So some of us are luckier than others. My spouse gives me a lot of freedom, but I do my best not to abuse the privilege. Over the past decade, beer has gone from something I enjoyed, to something that I am quite passionate about. So when I am travelling out of state, I really like to try to explore the local beer culture. This is easy on business trips, since most of the day you are spending in meetings. Then after the meetings are over most of my peers are looking to have a nice refreshing beverage. If you are quick, you can throw out the suggestion to go to an establishment that carries finer malt beverages.
A family vacation is a different animal. Especially when the “vacation” is barely more than 24 hours.
Step 1: Plan Ahead
So it’s not something that you just start doing the night before. It should be something that you incorporate into your lifestyle. Sounds pretty horrible and not fun, doesn’t it? Guess what it might not be the most fun thing you’ve ever done, but it certainly isn’t hard.
Google maps or the mapping software of your choice is your friend. My preference is Google Maps since it’s so accessible, free, and up to date. Why is Google Maps my friend? You are reading about beer right now. So that means that this most likely isn’t the only thing about beer you read about. You probably ‘Like’ a few establishments on Facebook too. But if they are in a different city, do you know where they are? You might. But what I am become accustomed to doing, is “Starring” place in Google that are interesting for beer. I used to maintain a separate list in Google Maps, but I found I wasn’t segregating enough from other things, and I also came to the realization why does it matter. If I am in another city, I pull out my smartphone, or look on my laptop what “stars” are in the area. Sometimes this can help you stumble upon some real gems.
I’ll give you an example. A few weeks ago, I was in Charlotte, NC on a business trip. Charlotte has a pretty decent beer scene. Good number of local breweries and beer bars. Some are well established like The Flying Saucer or Mac’s Speed Shop . Some are somewhat newer to the area like The Liberty.
One evening, I was told dinner will be at ‘The Whiskey Warehouse.’ I was fine with that. I had never heard of the place, but I felt confident it would fit into my genre. After we arrived I was slightly disappointed in the extent of their beer menu, especially the draft selections. But I did find they had Bells Two Hearted and Founders Dirty Bastard. Two good beers not available in my home state of Maryland. Of course the Two Hearted had a caveat of: Limited Availability. So needless to say I was a little sad to see my co-workers following my lead with ordering Two Hearted, which of course they promptly ran out of.
On our way to dinner, we had gotten a little turned around, and I looked at Google Maps to help get us back on track. I saw that our destination was just a short walk from a “Star.” Unfortunately when I had create this star, the establishment was not in Google Maps yet, so I just added an address. I had no idea what it was. What could be around the corner that was deserving of a Star? After explaining my star system, and the mystery surrounding this particular star, I asked to be excused for a little bit to solve this mystery.
I did a quick Google search on the address I had starred, to find that the place I had given a star was a convenience store. Odd. Kind of. It was time to find out what it is. So as I exit the restaurant and start walking toward the address, I start to hear music. Sounded like reggae or dancehall music. As the store comes into sight I see a tent setup on the side of the building with some DJ speakers, and in front of the store are a number of people socializing with bottles of wine and beer. The crowd seems very bohemian, very different from the more corporate clientele I had just left. I am now smiling from ear to ear. I know this is going to be my kind of place.
Once inside The Common Market, it does have clues that it is a regular convenience store, but it is much much more. Through the front door I immediately see a cashier to my right with the obligatory cigarette racks around him, and counter snacks like beef jerky. Of course this place put the world on its axis a little bit. The cigarettes displayed are all of the organic variety or roll your own, and the beef jerky is a locally smoked artisanal jerky. Or at least that is how I remember it. To my left is a food section of sorts, but I didn’t get a good look at that, since as my head was scanning from right to left I saw why this place was starred. Beer.
Just beyond the packaged food section, there was a little bar, with about 10 beers on tap, and a deli offering lots of great looking food. And this place was just buzzing with life. There was a large cooler that contained much of the smaller format beer in 4 packs and 6 packs, while on the opposite side was a large shelving area containing large format singles, in what seemed to be a random layout. No matter, looking through all of the beer is not a chore to be. I managed to find a few true winners. A BFM √225, and a Hoppin’ Frog Barrel Aged B.O.R.I.S.The Crusher were just samples of the great gems I was able to find, and outside in the tent? A Terrapin Brewing pint night! Sweet. And the beer was cheap. $3 pints for the normal gravity offerings, and $3 (generous) half pints for the higher gravity selections.
All of this from going to Google Maps after reading something, somewhere about this eclectic convenience store in Charlotte.
Another source that I use regularly is the Food Networks Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. I have really started watching this show a lot. Guy Fieri is a total doucebag, but he (or his producers) find some great places with some great beer. And when I see something that is awesome, I go straight to Google Maps to find where he is, and give it a Star.
So watching TV and reading a few articles is what I mean when I say plan ahead. Of course it does help to look at the maps before leaving for your trip too.
One last tip for planning. Check out the website The Beer Mapping Project. This is a database that catalogs all of the best beer stores, brewpubs, breweries, and beer pubs into a searchable format. There are also many apps for Android and iOS that are driven by the Beer Mapping Project, and can really help point you in the right direction.
Step 2: Incorporation
This is the tricky part, and can often take a little more planning, and a little finesse. First of all, if your family is like mine you will be toting some young children with you. So to be able to enjoy a nice craft beer or two, you really need to make sure that you have ways to keep them happy.
A meal is the best way to pull off the incorporation, but you need to make sure there is going to be something they will enjoy. An online menu that features children’s food is usually a really good sign.
This week, my wife and I had planned a trip to Hershey Pennsylvania to visit Hershey Park. I hadn’t been there since I was a kid, and my wife, Eve, had never been there. And I knew of a beer activity I wanted to do without even having to pull out my trusty Google Maps. Tröegs Craft Brewery was not only in the area, its address was on Hersheypark Drive. Score. So I figured that we could get to Hershey the night prior, do a few things at the park, then get dinner at Tröegs, then head back to the hotel to rest up for our adventures at Hershey Park the next day.
In many craft breweries, the tasting room is setup minimally with some stools and taps and not much else, if you’re lucky. And food? Forget about it. Tröegs however, must have made the realization they were right around the corner from a family destination when designing their brewery. Not only did they have food. But their food was very good, and had a great kids menu too. And like many craft breweries, getting on the tour is no longer easy. No matter, Tröegs offers self guided tours until 9pm Sunday – Wednesday, and until 10pm Thursday – Saturday.
Upon entering their brewery with children in tow, the first step is the restroom of course. Then we moved onto the gift shop. Not too much to say here. Your normal good craft brewery giftshop. T-shirts, work shirts, hats, glassware, stickers, and of course beer. I had forgotten to pack a hat, so I knew what I was going to get. I also picked up a couple shirts, including an awesome work shirt. Then we moved on to the tasting room, because it was starting to get late, and we were all hungry.
The tasting room is a very large tasting room. Was about twice the size of what I had been expecting. There is a large full bar in front of the brewhouse. Then adjacent to the bar are high tables, then booths, and then low tables. There is also an outdoor patio, which I am sure is enjoyable on days without high humidity and 90 degree temperatures. For the most part service is self-service. Go the bar to get beer, if you order more than two, they are kind enough to supply you with a tray to carry beer to your table. Then there is the snack bar. Considering the high quality of the food, calling it a snack bar is underselling it to say the least. If I were with a larger group I would have been a little more expiremental with my food choces. Possibly getting the Mad Elf Fondue or the House Cured Charcuterie, or even the Confit Duck Leg, Poached Egg, Fingerlings, and Wild Green Salad. But instead I “settled” for Braised Beef Brisket au Poivre. My wife chose the same as she said, she didn’t want to experience food envy. All of the plates were served with a house toasted chex mix blend that was equally savory, smoky, and spicy. Really good.
Almost forgot about the growlers. While waiting to order a beer at the bar, I saw their growler filler. I am used to a growler filler being a piece of beverage tubing going from the tab to the bottom of the growler to facilitate a “quiet pour.” But this was a robotic machine of sorts, that enabled automated, counter pressure fills of beer. Genius. I grabbed a growler of Triple Dry Hopped Perpetual IPA to take back to the hotel to enjoy after the kids were asleep. Which I am laughing about now, since I ended up falling asleep before they did.
I have to say I was really happy with every aspect of this mini-vacation. I got to grab some great beer at Tröegs and spend a wonderful day at Hershey Park with my family. A few things did surprise me though. After a long tiring day at the park, we needed to get some dinner in the kids (and the adults) before going home. I was tired of overpriced stadium style food in the park and suggested we just find a place on the way home. So we asked the kids if they had any preferences about where to go. Fully expecting an answer of McDonald’s or something similar, I was shocked when my daughter gleefully said, “The brewery!” And while I wanted to go back I knew that a beer would have made the drive home close to impossible.
And the other surprise was with the hotel. I had made the astute observation that we probably shouldn’t leave our bag of chocolate we had picked up at Chocolate World the day prior. As the heat of the day would create a puddle of chocolate. I had also noticed that I had barely touched the growler the night before, and while I would be okay with wasting a glass, I couldn’t stomach the thought of losing ¾ of the growler. As we were leaving for the park I took our luggage, chocolate, and beer, and checked it at the front desk. I figured we could just swing by after the park and pick it up. The beer wouldn’t be cold, but it wouldn’t be hot, or more importantly it wouldn’t be light struck. When I was picking up the bags from the Fairfield Inn, I noticed they were having trouble finding the third item. I told him it was a growler of beer. He smiled, and said, “Ah, beer. We respect the beer, it’s in the refrigerator.” Wow. This hotel knows how to keep this beer geek happy.