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Cleveland, Ohio

STATE 27 - OHIO

sunny 30 °F

After seeing Lake Michigan while walking around Chicago and drinking beer in Milwaukee, I was eager to see my second Great Lake, Lake Erie! Megan and I are off to Cleveland!

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I kept going to Cleveland a secret. My family in Cincinnati and friends in Pittsburgh would give me grief about making a special trip to see Cleveland. Cincinnatians and Pittsburghers see little reason to visit Cleveland, whether the reason comes from basic city pride or from their hatred of rival sports teams. Personally, it felt weird that I lived in Ohio and still return to the state multiple times a year, but had never ventured outside the southwest corner of the state where Cincinnati is located. It was time to see whether all the anti-Cleveland bias was warranted.

Being wintertime, it was dark as we drove into the city. I was surprised that Cleveland didn't have a larger skyline, it seemed like only a couple of tall buildings stood by themselves. The traffic was light, and it wasn't too difficult to find street parking downtown. For several years now, Flintosh, my next door neighbor, has tasked me with transporting beer from a Cleveland brewery (purchased in Pittsburgh) back to Raleigh. Great Lakes Brewing Company makes a seasonal Christmas Ale, a strong and spicy beer that is absolutely delicious. Our first stop was the Great Lakes Brewing Company for a couple of pints.

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We arrived just in time to watch Indiana take on top ranked Kentucky, and it is hard to beat drinking beer while watching college basketball. The bar was lively, and soon it was standing room only. After sampling several of the brewery's beers, we had to leave to meet our "host" for the evening.

One of the challenges Megan and I face when traveling is getting the "authentic experience". I read the entries on WikiTravel and other people's travel blogs, I do research on TripAdvisor, and sometimes I can find relevant articles in my travel magazines. I like museums, but only when they talk about topics unique to the city or state. I steer clear of touristy destinations, like shopping or high-scale dining, or even worse, the dreaded tourist trap. I want to experience the city like a resident does; local food, local beer, and local activities. On this trip, Megan and I are trying something totally new—Couch Surfing.

The idea behind couch surfing is that you connect with a local resident by sleeping on their couch (or extra bed if they have one). Your host can help you plan activities or take you around town if they are available. You don't have to sleep on someone's couch to get travel tips, as CouchSurfing.org offers forums and groups to gain extra information. Megan was not sold on the idea of staying in a stranger's house, but she agreed to at least try it out.

Our host wanted to meet us at a local favorite in Cleveland, Melt Bar & Grill. Upon arriving at the restaurant, we met James and waited for a table to become available. I had pleaded with Megan to act cool and stop freaking out, and I could see her start to settle down once she had met James. The beers consumed at the brewery were starting to catch up with my bladder, and I had to visit the little men's room. Upon my return, I learned that I left Megan alone too soon. She confessed immediately, "I blew it! I told James I was glad he wasn't a serial killer!"

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As you can see, James is a really just a nice guy willing to take time on a Saturday night to hang out with travelers to his city. Melt was an awesome suggestion, as everything on their menu is a variation of a grilled cheese. Megan opted for the mac-n-cheese grilled cheese (shown below), while I got the massive Italian with 5 kinds of meat.

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We hung for a while at the restaurant before heading back to James's place. We crashed, woke up, said goodbye to our (non serial killer) host and went downtown to finally see Lake Erie!

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The water at Lake Erie looked totally different than the water in Lake Michigan. The water in Lake Michigan looked refreshing, whereas the water here looked murky. We were also right next to the port, and I have never seen water at a port or marina that looked inviting.

We walked along the waterfront to see the Cleveland Browns Stadium and the Rock-n-Roll hall of fame (check out Megan rocking out in front of the museum).

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I guess now I can say that I have been to Cleveland, and the experience was better than I expected (although I'll admit that my expectations for Cleveland were set pretty low). Megan and I toyed with the idea of checking out some of the other sights around the city, but decided we'd rather move on to Columbus and check out Ohio's capital (yet another city in Ohio that I had never visited). So long Cleveland, don't tell my friends and family I was here!

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:52 Archived in USA Tagged brewery local_food Comments (0)

The 11 Countries of Epcot - A Bachelor Party in Disney World

STATE 23 - FLORIDA

sunny 100 °F

10 guys are looking for a destination bachelor party. Vegas? Too cliché. New Orleans? Done that. The beach? Did that too. How about a place that appeals to everyone? Disney World!

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10 guys piled into one van and hit the road to head south to Florida. The road trip is half the fun, and we definitely made the most of it. The first stop was the Florida visitor center. Florida is so proud of their orange juice (74% of all US oranges are grown in Florida), they give everyone as much as they can drink for free!

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Our next step was a quick drive further south in Jacksonville, the Budweiser Brewery (it is a bachelor party, you know it wouldn't take long for alcohol to enter the picture).

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Unsurprisingly, the Budweiser brewery wasn't too much different from the Coors Brewery in Golden, CO and the Miller Brewery in Milwaukee. Just like for the Miller tour, we had a person that showed us around the brewery and gave us the details on how Budweiser is made.

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Malted grains, hops, lager yeast, cold storage—the same basic process that beer makers have been following for centuries. Budweiser's main innovation is using beechwood in the fermentation process to help the lager yeast better process the sugars. After a quick run through the factory, we entered the tasting room. A couple of cold ones later (and 3 bags of pretzels apiece), we were back on the road to Orlando.

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So the plan for the bachelor party was to "drink around the world". Epcot has 11 countries, each recreated as authentic as possible (as authentic as a major resort can be). Each country is staffed only by native residents, has authentic food, traditional entertainment, and most importantly, authentic beverages. We pulled into Epcot, eager to start the bar crawl. First things first, we posed with the iconic "golf ball", Spaceship Earth.

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The countries are laid out in a giant loop around a lake. We chose to go counter-clockwise, starting with our neighbor to the north, Canada! It was only 10 in the morning, but our Canadian bartender didn't even flinch when we ordered 10 Moosehead beers.

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With beers in hand, we walked through the Canadian Rockies, past Niagara Falls, and through an Inuit village. About the only thing not authentic about our surroundings was the Florida heat. We paused inside the Canadian gold mine to drink our beer in the air conditioning.

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On our way out of Canada, we paused to see how many people could fit into a Canadian phone booth. We even had some anti-American talk when a group of foreigners claimed that we could have fit twice as many people in if we hadn't been "super-sized Americans".

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The next country was the United Kingdom (UK refers to the union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, while Great Britain refers to the largest island of the British Isles containing England, Scotland, and Wales). Where else to grab a local brew but in an English Pub?

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We convinced the barkeeps to serenade us with the British national anthem, God Save the Queen. Interestingly enough, the words to the anthem change when a king rules the country, to God Save the King. It was tough to leave the comfy surroundings of the pub and head back into the sticky, humid heat.

The next country was France, which was located across a channel. Street artists and performers filled the center square, recreating the artistic backdrop of Paris. An acrobatic display was ensuing as a man balanced himself on a stacked table and chairs. A delightful smell made its way to our group, and we headed into the closest pastry shop.

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The pastries were delicious, and between our group, I think we sampled one of everything.

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While most of us stuck to a French beer, Erik wandered off into a French store, tried on the local garb, and left with a glass of French champagne (champagne refers to wine produced in the Champagne region of France, versus the more widely produced sparkling wine).

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We left the artful country of France behind, and entered the more gritty Morocco. Not passing the opportunity to get some Moroccan food, I grabbed lunch to eat in the open air cafe. The lamb, hummus, tabouli, and couscous were delicious, and the open air cafe was surprisingly cool.

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While enjoying the Moroccan beer, we noticed a long line forming along the waterfront. Someone informed us that Aladdin and Princess Jasmine were scheduled to make an appearance, so we jumped in line with the rest of the 9 year-olds to anxiously await their arrival. It might have been the beers, but Aladdin's joke to Ryan that "marriage is a whole new world" had us laughing pretty hard.

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After talking to Aladdin, I realized that Disney paid attention to even the most minor details. Aladdin and Jasmine never broke character for a second, responding to questions about Abu without missing a beat. The buildings, food, and entertainment were painstakingly authentic, and even the bathrooms were decorated in Moroccan style.

The next country was Japan, complete with temples and Japanese drummers. Several members of the group grabbed some sushi for lunch. Ryan, Greg, and I skipped the Japanese beer for a drink of hot sake (it didn't go well with the 100 degree heat).

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We took a break from the bar crawl to head back to the center of Epcot to ride a few rides. Disney has a "fast pass" system that allows you to grab a ticket for a ride and return at a specified time. This way you don't waste time waiting in line, but rather show up and jump on without any hassle. We rode "Soarin'", a simulated hang gliding experience through California. As you pass over the ocean, you can smell the salt in the air and feel the sea breeze in your face. You pass an orange grove and can smell the citrus. Flying over the forest, you can smell the pine trees. All this while hovering 40 feet above the ground in a mock hang glider. It was entertaining, but I'm glad we didn't wait longer than 10 minutes to ride it. After leaving "Soarin'", we passed my favorite Disney character, Figment.

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On our way back to continue the bar crawl, we passed the ride Captain EO. Captain EO is a 4D experience (a 3D movie with special effects that make you feel like you are involved in the scenes). Captain EO is a science fiction film that mixes a Michael Jackson music video with Star Wars-like action sequences. A couple members of the group begged the rest of us to wait for the next showing, so we made our way into the theater. The 1980s 3D effects left you with a headache, and Michael Jackson's acting was atrocious, but the overall movie was about what you'd expect. If anything, it saved us from the heat for another 30 minutes. One member of our group, Dave, decided to play in the fountains for a little extra refreshment.

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We walked back to the country loop to pick up where we left off. The halfway point around the loop was home, sweet, home, the United States. In America we watched a Revolutionary-era band perform and then ordered a round of Sam Adams. The effects of the beer flowing full effect, we convinced a cute American beer-maiden to take a picture with us.

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Our next stop was Italy, decorated in the more modern Italian style of Venice with only a hint of ancient Rome. Here the group had some gelato and Italian beer, and briefly posed in front of Neptune.

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We entered Oktoberfest in Germany next, and after breezing through the previous two countries, we took our time here. Some of us wandered through the German beer caves while others chatted with German bartenders. A German woman showed us giant beer tankards and das boot (as cool as they were, I was afraid to hold it for the $200 price tag). I grabbed a warm, German soft pretzel that went perfect with the Oktoberfest beer.

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We left Germany and headed into China. The smell of stir-fry and eggrolls filled the Chinese market. All of the workers at Disney had been overly courteous and accommodating to our large group, but the Chinese went above and beyond. They taught members of our group Chinese phrases and posed in multiple pictures. I'm not sure if they found us entertaining in our slightly intoxicated state, or they were genuinely interested in mingling with us. We grabbed another quick bite to eat, drank another beer, and continued on our way.

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Norway was my favorite stop. The bachelor party felt most at home in the Viking decorated Norwegian village. Cute bartenders convinced us to take the "viking test", which was to take a shot of Norse liquor without making a face. Jon opted for another pastry, the "Viking Horn". Our party hung out in the viking hall while we finished the Norwegian beers. Night was beginning to fall, but we only had one more country left, Mexico.

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It was ironic that the only country located entirely indoors was the one we visited last. Mexico was located inside an Incan temple. Locals were making trinkets by hand while intimidating temples loomed overhead.

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Some of the group went straight to the tequila bar, while the rest of us ordered margaritas. Nothing like ending a bar crawl with a hard liquor drink.

A few of us left the bar and went back outside to get ready for the fireworks show. Epcot, like the rest of the Disney parks, puts on an extravagant fireworks show every night. 30 minutes of fire, rockets, and floating displays mesmerized the crowd. It was impressive, but after the show, we hustled out of the park to catch the bus to go out in downtown Disney.

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The bachelor party was a load of fun, but some members of the group paid for that fun on the car trip back home.

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Posted by Mike.Flynn 13:10 Archived in USA Tagged beer brewery bachelor_party Comments (0)

The Bourbon Trail

STATE 17 - KENTUCKY

overcast 65 °F

Kentucky is a beautiful state, one that I absolutely love driving through. You get a taste of the Appalachian mountains before arriving in the rolling hills in the center of the state. Rustic barns and horse farms dot the countryside, and a multitude of rivers and lakes make this state a scenic wonder. Kentucky is the birthplace of many important men, namely Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and ME!

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Kentucky is also the birthplace of most of the bourbon that travels across the world. There are more barrels of bourbon in Kentucky than there are people! There is so much bourbon in Kentucky, that some distilleries only distribute their bourbon internationally and totally skip the domestic market. Megan, Greg, and I aim to tour six of the bourbon distilleries located in central Kentucky, a pathway called "The Bourbon Trail".

Before we get started, a little foreword on bourbon itself. Bourbon is a special type of whiskey which can only be produced in the United States (in 1964 Congress named bourbon the native spirit). Bourbon is whiskey that is aged in a brand new, charred oak barrel, made from a mash consisting mostly of corn, and has no added flavors (the only flavoring after distillation comes from the oak barrel). How can there be such a variety of bourbon if they all have to follow the same procedure? Distilleries use different combinations of grains to make the mash (stuff that is fermented and distilled into moonshine), but the real magic comes from the oak barrels. A lot of the distilleries use barrels from the same manufacturer, but they vary the amount of time the whiskey is aged in the barrels, how the barrels are positioned in the warehouses, and the blends of different ages of whiskey to create the unique flavors.

We left Somerset (where my grandma lives) and drove north two hours to reach the first distillery, Wild Turkey.

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In college we called Wild Turkey the "Kickin' Chicken" due to the involuntary leg kick after taking a drink of Wild Turkey 101 (hence me doing the Kickin' Chicken dance in the picture above).

It felt a little weird to be waiting on the front porch of the distillery at 9am to start drinking straight bourbon, but we weren't the only ones. About 10 people sat around the small porch waiting for the doors to open. Megan opted for the seat of honor.

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A little after 9, the doors opened and we were directed to sign-in for the tour. It was a short drive over to the new distillery (in 2010 Wild Turkey built a new distillery to allow for increased production). Once we got within a half mile of the distillery, you could smell the bourbon. My mouth watered in anticipation of tasting it, while my stomach flipped with the thought of taking a shot. We pulled up to the distillery just as a grain truck was offloading a new shipment of grain.

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After a quick video about Wild Turkey, our tour guide began the tour around the distillery. We saw the yeast production room (nothing special there, it was just a room) before making our way into the fermenting room. At least 12 30ft tall fermenters sat in the giant room. The corn and grain mix is steeped and boiled to release the stored sugars and enzymes. Yeast is added to the mixture, which then feeds on the sugar to produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. This is the same exact procedure that a lot of breweries use to make beer, which is why the distilleries often refer to the liquid at this stage as beer mash. You could feel the heat coming off the fermenting "beer" as we stood above the fermenter.

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Since the room with the fermenter is not temperature controlled, most distilleries shut down during the hot summer months. The heat in the rooms is just too much for the yeast to work properly. I leaned over the vat and took a big whiff, and it nearly knocked me off my feet. There is no oxygen above the tank (with all the CO2 bubbling up) and you get a nose full of alcohol (it reminded me of the feeling after taking a stiff shot!). We left the fermenting room and walked to take a look at the still.

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The still is what actually extracts the alcohol from the fermented "beer". Sophisticated heating techniques evaporate and condense the alcohol from the mixture. You could actually see the clear alcohol running down the first still and going into the secondary still. This is "moonshine" or "white lightning", but instead of adding a piece of fruit to add flavor, the distillant is stored in oak barrels. We walked out of the distillery and over to the filling warehouse. Here barrels upon barrels waited to be filled. Greg tried to "wheeze the juice" from one.

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Here is a video of the barrels being filled.

From the filling room, we drove over to look inside one of the warehouses. These things were huge, and there were a lot of them. It takes around 3 days to create the mash, ferment, distill, and barrel the whiskey. The whiskey then sits in a barrel in a warehouse for at least 4 years, and often 6, 8, 13 years or longer.

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Inside the warehouse was nothing fancy, just racks and racks of barrels. In the middle of the warehouse, you could look up and see how high the barrels were stacked.

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Throughout the years as the bourbon sits in the barrels, it moves in and out of the pores of the wood through the charred layer. The summer heat opens the wood so that that the bourbon can penetrate, and in the winter the barrel contracts to move the bourbon through the other way. Over time, the flavors of the wood and auburn color is extracted. Wild Turkey has 6 different brands of bourbon, all of which use the exact same mash recipe and age in the same barrels. The only thing that is different is where the barrel is stored in the warehouse. Some zones in the warehouse promotes the bourbon to move more throughout the oak than others, and this is what creates the different flavors.

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After leaving the warehouse, it was time for the tasting! Wild Turkey allowed us to have 2 shots of whatever we wanted, so Megan, Greg, and I coordinated so that we could try as many different bourbons as possible. First we tried Wild Turkey Rare Breed, which is barrel proof (meaning it is bottled straight from the barrel without adding any water). Bourbon has to be at least 80 proof, but often distilled water is added to bring down proof. Rare Breed is not cut with water, but instead is very full flavored. We then sampled Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit, which only uses one barrel to bottle (it is not blended with bourbon from other barrels). This is one of the bourbons that had a specific location in the warehouse. We also sampled Russell's Reserve (Jimmy Russell is the master distiller at Wild Turkey, and this bourbon is aged a little longer than the others), Wild Turkey 101 (my favorite from college), and Megan tried the Wild Turkey American Honey (which isn't a true bourbon since flavors are added after it comes out of the barrel).

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On the way out of Wild Turkey, Megan stopped to feed the Wild Turkey some Wild Turkey.

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It was about a 20 minute drive to Woodford Reserve. We had about 8 hours to tour 6 different distilleries spread from Lexington to Louisville (about 3 hours to drive between all the distilleries), and the Wild Turkey tour took about an hour and a half. Needless to say, we were behind schedule. The drive to Woodford Reserve was beautiful. We drove through back roads lining horse farm after horse farm.

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Woodword Reserve was pretty scenic. Woods and horses surrounded the distillery, and their warehouses were covered in stone instead of wood.

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Woodford Reserve is the only distillery that charges for its distillery tour, so we decided to skip it to save some time. We walked through the gift shop (surprisingly the bourbon they sell on site was more expensive than the stuff I could get at the ABC store back home) and took a seat at the tasting bar. Woodford Reserve only gives a single shot of their bourbon, and there wasn't nearly the presentation we had at Wild Turkey. Still, the three of us went through all the steps to get a taste for the bourbon (my leg didn't involuntarily kick at all). After about 30 minutes of taking in the scene, we hopped back in the car to head to Four Roses.

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Four Roses had the look of a Spanish Monastery, distinctly different than the back country feel of Wild Turkey and Woodford Reserve. I had never heard of Four Roses, but I am not the most refined bourbon connoisseur. The lady that was doing our tastings informed us that Four Roses had been around for 100 years, but only until recently only shipped overseas (they are now in 47 states, all the contiguous states except Alabama). Four Roses was delicious, nice and mellow. We sampled a single barrel (bottled from only a single barrel), a small batch (bottled from a select number of blended barrels), and their yellow label. I will certainly be looking for their brand next time I buy bourbon.

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The tasting room had a series of charts and a mockup of the distillation process. We smelled the various grains they had on display (wheat, rye, and barley) so that we could identify them in the next bourbon tasting. Greg took the opportunity to try and educate us on the distillation process (everything that he had learned from the Wild Turkey guide). Greg's lecture was filled with lots of jokes and giggling, meaning either the bourbon making process can be humorous, or the samples were starting to take their effect.

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It was a 2 hour drive to the next distillery, which gave us time to eat our lunch and see a little more of the countryside. Once again, we took twisting and winding back roads. We knew we were getting close when the smell of bourbon filled our noses. We had arrived at Maker's Mark.

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The tour was similar to Wild Turkey's tour, just not quite as big. We found out that Maker's Mark rotates their barrels in the warehouses (the warehouses were all painted black to absorb more heat), which contrasted how Wild Turkey kept the barrels in the same spot throughout the aging process. Maker's Mark Bourbon is different from their second brand, Maker's Mark 46, in that additional charred oak staves are added into the barrel at the end of the aging process for an additional 46 days for additional flavor and color.

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At the end of the tour, we got to sample both of Maker's Mark bourbons.

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Maker's Mark's trademark is the wax sealed bottle. At the end of the tour, if you buy a bottle of their bourbon, you can dip it in the wax yourself. Greg wasn't passing up the opportunity, so he got first in line to dip a bottle. After putting on the apron and gloves, he stepped up to the wax and dipped his bottle. It was pretty cool getting to see the hand-dipped process.

They also sold the Maker's Mark 46 staves that had been soaked in bourbon. They smelled like bourbon, and they suggested you cut them up to use on the grill to add a little extra flavor. I bought 5 to use for the 4th of July.

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The next stop was the home of Evan Williams Bourbon, Heaven Hill Distilleries. Heaven Hill is the largest independently owned distillery, and the black label Evan Williams is the most popular in the US and across the world.

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Heaven Hill was set up a little bit differently than the other distilleries. Heaven Hill has a Bourbon Heritage Center, a museum-like visitor center detailing bourbon and how it is made. There were displays that allowed you to smell moonshine, bourbon that had been aged for 6 months, and bourbon that had been aged for 6 years.

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The had old stills on display and descriptions of how bourbon had affected the life of Kentuckians. The museum was definitely more kid friendly with interactive panels. Heaven Hill also offers a variety of tours, none of which were leaving within the next hour. Bourbon tastings are only allowed at the end of the free tour, so we instead sampled the Heaven Hill barbeque sauces. It was a shame we didn't have more time to wait for the next tour.

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We went outside and looked around the Heritage Center. Warehouses were in every direction, and you knew that they were all filled with barrels of bourbon. Each barrel holds about $10,000 to $20,000 worth of bourbon, and with a warehouse holding hundreds and hundreds of barrels, every warehouse had over $1 million of bourbon just sitting inside.

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The last distillery of the Bourbon Trail was Jim Beam, which was another 30 minutes down the road.

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The Jim Beam tour was more of a historic tour. Instead of taking you through the fermenting and distilling processes, you instead go through Jim Beam's house, see the family pictures, and see a toy distillery that actually works.

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The Beam family was one of the earliest bourbon distillers in Kentucky. As a result, they didn't stick to just one distillery. Cousins and brothers each opened their own distilleries, sharing the knowledge passed down along the lines. One of the Beams started Heaven Hill, and other Beams could be seen in the histories of the other distilleries. As we walked out of the house, the tour guide pointed out the pump that they used to use to get the water to make the bourbon. Greg teased that bourbon would come out now, and the guide told him to try it out.

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Although it looked like Moonshine coming out, it was still only water.

The tour continued to see the original still used by the Beam family and the original distribution method. The Beams would keep their the bourbon on site, and people would bring their own containers to buy the whiskey. The container was weighed after it was filled to determine the cost (50¢ per quart, 75¢ per quart for aged bourbon).

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The guide also pointed out the trees around the distillery. He said the one of the by-products of the distillation process causes the trees to turn black. The trees themselves aren't harmed, but occasionally Jim Beam has to polish the tombstones located in the cemetery across the street.

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We walked through one of the Jim Beam warehouses, and it looked very similar to the warehouses from the other distilleries. Jim Beam also rotates their barrels, but uses barrels from different zones to create certain brands. I knew what was coming after the walk through the warehouse, the tasting!

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Jim Beam didn't actually offer their Jim Beam whiskey at the tasting, but instead let us sample the top shelf brands. We got to try a Knob Creek single barrel (which was super smooth) and Basil Hayden Small Batch (which was also fantastic). The Jim Beam tour guide was very personal, and even offered suggestions on other distilleries to try out while we were in the area.

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Overall, I was very impressed with all the distilleries. They were all very open about how they make their bourbon and how their bourbon process may be different from other distilleries. No guide claimed their bourbon was the best or even their bourbon process was the best, but instead just promoted the idea that all bourbon can be appreciated. It was refreshing to not have to hear them slander one another, like I had to sit through when we went on the beer tours in Wisconsin.

We had one last stop before heading back to Somerset. Jim Beam sits right on the edge of Fort Knox. Fort Knox was built when Franklin Roosevelt outlawed American citizens from owning gold bullion and gold coins (everyone had to sell their gold to the Federal Reserve). Fort Knox is now the second largest collection of gold in the world (second only to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Manhattan, which was robbed in one of the Die Hard movies). Fort Knox has held other valuables other than just gold, like the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, the Magna Carta, foreign royalty jewels, and even a supply of morphine during WWII.

You can't actually go into the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox (for obvious security reasons). In fact, you are not allowed to even approach the gate or the fence without repercussions. Instead, you have to pull off on the highway that runs past Fort Knox to take pictures. The three rows of fences certainly screamed, "STAY OUT".

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Our run down the Bourbon Trail was over, but we had successfully visited six distilleries in one day. We even get an official t-shirt for completing the trail (which has yet to come in the mail)!

Posted by Mike.Flynn 05:56 Archived in USA Tagged beer museum tour brewery local_food Comments (0)

Mile-High City—Denver!

COLORADO - PART II

sunny 65 °F

When I pictured heading into Denver, I envisioned driving up monstrous mountains, ice and snow covering the roads, streams of Coors flowing down the valleys, and trouble catching my breath in the mile-high thin air. I guess I was brainwashed by all the Coors ads showing the Rocky Mountains and watching snow fall during a Monday Night Football game in Denver. The mountains were certainly getting larger, but they weren't the titans I had imagined, and I certainly wasn't driving through them. The road leading to Denver was flat, mountains on the left while the plains stretched out as far as I could see to the right.

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Part of the problem may have been my view was slightly blocked. Having stopped to fill the car with gas, I began to clean up the car. Megan still had water in her water bottle, but I saw her carrying a fresh one out to the car. I threw the half filled one in the glove compartment to make room in the cup holder. About twenty minutes after leaving the gas station, Megan opened the glove compartment to find it filled with water. Apparently Megan puts the cap back on the water after taking a drink so she "doesn't lose it", but only tightens the cap down once she has finished drinking it. I told her that defeats the purpose of the cap if the cap is only sealed before you start drinking and after you are finished. I asked her, "why don't you take the extra .3 seconds of time and tighten the cap?" She replied, "It hurts my hand if I have to continually screw and unscrew it." So, as a result, this was my view for the 9 hour drive to Denver.

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Like I have mentioned before, distance is deceptive out west. Looking along the line of mountains, I could see one clearly standing higher than the rest. I asked Megan if it was Pike's Peak. She checked the map, and said we were still 120 miles from Colorado Springs, so I thought that it must be another mountain that was closer. 2 hours later, I found it was Pike's Peak. You can see it behind Megan in the picture below.

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Upon arriving in Colorado Springs, we wound through the town to head to Garden of the Gods. Here a park had been set up around a series of gigantic and unusual rock formations. Apparently it got its name when a brewmaster was looking for a place to setup his brewery came across the area and proclaimed it was fit for a god, therefore "Garden of the Gods" was derived from "beer garden for a god". I think the story is a tall tale, and the more obvious reason is the correct origin of the name, that the rocks are so big that they could have only been placed there by a god.

The warm, sunny day had brought people out in droves to run the pathways between the rocks. A man was scaling up the side of one of the larger rocks, while the other rocks just looked cool.

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All the rocks had little signs in front of them with information and creative names for each rock (names like Sentinel Rock and Cathedral Spires). But there was one rock that Megan felt got left out, "the most interesting rock in the park" according to Megan. What do you think she named this one?

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This is "Gorilla Rock". Supposedly it is the profile of a gorilla turned to the left, with his brow, nose, and mouth on the left side. He is reclining with his belly going down to the left.

The last rock we wanted to see was a short drive away. A Colorado Springs man had bought the land directly beneath the rock and made his living taking touristy pictures next to the "Balanced Rock". He even had mules that people could sit on, and hats to wear. Eventually people started to own their own cameras, and he built a fence around the rock to protect his business interest. He eventually donated the rock to the park so that everyone could enjoy it.

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The sun was starting to set, so we left the park and continued driving to Denver. We were staying with my friend Ryan's brother in Conifer, which is up in the mountains overlooking Denver. We arrived and chit-chatted for a little while, and then hit the hay after a long day of driving.

Megan and I were told that we had to start our morning with a breakfast burrito at TNT Country Kitchen. Megan's was filled with egg, potato, cheese, and bacon while I got one filled with chorizo. They were huge, and very tasty. They came with green chile sauce on top too.

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From TNT Country Kitchen, it was only a 15 minute drive to Red Rocks Amphitheater. A concert arena was built into the natural red rock formations, creating a scenic and unique place for bands to play.

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We parked in the parking lot, and then walked up into the amphitheater. A lot of people were running across the wide rows of the amphitheater. We walked out of the amphitheater and back down to a trail that goes around the various rock formations in the park. The warning sign caught my attention.

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If you encounter a rattlesnake, just walk away. Walk around the poison ivy to avoid it. However, if you encounter a mountain lion, FIGHT BACK! It was funny to think about Megan fighting off a mountain lion (although the warning did send the tiniest bit of worry through my mind, especially since Ryan's brother had just told a story of a mountain lion that had been seen in their neighborhood last night). The rock formations were similar to the ones we saw in the Garden of the Gods, just a little smaller.

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At one point along the trail, you could get a good view of downtown Denver.

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We finished the trail, got back in the car, and left the amphitheater. I had anxiously been awaiting our next stop, the Coors Brewery in Golden, Colorado.

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It was a self guided tour that took you through the brewing rooms, the bottling factory, and the shipment area. It was pretty similar to the Miller tour we had gone on in Milwaukee, minus the tour guide. We did get to stop half way through the tour to sample beer that had finished brewing that day (the sample cup didn't really give you chance to taste a big difference).

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We finally made our way to the tasting room, where we were able to sample 3 beers. Megan and I coordinated so that we could try some of the experimental new beers and some of the local ones we couldn't get back home. I also made sure to get the Banquet Beer, Coors original.

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After two of the beers, Megan said she desperately needed something to snack on. I gave her 3 dollars to go to the vending machine, and she came back with a single bag of pretzels. I realized now how the free beer tour could actually turn a profit. Megan began talking in a British accent and using one of the pretzels as a monocle. Apparently the experimental beers were stronger than the regular beers.

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We stopped by the gift shop on the way out to see if anything caught our eye. We laughed at some of the funny t-shirts, and I took my picture with a Broncos helmet.

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We left Golden and headed back into Denver. Our next stop was Elway's Colorado Steakhouse. The $40 steak was a tad expensive for lunch, but the $8 chili was supposed to be excellent. We each ordered a bowl, and surprisingly enough, it was actually really good. It was also burning hot, even I required a couple glasses of water to put out the fire in my mouth.

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I had also wanted to tour the New Belgium Brewery (they make Fat Tire), but it was an hour away. We instead decided to head downtown to take a look at Coors Field, and then sample a smaller, local brewery.

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After seeing the outside of Coors Field, we made our way to Breckenridge Brewery. The beer was delicious, and it was nice to just sit and relax. It was opening weekend of baseball, so we watched whatever game happened to be on TV. Ryan's brother and sister had invited us to dinner, so we left to make it back in time for dinner in Conifer.

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Now let me tell you something about the car I was driving. It was a tiny Hyundai Accent. This thing barely had enough power to get up to the speed limit of 75 on flat roads, much less going up a mountain. The Rockies proved to be quite a challenge for the little car. The engine screamed as it tried to find enough power to make it up, and sometimes even down the mountains. We left at 5am the next morning to get an early start on the 10 hour drive to Utah. To get to the interstate heading west from Conifer, it was quickest to cut through the mountains. I was the only car on the road, and even standing on the gas petal, I couldn't get up to the speed limit. So ironically enough, just as I turned off the mountain highway to travel the .3 mile side road down to the interstate, a deputy turned on his lights and pulled me over. We had only gone a couple hundred feet, so there was no way for me to even know what the speed limit was, but the cop had clocked me doing 45 in a 25. He gave me a story about how elk were causing a lot of issues in the area, so they had to enforce the slow speed limit. His suspicions were further aroused when he saw two NC licensed drivers riding in a Nevada car at 5:30 in the morning with a destroyed registration document. Thankfully Megan produced some fake tears and got us off with a warning.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 14:32 Archived in USA Tagged mountains beer hiking brewery state_park local_food Comments (0)

Beer, Cheese, and the Green Bay Packers!

STATE 8 - WISCONSIN

sunny 20 °F

Eager to take a trip before the winter holidays, Megan and I decided to spend a weekend away. Where did we decide to go to escape the North Carolina cold? To a place WAY colder, Wisconsin!

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When I think of Wisconsin, I think of 3 things: beer, cheese, and the Green Bay Packers. Milwaukee was once the home to four of the world's largest breweries (Schlitz, Blatz, Pabst, and Miller), and was the number one beer producing city in the world for many years. Wisconsin produces more cheese than any other state. When it comes to football, Wisconsin has one of the most popular and successful teams, the Green Bay Packers. The chance to have a fresh brewed PBR or High Life, eat some tasty cheese, and talk about football was enough for me to brave the frigid temperatures.

We didn't waste much time to cross the first item off the list. As soon as the rental car had been acquired, we headed off to the Miller Brewing Company for our first beer tour!

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Arriving in Miller Valley, I drove straight into the heart of the brewing complex. My eyes were eagerly scanning the buildings we passed (which included the original Plank Road Brewery) when I almost got smashed between 2 tractor trailers leaving a distribution center. Megan suggested that we find the visitor center before our tiny rental car played chicken with a truck again. We checked in at the front desk of the visitor center to sign up for the next available tour. The tour was free, and the next one started immediately!

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After a short video (which was similar to the Coke entrance video, a 10 minute advertisement on why their product was the greatest on the planet) we left the visitor center and walked to one of the bottling and packaging warehouses. Unlike the tour of the coke factory, we got to see the actual equipment and workers preparing the beer. The tour guide was very informative on everything that was happening in front of us, including what each piece of equipment was doing. The line foreman even took the time to come over and answer any questions we had. All the sugar coating and advertising seemed to have remained in the visitor center, as our guide and the foreman gave us honest and straight forward answers about the beer process here at Miller (which was refreshing and said a lot about the culture at Miller).

Next we walked over to the brewing complex, where we had to walk up 5 flights of stairs to see the tops of the kettles where the beer process was started. Giant copper tanks stood in rows (we could only see the tops). Chatting with the tour guide when walking back down the steps, I found out that Miller employees are given free beer and have beer in their break room. What a great place to work!

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From there we walked into the distribution warehouse. It was enormous. In fact, it covered the area of 5 football fields, and it was completely filled with beer (over 500,000 cases). Every case in this building would be shipped out in the next 24 hours. I was surprised to find out that the majority of this beer would be going to Chicago alone. That's a thirsty city!

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The coolest part of the tour was next. We were led down into the caves beneath the Miller Brewery. It was here that the beer was originally stored. It had an old, authentic feel. Original tools from 100 years ago lined the wall and Fredrick Miller's personal beer collection was displayed in a case towards the back of the cave.

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We left the cave and walked into the tasting room, which was set up like an old pub. A waitress brought us 3 different beers (Miller Lite, Miller High Life, and Leinenkugel's Seasonal). Megan and I made friends with two Milwaukee natives currently living in California who were back in town visiting relatives. After explaining why we would choose to come to Wisconsin in late November, we got the low down on how to make the most of our Wisconsin trip. After finishing our beers, we headed back to the visitor center to pick up the car and leave Miller Valley.

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After checking into the hotel, Megan and I headed down to the Milwaukee River to walk along the river walk. Our next destination was Lakefront Brewery for another beer tour. Lakefront Brewery supposedly had the best brewery tour in Milwaukee, and it was conveniently located right off the Milwaukee River (not the lake like the name suggested).

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While we waited for the tour to start, we hung out in a heated outdoor seating area sampling some of Lakefront's beers. Our tour guide was certainly more animated than the Miller tour guide had been, and the tour was definitely geared more towards entertainment (the Miller tour guide also hadn't been drinking). We shuffled around the brewery as the tour guides joked with one another. We didn't learn as much about the beer making process or see any of the equipment in action, but our sample glasses were filled up at several points throughout the tour (a nice bonus). They also had some souvenirs from the old Brewers ballpark. It was obvious that the brewery had a passion for Milwaukee and for beer. The tour concluded with a French woman from our tour group singing along to the Laverne and Shirley theme song.

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We walked upstairs above the brewery to take part in another Milwaukee tradition, the Friday Fish Fry. Stemming from the city's strong Catholic heritage (an older Catholic tradition was to abstain from meat on Fridays, especially during Lent), most restaurants offer a fish special on Friday night. We chose a fish fry that had live polka music and encouraged dancing. We sat at a table with some locals, ate some delicious fish, drank some more Lakefront beer, and then began to walk back to the hotel. Our walk back to the hotel presented a good view of downtown lit up at night.

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We woke up early the next morning to get a good start on our road trip. We were headed north along Lake Michigan to visit Green Bay, home of the Green Bay Packers! Farms spread out on both sides of the road once we left Milwaukee. It started to feel like we were actually in "America's Dairyland" just like all the license plates advertised.

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After about two hours, we arrived in Green Bay. I exited the little highway and started to make my way through town, blindly following the directions I had printed off Google Maps. When the directions told me to turn into a neighborhood, I figured that I used the wrong address. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a gigantic stadium loomed over the houses. We had arrived at Lambeau Field.

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One side of Lambeau Field is enclosed in an area called The Atrium. The gift shop, Packers Hall of Fame, and various restaurants were located here. It was also the starting point for our tour.

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Our guide was a Green Bay native who had been a season ticket holder for forty years, and he had a strong passion for the Packers. He knew everything there was to know about the team, and he proceeded to pass all the knowledge to us. We walked around the Atrium, took in the view from the luxury box, and then headed down to the field level. We walked around the corner of the locker room to the tunnel that lead to the field. The guide lined us up, and then told us to run down the tunnel and out towards the field. As you made your way through the tunnel, speakers hidden in the wall simulated crowd noise and the PA announcer. "WELCOME TO THE FIELD....YOUR....GREEN BAY....PACKERS!!!" Just as you exited the tunnel, the stadium burst in thundering cheers. It felt like you were running out of the tunnel to a full stadium and everyone was cheering for you. It was awesome.

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After walking around the edge of the field, we made our way back into the warmth of The Atrium. From here Megan and I headed down the steps to check out the Packers Hall of Fame. There was a ton of Packers stuff down here, but it was definitely geared towards diehard Packer fans. We watched a film about the history of the Packers (much of it was a repeat from the tour), and then walked through room after room of Packer memorabilia.

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One part of the Hall of Fame was especially entertaining. They had a portion of the wall surrounding the field set up to simulate the famous Lambeau Leap. We each did several leaps pretending we had just scored the winning touchdown, and some attempts were better than others. Here is one of Megan's leaps:

After walking through the Hall of Fame, we started to make our way back to the car. We stopped for one last photo opp to mimic two of the greatest coaches in Green Bay History, Curly Lambeau and Vince Lombardi. I also added a picture of how close the stadium is to the neighborhoods. Just across the street are family homes, many with encouraging messages painted on their fences (such as "In McCarthy We Trust" and "Go Packers").

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After a quick lunch at Chili John's (supposedly the place where John Madden frequents when he is in Green Bay), we were on the road again to Sheboygan. My coworker with family in Wisconsin told me that Sheboygan was the place to get the best brat in Wisconsin. Having roots in Cincinnati, I can certainly appreciate a good brat. An hour's drive south brought us to the "Brat Capital of the World".

When I mentioned it was cold in Wisconsin, I wasn't kidding. It was a cool 30° F in Milwaukee the first day, and even chillier that night. However, when we arrived in Green Bay, the bank thermometers displayed 12° F, in the middle of the day! When we got out of the car in Sheboygan, the frigid temperature was emphasized by the strong wind coming off Lake Michigan. Megan covered up as much as possible before she agreed to take a walk along the water. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, we were the ONLY people walking around the city. I guess most people had the sense to stay indoors.

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We walked along the Sheboygan river, then cut through town to get to a park on Lake Michigan. Several signs were spread along the trail to tell the story of Sheboygan's shipping past. At one point, Sheboygan was expected to be the next Chicago or New York since so many immigrants arrived through its port. That never came to fruition as people started traveling by train. Eventually the ship building industry and fishing industries died down as well. A ship recovered from Sheboygan's heyday was displayed along the walk, and the empty marina reinforced the fact that no one in their right mind was out in this weather.

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After completing a circuit on the trail, we headed back towards the car. Conveniently located across the street from where we parked was a local bar. Deciding to rest our legs and get something to drink, we moseyed on in and took a seat at the bar. I realized why no one was outside, Wisconsin football was on TV. Megan and I had hoped to catch a glimpse of the NC State vs. UNC football game on back home, but there was no way I was going to ask the TV to be turned away from the Wisconsin game (despite Wisconsin being up by 4 touchdowns). We each tried a couple of the local beers, and then we decided it was time to head to dinner.

We had picked a German restaurant in Sheboygan, Al & Al's Stein Haus, to get some authentic food for dinner. The place got great reviews, but was not very crowded when we sat down. We ordered an appetizer of fried cheese curds (a recommendation from our friends at the Miller tour). When the chef brought them out, he recognized us as being from out-of-town (I have no clue how). He chit-chatted about his knowledge of Raleigh, and then recommended we get the Bavarian platter. I opted for a brat sandwich, but Megan couldn't resist the temptation of a sample of nearly everything the restaurant offered.

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It was delicious. After taking our time through dinner, we begrudgingly left the warmth of the restaurant and headed to the car to begin the drive back into Milwaukee. A dash light I had never seen before blared for the entire drive back. I think it was the indicator for "it is too cold outside to be doing anything."

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The next morning we had a couple of hours to kill before our flight left town. We drove through downtown to take in some of the sights (it was drizzling, and we had enough walking the day before). We saw where the Bucks play, and we saw the tall buildings at the heart of downtown. We still had time to kill, so we decided to drive out past Miller Field (where the Brewers play) to see The Domes.

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Arriving at The Domes, I definitely had a flashback of the Pauly Shore movie BioDome.

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The Domes are three large structures that support different biomes. One of the domes had a Christmas theme, and several people were inside taking Christmas card pictures. Another dome had a desert climate and was filled a variety of cacti and other desert plant life. Megan said that the Latin names made little sense (and she took Latin for 4 years) and decided to start giving more logical names, such as "Curly, Spiky Cactus" and "Long, Hairy Cactus". Thankfully that little game ended quickly when she ran out of adjectives to describe cacti. The last biome was the rain forest.

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The Domes were a good way to kill an hour, but I secretly wished that the Miller Tours operated on Sundays. We left The Domes and headed back to the airport to catch our flight home. Our trip through Wisconsin was over, but it had been a great time.

Posted by Mike.Flynn 08:53 Archived in USA Tagged beer tour brewery local_food professional_sports Comments (0)

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