Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Traveling and Beer

This is the first of a three part series about traveling and beer. It isn't about beer regions or beer styles. It is about the practicalities of finding good microbrews when you travel.

The Wanderer, by U2

I went out riding
Down that ol' eight lane
I passed by a thousand signs
Looking for my own name

I went with nothing
But the thought youd be there too
Looking for you

I went out there
In search of experience
To taste and to touch
And to feel as much
As a man can
Before he repents
As you may have realized, I've been traveling quite a bit over the summer. During these travels I've discovered some great, and not so great, beers. I've found great, and not so great, places to drink beer. I've found great, and not so great, places that brew beer. All-in-all, as may seem obvious, some places are better than others; and a lot depends on how you choose to travel.

But there are some things you can do when you travel to make finding good beer easier. I'll try to make a list of those things today. On Friday we'll look at doing research online and some of the things you can do to plan ahead. On Monday, I'll review some beers live from Albany, NY - where I will be this weekend.

So, without further ado.

First and foremost I want to set out some assumptions. First, I will assume that you are not traveling specifically for beer; planning a regional or state-wide brewery tour is far different from what I will discuss here. While some of the principles will apply, it is, in general, a different beast. I will also assume that any traveling partners have some, but not infinite, patience with your beer geekdom. My usual traveling partner (my fiance), has more patience than I probably deserve, but she also enjoys the adventure aspect of it. Having said that, since we are not traveling for beer, I generally can not plan an entire day around sitting in bars and breweries. So, those are the assumptions: 1) you are not traveling specifically for beer; 2) you cannot spend the entirety of your trip in bars and breweries.

1. Do some research ahead of time. I'll talk more on Friday about the wheres and hows, but I check not only the obvious places ( and, but also not-so-obvious places like Chambers of Commerce and city event pages. If there is a large regional brewery in the area, check the obvious brewery websites. Also, check any regional beer blogs. Know where your hotel is (if you're staying in a hotel) in relation to the breweries and your schedule.

2. Plan ahead. If there are brewery tours, make sure they fit in your schedule and show up on time. If you are traveling to a region that has a number of breweries (like here in Madison), you probably won't be able to get away with going to all of the tours. Pick one or two. Better yet, pick one or two near something of interest to your traveling partners as well. I tend to try to work brewery tours around lunch or supper - often bars near a brewery will serve the brewery's beer, so it's like two-for-one and you can have a brewery tour and a tasting without raising the hackles of those with you.

3. Be flexible. Brewery tours are great if the brewery is big enough to hold them. But, you never know when your traveling partner is going to get the great idea to go shoe shopping and you can duck out on your own for an hour or two. Plus, I've often just shown up at a brewery and talked up some of the staff and talked my way into a brewery tour. Brewpubs are great for this - most of them don't schedule tours, but the bartenders can ferret out the customers who know what they are talking about and will often point out or call over the brewer if he's around. I'm a really big geek about this stuff and I try to know at least some general biographical information about the brewers - it's great for winning them over and getting that brewery tour or getting access to that "rare" beer that they all have hidden in the deep recesses of the aging cellars.

4. When I can, I take gifts of Wisconsin craft beer. Primarily I do this for whomever I'm visiting. If I'm visiting some friends, I'll bring some great Wisconsin beer - mostly because I know they can't get it if they live out of Wisconsin. But, it has the added benefit of getting those I'm visiting talking about local craft beer, and generating interest in hitting up a brewery tour or the local beer bar. This strategy can often get in an "extra" brewery tour as your friends can talk your traveling partner into the tour - and who can resist that?

5. Carrying beer on an airplane is a pain in the ass. You must check the beer, you cannot carry it on. This means that it adds pounds to your luggage and all carriers will charge you extra if the weight exceeds 50 pounds. If you do have to check beer in your luggage, make sure it is well protected - the last thing you want is some jackass luggage handler tossing an 80 pound suitcase on top of your suitcase and crushing the three bottles of Cuvee de Tomme that you've brought home. If I know I'm bringing beer back I'll often take or purchase some bubble wrap; otherwise, I'll wrap the bottles in two or three shirts and stuff the bottle into a shoe if I can (this provides some stability so it doesn't slide around).

6. Make it an adventure. Particularly when I'm driving, I'll often just look up the locations of some good beer retailers along the way and walk in and see what looks good. Heck, when you're driving, keep an eye out and just stop in random liquor stores. If your traveling partner is adventurous this is generally a pretty easy sell. Talk to the people working and see what's new and what's good - I've found most retailers are pretty good with recommendations. But don't feel compelled to buy something. I will admit this can often add hours of travel time, so make sure you aren't in a hurry; on one trip we hit no less than 8 liquor stores - and didn't buy anything until the final store.

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