Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

August 20, 2012

Beer Diary:

Go West, Beer Dork

A journey west yields many craft beer surprises for Nigel.
by Nigel Tanner

"It takes beer to make thirst worthwhile."
Contact Nigel»
April 2012 was not my first trip out West.

For whatever reason, be it traveling for business or pleasure, I seem to end up somewhere west of the Mississippi. I can count on one hand the times I’ve been east of Lake Michigan, which is hard to believe considering I live on the shores of that very lake. Not counting a few visits to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, my eastern trips have been limited to high school and college class trips/spring breaks in Florida, a trip to Washington, D.C., and a road trip to exotic Ann Arbor, Michigan, for a Duke-Michigan college hoops game.

West … that’s another story. I’ve had numerous opportunities to travel west, anywhere from quick jaunts to the Twin Cities to business in Canada, visiting friends in Seattle to semi-annual trips to Arizona. There’s something about the vast open spaces, the awe-inspiring mountain scenery, the arid desert climes, and the funny Canadian accents that always make me yearn to come back.

In 2011, vacation took us (yes, us … Nigel doesn’t travel alone) to Arizona (again), Texas, and New Mexico, with a return trip on Route 66. It was the classic American road trip, something we’ve always had a soft spot for. Screw the airlines, there’s nothing like packing up the car and seeing the country in its truest form. Considering we don’t have kids, we aren’t talking Clark Griswold-esque road trips packed in the family truckster. These are road trips that soak in everything from the local sights to the local culture, cheesy tourist traps to fine local cuisine, National Parks and Monuments to lame roadside attractions. You name it, we visit it … and we enjoy every minute of it. And yes, sampling the best and brightest of the local craft beer scene plays an integral part in the experience.

Busy schedules leaving little time to plan anything exotic, vacation 2012 was a repeat of the fabulous 2011 western road trip, only further north. With the goal of knocking some of the “I’ve always wanted to see such-and-such” places off of the list, we pieced together a trip that would take us to the Twin Cities, the Badlands, Mount Rushmore/Black Hills, Devils Tower, Cody, WY, and finally, a trip to Yellowstone National Park. Being mid-April, it was a bit of a risk with the potential of lingering winter weather, but it was a risk worth taking. Fortunately, weather was not an issue, crowds were minimal, and damn … talk about some sweet hotels at rock bottom prices! More beer money is always a good thing.

Beer road to nowhere? Think again.

Craft beer was not what inspired the trip. However, as tends to be the case with us Beer Dorks, it left a lasting impression. Considering that once we left the Twin Cities, I had no idea what to expect in terms of beer culture, it was an eye-opening experience. Part I is the trek through Minnesota and South Dakota.

Departing Milwaukee, the cooler was stocked with a few local offerings for the road ahead, sort of a “security blanket” in case good local beer was tough to find. The initial haul consisted of Lakefront IPA, Ale Asylum Ambergeddon, and Leinenkugel’s Big Eddy Russian Imperial Stout. As discussed in my review for Flat Earth Northwest Passage, a trip to the liquor store was to happen the following day, with the hopes of stocking up on Surly. Two nights and one day in the Twin Cities were all we booked, but I figured that was more than enough considering I’d been there many times before and it shouldn’t be too hard to stock up on brews not found in Wisconsin. I had no idea what to expect when we reached South Dakota, so stocking up felt like a necessity. Three nights in the Badlands and Black Hills for some reason left visions of Blue Moon (the beer, not the moon) dancing unpleasantly in my head.

Pulling into the Twin Cities during an early season thunderstorm, I was glad we planned ahead. Our first meal sadly came at the Outback Steakhouse attached to our hotel due to the inclement weather, but surprisingly a handle of the new Summit Dunkel Weizen greeted us among the other random shit tappers. Returning to the room, we enjoyed a few fine Wisconsin ales and continued to plan the days ahead.

I was shocked to see how much the Minnesota beer scene had grown since my last visit to the Twin Cities.
Day two found us at the liquor store described in the Flat Earth review. As stated, I was shocked to see how much the Minnesota beer scene had grown since my last visit to the Twin Cities, which was nearly two years prior. Not only was Flat Earth new to the Twin Cities, Fulton, Rush River in nearby River Falls, WI, Brau Brothers, and an expanded lineup from Summit left plenty of options from the Gopher State. Top that off with breweries like Odell and Stone that are not available in Wisconsin, and there was plenty to stock up on. It looked like the man at the liquor store was curious why two random people from out of state bought $75 worth of beer at 11 a.m. on a Monday. Don’t ask questions, dude, just appreciate the business.

Our haul was a mix of Surly, Fulton, Flat Earth, and Brau Brothers, all of which stored nicely in the cooler and trunk for the trip to South Dakota. Considering our day was spent entirely at the Mall of America, which was topped off by a terrific seafood dinner in a place void of any good beer, it was a good thing we stocked up. The following day was spent on the road driving from Bloomington to Wall, SD, home of the infamous Wall Drug Store. We spent the night in Wall, not due to the Drug Store but the fact that it’s the only town from which one can access the Badlands.

Wall is a small town of less than 1000 residents, one that’s even smaller in the months from November through April when the seasonal residents and tourists aren’t present. This being mid-April and pulling in after 7 p.m., our assumption was that we’d be lucky to find anything to eat besides a gas station sandwich that expired in January, not to mention anything good to drink. At the nearly deserted hotel, the desk clerk was quite helpful in sending us to one of only a couple of restaurants that was still open.

This is where my eyes truly began to open. Wall, South Dakota, 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night in April. Local diner, we’re one of only three tables present. Friendly waitress, typical small town diner folk. “What do you have for beer,” was my question, figuring that the standard macro shit was about to be rattled off. But, lo and behold … after listing the BMC shit you’d expect, out came New Belgium Fat Tire and Ranger IPA, and Boulevard Pilsner. Oh my … give me a Boulevard, I can’t get that at home. Granted, not the best beer I’ve ever had but it tasted great with my so-so diner patty melt and was far better than the salad bar consisting of lettuce, croutons, and three types of salad dressing. Do they really have Boulevard and a solid IPA in the middle of nowhere South Dakota? Yes, they do.

A brewer, a couple of beer lovers, and a beer seller. Nice monument.

The following day was spent touring the Badlands. It’s a scenic venture for sure, but unless you’re obsessed with plague-infested prairie dogs, plan only a day trip. Departing the Badlands in the late afternoon, we headed on the hour-plus trek to Rapid City, which is the second largest city in South Dakota (and, in most states, the equivalent of a suburb of a suburb). Along I-90, we saw numerous homemade billboards for Firehouse Brewing Co., which, as best I can estimate, is the only brewery in South Dakota. Or North Dakota. Or any Dakota. We didn’t have time to check out Firehouse and pulled into our hotel in Keystone, SD near Mount Rushmore with plenty of remaining Wisconsin and Minnesota brews.

The two nights in Keystone proved to be our only craft beer void on the entire trip. A couple of meals in the Rapid City/Keystone area churned up the occasional Fat Tire, but otherwise there wasn’t much craft beer to speak of. Even a visit to Deadwood after our morning at Mount Rushmore and an unfortunate side trip to the Crazy Horse Monument (estimated time of completion: 35 years after the apocalypse … but it did provide a scenic drive through the heart of the Black Hills) turned up nothing exciting.

Rapid City is the typical growing American city, full of chain restaurants, strip malls, and shit beer.
Rapid City is the typical growing American city, full of chain restaurants, strip malls, and shit beer. Firehouse Brewing billboards were all over town and the surrounding area … it would have been nice to check it out, but it didn’t fit in an abbreviated schedule. Keystone is a summer tourist mecca, but what has the potential to be some diverse options in the summer is severely limited in the off-season and we were a few weeks too early. Deadwood is worth seeing if you like gambling and typical shit casino fare, as well as a cool “Old West” vibe … but again, nothing for craft beer. We ate a late afternoon lunch in Deadwood, sitting at a bar, eating a burger off a paper plate and drinking a PBR while we watched the end of the Brewer game on MLB network. Charming, especially with the old lady sitting behind us playing a slot machine, cigarette in hand. However, not exactly a dream destination for a Beer Dork.

The last night at the hotel in Keystone led to another dent in the stock. Plenty of craft beer was left in the cooler and trunk, but leaving South Dakota on Friday morning with a full week of vacation left, I was beginning to wonder if we’d deplete the entire supply, much of which I was hoping to pack home to try at a later date and review. After all, we were heading to Wyoming, the least populous state in the union. Is it possible a state with 100,000 less residents than the city I live in actually has a craft beer scene? Part II answers that question.

Overall, craft beer culture was a mixed bag on the first leg of our trip. Minnesota is clearly on the verge of an explosion that may push it closer to the Midwest’s finest, and South Dakota is in the very early stages of craft beer growth. Both provided some surprises … while I expected nothing but Summit and Surly in Minnesota, I found so much more, and despite the vast open spaces and driving on a freeway to nowhere, South Dakota wasn’t nearly as void of craft beer as I expected it to be. Part I may have been a mild surprise as to how much craft beer has grown. Part II proves it to be much more than that.

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

Beer Dorks News

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