You will eventually come to a point where the local avenues of beer procurement have been exhausted. Your favorite beer stores no longer hold wonder for you, as you become so familiar with their selection that a quick perusal of their craft beer section alerts you what came in that week. You've pretty much tried it all or at least the offerings on the shelf that you're willing to try. Your favorite watering hole continues to rotate their taps with great regularity and even though they're bringing in some great, hard-to-find stuff, it's starting to repeat. But there are brews you hear about in the pod casts or in the beer forums that you can never find. What's up with that?
It's a function of national beer distribution; not every state will get distribution from every brewery. Although I am lucky enough to live in the state with the best distribution of American craft beer, I still need to employ other methods to attain bottles from some of the best breweries in the country. I am fairly new to some of these methods, but I will share what I have learned...and I'm a pretty quick learner.
BEER RUN FOR THE BORDER
In 1983, New Jersey raised the drinking age to 21. Although Pennsylvania had the legal age at 21 since Prohibition was lifted in 1933, New York didn't raise it until 1985. For three years, young people from the Garden State would drive across the border to purchase beer or drink at bars in the Empire State. And then the Federal government stepped in and passed the Federal Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, forcing all states to raise their minimum drinking age to 21 or risk losing Federal funding for their highways. The days of the interstate beer run came to an end.
Well, until the craft brew movement hit. Back in the day, people would visit Grandma in Pittsburgh and come back with a few cases of Iron City because that's what dad drank when he still lived with her...or something similar with a different city. But it's not the same as today. Many beer hunters frequently cross the borders into a neighboring state to take advantage of better or different distribution. For me, a 25-minute ride to a well-stocked beer store near Nanuet, NY scores me Cigar City, Clown Shoes, Lost Coast, Goose Island, Pretty Things and Two Brothers. I can also travel about an hour and a half to a store in Allentown, PA where I can find Bells, Cigar City, Duck-Rabbit, Lost Coast, Pretty Things, RJ Rockers, Russian River and Two Brothers. Will I ever find a Pliny the Elder there? No, probably not. But can I come across a Bourbon County Brand Stout in the one in New York? Yes. Have I? Yes, I have...and it was the coffee version!
So seek out good beer stores just across the border into the next state, unless you live smack-dab in the middle of Wyoming and the nearest state border is four hours away. A website that will help you decide if it's worthwhile or not is www.seekabrew.com. Click your state and at the bottom of the page enter a neighboring state to compare to. Look at the list of breweries under that state and you'll see the ones that don't distribute to your state.
One could argue that the section above constitutes a road trip…and one would be wrong. A beer run involves just what it says: running out to get some beer. A road trip is far more involved and can involve brewery visits, dinner at a brewpub and even
non-beer-related activities. Can you do a beer run on a road trip? Absolutely! In fact, I always include a local beer store on the itinerary when planning a road trip. But the point of a road trip is immersion into your destination's culture. Watch a few episodes of "Three Sheets" and you'll get what I mean.
A road trip can be a day-trip or an overnight stay…maybe even a few nights. After that, then you need to skip down to the next section. But however long you stay and no matter how much you intend to do, remain flexible. An itinerary is a good starting point, but all the on-line research in the world won't unearth all the little treasures a city or town has to offer. If you've read my previous blog entries you already know about John's in Mystic, CT or Sláinte in Baltimore. Neither place was on the itinerary but are the places that, when I think back on the trip, make me wish to return the most.
If you're like me, you're a bit of a foodie as well. It typically accompanies being a beer geek. So why wouldn't you also plan to enjoy the cuisine that defines your destination's culture? Could you go to Philly and not have a cheesesteak? Eating barbecue when in Texas is practically the law. There is no way you can go to Maine and not have something containing lobstah. We're planning a vacation to Cape Cod and it will be interesting to see how long it takes before my wife DOESN'T order clam chowdah. So how do you find the best places to go? We ALL know that the "famous" places aren't the best places. The word "famous" is either a marketing ploy or something that was once earned and then resulted in the place resting on their laurels...the Jefferson Diner is a prime example of that. There are exceptions, of course, but not a lot.
Research all you want, but the best way to find the truly best Chicago dog, Kansas City barbecue or Key Lime pie is to ask the locals. You're going to be in the bars where beer geeks congregate and we know what happens in these places. People drink, they get chatty, they get chummy and you have a new best friend for the next hour or so. These new pals will give you the honest lowdown and may even let you into the "secret spots" that the locals like to keep tourists out of. There are so many instances where taking advantage of a drunk person is SO not cool, but this isn't one of them. Pump them for info and indulge.
If you have a family then your vacations are full of museums, historic sites, beaches, nature trails, scenic wonders, zoos, aquariums and amusement parks. But that doesn't mean they're entirely void of endeavors of a beery nature. A little on-line research will help you locate a decent beer store near your hotel/resort. Once the kids are down, make a beer run and look for those local beers you can't get back home. And remember the brewery distribution mentioned above. While on vacation in Sedona I managed to find Big Sky Moose Drool, Alaskan Amber and a bunch of stuff from Deschutes.
Another way to slake the beer beast inside of you and not interrupt your quality time with the family is to have lunch or dinner at a brewpub. I've only ever been to two brewpubs that were not family-friendly, with one of those being passable during lunch hours or when the college kids aren't in town. If you know of a brewpub near where you will be, go on-line and check out their menu. If there's a kids menu listed, then you're golden. It also helps if your spouse is also a fan of craft beer, as is mine. But even if not, then they don't need to drink the beer and will probably enjoy the food.
One problem with buying beer on a vacation where air travel is required is that you either have to drink it all before you go home or, if there's too much to drink, you have to risk packing it into your checked luggage and hope it doesn't break due to the "tender" baggage handling of the airlines. Make sure you know customs laws or risk having it confiscated. Another option is to ship it home. Some beer stores in popular tourist locations even offer this service. That can be costly, especially if you're in another country.
But what if you can't travel? You're scared to death of flying or you hate staying in hotels? Your car is unreliable beyond your daily commute to work? Relax! You still have options...which we'll cover next time.