27 Jul What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been
Walter and I just returned from a six day, 25 brewery, 191 beer odyssey that took us along the back roads of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and northern Ohio (brewery list at bottom). We saw some interesting locations, drank some interesting beer, and definitely met some great people. But it was a odd trip to be sure. At each place we stopped, there was no predicting what kind of experience we were about to have – or whether we would have an experience at all.
Whenever you walk into a brewery that’s new to you, there is a small sense of anticipation – what will the people be like, will the beer be good, what kind of experience will it be. That small anticipation turned large on our trip, all because of the coronavirus. No two breweries had the same protocols in place and figuring out what was required of us took some time at each place. It’s 95 degrees and we’re standing outside reading instructions to see what we have to do to be allowed in – or if we were allowed in at all. Let me explain by way of examples.
We started out on a Sunday evening in Roanoke/Salem, VA. In almost all places we stopped, a mask was required for entry, but from that point on, things got very individual. At Big Lick Brewing, they didn’t seat at the bar and wouldn’t pour flights. That was one thing we needed to ask at every stop – were they pouring flights? About half did and half didn’t, and the only clue we had was whether they were pouring in glass. If they were pouring pints in glass, then the chances went up that they were doing flights.
Our second stop that evening was Olde Salem Brewing in Salem, VA. They did flights (and poured pints in glass), but they had an intricate entry/exit policy that had you going in only through the back entrance and exiting only through the front door. So now we had two stops down, and two very different mechanisms of operation. At both places they weren’t seating at the bar, so this was always an issue we had to resolve early in each visit. Sitting at the bar affords much more opportunity for conversation, so the fact that many places were no seating at the rail made it more work for use to engage the people there in chit-chat.
This was the way things went for all six days; there was no telling what would and wouldn’t be allowed/suggested/required at each brewery until we arrived. It added a bit of stress since we’re used to arriving and walking in to the bar, but it was also a source of intrigue. Of course, it wasn’t always a good experience, we often arrived at a brewery just to find that they weren’t open, or open only for carryout sales.
This was the biggest pain of the trip, showing up only to be turned away. It happened at three consecutive breweries in Pittsburgh – Grist House, Strange Roots, and Cinderlands. All three had advertised on their Facebook pages that they were open, but when we arrived (and spent time looking for parking) they were open only for package sales or not at all. We know that things are up in the air right now and things change quickly, but it shouldn’t be too hard to update a Facebook page with your current hours and status. It probably affects locals less than tourists, and it did send us on several wild goose chases through the week.
Don’t worry, we found as many open breweries as we could handle – sometimes more than could handle, especially in Pennsylvania. I don’t mean that we drank too much beer, it was from a strange rule put in place by governor Tom Wolfe. He dictated last week that any alcohol sale had to be accompanied by a food sale. Walter guessed that it was an effort to keep bar traffic to a minimum, but the breweries without food came up with some imaginative work-arounds.
The rule as spoken wasn’t very specific, so the ability to put any food on the table was apparently good enough. Voodoo Brewing’s taproom in State College sold us a 4oz. cup of soup for a buck, Pizza Boy Brewing (great beer) included a bread stick with each beer purchase, and we heard that some places went so far as to sell French fries for a penny apiece.
Unfortunately, some breweries misunderstood or took advantage to make more food sales. One server demanded that each person at the table had to make a food purchase, while another place wanted a food purchase with every beer ordered. We complied, so it worked, but we don’t have the fondest memories of those places. The vagueness of the edict was fixed on our last day in PA; it went from being a food sale with each bar tab to an entrée sale with each tab. To make a long story short – we ate too much food at the dozen breweries we visited in Pennsylvania.
Every time we crossed a state line we had to learn a new set of rules, and the myriad ways to interpret those rules. We were never really crowded, but some places did a lot more to adhere to whatever rules were in place than others, including the arrows on the ground and the one entrance, one exit rules like at Akronym Brewing in Akron (a great spiced barleywine there), or the pallets of cans or kegs that divided tables at Pizza Boy Brewing or Earnest Brew Works in Toledo.
The tightest fit was at our favorite new spot of the trip, North Country Brewing Company in Slippery Rock, PA. It seemed closer than it really was because of all the interesting décor and art, but the people were still spread out. The building was constructed as an inn in the early 1800s, then was a cabinet factory, coffin company, and later a funeral home/morgue. The owners do a lot of carving and collect carved and wooden items, and then display them all over the place. Everywhere you looked there was a hidden gem of art or history. The pilot brewhouse is located in the old morgue, but the brews were anything but moribund. Face it, we all end up in Slippery Rock sooner or later; don’t miss this place when your turn comes.
We had a break in the weather on Thursday, so it didn’t matter so much that Twin Oast Brewing, Catawba Island Brewing (both on Catwaba Island, OH) and Akronym Brewing were doing only outdoor seating. This was a worry for us since it was so hot on most days and I don’t do well in the heat and sun. But most places did have at least some indoor seating available, with appropriate distancing. The hardest thing about the social distancing was striking up conversations – but we managed.
We talked to beer slingers and brewers at almost every stop, and we handed out two cases of various Indiana beers along the way, mostly to staff, but sometimes to fellow patrons. People were interested in hearing about Indiana breweries and beer, and how things were being handled here during the pandemic. In all cases, gifts of beer were received gratefully and we came home with about as much beer as we set out with. It’s going to be some time for use to get through it all, but each will conger a memory of a visit and a conversation.
Don’t let people tell you that you can’t travel for beer during this period. Good practices can be employed and nothing says you have to stay at a place that doesn’t measure up – for the beer or other reasons. We had a great trip, learned and saw a lot, and met some wonderful people – even during a pandemic.
Our full brewery list for the trip, with our top 5 honors (subjectively) for atmosphere (A) and beer quality (B):
Sunday, July 19
Big Lick Brewing – Roanoke, VA
Olde Salem Brewing – Salem, VA B
Monday, July 20
Backroom Brewery – Middletown, VA A
Front Royal Brewing – Front Royal, VA
Ever Grain Brewing – Harrisburg, PA
Pizza Boy Brewing – Harrisburg, PA B
Tuesday, July 21
Old Forge Brewery – Danville, PA A
Rusty Rail Brewing – Mifflinburg, PA
Robin Hood Brewing – Bellefonte, PA
Voodoo Brewing – State College, PA
Otto’s Pub & Brewery – State College, PA
Wednesday, July 22
Levity Brewing – Indiana, PA B
Hop Farm Brewing – Pittsburgh, PA
Church Brew Works – Pittsburgh, PA A
Reclamation Brewing – Butler, PA
Thursday, July 23
North Country Brew Pub – Slippery Rock, PA A/B
Lock 15 Brewing – Akron, OH B
Akronym Brewing – Akron, OH
Twin Oast Brewing – Catawba Island, OH A
Catawba Island Brewing – Catawba Island, OH
Friday, July 24
Earnest Brew Works – Toledo, OH
Bowling Green Beer Works – Bowling Green, OH
Findlay Brewing – Findlay, OH
Lake Rat Brewing – Celina, OH
Moeller Brew Barn – Maria Stein, OH B
banner image of Big Lick Brewing credit: Cheers Virginia