A Craft Beer March Through The Arch: My Beercation to St. Louis
Of all the cities in the United States, St. Louis, Missouri, is probably most associated with beer because of its ties to the legend of Anheuser-Busch and Budweiser. The ethos behind the brand is polarizing, for sure. For some, Anheuser-Busch represents a narrative that is Americana. For others, the name represents a villain pitted against small craft breweries, wielding its power and resources in both noble and unseemly ways.
In a town dominated by beechwood-aged bubbles and clydesdales it seems unlikely that a craft beer scene would be allowed to exist, much less flourish. However, like an ice-cold Bud, America also loves an underdog. Craft beer is not only a thing in St. Louis, but it is thriving and robust; perhaps one of the better craft beer scenes in the country.
Beer Friends Make The Best Beercation Companions
Last year, I was invited to join Jeff and Aaron Zierdt on their annual father-son beercation. We drove to Chicago with stops in Decorah, IA, Madison, WI, and Milwaukee, WI, to bookend the windy city beercation. The excursion was immensely enjoyable and we all agreed that we made a fun travel party.
Well, you can imagine my excitement when Aaron and Jeff asked me where we should beercation this year. We kicked around a few ideas but quickly landed on a trip to St. Louis, MO, as the anchor of our journey. Of course, any craft beer seeker worth their salt knows that if there is a chance to hit multiple places on a beercation, you do need to do that. So, we naturally added in Kansas City, MO, to our itinerary and started preparing our physicians for a gloomy triglycerides 4th quarter report.
But First, There’s Iowa
One doesn’t need to be Facebook friends with Magellan to know that to drive to St. Louis from Minnesota, you need to go through Iowa. When people think craft beer in Iowa, they think about Toppling Goliath Brewing in Decorah, Iowa. Well, we did that last year and while it is always a good idea, that would have taken us quite out of our way. So, it was decided that Iowa City would be a good way to break up the nearly ten-hour trek from St. Paul, MN, to St. Louis, MO.
If you are a Midwesterner, you understand that springtime can mean many things. In fact, Mother Nature can be downright schizophrenic during the months of March and April. As if on cue, our drive down to Iowa City by way of Rochester, MN, was a bit dicy. There was snow coming down from the north. We were about 2 hours ahead of a blizzard that would wind up making travel pretty frustrating from anyone trying to fly out of Minnesota on Saturday, April 1st.
Rochester, MN: Brewery Stop 1
We stop for a light lunch in Rochester, Minnesota, at Forager Brewery. Forager Brewery is a brewpub with fantastic beers and an elevated food menu which is made up of high quality, locally-sourced ingredients.
The thing that jumps out at me from the menu right away was the beef short rib chili. Since I know that copious amounts of bbq await, I decide a vegetable should probably be thrown in the mix. I opt for the maple-glazed Brussels sprouts. I figure that these will both pair nicely with the Bocktiari, a German-style Bock. My beer pairing spider senses are correct.
The caramel and roasted maltiness of the beer connects with the sultry and spicy depth of the chili as well as the caramelized goodness of the Brussels sprouts. While it pains me to only drink one beer at Forager, we have to stay ahead of the snow that is ominously hot on our tails. Next stop, Cedar Rapids, Iowa!
Cedar Rapids, Iowa: Brewery Stops 2 & 3
We manage to stay ahead of the story. The blizzard warnings are traded in for tornado warnings once we get into Iowa. However, the promise of craft beer spurs us on ahead. We are staying in Iowa City, tonight, but Cedar Rapids is close and has several breweries so it is worth out time to visit.
clock house brewing company
We park our car at a meter and head into Clock House Brewing Company. Since all of our back teeth are floating, it is a mad dash for the pisser. Clock House Brewing is attached to a the Black Sheep Social Club. Between the beer list and the food menu, this is a really spectacular spot to hang out. The menu is definitely elevated pub fare that one would not necessarily expect.
We are not looking for food, but are definitely on the hunt for beers. The beer list at Clock House Brewing has a nice selection of styles. There are options for both the trend-chasers and the craft beer traditionalists alike. The taproom has a historic feel. There is lots of exposed brick and huge wooden timbers keeping the roof from falling on top of us as we sip our beers. Only a bar counter separates us from the brewing equipment.
We order our first round of beers and I go for the Cahoots, a Vienna Lager. The beers arrive and we cheers. The Cahoots has a nice bit of roast in the aroma. It drinks crisp and refreshing. The malt is dialed in wonderfully. It has the classic toasted bread notes that really make for a great sip of beer. This style has surged back into popularity over the last few years as breweries have patrons have become smitten with this classic style.
Cloudy with a chance of sideways rain
No sooner are we enjoying our beers when we look outside and rain is firing across our views outside the windows sideways. Maybe that tornado finally caught up with us? It is times like this when I am happy to have a beer in my hands. We just hope that when we are ready to depart our car is still in the same place where we left it.
Aaron and Jeff are also enjoying their beers. In fact, we are liking things so much that we order a second round. I go with the Hell to Pay, a Helles lager, for my second beer. The Helles is even better than the Vienna Lager! When a brewery is showcasing lagers of this high a quality, it means that all the beers are probably going to be well-made. Jeff ordered the Black IPA, this is a style that was ridiculously popular back in 2012. It has faded away into obscurity since then. However, Black IPAs are having a moment now and that is a good thing.
We could easily spend the rest of the night here, but we are on a beercation, and thirsty for more. So, we bid adieu to Clock House Brewing and get ready to head to another brewery that is not that far away. Luckily, aside from some leaves on the windshield, the car was not blown away.
Lion Bridge Brewing
The next stop on our beercation is not even 2 miles away. We wind through the streets of Cedar Rapids, passed the Speed Hump sign, and eventually park on 16th Ave. SW in the heart of the Czech Village. The rain has subsided, but the torrential desire for GABF gold medal-winning English Dark Mild is kicking into a vociferous fervor usually reserved for mating rhinos in the wild.
Aaron had been to Lion Bridge Brewing before and had many wonderful things to say about it. His effusive praise for their English Dark Mild made the hairs on by neck stand up. I knew that it would be a must-stop on our beercation journey. What I was not prepared for was the epic variety of other styles and overall quality of beers.
Lion Bridge Brewing is my kind of place
Lion Bridge Brewing is an unpretentious craft brewery that leads with quality. Their beers most certainly tell the tale of why it is important to infuse quality into all that you do. The food menu is purposeful and adroitly pairs with the beers they serve. Speaking of food, the fish and chips are immensely satisfying! The fish is crispy on the outside and flaky on the inside. The fries are fresh and crunchy. The staff is friendly and helpful. I don’t think ever went very long without being asked if everything was good and whether or not we wanted another beer. Breweries like this are everywhere in America. In fact, discovering gems like Lion Bridge Brewing is one of the main reasons I love to beercation.
The selection of lower ABV beers with lots of flavor is sensational. Obviously, I loved Compensation, the English Dark Mild. However, I also thoroughly enjoyed Živá Voda (Czech Pilsner), Bohemian Premium (Czech Pale Lager), and the recent 2023 World Beer Cup Silver Medalist, Olde 17 Irish Stout. Between all of those beers, the wonderment of simplicity showed up in every sip. The beers are all as they should be-full of flavor and texture to dazzle the palate. None of us wanted to leave, but we knew our visit was coming to an end. We have to get 20 minutes down the road to our hotel in Iowa City.
When we arrived at Lion Bridge, it was all but empty. As we leave, the place is full and some grateful people take our spots at the table. We are off to check in to the hotel and then catch one more brewery visit and the Women’s Final Four match between Iowa and South Carolina at Big Grove Brewing.
Iowa City, Iowa: Brewery Stop #4
As we were planning our beercation, Iowa City, Iowa, had a dearth of Airbnb options. I’ve been using Airbnbs ever since 2016 and they are typically my preferred method of lodging. However, sometimes it is nice to book a hotel room and remind yourself of why you love the personal touches and character that an Airbnb can provide.
He exclaimed with the glee and excitement of a 7 year-old unwrapping a new bicycle on Christmas morning, “This is great, you don’t even have to talk to anyone, anymore!”
As we were unloading the car to bring our things into the hotel, Aaron commented that they have virtual check-in. Then he uttered the words that would be the leader in the clubhouse for “beercation quote of the trip” for a few days. He exclaimed with the glee and excitement of a 7 year-old unwrapping a new bicycle on Christmas morning, “This is great, you don’t even have to talk to anyone, anymore!” One of Aaron’s many quirks is that he loves Fernet, but hates interacting with most humans.
Over the river and through the swamp to Big Grove Brewery we go!
Aaron dials up the coordinates for Big Grove Brewery and we are off. As the crow flies, the brewery is like 3 minute walk. However, we left our amphibious tactical gear up in the hotel so we had to walk on the roads and bridges instead of just swimming across the body of water that blocked our straight line to the brewery. The trek is windy and brisk. Yet, the elements will not deter us from our 4th brewery stop of the day.
Just we are getting close, we see the lights of the sign and outdoor patio. we walk across a grassy area that is soaked from the rain. As my size 15 shoes sink into the rice paddy-like sponginess of Mother Nature’s optical illusion of dry land. I am now regretting not packing more socks, but I did need the space in my suitcase for emergency licorice ropes in case I get the munchies.
Big Grove Brewery
Big Grove Brewery is huge. It reminds me a lot of the Surly Beer Hall in Minneapolis. As we walk in, we are happy to get out of the wind and into the warmth. It is a sea of yellow and black as it feels like everyone in the tri-county area is here to watch the game. We put in our name for a table, but aren’t optimistic. Luckily, they have beer for us drink as we wait. While there is not room inside, the spots on the patio are plentiful. So, we take our beers and order up some food for out there.
Between the three of us, we order wings, pork spring rolls, and a bowl of queso dip that is almost as large as Lake Erie. Usually, a high volume service of hot melted cheese is not a bad thing, however, the dip-to-cheese ratio is way off. The beers are decent, but sitting outside on a patio in early April after you have been to three other breweries is not he best way to gauge and dissect the anatomy of a beer. What I will say is that Big Grove Brewing is a place I would want to visit again, sometime, when there aren’t 40,00 Lady Hawkeye fans screaming their guts out.
Speaking of the basketball game, it is a doozy. The teams trade baskets and it comes down to a tight finish. Iowa comes out on top and punch their ticket to the championship game. We continue to enjoy our beers, but soon it becomes apparent that we are not long for this night. We decide to dial up an Uber in lieu of another walk through a swamp and a wind tunnel. Tomorrow, we head to St. Louis for the meat and potatoes of our beercation! Cheers!