A trip across the country, chasing America’s best beer (and Carson Wentz)
By Mike Greger
Growing up in Philadelphia, you learn at an early age to curb expectations. Think about it. We idolize a fictional boxer who lost his first championship bout. We list a broken bell as one of our most historical landmarks. Heck, we scared the Fresh Prince’s mom so bad that she moved her son across the country.
For years, Philly natives have been made to believe that they are America’s bastard children, like Alexander Hamilton without Broadway’s PR team. Well, maybe Philly needs a better PR firm.
We need to bring back that old-school Philly ‘Tude. Let’s tell Adrian that we can win. Let’s put the f--- back in World Champions. Let’s shout Fo’ Fo’ Fo’ from the top of City Hall. Let’s finally bring one home for Jerome.
Fired up—with a few too many Yards Brawlers in my system, on a random Tuesday in June—I call up my friend, Rob, and propose a 10-day stumble across America, starting in Philadelphia and ending in Denver for the Great American Beer Festival.
For nearly two weeks, we’ll be confined to a maroon Chevy Malibu, fueled by fantasy football, beer and a 10-pound sledgehammer known as the Hammer of Glory, or HOG (owned, and entrusted to me, by my employer).
Rob and I have one goal in mind: Let’s Make America Fun Again, and flex a little Philly ’Tude. I turn my Bel-Air Academy prep school blazer inside-out and we hit the road.
Day 1 – Wednesday, Sept. 28
One of my best friends, Andy, once frolicked in a Pittsburgh fountain wearing a Roy Halladay shirt to win a bet with a Pirates fan. If that’s not the epitome of Philly ‘Tude, then I don’t know what is. Five years later, we’re on our way to Draai Laag, an old-world brewery founded by Dennis R. Hock. After three tours of duty serving his country, Hock has found his true passion: brewing insanely funky beer using “critters.”
Hock has read about the famed HOG resting in our backseat, a beer-themed rip-off of Philly’s iconic LOVE Statue that gets paraded from bar-to-bar every June during Philly Beer Week, a 10-day festival in America’s Best Beer-Drinking City. He’s heard about how Wu-Tang Clan’s Inspectah Deck held the HOG and how Dogfish Head’s Sam Calagione licked the HOG; and Hock, an expert in spontaneous fermentation, wants to add his name to that great cavalcade of pseudo-celebrities.
To prove his worthiness, Hock leads us to The Relic, a French monastic cabinet from the 17th century. He has figured out a way to make beer with this cabinet by extracting a yeast strain from the layers of wax used to preserve it. “There are critters in there,” he says. That’s a good thing, in case you didn’t know.
Munching on Primanti Bros. sandwiches, on a highway connecting Pennsylvania and Ohio, we notice a sign for Canton, aka The Cradle of Professional Football. I think about throwing on my Cris Carter Ohio State jersey. Carter was an Eagle for three seasons before being cut for catching “too many touchdowns.” We all know the story, about Buddy Ryan saving Carter from his cocaine addiction. Carter told it during his Hall of Fame speech, while Eagles fans cried over what could have been.
Inside the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there is the framed charter, dated Aug. 1, 1933, for the franchise predating the Eagles: Philadelphia National League Football Club. I pause and take a knee in front of a display case honoring Reggie White, while Rob points to a sign for Legacy Hall. To the right, I identify a familiar face. It’s Carter and he’s wearing his gold jacket. I don’t say anything. I’m feeling guilty for leaving my jersey in the car.
I peruse all the Eagles greats enshrined with bronze busts. Names like Bednarik, Van Brocklin, Van Buren, Bell, McDonald. I text my fraternity brother, Bill, in Grand Rapids and he replies, “Save a spot for Carson Wentz.” On the way out, we notice the NFL draft card that sent us the No. 2 overall pick, from Cleveland with Brotherly Love.
Cleveland is our next stop and I strike up a conversation with a trucker named Tim at Fat Head’s Brewery in Middlebury Heights. Tim stops in at Fat Head’s often to break up his rides up from Asheville, NC. Tim’s friend, Mike, is a huge Browns fan and laughs when I bring up Carson Wentz, saying: “Cody Kessler is a good quarterback. Wentz isn’t Joe Montana.” Well, not yet. I guess we can agree to disagree.
The brewpub at Great Lakes Brewing in Cleveland is hunkered in a historic building, a place Eliot Ness used to frequent in the 1870s. Their bar manager Bob shows us a bullet lodged into a wall that was meant to strike Ness in the head. It didn’t. The Leader of The Untouchables survived that attack, but later died from alcoholism.
A server asks to pose with the HOG and asks the question every Philadelphian loathes: “Pat’s or Geno’s?” There is only one answer: “Neither. Try Jim’s on South Street or Dalessandro’s in Roxborough.” If we’re going to be known for booing Santa Claus, then we certainly aren’t going to be known for eating bad cheesesteaks.
Day 2 – Thursday, Sept. 29
I wake up remembering something my girlfriend Kristin told me before I left, “Babe, the house where they filmed A Christmas Story is in Cleveland.” I want to put on the pink bunny suit and yell “you’ll shoot your eye out,” but we have a baseball game to catch in Detroit. We do catch a glimpse of the Old Man’s “major award.”
It is pouring rain, not even an ark-wielding Alan Trammell could save the Tigers. We follow signs for the Henry Ford, a love note to American history in Dearborn, Michigan. Inside, there is a life-changing exhibit “With Liberty & Justice for All” that serves as a living, breathing blueprint for how America became great. I’m in awe staring at the cot George Washington slept in at Valley Forge and studying the bus seat Rosa Parks refused to surrender. My eyes well up when I see the walnut rocking chair Abraham Lincoln was sitting in at Ford’s Theatre, forever stained with the crimson blood of a dying president.
We notice a friendly spire as we wrap around the exit: Henry Ford was obsessed with Independence Hall and sent architects to build an exact replica, right down to a crooked window. I pay homage by posing with a beer from Saint Benjamin Brewing. For the record, Benjamin Franklin never said: “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Bummer, that’s serious Philly ‘Tude.
The Tigers are hosting the Indians, so I throw on the Cleveland hat that Kristin let me borrow. A woman named Nicole notices my Indians hat and guesses I’m going to the game. She and her husband, Scott, tell me they have seats eight rows up from home plate. Just then, Tigers reliever Alex Wilson tweets a photo of a flooded hallway, writing: Anyone have a snorkel and flippers?? #WhereIsOurDugout
We head for old Tigers Stadium, at the corner of Trumbull and Michigan avenues, and pound on the wrought-iron gates. Standing in the middle of an abandoned field – and rising 125 feet in the air, like a Phoenix from the old ballpark’s ashes -- is the stadium’s original flagpole. Tigers owner Mike Ilitch had requested it be moved to Comerica Park, but the city of Detroit refused. In 2017, it will stand watch over a $15.5 million athletic complex for the Detroit Police Athletic League.
We drive to Comerica Park, despite missing first pitch by two hours, and ask security to let us in. Nope, need a ticket. We walk around to the team store to buy a souvenir. Nope, need a ticket to get in there. Well, Forbes did have them ranked No. 14 on their list of most valuable teams. We use that money to buy hot dogs from American Coney and Lafayette Coney—and a wash them down with a Java Porter from Atwater Brewing.
My college buddy Bill has barbecued up a carnivore’s dream for us on his brand new grill. Bill resides in East Grand Rapids, a sleepy town serving as a great cross-section of America, a heated battleground state where Trump banners top carports and Hillary stickers cling to rusted stop signs. Bill, a longtime Republican, is voting for Hillary and encourages us to do the same over several hard ciders.
We watch a replay of the Eagles’ game – a 34-3 stomping of the Steelers – and debate fantasy football. Should Bill trade Julio Jones for Lamar Miller? No. Inevitably, the topic turns back to the Birds and whether they are good enough to win that elusive Super Bowl. The consensus is no. Eternal masochists, we flaunt our Eagles gear and sing the fight song together before calling it a night. Bill busts out his No. 12 Randall Cunningham jersey, complete with the Jerome Brown tribute patch.
Fly, Eagles, fly!
On the road to victory!
Fly, Eagles, fly!
Score a touchdown 1, 2, 3!
Hit ‘em low,
Hit ‘em high,
And watch our Eagles fly!
Fly, Eagles, fly!
On the road to victory!
Day 3 – Friday, Sept. 30
Tell any beer nerd you are heading up to Founders Brewing, and they’ll uncontrollably start drooling and muttering: KBS. It stands for Kentucky Breakfast Stout, a stout aged in bourbon barrels for 12 months. As we prepare to bust down the brewery doors, we see a woman wearing a Phillies sweatshirt. Her name is Tara and she explains that kegs of KBS kick within 24 hours and they tapped one yesterday. We might be out of luck. “Hold on. I know the brewer,” she says.
Tara’s partner, Laura, is a brewer at Founders and finagles us two jet black goblets of KBS. Laura and Tara are familiar with Philly Beer Week and we swap stories. Laura shows us a piece of paper she scooped off the ground at the festival’s marquee event, Opening Tap—and there’s a toast to the HOG scribbled on it. Tara sips from her custom-designed Phillie Phanatic mug—only 1,000 patrons get the privilege of joining the Founders Mug Club every year. Tara is No. 749.
We plow ahead to Bell’s Brewing, in Kalamazoo, a 45-minute ride to their Eccentric Café. There, we sip Two Hearted Ale and their bar manager Andrew shows us the famed wall of Michigan license plates. Owner Larry Bell rotates six company-issued cars and once the vanity plates expire, they get thrown up like war pelts. There are 186 – six company cars per year multiplied by Bell’s 31 years in business.
Welcome to South Bend. Growing up in Pennsylvania, we preferred Penn State over Notre Dame. Rudy was OK, but we had Rocky. Dazed by the sheen of the Golden Dome, I find myself compelled to gaze upon Touchdown Jesus. For a split second, I think I see Joe Montana’s face in the mural. Nope. My mind was playing tricks on me after seeing his Super Bowl XIXI jersey in Canton.
We walk over to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart and I notice an ornate crypt housing the remains of Cardinal O’Hara. Wait, what? John O’Hara served the Archdiocese of Philadelphia from 1951-1960, and there is a high school named for him in Springfield, PA. In 2004, I was recapping high school football games and calling coaches for quotes in my first foray into sports journalism. One of those coaches was Danny Algeo, who sadly passed away in 2014 at the age of 49 after suffering a heart attack.
My ears dart back to the wedding ceremony: “Brendan, do you take Kaleen to be your wedded wife, to live together in marriage?” Before I hear Kaleen’s response, I dunk my brand new Notre Dame hat into the nickel-plated vat of holy water, praying for a dose of good luck. Moments later, a sports alert vibrates my phone: Ben Simmons has broken a bone in his foot. I guess not even God can save the Sixers.
I’m fumbling with the radio as we enter Gary, Indiana. Unbelievably, I land on Chicago’s 106.3 FM and hear I want to love you, P-Y-T—the song blares over the speakers as we make a left turn onto 24th Avenue, at Michael Jackson’s childhood home. I pause to remember the King of Pop’s genius, then slap a Weyerbacher sticker on a dry erase board meant for people to pay their respects. Hit the lovin’ spot.
We stroll through the faceless backwoods of Indiana, on our way to 3 Floyds Brewing in Munster. 3 Floyds is the Lambeau Field for beer snobs and hopheads. Our friends at Founders have warned us that the lines are long, and maybe we shouldn’t barge in carrying a 10-pound sledgehammer. Screw it, let’s show that Philly ‘Tude again.
Fifteen minutes go by. Twenty. Thirty. A host whisks us through a private entrance, much like the Copacabana scene in Goodfellas. Brewer Ashley invites us onto the brew deck and lets us rest the HOG on top of their fermenting tanks, as steam rises to make the word BEER illegible. Their tanks are named after wrestlers—Jake the Snake, Andre the Giant, Rowdy Roddy Piper—and Ron Jeremy, his face transposed on a hedgehog.
Matt is the “lager-man” and he explains how the brewery plans to quadruple their production over the next two years, upping their output to 400 barrels per day. After a guided tour, Matt grabs two cases of “overfills” and walks it out to our car. Everything we sample at 3 Floyds is juicy and flavorful – try the Gumballhead. In the parking lot, we chat with two bros from Wisconsin: “New Glarus Brewing is very good, but they aren’t 3 Floyds. We drive here every weekend. It’s a neighborhood bar for us.”
Day 4 – Saturday, Oct. 1
Did you know David Eckstein was the 2006 World Series MVP? Usually a sports encyclopedia, I forget this random factoid. We have tickets to the Cardinals-Pirates game and the first 30,000 fans will get an Eckstein bobblehead. Rob desperately wants one, and we make our way to St. Louis. Trekking through Illinois—the land of Lincoln, and sorghum and oats—a Trump for President sign screams at me from atop a barn.
The Cards are trailing in the sixth inning when we plop down in our seats just as Matt Holliday is announced as a pinch-hitter. In Holliday’s final at-bat at Busch Stadium, he smokes a 2-1 curveball to right field to make it 3–2. A few pitches later, the game is tied at 3-3. In between innings, Rob negotiates a free Eckstein bobblehead from a longtime St. Louis fan. Maybe Joe Buck was right, that Cardinals fans are the best in baseball.
There is no denying the persuasive powers of the Clydesdales. Their hoof-prints stretch wider than Ozzie Smith’s glove. Our guide on the Anheuser-Busch tour tells us that one Budweiser lager tank holds 7,200 kegs—you would have to drink a 24-pack a day for 137 years to empty it. I think to myself: Who would want to drink that much Bud? In 2011, Anheuser-Busch started gobbling up independent breweries, one IPA at a time. They fail to mention that on the tour—and the closest thing to craft beer is a Michelob AmberBock.
Budweiser aside—for the record, the tour is excellent and I highly recommend it—the beer scene in St. Louis is exploding, thanks to progressive breweries like 4 Hands and Perennial Artisan Ales. Ted from 4 Hands unleashes their spiked War Hammer on us, a throwback to medieval times, or something that The Walking Dead’s Neegan would appreciate. This spiked hammer gets paraded around during 4 Hands’ annual Lupulin Carnival, a springtime festival celebrating their War Hammer Imperial IPA.
At Perennial, Eric Hildebrandt, an ambassador for St. Louis Craft Beer Week, leads us in a toast and demands we chug a chalice of their session IPA, Ollie Ollie Oxen Free. I dribble the last sip on my Bell’s hoodie, then distract everyone with an obscure Fresh Prince of Bel-Air reference. We leave them with a 4-pack of Troegenator, a boozy bock from Troegs Brewing in Hershey, PA. If we’ve learned anything on this trip, there should always be a beer waiting at your next destination.
Day 5 – Saturday, Oct. 2
Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt. This is one of my favorite Abraham Lincoln quotes, and a nicer way of saying, “think before you speak” (if only Terrell Owens had studied Lincoln). We find an Irish pub called D’Arcy’s Pint in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield. They are serving open-faced sandwiches called Horseshoes, a juicy conglomeration of sliced meat and crinkle-cut fries smothered in gooey cheese. I order the French Dip and pray I don’t go into cardiac arrest.
Some people may forget that Lincoln never sought out the presidency. The country was at a cross-roads and he felt it was his civic duty to save it. He wasn’t fueled by ego or ambition. Lincoln’s story is a refreshing one amidst the backdrop of today’s political climate, and an ironic one considering Lincoln’s superhero status here. His face is plastered on license plates and playing cards.
My favorite is a shirt showing The Great Emancipator wearing a No. 23 Bulls jersey. Which begs the question: Who would win a game of 1-on-1? Lincoln measured 6-foot-4 and had decent upper body strength from his time spent chopping wood. Jordan had him by two inches, plus one of the NBA’s sweetest jump shots. I can’t bet against Jordan. Even if Lincoln hacked him in the lane, Jordan is knocking those free throws down.
We take a self-guided tour of Lincoln’s Presidential Library, and crowd around a replica of the Kentucky log cabin he called home in his formative years. We see a rare autographed manuscript of the Emancipation Proclamation, accompanied by glaring editorial cartoons. Not surprisingly, Lincoln was the most polarizing president in history.
Lincoln’s famed stovepipe hat sits in a glass case and a security guard yells at me for snapping a pic. Maybe I should have turned the flash off, like I did when I snuck a photo of the 13th Amendment. Over at Lincoln’s home, where he and Mary Todd lived prior to moving to the White House, there is the chair Abe was sitting in when he informed his closest friends that he would be running for President. Eerie, since back in Dearborn, we had seen the last chair Lincoln ever sat in while holding that exalted office.
We race over to Oak Ridge Cemetery to visit Lincoln’s tomb before they shutter the gates. Fingers crossed, we get there eight minutes before closing. We learn about the botched heist to steal Lincoln’s body in 1876, after grave robbers had pulled the corpse partially out of the sarcophagus. The plot was foiled and Lincoln’s body was plunged 10-feet below the ground in a steel cage, safe for eternity. Absorbing Lincoln’s aura, I have a change of heart: I’m taking Lincoln over Jordan.
Day 6 – Sunday, Oct. 3
In the movie, it goes like this: They'll come to Iowa for reasons they can't even fathom. They'll turn up your driveway not knowing for sure why they're doing it.
We’re in Dyersville, Iowa, turning up the same driveway that Kevin Costner did during the summer of 1988 to film Field of Dreams. Looking out at that magical cornfield, with only blue skies above, I imagine having a catch with Chase Utley, the OG of Philly ‘Tude, who once decreed the 2008 Phillies “World F---ing Champions.”
A lady named Cindy slides us two gloves and a bat, and Rob and I join another group of grown men having a catch. I think about my dad who passed away from cancer in 2003, as we wander into the corn stalks and disappear among the living ghosts. I grab an ear of corn and promise to lay at my dad’s grave when I get home, recalling another movie quote: They'll arrive at your door as innocent as children, longing for the past.
Cindy gives us a crash course on the 193-acre farm, telling us about the Lansing family and how they have to pay royalties to Universal Studios. Wade Boggs bought a stake in the Field of Dreams and he plans to transform the site into a 24-field complex. The irony is not lost on me. Boggs is rumored to have downed 107 beers during a single road trip—and his legendary stamina is the focus of an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
Michael Saboe is the head brewer at Toppling Goliath in Decorah, Iowa. He won’t be participating in the Great American Beer Festival, preferring to schedule his biggest beer release of the year on the same day. Toppling Goliath is like the Spurs of craft-beer, and Saboe is its Gregg Popovich. I could see Popovich scheduling practice on the same date San Antonio chose for a championship parade.
At Toppling Goliath, fly swatters serve as bar ornaments and help to combat the army of bees buzzing around. Dressed in a Navy blue Hawkeyes sweatshirt, Saboe sips a beer and invites me to sit down on the patio. He started brewing because there simply wasn’t good beer in Iowa, and he was sick of waiting for his friends to ship him beer from California.
Much like 3 Floyds, Toppling Goliath is about to explode, from a 30-barrel brewhouse to a 100 barrel. The first step toward expansion is acquiring a KRONES filling machine, something our friend Brian O’Reilly is credited for popularizing at Sly Fox Brewing in Phoenixville, PA. I send an email introducing these two amazing brewers, hoping they can connect and collaborate -- and maybe bring a little Philly ’Tude to Iowa.
The Vikings are hosting the Giants and we’re heading to Minneapolis for Monday Night Football. On the way we stop at Surly Brewing and I sip Fiery Hell, a lager aged on red oak, spiced with dried Puya chilies. It tastes like a Charlie Daniels song.
When we reach US Bank Stadium, I throw on my Cris Carter jersey and a security guard shoves a plastic bin in my face, never asking to see my $100 ticket. By the time we find our seats, Sam Bradford, the disgruntled Eagles cast-off, has the Vikings on the Giants’ 34-yard line. Three plays later, Bradford hits Kyle Rudolph for a 7-yard TD and it’s 14-0. The crowd goes into a trance and they sing the Vikings fight song in unison. It reminds me of Lincoln Financial Field, swapping our beloved Eagles song for this catchy jingle.
Skol Vikings, let's win this game,
Skol Vikings, honor your name,
Go get that first down,
Then get a touchdown.
Rock 'em . . . Sock 'em
Fight! Fight! Fight! Fight!
Go Vikings, run up the score.
You'll hear us yell for more. . .
Skol Vikings, let's go!
I wave my purple rally towel and two guys working the concessions battle for my attention, begging me to buy beer from one of them. I pose for a selfie with Jimmy, the Vikings’ super pimp costumed in purple feathers. The Vikings will win this game, 24-10, and I laugh at the drunken Giants fans being escorted out for starting fights and yelling obscenities. Typical New Yorkers. (Sorry, that’s the Philly ’Tude talking.)
Day 7 – Tuesday, Oct. 4
Mickey’s Dining Car in St. Paul is a greasy spoon, best known for setting the scene in The Mighty Ducks where Charlie and Gordon have a heart-to-heart. I order the best Root Beer Float I’ve ever had, dripping with so much vanilla ice cream, I need a spoon. We get a kick out of Stacy and David, co-workers and friends for 17 years. Stacy is hung-over and David is playfully abusing her. “Stacy had a fight with Jose last night. Last name, Cuervo,” quips David.
No one in the diner is enthusiastic about the Vikings: Stadium is nice, team stinks … They aren’t that good, but [Coach Mike] Zimmer has them believing … Blair Walsh should be cut. He’s the worst kicker in the league … They probably won’t even make the playoffs.
When a self-admitted Packers fan openly mocks the Viking, Stacy looks him in the eye and shouts: Goddamn Packers, get outta here! It’s OK to make fun of your own team, but division rivals need to shut their mouths. I respect that. It’s the same way in Philly.
We have a four-hour trek ahead of us, to Fargo, North Dakota. I am working on a story for Comcast SportsNet about Carson Wentz returning to his alma mater for homecoming weekend. I casually introduce myself to a waitress polishing silverware at a local sports bar on campus called Herd & Horns, and she nervously directs me to one of the owners.
“I know Carson,” says co-owner Brent Tehven. “What you hear about him is true—first guy in, last guy out. It’s about the team, not about him.”
A man named John Wilson is itching to talk. Wentz rented a private room and partied with his friends until the wee hours. The group shot pool, threw darts and danced to “Cotton Eyed Joe.” Wentz picked up the $1,000 check and left behind a $500 tip. John says Wentz didn’t drive himself home. In fact, his cousin scooped the $26.6 million quarterback up in a dusty 1996 Chevy pick-up truck.
Tehven asks if we have any Yuengling in the car. We don’t. But I laugh and explain the dual-purpose of our trip, then hand him a six-pack from Cape May Brewing. He confirms that Wentz’s success has left many in North Dakota – traditionally Vikings country -- cheering for the Eagles.
We stroll into Fargo Brewing and teach everyone the Eagles’ fight song. Their marketing manager Amanda lets us shoot a parody video, where Rob dresses up like Wentz and parades the HOG around the brewery. Everyone laughs. We have traveled 2,000 miles to get back to where we started, resting comfortably in Eagles country.
Day 8 – Wednesday, Oct. 5
I track down an email address for Carson’s father, Doug, a mortgage specialist at BlackRidgeBANK. No response. I am able to secure an interview with Wentz’s high school coach, Ron Wingenbach. On the drive from Fargo to Bismarck, 220 miles down 1-94 West, I recall something Brent Tehven told me.
“I think as he finds his way, he’ll open up a little bit more. It’s not him being egotistical or anything like that. It’s just Carson being Carson.”
A few miles outside Bismarck, we hear Carson’s raspy voice pimping out his dad’s bank on 96.5 FM: if you close a mortgage by Dec. 31, you get an autographed Wentz jersey. Seconds later, on East Century Avenue, we see a billboard with Doug’s picture on it.
I could sit and watch football with Ron Wingenbach all day. He confirms all I’ve heard about Carson: tremendous leader, proud buck hunter, photographic mind, unmatched work ethic, off-the-chart intelligence—A+ student in the pre-calculus class Ron teaches at Century High. The coach doesn’t have any dirt on his prized pupil. He relents when I ask for an “aha moment”—one where he knew Wentz had a shot at stardom.
“We were playing Fargo South in the semifinals, during his senior year, and pass protection broke down,” says Wingenbach. “He just tucked the ball and ran, and got us the first down that we needed, 15-20 yard gain. I could give you others with his arm but at that point in time, we just needed a first down.”
Work done, we stop at Fireflour Pizzeria. The hipster vibe reminds me of something in South Philadelphia. I strike up a conversation with a Cowboys fan. Ben attends the same church as Wentz’s parents, Evangel Church on 14th Street. He’s sickened by the amount of Eagles fans sprouting up in Bismarck. I hold back a smirk, hiding my Philly ’Tude. This is one North Dakotan we won’t be converting. If you go, get The Spicy pie.
It’s getting incredibly hard to see the road and tiny hail pellets, mixed with freezing rain, start to hit the windshield. We’re cruising the treacherous terrain thousands of settlers did en route to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Prairie dogs pop their heads out of hive-like holes and their peculiar screeching drowns out Kendrick Lamar. Temperatures have dipped down into the 40s when we exit the car at Wind Cave Canyon Trail.
Sipping a Wood Chipper IPA from Fargo Brewing, we walk over to Maltese Cross Cabin, where Teddy Roosevelt built his legacy as the Great Conservationist and said: “I would not have been President had it not been for my experience in North Dakota.”
We spot a field of bison grazing and watch a white mustang streak across the Great Plains. I feel a pang in my liver as we exit the park. There is a non-descript sign declaring that Budweiser is an official sponsor for America’s National Park Service. I take one more swig of my Wood Chipper IPA, admiring the view of The Badlands crashing into the Great Plains. I feel pretty strongly that Teddy Roosevelt would have preferred a hop-forward craft beer over a mass-produced Budweiser.
The Knuckle Saloon is a leather-clad biker bar, with a makeshift brewery attached. A hand-painted post outside reminds us how many miles we’ve traveled: Philadelphia, 1714 mi.; and how many more we have to go: Denver, 395 mi. The bartender suggests we head into Deadwood, a historic town that relies on tourism money. I try a Knucklehead Red, an American Red Ale, and pose the HOG on a Harley.
Gina, an actress who plays Calamity Jane, checks us in to the Gold Dust Hotel. Overworked and underpaid, she is the frustrated portrait of America shaping the 2016 presidential election. Gina wants to go home and “tie one on” so I hand her a bomber bottle from Free Will in Perkasie, PA. That’s how you spread Philly ‘Tude. Gina suggests we head to Saloon #10, the place where Wild Bill Hickok was killed in 1876.
Nearing the end, we order shots of their house bourbon – 90 proof and aged for seven years – and stomp our heels on the saw-dusted floors. Our bartender Charlie has lived in Deadwood her whole life and, if you close your eyes a smidge, you can picture her playing poker with Wild Bill. We order another round of what Charlie calls “shift juice.”
Day 9 – Thursday, Oct. 6
Still in Deadwood, we randomly meet Calamity Jane’s boyfriend, Shawn Baxter, who plays the role of “Crooked Nose” Jack McCall. Rob has volunteered to participate in a re-enactment of Wild Bill’s death scene, and clutches his chest when McCall bursts in the door. Crooked Nose smiles, grabs the HOG and fires his pistol in the air, shouting: “Let’s get hammered!” The only thing left on the table is Wild Bill’s fabled Dead Man’s Hand—two black aces, two black eights and an unturned card.
Travis Pearson, the actor portraying Wild Bill, recommends an “authentic” cheesesteak shop called Philly Ted’s in Rapid City. Ted English is the namesake, a Philly native who moved to the Black Hills in 2000, and couldn’t live without his “Whiz Wit.” Before he sold the place a few years ago, Ted baked all the bread, seeking to emulate those hearth-baked Amoroso rolls that can make or break any contender for world’s best cheesesteak.
I fawn over the Eagles, Phillies, Sixers and Flyers tributes decorating the walls. Jeanette, a South Dakota lifer working the counter, credits a local artisan for carving a hand-painted “World Champs 2008” sign. It’s nearly eight years to the day that those Fightin’ Phillies won the World Series. Will we ever see another title in Philly? Maybe, if Carson Wentz is the real deal. I order a “Whiz Wit” and wash it down with a cold Budweiser.
We steer course for Scots Bluff National Monument, a 3,000-acre shrine to “manifest destiny” in the middle of Nebraska. Towering above the North Platte River, these massive rock formations served as a welcoming beacon for frontiersman looking for gold. It is pitch black out and the park is closed, looking rather ominous in the middle of the night, when we notice a sign marking the Oregon Trail. Rob comments that we might get dysentery. To which I reply, “I just hope we don’t have to ford a river.”
There are no rivers to navigate, but we find a neighborhood tavern called Union Bar in Gering. It’s the type of dive bar you might find in Northeast Philly, filled with dated neon beer signs and shoddy pool tables—and a strange man wearing a Dallas Cowboys hat. Off in the corner, not far from the “We Serve Vampires” poster, I overhear a girl talking about a recent trip to Omaha. She is describing her first time using the popular car-sharing service Uber. We’re 200 miles away from Denver.
Day 10 – Friday, Oct. 7
Before we get to the Colorado Convention Center, we have one more notch for the beer totem pole: Great Divide Brewing. This will be the final “toast” we record before parading the HOG around the festival, stopping at all the breweries that donated beer for our journey, and share with them how We Made America Fun Again!
At Great Divide, people are lining up for a taste of their Yeti Imperial Stout. We are ushered into the back where we meet Katie, Zach and Bryan. Katie moved to Denver from Ardmore, Pa., where she worked at Tired Hands, a tiny, quirky brewery specializing in hoppy ales.
We present Katie and Bryan with a treasure trove of goodies, including 16-oz cans from Conshohocken Brewing, a brewery co-owned by local sports talk host Glen Macnow, and a rare Mojito sour from Free Will. Bryan jokes that he might “misplace” the gifted beers.
We’re asking Bryan what the laws on scalping are in Denver—the Broncos are home against Atlanta in two days—when we hear a voice shouting at us from an adjacent brewery tour. The man is Joe Lulak, brewer at Ludlam Brewery in Sea Isle City, N.J., and he has been following our travels on social media. “I can’t believe I found the HOG,” he says. It’s a storybook ending, like a beer-stained version of Homer’s Odyssey.
Great American Beer Festival is the Super Bowl of beer, with 1,752 breweries competing for a wide range of medals. The booths are arranged geographically, so we attempt to track down everyone we’ve met over the past nine days. It’s like the trip never ended.
We see 4 Hands in the Midwest bracket and joke about the War Hammer. Over in the Northwest region, we spot Fargo Brewing. We had missed their brewer by a mere 30 seconds at the brewery, after he left early to catch a flight to Denver.
We see Chris Russo, owner of The Brew Kettle in Cleveland, in the Great Lakes area and show him a video we made with his brewers. Our friend Justin Knosp from Fat Head’s pours us a collaboration beer they did with a home-brew club.
Unfortunately, the lines for 3 Floyds and Founders are way too long, so we decide to mail them a postcard from Mount Rushmore, dipped in beer from Iowa’s Toppling Goliath.
Then, we focus on our home turf: the Mid-Atlantic. We take the HOG over to Victory, where owner Bill Covaleski pours me a fresh Sour Monkey; and we visit our friends from Yards, Conshohocken, Weyerbacher, Sly Fox and Troegs.
We get a fist-bump from Garrett Oliver, head brewer at Brooklyn Brewing; and tell the folks at Cape May how we left their beer at Carson Wentz’s favorite bar.
We stop at Iron Hill and their whole team—Warren, Jaret, Jordan, Andrew, Sophia—swarms us for photos. Iron Hill is looking to extend their GABF winning streak to 20 consecutive years, an unprecedented run that no other craft brewery has accomplished. (Spoiler: Iron Hill’s Bridge Street Bock earned a bronze to keep the streak alive).
I run into Brian O’Reilly (Sly Fox), Sam Calagione (Dogfish Head) and Mark Edelson (Iron Hill), three icons whose faces would be chiseled on any Mid-Atlantic Beer Mount Rushmore. I hand Sam the HOG and the three improvise The Three Amigos on the fly. Around the corner, we see Carol Stoudt, aka The Queen of Hops.
There are a few breweries emptying their coffers after last call. Guy McCarty from Rusty Rail in Mifflinburg, PA hands me his Anniversary Brown Ale, spiked with the subtle sweetness of honey. We stop at Neshaminy Creek, Sterling Pig, Flying Fish, Ship Bottom and 2SP. My last sip is the rarest of rare beers: Samuel Adams’ Utopias.
There is no more beer, only pretzel necklaces. I look for a taxi to take us back to the hotel, when I stumble into a guy dressed in a bright yellow basketball jersey. The words Bel-Air Academy are scrawled across his chest, with No. 14 neatly sewn on.
He grabs the 10-pound sledgehammer and spits a few bars about West Philadelphia. Am I drunk? I yell over to Rob to make sure I’m not dreaming. Too late. He has whistled for a cab. And when it came near, the license plate said “fresh” and it had dice in the mirror.