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.”
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.
Day Three―Richmond: An Asian Flare
Our group of liver-weary beer travelers awoke to clear skies and dry roads. Colorful fall foliage and light traffic highlighted our drive from Durham to Richmond, and I suggested quick stops at Legend and Richbrau brewpubs before checking into our hotel.
Always the responsible roadie, my eye stayed on the clock as I coaxed Dustin, Chris and The Beer Wench toward our hotel and the setup for our next beer dinner at Richmond’s Mekong Restaurant. As we walked toward this unassuming Asian eatery located in a drab, suburban strip mall across from a neon-lit adult novelty store, I was thinking, “Whose bizarre idea was it to have a craft-beer dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant?”
Trust me, Mekong was the perfect choice for this collaborative event. Owner An Mekong, a maniac for craft beer (especially Belgian-style ales), jumped all over the opportunity to host this dinner. With draft beer stations set up all around the dining room, 10 spicy and flavorful Vietnamese dishes each served alongside a Terrapin or Left Hand beer, and a free Halloween costume party with live music after dinner, this proved to be the most eclectic and unique beer dinner in my recent experience.
Colorful food items with names I cannot begin to pronounce appeared at a rapid-fire pace while patrons spun their table’s lazy Susans, shared each dish family-style and discussed every bite and sip. An ran around the event with a huge grin as he discussed each special iplate. His spicy Pho Xao Bo with carrots, bok choy, garlic and ginger alongside Left Hand’’s 400 Pound Monkey IPA formed the resounding crowd favorite pairing of the evening.
Perhaps ethnic cuisine might provide a new frontier for beer dinners. “Many people don’t realize just how well craft beers go with Asian food,” explained An. “I’ve been carrying great beer since 1998, and now we have a huge following of beer lovers. We rotate beers quite often, and people come in all the time to see what new beers we have on and taste how each beer pairs with different dishes.”
When Dustin began buying Chris shots at the bar around midnight, I realized the time had come to pry everyone out of Mekong’s blur of flowing beer taps, saucy Halloween costumes and live classic rock to walk down the street to our hotel beds. We had to get an early start the next morning toward Philadelphia and our last beer dinner of the journey.
Day Four―Philadelphia: A Grand Slam
Our Terrapin/Left Hand crew hit the road for Philly around 8 a.m. Not surprisingly, we hit traffic while trying to maneuver through DC, and everyone’s bladders began to scream while we were sitting on the highway. In an act of pure desperation, I exited toward Reagan National Airport, and the gang jumped out at the passenger-loading zone to run inside for the restrooms. Upon his return, Chris proudly announced, “Wow, I’ve never peed at Reagan airport before.”
We cleared DC traffic about an hour later with the goal of lunch and beer samplers with our buddy Brian Finn, head brewer at Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant in Wilmington, DE. Brian’s malty Oktoberfest, cask IPA and sour blueberry lambic did wonders in firming up our constitutions for the final push into Philly.
Upon parking our SUV and checking into our hotel in the City of Brotherly Love, I attempted to motivate the group toward a quick warm-up beer. They were not having it; a quick nap seemed their only motivation at this point. The Beer Wench and I left the sleepy pair and enjoyed our first beer in Philly at Brauhaus Schmitz―a new German tavern near our hotel.
After rousing Dustin and Chris and gathering our beer dinner materials and giveaways, we walked to the classic Monk’s Café around 5 p.m. for the 6 p.m. beer dinner. Monk’s owners Tom Peters and Fergie Carey quickly let us know that the entire restaurant was sold out for this event, but the impending World Series game that night forced about half the attendees to cancel. Tom and Fergie don’t usually allow cancellations for their popular beer dinners, but hey, we are taking about the Phillies in the World Series here. This night’s dinner consisted of about 20 die-hard beer aficionados seated in Monk’s back bar.
Dustin and Chris encountered no trouble in mingling and discussing their beers with the intimate crowd. An imaginative range of menu items from grilled baby octopus to smoked seafood and bleu cheese tarts was followed up by a creamy cappuccino caramel flan paired with the star of the beer dinner tour―the Depth Charge stout. The rich, sweet course of pork loin with apples and juniper made for a remarkable complement to Terrapin’s malty Big Hoppy Monster imperial red ale. As always, everyone seemed quite impressed and pleased with the warm atmosphere and experience at Monk’s.
The Beer Wench and I were driving for a visit to Victory Brewing in Downingtown, PA, the next day, while Dustin and Chris were flying back to Georgia and Colorado. We bid our fond farewells and reflected on the challenges and joys of our pilgrimage.
“Going on this beer dinner tour really felt like we were in a band together,” says Dustin Watts. “It was really great to be a part of four magnificent dinners in a row―each night being special and different. It was a traveling celebration of beer, food and friends. Chris and I already have new ideas and twists and turns planned for next year, and we’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”
One thing seems certain; this spirit of collaboration between two personable craft breweries sets a standard for demonstrating how small, artisanal businesses can allow creativity and a love for their products to drive fun, unique marketing strategies that often prove far more productive and personable than run-of-the-mill billboards or magazine ads. Collaborative beers make up a popular new trend among modern-day craft breweries―where cooperation and camaraderie seem more valuable and productive than cutthroat competition and self-seeking rivalry.