinner, began to brainstorm ways to “make it up” to the crowd. We decided to burn through our entire stash of pint glasses and give everyone at the Tyler’s dinner a Terrapin glass and Left Hand bottle opener. Gifts and bribes sometimes can be useful.
Luckily, Jason Ingram from Left Hand decided at the last minute to fly to Durham for the dinner. Jason arrived at Tyler’s on time and saved our butts as he discussed both the Terrapin and Left Hand beers for the first and second courses. The dinner crowd erupted into thunderous applause when our rain-soaked and exhausted group of beer trekkers finally entered the room.
Our two beer celebs pulled it together as they addressed the crowd, apologized for our tardiness and quickly focused on the beer and food. The Tyler’s five-course event featured lemongrass scallops paired with Left Hand JuJu Ginger, smoked mozzarella rarebit alongside Terrapin RoggenRauchBier, molasses pork belly and Left Hand Black Jack Porter, a pepper-crusted venison loin next to Left Hand Oak Aged Imperial Stout and a dessert of vanilla cream doughnuts washed down by Depth Charge.
Chris polled the crowd, and the results proved surprising. “Only about half of the people here have been to a beer dinner before tonight,” remarked Chris. “For me, that’s great news. I absolutely love introducing people to craft beer and food pairings.”
After the dinner we enjoyed a few pints with Tyler Huntington and Daniel Kulenic, the two cornerstone personalities of Tyler’s. We discussed plans for future events and reminisced about the evening. One of the main duties of any good beer-trip roadie is to keep your beer superstars from going over the edge and ending up in hangover territory, so around midnight I gathered our group and headed to our hotel for a well-deserved night’s sleep. We kept our fingers crossed for a dry and problem-free day three.