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Of Road Trips and Aleways: Impressions of Idaho and Montana between Wyoming and British Columbia

In my first 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 kinds of pleasant surprises, serendipitous finds, and outright disappointments await when you leave town on a long road trip having done minimal research on the various brew scenes dotting your route? Wyoming provided the backdrop for my subsequent piece, and the route from Wyoming to the mountains of southern British Columbia takes center stage here. The return trip from Vancouver will round out the series.

Caffeinated, satiated, and with growler filled, we set off from Coal Creek’s combined café and taproom in the direction of Logan, Utah. The road west of Laramie skirts the northern edge of Elk Mountain,IMG_0158 climbing ever higher toward the Great Divide as rugged mountains give way in dramatic fashion to a high desert landscape lit up at night by petroleum refineries and natural gas extraction operations.

Travelers along the I-80 can be forgiven for their initial confusion when they spot not one but two signs marking the Continental Divide, for the I-80 traverses one of a handful of endorheic basins in North America, the Great Divide Basin. Before the Union Pacific Railroad cut clear across the basin, travelers venturing west along the Oregon and California Trails had to tack hard to the north toward the Wind River mountain range, so forbidding was this barren highland desert punctuated by ravines and solitary shrubs. But the Red Desert afforded one of the lower passages across the Continental Divide, and less than half a century after the Union Pacific Railroad joined east and west coasts in 1869 came the storied Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental automobile route running from New York to San Francisco.IMG_1345 The Lincoln Highway Association’s Official Road Guide of 1916 admonished travelers to pack camping equipment west of Omaha in addition to shovels, axes, chains, jacks, tools, tire casings, and inner tubes. Firearms were not necessary, but nor were new shoes recommended.

Our route to Logan took us off the historic transcontinental highway at Granger, WY, but not before passing some of the largest trona mining operations in the world among the orange-hued buttes and mesas west of the divide. What is trona and why is it relevant, you ask? First, trona is the source of soda ash, a mixture of sodium carbonate, sodium bicarbonate, and water. Wyoming’s Green River Basin just so happens to contain one of the most accessible deposits of soda ash the world over. Beyond that, soda ash just so happens to have a significant connection with the brewing industry. In addition to uses in glass manufacture, fiberglass, electronics, and pharmaceuticals, it finds its way into a vast array of household goods such as tooth paste and hydrogen peroxide. Sodium carbonate is also a major component of Five Star Chemical and Supplies’ detergent used by many a professional brewer and homebrewer to clean mash tuns and brew kettles: PBW.

IMG_1387Back on the road, the spartan olive-green sagebrush scenery was slowly yielding to the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest near Bear Lake, and a series of hairpin corners and switchbacks quickly lifted us up into mountains where snow and icicles still clung to streams rushing along the side of the road. On the other side of the Bear River Range, the winding road descends through verdant forests before opening out onto Logan, UT, with its temples rising up prominently in the valley below. We stopped for the night with an old friend, but owing to the fact that this was Sunday evening in a predominantly Mormon town, we would not be going in search of any Uinta, Wasatch, or Epic. Instead, we polished off a selection of 10-Barrel Brewery beers that our host had brought back from a recent trip to Boise,raster gradients vector foreground and headed north the next morning with a recommendation to track down a Kettle House Cold Smoke Scotch Ale when we eventually got to Missoula.

En route and hungry for lunch, we stopped in Pocatello, ID, perched at the foot of a vast agricultural plain unfolding beyond the Portneuf Valley. Even before its official founding in 1889, Pocatello was a stage and freight stop that attracted a sundry mix of pioneers and gold miners traveling the Oregon Trail, earning itself the title of “Gateway to the Northwest.”

Not far from the Idaho State University campus and a stone’s throw from Pocatello’s nineteenth-century downtown, Portneuf Valley Brewing Company finds itself tucked away among brick warehouses from a similar time period, occupying the site of the old East Idaho Brewing Company established back in 1902. We stepped into a cozy interior of exposed brick and well-worn wood floors and were welcomed by a friendly server. So far, so good. But then came the beers.

Portneuf’s website announces itself as the sole brewpub in Pocatello. But herein lies the problem of being the only show in town. Founded in 1996, Portneuf is a local institution. But not only does the brewpub appear to be oblivious to the strides the craft beer industry has made in the past several years; even worse, almost all of Portneuf’s beers suffer from some discernible––and major––flaw. One can’t help but wonder whether Portneuf’s founders have stepped back from the day-to-day running of the brewery and turned the keys of the brewhouse over to inadequately trained brewers. Verdict: the food is ample and reasonably priced, if conventional. But save your hard-earned beer money for other establishments along your route.

And so, after a quick tour of the leafy precincts near the campus, we continued north through expansive farmlands shielded by the ramparts of the Snake River Range to the east before again crossing the Continental Divide into the isolated peaks of southwestern Montana.Tamarack - Logo Pressing further on, we passed fishing lodges along roads that hugged crystalline streams cut deep into narrow valleys, arriving in Missoula just as the pale sun had set. We checked in to the Tamarack Brewing Company with the intent of sampling a few beers over food before moving on, but found out that all of our subsequent destinations had closed, or were about to close. (Quick tip: even though Missoula is a vibrant and progressive college town home to a respectable number of breweries, brewpubs, and taprooms, most places shut down surprisingly early).

No matter. Tamarack, a convivial location peopled by a mix of students, outdoorsy types, and hockey fans, was open late. As a matter of fact, the hockey connection is a deep one at Tamarack: we learned from the gregarious bartender that Lanny McDonald, former Calgary Flame and proprietor of one of the best hockey moustaches of all time, owns a stake in the Lakeside, MT, brewery that supplies the Missoula location.

Though much better than Portneuf, Tamarack is still hit-and-miss. Hoppier beers are your best bets here, along with the refreshing Sip and Go Naked Apricot American Wheat. Try the Rye IPA, with its fresh pink grapefruit, honey, pineapple, and rye-pepper aromas and flavours, or the Hat Trick IPA, with its floral, grapefruit, pine resin, and tropical fruit character suggestive of Simcoe and Amarillo hops.

The next morning, we stopped off at Worden’s Market Deli, an excellent place to grab a sandwich and coffee before perusing the well-curated selection of wine and beer. Provisioned with bread, cheeses, sausages, and a few cases of local beer, we set our sights on Coeur d’Alene in the Idaho Panhandle. The drive through the mountain passes of the Bitter Root Range was scenic enough, even in the driving sleet; Coeur d’Alene, situated on a pristine lake of the same name and surrounded by dense coniferous forests, all the more.

Tricksters - Logo (FB)It was here that we found the elusive Trickster’s Brewing Company hiding in an industrial park on the western edge of town. In indigenous cultures, particularly those of the Great Basin encompassing the region between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, the trickster typically takes the form of a coyote. By turns cunning, foolish, or both, the trickster is, in some stories, the Creator, while in others the trickster is a prankster or a clown, or even messenger between the sacred and secular realms, often possessing powers of transformation.

At Trickster Brewing Company, Matt Morrow, a transplant from Tulsa, OK, is plenty adept at the alchemic art of transformation. Together with his assistant brewer, Miles Polis, Morrow turns the raw ingredients of beer into harmonious North American concoctions that sometimes bear the mark of the shape-shifter.IMG_9876 Take, for example, their golden-amber West Coast Classic Pale Ale, which bears all the pine-and-grapefruit traits of the Pacific Northwest, but with an orange-marmalade character and Maris Otter-like malt profile more suggestive of Albion. Trickster’s other North American styles are well-executed, but my personal favourite was their seasonal Soul Warmer Porter, an almost opaque ruby-black brew favouring the chocolate and coffee aromas of mocha, and intermingling cocoa with plum and an earthy roasted malt note. Smooth on the palate, the beer opens with licorice and black coffee, reveals a touch of spicy hops down the middle, and finishes with an emphasis on bitter-sweet chocolate.

IMG_1419Alas, the trickster was not able to conjure any food, so we continued west and slightly north in the knowledge that a home-cooked dinner was waiting several hours away beyond the Grand Coulee Dam of eastern Washington, and the Okanagan Valley wine region of British Columbia.

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Up Soon: The Return Trip. A few breweries in Vancouver, a quick stop near Seattle, a brewpub and stellar taproom in Boise, Idaho, and well-provisioned bottle shop in Fort Collins, CO.

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Further Reading and the Briefest of Beer Reports

On the Lincoln Highway, see Brian Botko’s Lincoln Highway News. The Lincoln Highway Association’s website is also a good resource.

If you, like us, were wondering why we passed two markers for the Continental Divide, check out this Wiki article, which also has a link to endorheic basins.

On soda ash and its myriad applications, see the company website of the OCI Chemical Corporation and that of FMC Green River.

Pocatello’s official website traces the history of the city from before its gold rush days to the present.

Of the beers that our host in Logan, UT, hauled back from 10 Barrel Brewery’s Boise location, the O.G. Wheat IPA was the most impressive. Worth seeking out.

The beers in Missoula’s Bayern Brewing taster pack––a Pils, a Hefeweizen, an Amber, and a Maibock––were solidly brewed, but all lacked a certain intensity and complexity of flavour that could set them apart from other beers brewed in the same style.

Kettle House’s Cold Smoke Scotch Ale was pleasant every time I opened up a can. It’s not nearly as complex as the best Scotch Ale out there, but at 6.5% ABV, it’s almost sessionable.

Images

With the exception of brewery logos and beer labels, all images photographed by F.D. Hofer.

© 2014  Franz D. Hofer. All Rights Reserved.

Wyoming’s Craft Beer Scene: A Snapshot from a Moving Vehicle

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.IMG_9810 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.IMG_9833 “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. IMG_9837

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.Shadows PubGrill The one they did have available – Big D’s Pale Ale – was pleasant if unassuming.Odell Cutthroat Porter (odellbrewing-com) 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.IMG_1338 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),J LaRemy (geni-com) 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.Coal Creek Exterior (website) 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.IMG_9855 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. Grand Teton Sign (Jackie and Leon)

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.

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Historical information on Laramie: Albany County Visitors’ Guide, Albany County Tourism Board, 2013.

Images:

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

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