Reviews, Commentary and Opinions on Midwest Craft Beer and Microbreweries

December 17, 2012

Beer Diary:

Go West, Beer Dork Part II

Nigel’s journey West wraps up (finally) with plenty more craft beer surprises in some of America’s most remote outposts.
by Nigel Tanner

"It takes beer to make thirst worthwhile."
Contact Nigel»
As Vacation 2012 continued West, out of the shadows of Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills, the great unknown lay ahead. Minnesota and South Dakota were not exactly exotic, though there were some interesting sights and it was well worth the visit. But our ultimate destination was Wyoming, Montana, and Yellowstone National Park, with stops at Devils Tower and Cody. What would the beer scene be in Wyoming, an entire state that has fewer residents than the city we live in? Montana has some breweries that distribute in the Midwest, but in a state geographically larger than Germany, what were the chances we’d be able to find them?

As chronicled in Part I, pulling out of South Dakota after a couple of nights in the heart of the Black Hills, finding good beer was becoming a challenge. While we had gotten off to a good start in the Twin Cities and had a nice surprise in tiny Wall, South Dakota, the Black Hills area was as void of good beer as I feared it would be. However, I remained cautiously optimistic for the days ahead since I knew of some breweries in Montana and Wyoming, not to mention the fact that those states are closer to the craft beer meccas of Oregon, Washington, and Northern California. I was hopeful some Big Sky, New Belgium, Rogue, or Sierra Nevada would be available to satisfy the hops cravings and not deplete more of the stock we’d accumulated with the hopes of taking back home.

The drive from the Black Hills to Devils Tower National Monument in far northeastern Wyoming is uneventful, providing the last bit of the Great Plains one sees before heading into the mountains of northern Wyoming. Devils Tower is impressive, a must-see that only takes a couple of hours at the most, even less if you don’t plan on hiking around the base as we did. Pulling out of the Monument and needing gas, we quickly realized that we weren’t in the Midwest anymore. A sign pointed us to “Devils Tower Food and Fuel” in “nearby” Hulett, the “only town serving Devils Tower National Monument.” Hulett is home to 300 people, a cowboy town that had only a tiny gas station charging $1 a gallon more than places along the interstate. And … “nearby” was 20 miles in the opposite direction. This did not bode well for the upcoming few hours, although it was an interesting taste of local culture, a culture which seems to really enjoy Busch Light.

210_1 Our next stop was Cody, Wyoming. Exiting at Sheridan after a pleasant three hour drive along the high plains from Devils Tower via I-90, we made an incredible journey through the peaks of the Bighorn Mountains on a two lane highway that had just opened for the season. Ascending from 3800 feet to 10,000 feet in a matter of minutes via a series of switchbacks on a nearly abandoned highway made me happy that I was not nursing a hangover. We spent nearly an hour in the peaks of the Bighorns, ascending above 11,000 feet on one occasion, yet there were no blue mountain tops, leading me to believe Coors Light’s claim that the mountains turn blue when cold is really just a marketing gimmick.

As quickly as we ascended the Bighorns, we descended back to the plains of northern Wyoming and cruised into Cody at dusk about an hour later. I was still leery, however, as the only town between Sheridan and Cody (nearly 150 miles) was Greybull, population 1,500. Rumor has it Wilfred Brimley makes residence in Greybull, but I doubt he’s at the local pub sipping craft beer while reminiscing about Cocoon. A full day on the road cruising from western South Dakota to western Wyoming was enjoyable, but as desolate as I had imagined. We were holding out hope that Cody, a tourist destination with about 10,000 residents, would cure our craving for fresh craft beer.

Researching Cody prior to our trip, I planned on the Irma Hotel as our first stop due to its storied history. The Irma is the original building constructed in 1902 by William Cody, a.k.a. Buffalo Bill, the founder of the city and world renowned frontiersman and entertainer. With a beautifully preserved exterior and grand interior, I felt like Marty McFly in Back to the Future III, sans the stupid outfit and DeLorean. At this point, the beer list was somewhat of an afterthought. A fabulous buffet dinner with a cussing, ornery old cowboy slicing the prime rib while surrounded by authentic old west d├ęcor ended up setting the tone for our Cody stay.

Though craft beer wasn’t what brought us to the Irma, I held out hope that when I asked our server what they had for beer, she wasn’t going to give me a confused look. The first few options were just as I had feared, but were quickly followed by Grand Teton’s Sweetgrass, Bitch Creek, and Old Faithful Ale, Big Sky IPA and Moose Drool, and Snake River Pale Ale, from a brewpub in Jackson, Wyoming. I ordered a Bitch Creek to start, followed by the Snake River. Bitch Creek is a known commodity in the Midwest, so it was a safe bet for a weary traveler craving a cold beer as I was. The Snake River Pale Ale wasn’t the best, but at least it was something new and local. Retiring to the hotel room, we put another dent in the stash acquired in Minneapolis, hoping daylight in Cody would shine upon a liquor stop with a craft beer selection that could re-fill our cooler.

The following day, after making a stunning 50 mile drive up to the entrance of Yellowstone and touring Cody a bit, we searched for a liquor store that might have some craft beer. Whisky River Liquors was the stop, mainly due to the better half being fascinated by the drive-thru liquor option (drive-thru liquor stores are actually quite common out West). Pulling into Whisky River, which is conveniently located across the street from Cody Stampede Park, the rodeo grounds in which Cody claims to be the “Rodeo Capital of the World,” we saw a building plastered with Budweiser signage. Uh-oh.

Whisky River is truly an “all-in-one” stop for any cowboy needing to wet their whistle. Drive-thru liquor? Check. Wide variety of beer and booze for the walk-in customer? Check. Bar on location? Check. I think our cashier was also the bartender, which was very bizarre to us Midwesterners. Choosing the “walk-in” option, we browsed the selection and were pleasantly surprised to find not only some offerings from Anderson Valley, North Coast, Sierra Nevada, Big Sky, and Rogue, but also Grand Teton and Snake River. We made a mini-haul at Whisky River that we were not anticipating, which provided us with a couple of more options to pack home, as well as some good drinkin’ for the last night in Cody.

210_2 Cody left an indelible impression upon us, with the stunning scenery on our drive through the Shoshone National Forest, our visit to a replica old west town and trail, the Buffalo Bill monument, and shopping the western boutiques. We also left once again being amazed as to how far craft beer has come in recent years. Cody, Wyoming in late April is not exactly the center of American pop culture. It’s still a small town with locals who are farmers, ranchers, and blue collar folk. The summer tourist season was still a few weeks away. It’s a unique town for sure, with lots of history, natural beauty, and quaint shops and restaurants, but we saw more pickup trucks and cowboy hats than we’d seen since our night in Amarillo the previous year. Yet in our 48 hours in Cody, we ate and drank well and were able to get a nice haul of local craft beer as we ventured on to Yellowstone.

Driving from Cody to Yellowstone when there are seasonal road closures can be a challenge to say the least; if there’s a road closed in Wyoming or Montana, a two hour drive becomes a five hour drive. That was the case leaving Cody, as we could not enter Yellowstone’s east entrance, so we ventured around on a very long detour. We were able to see a good chunk of southern Montana as a result, the largest town being Livingston (pop. 7,000) at which we turned south towards the northwest entrance to Yellowstone at Gardiner, Montana. We stopped for gas in Livingston and I browsed the liquor store next to the gas station. Fear of shit beer once again set in as Fat Tire was the only beer available that I would even consider drinking. It reminded me of walking into any backwoods Wisconsin tavern where the locals think Spotted Cow is new and exotic.

Pulling into West Yellowstone after a brief initial tour of the northwest corner of the park, we realized that like many places along our journey, we were a few weeks too early. West Yellowstone is a town of 1,500 people that exists solely to serve the park and is loaded with restaurants and shops, many of which were still closed for the season. Though we saw what seemed to be quite a few fellow tourists on our initial drive through the park, West Yellowstone remained largely vacant. We found an incredible deal at a quaint motel that had a kitchenette with fridge, living room, etc. It was the perfect base for what we were hoping would be three incredible nights at America’s grandest National Park, as it had all the facilities we needed for some nights enjoying local craft beer after long days of hiking and sightseeing.

Our first meal in West Yellowstone set the tone, much as it had in Cody. The environment was different, however, as rather than a historic landmark, we ended up at a place called Wild West Pizzeria. Wild West is a big, modern place with excellent pizza and a GREAT beer selection. Jackpot. I can’t recall all of the options on tap, but there were about a dozen craft beers ranging from standard New Belgium fare to what I drank that night: Hop Juice. How could Nigel pass up Hop Juice? This version was from Madison River Brewing in Belgrade, Montana, a town just over an hour north of Yellowstone. Hop Juice was a tasty imperial IPA, one that impressed me enough that I followed it up with the other Madison River offering they had on tap, Copper John Scotch Ale. Copper John was a decent version of the style that I appreciated even more when we left the restaurant and realized the temperature had dropped 25 degrees.

Craft beer was not what inspired our trip out West, but it was a key component to a memorable vacation.
Our first night in West Yellowstone was an enjoyable evening at the motel playing cards, listening to music, and drinking some of our western brews acquired in Cody. Day one at Yellowstone was spent touring some of the hot spots (no pun intended), including Fountain Paint Pots, Old Faithful and the Upper Geyser Basin, and the Biscuit Basin. I won’t go into details, I will simply say this … if you have never been to Yellowstone, it’s impossible to comprehend just how incredible it is. The natural beauty, the wildlife, the out-of-this-world geothermal features … amazing. We will be back again, likely more than once.

Returning to West Yellowstone after a full day at the park, we dined at a local Chinese joint and hit Market Place Supermarket to see what, if anything, they had for local brews. Market Place reminded me of the old, small-town grocery stores that dotted the Midwest before Wal-Mart and other chains moved in and modernized and consolidated everything. Small, dank, and locally owned, I was shocked to make a nice selection of local craft beer on site. One of the selections was Rogue Yellowstone Ale, which, upon further review, is Dead Guy Ale in a bomber that’s been re-named with a geyser on the bottle. However, Dead Guy Ale is a quality beverage, so there were no complaints as I drank it. Among other options were Grand Teton (we purchased a sixer of Sweetgrass), Snake River (the better half got a sixer of Pale Ale, despite my warnings that it wasn’t anything special), Anderson Valley, and a wide selection of Big Sky, which led to our purchase of Heavy Horse Scotch Ale, as well as the IPA that I enjoyed that night. Also present were individual 16-ounce cans of Cold Smoke Scotch Ale from Kettle House Brewing in Missoula, another new discovery that led to a purchase. All in all, I was shocked as to what we were able to find at a tiny grocery store. Not only did we have good beer for the coming night, but we had more offerings to take home with us.

The next day at Yellowstone was spent touring Artist Paint Pots, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and Mammoth Hot Springs. Late afternoon found us at what was to be our final stop, the Norris Geyser Basin, but a nasty early season thunderstorm quickly put an end to that. Re-entering West Yellowstone sooner than expected, I took a flyer on a liquor store that I had seen on Google maps, but could not confirm if it actually existed (I say this because numerous online sources mentioned Wolf Pack Brewing Co. in West Yellowstone, and that place does not exist). Turns out it was another liquor store attached to a bar (I cannot recall the name), and either it was just opening for the season or was on the verge of going out of business. However, I found some more surprises, including Bent Nail IPA from Red Lodge Ales in remote Red Lodge, Montana, northeast of Yellowstone, and Grand Teton’s Lost Continent Double IPA, which I packed home to review. Another surprise … the dank tavern was adorned with Green Bay Packers paraphernalia, making me feel uncomfortably at home given my extreme hatred for the pro football team based in my home state.

210_3 The final evening in West Yellowstone was highlighted by a drive into Idaho just to say we ventured into Idaho, and dinner at a disappointing American diner in West Yellowstone that didn’t serve liquor. However … after three consecutive successful beer runs in Cody and West Yellowstone, we were packed to the gills with local beer, much of which was unavailable to us back home. It was impressive how much we packed into the motel fridge, and amazing how we were able to squeeze all that beer in the cooler and trunk to take home despite having nearly two weeks’ worth of luggage and souvenirs. Needless to say, we enjoyed many local craft brews as we relaxed on our final night at the Evergreen Motel, and a big breakfast with plenty of coffee prior to departing the next morning was a must.

Leaving West Yellowstone, we took a scenic cruise through the Gallatin National Forest touching the western edge of Yellowstone. After getting lost in Bozeman, we finally found the interstate and cruised across Montana, content with a wonderful vacation coming to an end and noticing little of the local scenery. A quick night in Jamestown, North Dakota proved completely uneventful, but fortunately the cooler was full of good beer so we could enjoy a couple as we rested in the room, watching re-runs of “American Pickers.” The next day we headed back across Minnesota, making a final beer stop at a liquor store in the northwest suburbs that I had been to a few years prior. With a few open holes in the trunk, I picked up a sixer of Brau Brothers Sheephead Ale and more Surly to pack home. Upon our return home, the dog sitter gave us weird looks as we hauled in enough beer to quench the thirst of a small army.

The final leg of our 2012 road trip found us in some of the most remote areas of the country, witnessing scenery that one cannot comprehend the scope even when standing in front of it. None of the towns we visited were large after we departed the Twin Cities on the second day … in fact, most were quite small. Driving an hour without seeing a town was common. Despite that, in most places local craft beer had a noticeable presence. The best part? Much like the scenery and the culture, the beer was unique to each area, and each beer was refreshing in a different way with a slightly different interpretation of the style. Not all were good, some were great, but all were enjoyable and left an indelible impression upon us. Those flavors, much as the scenery, will always be remembered.

Craft beer was not what inspired our trip out West. Regardless, it was a key component in a great vacation and proof that even in its relative infancy, locally produced craft beer is becoming part of the fabric of America. While some areas are further along than others in both producing and distributing local options to the quickly fading mass production breweries, it’s clear that regardless of location, craft beer is becoming more established. Thus, a wonderful two week trip can be summarized in one word: Cheers!

Drinkin’ And Thinkin’

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