Category Archives: Travels

Exploring the Midwest for the great beers has become a great way to kill a day or two.

Cedar Rapids is All Right By Me!

In the past few years, I’ve discovered that there are a lot of Cedar Rapids haters out there. People think there’s nothing cool to do there or that is smells funny. Recently I spent a few days there, to check out some things I’ve heard about, and I found it to be a fantastically awesome area. So, I’m here to prove the haters wrong and encourage us Midwesterners to take some time to enjoy this city.

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IMG_3021 The first place I visited with the NewBo City Market. This area was ravaged by the 2008 flood, Cedar Rapids as a whole was greatly impacted by the disaster. But the NewBo neighborhood has joined together to evolve into a really special place.

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The NewBo City Market is open Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays only, and is filled with interesting food vendors of all different  ethnicities and nationalities.  They have other locally craft goods for sale as well as a great Visitor’s Center, where I got most of my ideas from. Outside the market they grow their own herbs and have a lovely place to eat your treats.

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While talking to the very nice lady at the Visitor’s Center, I learned all about the statue parade, “Overalls All Over”. In celebration of (what would be) Grant Wood’s 125th birthday, 25 statues were created of the father and daughter from the painting, “American Gothic”. Each were then sponsored by a business and painted by a local artist. 
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I had spent the first couple of hours of the day enjoying the market until my partner in crime showed up for lunch. I wanted to go to a new place, so we picked the NewBo Alehouse, which was just across the intersection from the market. Originally I thought we’d go to Parlor City, a great restaurant with a fantastic draft list, but the alehouse caught my eye because I could tell from the architecture that it obviously used to be a bank. 
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The place was cool, but that’s all I’ve giving it. The service was terrible, it was dead inside and we couldn’t tell who was our actual bartender, because at least 4 people took care of us. The food was not good, the bacon we were served was obviously rancid (and when we sent it back, the “chef” claimed disbelief), and the can of beer you see below was $7. What the hell?

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After our lame lunch, we had an hour to kill before hotel check-in time, so I dragged my partner on to the Brucemore tour. Brucemore is a mansion that was built in 1884 and then was occupied by 3 different families over the years.

IMG_3041The grounds now sprawl out over 26 acres. 
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The garden was beautiful. The whole place was quite lovely and the tour was fun, though they didn’t allow any photography inside.

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After our tour we checked into the Hilton. I always pay a little extra to stay here because its in the heart of downtown Cedar Rapids, so you can walk to a lot of different places. They do have a pool, but no hot tub.

The afternoon was reserved strictly for breweries. Duh. The first one we visited was Lion Bridge Brewing Company. We got great service, really good beer, and the place had a cool atmosphere.

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IMG_3062It was right along a river walk, so we took a little jaunt across the bridge to appreciate the beautiful Iowa River. I love a good river town. 
IMG_3064 IMG_3065While on the river, we found another statue. This one was inspired by Andy Warhol, the museum behind it was featuring a Warhol exhibit but my partner in crime thinks he’s a crock, so we skipped it. 🙂 Still love that statue though. 
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Our second of three brewery visits was to Turner Alley Brewing Co. A massive facility. We got to meet owner and head brewer, Bill Patterson, who was an incredibly kind and gracious host.

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Our third and final brewery stop of the day was at the newly opened Iowa Brewing Co. 3 for 3 on great beer in the city, 3 for 3 on great service at the breweries, and 3 for 3 on cool places to hang out.

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Iowa Brewing Co. is one of the first I’ve visited that has vessels laid on their sides specifically for lagering beer. I was impressed and excited all at once.

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IMG_3089At the visitor’s bureau I got a map that had all the statues listed on it, so there were a couple of times where I said, “Oh! We’re just a few blocks away, can we….?” 
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One of the things I often do on my journeys is to hit up the local farm-to-table restaurant. Once again, from a tip from the visitor’s center, we had lunch at Sauce Bar & Bistro. Holy cow. I highly recommend this place, one of the best meals I’ve had all year.

I had the Masa Polenta Sopes – 2 tamale cakes with chicken and homemade salsa, black beans, and Jack cheese. The greens were tossed in a green chili and ranchero sauce, which I enjoyed but all of my attention was on the polenta. It was the most perfect texture and the right amount of cheesiness. Yes.

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IMG_3098That was all done in the 24 hour period. Fun.

The next day I spent in Cedar Rapids, I visited two other breweries I hadn’t visited yet. Our first time was Quarter Barrel, a brewery and arcade bar that also serves food. We didn’t eat there, but their beer was pretty good.

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Then we stopped over at Third Base Brewing. Garbage. The beer was horrible and the atmosphere was suffocatingly tame.

As we drove to Third Base, we passed by a place called Rocktop that had a kick-ass looking rooftop patio (a slight obsession of mine). So after our tasteless experience at the previously visited establishment, we made an unplanned pitstop and refreshed our pallets with a Moscow Mule, one of the best patio drinks.

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Afterwards we headed towards our destination for the day, downtown to the Paramount Theater to see a show, a very cool venue I must say.

So to all the CR skeptics out there, open your mind. The area has a lot of fun, cool, locally crafted things to enjoy, give it a chance.

Big Grove Brewery Visit

IMG_2764IMG_2766  Just 59.7 miles Northeast of our Quad Cities is Solon, Iowa, and just down Solon’s Main Street is Big Grove Brewery, a cool little place to have a few beers and get something to eat. Opened in August of 2013, it’s a fairly new place though the third venture of the same owners of Brickstone Fine Dining, located in Iowa City, and Red’s Alehouse, in North Liberty (also both great places to visit, eat, and drink). The Executive Chef and Head Brewer also have some impressive credentials and are both Iowans returning back to their homeland. Both gentlemen use locally grown ingredients as often as possible – including hops purchased from a hop farm just down the street.

IMG_2776My partner in crime and I arrived there on a Saturday afternoon at the end of the Hawkeye basketball game – they were on their way to victory over Ohio State. The energy of Iowa City on a game day – especially when they’re doing well – has always touched me. I’m not too much of a sports fanatic but I am a Hawkeye and when you’re in town and everyone’s wearing black and gold, there’s a great sense of camaraderie there.

From the outside, the building doesn’t appear to be anything too special, but it is gorgeous inside. They label it “Barn Contemporary” and that’s an accurate description – high wooden ceilings with dark metal beams and wooden tables and art work all throughout. IMG_2773We sat at the bar and at first decided what to drink. I tried a sample of Big Grove’s IPA and their all Citra hopped Pale Ale. I preferred and ordered the IPA, the Pale Ale was a bit to prickly at the end for me. My travel companion ordered Lion Bridge’s Coffee Compensation – one word. Delicious. This would be the third beer by Lion Bridge I’ve had and I’ve really enjoyed all of it so far. They’re located in Cedar Rapids – a place a plan to visit soon.IMG_2767

Next we turned out attention to the menu – lots of good options, wood fired pizzas, sandwiches, and some interesting out-of-the-ordinary items. We ordered the mac n’cheese (hands down some of the best mac n’ cheese I’ve ever had), tater tot casserole (solid), and the pork shoulder (gross – served cold with a layer on fat on it you stirred into it, not what we expected).IMG_2778

While there we struck up a conversation and shared a piece of pizza with an older couple sitting next to us whose son worked behind the bar and was beginning to brew beer there as well. We tasted his Rabbit Rye, the very first beer he brewed. We also tried both of their stouts and the goza, the latter I preferred. In addition to the Lion Bridge beer on tap, they had other guest drafts and a fairly decent selection of bottles and bombers – they still were touting bottles of Deschute’s Abyss.

We learned during our visit that Big Grove currently brews with a 3 1/2 barrel system with 3 fermenters now and 3 on the way. The gentlemen who told me this was a little hesitant – wasn’t confident but their brew house is fairly small.

IMG_2770On Big Grove’s website, they mention having a lot of support from the community within Solon and the greater Iowa City area. It was evident during our visit – though people came and went the bar and the restaurant both were always bustling with patrons. I know I thoroughly enjoyed myself – the food, beers, and company were all outstanding. Go check it out sometime when you have a free afternoon.

Wisconsin Trip March 2013

I am very lucky girl, for a variety of reasons really, but one of the main ones is my friends. I have a great crew and one of my favorites is located in Madison, Wisconsin. She graciously opens up her home (and her schedule) for visits often. We took at long weekend in early March and I decided to take full advantage of the fantastic beer they have available up there. If you’re ever needing an easy weekend get-a-way destination, our neighbors to the North have a lot to offer us beer fans.

DAY ONE – MILWAUKEE

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has always had a rich brewing tradition ever since thousands of Germans immigrated to the area in the latter half of the 1800’s. The first beer brewed for public consumption in Wisconsin was in 1840 and by 1900 34% of Wisconsin’s population was of German background, so you can guess who was doing the brewing and the styles of beers they were drinking, rich brown Munich lagers and crisp, pale Pilsners.

You can feel this sort of history and tradition when you’re in particular spots in Milwaukee. I could taste the influence in the brews available at Water Street Brewery. I went to the downtown location on the corner of Water Street and Highland, the self-appointed “first brew pub” of Milwaukee open since 1987. (Obviously we already know that this isn’t accurate. By 1843 there were 138 taverns in Milwaukee and by 1856 2-dozen breweries, I’m certain at least one of them served food. But I digress.)

Their house beers are a Honey lager Light, Munich Lager, Bavarian Weiss, Raspberry Weiss (which seems to be the peoples’ choice, always a good sign when the public prefers your fruity wheat beer), Pale Ale, Amber, and Oktoberfest. The seasonal they had on at the time was their Porter. As I mentioned above, you can see what Water Street is trying to do, tying in the history of the city with its styles and their use of German and English ingredients in their brews. But they aren’t flavorful.

I ordered a Pale Ale – my litmus test style for breweries – and it came to me in a 24-ounce handled glass stein instead of a nonick pint glass, which I did not like. Not only is the glassware not true to the style, that’s a large amount of beer to serve to someone without him or her knowing it. If I would have had a choice, I would not have ordered a mug.

The beer was definitely fizzy, it was carbonated beverage but that was about it. It was boring. I do not know the stats of the beer because they weren’t posted anywhere – another bad move on their part. A brewery serving huge portions without customers knowing what they’re consuming, not smart.

My traveling companions both ordered the Raspberry Weiss and it was a nice little treat of a beer. These were served in the proper Weissbier vases, a gorgeous raspberry red color with a thick, nicely poured head. It was clear to me why this is what everyone prefers. Aside from being uniformed about the beer, our server was great, the food was great, and the ambiance of the place is cool. It’s filled with beer memorabilia…there’s an entire wall made up of old beer cans, there’s a neat church key display, and tons of old tap handle heads. The brewing coppers are right inside the front door and you can watch the brewers work.

After leaving Water Street Brewery, walking down Water Street, we came along a place called the Rumpus Room and decided to pop in. A beautiful gastropub. If I lived in Milwaukee, this would be a haunt of mine for sure. A long bar, dark wood, low-lit, European-style with a tasteful slaughterhouse theme, if you can believe in such a thing. The two rows of tap handles were all old kitchen utensils, adding to the aesthetic of the place but beer fanatics won’t be able to tell what’s on tap without bellying up and getting a menu. Their offerings for beer were great though I recommend ordering by the bottle if you want a full pour that’s worth your money. While there I enjoyed two beers from Indiana: Three Floyd’s Alpha King Pale Ale and Upland Brewing Company’s Dragonfly IPA. I have never had the desire to visit Indiana before I started liking craft beer but I can see a weekend or two there in my future.

Just down the street from our last two visits is Pabst Theater, the reason that brought me to Milwaukee. The venue is a cool building and they served Lagunita’s IPA – amongst other things – always a nice rare treat when you can get good beer at a show. I saw Diana open up for Tegan and Sara – an excellent show.

On the way back to our hotel we passed by Rock Bottom Brewery and stopped in for one. Now, I understand that people have their opinions about “corporate” breweries – or whatever you want to call them. But I enjoyed a glass of their India Pale Ale, which was served in a nonick pint glass so I was happy about that. I’ve heard that each one is allowed a little bit of freedom as far as marketing and brewing their beer – which they do onsite – so the beer recipes vary from place to place, allowing opportunity for a little bit of style. The one in Milwaukee is really cool, right on the river – in the summertime eating lunch on their patio is the best. There can be good found at some places even if it isn’t exactly in line with what you think a brewery should be.

But corporate bastards being as such, they booted us out at midnight so we stumbled into Mo’s Irish Pub on the way back to our hotel. Taken care of by Sam, the most adorable bartender in Milwaukee, the bar had some good stuff on tap; I ordered a Snake Bite, AKA Black Velvet, a two pull of Guinness and Woodchuck. I just love those for some reason and this Irish Pub had Guinness glasses and at this particular time of the evening I was impressed by this. I also came away with a million pictures of this place, which were almost all blurry but they had a neat library nook as well as a dance floor….where else do you get that?

After realizing that no matter who much I heckled the DJ he would not play any gangster rap, we decided it was time to stop drinking. We found out from Sam where to go to get good late-night diner food and he suggested George Webb’s. Pretty sure this is why I’m still alive today. Highly recommend.

After eating we collapsed into bed, thankful to have made it.

DAY TWO – MILWAUKEE (again)

Waking up to an incredibly late start as Milwaukee and all her glory kept us up laaaaaaaatttteeeee.

Our hotel took care of us for coffee and breakfast and we slowly prepared ourselves for day two. Before leaving the QCA I had signed us up online for the LakeFront Brewery Tour. I scheduled us on the 2pm tour so that we’d have enough time to recover from the evening before, get some lunch in us, and find our way there.

We had a bit of time to kill so I insisted we in stop in at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. Though it was cold outside and the building almost collapsed beneath us, the view is breathtaking. If you ever plan a trip up there, go when it’s warm out and plan to spend at least half a day just walking along the lake.

Afterwards we stopped in at Fajitas Grill located at 530 E. Madison Street for lunch. The food was good but a bit overpriced.

At 1:30 we headed on over to LakeFront Brewery, located at 1872 N. Commerce Street. As we see the brewery and walk up to it, I get psyched. I cannot explain to you just how cool this place is, but I’m going to try. Up and to the left is this huge old bridge just all looming and industrial. And the brewery itself is this massive brick building – serious business. On this day, out front there’s three spent grain trailers, work trucks every where, clanking noises coming from an open garage door sitting at the foot of their steeped driveway. Again, psyched. Beer is being brewed!

As we walked inside, we made our way up an incline and got checked. We showed our tickets, and received a 6 oz. plastic cup (redeemable for free logo pint glass at the end of our visit) and four wooden nickels (each good for a 6 oz. pour). Then you head into their big massive hall, flanked to the right by their bar that has draft beer as well as six-packs of their bottles. I begin with their lightest available, the Klisch Pilsner, a nice, crisp, clean golden Czech-Pilsner at 5.6%.

While waiting for the tour to begin, I struck up a conversation with Chris, one of the managers there about beer and coincidentally enough she had just been to Moline, Illinois the weekend prior and had visited Bent River Brewery while there. (I used this as an opportunity to ask her to show me their keg cooler and draft system!)

Before the tour began we got another beer pour and I chose their IPA, a nice robust orange with citrusy, floral hops, so it was delicious. We headed into the tour with Evan, a Brewery Dungeon Master (so says his business card), who ended up being one of the best parts of my vacation. He was knowledgeable, funny, a great public speaker; he made the tour. I don’t want to go into too great of detail on the tour for those of you who haven’t been, but its something that you as a beer fanatic should go experience. It’s informative, entertaining, AND educational in a really cool setting – a bargain at $7.

While on the tour my third pour was Luther, a Helles Rauchbier, part of their My Turn Series. A cool idea – they let their employees have a hand in the beer that’s brewed. This particular one is the creation of the head brewer, what he wanted to make when it was up to him. I typically don’t opt for smoked beers but I’m a sucker for a special series beer, especially when its sold so well. The end game is what made the beer more enjoyable than I expected, it didn’t linger or taste gritty or too earthy like some smoked beers can.

My one and only complaint about the tour is that I didn’t get to see inside their keg or bottle cooler. When I give tours, this is my favorite part – opening up the big door and having everyone see all the kegs, and they always “ooooh” and “ahhh”. I wanted to see how a place that produces 34,000 barrels a year keeps their stock cold.

We finished up our time at LakeFront with a final beer. I had their Fuel Café organic coffee stout on nitrogen at 6.4%. Needless to say that it was yummy. Roasted coffee, rich creamy mouth feel, nothing bitter about it. As I enjoyed this, we checked out the merch, got our pint glass and headed on down the road.

After our time at the brewery, you know what we did? Took a nap. J

My vacation crew and I actually all voted together to take an easy night (given we had all of the fun last night) so we went and had one of the best Italian meals I’ve ever had in my life at Calderone Club. Opened in 1977 by an Italian immigrant, she’s still making the meatballs to this day, so that’s what I had and it was fantastic with red wine. Followed by cheesecake with berries on top I was spent.

DAY THREE – MADISON

 The drive between Milwaukee and Madison is an easy 90 minutes. The hard part was driving past Lake Mills, where Tyranena Brewing Company is located, I’d like to check them out sometime. I’ve heard, read, and tasted fantastic things from and about this brewery. I’m going to make it there one of these days, but they unfortunately weren’t open in the early morning hours when we were close by.

Madison has become one of my very favorite places to visit. Between the Capital, the University, the lake, (one of my best friends) and the beer, there’s always so much to do.

We headed to Ale Asylum located at 2002 Pankratz Street, which is nearby nothing really. But the new facility is gorgeous and you won’t find a bad brew there. They moved from their original location to the new place last year, expanded their brewing and bottling capabilities. Upping their barrels to 17,000 from 10, their brew house now is a 33-barrel system, up from 13. I couldn’t be more excited for them because what they produce is some of the best.

The food was also fantastic and our server was well-informed and helpful despite being in the weeds. He sold me on going down the half-pint road, since I couldn’t decide what to get. Between my friends and I we tried their Ballistic IPA (7.5%), Hopalicious American Pale Ale (5.8%), Ambergetton Amber Ale (6.8%), Contorter Porter (4.8%), and the Gold Digger Golden Ale (4.8%) and as I said, all of them were good. I brought home a growler of Ballistic IPA and the Gold Digger and brought a gal pal of mine home a 6-pack of the Hopalicious because she loves it so.

After Ale Asylum we went to a cool little coffee spot for some non-alcoholic beverages, I enjoyed some peach tea at the Steep n’ Brew. We hit the shoe store, the comic shop, and then I stopped in at Steve’s Wine Beer Spirits to fill my trunk with things I can’t get back in the Quad. I go to the one located at 6227 McKee Road, its one of three spots they have in Madison, this one is right by my friends home. The staff there is very knowledgeable and gives good recommendations; I go in there and ask for what’s new, rare, and/or hoppy.

Unfortunately all good things must come to an end. As we closed our final evening in Wisconsin, we decided to go out in style. We swung by a spot called Bluphies Restaurant & Vodkatorium located at 2701 Monroe Street. This place is a great one to stop in and eat at, but we just picked up a couple of their amazing desserts to go. We took our giant apple crisp and red velvet cake back to my friends place, paired in with some Uncommon Stout, and soaked in the revelry of what was a fantastic Wisconsin getaway.