Last Friday, around the time the afternoon crowd was clicking on last week's column, I was overflowing with the desire to get out of town. A neighbor of mine, a semi-recent immigrant from eastern Europe, was heading home. In the years of our acquaintance I'd only known him to go two places: his day job as a carpenter, and his back yard. His whole idea of Connecticut, his entire concept of the U.S., for all I know, would be worksites, the highway, and a quarter acre of manicured grass. He was utterly unconcerned, but I was tragedy stricken - and determined to get out and do... something.
Just like in a movie script, that's when the phone rang.
"Sorry this is last minute, man," the caps lock Wisconsin accent told me who it was immediately. "But I need a trip to the casino. I got the room paid for, you just bring your liver."
I didn't really have the money to play with, it was Friday rush hour on I-95, and I try to avoid casinos in general.
"Sure. Let me pack." Let's see what happens, I thought. I am a leaf on the wind.
Although the end results were largely indistinguishable, the casino was marginally more entertaining than feeding those same $20 bills to sea gulls. I was neither keen to go back the next day, nor on the prospect of a two hour, day-wasting drive home. It was my turn to provide the inspiration:
"Let's hit a brewery I know."
Beer'd Brewing Co. is in Stonington, CT, a good frisbee toss from the Rhode Island border, but far enough away from Fairfield County that I'd never given serious thought to visiting before that exact minute in time. Their beers have been excellent every time I've had them, though, and life had just blown this opportunity my way.
Beer'd's brewing space is located in an old velvet mill blocks from a stretch of the Sound so much wider than it is in southern Connecticut it renders Long Island into a hazy serious of bumps just proud of the curvature of the Earth. The stated mission at Beer'd is to "reincarnate the days gone by when beer was produced by someone on your block." You park just about anywhere on the street outside, and walk through a bright, skylit postindustrial space, splashed with color from murals and paintings which overflow from the creative workshops which now populate the old mill. Beer'd's allotment of the overall is small, and it's shocking to think they can produce volume enough to spread throughout the state. The tasting room has a few small tables, a bar, and a sample of each of their beers is yours just for walking in. I saw maybe twenty people at a time in the room, but it felt cozy, rather than crowded. The staff buzzed around, taking orders, while I sipped and followed the paths of heavy piping to an ancient steam boiler bound with hundreds of rivets which looked to weigh a pound each.
Dogs&Boats DIPA had just been canned that day, so I picked up a four pack of pint cans, plus a 32oz. growlito of Whisker'd Wit which had been dosed with Curacao orange peel and blood orange puree. The normally bright, hazy Belgian wit had taken on a darker hue, and the fresh fruit made itself known both on the nose and tongue. It's an outstanding hot summer day drink and, at 5.2%, subtle in strength as well as flavor. I don't know if it was the beer, the company, or simply stepping outside again into one of the first clear, warm days after the recent thunder-wracked heatwave, but I felt momentum building. The wanderlust hadn't left.
"You know the town with the sub base?" I asked my friend. "I know a spot there, too."
Outer Light Brewing Company is in a tiny strip down a hill in Groton, and it has more of a polished business vibe than the art commune environment at Beer'd. The tasting room opens to the air in front, with a bar at the back, and large windows looking into the brewhouse, inside and out. Board games are shelved next to a cooler (along with a nearly mint condition GameBoy which made me wish I was carrying spare AA batteries), and what I'd guess are Outer Lights exec Tom Drejer's old surf boards retired overhead. I'd had their Lonesome Boatman, a red pale ale, before, so I went with a flight of four beers, including the Saison de Groton, Swell East Coast Lager, Tubos Forever IPA, and Ninja Trail: a green tea pale ale which was recommended by the beertender at Beer'd.
Tubos, a surfing reference I didn't quite get, being from the land of the four inch swell, is a slightly piney, slightly bittersweet IPA; a good change from the juicy, resinous IPAs from Beer'd. The Saison de Groton is honestly better than any expectation I had - it was smooth, even, and never cloying the way some overly flowery Belgians can be from new brewers. The tea in Ninja Trail isn't just there to add a twinge, it completely suffuses this light ale with a refreshing, relaxing herbal character. I'm not sure how many of these I'd like to have in a sitting, but I can see it being delicious with a meal, working in the sun, or just winding down at the end of the night.
The brewery describes Swell as more of marzen, like Oktoberfest beers, but it reminded me more of a biscuity Vienna lager, which is to say, I could drink it until I fall down. As good as Swell is, I'd still put it below my favorite beer I had at Outer Light, The Academy German Pale Ale. The brewery says "We used 100% German ingredients – German malt, German hops, German yeast…we even adjusted our brewing water to match that of Koln, Germany." The Coast Guard Academy is just across the river, and The Academy GPA (I think you see what they've done there) uses new Mandarina Bavaria and Huell Melon hops to dress up an accessible, malt forward ale which practically disappears from the glass on its own. GPA is not one of OL's year-round beers, but I'd highly recommend they make it so, because I think they could sell it by the ton. It's not hazy, juicy, or devastatingly bitter, it's not overly concerned with fashion or newsworthiness, but it's an excellent all around brew. I wish I could have had more, but it was time to eat.
I found out about Moxie Bar And Restaurant in Madison via Instagram months before my trip, which is odd, because I don't have an Instagram account. The International Harvester Scout which serves as the bar's mechanical mascot probably first caught my eye, but a quick look at the food and drinks is what made it stand out in my mind long enough to become that night's dinner destination.
Moxie, on that particular Saturday night, could be heard from across the street. This was initially confusing, as the front patio I was approaching seemed to be populated by diners calmly eating at their tables. The dining room at Moxie is in the front of the building, and a very lively bar scene greeted me in back, with a garage door opening onto a deck which is hidden from the street, and was the source of the sirens' song of people loudly enjoying themselves.
With no expectations beyond what I'd seen in half remembered square photos, I was excited to look at the menu and see dishes like spring pea ricotta gnocchi with currants and preserved lemon, plum glazed wild salmon, coconut curried lentils, and outliers like shaved Caribbean jerk pork, and pad thai.
The cocktail menu was equally enticing, and I started with a Rizzo (a flip made with Barsol Pisco, hibiscus simple syrup, fresh lime juice and Angostura bitters). The sharp, dry pisco and the lime were balanced by the hibiscus and smoothing effect of the egg whites to create a drink like studded velvet. It was a good start.
I selected the blackened fish tacos with corn and bacon salsa, topped with shaved cabbage and jalapeno-lime crema. The fish was flaky and not overly spiced, the sweet corn and smokey bacon turned what could have been a black and white program into Technicolor with each bite, and the cabbage crunch was augmented by a very slightly toasted flour tortilla which saved the tacos from a potentially soggy fate. The house fries - hand cut, likely double fried, and seasoned with malt vinegar powder - were easily some of the best I've ever had in the state.
Moxie says they "apply modern day sensibilities to classic recipes with high-end ingredients, simple preparations and a fusion of locally grown flavors." I didn't get to try out too much of the menu (maybe in a future follow up), but the fries, cocktails, and atmosphere would have been worth the trip by themselves.
I couldn't resist any of the above, so I ordered a second drink to stretch my visit out further, and went with the Chupacabra (Fidencio mezcal joven, jalapeño-infused simple syrup, Moxie's sour mix, New Holland Clockwork Orange liqueur, cilantro, crushed red pepper, spicy salt rim) since I'm a sucker for tequila's Mexican cousin. Spicy, smokey, herbal and sweet, this was the winner of the night, drink-wise.
Even with the desire to run screaming out the door the previous night, there is little chance I would have seen any of the places I went any time soon without the push I was given. I had no plans to see any of them, even as I was driving up. I thought about this a lot on the drive back down 95 to Fairfield County. It can be difficult, even threatening, to break through the insulating safety of routine. Going out is more rewarding I think, though, when you truly get out.
See you out there.
Beer'd Brewing Co., 22 Bayview Ave #15, Stonington; beerdbrewing.com
Outer Light Brewing Co., 266 Bridge Street, Groton; outerlightbrewing.com
Moxie, 52 Wall Street, Madison; moxie-bar.com