Monday, July 27, 2009

Day Three: Olympia to Hood River

Soon after waking up in the morning, we drive down towards the state capital in search of breakfast.

"I didn't know Olympia was the capital of Seattle," Vlad observes. For some reason Vlad has a mental block that prevents him from remembering the actual name of the state we are in.

We arrive at a breakfast place, only to find that it is closed on Mondays, so we walk a couple blocks to try another place. And fail again; also closed on Monday. For a bustling capital, Olympia seems rather lackadaisical. Or maybe it's just lazy because it is the capital.

Eventually we settle for a sandwich shop rather than a proper breakfast, and head to our first stop of the day, Fish Tale Brew Pub.

Here we discover the reason why nothing else is open; Everyone in Olympia appears to be at Fish Tale. Despite the fact that it is barely 11 in the morning there is a steady crowd.

"Hello, boys," the middle-aged women sitting at the bar greet us hungrily as we enter.

"Err ... hello," I say suspiciously. I am not a piece of meat.

Fish Tale has a nice lounge with games and comfy couches, so we plop down and make ourselves comfortable. We tell our server about our trip and he is ecstatic; everywhere we go people seem to be ecstatic for us. I guess there is something about the idea of semi-professional drinkers that appeals to the people serving them.

We get a round of tasters, and what a round it us. Fish Tale specializes in certified organic beer brewing, which may seem a bit trendy in our green-obsessed marketplace, but the results are indisputably good. The Mudshark Porter is smooth and easy to drink, the Eightmile Alt is refreshing and the Amber Ale is spicy with just the right amount of sweetness to it. They also have three great ciders on tap, my favorite being the Dark & Dry.

We are so entranced we go through three pitchers, and another round of pints besides, although I have to stop after the tasters as today is my day to drive. When we are finally ready to leave the server tells us that the last round is on the house in honor of our trip. We are moved close to tears ... good beer and good people.

We hope back in the car and continue south, stopping off in the middle of Washington state in the aptly named Centralia. Our destination here is Dick's Brewing Company, but when we arrive at the brewery they sadly inform us their tasting room is not open today. But never fear, their beers are also available on tap at their retail location, Northwest Sausage and Deli, which is four minutes away.

We sit down to another round of tasters, and order three more pitchers of our favorites: Dick's Danger Ale is their most popular beer, and is a darker ale with a lot of toasty flavor. The Working Man's Brown is one shade darker than the Danger, and the Silk Lady is a light, Belgian-style golden ale with a hints of fruit and spice that remind me of a hefeweizen. The Northwest Sausage and Deli has a nice secluded little patio in the back, but the restaurant is totally dead except for us and I wish the brewery had been open today.

We're six pitchers deep so far this day, and as the sole sober person I am a little worried about my traveling companions. Case in point: when we return to the car, Vlad realizes he forgot to buy any sausage, so he runs back into the deli. After several minutes of trying to herd four loud and uncoordinated passengers into the rental car, I realize Vlad still hasn't returned. I look in the rear-view mirror and see him 30 feet directly behind us ... trying to hitch a ride on the street.

We find this act mildly amusing, but when drive over to pick him up he chides us "Hah, hah, guys, very funny. Pretend to leave me in the middle of nowhere."

We are a little confused by the act now. "Vlad, we just drove over here to pick you up. You've been standing here for like five minutes."

"No," he says, falling back in his seat with a sigh, "I know you guys wouldn't actually leave me, but you drove around the corner, or whatever. I looked for you everywhere."

Now we are bewildered. There is only one other car in the parking lot besides ours. "Vlad, the car didn't move an inch - we were waiting for you in the exact same spot we parked."

"Fine, have your little joke," he says dismissively, and promptly falls asleep.

An hour and a half later and we are exiting the state of Washington (or the state of Seattle, depending on who you ask) and hook east to follow the Hood River to the town of Hood River, home of Full Sail Brewing Company, one of the big names in the Oregon brewery industry.

At Full Sail I meet up with my sister Cristen and her boyfriend Charlie, who are visiting from their home in Newport, four hours west on the Oregon coast. Since they live in the home of Rogue Ales, they are jaded in regards to having easy access to great beer and let us do most of the tasting at Full Sail.

You can find Full Sail beers pretty much anywhere, but some of their specialty beers that are harder to find outside of the brewery are almost better: the Session Lager in particular is very good, and comes in a short little bottle as a nod to its Prohibition-era inspiration. I swear they also had a stout served on nitrogen that I liked, but I can't find mention of it anywhere on the web.

After we finish up at Full Sail we follow Cristen and Charlie up the hills to Parkdale, a little town with a great view of Mt. Hood. The place they have rented for the weekend is an insanely cool farmhouse that has been renovated as a vacation rental. The main building is a traditional farmhouse that has been lovingly remodeled, but the property also features a tiny cabin that dips below ground to unexpectedly become rather spacious, a wooden tower called the pool house, and even a real-life treehouse, complete with a proper bed and bathroom.

There is a hot tub with a list of rules posted on it. The original sign read "No Food or Drink in Hot Tub," but someone has also handwritten in the warning: "And no screwing! You will lose your deposit!"

“But you will receive another type of deposit,” I crack. The reviews on the tastefulness of this joke are mixed.

We spend the rest of the night sipping Oregon beer and wine by the fire with Charlie's dog Blue, before heading to sleep.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Great Pacific Brewery Tour, Day 2: Seattle

After a ridiculous one-hour ordeal at the airport Leo and I secure the rental car, a seven-passenger SUV. After somehow cramming all of our luggage and bodies into the car we reflect that Dan's absence on the trip might not be such a bad thing after all.

Leo is the designated driver for the day, by virtue of losing the Whoever-Passes-Out-First-Has-to-Drive-the-Next-Day Game (he fell asleep on the cab ride back to the hotel). He slaps his portable GPS on the dashboard and points it towards Pike Brewing Company, which - strangely enough - happens to be located near Pike Place Market. What the GPS is unable to tell us is that it is also located on the other side of the parade part of the gay pride parade; we park inland and walk across the parade route and find ourselves at Pike.

Pike Brewing Company is located in an unassuming shopping center, but the brewery extends over several floors, and even plunges down metal, submarine-style spiral staircases into the working innards of the brewing and shipping operation.

We tell our waitress about our brewery pilgrimage and ask her if they are offering tours. She tells us there is nothing scheduled today, but the head brewer happens to be in working on a batch of stout and watching soccer. She says she'll ask him if he has some spare time for us. We order up a round of tasters and some appetizers.

There are a lot of great beers at Pike, including their Kilt Lifter "Ruby Ale" (what most people refer to as a Scotch Ale), the Naughty Nellie Golden Ale. and the XXXXXX Stout. Our hands-down favorite, however, is the Monk's Uncle, a Belgian-style Tripel Ale that punches you in the jaw then tenderly lowers you to the ground (I mean that in the nicest possible way). True to most breweries regulations, Pike doesn't serve it in pitchers, or even full pints, because it is so strong - it comes in a posh Belgian-style glass that makes you instinctively want to lift your pinkie while you're drinking it.

"What's this appetizer?" Murali asks, poking at one of the plates that has arrived.

"That's the crab dip," I say. He scoops up a bit on a pita wedge and chews it thoughtfully. He frowns.

"Is there meat in this?"

"Yes ..." I say warily. "That's why it's called crab dip."

"Ah, man!" Murali exclaims in exasperation. "I thought you said cheese dip! I'm a vegetarian! I haven't eaten meat since I was eight years old!"

Vlad cackles gleefully at this. "This trip is all about trying new things. We'll have you eating steak by the end of the week!"

At half time Drew Cluley, Pike's Head Brewer, comes by our table to introduce himself and take us on a tour of the facilities. We plunge down the metal staircases into the bowels of the brewery, where Drew explains the various processes for making different styles of beer, including cask-aging that Pike uses on a few of their beers. We compliment him on the 6X Stout, which is the batch he's currently working on, and especially the Tripel. Drew's personal story is both remarkable and refreshingly typical of the craft-brewing industry; he started out as a home brewer, got a job at Pike and eventually moved up to Head Brewer. So all you home brewers out there, don't let anyone tell you you're wasting your time.

To finish up at Pike, we notice that they offer two styles of mead, which most of us haven't tried before. "You're going to like the dry mead better," our waitress tells us when we tell her we're thinking about buying a bottle. She brings us samples and we surprise her by unanimously calling for a bottle of the sweet Sky River mead. I guess our palates are not as sophisticated as she gave us credit for.

After Pike we walk through Pike Place Market, picking up some fresh produce and artisan cheese to snack on. Murali is dying to get some doughnuts that he remembers from his first visit to Pike Place many years ago, and after consulting the information booth we locate the doughnut stall.

Which is empty. With a posted note reading: "Closed in support of Pride."

"No!" Murali wails, his shoulders sagging in defeat. "Why must this parade block us at every turn!"

While wandering around Pike Place Market, drunk on beer, cheese and Rainier cherries (but not doughnuts), we place our traditional phone call to Dan. He responds to our run-down of the day with comments like "Wow. That's great. I'm so happy for you guys," but something in his voice makes me suspect he may not fully mean it.

We're running short on time, having spent so long at Pike, and it's becoming clear that we're going to have to pick between Georgetown Brewing and Hale's Ales on our original itinerary. By a stroke of luck we wander into a bar called Cellars on our way back to the car, and they have one of Georgetown's beers on tap, so we at least get a sample of Manny's Pale Ale.

After a short drive up to Ballard, we arrive at Hale's Ales. They have a great oval wooden bar that we plop down at. After the obligatory round of tasters, the consensus is that the Red Menace Amber and Hale's Cream Ale, a blond ale on nitrogen in the Irish tradition, are the favorites. They also have a good cask-conditioned IPA and a great hard cider on tap: rather dry with just a hint of sweetness.

We call Dan to let him know about the beers at Hale's.

"You know, you guys don't have to torture me by calling me from every single brewery," he says laconically. Poor guy. Must be the pneumonia talking.

After a hard day of drinking beer, we drive down to Olympia and check into our hotel for the night.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Great Pacific Brewery Tour, Day 1: Long Beach to Seattle

The insanity begins before we even leave the airport. Ken and I are waiting at Long Beach airport for Duffy and Vlad. While I'm waiting to check my bag they arrive with … this girl.

“I'll see you guys at the bar!” This Girl says. She zig zags off towards the second floor.

“Who is This Girl?” Ken and I ask Vlad quizzically.

“We were drinking with her at a bar in Long Beach,” Vlad sways drunkenly with a mad grin on his face. “When we said we had to get a cab to the airport, she said she could give us a ride. But she was too drunk, so Duffy drove us here in her Escalade.”

“This is true,” Duffy says sagely.

We regroup at the bar and have a few drinks before our flight. We tell This Girl about our trip, and about our friend Dan, who was originally supposed to be the 7th member of our crew before he came down with pneumonia at the last minute.

“That's ridiculous!” she cries. “Put me on the phone with this Dan so I can tell him what I think of that!”

Duffy hands her his phone and dials Dan's number. It goes to voice mail and she leaves a long rambling message. I hear snippets like “... letting your bros down,” “... being such a big pussy,” and “... you big faker,” all laced with the kind of language you wouldn't expect to hear from the sort of nice young ladies you meet at airport bars.

When I board the plane and arrive at my aisle Duffy and Vlad are already sitting down and the last seat – my seat – is filled with a girl I've never seen before.

“I think I have the window seat,” I say to her, holding out my ticket. Why do we phrase things like this? I
know I have the window seat.

“It's fine,” Vlad says with a wave of his hand. I frown.

“No, really, I kind of need a seat,” I say. The girl half stands up, confused.

“No, really, it's fine,” Vlad says again vaguely.

Eventually I figure out that we had the window and the aisle seats and the girl had the center, and Vlad decided to let her have the window instead of sitting crammed between two guys. But instead of simply making a one-for-one swap, everyone is now sitting in different seats. Why no one is able to articulate this to me clearly is beyond me, but eventually I sit down in what was originally Vlad's seat.

Vlad's phone rings before we take off. It's Dan.

“Why are you guys having some psychotic girl call me and leave me abusive messages!” he yells.

“Calm down, Dan. She's just some girl we met at the bar. Besides, she only left you one message.”

“No, she left me
three messages! I got one message from Duffy's phone, and two from some random number!”

“Oh my god,” Vlad blinks. “She must have memorized your number and called from her own phone.”

“Well, stop giving my number to crazy drunk girls!”

“All right, I'm sorry. Get better so you can meet up with us in a couple days, right?”

“Whatever!” Dan hangs up angrily.

As we walk off the airplane in Seattle, Vlad pulls me aside discretely to let the girl from my seat pull ahead. He whispers confidentially:

“That girl sitting next to us was

“Oh.” I say. “
Then why are you whispering?

We meet up with Leo and Murali at the hotel. It is just now growing dark, despite the fact that it's 10 pm – I'd forgotten how far north Seattle actually is. It is long past time we started drinking beer. We enlist two town cars from the hotel to take us to our first brewery in Seattle.

Leo is in the second car and tells the driver our destination. “I think this is gay bar,” she informs him in her thick Eastern European accent. Leo calls Vlad frantically.

“Calm down, it's a brewery,” I tell him via Vlad. Our own driver laughs uproariously at the side of the phone conversation he can hear.

“I know why she says this,” he informs us. “Do not worry, I take you to correct place.”

Except we run into barricades about eight blocks from the bar. It seems our trip to Seattle has coincided with the city's gay pride parade, and we have just discovered the block party. After our drivers seem stumped at finding a way around the blocked off streets, we bail out of the cars and proceed on foot.

Shortly thereafter we arrive at Elysian Brewing Company and sit down to our first round of tasters, then our first pints, and ultimately our first pitchers. We call Dan. For some strange reason he doesn't pick up the phone and we leave a voice message saying "Dan, we're drinking beer!
Woooo!" Or something equally clever.

Elysian has some good stuff. Their flagship Elysian Fields Pale Ale is easy drinking, as is their Loser Pale Ale. The Immortal IPA is also a decent beer.

We stumble out and wander down the street, back into the gay pride block party. We figure “when in Rome ...” and follow the crowd into a bar.

Ken gleefully orders the special chalked up on the board: “I'll have six gay martinis.”

“There's no such drink,” the bartender says stoically. “The special is a Gay Martin.”

The Gay Martin turns out to be a pretty good drink. We have two of them. Plus some British drink called a Pimm's Cup that Ken is recently fascinated with.

“If we're going to be stuck in the middle of a gay pride parade, I want to see some chicks kissing!” Vlad declares.

“Well then, turn around,” I say, pointing behind him. Vlad turns around, then shrieks in horror at the two girls who are making out in the bar.

“That's not the type of lesbians I was talking about!” Vlad protests.

“Be careful what you wish for,” I shrug philosophically.

As we leave Vlad asks the bouncer, “Is this really a gay bar?” The bouncer is dressed as a clown with his face painted white and a big button on his shirt that reads “Legalize gay cupcakes.” Vlad is not at his most observant state at this point in the evening.

“It's mixed,” the bouncer responds with a straight face.

After walking down the street, we randomly find a pub called Quinn's that boasts an impressive stock of beers on tap and in bottles. When we tell the bartender about our trip he is ecstatic about the idea and gives us an enthusiastic list of recommendations for places to go in Seattle and parts south.

I like Quinn's a lot – they have some great craft brews on tap and an insane menu of Belgian and other aged beers in the bottle. I order a 750 ml. bottled of '08 Achel Extra, a cask-aged, trappist ale, and it drinks subtle and smooth like wine. The bartender recommends another great Belgian-style ale they have on draft, Salvation from Russian River Brewing Company in California, and is very happy when we assure him that Russian River is on our itinerary.

At closing time we return to the streets. There is a continuous stream of cabs preying on people leaving the block party, so we have no trouble finding transportation back to the hotel. “You guys are going to want to buckle up,” our cabbie advises us before careening down the streets of Seattle like a ricocheting bullet.

Thus ends day one.


10 years ago, just a week after I turned 21, I went on this trip; four of us drove up to Oregon from San Diego on our spring break, touring breweries along the way. During that trip I drank a lot of great beer, yet afterward I found myself contemplating ways how the trip could have been improved.

We could have flown one way and rented a car instead of driving round trip. We could have hit more breweries in northern California. We could have added Washington.

This year I did the trip again. Seven guys, eight days, 1,800 miles, and 23 breweries. And here it is.