Cheyenne arrived after about fourteen hours on the road. It was Saturday evening, but the streets were still and quiet for a state capital and county seat. We threaded our way into the center of town, stopping for the night at the Plains Hotel, a National Historic Landmark built in 1911 and redolent of more prosperous times.
In an earlier piece introducing this particular Tempest road trip from the southern center of the U.S. to the southwest of Canada, I posed a rhetorical question: What happens when you leave town on a long road trip without having done any research on the various brew scenes dotting your route? Cheyenne on this particular evening and Laramie on the following morning proved to be fitting, if contrasting, responses to this question.
The Plains Hotel is emblematic of a town trying to formulate a contemporary identity as many of its downtown architectural gems built around the turn of the twentieth century lie vacant. “Whether it’s high-energy rodeo or the culture of high tea! Cheyenne has it all. Enjoy great shopping or take in the flavor of the west with our Frontier Days.” So declares one of the city’s official websites. At any rate, the town’s visual iconography favours buckskin and horses over high tea, followed closely by the railway of a bygone era. To be sure, Cheyenne is still a busy railroad junction, but the city’s former train station and railway depot – now home to one of the few craft beer-serving taproom/brewpubs in town – is a symbolic center that gestures nostalgically to a prosperity and vitality that had long since boarded the train and headed west.
On this Friday evening in April, 2014, Cheyenne evinces a palpable grittiness I haven’t felt since I visited Edmonton’s storied Strathcona Hotel in the White Avenue section of town, or took in a live-music show at the Ivanhoe in Vancouver’s Main and Terminal area before it was swept up in the highrise and condo real-estate boom. Long-haired, pierced and tattooed twenty-somethings leaned against seemingly abandoned buildings, shrouded in smoke. Everywhere the strains of harder-edged music. The first stage of gentrification? Probably not. That role has accrued to brewpubs and taprooms, I note sardonically. But that’s another and much longer story of urban renewal and its controversies.
Tonight – for better or for worse, depending on whether you’re a critical urban geographer or an intrepid twenty-first-century beer writer in search of a drink – I’m in a city that hasn’t experienced much in the way of late twentieth-century or early twenty-first-century urban renewal. Which means that the brewpub and taproom scene is, well, virtually non-existent. Or maybe just inchoate. The Freedom’s Edge Brewing Company was in the process of moving when we were in town, and the Shadows Pub and Grill was, inexplicably, out of all but one of their house-brewed beers. The one they did have available – Big D’s Pale Ale – was pleasant if unassuming. Fortunately, though, the brewpub had outside offerings on tap, like Odell’s Cutthroat Porter, which went well with their hearty and reasonably-priced Bourbon Creek BBQ Burger. Indeed, burgers seem to be the brewpub’s strong suit, so if you wind up in Cheyenne in the mood for a burger and in need of something to wash it down, you could do worse, especially if you don’t mind a little NHL hockey on the screens dotting the bar.
Easter Sunday in Cheyenne translated into a dearth of caffeine options, so we saddled up and headed westward into the mountains in search of our A.M. java fix. The interstate swept ever higher into the Rockies, the ubiquitous and intricately-latticed snowdrift breaks along the road hinting that these regions see more than a casual dusting of winter snow. About an hour later we found ourselves in the midst of a crisp and milky-hued late morning in Laramie, a high mountain plains town nestled between the Laramie and Snowy Ranges. Laramie is notable for its path-breaking stance on equal rights for women – in 1870, a resident became the first woman to cast a legal vote in a United States general election. The city has also attracted an unwanted notoriety as the site of the 1998 torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming. That was several years ago now, but Laramie still conveys the impression of different demographics coexisting warily along parallel tracks.
Like the river and the county in Wyoming, Laramie takes its name from Jacques La Ramée (rendered alternately as La Remy), a French-Canadian fur trader who disappeared mysteriously in the woods round about 1820 or 1821 out on a trapping expedition. Until the completion of the first transcontinental railway in 1868, Laramie was a staging post along the Oregon Trail. It was, by some accounts, a rather unruly place. By 1880, Wyoming was a territory, but the town’s first mayor lasted a mere three weeks, declaring Laramie “ungovernable” before stepping down.
Today, Laramie’s Main Street area is adorned with brick facades fronting buildings from the area’s frontier hey-day, just like in Cheyenne. But unlike Cheyenne, Laramie’s small but vibrant downtown proved to be an ideal place for us to rustle up a decent cup of coffee on this fine Sunday. Just off the main drag cutting a north-south axis through the center of town and brushing up against the train tracks, we happened upon Coal Creek Coffee Company, a café that draws an eclectic mix of young couples out for a morning stroll and students who had colonized tables with their books, clearly intent on a long afternoon of study.
While paying for our coffees and pastries, I inquired about local brewpubs and breweries should I find myself in the area again. The server directed my attention to a door that someone had just opened onto an adjacent room. Welcome to Coal Creek TAP, a then-five-week-old nano-brewery attached to the coffee company, open for business from noon on Easter no less. A serendipitous find indeed. And, with its white-tiled bar area, textured ochre walls, and subdued natural light, a very comfortable place for an early afternoon refreshment. Colby, the assistant brewer, took us through their fine offerings, which included a well-rounded Belgian amber with fruity esters and a caramel-toast malt profile, a nutty and chocolaty brown ale with a hint of smokiness from the roasted malts, and a rich and flavourful double IPA featuring El Dorado and Simcoe hops.
Alas, we could linger in neither Laramie nor Wyoming, for we had arrangements to stay with a friend that evening in Logan, Utah. Had we have had more time, though, here’s a brief list of what Colby recommended: Altitude Chophouse and Brewery (also in Laramie), which took a gold medal at the 2014 World Beer Cup for their Altbier; Snake River Brewing in Jackson, WY, a two-time recipient of a GABF medal for Small Brewery of the Year and Wyoming’s oldest brewery; and Wind River Brewing Co. in Pinedale, WY, which also garnered a 2014 World Beer Cup medal for its porter.
So there you have it: if passing through Wyoming on the I-80 from east to west, stop in Cheyenne for a satisfying burger, but don’t expect a craft beer mecca. An hour further up the road and into the mountains is where the craft beer action begins. I’m already looking forward to our next road trip to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons.
Odds and Ends
If you visit Cheyenne, the Plains Hotel is a reasonably-priced accommodation option in spite of its opulent appearance – cheaper, in fact, than the anodyne chain motels that line the I-25 and the I-80 on the outskirts of town. A further word on that opulent appearance: the lobby has been carefully restored, but not the rooms. The trade-off for beds in the form of V-shaped valleys is a location about as central as one could ask for.
Historical information on Laramie: Albany County Visitors’ Guide, Albany County Tourism Board, 2013.
Plains Hotel Lobby: F.D. Hofer
Wrangler Hotel and former railway station: F.D. Hofer
Plaza in Cheyenne: F.D. Hofer
Shadows Pub and Grill: www.shadowspubandgrill.com
Cutthroat Porter: www.odellbrewing.com
I-80, Wyoming: F.D. Hofer
Jacques La Remy: www.geni.com
Coal Creek Coffee Company: www.coalcreekcoffee.com
Coal Creek TAP: F.D. Hofer
Grand Tetons: Courtesy of Jackie and Leon Lee