Sunday, January 10, 2010

Beer, the road, lessons, and North Carolina

John and I hit the road yesterday for our first beer-only trip. Past trips with his wife and L have been built around a mix of beer and wine, but this one was about getting out of town for a day, seeing some new territory and finding good beer. We batted around everything from a long (5 hrs) trip to Dogfish Head or the Philly/southern NJ area to our usual haunts in the western part of Virginia to North Carolina. The NC breweries won for lack of traffic and pure novelty. Good thing, too.

We hiked off with the MacBook Pro and the iPhone tethered to sort out the final destinations and decided upon initial stops in Chapel Hill. There, we had lunch and a tasting at Carolina Brewery. The food was quite tasty, and the beer was good. Not stellar, but good. The tasting included a kolsch, an amber, an ipa, a winter seasonal schwarzbier, a porter, and a brown. Each brew was solid, but fell off on the finish. Everything was good enough, but nothing really pulled us to buy a growler. The next stop was quite a contrast — Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery.

We climbed the stairs to this fourth-floor restaurant/bar, and the vibe was off from the beginning. The place felt like a combination of country-club bar ("The Social Crossroads of Chapel Hill") and dingy hotel restaurant, right down to the staff wearing black shirts with ties. We ordered a tasting, but the sixth was going to be a blend because they'd just run out of their seasonal One can hope that the seasonal was actually good, though, because the other beers certainly weren't. Flavors were off. Body was awful. From the experience, there was literally nothing to recommend the beer. Period.

Our next stop, though, was a brilliant surprise. We hiked over to Durham, to Triangle Brewing Company. We stumbled into a warehouse space on the wrong end of town, but it was full of people tasting the beer, playing ping pong, chatting, hanging out, you name it. On tasting the first beer, it was clear we'd come a lifetime's difference from Chapel Hill. Rick Lyons was producing some truly excellent beers, from an abbey ale to a classic dry stout. He's not bottling much yet and isn't selling much outside of NC, but he really is one to watch. To wit, we had a good long conversation with him, and it was interesting to hear all the tricks he's been putting behind building that business. I look forward to more conversations and tastings with him in the future.

Triangle was followed by Big Boss in Raleigh. These guys are doing some crazy and good beers. Unfortunately, we didn't get to meet the brewers. Fortunately, the tap room was a fun scene. The beers included a really solid brown, a nice belgian-style golden ale, a spicy harvest, a beautifully-done Belgian dark and a few others I've lost in the notes. All were well-done, and I really liked what they were doing with the taproom business model.

The final stop of the day was at the Boylan Bridge Brewpub in Raleigh. Their space is modern and clean, and the beer is good. I'll leave it at that, because nothing stood out enough to warrant a growler purchase. In fact, I would recommend a stop at the place because the food is excellent, but I wouldn't tell a beer geek to go there for the best (fill in the blank) s/he's had. Nonetheless, it was a good end to the trip, and the brisket special really was over-the-moon good.

In between all the major events, there was an intensive conversation, and I finally understand what it means to grok things. An excellent day, really.