Sip, Savor and Read with Brewvana during Des Moines Beer Week

Des Moines Beer Week is slated for June 14-20, and I have scheduled a trio of events I hope folks will be eager to attend.

Beer and Barrels

The first shindig is the release of the Barrel-aged version of this year’s Illuminator Doppelbock.

Brewed back in January with my partner in Lenten crime, Eric Sorensen of Rock Bottom -West Des Moines, a portion of this malty bomb blast of a beer has been resting patiently in a Mississippi River Distillery barrel.

This is the fifth year that Eric and I have collaborated on this beer, which was first brewed as part of my Diary of a Part-Time Monk research into the origins of the doppelbock style which tested the story that tells us that German monks developed the style to sustain themselves during their Lenten fasts on this this bold brew. That first iteration took a silver medal at the Festival of Wood and Barrel-Aged Beers in Chicago, and we’re excited at the prospects of this year’s vintage.

While the “regular” version of Illuminator has sold out, the barrel-aged version taps for the first time on June 17 at 6 p.m. Come give it a try!

Beer and Food

The second event will take place at the Renaissance Savery Hotel’s Coda Lounge in Downtown Des Moines on Thursday, June 18, at 5:30 p.m. This is the second time I’ve partnered with Chef Katie Van Dyke at the Coda, a hotel lounge that really excites me thanks to its devotion to serving local beers for travelers passing through Des Moines. All hotel lounges should care this much!

This time around, we’ve invited brewmasters Karl Schmitz of West O Beer (West Okoboji) and David Bryan of New American Brewing Company (Ankeny) to join us. The brewers will each have two of their beers featured during the four-course meal and be available to discuss the beers, the pairings and field questions from those attending.

It will be fun–and delicious! Tickets ($40) are available at Eventbrite.

Beer and Books

My third event takes place on June 19 (4-5 p.m.) at 515 Brewing Company in Clive, pairing books and beer in a chatting-drinking-book signing event that includes one of my beer writing buddies–Maureen Ogle.

Ogle will be signing copies of Ambitious Brew: the Story of American Beer, while I’ll be signing my books, Diary of a Part-Time Monk and Iowa Pints: A Guide to Iowa Breweries. Books will be available for purchase.

The details for this free event are available on my Facebook event page.

Information for  these events and many others can also be found on the Des Moines Beer Week website. We hope to see you several times throughout the week!

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Reviewed: Apples to Cider

Apples to Cider: How to Make Cider at Home

April White with Stephen Wood

Quarry Books, 2015

Written in collaboration with cider maker Stephen Wood, April White’s Apples to Cider: How to Make Cider at Home offers an unintimidating foray into the art of cider making.

In addition to background information on cider history, styles, apples, and a tasting tutorial, Apples to Cider walks the budding cider maker through their first batch of hard cider. Since minor problems can afflict those new to any hobby, the book discusses diagnosing common issues, as well as ways of correcting and preventing them.

Short vignettes from Wood do a lot to take away any apprehension a new cider maker might possess. He discusses his orchard, his facility, tasting tips, and learning from setbacks in a way that melts worry. Problems will arise, but they’re not always a huge deal. A little farmhouse funk absolutely has a place in an agricultural nectar such as cider, and says Wood, something can be done with the batches that skew “off.” Sometimes, those problems can simply be embraced as a learning experience.

Both White and Wood write in a clean, accessible style that makes all facets of that one important element—the apple—even easier to grasp in consideration of taking it one step further. With full color photography, equipment and ingredient lists, and “next steps” after one has their first batch or two under their belt, Apples to Cider proves an accessible first look at making cider at home.

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Reviewed: The United States of Craft Beer

The United States of Craft Beer

By Jess Lebow

Adams Media, 2015

On one hand, the task of creating a book such as Jess Lebow’s The United States of Craft Beer is extraordinarily difficult, and on the other hand, it’s really a piece of cake.

The hard way would employ a prohibitively costly and exhausting travel schedule, while the easy way can be executed simply by spending hours scouring the Internet. Sure, there’s plenty of work involved in the easy way—lots of writing, organizing and pestering busy breweries to send photos to accompany their profiles—but despite that effort and honest to goodness knowledge of the American craft beer landscape, that resulting tome still reveals itself.

While it’s beautifully illustrated with full color photos throughout, this book is really nothing more than an expensive listicle—you know, those click-bait online roundups of the country’s ten best IPAs, the Midwest’s nine best impy stouts, or the world’s top twenty sour ales. For someone new to the world of craft beer, this book has value. It’s a fun road trip across the country with insight into many breweries worth checking out, but for the seasoned beer nerd, The United States of Craft Beer is probably one to skip.

A beer traveler will find many solid brewery recommendations in this book, but each state is confined to but a handful of inclusions. Limiting a state like North Dakota to three brewery mention makes some sense, but confining such fertile beer states as California, Oregon, Colorado, Michigan, and North Carolina to five, three, five, three, and three respectively just seems negligent—even if the goal is to offer a simple overview of what the US has to offer.

Since it’s so easy these days to fire up a search engine to identify the top tier of any state’s breweries such as this book identifies, it’s amazing to me that a publisher settled for this pitch. To me, Adams Media is looking to cash in on the buzz that craft beer has created for itself over the course of especially this last decade. They’re like those beer knowledgeless cats that jumped into brewery ownership back in the nineties with the plan of easy money. That trend resulted in a burst bubble, but this one results in a backward step for beer publishing.

I’d like to see its size doubled, original photography, and profiles that read as though the information was compiled from sources deeper than the “about” page on breweries’ websites. Though this is a fun bookstore thumb-through, I’d like to have seen the publishers ask for more.

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Brewvana goes to Beervana for CBC 2015

I traveled to Portland April 14-18 for the Brewers Association’s 2015 Craft Brewers Conference.

While education and networking were paramount on the agenda, one would be crazy if they thought I didn’t possess a separate list in my pocket for after-hours entertainment. Though I attended the opening reception (almost too crowded to enjoy) and one of Lagunitas’ two revelries at the Bossanova Ballroom (awesome), my companions and I managed to hit eight breweries, one cidery and one heavenly biscuit shop. Here’s the run-down, and there isn’t a spot on this list that I wouldn’t recommend:

Peace Tree Brewing’s Paul Stanley and me at Upright Brewing Company.

Upright Brewing Company

The armchair brewery owner in me has looked admiringly from afar at what this place is. Situated in an urban setting but with a decidedly farmhouse lineup, Upright met my expectations to the fullest extent. Serving up a good half-dozen riffs on the saison style, it was easy to get my attention; the beers I tried were excellent. The tap room is a modest affair without even a bar to which one might belly up. Set in a basement with low ceilings and very little seating, patrons are sprinkled about the entire brewery chatting in an upright position while a staff member pours beer after beer to an endless line of beer enthusiast in the know.

Cascade Barrel House

This was my second trip to Portland, and I made it a point to hit Cascade Barrel House for the second time in my life because I so enjoyed it when I visited back in 2011. To me it was an essential stop for my drinking companions and to satisfy my own sour beer selfishness. Judging by the crowds as well as the word on the street, I was not alone. Cascade did not disappoint. What did I have? I do not remember, and it doesn’t matter. This place is solid, and I left feeling sorry in two ways. One, that I could not spend more time here working my way through the sour lineup, and two, that I couldn’t be bothered to ignore the sours for the brewery’s regular lineup. I’m sure the “regular” beers are anything but regular, but to find out the truth, one would need to consult a regular, someone local with the time to explore this wonderful location at leisure. I’m jealous.

The Commons Brewery

Another farmhouse affair, the Commons was another Portland brewery with buzz from out-of-towners setting their priorities. Time being limited, our stop here was brief, and that is my regret. Brewery after brewery in Portland, I found great joy but a ticking clock. The locals are fortunate indeed in their ability to spend time and soak in the house nuances of The Commons and every other doggone good place throughout the city.

After hours a custom, fold-down bar, along with a few kegs and pallets, helps to convert Coalition Brewing Company’s brewhouse into a taproom.

Coalition Brewing Company

Selected for its close proximity to our room, Coalition was my final stop of the trip. I sampled a few beers and drank an enjoyable pint of their blueberry Berliner Weisse before packing it in to rest for my early morning flight the next day. Like Upright, the taproom was basically the brewhouse, with imbibers perched on kegs and pallet-tables here and there. These setups presented more function than fancy, and there was something I quite liked about it. Beer first, décor second. Here’s our place. Come drink in it. Okay, I will.

Hair of the Dog Brewing Company

Hours being limited, Hair of the Dog (like Upright) was a place I had atop my list of priorities but missed the first time I visited Portland. I wouldn’t allow this to happen on Trip #2. I’m glad I made it. Among other tasties, I had the opportunity to try Double Cherry Adam from the Wood. Like everywhere in Portland, our waitstaff was notably intelligent and well trained, and seemingly like everywhere in Portland, this place closed at like 10 p.m., killing our night prematurely. Could this be my only Portland complaint? Perhaps.

Ecliptic Brewing Company

A lengthy urban hike took us to Ecliptic Brewing Company, the starry vision of brewing heavyweight John Harris. Appetite well-worked, we were happy to sit for a meal, quiet conversation with new friends and, well, a much needed rest. I liked my beer and food more than the spacey theme to the place, but then that’s just me and my personal preference for branding and vibe. I’m only just a beer nerd, not also a space nerd.

Ground Breaker Brewing Company

My wife has a gluten allergy and hasn’t had much beer for three years. What she’s had has been limited and hit-or-miss with regard to excitement level. Further, eating out is always a precarious situation. This being our backdrop, visiting Ground Breaker was a priority, and we were not disappointed. Their beers were quite good, especially the pale ale and Northwest (I think that’s what it was) Brown Ale. And then there was the food, my Cubano was really damn good, gluten-free bread and all.

Keg Creek Brewing’s #RandyRomens, Firetrucker’s Dan Heiderscheit and Brewvana’s Michelle Wilson at Burnside Brewing Company. They’re probably talking about good beer and good beef cheeks.

Burnside Brewing Company

The Iowa contingent to the CBC organizes an annual Iowa Beer Social, an opportunity for Iowa-born beer folk to hang out and network with their corn-fed comrades. This year that shindig took place at Burnside Brewing Company, thanks to a short list of recommendations from Iowa-born Oregon brewer Matt Van Wyk. Around fifty people with Iowa connections converged on Burnside Brewing, which awesomely boasts an Iowa-born chef. All the beers I had (to include Silence of the Lambs, which is brewed with six lamb hearts just to impress the hell out of my two boys) were excellent, but let me tell you, that Iowa-born chef knows a thing or two about beef cheeks. I ate dinner here and nearly fell over at the tenderness and loveliness and hell-yeah-ness of those incredible freaking beef cheeks. My wife’s tired of hearing about them. And you know what? Tomorrow, she’s going to be even tireder. Because I’m not done.

Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider

You might have noticed that I’m a pretty nice guy. Reverend Nat’s was a stop planned for my gluten-free wife, but I’m not the kind of guy that needs to be dragged kicking and screaming to a cider producer. This was a non-beer treat for both of us. The selection was wonderful, with at least three hoppy ciders and who knows how many other apple-derived concoctions. We tried a bunch of them and left with smiley faces all the way around.

Dead serious: A Reggie Deluxe and Upright Seven at Pine State Biscuits. It doesn’t get much better.

Pine State Biscuits

I discovered Pine State Biscuits on my first trip to Portland a few years ago, and so as much as for the beer, I looked forward to this trip to Beervana for the biscuits. So strong is my passion for divinely inspired biscuits and gravy, my plane landed at around 9:30 in the morning and by noon I already had my first Reggie Deluxe of the trip on the table before me. I accompanied it with one of my favorite beers of the entire trip: Upright’s Seven. A lengthy to-do list only allowed me back to PSB one more time, but I’d approach it a loud, fist-pumping thumbs up that I made the second visit happen. Pine State Biscuits is one of the most important eateries in the world, and I think you should pay them a visit. If you like biscuits and gravy, you will not be disappointed. If you don’t like biscuits and gravy, there’s something wrong with you.

The final analysis

To be sure, Portland is a bucket list location for any beer lover, but the problem with Portland is its prolific output. One can have a good time hitting a top five or even top ten list of breweries, but you can only scratch the surface on a short trip. If you go to half a dozen breweries over a long weekend’s visit, you still don’t get much below the surface of even your highest priority stops. I think you have to live here to know it very well at all. This is good for those that live there, and this is tragic for everyone else.

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Renassance Savery in Des Moines features local beers at beer dinner

Chef Katie Van Dyke discusses a dish as Confluence Brewing's John Martin and I look on.

The Coda Lounge at the Renaissance Savery Hotel in Des Moines held their first beer and food pairing event on March 21, and I worked with Chef Katie to get the shenanigans off the ground.

The Coda Lounge is a rich blessing for the weary traveler. I don’t know how many hotels I’ve encountered that have the same taplist in city after city. The Savery has risen above so many of its competitors by actively pursuing a beer list that reflects the local landscape. And that was the whole point of this affair. It gave me the opportunity to highlight their noble work to the thirsty travelers that follow my exploits.

Firetrucker Brewing's Dan Heiderscheit talks about his beer at a recent beer dinner at Des Moines' Coda Lounge.

Brewers Dan Heiderscheit from Firetrucker Brewing in Ankeny and John Martin from Confluence Brewing in Des Moines were gracious enough to join us to talk about their beers. On offer were were Firetrucker’s California Common and Smoked Stout and Confluence’s IPA and Black IPA.

The food pairings were well executed and the comments from those in attendance were nothing but positive. As I helped to organize the affair and served as emcee for the meal, I’ was pleased to hear this. And I’m pleased to report that the staff at the Coda Lounge felt the event was so successful that we can look forward to quarterly events of this kind featuring other Iowa breweries, starting with one during Des Moines Beer Week on June 18 (details coming…).

For more photos of the event, visit Brewvana’s Facebook page.

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Illuminator V

For the fifth year in a row, Eric Sorensen of Rock Bottom Restaurant and Brewing in West Des Moines and I tapped our Lenten collaboration beer, Illuminator Doppelbock.

Brewed on Jan. 7, this year’s version (we’ve played around with the recipe each year) of our award-winning beer was little changed from the basic grain bill used last year (Munich, Vienna, melanoidin, Carafa III and a touch of acidulated malt), though we lowered the ABV to right about seven percent (how do you like the way I utilized parenthesis three times in one sentence?).

Blazingly packed with bread and dark fruit, last year’s 8.5 percent offering almost felt too big, and if I were a little golden-haired (21-year-old) girl checking stuff out in a cottage, I think this year’s offering is awfully close to “just right” for what I look for in a doppelbock.

Again this year, we’ve managed to procure whiskey barrels for aging, so be on the lookout for the Barrel Reserve Illuminator V in a few months.

Wanna learn more about this beer or the history of the doppelbock style of beer? Check out my book, Diary of a Part-Time Monk.

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Illuminator V is on the way

According to the calendar, it’s time to put a lager in the tank—a very special lager. If my award-winning  Illuminator Doppelbock is to be ready for its Fat Tuesday release on Feb. 17, Rock Bottom’s Eric Sorensen and I were meant to get crackin’.

And crack grain we did last Wednesday (followed by steeping it in hot water, boiling the sweet result, and pushing it over to the old fermenter for the yeast to do its noble work). Once again, we tweaked the recipe ever so slightly. This year’s iteration was scaled back to 7.3 percent alcohol by volume (from something light 8.5), and we pulled back our Carafa addition to lighten up the color just a titch (as my old reading teacher Mrs. Jones [who likes beer (especially IPAs) it turns out] would have said back in junior high).

In addition to having the opportunity to try the beer that I once fasted on for 46 days during Lent of 2011, the release party will feature Rock Bottom’s annual crawfish boil as well as my “doppelwort” ice cream for dessert.

Want to join us? The party kicks off at 6 p.m. on Feb. 17 at Rock Bottom, located at 4508 University Avenue in West Des Moines. This shindig is popular, and so it would be wise to call for a reservation at (515) 267-8900.

BONUS INFO:

This year’s batch included Munich 30, Munich 10, Vienna, Melanoidin and Carafa III malts, was hopped with charges of Columbus and Hersbrucker, and started at 20 degrees Plato.

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Awestruck by Moonstruck

It is, indeed, ridiculous that it’s taken me several years to drag myself to Bellevue, Nebraska’s Moonstruck Meadery. It’s only a little more than an hour’s drive away and with a gluten-free wife living the beer-free life, I’m simply embarrassed by my lack of honey-driven travel for my thirsty honey.

In addition to an assortment of appetizers and pizzas, Moonstruck serves up a stable of delicious meads, including Show (“regular”), Plum, Cherry, Peach, Blueberry, Blackberry, Capsumel (pepper), Hoppy, Strawberry and Cyser (apple). We tasted them all and could see why they’ve taken so many awards and had one called the best tasting mead in the world (Capsumel). Let’s talk about that one, then:

Yummy. Laced with a blend of Serrano, Jalapeño and Anaheim chilis, this one has a fresh pepper nose without being too hot on the palate. Really well done, I’d say, but I wouldn’t sit around drinking it by the carload. The hoppy mead was hit with a combination of Hallertau and Cascade hops, and was enjoyable for a crossover beer guy like myself. I’ve got a hoppy mead of my own on tap at the house (El Dorado and Sorachi Ace in mine) and it was fun to notice the difference in the two meads.

I picked up a little oxidation in the strawberry mead, the only offering that I wouldn’t rate as wonderful. I was struck by how wonderful all the rest were, and I’d highly recommend a trip here to taste the meads at the source or to pick up a bottle at the store–I can even get them in my tiny little Iowa hamlet!

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Arizona Beer Forays

Laced with thirst-quenching meanderings as a side note rather than the catalyst for my venture, I recently took a short family foray into Arizona.

Beer in the backseat, I paid visits to Flagstaff’s Lumberyard Brewing Company as well as Tucson’s Barrio Brewing Company, Dragoon Brewing Company and Thunder Canyon Brewing Company. In addition, I hit up Plaza Liquors & Fine Wines for a few local selections to keep me busy around the house and to share with my rascally old brother-in-law upon my return. If you’re interested in what I think, here’s what I thought:

Lumberyard

This was an afternoon stop for a snack and a few samples. Having been on the road for something like 18 hours and scheduled for the passenger’s seat for the duration of our trek, I was pleased for this Northern Arizona oasis. I sampled the Diamond Down Lager, Knotty Pine Pale Ale, Lumberyard Red, Lumberyard IPA, Porter and the Belgian Pale. All were good, but I especially liked the pale ale, IPA and porter. The pale, IPA and red have all won GABF and World Beer Cup accolades (deservedly as hell, I’d wager), and set in such a sweet spot as Flagstaff, why the hell hasn’t Lumberyard garnered a bigger beerosphere buzz? We just shared appetizers and I focused on the fried mac & cheese balls, which were decent. Bustling, clean and with friendly service, this is a nice place that deserves some recognition.

Dragoon

I had high hopes, but came away with mixed emotions here. I tasted the Dragoon IPA, Stronghold Session Ale, Fumacabra (mesquite smoked bock), Biere Del Bac (Belgian-style Quad), Ohaygrrl! (gose) and the Barrel-Aged Scout Porter. I was disappointed to learn that they were out of the regular Scout Porter (which is mesquite-smoked), but the barrel-aged version was a worthy consolation prize—I loved it. I also thought the session ale (4.8%) was good, and recognize the quality craftsmanship in the IPA. However, I didn’t like the IPA, and here’s my gripe: there’s this elaborate chalkboard with tons of great information about the 11 beers on tap, but under the description for the IPA they offered a general “gotta have my hops!” I wished they’d listed the hops used in the beer, because I hate Summit hops and would have passed on bothering to size up the brewery’s talent so I could save my ounces for something I’d more truly enjoy. (Sorry, I just don’t get you Summit people.)

The Fumacabra was interesting though a little overly smoky for my taste. The beers that gave me the most trouble were the quad and the gose. They both tossed a big sulfur nose (especially the gose). This was very distracting, again, especially for the gose. Both beers would have been incredible were it not for this sulfur wall—the taste was wonderful (especially the gose), but the aroma was off-putting.

With the chalkboard, big windows into the brewhouse and little else, the taproom can be described as Spartan Industrial. Like me, however, there was a ready crowd in the parking lot at opening time, so there are clearly some good things happening here. One more thing: a warning for the under-21s, gluten-frees and designated drivers–your only choice is water here.

Barrio

Like Dragoon, I’d heard good things about Barrio, and their online menu made me prioritize a mealtime visit here. I tasted a few beers (Barrio Rojo [Scottish ale], Copperhead Pale Ale and Barrio IPA) before ordering what I knew I’d order: the Mocha Java Stout (on nitro). Though I’d planned on something south of the border foodwise, I wound up with my kneejerk choice of a Reuben.

Everything was fine, and I could really only complain that it was obvious that our server didn’t know the beers or the menu very well and had no clue when it came to our unfortunately necessary gluten-free quiz. Further, I don’t know why breweries or taprooms bother serving nitro pours if they refuse to poor them correctly. That was the case here, I am sorry to say. I know I sound bitchy about a place that brewed some pretty good beers, but I couldn’t help but notice the missionary position, circa 1997 lineup (which was repeated in every grocery store beer aisle I visited in Arizona): blonde, amber, pale ale, IPA, raspberry ale and hefeweizen (plus the Mocha Java Stout, the red-named Scottish and a white IPA).

Thunder Canyon

Of all my brewery visits, this is the only one I’d hit previously (probably back in 1998, when it was but a pup). Though they offered many of the usual 1998 suspects, they had multiple IPA offerings and more on the way, plus at least a pair of stouts. Because I was eating with a large swath of family, I didn’t really take notes or do much beyond ordering a stout. I tasted a lager of some kind, a lager of doppelbock kind, one Summitless IPA (which was quite good) and the stout. My pulled pork sandwich was fairly dry, but the beer was good (and so was the company, which was really the point of that trip).

Other Beers

As I said, I picked up a few beers from down that way, and off the top of my head, here’s what I’ve tried (so far) and what I thought: Borderlands Noche Dulce Vanilla Porter (good), Marble Pilsner (decent—needed more hops) and IPA (really good), The Phoenix Ale Brewery’s Camelback IPA (good), Mother Road’s Kolsch (really good). For sentimental reasons, I had two Pacificos at a party, one in the bottle (good) and the other in a glass (I struggled through it), as well as two Negra Modelos (my go-to Mexican choice, I am not ashamed to say) and a homebrewed stout from Cousin Bill.

It was a great trip with a few beery bright spots and I’d encourage you to look into some of the same beers I mentioned so perhaps we can compare notes down the road…

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Infused with good beer

It was a crisp evening in late October, and I was thirsty for a brewery I’ve never visited. Enter Infusion Brewing Company in the Benson neighborhood of Omaha.

It only makes sense that I enjoyed my experience. Infusion owner Bill Baburek has staked out a notable beer reputation in Omaha. After carving success at the Crescent Moon Ale House and Beertopia, Baburek turned his attention to another dream: owning a brewery.

When the Olson’s Market building came on the market, Baburek turned to Benson’s growing beer scene for the site of Infusion Brewing Company, which opened in 2012. While there is definitely a sense of history to the building’s restoration—highlighted by a series of large-format vintage brewery tin tackers—I found the use of lighter woods to impart a clean, modern feel to the taproom area.

More wrapped up in conversation with my drinking partners than tasting a flight and taking notes, I managed to wash four Infusion beers across my tongue for inspection: Butcher Block Brown, Vanilla Bean Blonde, Joel Porter, and the pint I purchased, Infusionfest.

The first two came from sips of my companions’ beers. The brown was good, and the Vanilla Bean was quite vanilla-y. Overly so, and a bit sweet, for my palate. The Joel Porter was quite good. Everyone I shared it with loved the roasty nuances of coffee, vanilla, and what I perceived as brewers licorice. It had nice body, and had I stayed longer I may have ordered one. At the time, I knew nothing of the beer’s makeup, other than it was a porter called Joel. I later looked online and found that it had been dosed with Hawaiian Macadamia Nut Coffee at flameout, which made all sorts of sense. Nice beer. I enjoyed it. The bulk of my time was spent with Infusion’s rendition of an Oktoberfest-style beer, Infusionfest. I was pleased. Packed with malt character, it was clean and utterly drinkable for a nice sit-down with friends.

Though my ability to visit Omaha seems limited, I learned on this trip that in the last few years, some of the new players—including Infusion—in the city’s beer scene have certainly helped to raise Nebraska’s game, and I look forward to a return visit.

BONUS: Benson Brewery is less than a block away.

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