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The Greatest Burger That Never Was

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You only turn 50 once.

I think it was the great philosopher Fred (Mr.) Rogers who first uttered those famous words.

So when my IPA drinking friend asked me what I wanted for my 50th birthday, I said “A great beer and a great burger in a great place.”

The last part was the easiest. We were sitting at a pub in Chicago, perhaps our favorite city in the entire United States. We’ve both been to Chicago numerous times. Why not? We’ve both lived in Illinois — she in Carbondale, and me in Champaign-Urbana — and would visit Chicagoland whenever possible. In fact, I’ve always told people that, because I lived just 100 miles south of Chicago, I could easily get there in an hour.

So there we sat, at a pub, in Chicago, about half a block from where Michigan Avenue crosses the Chicago River. A great city? Check.

Great beer was pretty easy also. Of course, Howells & Hood has 100+ beers on tap, so it’s hard to go wrong. I’d already enjoyed a Eugene Porter from Revolution Brewing, while my drinking buddy had downed an Anti-Hero IPA from the same Chicago-based brewery. Both were delicious.

The Eugene Porter, named after famous railroad union leader Eugene Debs, is a dark, dark beer with a ton of malt flavor and hints of chocolate. An excellent porter. Checking in at 70 IBUs, the Anti-Hero IPA has a nice hope bite that is complimented by lots of citrus aromas and flavors. It’s one my IPA slurping friend had in the past, which means it’s a go-to IPA whenever she has the chance.

And now I was on to my second malty beverage, and one that I’d never tried before — a White Stout.

The White Stout from James Page Brewery tasted like a combination of Pilsner and chocolate.
The White Stout from James Page Brewery tasted like a combination of Pilsner and chocolate.

What is a white stout, you ask. Well, it tastes like a Pilsner up front and nutty chocolate at the end. Who knew? The one I had was called Casper White Stout from James Page Brewery in Wisconsin, and is a two-time gold medal winner. So before you cast aspersions toward the white stout by claiming that merely adding coffee to a pale ale is BS, know that this beer has been approved by the judges at two pretty good competitions.

Good beer? Check.

The final piece of the birthday trifecta was a great burger. And where to find that, we didn’t know. So my IPA chugging companion polled the staff by asking two bartenders, a waiter, and a busboy.

Both bartenders (one male and one female in an effort to avoid any data collection bias) responded the same: Au Cheval. The waiter was asked. His answer? Au Cheval. Well, you can predict what the busboy said. That’s right … Wataburger. No, not really. He said Au Cheval, too.

The problem, the female bartender said, is that the wait to get a table can be a couple hours long. Two reasons: 1) the space is pretty small, and 2) the burgers are the best in Chicago. The good news is that diagonally across the corner from Au Cheval is Haymarket Pub & Brewery.

We checked out the menu online and found the restaurant had two bugers — a hamburger, and a cheeseburger. Wow, they’ve really gone all out in the creativity department.

It was 5:30 p.m., so we grabbed a cab and headed to Au Cheval. Twenty minutes later we were inside the front door putting our name on the waiting list. And the wait? Well, it wasn’t the two hours the bartender had predicted. It was three and a half. Yikes. This burger had better be damn good.

We added our name anyway, and after walking around the area taking an inventory of all the cool restaurants, bars and brownstones, we ended up at Haymarket, where we found plenty of ways to occupy our time waiting for the summons from the burger gods over yonder.

I started my now three-hour wait with the Defender American Stout, a big, bold beer (7.5% ABV) with a powerful malt kick that perfectly balanced a brewing process that included hops and then dry hops, and earned it numerous gold medals. My IPA sipping friend tried the Toonces #six IPA, the sixth version of Haymarket’s single-hop IPA that the IPAer said was “light and crispy.”

The Toonces IPA and the Defender American Stout, both from Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago.
The Toonces IPA and the Defender American Stout, both from Haymarket Pub & Brewery in Chicago.

After taking our time with those two, and having a delightful conversation with the bar staff, I moved on to the Woot Stout, an impressive Imperial Stout that tasted of roasted caramel and a hint of pecans, one of my favorite beer ingredients.

More delightful conversation with the bar staff ensued. And by the time I’d finished off the stout, my IPA drinking buddy had found a table for us outside in the warm summer evening. But before I could make my way outside, the bartender poured the Cuppa Joe Hill Coffee Porter and gave it to me as a birthday gift. Aww.

This porter is made with lots of chocolate malt and 10 pounds of fresh coffee. You could definitely taste both. But even though each was in-your-face flavor, neither overpowered the other. The perfect present.

Two hours had passed, and we were starting to get hungry when my IPA chugging pal remembered there was a Tex-Mex restaurant on the next block. Perfect. We’ll go there for some chips and salsa, maybe even guacamole or queso, and have that as an appetizer before we, hopefully, eat at Au Cheval.

Two baskets of chips, a plate of guacamole, three servings of salsa, and a giant bowl of queso filled with chorizo later, there was no room for anything else. So much for Au Cheval. So, being full, and having our craving for grease-ladended Mexican food fulfilled for another year, we wandered toward the El to catch a train back downtown.

As we stood on the platform and the train approached, I received a text … from Au Cheval.

“Your name has moved into the top five on our waiting list. Please have your FULL party at the hostess stand in the next 10 minutes if you still want to eat at Au Cheval.”

I wrote back:

“No thanks. The wait was too long so decided to eat elsewhere. Too bad, because we’re really good tippers.”

Guess I won’t be getting a table at Au Cheval anytime soon.

So if you’re ever in Chicago and want a great burger, apparently Au Cheval is the place to go. And if you do go, please do me a favor … tell me how it was.

— Eric Van Steenburg

A Summer Beer Fest in Winter

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The new checklist for a summer beer festival:

  1. Wool socks
  2. Boots
  3. Parka
  4. Long johns

That should prepare you to comfortably enjoy any beer fest in July.

Wait. What?

OK, perhaps I won’t wear all that cold weather gear to the next beer tasting extravaganza in the middle of summer. But it would have come in handy at the last one.

The temperature in Big Sky, Montana, was in the upper 60s when I arrived on site last weekend with my IPA chugging companion. Not bad. It felt like a early spring day.

But three hours later, as we drove away, Mini told us the temperature was 49. I would have guessed even lower.

Blame it on the front that blew through that afternoon. Or blame the high altitude of Big Sky, which is perched at about 7,500 feet. Or blame the thunderstorms that dropped buckets of rain on the place. A quick thanks to P.T. Barnum for inventing the giant tent. Or was it Bailey?.

Well, whomever came up with the idea to hold the Big Sky Brewfest in a couple of large event tents was brilliant. It might not have kept the attendees, volunteers, and brewery reps warm, but it did keep them dry, for the most part.

The craft beer fans at the Big Sky Beerfest decided close quarters meant warmer.
The craft beer fans at the Big Sky Brewfest decided close quarters meant warmer. Doesn’t it just look like everyone is dressed for a typical summer day?

And for the most part, the beer was pretty good. We focused our attention on the tent with the Montana beers rather than the tent featuring beers from around the United States because we’d tried almost all the national craft beer brands before. And besides, the Montana beer tent was warmer.

One look around, though, and you could tell this was a summer beer festival … not a single porter or stout to be found. Oh wait, there was one. Thanks to the folks at Bridger Brewing Co. for bringing the Ghost Town Coffee Stout or I would have been on an island surrounded by hostile IPA waters. It is one of the best stouts I’ve tasted so far from the Big Sky state.

Despite the lack of my favorites, there were still plenty of malty beverages available. In fact, Scotch Ales easily outnumbered the IPAs. I think Montanans like their Scotch ales. At least in the “summer.” So we split the tasting chores into two camps — IPAs for her and Scotch ales for me. Here are our choices for best of the fest:

India Pale Ales

  • Gold — Double Haul IPA from KettleHouse Brewing Co. A nitro IPA that will knock your wool socks off. Smooth and easy drinking, this became my IPA slurping companion’s go-to beer all afternoon. Enough hop bite at 65 IBUs to meet the needs of almost any IPAer, it also checks in at a modest 6.5% ABV. Why not have more than one? In addition to winning Gold from Beer-and-Burgers.com, this beer also captured gold medal at the 2008 North American Brewers Association, which is almost as prestigious.
  • Silver — The Juice Double IPA from Madison River Brewing Co. This golden beer has a malty taste at the start that is quickly overtaken by a strong hop bite in the middle and end. No wonder. The brewers use three types of hops and four types of malts to create this delicious concoction that checks in at 9.0% ABV and a whopping 101 IBUs.
  • Bronze — Soul Shine IPA from The Front Brewing Co. My IPA chugging friend could only say it was outstanding. Then again, everything we’ve tried from TFBC has been so far. And Joel and Josh from TFBC were great to chat with. Must visit the brewery in Great Falls, MT, sometime.
  • Honorable Mention — A tie between Lone Peak Brewery‘s Imperial IPA and their Idiosyncratic IPA. According to the official IPA taster, both were “delicious.”

Scotch Ales/Scottish Ales

  • GoldMountain Man Scotch Ale  by TFBC. This is a delicious blend of caramel, chocolate, smoke (which usually I don’t like), coffee and toffee. A beautiful mahogany color with malty goodness throughout.
  • Silver — Big Sky Brewing Co.’s Heavy Horse Scottish Ale. The brewery known nationally for Moose Drool brown ale delivered in a big way with this limited release version of a wee heavy Scotch ale. It is a deep red color with lots ofcreaminess. At 6.7% ABV, you can afford to have a couple.

    LaNette Jones, one of the owners at Katabatic Brewing Co., was on hand to serve.
    LaNette Jones, one of the owners at Katabatic Brewing Co., was on hand to serve.
  • Bronze — Among the four beers that Katabatic Brewing Co. had on hand was their Scotch Ale, which tasted exactly the way a Scotch ale should, light and malty. (The others being poured were a Hefeweizen, an American Pale Ale, and Summer Ale, obviously in the wrong place.) By the way, Katabatic is the name for the heavy winds experienced regularly in Livingston, MT. So the front that blew through the beer fest that made me think the tent would come crashing down any minute was nothing to them. In fact, they said “this is a breeze.” To which I replied “Literally.”
  • Honorable Mention — Lewis & Clark Back Country Scottish Ale. The beer won a silver medal at Great America Beer Festival in 2014, so it didn’t need another medal from Beer-and-Burgers to validate its goodness. I found it to be crisp without much maltiness. Good for a hot summer day.

Which this was not, by the way. As the thunder and lighting raged above the mountains in the distance, the rain fell in buckets — seriously, the organizers placed buckets around the tents to catch some of the run-off in hope that the place wouldn’t turn into a muddy mess. And, of course, the temperature dropped.

We’d brought jackets. Unfortunately, neither was down lined because, well, who thought one would need a ski jacket in the summer? So when it became too cold for us transplanted Texans, we bailed to the nearby tavern for a plate of nachos to soak up the day’s tastings.

By the time we got to the car and hour later, the temperature was below 50. I knew those seat warmers in the Mini would come in handy in Montana. I just didn’t think it would be in July.

— Eric Van Steenburg

 

Going to My First Beer Fest … in Montana

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You know how when you read a fortune cookie it’s always funnier when you add “in bed” at the end. So if your fortune read “You are an inspiring individual” you would say “You are an inspiring individual … in bed.” Or if it said “You are good at multi-tasking” you would say “You are good at multi-tasking … in bed.” And you get some good ones like “Everyone knows you are outstanding, in bed” or “You will get a raise based on your performance, in bed.” And so on.

Well, I’ve decided that since I’m new to the state of Montana, I’m going to add “in Montana” to the end of almost everything that I say. Sort of like how in The Office they always say “That’s what she said” a lot of the time.

So today I’m going to my first beer festival … in Montana. It’s going to be at Big Sky Resort, and it will be the first time my IPA-swilling friend and I visit that area, in Montana.

Brewfest 2015 is expected to feature 16 breweries from Montana, and another half-dozen or so from around the country. But really, when you’re hanging out in the mountains of Big Sky and tasting beer, does it really matter how many breweries are present … in Montana?

I’m particularly looking forward to trying craft beer from breweries I’ve never tasted before (in Montana). These include Lone Peak Brewery from Big Sky, MT, UberBrew Brewring Co. in Billings, MT, Draught Works Brewery from Missoula, MT, Great Northern Brewing Co. out of Whitfish near Glacier National Park (in Montana), Flat Head Brewering Co. from some place named Big Fork (in Montana?), Katabatic Brewery in Livingston which I know is just 30 minutes east of me (in Montana), Bowser Brewing Co. from Great Falls, MT, and Upslope Brewing Co. out of Colorado … in Montana.

This is the 10th year that Big Sky has hosted a beer festival, and according to the resort, there will be a band playing soul-funk music, bbq brats, and a burger bar.

So I’m looking forward to my first beer festival, in Montana. Who knows, maybe I will get a raise based on my performance.

— Eric Van Steenburg

Drinking from Different Pages

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Trip completed. Check. Plants survived. Check. Didn’t kill each other. Check. Tried the local beer immediately upon arrival. You betcha.

The trek across the country from Appalachians to Rockies is over. For those of you scoring at home, the numbers look like this:

  • Miles traveled – 2,676
  • Days traveled – 10
  • Days arrived in advance of our furniture – 4 (and counting)
  • Hotels slept in – 5
  • Tents slept in – 1
  • New beers tasted – 21
  • New burgers tried – 5
  • Breweries visited – 7
  • States entered and/or exited – 9
  • States crossed without stopping – 1
  • Different state license plates seen and recorded – 48
  • Most number of states visited in one day – 4
  • Times crossed the continental divide – 5
  • Former grad school colleagues visited – 2
  • Former grad school colleagues not visited who commented on my posts – 2
  • Former grad school colleagues not visited who did not comment on my posts – 17.4285 (rounded up)
  • Times visited the gym – 0
  • Weight gained – 8.17

So, yes, the pants are a little tighter than when we began this little odyssey. But that didn’t stop us from waddling down the street to the neighborhood restaurant the first night in town.

There the waitron took our drink orders – the Hopzone IPA from Bozeman Brewing Co. for my hop-headed little friend and the Cold Smoke Scotch Ale by Kettle House Brewing Co. out of Missoula for me. She then

It took some searching, but after two days we found some breweries in the Grand Tetons.
It took serious searching, but we found some breweries in the Grand Tetons.

proceeded to inform us that the evening’s special was a basket of 20 spicy buffalo wings (aside: calling chicken wings buffalo wings is dumb because everyone knows buffalos can’t fly) and a pitcher of beer.

“But that won’t work for you,” she said, “since you two are drinking from different pages.”

Ah, yes, drinking from different pages. Ranks right up there on the list of mixed metaphors I’ve actually heard individuals utter in my presence, along with such classics as:

  • “I’ve got something right up your ballpark”
  • “We’re just scratching the iceberg”
  • “This isn’t rocket surgery”

and the all-time winner:

  • “The ink is in the pudding.”

The best thing is, our waitron was exactly correct. We’ve been drinking from different pages for 15 years now, and expect to until one of us drops dead. As I’ve said numerous times, we’re like left hand / right hand. Each one works well independently, but both work better together.

Why should we expect our beer drinking, and burger eating, to be any different? I like malty and sweet, she likes hoppy and bitter. I like ground beef medium rare, she likes chicken sandwiches marinated in teriyaki.

Yet somehow it works, and is probably how we survived 10 days in constant company with one another trapped in a Mini Cooper and surrounded by plants.

I did get a break from IPA-lapping traveling companion the two times I went to baseball games. Or, a more accurate way to say it, she got a break from me.

But we all made it to Bozeman, Montana in one piece – people, plants, and Mini included. Not sure I’ll be able to say the same for the furniture, which is, according to the moving company, still in Virginia.

Nothing quite like sitting a a brewery and enjoying the mountains that are less than 30 minutes away.
There’s nothing quite like sitting at a brewery and enjoying the mountains that are less than 30 minutes away.

Upon arrival, we did try a few new beers. She has sampled two IPAs, the Deschutes Pinedrops and the Horse Thief from Sheriff Harry Plummer’s Outlaw Brewing. I, on the other hand, have enjoyed the Madison River Oatmeal Stout and Outlaw’s Pugilist Chocolate Porter.

At the same time, we’re taking in the dry air and cool nights, along with the 360-degree view of mountains. And even though we know we’re in for a long, cold winter, there’s something comforting knowing that a town of just under 40,000 residents has four local breweries, and perhaps up to three more on the way.

Perfect fodder for plenty of posts by the entire staff at Beer-and-Burgers.com. You can definitely count on more to come. Hopefully you’ll enjoy them all, no matter which page you are drinking from.

— Eric Van Steenburg

What’s a Few Billionth Among Friends?

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One thousand millionth.

Or 10−9 if you prefer.

You probably know it best as 0.000000001.

It’s obvious I’m talking about a nano. And it appears that in addition to the length your fingernail grows in one second (that’s actually a nanometer), it’s also a size of a brewery.

But just like everything else nano — nanometers, nanotechnology, nano nano — you must look extra carefully to find it.

Thai Me Up in a restaurant in downtown Jackson, WY. It also is the front to a nanobrewery called Melvin Brewing Co. that makes outstanding craft beer.

Two flights from Melvin featuring IPAs in the front, and Stouts/Porters in the back.
Two flights from Melvin featuring IPAs in the front, and Stouts/Porters in the back.

So what classifies it as a nanobrewery? I don’t know exactly, but it must do with the amount beer brewed (probably barrels) in a certain period of time (probably a year). According to the U.S. government’s Department of the Treasury, a nanobrewery is a “very small brewery operation” that produces beer for sale. Oh really?

That means you likely won’t find Melvin Brewing’s beers in any other place than this Thai restaurant in Wyoming. But it’s definitely worth searching for.

When we stopped by, Melvin had 18 different beers on tap. Being a nanobrewery, though, it doesn’t take much for one of the flavors to disappear. But with so many options available, even if they kick a keg or two, there’s still an excellent chance that something will be on tap that you will enjoy.

For my IPA slurping road buddy, three of those hopped-up delicacies were there for the taking, as was a couple of pale ales. With my penchant for porters and stouts, I found plenty of each on the list to satisfy my malt tooth.

How good are the IPAs? Well, the 2×4 is a Gold Medal Winner at a really impressive craft beer competition. I can’t remember now which one. But trust me, it was impressive. This double IPA is everything a DIPA should be. Which means a nice balance of malt to counteract the extensive amount of hops. Unfortunately for my hop head, that’s too much malt for her bitter-beer preferring palate. The Einstein Pale Ale was, well, a pale ale. That is to say it wasn’t hoppy enough for her.

That left the two “real” IPAs in the middle of her tasting row. As it turned out, one was excellent, while the other was “unfinishable” (her word). So if you have the opportunity to choose between the GCM or the Hubert, go with the latter. While the GCM had all the standard IPA requirements, it contained an additional flavor that she described as a combination of grapefruit and Listerine. The Hubert, on the other had, was the perfect IPA in every way. Smooth at the start, bitter at the finish, and checking in at just 6% ABV and 35 IBUs. This is the award-winner of the future.

On my side were the Bis Spaterator Dopplebock, the Charlie Murphy (Nitro) Porter, the EZE Imperial Porter, and a Coffee Ruckus Imperial Stout. I saved the Imperials for last and started with the Dopplebock, which our waitron said was her favorite beer of all Melvin’s efforts. I heartily agree with her assessment. The Bis Spaterator is packed with malty goodness with hints of caramel throughout the taste. A winner.

The Charlie Murphy did nothing for me. For a porter, it was rather thin. And it didn’t have much in the way of any sweet flavor that I expect in such a brew. On to the Imperials.

I rather enjoy drinking a quality porter like the EZE while looking at the mountains.
I rather enjoy drinking a quality porter like the EZE while looking at the mountains.

The EZE — a beer named after me — was the exact opposite of the Charlie Murphy. Full of semi-sweet chocolate and hazelnut flavors that don’t overpower as to detract from the beer, it packs a punch at 11.2% ABV. Same with the Coffee Ruckus. It checks in at 13%. But the difference is the Ruckus is all about amplifying the flavor. After dinner, the Ruckus might be a good choice for the non-coffee drinker who wants an alcoholic coffee. It also contains the chocolate flavor that its brother the EZE has, but again, the Ruckus makes it loud and proud. Not tonight.

So I ordered a glass of the EZE, and my IPA navigator settled in for a pint of the Hubert. Excellence abounded.

Next time you’re in and around Yellowstone National Park, take a side trip to Jackson Hole and search for the nanobrewery behind Thai Me Up known as Melvin Brewing Co. You will be rewarded for your effort.

And in the future it might be easier to find Melvin. I hear he might be getting a field promotion to microbrewery.

— Eric Van Steenburg

How to Survive a Six-Hour Drive

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When U.S. goalie Jim Craig beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, he simplified the game by breaking it into five-minute increments. Once the United States had the lead, he simply shut out the Russians for five minutes. Then he did it again for another five minutes. And then another, and another.

The result was a 4-3 miracle win over the Red Menace, and an eventual gold medal for the United States.

Driving more than 2,000 miles across the country in a 10-day period, I also attack it in increments. Five minutes probably is a little short, though. So I count the time between breweries.

And that, my friends, is the saving grace in the drive across Wyoming from Laramie to Jackson.

The sign next to the tanks at Bitter Creek Brewing make it very clear that important work is being done.
The sign next to the tanks at Bitter Creek Brewing make it very clear that important work is being done.

Total time in the car is about six hours — the max I can take in one day. But three hours in, after passing monotonous miles of scrub brush and dry dirt, the town of Rock Springs delivers a gem.

Bitter Creek Brewing Co. appears as an oasis in this land of desolation. Or, as our bartender said, “another day in paradise.”

OK, to be honest, Rock Springs is a dump. But if you ever find yourself there, instead of turning north on US-191 toward the beautiful mountains of Jackson, go just two miles south of I-80 and find Bitter Creek. You won’t be disappointed.

Their stout, which they call A Beer Named Bob, is one of the best-tasting beers I’ve had all trip. And remember, that’s been eight days and 2,000 miles so far. I’ve tried my share of beer.

The Bob, as they have nicknamed it, is an incredibly smooth, velvety tasting stout with some smokiness and creaminess combined. No one flavor overpowered this complex beer, but multiple flavors danced around my mouth with every sip. This easy-drinking stout is Bitter Creek’s signature brew, and it only takes a few sips to understand why.

The Bob is definitely in the running for “Best in Beer” award from the coveted Beer-and-Burgers blog.

With half of the drive completed, and two Bob’s under my belt, the next step to surviving a long day in the car is to cut the remaining time in half with a stop at another brewery. Fortunately, Wind River Brewing Co. complied with our wishes.

The award-winning Oatmeal Stout at Wind River Brewing Co. is almost as alluring as the cowboy version of the leg lamp.
The award-winning Oatmeal Stout at Wind River Brewing Co. is almost as alluring as the cowboy version of the leg lamp.

Located in sprawling Pinedale, WY, Wind River Brewing sports nine different award-winning beers. The most decorated of these is the Oatmeal Stout, a gold medal winner (just like Jim Craig) in 2006 at the World Beer Cup, and more recently a gold medal winner (like Jim Craig) in the 2012 North American Beer Awards. It must be good.

In fact, it was. This full-bodied beer had hints of dry-roasted coffee thickness that makes it a classic stout. No wonder it won so many awards.

With so many homemade beers, I was forced (yes, forced) to try the award-winning English Porter. Not much head on this beer, but flavors of toffee and nuts made it a nice craft beer.

Wind River also has a well-regarded IPA that my hop-crazed traveling buddy was ready to try. But alas, the last keg had been kicked. So she settled for the equally interesting Wyoming Pale Ale — yes, they call it a WPA — to appease her hoppy palate.

She found it nicely bitter with enough malt to add just enough balance to make the beer quite drinkable. But not with the hop-bite of the IPAs she prefers to guzzle. Good to know that in a pinch, however, a WPA may be able to substitute for an IPA.

Between the two stouts I tried on the day, the better one is definitely the Bob from Bitter Creek. But kudos to Wind River for helping me survive yet another six-hour day in the car. I just wish Nebraska could take a hint from Wyoming on how to break up a long-day’s drive.

— Eric Van Steenburg

A New Contender for “Best in Burger”

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Few burgers have challenged the supremacy of The Idiot Burger in Lexington, KY, since the start of this cross-country odyssey began more than a week ago. But now, we have a new contender for the coveted Beer-and-Burgers.com “Best in Burger” award.

Say hello to the Nacho-Cheese Burger at the Library Sports Grille & Brewery in Laramie, Wyoming.

The Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) is a family friendly sports bar in the downtown area, just a mile from the University of Wyoming campus. But hey, it’s Laramie. Everything is within a mile of campus.

Honest, mom, I'm at the Library. Here I am studying the Steamboat Oats & Cream Stout.
Honest, mom, I’m at the Library. Here I am studying the Steamboat Oats & Cream Stout.

The Nacho-Cheese Burger is just like the Cowboy Burger, of course, which means it’s the traditional burger with lettuce, tomato, onion and pickle. Except that the Library Gille (don’t forget the “e”) throws jalapenos, bacon, and cheddar cheese on top. Delicioso.

Most importantly, the chefs at Library Grille (don’t forget the “e”) know how to cook a burger. When you ask for it medium rare, you get it medium rare.

It has been amazingly difficult on this trip to get a burger cooked with enough pink in the middle that there’s still some moisture and flavor left in the meat. One restaurant we tried had an extensive list of tantalizing burger options. But when I ordered the Samba Burger and asked for it medium rare, the barkeep informed me that “all our burgers are cooked well done.” Oh good. I like my burgers burnt and tasteless. Yum. Looks like a turkey sandwich for me.

But the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) made it right. And the chefs were also generous with the amount of jalapenos. Nothing worse than asking for the “jalapeno burger” and getting something with only one or two slices of that pesky pepper.

If the burger wasn’t enough, the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e”) is also a brewery, and had several of their locally made options on tap. I enjoyed the Steamboat Oats and Cream Stout, which was full of body and creaminess, as its name implies. It also had a touch of chocolate and roasted hazelnuts in the taste. Nicely done.

Finally, the cool thing for the students who attend the University of Wyoming is that when they go to the Library Grille (don’t forget the “e” at the end) they can tell their folks they spent the evening at the library, and they won’t be lying.

I’m not lying when I say the Nacho-Cheese Burger is giving The Idiot Burger a challenge for Best in Burger. And with just a few more days until we reach Bozeman, Montana, it may boil down to a two-burger race.

In sum, if you find yourself in Laramie, Wyoming, I recommend a burger and beer at the Library Grill. Oh crap, I forgot the “e”

— Eric Van Steenburg

A Brewery on Every Corner

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In Beervana, there’s a brewery on every corner of every street in every town. I think Fort Collins is trying to make Beervana a reality.

As we made our way north from Denver on Sunday afternoon, we still weren’t sure whether to visit New Belgium Brewery or Odell Brewing Co. But once we got closer to Fort Collins, the choice was obvious — first one, then the other.

Since we’d tried, and enjoyed, numerous New Belgium beers in the past, our plan was to visit Odell Brewing first and see what was available to taste. If we found some beers we really liked and knew we couldn’t get elsewhere, we would stay. Otherwise, we’d head over to NBB to taste what they had on tap.

No one told us that we’d have to pass two more breweries just to get to Odell. And that we’d pass those two again on our way to New Belgium.

The Classic Tray at Odell Brewing was mostly pale ales.
The Classic Tray at Odell Brewing was mostly pale ales.

The first brewery we saw as we neared our destination was Fort Collins Brewery. We couldn’t stop, though, because we had a preliminary visual on the Odell taproom, and we were on a mission. The taproom at Odell’s was hoppin’ with lots of people getting flights. They had three options from which to choose that seemed rather randomly compiled. For example, a flight with the only malty beverage on tap also featured two IPAs. So I went with a single pour of the Cutthroat Porter (they had a pilot nitro version of the porter, but I stayed traditional), while my IPA slurping traveling companion chose the Classic Tray, which included the Loose Leaf American Pale Ale, Easy Street Wheat, Levity Amber Ale, 5 Barrel Pale Ale, and the 90 Shilling Ale.

The Cutthroat hints of chocolate and cocoa, sits up nicely in the glass, and is smooth going down. In hindsight (which mine is 20/15) I should have tried the nitro version also. Meanwhile, the IPAer preferred the 5 Barrel Pale Ale among the choices she was given. No surprise there, since Odell puts one batch of hops in the fermenter, and add four more batches of hops in the boil.

Even though the patio at Odell Brewing was spectacular — tables with umbrellas, trellises covered with vines and flower pots, stone walls for seating, and lots of dogs — none of the beers really knocked our socks off, so we headed toward New Belgium. To do so, we had to drive back past Fort Collins Brewery and turn the corner … where we immediately saw Snowbank Brewing. No time to stop, though, because not only did we have New Belgium in our sights, but we still had to make it to make it all the way to Wyoming by sundown.

Tasting the IPAs on tap at New Belgium.
Tasting the IPAs on tap at New Belgium.

New Belgium Brewery was on the third corner in this block as Fort Collins attempts Beervana. The taproom and patio area were much smaller than Odell’s, but it seemed all about the beer here.

Because it’s summer, there’s usually not many options for brews in my sweet spot — porters and stouts. New Belgium had just one, the Cocoa Mole, which I was first introduced to several months ago by D.J. at Cap Ale. Thanks, D.J. This tasty beverage is a porter with spice, as in spicy, not holiday. When you drink it, you get a spicy kick at the end of the taste. As interesting as it is delicious.

For the hop chugger, three different IPAs were on tap, so she sampled them all. Collusion Cacao IPA, the Hop Tart, and the Liquid Center Surprise. The Hop Tart was too sour for either of our tastes, but was surprisingly better when it followed a sip of the Cocoa Mole. The other two IPAs were delicious, she reports. That is all.

Getting a tour of New Belgium is next to impossible (check out their tour schedule calendar if you don’t believe me). So we took the self-guided tour, which included the bicycle gear crank for a pen holder, and bicycle rims for bathroom mirrors. Great branding.

And now, off to Laramie for our first venture ever into Wyoming.

— Eric Van Steenburg

The Beer Doth Floweth Like a Stream from the Mountains

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Two days in Denver, and haven’t even scratched the surface of trying all the craft beer available within walking distance of our hotel. So here’s a day-by-day rundown of our efforts to sample them all.

Friday:

  • Arrive in town late in the day and in desperate need of something to erase the endless hours of travel across Nebraska. So we headed to Wynkoop Brewery for a beer (or two) and a burger.Wynkoop is one of the first breweries to open in Denver, so they’ve had lots of practice making quality craft beer.
    The first brew pub in Denver, Wynkoop has made its share of beer.
    The first brew pub in Denver, Wynkoop has made its share of beer.

    In fact, the Barrel-o-Meter sign on the wall says they’ve made almost 1,700 barrels of beer, and a bartender named Al said that sign what in desperate need of updating. I started with the Cowtown Milk Stout, a nitro-infused traditional stout with a thick head and a semi-sweet taste. My IPA swilling road pal sipped on a Belgorado Belgian-IPA, a combination of Colorado-grown malt and lots of Belgian yeast. But at only 48 IBUs, it didn’t quit hit her bitter spot. Mine, on the other hand, was quite easy to drink, and I was therefore encouraged to try another local malty brew — the Real Big Stout. This Imperial effort, made in conjunction with Ska Brewing Co., was chocolaty with lots of caramel flavor. And at 10% ABV, they weren’t foolin’ around. It was quite tasty. So was the burger I had, though I wish it was more pink in the middle. Seems to be a challenge to get a real medium-rare burger in these parts.

Saturday:

  • Met some relatives for lunch and headed to the Mellow Mushroom, a touristy pizza joint but with good beer options, as most restaurants in Denver seem to have. There our beer-loving waitron, Kate, had fun letting us try numerous options from the bar. Ultimately, I enjoyed the New Belgium Portage Porter, which I’ve tasted from the bottle before, but not from the tap. It was, as are most New Belgium products, nicely done. This porter has a malty feel but isn’t overly sweetened. I convinced one of the fam to try the Yeti Imperial Stout from Great Divide Brewing Co., which has an outpost just a few blocks away. He liked it, and who wouldn’t. This multi-award winning brew is coffee meets toffee. As he was sipping his 9.5% ABV beverage, I ordered the Boulder Shake. Again, I’ve had this previously. But this was a nitro version, and it went down smooth as … well … something that goes down smooth. Meanwhile, my hop-loving friend was at the other end of the table sampling numerousIPAs, thanks to Kate. No clue what she ended up drinking.

    Enjoying the 90 Shilling Ale while watching the Rockies and Brewers.
    Enjoying the 90 Shilling Ale while watching the Rockies and Brewers.
  • In the afternoon, it was off to another ballpark. This time, Coors Field. Fortunately, Coors is not the only beer available in the stadium. I was able to enjoy a 90 Shilling Ale from Odell Brewing Co., another Colorado-based craft brewery. There were several other options for the crafty beer drinker, but none that really hit my malty sweet spot. So the 90 Shilling, with its combination of Scotch ale malt and Amber ale ruddiness, was perfect for a warm summer day at the ballpark.
  • Breckenridge beckoned, so we complied and went to Breckenridge Colorado Craft, a taproom one block from the stadium featuring, as one would expect, mostly Breckenridge Brewing Co. beers, and a few others as well. But why wander off the trail? So I enjoyed their Oatmeal Stout while the hop-head had the Fresh Hop Pale Ale followed by the Breck IPA. And, of course, I had to have the NVP — Nitro Vanilla Porter. The non-nitro bottle version of this beer has been a staple in my fridge for years. Having it on tap, in Denver, infused with nitro, made for a perfect ending to a beer-filled day.

Sunday:

  • Next stop, Fort Collins. The only question is whether to stop at the New Belgium brewery, or the Odell brewery. Or both?

Stay tuned.

— Eric Van Steenburg

We Now Pause for Baseball

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Two people have been banned from baseball for life — Pete Rose and my IPA swilling road buddy. The difference is while the former is not happy about his fate, the latter did so willingly, with joy, and gratitude.

So off to the College World Series I went, alone. Willingly. With joy. And gratitude.

It has been a lifelong dream to come to the CWS. Of course, that dream always included my alma mater, the University of Texas, playing in the series. So my dream didn’t exactly come true, but here I was, in Omaha, at the College World Series. Who cares who was playing.

My view from right field at the College World Series.
My view from right field at the College World Series.

Finding good beer at a baseball game is typically a challenge. And since this was an NCAA sanctioned event, there was no beer in the stadium. However, there was plenty of it to be found in “tent city” just across the street. In fact, if you can make your way past all the vendors selling the same CWS swag in every tent, you find The Old Mattress Factory, which is (wait for it) an old mattress factory that has been converted into a bar and restaurant.

There I was able to enjoy a couple of beers before the game. While I’ve tasted several offerings from Founders Brewing Co. — the Porter, the Nitro Oatmeal Stout, the Breakfast Stout (my favorite), the Imperial Stout, and the KBS — I hadn’t ever seen the Scotch Ale before, which the Mattress Factory had on tap. It was a typical Founders effort, well-made with all the appropriate characteristics of the beer’s style. It checked in at about 8% ABV, so one was plenty as a starter.

I followed that up with an Oatmeal Porter from Zipline Brewing Co. out of Omaha. I’d never had a porter made with oatmeal before, and this one tasted exactly as you would expect — the sweet maltiness of a porter combined with the thick woodiness of an oatmeal stout. A little bit of caramel rounded out the flavor. All-in-all, a beer I would definitely try again, and the type of porter that even my IPA chugging friend soaking in a tub back in the bed ‘n’ breakfast might enjoy. According to Zipline, the Oatmeal Porter was just a winter seasonal until an angry mob of cult followers threatened the brewers, who now make it available year round for our pleasure, and their safety.

Two beers was enough tonight for I had baseball to attend … to.

While there were plenty of burger options at the ballpark, I took a burger break and enjoyed a spicy Italian sausage with peppers and onions. Yum.

It was a perfect evening for baseball. And even better, the team I was cheering for won.

Hook ’em Frogs.

— Eric Van Steenburg