Monday, November 10, 2008

Ryan and Erika's Excellent East Coast Adventure

Philadelphia, PA and Boston, MA., in addition to all the wonderful historical and cultural charms, each have a celebrated beer history and a vibrant modern brewing culture that is not to be missed for an American beer lover. So, while Erika and I perused two of our country's finest cities, taking in sights such as Valley Forge, Eastern State Penitentiary, the Freedom Trail and snapping up photos of humpback whales in their natural, Atlantic Ocean feeding habitat, we darn well made time to relax with some cool barley-based refreshments on this wonderful trip. Let's explore.

Upon arriving in Philadelphia, a city that both of us had previously been to (but not together), we were thankful to have a couple of friends who were taking us in for a few days at their place in nearby Royersford. Yes, it may be a little "unorthodox" to stay with friends on our honeymoon, but a) we were on a budget!, b) those same friends couldn't attend our wedding in Chicago, c) we were going to have the majority of our honeymoon alone, and d) they stocked their fridge with cold, wonderful Yuengling Lager! Yes, Michael and Drew were gracious friends and hosts. Once we got to their home, the immediately offered us some cold Yuengling beer. Not wanting to be rude, of course I reached for one! (Disclaimer: Erika's not much of a beer drinker, but there were beers on this trip that she enjoyed. We'll get to that later.).

The Yuengling Brewery, located in nearby Pottsville, PA, is the oldest continually operating brewery in the U.S. Founded in 1829 by German immigrants and run by the fifth-generation owner, Richard Yuengling, this brewery thrives in Pennsylvania, as well as 10 other states in the eastern U.S. They have been quite successful for nearly 200 years - no small feat, especially given the Prohibition era and competition from mega-breweries - and continue to turn out great product. Although their portfolio is extensive, I was extremely satisfied with drinking their flagship product, Yuengling Lager, on this trip at our friends' home. Michael and Drew are also fantastic cooks and some of the spicy creations they whipped up for us paired nicely with the crisp, lightly sweet malt finish that Yuengling Lager imparts.

After a full day of "site-seeing" on our second day, which included lunch at Reading Terminal Market, a leisurely stroll up the Ben Franklin Parkway (Philadelphia's Champs Elysees), and a hair-raising and though-provoking excursion through the bowels of the infamous Eastern State Penitentiary, we decided to pop in to one of the city's most justifiably celebrated beer bars: Monk's Cafe. This outstanding gem of a bar, which has been in business since about the mid-1980s, specializes in Belgian beer and cuisine. These folks take it seriously, serving mussels prepared about 15 different ways, all cooked with selective Belgian beers, all the while giving the customer a relaxed environment with a true feel of what a Belgian cafe must be like: a small bar up front, wood booths in back, convivial conversation, wonderful smells coming from the all added up to a most memorable experience here. Although the four of us tried many different tap beers, of note I enjoyed the "Monk's Cafe Flemish Sour Ale" and the "Moinette Bruin" the best. The Flemish ale is actually brewed in Belgium, then exported to the U.S. for distribution. Erika enjoyed the 3 or 4 beers she tried, but especially the genius subtleties of the Cantillon Gueze. I highly recommend to any beer lover who has the good fortune to land in Philadelphia to seek out Monk's Cafe. There is a reason that the late, great beer writer, Michael Jackson, rated this bar as his "favorite bar in America".

Bidding farewell to Michael and Drew after not quite two full days in the City Of Brotherly Love, we hopped a train for our next destination: Boston, MA. Settling into a quaint hotel in the Back Bay neighborhood, which is an excellent location to explore downtown Boston, Erika and I pretty much hit the ground running in Bean Town. Neither of us had been here before, so we were eager and anxious to get out and see the city.

Boston is such a wonderful walking city; a good pair of sneakers, a good map (Boston's streets meander in every snaking direction possible), and great weather made this such a delightful place to explore. From the Freedom Trail, which is essentially a 2.5 mile urban trail through the city that highlights seminal events and sites in American history (Boston Massacre site, Bunker Hill Monument, ancient graveyards, etc.), to the beautiful Charles River riverwalk, to the magnificent park at Boston Common, this truly is an American classic. Of course, with sites this spectacular there must surely be good beer here, right? We were not let down!

Erika made me promise her that we would have a lobster dinner while in Boston (what self-respecting American wouldn't?), so she didn't have to twist my arm to tightly. One of our grandest, yet most unassuming, meals we had on the trip was at a place called, literally, No Name Restaurant right on Long Wharf. Somewhat off the beaten path, this little diamond in the rough set us up with a delicious lobster meal and fixin's, and I had a great local beer to go with my meal: Harpoon IPA. The Harpoon Brewery, a Boston mainstay, has been turning out great beer now for 22 years now. Located a stone's throw from our restaurant, I was getting quite a fresh product. The India Pale Ale, modeled in the English-style, was a wonderful beer to pair with my dinner. Unlike many IPAs produced in the U.S., which tend to be very, very hoppy and boozy, the Harpoon version was a relatively low alcohol (5.9%abv) affair, and clocked in at only 42 IBUs. However, it lacked not at all for a tasty and stylish beer, with a nice malt/hop balance throught the product.

Amidst a whale-watching excursion we took 30 miles out into the Atlantic, and a cool and funky side-trip up to Salem, MA (to hang with the witches), I couldn't help but ponder what the beer event I'd purchased tickets for prior to arriving in Boston would be like: Beer Summit's Octoberfest. Wow, what a fest it was! Essentially sponsored by the Boston Beer Company (aka Samuel Adams) and with proceeds going to help a local charity, this really was a great event. This event not only wonderful Sam Adams beers on tap (many of which can't be found in Chicago), but also fun entertainment, including an "oompah band", caricature painting, prize giveaways, good German food and an enthusiastic crowd! Of note, I enjoyed the Sam Adams Helles and the Smoked Dunkelweizen. Erika enjoyed the Cherry Wheat, too.

Ryan with Jim Koch

The Octoberfest was held in "The Castle", which is a downtown event site adjacent to a large hotel. It certainly looks like a castle inside and out, which added to the aesthetic charm of the entire event. But, for me anyways, the real treat of the evening was meeting a guy who basically took craft beer and brought it to America at large: Jim Koch, founder and president of the Boston Beer Company. Starting with his flagship beer in 1985, Samuel Adams Lager, this company arguably showed America that there is more to beer than cheap adjunct filler, which makes up most of the contents of mainstream American swill, and instead took brewing back to its traditional roots, using basic, honest ingredients: water, barley, hops and yeast. Jim used a recipe that he discovered in his parents' attic, from a time in the 1800s when his German immigrant grandfather was a brewer in Boston. Leaving the corporate world behind, Jim began to brew in the mid-1980s, and America has not been the same since. So, on this occasion I was understandably in awe when Erika suggested that I meet him, shake his hand, and she wanted to take our picture together. Jim's an easy-going, soft-spoken guy who just likes to hang out with friends, known or otherwise, and talk and drink good beer. Pure and simple. It was just one of those moments. I wish I could've thought of something more brilliant to say, but instead I was almost in an "Aw, shucks" mode. Jim was quite gracious, wished Erika and I well on our honeymoon and our marriage, and posed with beer in hand with me.
The event was held early enough in the evening that Erika and I decided to head out and explore Boston a bit more on our last evening. She had said to me that we hadn't hit a brewpub at all on the trip and that, for my sake anway, we should make a point to! Well, I also hadn't seen Fenway Park, so we killed two birds with one stone for our last round-up: we headed to the Boston Beer Works in South End, which is basically across the street from Fenway.
Boston Beer Works is huge, multi-level brewpub, and was nearly packed when we arrived that Friday evening. Still, we found two empty chairs at the back bar, and sat down for a bit. Erika was "beer'd out", but wanted some clam chowder (which rocked), and I decided to do a four-beer sample. The BBW delivered some pretty good stuff, notably the Bay State ESB (another good English-style bitter) and the Vanilla Bean Stout (finally! I got some dessert!). Although the BBW definitely caters to the Red Sox and yuppy crowds, and the fact that there's nothing intimate about it (it was quite loud), it does make some pretty tasty stuff, both beer and clam chowdah! It was also a added bonus to walk around Fenway Park afterwards, and admire a very old, and very classic baseball field. The Sox were out of town that evening, so although we couldn't grasp the full effect of that neighborhood at gametime, it was a delight nonetheless to just meander around this neighborhood.

We bid adieu to Boston next morning, headed back to Philly via the train and arrived at a historically beautiful B&B called "Thomas Bond House" in the midst of the Eastern Seaboard remnants of Hurricane Hanna. We hunkered down in our fantastic bedroom for the evening with a bottle of chianti and for some...*ahem*...alone time. Mother Nature compelled us to relax in our room for the final evening of a fun, if slightly hectic, trip across the mid-Atlantic and New England. We reflected on the great people, food, drink, culture and history we explored in the previous week. We certainly want to return again someday to these great cities and explore further.

Ryan and Erika Morrison, September 2008

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