An improvised Midwestern beer tour
A COUPLE WEEKS AGO, my wife and I took an impromptu road trip through the middle of the country to celebrate our anniversary. For pre-trip planning, I came up with a few “themes” we could use to guide our activities. Ideas were:
- disc golf
- craft beer
Here’s how it panned out:
- We went on 1 hike (in Copper Falls State Park, Wisconsin).
- We played 0 rounds of disc golf.
- We drank 20+ different microbrews.
I’ve listed the drinking stops below, along with our notes. The two categories are breweries/brewpubs (places that brew their own) and taverns (places that serve other people’s beer).
1. Vintage Brewing, Madison, WI
Location: 674 S. Whitney Way. Don’t let the strip mall topography keep you away.
Atmo: Modern and clean, with a central four-sided bar and different seating areas flowing off of that. Plenty of TVs (a positive for us, as the NBA Finals turned out to be another trip theme).
Beer: Decent selection of house brews and rotating guest taps. We had their APA, oaked IPA, and double black IPA. A solid “B.”
2. South Shore Brewery, Ashland, WI
Location: 808 W. Main, Ashland’s “downtown strip.”
Atmo: There’s a bar and two restaurants all connected in one building, and no one working there seemed able to explain how everything fit together. We were lost.
Beer: It’s obvious you’ve made a wrong turn on your beer tour when the waitress insists on categorizing everything as either “light” or “dark” instead of telling you what’s on tap. Not sure what I ended up with (dark?), but it wasn’t good enough to find out.
3. Fitger’s, Duluth, MN
Location: 600 East Superior St., fronting the lake.
Atmo: The company owns an entire building, which includes a high-end inn and several retail spaces. The brewpub itself felt nice, but I’m always a little put off by these kinds of “complexes.”
Beer: Carey still talks daily about the Lake Ontario Belgian pale. She’s obsessed.
4. Flat Earth Brewing, St. Paul, MN
Location: 2035 Benson Ave., just blocks from where 35E crosses the Mississippi.
Atmo: This was the only proper “brewery” we visited, with a sparse office-style setup in front and the tanks and bottling out back. The owner was at the counter pouring samples for himself, his volunteer staff, and us, and he made the place. The story of the shirt he had on (stitched up on the spot and given as a gift by Kigali fabric workers, whom he was visiting on a charity mission in the late ’90s) was a highlight of the trip.
Beer: We couldn’t say no to free samples — tried the Angry Planet Pale, Belgian Pale, Northwest Passage IPA, Cygnus X-1 Porter, and Black Helicopter Coffee Stout. Probably the best stout and porter I’ve had (my “expertise” is confined to IPAs, but these were awesome). We walked out with a growler of NWP, which we cracked that night at a private campground on the Mississippi and killed two nights later in Theodore Roosevelt National Park.
5. Firehouse Brewing, Rapid City, SD
Location: 610 Main St.
Atmo: An old rehabbed firehouse, or at least a damn good imitation. Pretty busy on a Thursday evening, though I guess not really considering there was a full-on street fair going on right outside.
Beer: Variety was lacking. Seriously, if you’re gonna have 5 taps, why fill them all with wheats and blondes?
6. Thunderhead Brewing, Kearney, NE
Location: 18 E 21st St., on the edge of the old downtown area.
Atmo: Sticky booths and stained carpet. The upstairs may have been better, but was roped off for a private function.
Beer: While we were looking at the menu, some dude at the bar yelled, “You don’t have the IPA on tap? Then what the hell am I supposed to drink?” I concurred. But then our chocolate-orange porter and dark wheat were pretty tasty.
7. Granite City Brewery, Wichita, KS
Location: 2244 North Webb Rd., out in the desolate east.
Atmo: This place is a chain and feels it. Furnishings are upscale, but you can tell it’s a corporate schematic. Kind of a bummer to end the tour here.
Beer: We both ordered the Duke of Wellington IPA and were both underwhelmed. Maybe it’s telling that their smallest glass was a 20oz-er.
1. 8th Street Ale Haus, Sheboygan, WI
Location: 1132 N. 8th St.
Atmo: Typical sports bar feel with a dining area tacked on. Pretty middle of the road / unremarkable.
Beer: Lots of taps, though a large percentage was stocked with throwaways. We consulted Beeradvocate and went with two unknowns: Three Floyd’s Alpha King and Ale Asylum Bedlam. Thumbs up.
2. Clyde Iron Works, Duluth, MN
Location: In a totally rehabbed old steel foundry at 2920 West Michigan St.
Atmo: A+. I zoned out on the massive period photo of the factory floor that took up an entire wall. Also cool that they kept the freight lift and all the windows.
Beer: Not too much selection, but I added another favorite to my IPA shortlist: Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale, out of Michigan. They’ve also got a tap for Lake Superior Brewing, located just down the road (it was closed when we stopped by), and have advertised plans to set up a brewery onsite.
3. Blue Moose Bar & Grill, East Grand Forks, MN
Location: In the little complex with the Applebee’s just east of the Red River, which is also the state line.
Atmo: A big lodgy-feeling place with high ceilings and lots of outdoor deck seating. Not the worst.
Beer: Decent variety — I think I went back to the Two-Hearted here.
4. Buglin’ Bull VS 5. Dark Horse, Custer, SD
Location: Both on the main strip, at 511 Mt. Rushmore and 140 Mt. Rushmore, respectively.
Atmo: Buglin’ Bull wins hands down, with its exposed brick and wood floors. Dark Horse comes off more divey or hunterly or something. It’s got these diner-esque blue and red vinyl booths. We sat at the bar.
Beer: The Bull scored points for double taps of local Crow Peak (Spearfish, SD), but the selection at Dark Horse won out. I had a glass of Odell’s super-skunky IPA and loved it. Bonus: We got to chat with a J-1 bartender from Indonesia.