Pursuit of hoppiness: Jeep trip includes stops at brewing establishments
WORTHINGTON -- Traveling the countryside in an open-air Jeep can be a throat-parching endeavor. And, with a home-brewer of beer -- hubby Bryan -- at the helm of the vehicle, it's inevitable that we stop at a few brewing establishments along the way.
We happened upon the first such place quite by accident. Alice -- our portable global-positioning system device, named after my late grandmother -- decided to take us on a roundabout route through Kearney, Neb., where we had booked a motel the first night out. As we passed along some railroad tracks on the outskirts of the downtown area, I happened to spy a sign for the Platte Valley Brewery. Bryan didn't exactly slam on the brakes, but within a short time of checking in to the motel, we were back on that side street, seated at the bar and soothing our travel-weary throats with a hefeweizen (traditional German wheat beer) and India pale ale -- two of six tasty brews made on the premises.
While that was a pleasant en route diversion, we would reach our ultimate beer-related destination -- our Mecca on this particular journey -- the following evening. Fort Collins, Colo., is home to five breweries and brewpubs: an Anheuser-Busch facility, CooperSmith's Pub & Brewing, Fort Collins Brewery, New Belgium Brewing Co. and Odell Brewing Co. Our specific reason for sidetracking to Fort Collins was to tour New Belgium Brewing Co.
New Belgium's most well-known product is Fat Tire, although there are a number of other extraordinary craft beers on the company's roster. Bryan and I were well aware of New Belgium's stellar reputation in the brewing community, but we had no idea just how impressed we'd be by the time our tour of its facilities was concluded.
First, however, a bit of company history: Company founder Jeff Lebesch -- then a 32-year-old home brewer -- shipped his mountain bike over to Europe in 1989 and made a two-wheeled pilgrimage through villages famous for beer. There, is, of course, a lot more to the story, but the gist is that he returned home inspired to brew some great beer. An electrical engineer by trade, Lebesch repurposed dairy equipment for brewing and the resulting beers scored high marks with family and friends. He and wife Kim Jordan decided to take the operation commercial in 1991, eventually growing it into the third-largest craft brewer in the U.S. The company is known not only for its commitment to turning out world-class beers, but also its dedication to social, environmental and cultural change.
Back to our trip.
When Bryan and I pulled into Fort Collins on that second day, we headed immediately for New Belgium headquarters. We knew we wouldn't be able to tour at that time of day, but wanted to find out just how early we needed to be there the next morning, a Saturday. The company Web site had advised that the weekend tours fill up quickly.
At about 5 p.m. on that Friday, the Liquid Center (what New Belgium calls its visitors complex) was filled to the brim with people sampling the New Belgium wares. (Any of-age visitor is treated to four complimentary sample-size tasters on any day the Liquid Center is open.) We threaded our way through the crowd to the receptionist window, where we were told it would be a good idea to be there by 10 a.m., when the Liquid Center opens, for the 11 a.m. first tour.
Seeing the crowd on Friday night, however, we deemed it prudent to arrive a bit earlier, and when we showed up at 9:30 a.m. that Saturday, people were already waiting to get in. We planted our bodies firmly by the front door and were lucky enough to secure two tickets for the day's first tour.
Those efforts were well rewarded by the tour itself, conducted by a young man named Tyler, who grew up in Spearfish, S.D. In addition to relating the company's history and talking about the brewing process, Tyler waxed enthusiastically about working for New Belgium.
"It took me two years and 13 applications," to get a job at New Belgium, he explained, adding that he had spent time working as a handyman at a remote resort in Alaska and more recently as a bellman at an Aspen hotel. The Aspen gig was particularly lucrative. "I really wanted to work here. This is the only job I would have left that one for."
(Later in the tour, Tyler, age 25, stated with great assurance that he would no doubt continue to work for New Belgium until retirement; perhaps not always in the Liquid Center, but in some other facet of the operation. How's that for employee loyalty?)
After a year with New Belgium -- a milestone Tyler had recently reached -- the employees become employee-owners and are gifted with their very own New Belgium bicycle -- Tyler's is bright green. The bicycles are intended to be used to get to work and are just the smallest part of the company's environmental stewardship program. Other sustainable initiatives include green building design, becoming the first wind-powered brewery, on-site production and recycling of energy. (Read more about it at www.newbelgium.com/sustainability.)
In the room that houses the brewing kettles, Tyler pointed out the mosaics, made from recycled materials, that surround each of the kettles, each with a different theme related to the brewery. It was also here that he poured us our first taste of an amazing beer -- La Folie -- a sour brown ale that typically sells for $17 per 22-ounce bottle. Bryan and I thought it was delicious, with a cider-like quality, and were disappointed to see some of the tasters leave their samples barely touched.
At tour's end, we were able to choose four other beers to sample. One of the most intriguing was Dandelion Ale, which uses dandelion greens for bittering in lieu of hops -- inspired by the hops shortage of 2008. Even more intriguing were our sampling companions -- two gentleman from Missouri who were taking a one-day hiatus from climbing mountains.
After almost four hours on the New Belgium grounds, we were sad to leave this magical beer-brewing place and also to see Fort Collins in the rearview mirror of the Jeep. Besides New Belgium, we also stopped at CooperSmith's Brewing & Pub, a downtown Fort Collins establishment with great beer and food. The other breweries will have to wait for a future visit.
On to Denver
While most of our time in Denver was spent relaxing with family, at brewer Bryan's request, we did put one brew pub -- Wynkoop Brewing Co., Denver's first such establishment, founded in 1988 -- on our itinerary. Since it was just a couple of blocks from the Rockies vs. the Arizona Diamondbacks game at Coors Field, for which we had tickets, we indulged in beers and sandwiches just before the first pitch.
My favorite beer was a seasonal called Somergras, which I would guess contained lemongrass in some form and was refreshing on a hot summer's day. The Gorgonzola Ale was a nice accompaniment to the sandwich I shared with Bryan, and we loved the historic building, a former mercantile with hardwood floors, thick timber pillars and pressed tin ceilings.
Hangin' in the Hills
The last leg of our western adventure was spent at a house in the Black Hills with friends. During excursions away from the hillside house, we managed to take in both a winery and a brewery.
The winery -- Prairie Berry in Hill City, S.D. -- has recently upgraded its visitor center and offers a complimentary tasting of five wines of the visitor's choice. Our favorite was the humorously named Lawrence Elk, made from black currants with a piney undertone that can stand up to grilled foods. Both the employees and the facilities made for a pleasant experience.
For the brewery, we ventured into Rapid City, where the Firehouse Brewing Co. is, of course, in the city's former fire department headquarters. The theme prevails with displays of old equipment, patches from fire departments around the country and plastic fireman's helmets for the kiddies. The locale definitely provided the charm, and the beer and food were pretty good, too.
Before we knew it, we were in the Jeep headed home across that vast empty expanse of South Dakota. Memories of good times with family and friends and the beers sampled along the way will sustain us until the next Jeep adventure.
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