Blue Highway Brew Tour

Richard Fulton

© Copyright 2021 by Richard Fulton

Photo of various beer cans and bottles.

I was finishing a grueling 10-month interim academic administration position in San Antonio, and my wife Deb and I were planning our trip home to Bellingham, Washington. Deb had mapped out a blue highway route that wound around West Texas to Santa Fe, Moab, Boise, and Wenatchee. The nine-day trip would feature sightseeing in Santa Fe, hiking around Moab, visiting family in Park City, Utah, and at an overnight stay in Joseph, Oregon, and a steady diet of varied scenery, from the Texas Hill Country to the Cascades. It would also feature, I quickly concluded, some opportunities for sampling craft beer at the burgeoning number of microbreweries scattered in this part of the West. I googled craft beer in towns along the way and quickly discovered that I was unlikely to be disappointed in finding a variety of choices.

Before we left I strolled over to Southerleigh, my local brewpub in San Antonio’s Pearl District. I felt that I should give my taste buds a baseline, after all, and I needed to do a dry run (as it were) to see how my research project was going to work. It was immediately clear that I would have to narrow my taste testing; Southerleigh lists 13 beers on the menu. I couldn’t possibly test 13 beers more or less at each stop on the highway and keep driving. I decided to stick with dark beer—brown ale, porter, black lager, and in a pinch, Irish red. At Southerleigh, I ordered a Rasta-Fa-Rye, a dark (5.33% ABV, 15 IBUs) medium bodied lager with a sharpness that comes from rye, not from over-hopping. The menu claims chocolate notes, which I couldn’t discern, but it did have a slight coffee taste and a smooth finish and was an efficient thirst-quencher in the 95 degree heat of San Antonio’s “spring.”

At 10 am on June 1 Deb, our Patterdale terrier Remy, and I headed northwest out of San Antonio into the hill country; first stop would be San Angelo and the Zero One Restaurant and Brewery. We made it to San Angelo shortly after 2 (in a pattern that replicated throughout the trip, Remy needed regular stops and—good dog, who’s a good dog?—managed to time the stops in the near vicinity of craft beer) as the thermometer breached the 100 degree mark. Deb found some shady lawn to relax on with Remy while I started my brew study.

Zero One is a big, dark, cool, two room establishment with a high ceiling, fans, muted televisions everywhere, and low rock music playing for background. In the middle of a sizzling afternoon the scattering of customers included three tables of geezers my age and a handful of college-age types who probably attended the local state university.

Service was swift. The tattooed young barmaid asked “how can I help you hon?” as soon as I sat down. The beer menu was a slight disappointment: no brown ale, no porter. It did include:

Erik the Red (red IPA) ABV 6.6; IBU 66

Mother Earth (IPA) ABV 7.0; IBU 58

Dark Adaptation (stout) ABV 5.4; IBU 51

Luna (Belgian white) ABV 5.2; IBU 17

Rhinestone (blonde) ABV 5.3; IBU 20

Fine Bit of Stuff (Irish red) ABV 5.4; IBU 23

Intermission Amber (amber ale) ABV 5.2; IBU 31

I settled on the Irish red, which was a great sipping beer while at the same time being a real thirst-quencher. It started out slightly hoppy, with a refreshingly crisp initial taste, a smooth finish, and a hint of hoppiness in the after taste. It was the equal of any of the red ales that I’d experienced in San Antonio and Austin, where craft beer is approaching the level of seriousness found in Colorado and the Pacific Northwest.

After this first test we pushed on through West Texas flatlands that featured the incongruous sight of miles of windmills sharing space with oil pumpjacks. The heat stayed with us until we called it a day in Brownfield, which offered a number of really good Mexican restaurants and no craft beer. The next day we set off for Santa Fe in the same cauldron, temps around 115 on the car thermometer.

In Santa Fe the temperature moderated to an almost bearable 83 degrees. Our choice of brewpub was the Blue Corn Café and Brewery, a lovely second-story establishment, airy and open, and congenial; we ate under an umbrella on a pleasant, breezy patio. The beer menu offered:

Kelly’s Red Ale 6.2; 40

40K Honey Wheat 5.6, 18

Atomic Blonde Lager 5.0, 30

Road Runner IPA 6.9. 90

End of Trail Brown 5.5, 25

Gold Medal Oatmeal Stout 5.7, 25

To be consistent, I decided to start with the Kelly’s and matched it with my dinner of New Mexican shepherd’s pie, a spicy little number with enough cheese to threaten an instant coronary. At first sip, the red was a bit hoppier than I expected; it had the spruce bite that characterizes most IPAs. But the finish wasn’t as bitey as an IPA. It tasted just a bit of fruit, orange maybe, or apricot (Deb tasted it and pronounced the fruit to be lemon and lime). For dessert I tried the End of Trail Brown because, well, brown ale. It had a big, smooth flavor with a surprisingly hoppy aftertaste. I didn’t find any of the overtones of chocolate or caramel that the menu suggested but did taste the kind of light fruitiness that the Kelly’s offered.

Next day we headed for Moab, where we planned to spend two days visiting nephew Jack and his family and doing a spot of hiking. Along the way we passed through Pagosa Springs, Colorado. Deb was driving, and she suddenly pulled off and waved at an old house with a striking steel-cut sign announcing the Riff Raff Brewing Company. Here in the Colorado mountains the heat had finally broken; at 53 degrees, the car would be safe for Remy so Deb and I could both enjoy a spot of lunch and chapter three of the research project.

The Riff Raff advertises “earth powered beer,” which we were told by our friendly, efficient wait staff meant that they get the power to run everything from the brewery to the porch lights from geothermal springs. The bones of the pub showed in the serving area which still had the feel of a large living room, dining room, bedroom, and kitchen combined, plus an outdoor serving area that was superfluous on this rainy, chilly day. The clientele and serving staff were a study in mountain west America: a few old poops, cowboys, mountain bikers, firefighters (a memorial to the Granite Mountain Hot Shots hangs on one wall), and snowboarders stranded by spring.

Like most local brewpubs, the beer menu had a local flavor:

Man’s Best Friend American Kolsch 4.5, 27

Skallywag English Pale Ale 5.2, 28

Stepchild American Red 6.2, 37

Hopgoblin American IPA 6.9, 83

Plebian Porter 5.2, 36

El Duende Green Chile light ale 5.2, 30

I decided to start with my old friend the red ale, although in this case an American red rather than an Irish red, because I thought it would pair nicely with the pork sliders with redneck relish. And it did. The ale had a decidedly hoppy initial taste, and a strong spruce aftertaste. In fact, it bordered on an IPA except that the bitter aftertaste wasn’t as pronounced. It held up well with the pork sliders; I decided that unlike my Fine Bit of Stuff in San Angelo this was a sipping beer, not a thirst-quencher. I also decided to try the Plebeian Porter because, well, porter. It was another full-bodied dark ale, with actual overtones of caramel and what to me tasted like hazel nuts. The aftertaste was not annoyingly lasting. I really, really wanted to try the porter with Riff Raff’s beer-brined boiled eggs, but the sliders did me in. At any rate this Plebeian, I decided, was the kind of beer I could easily spend the afternoon with after driving for hours through Tony Hillerman country. I bought a bomber to share with the family tomorrow in Moab, and with some regret, we bade the Riff Raff goodbye and headed into the desert.

Moab was, in a word, spectacular: deep, narrow canyons, arches and monoliths carved by wind and water, great buttes. The first night we picnicked with the kids; Jack grilled steaks and we drank the Riff Raff porter and some IPA that he’d brought from Idaho. The next day we went walking at Dead Horse State Park (more arches and monoliths and high desert 90 degree heat), and later that afternoon decided to have dinner at the Moab Brewery, whose clientele skewed toward mostly young bikers and climbers, with a scattering of the older, wealthy, part year residents.

Our dinner was ok but…. And here’s the requisite warning about beer in Utah. The political fathers in Salt Lake City have decreed that no beer can flow from a tap at more than 4% alcohol. Thus, the brewers in the Beehive State can work their magic in all kind of ways, but the bottom line—the 4% ABV—will always have a real or psychological effect on the quality of the finished product. Our brewery listed:

Pilsner 13 IBU (all of the ABV will be 4)

Especial (wheat ale) 20

Over the Top Hefeweiszen 20

Dead Horse Amber 24

Rocket Bike Lager 28

Johnny’s American IPA 60

Red Rye IPA 75

Black Raven Stout 50

So, on top of the ABV restriction, Moab offered no porter, brown ale, or dunkelbrau, no Irish or American red, even. Bereft of my usual choices, in honor of our day at Dead Horse I chose the Dead Horse Amber to go with my Cajun chicken salad. It was surprisingly tasty (the ale, that is, although the salad was also quite good), very refreshing after the day in the sun. It has a light, hoppy start and finishes with an undefinable taste. Deb called it uneven, which I guess is a vague yet accurate description. It was also a little fizzy, and just seemed to lack body.

Another note on Utah beer laws: it’s ok to sell beer above 4% ABV if it’s in a bottle or a can, but not a keg; only a select few ales are brewed and bottled at the higher ABV. Just to be fair, I bought a can of Moab Pale Ale (ABV 6, IBU 50). As the IBU indicates that beer has quite a bite for a pale ale, and isn’t particularly nuanced; it’s hops, dammit, and it lacks the smoothness that makes most pale ales a thirst quencher. It’s like a chili that’s all peppers and no taste. The Moab Pale Ale is ok, but after the red ales and dark beers of the previous several days, it was a little like drinking an industrial beer with pretensions to singularity, not a singular craft beer.

The next day in Park City was more of the same. We went to the Red Rock Brewery which is part of a Utah chain of brewpubs. The Park City Red Rock was in a big industrial space, and was crowded with all ages: tourists, mostly, but some locals waiting for the weekend to go mountain biking. The beer menu was varied, but as was fitting with the space and the chain, consisted mainly of beer types, not local crafts. Thus:


Honey Wheat




Nut Brown

Special Bitter

Munich Dunkel

Lime Gose

Oatmeal Stout

And at Red Rock, no ABVs (of course) and no IBUs (surprising for a place that bills itself as a craft brewery). I tried the nut brown, which started out a little sweet but ended with a decidedly bitter after taste. No nutty taste here, and no chocolate or coffee for sure, but perhaps a hint of caramel. After the first sip, the sweet taste grows on you (I know, I’ve been corrupted by my big American breakfast cereals). And for a 4% ABV it’s pretty full bodied and more complex than it seemed to be at first. I was prepared to be disappointed because of everything it had going against it, but it was a nice midweek evening beer.

The next day we stopped at Sundance for lunch on our way to Boise and I tried a can of Polygamy Porter (motto: “Take some home to the wives”). Yeah, it’s in a can. Yeah, it’s 4% ABV. But it was really good, a porter that starts out a tad hoppy but has no hoppy aftertaste. It’s very smooth and has a lot of body for a 4%. While it didn’t seem to me to be complex enough for a sipping porter, it certainly was smooth enough for a thirst-quenching porter which was all I wanted up there at 50,000 feet in the thin air and 85 degree sun, surrounded by muscled, tanned 20-somethings eager to stop serving old geezers like me lunch so they could get off mountain biking.

Crossing the Idaho line was the beer equivalent of leaving Eastern New Mexico for the mountains above Santa Fe. After some sightseeing and visiting some friends of Deb’s, we pulled into Boise. Boise has the state capitol, an ambitious university, a successful high-tech economy, and about a quarter of a million people, with what seems like one brewpub for every hundred happy Boiseites (Boise-ers? Boiseettes? Boisenberries?) We chose the Boise Brewing Company because it‘s a coop and don’t we all want to own a small part of a brewery? I also figured that if the owners were drinking there regularly, what better quality control could there be?

As in the old days of craft brewing, the pub is located inside the big industrial brewing space, with the bar and several tables scattered inside the door and crowded up against the tanks. The clientele ran the gamut from geezers and hipsters (owners, I’m betting), to young people on bicycles. The beer menu was impressive:

Broad Street Blonde 4.5, 16

Syringa Pale 5.5, 55 (how did this one avoid being called “double nickel pale”?)

Hip Check IPA 7.6, 100

Snowboarder Porter 5.0, 20

Slamber Amber Lager 5.0, 20

Seven Crane Cream 4.5, 16

Casual Matt Red Sesh 4.5, 40

Jagged Shard (Imperial Red) 8.4, 80

Cove Arm Dark Wheat 4.7, 20

Twin Trouble IPA Imperial 9.0, 95

Obstruction IPA 6.0, 100

Fair Dig Irish Red 5.5, 24

So I started with the Fair Dig because after a day on the hot road with many assaults on my focus I wanted an honest, hard-working beer. And the Fair Dig delivered. It was very smooth, almost sweet, citrusy, with a hint of chocolate in the aftertaste. It was not hoppy at all, and certainly wouldn’t appeal to the kind of IPA head who drifted toward anything with an IBU above 200. It was really something to cool off with, refreshing, a drinking beer rather than a sipping beer. I decided to reward myself with a Snowboarder Porter for dessert and was indeed rewarded with toast: tastes of toasted caramel, toasted hops, this was basically a toasted porter with a big porter taste. It provided a big burst of flavor with the first sip, with no overwhelming hoppiness and no obnoxious aftertaste. It was richer and fuller than the red, and definitely a sipping beer. My friendly barmaid informed me that it had just won an NABA Award earlier in the week. And well it should have. Since we were planning to spend tomorrow night with family in Joseph, Oregon, and since to my knowledge Joseph didn’t have a brewpub open on Wednesday, I picked up a six pack of Snowboarder to share.

Joseph is in northeast Oregon’s backcountry; In my memories, an angry god deluged every youthful trip I ever took into the backcountry. Nothing has changed, even though half a century divides me from those awful camping trips of yesteryear. Although we were staying in cabins, not camping, Joseph greeted us with rain, then hail, then rain again, and really, really cold. Suddenly Brownfield, Texas looked kind of appealing. Nevertheless, we summoned our Pacific Northwest roots and we managed to walk around the upper end of Wallowa Lake between rain and hail, and we had an excellent dinner with brother and sister and their spouses at the Embers, which bills itself as a brewhouse but actually serves dozens of craft beers from around the northwest rather than brewing their own. I selected Irish Death, an Irish ale from the Iron Horse Brewery in Ellensburg, WA, and was pleased with the smooth, sweet taste and the mixture of malts. The brewery prides itself on keeping the hops unobtrusive in this their flagship ale, and they have succeeded admirably. It is a nice, easy drinking beer for sitting with family, reminiscing about everything from high school awkwardness to “whatever happened to…”? The night ended too soon.

Our last day on the road before arriving in Bellingham. We drove up through central Washington to Wenatchee so we could take old Highway 2 the next day to the coast. Like every other northwest town of more than 12 unrelated people Wenatchee is home to a bazillion craft breweries. We chose the Columbia Valley Brewery because we were hungry and they had a crazy good menu featuring, among other things, Popeye’s Favorite (a spinach-stuffed hamburger), nine different kinds of mac and cheese, 4 different loaded spuds, and 10 salads. And pizzas. The clientele was, as so often was the case during our trip, a nice mixture of cowboys, hipsters, and students, with about a dozen senior citizens like me seated at a long table and enjoying the evening. The beer menu was somewhat limited:

Bomber IPA 6.7, 75

Ridgeline Stout 6.1, 44

Back Porch Kolsch 4.2, 21

Endless Summer Hefeweiszen 5.3, 15

Riverwalker Porter 7.0, 47

Wildfire Amber 6.2, 28

Sadly, no Irish red on tap. But the Riverwalker Porter was among the best I’ve had in some time. It was heavy, dense, with a big, complex taste. First impressions were that it had hints of chocolate, but I took a good mouthful and got some coffee as well. The after taste was not particularly hoppy. In fact, despite the 47 IBU rating hops do not predominate in this beer; there’s just a hint in the aftertaste, and the aftertaste is not long-lasting. Deb is my hops barometer; she’s not big on hops, and her reaction to Riverwalker was that it’s indeed complex, but the hops don’t overwhelm it. The beer held its own with Popeye’s Favorite, and it’s clear that this is a sipping beer, not a gulper or a thirst-quencher. We were warned that the food service might be a little slow (beer service was lickety-split), but the menu clearly stated “We strive to bring you the freshest, highest quality food here at Riverside Pub. So please be patient if it takes a bit longer than normal to bring you our version of Home Cooking.” The wait was worth it. Popeye’s Favorite popped out our muskles (or at least our taste buds) and readied us for whatever the road had left to assault us with. And the Riverwalker just kept on giving.

The last day we drove through Stevens Pass and connected with I-5 to get home. We arrived at two in the afternoon, plenty of time for me to pump up the tires on my bike and ride to Kulshan brewpub for a special treat, the Kulshan Transporter. The Transporter doesn’t have hints of anything, doesn’t taste like citrus or caramel. It tastes like porter. I guess it was the standard that I’d been unconsciously measuring 2000 miles of beer against.

Boy it was good to be home.

I am a retired college administrator who taught in Vietnam, Korea, the Azores, and Thailand, and worked as a chief academic officer in New York, Montana, Washington State, New Jersey, Washington DC, Hawaii, and Texas.  I now have time to write, and am trying to achieve a lifelong dream of actually making money as a writer.  I am a Victorian Studies scholar, and have published extensively in academic journals which, as you probably know, pay nothing.  I have also published several academic books, which again, as you probably know, pay nothing.  I'm hoping to build a resume of short fiction and non-fiction pieces that I can use to impress an agent, who will then work her magic in the industry and get me a contract for one of the three books I have in manuscript, and the rest will be history. 

It's so easy to daydream in Washington during harvest season, knowing I'll be at my second home in Hawaii in a month.

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