Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Just Ran Outta Gas

I ripped off my throwback Cavaliers t-shirt and threw it on the bed, in much the same way that LeBron James peeled off his jersey while exiting the court after game 6 in Boston.  It was about the only thing he did in that series that displayed even a hint of passion.  But, after Donna rolled her eyes at my passionate display of immaturity, I politely folded it up and tucked it neatly away in the drawer, to be taken out later in the year.  I have no idea whether LBJ will be a Cavalier, or what the team will look like by opening tip in the Fall.  But I know exactly where my throwback shirt will be.

I'm still bummed.  After all the hype (too much hype, if you ask me) of assuming that the Cavs were going to reach the Eastern Conference finals, their performance against the Celtics is still puzzling.  But it's more than the performance.  Their demeanor as a team was a mystery, and the question marks were especially placed in bold-print by LeBron James.  His lack of intensity was troubling, so much so that I pondered therapy.  But I can't afford therapy.  So Donna and our friends, Jeanne and Ivan, suggested the next best thing: a Cleveland microbrew road-trip.  Who was I to argue with professionals?

Our plan was relatively simple: visit every brewpub in the greater Cleveland area in one day.  It had been almost 10 years since we attempted this before, and the Cleveland microbrewery scene had changed a bit since then.  After doing my research, we pinpointed 10 establishments that operate chiefly as brewpubs.  Some also offer extensive menus, some offer additional guest taps, and a few offered a brew-on-premise option for those interested in also making their own beer.  For the sake of time, we eliminated the places operating as good beer-bars, and just concentrated on beer being brewed locally.  As one might expect, this would be a herculean task to achieve in one day.

The Brew Kettle Tap Room and Smokehouse sat in a lackluster plaza on Pearl Road in Strongsville.  We had decided to start on the west side and move across the city, and the Brew Kettle was closest to us.  To be honest, I wasn't quite sure how to approach this journey.  Was this a scientific experiment or merely a crude form of therapy?  Should I try as many beers as possible and rate them, or should I simply taste one or several of their offerings, soak up the ambiance, moan about the Cavs, and move on?  I suppose my depression prevented me from feeling scientifically ambitious so I opted for the latter.  The Brew Kettle offered several locally-brewed beers, as well as a generous helping of guest taps.  Ivan and I both went for a sampler, which included choosing 5 off the BK's menu.  Maybe it was because my palate was at its freshest, but these beers seemed the most prolific of all we tried that day.  I'm not a particularly huge fan of lagers, but their Big Woody Lager was exceptional, very crisp and refreshing.  As I was drinking, I realized that I had had a Brew Kettle product before, the very tasty Four C's Pale Ale.  The sample I was really impressed with, however, was Old 21, their Imperial India Pale Ale.  It was rotund with flavor, with the high alcohol content really rounding out the mouth-feel.  However, Ivan and I both agreed that a series of 5-ounce samples would easily put us over the edge by 3 or 4 in the afternoon, so I had to change my thinking as to how exactly I wanted to approach this.  I wondered, at the same time, whether Mike Brown had the same confusing thoughts as he ineffectively juggled the lineups throughout the series with the Celtics.  Yeah, this therapy was working.

I've mentioned before in previous posts that I'm not a prodigious drinker.  Never have been.  Donna and Jeanne, who don't drink beer, actually suggested the trip, which I thought a bit odd since they don't enjoy beer.  "I've just never seen you really drunk," Jeanne said.  This road-trip would prove to be a big task, since it doesn't take much for me to start feeling my oats.  More importantly, though, is that as my bloodstream fills with alcohol, my ability to discern the nuances of the product wanes, which (and I know you won't believe this) defeats the purpose.  But I vowed to persevere as we pulled into a parking space behind Cornerstone Brewing in Berea, the training home of the Cleveland Browns. (Berea, not the brewery)  Location-wise, Cornerstone was everything the Brew Kettle was not.  It's located in the heart of Berea's quaint downtown, a corner brick building with a welcoming outside courtyard entrance, with tall ceilings and exposed brick on the inside.   We sat down and I noticed Ivan ordering a rum and coke.  Ivan is also not the beer devotee that I am, so I figured that I was truly drinking alone now.  After pondering a sampler, I decided  to try the Sandstone, a Marzen/Oktoberfest-style lager.  I wanted one of their seasonal offerings, but they were not yet ready to be poured.  The Sandstone tasted more like an Oktoberfest than a true Marzen, and came off gritty and mild, lacking body and, to be honest, taste.  I wasn't impressed.  The others enjoyed some appetizers while I enjoyed the environment.  I liked this place, and I wondered if another visit was in order to try some of the other beers.  I tried to engage our server in conversation, but the handsome brick building on the corner seemed like the last place she wanted to be on a mild Saturday afternoon.  In fact, her mood bore a striking resemblance to the mood of the Cavs bench during the third quarter of Game 2 against Boston.  I know.  I was there at The Q to see it.

Our western-most brewery location was The Brewkeeper in North Ridgeville.  Like the Brew Kettle, it sat in an even smaller plaza.  The inside of the building was quite lively.  It housed a small wine bar in the front, which wasn't yet open during our visit.  Past that sat a small stage where a band had left their set-up gear from the night before.  To the left was a large room for the brew-yourself on-premise part of the operation, and to the right of that was the bar and taps.  Ivan still decided to stay with rum and coke, while Donna and Jeanne tried the locally-made root beer.  I opted for a sampler this time, because one of the offerings was a mead, something I'd never had before, and I couldn't argue with the price of  5 samples for $6.00.  I had their Maibock, which wasn't malty enough for my taste.  The Mad-Arillo was also a disappointment.  I like pale ales and IPA's made with the Amarillo hop, but this one seemed lacking in both hop presence and body.  I also had something called Anger Management, which tasted similar to Rogue's Dead Guy Ale.  I asked the two young ladies behind the bar about it, but all they could say was that they seemed to sell a good deal of it.  Affable girls, but not yet ready to write an article for Beer Advocate.  Last, was the Raspberry Mead.  Jeanne had a sip and liked it.  Donna had a sip and didn't.  I thought it had the taste of a sherry, but I couldn't disseminate all of the flavor profiles because of the raspberry addition.  As I glanced around, I realized two things.  I was certainly beginning to feel the effects of multiple samplers.  And, this place truly reminded me of the Cavs...an eclectic collection of pieces that fail to deliver the goods.  Not that I'm bitter, or anything.    

On our way over to North Olmsted, a Fairview Park policeman decided that he didn't like the speed limit that Jeanne chose for us.  Luckily, the wafting aroma of Anger Management had not permeated the vehicle, and he let us go.  That would allow us to arrive at Fat Head's just in time to watch the Preakness.  Fat Head's is the sister location of the origianl Fat Head's Saloon on Carson Street in Pittsburgh.  I had visited the Pittsburgh location but only had a chance to sample several of their guest taps.  This time, I passed on the sampler when our waiter told us that they had several beers on cask.  I adore cask-conditioned ale.  And with the hop-failure from our visit in North Ridgeville, I had my taste-buds set on something with a generous amount of I.B.U's.  Their Happy Ending American Pale Ale did not disappoint.  It was creamy and hoppy, with a slightly sweet after-burn.  With the carbonation levels down and the temperature just right for a cask ale, this guy was one of the highlights of the day.  It's the same feeling I got when Anthony Parker would take a shuttle pass from Lebron, step back beneath the 3-point arc, and find the bottom of the net. Except with this beer, it would happen every time.  A-P, unfortunately, always promised several clunkers, especially during the playoffs.

I've been to the Rocky River Brewing Company before.  Apparently, so had others, as it was packed!  The main bar-area and restaurant were pretty full, so they took us to a heated deck-patio in the back.  I appreciated the heaters.  My shorts and short-sleeved shirt carried me through most of a fairly pleasant day, but it was getting towards 5:30p and it was starting to get chilly.  I vaguely remembered this place from our last tour.  I knew I was there, but I didn't remember too much about it.  I  recall reading some fairly stellar reviews on Beer Advocate.  Since my only beer-drinking partner preferred to fall into a vat of rum, I was again on my own.  I was also starting to feel a bit "blurry" and I wondered if spending the time on a sampler would be worth it.  I gazed at the menu.  I'm a sucker for anything with the word "bock" in it, and I remember one reviewer mentioning the existence of a Triple Bock.  I didn't see it listed, so I settled on a Helles Bock.  It had nice malt presence and was crisp, but a bit more hazy than what normally exists for this style.  As I worked my way through it, I wondered briefly if it hadn't picked up some off-flavors, as I detected a bit of a wet-cardboard tinge.  As I drained the last contents and watched a large group of people in the next section celebrate a birthday, I also got this subtle feeling that both from a time- and a brain-cell perspective, our journey probably wasn't going to go on for much longer.  Plus, it would take an additional hour to get home and Maggie's bladder was probably chomping at the bit.  As we made our way to the car, I mentioned to Donna that perhaps we ought to make our next stop the last one on the tour.  I didn't get many objections, so off we went to Lakewood.

The Buckeye Brewing Company is housed in the same location as the Buckeye Beer Engine.  This place offers a healthy beer list, which includes the offerings of BBC.  We managed a seat at the bar, and before I decided on my last beer of the night, I figured it was time to order some food.  The hummus was pretty good, and it allowed me to take some time to peruse the menu.  They had 2 beers on cask, but none of them were from Buckeye Brewing.  After looking things over, I decided on the Hippie IPA, and upon first sip immediately remembered that I had taken a bottle of this back to St. Louis with me once, after a visit to Primos Deli.  Oh, well.  It paired nicely with the hummus, and it was a good way to round out the evening.  I had also brought a growler with me, in case I found something I wanted to take home.  On their menu, I noticed that they had Weyerbacher Double Simcoe IPA, and I thought that would be a perfect selection to accompany me on the deck the next evening.  But after she informed that it would cost $40.00 to fill my jug, intelligence prevailed, and my growler went home empty.  I felt the way many Cavs fans feel about the prospects of LeBron James being a Cavalier again...stupendous product but expensive, and probably going home with somebody else.

I had gazed at the itinerary of our trip all week, and I had a sneaking suspicion that we wouldn't cover all of Cuyahoga County in a single day.  At some spots, we simply enjoyed each others' company and probably spent too much time.  We never made it to Great Lakes, although we will be there in another month when our friends, Pat and Kathy, visit from Illinois.  Rock Bottom was also on the list, although I've never been particularly fond of their beers.  Cleveland Chophouse and Brewery lay waiting, another chain, and as I remember, a place with some fairly serviceable brews.  The last place on our list was Willoughby Brewing Company, all the way over on the far east side in Lake County.  As we drove home, though, I realized that today's event wasn't a race as much as it was an attempted therapeutic marathon, a way to celebrate the upcoming warmer weather, good friends, and, a bit to my surprise, a really good beer town!   The only thing we weren't celebrating was a championship for the city of Cleveland.  That's ok.  With time and a few jolts of quality ale, the wounds eventually heal.  And LeBron or no LeBron, I'll still unfold my throwback Cavs t-shirt and throw it on, regardless as to who is wearing No. 23.  Or No. 6.  Or whatever number he decides to wear.  Hey, there's always the Browns!  Oh, wait a second...

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