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Thursday, July 4, 2013

The Great New England Excursion of 2013: Day 1 - Connecting the Dots

Throughout the past year, Brewslut and I had intended to visit Portland, OR, and do a REAL beer trip. You may recall that our last trip was (for lack of a better word) stifled by the presence of my mother. While we still got to hit some much-anticipated spots such as Hair of the Dog and Deschutes, we barely scratched the surface during that week-long trip, opting for lots of tourist stuff to keep Mom happy. Ironically, her favorite meal of the trip was at Deschutes! But I digress.

However, fate (or perhaps it was poor planning) intervened, and we decided that booking a flight was simply too much of a hassle, not to mention that prices for flights this year were through the roof! So, we made an executive decision and decided to head north to New England. Since all of the states are so small, we figured we could cover a lot of ground over the course of eight days. It would also give us an opportunity to visit our friends, The Bodans, who now reside in Waterbury, VT. So, we sketched out a rough itinerary (with the help of my fellow beer compadre and geography scholar, Deuane) and planned to visit breweries, beer bars and other assorted beer destinations throughout (in order of destination) Connecticut, Massachusettes, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and finally upstate New York. 

But first, a quick recap of the night before the trip. As if my job at Tröegs wasn't awesome enough (what with the free beer, discounts and, well, just getting to work there every day), I used my contacts and resourcefulness to obtain two meet and greet passes for the Rush concert at the Giant Center in Hershey on Friday, June 21. For those of you living in a cave or new readers of The Pour Travelers, Rush is my favorite band of all time. To call me a "fan" is an understatement. But I digress...again! Needless to say, I was completely stoked by this sudden turn of events! (I'd only found out a few days prior to the show that this was going to happen, having been told that it wasn't going to happen!) And when it rains, it pours. More good fortune found its way to me, when I found out that Joey Dougherty's dad (who works for Clair Brothers), had arranged for me to meet with Neil Peart's drum tech, Lorne Wheaton, prior to the show to get a tour of the stage and Neil's kit. Wha-wha-whaaaaaaat?!

l to r: Alex Lifeson, Neil Peart (!), Brewslut, Geddy Lee
We awoke on Saturday morning at the ass crack of dawn (around 5am), with every intention of leaving the house by 6am. Thankfully, we weren't running too far behind, and we were able to depart at around 6:20am. Our first stop would be Willimantic Brewing Company in the town of the same name in Connecticut. After a pleasant five-hour commute, we arrived and, by that time, we were in dire need of liquid refreshment by way of fermented beverages (i.e. we needed beer badly)!

They love frogs here! A bit of research revealed that the Frogs
represent the legendary Windham Frog Fight of 1754.
I had been to Willimantic on one other occasion, during a trip to to Portsmouth, NH, for Kate the Great Day back in 2010. Brewslut had never been there, so this stop was a no-brainer. The building in which the brewpub is situated is worth a visit alone. Housed in a defunct U.S. Post Office branch, the brewpub boasts a spacious floor plan and high ceilings amid large, ornate stone columns and other aesthetically interesting architecture.

Willimantic Brewing Company. Do you need any stamps today?
I always enjoyed their IPA offerings, and today we were in luck because they had just tapped a brand new IPA for the first day of Summer, Summer Solstice IPA! This beer provided an omen of what was to come, and really set the trip off on the right foot. This was simply a fresh, flavorful and well-balanced IPA brimming with the kind of citrus-forward flavor that I enjoy in the style. This beer definitely set the bar pretty high for the rest of our jaunt, and was easily one of the most memorable beers of the entire trip. I followed up with Blanche de Willi, a White Saison-style IPA. The White IPA style has been gaining some popularity in the craft beer industry as of late. This one definitely had a Belgian flair with a prominent yeast character but still retained quite a bit of hop bitterness as well. Willimantic describes this beer as "an unfiltered Saison style IPA with sweet and bitter orange zests and hopped Galena, Crystal, and Cascade." I was surprised to find that this beer weighed in at 8.2%. To me, it seemed pretty light. While I am typically on the fence when it comes to Belgian-style IPAs, I found this one to be quite enjoyable.

Enjoying my first beer of the trip!
Brewslut started with Rail Mail Rye, then followed up with a sampler tray of Carrier's Credo Cream Ale, Mariner's Scotch Ale, Salacious Saison, and the aforementioned Blanche de Willi. Pleepleus and I helped her with some of the selections. I wasn't a huge fan of the Rail Mail Rye, surprisingly, as I found it to be a tad buttery. All of the samplers were tasty and enjoyable, though. We also enjoyed the names of the some of the beers, as they typically try to work post office terminology into the names.

Up next on the agenda was an unexpected stop at Pioneer Brewing Company, a small brewery only a few miles from our planned destination, Tree House Brewing Company. Pioneer was recommended by our server at Willimantic. Since it was in such close proximity to Tree House, we figured an hour-long stop wouldn't hurt.

Pioneer had about nine beers on tap, ranging from English-style ales to IPAs to an experimental alcoholic birch beer. We settled on two separate sampler trays, so we were able to try all but one of the beers. Here's a quick run-down: American IPA, The New Frontier DIPA, Minx (Saison), American Red Ale, Welkin Ringer (English-style Bitter), ESB, Path of the Unknown (Double Brown Ale), and finally Noble Birch (the alcoholic birch beer and easily the best of the lot). Most of the beers were well-done, with a few exceptions being simply average. However, the Noble Birch was without a doubt the stand-out selection. I would have loved to bring a growler home to share, but unfortunately they did not have any available in the coolers (growlers were pre-filled and available for purchase).

One of the perks of working for a brewery (and a respected one, at that!) is that you tend to get VIP status when visiting other breweries. This treatment increases tenfold when you have beer in tow and present is as a gift to brewers, owners, bartenders, etc. Case in point, I gave the bartender a few bottles of some Troegs selections, and he reciprocated by comping our tab and giving us a growler and bomber to go. The growler was filled with Path to the Unknown, which was my favorite save for the Noble Birch. "That's the way we roll," he said. It was going to be that kind of trip, folks! We also ran into an older couple (a term I use to describe people older than we... not elderly!) and the woman was wearing a Troegs DreamWeaver hat! They saw my work shirt when we entered, so naturally we got to talking; they turned out to be fans and had visited the brewery in the past. I gave them a bottle of Impending Descent, which they had never had, and were quite gracious.

Next on the itinerary was a visit to Tree House Brewing Company. Jason, Troegs' Massachusetts sales rep, referred us to Tree House and promised some amazing IPAs. We were sold. I decided to touch base with the guys at Tree House prior to visit, and coincidentally I emailed them just as they were checking out our BrauKon brew house on-line at that very moment! We exchanged a few emails, and they informed me that they were releasing Julius, an American IPA, on Saturday and would be "slammed." We decided to show up about an hour before they closed in order to let the anticipated crowd subside a bit. This proved to be a good idea, as they filled some 400-odd vessels with the much sought-after IPA over the course of about six hours.

Inside Tree House. Note the musical instruments!
Unfortunately, Tree House had recently lost its tasting rights due to some uncompromising neighbors. So we got a quick tour of the facility and tasting room, met the owners and staff, and basically waited for the tasting room to close. In the meantime, we strolled around the grounds and enjoyed watching the large carp in the pond from the gazebo. We also checked out the tree house from which the brewery takes its name. (Turns out that, when they were deciding on a name for the brewery, one of them said, "I don't care what we call it, as long as it's not Tree House!" After lengthy discussions, they decided that "Tree House" fit their model and personality perfectly, so the name stuck.) Sadly, we did not snap a photo of the tree house.

Afterwards, we sat around for a bit and talked about all things beer, music, and even had a little jam session (I played djembe). We regaled our small audience with impromptu lyrics set to simple blues chord progressions. I seldom turn down an opportunity to jam with fellow musicians for a bit!

Molded Tree House tap handle!
We also sampled some Julius, which was delicious! This is truly a fine IPA; hoppy, citrusy and extremely well-balanced. The other beers on tap (Tornado, a dry, hopped-up Pale Ale, and Curiosity #3, a limited batch Pale Ale) we procured by way of 750ml flip-top growlers. Again, these were graciously comped for providing them with a few choice Troegs beers! I left Tree House feeling proud to be part of an industry where total strangers are so friendly and accommodating, proving undeniably that beer is - in more ways than one - the greatest social lubricant.

Our final destination for Day 1 was Armsby Abbey, a renowned beer bar in Worcester, MA. Fellow Team D(r)INK member Dan recommended this place, and so did the guys from Tree House. Turns out they carried Tree House beers there, and I was lucky to see Tornado on tap when we arrived, so I ordered one. Brewslut went with a Maine Beer Co. Peeper, even though we'd be visiting their tasting room on Tuesday. The food menu looked great and the food was fresh, local and well-executed. We each started with salads. Brewslut got a beet salad while I opted for Strawberry Fields. Since it was strawberry season, both salads and many of the menu selections featured fresh strawberries. We also got the mac and cheese, which was delicious. We were hoping for something a bit more substantial and protein-rich, but the non-red meat and pork selections were sparse. Still, the food was presented well and delicious.

Again, we ran into some Troegs fans and got talking about Mad Elf, so I ended up giving them a bottle of Naked Elf to share. Also, one of the bartenders was wearing a green T-shirt with the words "Fiddlehead Brewing Co." emblazoned on the front. I asked where they were located, as we'd never heard of this brewery before. Brewslut and I were pleased to learn that Fiddlehead was situated about 7 miles or so outside of Burlington, VT, where we'd be visiting in a few short days. The bartender spoke highly of Fiddlehead, so we decided to work a visit into our itinerary, which was fine with us because we had plenty of time to kill in Vermont!

All in all, it was an amazing first day, with our visit to Tree House being the highpoint of the day. One of our favorite aspects of "beer tripping" is simply meeting the people behind the beer and getting a sense of the beer culture in each community or state we visit. They guys at Treehouse were especially accommodating, and we definitely made some new friends. I look forward to returning sooner than later!

Pleeps was starting to sway by this point!
Stay tuned for a recap of Day #2. We were gone for eight days, so get ready to "connect the dots" by reading and following along with our awesome New England excursion. Cheers!

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