BeerMasters Road Trip

Pursuing Great Brew, One Pint at a Time

by Scott A. Williams                                            

Vita brevis est, bebo cerevisia pura. “Life is short, I drink pure beer.” Whether stated in Latin, English or any other language, this is the philosophy of the BeerMasters, a group of home brewers and brewpub enthusiasts. The BeerMasters traces its roots to 1989 when family and friends gathered for a beer tasting that accompanied the awarding of Master’s degrees to founding members. No degree is required to appreciate good brew, of course, and membership is open to all who share the founders’ thirst for glorious glasses of fresh beer.

Since the BeerMasters began, members have undertaken treks across North America and Europe in search of real beer and great places to enjoy it. One of these treks brought together two founding members for a road trip focused on freedom from work and opportunities to enjoy microbreweries and brewpubs.

Our trip began with the open road, no specific itinerary and a copy of On Tap, Steve Johnson’s directory of North American brewpubs. With fellow BeerMaster Bill Lile along for the adventure, I sampled the brewmaster’s produce in Pennsylvania, New York, Ontario and Minnesota.

Here, then, is the chronicle of two men pursuing great brew, one pint at a time.

PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA

Samuel Adams Brewhouse, 1516 Sansom Street (2nd floor)

The sign at the top of the stairs informs patrons that they are entering “Philadelphia’s first brewery since Prohibition.” One wonders how the City of Brotherly Love managed for so long.

Since one focus of this trek is the discovery of beers new to us, Bill and I are pleasantly surprised to find that the selection of beers on tap is completely different from the Sam Adams products one finds in bottles.  A bit of Philadelphia history is revealed in the names of the beers, including Ben Franklin’s Golden Ale and our favorite, George Washington’s Porter.  No doubt George slept in Philly at least once – perhaps better after a few pints of porter.

Fresh beers on tap are supported by a varied menu of sandwiches and appetizers.  Bill especially enjoyed the Cajun fries, which had a salty spiciness that kept us ordering more porter.  Sam Adams Brewhouse serves a proper English pint – 20 ounces.  The Brewer • Patriot would approve.

Best Bet:  Celebrate the repeal of Prohibition with George Washington’s Porter.

Dock Street Brewpub, Logan Square

The first thing I notice as we sit at the bar is the shirt worn by bartenders. The flags of several nations are embroidered onto the placket and pocket of white cotton Oxfords – much classier that T-shirts.  I start to run down the countries they represent when the bartender makes me an offer: “These are the flags of the world’s great beer drinking nations.  Name them all correctly and I’ll buy you a pint.”

Unbeknownst to the bartender, his customer is also a flag enthusiast and I’ve been to most of the countries in question. His mouth drops open as I quickly satisfy the conditions of his offer. He smiles, draws me a pint of Pale Ale and pays for it out of his tip jar. As he serves it to me, he explains that he uses that offer to welcome a new face to the bar.  “Lots of people mistake Holland for France,” he says.  “You’re the first customer to win a pint.”

My Pale Ale reward is rich and full of hop character.  I purchase a case to take home to Massachusetts.  Alas, all of will be history before I get anywhere close to New England.

Best Bet:  Learn the flags of the great beer drinking nations and ask for the Pale Ale.

GENESEE FALLS, NEW YORK

On our way to Buffalo, we stop in the quaint country town of Genesee Falls. Here we find one of America’s truly great cascading waterfalls, best viewed from the railroad trestle just beyond the big NO TRESPASSING sign.

On the advice of Todd Haraty, a BeerMaster from this neck of western New York, we stop at the Genesee Falls Inn to check out the interior architecture. One interesting feature Bill notices is an old wooden sign that says TAP ROOM.  We investigate and discover that it is imprecisely named, as only bottled beer is available and only a few run-of-the-mill domestics at that. We pass and continue on to Buffalo.

LAKAWANA, NEW YORK

Buffalo Brewing Company, Abbot Square Brewpub, 1830 Abbot Road

Under the direction of brewmaster Fred Lang, a 33-year veteran of his craft, Bill and I are treated to a detailed tour of the facility. Much of the brewing operation is nicely showcased for customers to see, but we also get a serious behind-the-scenes look at everything from grain to bottle.

Except for the water, Fred tells us, all ingredients for the beers he brews are imported from Bavaria. Even the brewing machinery is Bavarian, as the German language labeling on the console confirms.  Why all the effort to import ingredients and equipment? “Any fool can make beer from extract,” Fred opines. (I start to consider malting my own barley for the next batch of homebrew.) “It comes down to this: beer that is appreciated by our customers is its own reward.”

Over a lunch of sausages, Limerick Ale and Buffalo Lager, we meet Kevin Townsell, who owns the Buffalo Brewing Company as well as the Buffalo Brewpub (Williamsville, NY) and the Rochester Brewpub (Rochester, NY). Townsell says he entered the brewing industry “through the back door. I was a restaurateur by trade, not a brewer, when I got into the business.” As a result, he runs the business from the marketing perspective. “I find out what people want to drink and I supply it.”

Sometimes they want his beer for reasons beyond how great it tastes.  Bars in several NFL cities have asked for Buffalo Lager so they can supply their Buffalo Bills fans with a “team” beer.  An Atlanta-based chain of restaurants called Buffalo’s buys Buffalo Lager because it’s easier than private labeling.

We thank our gracious hosts, pick up a six-pack of Limerick Ale and leave convinced of the validity of Fred Lang’s brewing philosophies.

Best Bet: Talk brewing philosophy with Fred, then test his theories on the Limerick Ale.

WILLIAMSVILLE, NEW YORK

Buffalo Brewpub, 6861 Main Street

There’s a lot of wood in this place.  It’s everywhere – walls, floors, ceilings, fixtures. There are also a lot of people in this place. Among them is Keith Morgan, the brewer/manager. He’s been involved in most aspects of the operation; at the time of our visit he’s knee-deep in the financial end. Happy to oblige our questions about the business, he describes one of this brewpub’s interesting promotions – the Mug Club.

After customers consume 20 pints of beer (not necessarily at one visit), they become members of the Mug Club. The Buffalo Brewpub provides a personal mug with the brewpub logo and the customer’s name. The mug is assigned a number and kept in a like-numbered stall behind the bar. Whenever Mug Club customers drop in for a pint, their beer is served in their mug.

Keith explains that mugs and numbers are not reassigned, so Buffalo Brewpub drinkers and their vessels will be enshrined after leaving for that big brewpub in the sky. We’re driving to Toronto, so 20 pints are out of the question. Still, we manage to discover that Buffalo Pils is crisp and refreshing, by the half-pint.

Best Bet: 20 pints of Buffalo Pils in your own mug.

TORONTO, ONTARIO

Growler’s, 75 Victoria Street

There’s a white tablecloth restaurant on the ground floor. We find the brewpub downstairs. The lunch crowd is mostly suits, but our friendly waitress Maureen assures us that the place gets hopping after dark.  We ask to enjoy our hops over lunch and start to sample the brewer’s output.

The Royal Dunkel Dark is smooth and pleasantly malty, though for a dark beer it’s light in color.  We also sample a filtered and an unfiltered Pilsner Lager. “The filtering removes some of the fullness,” Maureen explains, “but some customers don’t feel comfortable about a beer that isn’t shiny clear.” Their loss, since the unfiltered variant is substantially more flavorful.

During lunch, the BeerMasters inducts three new members. They are the first Canadians to join and they laugh at the idea of being the only Canadians in an organization dedicated to beer drinking. These new members include Toronto attorney John Carriere, his wife and legal assistant Irene and his son Ken who I met at the White Horse pub in Oxford, England. All are new to microbrewedbeer. All leave Growler’s favorably impressed.

Best Bet: Sit in Maureen’s section and drink the unfiltered Pilsner Lager.

Amsterdam Brasserie and Brewpub, 133 John Street

A short walk from Toronto’s Sky Dome stadium and just around the corner from a huge mural of Queen Elizabeth II smiling at a moose, we discover the casual atmosphere of this brewpub. The space is a converted warehouse that, despite conversion to a drinking establishment, retains its warehouse appearance. Walls are decorated in Delft tile to add some Dutch authenticity. Even the logo reminds us of a certain beer brewed in Amsterdam, Holland.

The extensive beer selection includes beers brewed on the premises plus over 50 Canadian and imported beers. Most of the imports are American. Bill orders a short glass of Framboise, a raspberry flavored beer in the Belgian lambic style. Impersonating Julia Child, he describes it as “sweet yet not syrupy, with a tarty twang and a pleasantly lingering aftertaste.” I choose the Nut Brown Ale, which has such strong cereal notes that it offers an experience akin to drinking a loaf of bread. Light beer it is not.

Best Bet: Drink Nut Brown Ale and take a photo of Queen Liz with her moose friend.

Rotterdam Brewing Company, 600 King Street West

On the way to dinner, we walk past Amsterdam’s sister brewpub, Rotterdam Brewing Company. Outside seating is much as you’d find in a Dutch city, though rather more spacious. We decide to take a look inside, learn than more than 200 beers are available and question the wisdom of making dinner plans early in the day.

ON THE SHORES OF LAKE SUPERIOR, ONTARIO

One objective of this road trip is to find a few opportunities to escape civilization. We succeed in the middle of a big, beautiful Ontarian nowhere and set up camp in a park on the shores of Lake Superior. As we prepare dinner over the campfire, Bill and I each enjoy a bottle of Fred Lang’s own Limerick Ale. As we return to the picnic table to fetch a second round, we realize the unthinkable has happened: some scumbag stole our beer! Is nothing sacred?

Being in the middle of nowhere, the nearest store with beer for sale is more than an hour’s drive, each way. We curse the perpetrators for their wretched deed and make plans for the following day’s trek to Minnesota.

MINNETONKA, MINNESOTA

Sherlock’s Home, 11000 Red Circle Drive

If your schedule or finances don’t permit a trip to London, head for Minneapolis. Sherlock’s Home is the closest copy of a London pub I’ve ever seen outside London. It looks and feels more like a London pub that a lot of pubs I frequented during four summers I spent as a student in England.

The hostess’s accent isn’t just for show. She came to America from Cambridgeshire and brought along her charming English manners and enunciation. The stoneware, flatware, glassware, bar, woodcarvings and décor are all the genuine English articles.  For better or worse, menu selections include pub standbys such as shepherd’s pie, fish and chips, ploughman’s platter, and steak and kidney pie. You can even pay your tab in pounds sterling.  Smashing.

We enjoy the Real Bitter and Piper’s Pride Brown Ale and develop bad Cockney accents as the evening wears on. No one else thinks we sound anything like Englishmen.

Best Bet: Speak normally and drink the Piper’s Pride.

BACK HOME

The road indeed comes to an end, so this pint-at-a-time pursuit must be put into park for now. Realizing this, Bill and I leave the Midwest for our homes in New Jersey and Massachusetts. We make the trip east in a day, all the way discussing plans for the next BeerMasters road trip.

Until we venture out again, we remember that life is short, so we drink pure beer.

Beer Masters

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This article first appeared in American Brewer magazine.
Copyright © by Scott A. Williams. All rights reserved.