New Belgium Brewing Company of Fort Collins, Colorado, is now a month into making their beer available in Connecticut for the first time. Thanks to an extremely effective initial round of distribution, I've seen their canoe-shaped tap handles popping up all over Fairfield and New Haven counties. Not too long ago, before New Belgium built their new brewery in Asheville, NC, the beer was only scantily available much east of the mountain time zone. It was during this time that I went full-on Smokey And The Bandit and made a beer run from Georgia to Colorado and back again. It started with a heartbreak.
My trip to Colorado, like that of the Conquistadors, began with an expedition to Mexico. Specifically, an airline ticket to Cancun for spring break. The father of one of my friends in the history program at the University of Georgia was pilot, and I could afford the ticket to Mexico because it was free. The five of us who were going planned to spend the savings by investing in cheap accommodations, cheaper booze, and lasting skin damage. I was hard at work polishing my lustrous C average in college Spanish all the way up to a gleaming B-minus when my hopes were torched like ships of Cortez. The promised five tickets materialized as two tickets, and I hadn't made the cut.
I had no backup plans. I'd be stuck in a hollowed out shell of a college town, with my only diversion being attempts to trap the rat that ate my dog's food every night. I was verbally shading the contour map of my pathos when my buddy's girlfriend interjected:
"Why don't you just come with Chris and I?"
What are you doing?
"We're going to drive to the Fat Tire brewery and bring back a bunch of beer."
The plan's genius was in its simplicity. I was about 21 years old, and hell yes, I'd drive 1,500+ miles to get beer I'd never heard of.
Chris was from outside Charleston, SC, but he'd been to a show at the Red Rocks amphitheater in Morrison, Colorado once, where he fell in love with a local amber ale called Fat Tire. Other friends pressed cash into our hands once they heard we would be taking the trip - "Just get me however much this will buy." Fat Tire was apparently nectar sent down from the Mount Olympus of the Rockies, and it was not sold east of the Mississippi. We had one week.
Our chariot was a silver four door Mitsubishi we borrowed from Chris' mother, and it was dark by the time we left Athens. Chris' girlfriend, Jessica, would take the first leg. We were bouncing in our seats and chattering nonstop - it was the kind of college road trip you dream about taking in high school, and we were actually doing it. We'd burned special music mixes onto CDs for the trip, and we played them loud. Somewhere over the border into Tennessee it began to rain.
The highway wasn't lighted, visibility was limited, and Jessica was showing signs of stress. To minimize travel time and expense, we planned to drive non-stop, with one person driving, one staying awake with the driver, and one sleeping in the back seat. I was riding shotgun, and Jessica was threatening to snap off hand-sized chunks of the steering wheel.
I looked back at Chris, who was out cold. I looked back at the driver, who was now stretched so far forward she was fogging the windshield.
Jessica, it should now be noted, was usually the picture of perfect southern charm. This wide-eyed tension was unlike her, and I was beginning to know just enough about stressed-out women to be slightly terrified of them. I managed several halting attempts, then, summoning all my courage:
"Are... are you sure you're OK?"
"YES. I'M FINE. THIS WOULD JUST BE SO MUCH EASIER IF I WASN'T NIGHT-BLIND."
Tears. Funerals. Never fulfilling my destiny as an astronaut race car driver millionaire. Such were the terrible visions of our fiery end which filled my mind.
We pulled over, woke Chris, and did our first driver change. Jessica didn't even wake up when the car - in some astonishing preview of the autonomous vehicles yet to come - drove itself off an exit and into the parking lot of a fireworks store on the Tennessee/Alabama border which was the size of a super Walmart. The employees bravely toiled with lit cigarettes in their mouths amongst more gunpowder than was used in the Revolutionary War. Truly a profile in courage. You may question the absolute need for a stop such as this so early in the drive, but I'll ask if you feel the same once you know about the refreshment and revivification we found later that night during a spirited game of Roman Candle Tag in a farmer's field in Indiana. We figured this was a much better way to stay awake than amphetamines.
I saw the Gateway Arch in St. Louis at sunrise, and drove until the white lines leapt off the road and turned into dragons, somewhere in Missouri. I asked my fellow travelers to wake me up when we got to Colorado. My last vision from the back seat was the hills of eastern Kansas, fading into sharp peaks of the Rockies as I closed my eyes.
"Woooooo! Get up, buddy - we're in Colorado!"
I bolted upright to my friends' cheers. Mountains! The Mile High City! Fit, wiry westerners doing outdoorsy things! None of these greeted me upon my entry to Colorado. What I saw was more like what you'd get if you handed a pencil and paper to a landscape artist who'd had their imagination surgically removed. To the left and right: a featureless dun prairie. Ahead and behind, a flat black ribbon between straight lines of barbed wire which marched to meet it at either horizon. Sensing my dawning horror and, in keeping with their genteel southern upbringing, my friends expressed only the most polite form of bowel-shattering laughter. Did you know tumbleweeds are real things that still exist? I didn't, but let me tell you: dried plant-corpses rolling across nothingness is as apt a metaphor as you'll find for eastern Colorado. Chris summed up his feelings:
"They should give it back to Kansas."
It took us twenty four hours to make the first leg of our beer run. Fifteen hundred and thirty miles at speeds deemed prudent by impatient 20-somethings. Our pied a terre was in Fraser, Colorado, the home of Chris' aunt - a ski bum who'd come out west from South Carolina in the 1970s and never left. We did a ski day at Winter Park, where Jessica - a Savannah, GA native - saw snow for the first time. She would walk off the mountain at some point and be rediscovered by Chris and I in a large, comfortable chair at the base lodge, by a crackling fire, terrifically, gloriously drunk on the many offerings supplied to her by a horseshoe of male admirers. Like I said: southern charm.
The next morning we gathered an envelope stuffed with cash from our friends back in Athens, and drove to the New Belgium Brewing Company in Fort Collins. We arrived, whooping with joy, at the brewery.
After a short tour highlighted by a general's eye view of a battle the employees were having with plastic keg toppers on the brewhouse floor, we sat down to a flight of the brewery's offerings:
Blue Paddle - a traditional, crisp Czech-style pilsner.
Biere de Mars - this was before the Lips Of Faith version, when it was more of a straightforward marzen lager.
1554 - a very dark amber Belgian lager, and
the hallowed Fat Tire: a soft, traditional amber with deeply nuanced malt, and hints of bitterness. This was both the reason for, and the culmination of, our entire trip. It was delicious. We spent the next couple hours in a nearly empty tasting room buying bottles by the case, shoehorning the last ones into the Mitsubishi's footwells because we'd run out of room in the trunk, and the back seats were packed two cases wide and two high. Our luggage wasn't even in the car yet, but we used build a sleeping nest on top of the cases in the back seat when we began our journey home after a brief stay at the home of Colorado State student we met in the brewery tasting room, alongside his friend who was visiting on spring break from the Culinary Institute of America. To this day I still use the method that guy taught me when I dice onions.
It took us 26 hours to drive back to Athens on a southerly route, dodging small town Texas cops at night, and skimming elevated highways over tannic Alabama swamps made hazy and indistinct by roiling heatwaves. After 50 hours of driving we were met by a crowd who had been slowly building to boiling madness in anticipation of our return. Nearly all the beer we brought back was consumed in the ensuing party.
Beer - good, American beer - has rocketed off the foundations it built in the 1980s and 90s to offer its now celestial variety. I've gained a tremendous amount of knowledge during this time, and I have a great deal of learning left to do. That road goes on forever. Despite the years, it still enriches my soul to now look down and see I'm holding one of my personal universe's original stars in my hand, right here in Connecticut.
See you out there.