Friday, January 2, 2015

First Friday Guest Blog: Man Voyage Part I

(Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of First Friday pieces here at The Oracular Beard, but more importantly, this is the first in a series of pieces by the one and only Anthony LaLota of The Echo & Sway fame. Smart and funny, this guy writes well. Pay attention, you might learn something.)

This past August, Jared and I took a three day road trip up through NY’s gorgeous Hudson Valley in the second installment of Man Voyage, an annual tradition that began in 2013 to celebrate our impending fatherhood. The trip evolved a bit this year but the basic premise remained the same: a general recharging of the batteries through good food, craft beer and a renewal of friendship. Afterward he asked me to write a guest blog entry for you beardlets and though I don’t share your enthusiasm for facial hair, I’m more than happy to oblige. 

            It wouldn’t feel right to omit the first chapter, so we’ll begin with 2013’s Man Voyage I: the Delmarva Peninsula. Part II will follow suit, and I’m hoping these entries are up to the high standards Jared sets with his fantastic writing here on TOB, as I’d love to make this contribution after each years’ trip. 

            First of all, let’s make sure we’re pronouncing it correctly: like Bon Voyage, only we’re two dudes on a trip celebrating our manhood, so it’s Man Voyage. If you think it’s a stupid name, you’re clearly not manly enough to understand. It’s also become known as Beers & Bros and B-roadtrip, if one of those tickles your fancy. 

            As the summer of 2013 was winding down, we began to realize how excited, nay woefully unprepared we were for this greatest of changes about to besiege our lives. What better way to calm our nerves than to talk the whole thing out on the open road, stopping occasionally to discover some new grub and brew? We pride ourselves on going local wherever we are, and Man Voyage was going to embody that spirit. 

            Delmarva is a term for the peninsula that shares land between Delaware, Maryland and Virginia (see what they did there? So clever). It used to be a wasteland for decent beer – in all the years my wife and I vacationed in Ocean City the best we ever got were European imports at the Irish pub on the boardwalk. I poked around on Beer Advocate and found a few new places had opened in the years since, and I’m happy to report that Delmarva has finally joined the world of craft beer, with some damn fine establishments so far. 

            Fordham/Dominion and 16 Mile breweries would’ve added a few more stops but we skipped them.  Fordham/Dominion was once the exclusive craft beer they served at Rams Head Live in Baltimore – I tried several at a Hold Steady show and none impressed me. I bought a sixer of 16 Mile once on a whim and downright hated it. If you’d whole-heartedly recommend either place please share; I’d love to make this trip again and will include them next time.

            Dogfish Head Brewings & Eats is a Rehoboth staple. There’s a reason their beer is so widely distributed and renowned – I’ve long been a fan of Sam Calagione’s innovative brews, and their take on simple styles like the pale ale (Shelter Pale) and the IPA (60 Minute) stand out more than most, and the food at the restaurant has never disappointed. We met our friend Tom at his Milton, DE apartment 40 minutes north of Rehoboth (he and his lovely wife Maria were kind enough to let us couch surf for the night), and he drove us the rest of the way. 

            The only negative is the word’s gotten out about this place.  It’s always been busy, but I’d never seen it like this. On a Tuesday night we waited an hour to get seated, and could barely squeeze in at the bar in the meantime. I don’t mind waiting a bit for good food and beer, and with it being peak season I assumed we would, but it wasn’t just busy – it was overrun with drunk frat boys and family men deep into their mid life crises, wearing their sunglasses indoors, whining about the lack of sports on TV and holding entire conversations exclusively via dick and fart jokes. One moron in particular repeatedly harassed the hostess about his wait time, at one point putting his arm around her in an attempt to woo her into seating him sooner.  I offered my condolences and asked if this type of malarkey was common. “More often than I’d like,” she responded with a frustrated smile. It’s a shame really. The bitter part of me wants to blame Sam’s involvement in the “Brewmasters” show for overexposing the brand, but my sensible side knows it’s just damn good beer and the idiots would seek it out eventually.

Aside from that unpleasantness it was a damn fine visit. Previously, my only complaint was their lack of one-offs or draft only selections. For such a renowned brewery, they only ever had their flagship brews, maybe a seasonal and some aged bottles. This time around they boasted a whopping 19 beers on draft, four of them brewpub exclusives. This is what I’ve always expected from a place with the production capabilities of DFH. Jared, ever the IPA loyalist, had the 120 Minute, which is delicious and smooth but it’ll knock you on your ass. The 15% ABV is really well hidden in the flavor and it sneaks up on you quick. The Firefly (session pale ale), Stewed (strong English style pale) and Piercing Pilsner were all very quaffable, the pils and Firefly tasting especially nice on a hot summer night (we’ve since seen the pilsener in bottles in PA).  

Some genius in the kitchen deserves a promotion for stuffing an onion ring with bacon and putting it on top of a burger – maybe this is already a trend and I’m late to the party but it’s the first time I’ve encountered this miracle of burger innovation. And just when I thought it couldn’t get better, they actually cooked it rare – Wisconsin cheddar, bacon stuffed onion ring and a little bit of blood. Bravo, DFH. The other highlight was our dessert of Choc Lobster, a beer I admittedly was prepared to order based on the name alone. I balked when the waitress told us it was brewed with live lobsters in the kettle – I don’t care for lobster, but she insisted it was the perfect dessert beer. She wasn’t lying – a chocolate porter with an aftertaste of ocean.  Sounds funky but I’d drink another in a heartbeat. 

A post-dinner dip in the ocean was the perfect end to the evening, for me anyway. I’d poked fun of Tom and Jared for not having the nerve to get in, though they didn’t spend the 40 minute drive home soaking wet with nothing to dry off with. Maybe the joke was on me.  

After a refreshing nights’ sleep Maria prepared a lovely scrambled egg and sausage breakfast. We stopped in downtown Milton at Dolce, an extremely welcoming cafe and bake shop, snagged some piping hot coffees to go and took them on the downtown river walk through the shopping district, along some boat docks and a public park. It was quiet and scenic, and a relaxing way to spend an hour before heading south to Salisbury, MD for Evolution Brewing. 

Evolution didn’t open until 12:00 and it was only an hours’ drive to Salisbury, so we had some time to kill.  Fortunately in the very small town of Laurel, DE we stumbled upon Attic Fanatic, a very large antique mall sprawled out over a few buildings. We were looking to kill maybe 30 minutes and wound up inside almost two hours. Antique malls are always a mix of useless junk and things you can’t believe someone would want to get rid of. Me, I go for vintage clothing and furniture, 50s/60s bric-a-brac, vinyl, old photos and postcards, and they had plenty. If we’d been driving a small pickup truck instead of Jared’s Ford Focus I might have walked out with a mid century end table or even a small dresser. 

Evolution is a rather large building with a nice palm tree fa├žade, and houses a more formal sit-down restaurant and tasting room with a long bar, a few pub tables and table top video game console with all the classics – Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, even Mappy. We played a few video games over beers until we got hungry enough to order some lunch. Best sandwich on the trip was a toss-up between the DFH burger and Evolution’s glorious Wednesday special of a $5 brisket sandwich. Slow-smoked and tender with a house-made root beer sauce, Jicama apple slaw and a big ol’ pile of fries. The bartender offered us a locally made cajun dipping sauce for the fries and I dumped it on the second half of my sandwich as well.  

The beer at was every bit as good as the food. The IPA was delicious, very hoppy but balanced and thirst quenching after coming in out of the heat. The ESB was good, but I’ve got to learn to stop ordering ESBs.  My favorite representation of the style is Oliver’s ESB at the Wharf Rat in Baltimore, and thus far no other has lived up to it. The brewery exclusive Wandering Monk Belgian Pale Ale, however, was exceptional. A lot of traditionalists, even some whose writing I admire (I’m talking to you, Lew Bryson) aren’t keen on the style but Belgian Pales and Belgian IPAs have really grown on me and if I’m in the right mood, have become my go-to when trying a new place.

The Prelude Belgian Gold (also a brewery exclusive) sounded tasty but a bit high in ABV after we’d already had a few pints. The bartender poured us a 4 oz sample size and didn’t even charge us for it. Add in a friendly chat with a down-to-Earth local who congratulated us on procreating, offering us some wisdom he’s acquired after raising three daughters, and the bar was set quite high for the day.

Tall Tales Brewing Company in Parsonburg, MD, was an easy 20 minutes up Ocean Gateway toward Ocean City.  They have the benefit of sharing their building with a landscaping company so the place is really done up, though we were both disappointed in the lack of the “tall tales” theme. Aside from a few small logos printed on the beer menu, there’s nothing of it to be found. Rather the atmosphere is a bit industrial for my taste; the bar area and tasting room have a sort of corporate feel, and the men’s room looks like something that yuppie couple from Beetlejuice would’ve had installed in the house after Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin died. It’s all very sharp, just wasn’t for us. 

Anyway, that’s a small complaint. The beer was tasty – we had the Some Beach Island Ale, a nice session Blonde ale with Kolsch yeast, the Excalibur IPA and Bonnie & Clyde DIPA, and Paul Bunyon Pale. The Paul Bunyon was probably my favorite – very citrusy hop character like an IPA but a bit smoother and balanced like a pale. It seems like one of those all-around good beers that craft beer snobs and fizzy yellow piss water drinkers alike could agree on. The bartender couldn’t have been friendlier, chatting us up about their brews and renovation plans to put a massive patio and fire pit area out back before sending us on our way to Burley Oak Brewing, just up the road in Berlin.  

While the bartender at Tall Tales was friendly and very accommodating, her directional skills need some work. She attempted to guide us to Burley Oak by telling us to “turn right at the giant produce sign about five miles up the road.” By “giant” she meant “slightly larger than an average street sign” and by five miles, she meant 15.  It was a small hiccup, and well worth it. Burley Oak was one big open space with a long bar, a few tables constructed from old barrels and a display area with a ton of merchandise (how many different shirt designs does one brewery need?).  Christmas lights bordering their detailed chalkboard draft list and a cutout picture window view of the brewers in action are both nice touches. 

Their beer was some of the best on the trip, with fun names to boot – Aboriginal Gangster (IPA with New Zealand hops), Waffle Stomper (Belgian IPA), and Golden Sex Panther (lemongrass & basil saison, admittedly not as fun to drink as it was to order…I settled for a sample). Small-batch stuff is always the best; most I’ve found aren’t quite as good as our nearby Selinsgrove Brewing Co, only served in-house, but Burley Oak is close. Everything tasted like it had just been tapped moments before we arrived.  .

Tall Tales seemed to cater more to the flourishing summertime tourist crowd, whereas Burley Oak had a more local feel to it. Burley Oak’s event calendar features original singer/songwriters and bring-your-own-vinyl nights rather than the run-of-the-mill karaoke and Jimmy Buffet tributes that overrun most beach vacation spots. The drawback is slightly less focus on the travelers – which isn’t to say the staff at Burley was the least bit unfriendly, just more eager to chat up the regulars they know will be back every week. It’s more an observation than a complaint – the bartender was quick to offer refills and answer questions so if he’d rather chat business with the guy who owns the jet ski rental place down the road it’s fine by me.

Two and a half hours and a drive across the good ol’ bay bridge later and we were in my home-sweet-home-away-from-home of Baltimore. I’ve written countless songs about my love/hate relationship with that city, and being there with my wife, family, friends, and anyone I care about is centering in a way I can’t describe.  My sister Caitlin lives in suburban Catonsville and was a very gracious host, so we treated her to dinner at the newly opened Heavy Seas Alehouse downtown, just off Little Italy. 

The Heavy Seas brand has been a Baltimore staple for years but until recently they’ve only had a tasting room and tours at Clipper City Brewery in Halethorpe, just south of the city. The alehouse looks like a revamped old warehouse and impossible to miss with the giant Heavy Seas logo shining down Bank Street.  It’s gorgeous inside, all rustic looking wood to compliment the brick walls, large scale beer posters and ship memorabilia hanging everywhere. Since there were three of us we decided to order an assortment of the snacks and small plates to share: cured meats and cheese with mustards, soft pretzels with beer cheese sauce, prosciutto with apple compote and ciabatta crisps. All were okay but nothing I’d hurry to try again. Next time we’ll get sandwiches. 

The beer was top notch as always, matey. I was thrilled they still had their summer seasonal Red Sky at Night on tap. Saison with Belgian yeast and candied sugar, goes down smooth with a warming, boozy finish.  We gulped down a few beers, filled a growler with their Marzen lager for later and headed back to the ‘burbs for some video games and Netflix before passing out on the couch. 

You can count on three things in life: death, taxes, and every coffee shop ever employing two types of people: the mopey hipster with unkempt hair too tired to take your order because he hasn’t had his coffee yet, and the excessively peppy hipster in a beret who can’t wait to make your order because she’s had too much. Bean Hollow in historic Ellicott City was no exception (Avenue 209 is the only one, not that we’re biased). Sad emo barista looked physically pained after writing our short order of two coffees and one muffin. No matter, it gave me something to chuckle about early in the morning. We took our coffees on a stroll through Taylor’s Antique Mall (since closed), and headed on toward Frederick for our last stop of the day.

Brewer’s Alley in downtown Frederick was the first brewpub established in Frederick County, in 1996.  Maybe that statistic set my expectations a little high but we didn’t enjoy our experience there at all. We sat on the patio outside. Our waitress took forever to come over, and was bored and annoyed at answering our very simple questions about the menu. She interacted the same way with the other patrons, and after listening in a bit I discovered most of the other servers were the same way. I asked the hostess where the bathroom was and she grunted and pointed without looking up. They all gave sad emo barista a run for his money. 

The visit would have been salvaged by a decent meal and beer but those weren’t great either. Pale ale and IPA tasted so similar I wondered if the bartender accidentally poured the same beer twice.  I ordered the cask IPA next figuring I couldn’t go wrong with a cask beer. I was wrong again. Aside from having a better mouthfeel from the cask pour, it was one of the most unexciting IPAs I’ve had. Fish tacos and pulled pork sandwich were very uninspiring as well. I don’t mean to totally run the place down but how it scores an 89 (“very good”) rating on Beer Advocate is beyond me. It would take a lot of steady rave reviews over a decent period of time for me to go back. The rest of downtown Frederick is nice though. Tree-lined and clean, with a quaintness despite the constant bustling of traffic. 

The Man Voyage manifesto was accomplished. We ate and drank heartily, most of it very, very good, and what wasn’t all that great didn’t matter. The driving in between, singing Springsteen, Tom Waits and Van Morrison tunes, imagining the mistakes we’ll make in the years to come while championing each others’ strengths and positive attributes, giving encouragement and wondering how our kids have any chance of leading normal lives with us as their fathers.  That’s the stuff Man Voyage is made of.

Beer and food too…because who wants to think about all of that on an empty stomach?

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