Monday, October 31, 2016

Bike and Brew: Outer Light Brewing Company, Groton

Some time ago, I decided that a beautiful sunny Saturday was the perfect time to take a bike ride from my home in New London, Connecticut, to Old Saybrook to visit a brewery that recently opened there. It turned out that the sunny day was also an exceptionally hot and humid day. With sweat running into my eyes, I decided to loop back after managing to pedal about halfway to my intended destination.

Although I wasn't able to complete this trip, it did get me thinking about other potential trips to nearby beer destinations. Southeastern Connecticut has been upping its local beer options in recent years, with six breweries or brewpubs within range of a reasonable bike ride and several more working to open their doors.

Recently, I decided to try a more modest Bike and Brew outing in the next town over. It was somewhat unplanned; I'd already done a circuit through Waterford and Montville, and could have just gone home. But with the weather forecast calling for rain the next day, I wanted to push on.

The Gold Star Bridge carries I-95 over the Thames River, and a walkway allows pedestrians and bicyclists to cross the river as well. The entrance to this walkway in New London's Hodges Square neighborhood can be a bit difficult to find, even when the bike route sign hasn't been knocked down.

The prohibition on motor scooters isn't really enforced. In fact, I came across one on this trip. I sometimes consider it a little annoying when these non-bikes use bike routes, but in general they're pretty cordial. And on the Gold Star Bridge, their only other alternative is to buzz along in the breakdown lane while freeway drivers (generally a perfect storm of aggressive motorists from Connecticut, Rhode Island, eastern Massachusetts, New York, and New Jersey) roar past at 20 mph over the speed limit.

There's no mincing words: the Gold Star Bridge is ugly as sin. There was apparently no consideration of aesthetics in the construction of this concrete and steel monstrosity in 1943, and a second parallel span added in 1972 simply mirrors the first one. The bicycle route takes you along the southbound route of I-95.

You'll also need to stay focused when biking over this route. It's narrow enough that a bicycle can't comfortably get past any other person, so it's best to dismount if you need to pass someone.

The bridge is supposedly due for some work, and my hope is that they make a better walkway. It would also be nice if they relocated it to the other span, which offers a beautiful view down the river of New London and Long Island Sound but only to northbound traffic. From the current walkway, you get a decidedly less pretty look at the Coast Guard Academy, submarine base, and upriver industrial sites through the gray suicide prevention fence.

Groton is nicknamed the "Submarine Capital of the World." It's home to the first sub base in the United States, as well as the Electric Boat submarine manufacturing facility and the USS Nautilus, the world's first nuclear submarine. I took a quick detour to see another submarine site, the National Submarine Memorial, off Bridge Street.

This memorial is quite detailed. There are marble markers for each of the 52 submarines lost during World War II, explaining when and how they were lost. Granite panels include the names of more than 3,600 sailors who died in the "Silent Service" during the war. The centerpiece of the memorial is the conning tower for the USS Flasher, which was built in Groton and credited with destroying more than 100,000 tons of Japanese shipping.

Not far away is Fort Griswold, an earthworks fortification that was the site of a little-known Revolutionary War battle. Benedict Arnold led a British attack that burned New London and attacked the fort in 1781. The fighting at the Battle of Groton Heights was particularly bloody, and some accounts hold that the British ruthlessly massacred Colonel William Ledyard and several other colonial soldiers after they had surrendered.

A 135-foot obelisk was erected in memory of the battle, and it's easily visible around both Groton and New London. When it's open, you can climb to the top for some excellent panoramic views. A museum is located at the foot of the monument.

The interior of the fort is pretty basic. The fenced-in area in the foreground marks where Colonel Ledyard fell, and another marker on one of the ramparts where a free black soldier killed a British major before falling in battle.

Not for the claustrophobic, this tunnel leads to the lower portion of the fort. Several cannons were set up after the Civil War, and their mounts are still visible. This site is one of many parts of Groton where you can get a nice view of the New London skyline and the ferries on the river.

Be careful about when and where you bike through Groton. The city is teeming with busy highways, and you're likely to run into a ton of traffic if you try a ride when Electric Boat or Pfizer employees are getting into work. I took a route that wound through several condominium neighborhoods, and even this path skirted the R&D entrance to Pfizer.

At the southernmost end of Groton, you come across the pleasant campus of Avery Point. This is a secondary location of the University of Connecticut, and the Avery Point Light is one of the more prominent features here. It was built in 1942, the last lighthouse to be constructed in Connecticut, and restored in 2006. If you live in New England, you may have seen it on a bottle of Berkshire Brewing Company's "Avery Point Ale."

Avery Point is also the home to the Branford House, a striking mansion constructed for a family that made its fortune in railroads and steamships. It was later used by the Coast Guard before becoming part of the UConn campus. Its beautiful panoramic views make it a popular spot for weddings, and a wedding party was actually taking some pictures at the shore when I arrived; you can just see them (and the photographer) in the lower left of this photo.

From Avery Point, I swung over to check out Eastern Point Beach. It was definitely a popular day for weddings, as another ceremony was set up here. Unfortunately, this was about the time the spitting rain turned into a more sustained deluge. I saw the soaked bride being hurried to safety right before I took shelter on the porch of the building that provides restrooms and a snack bar during the summer.

Eventually the rain slackened enough to permit a soggy but manageable ride toward my destination. Outer Light Brewing Company was founded in 2013, and at the time was one of only three craft breweries in the region. The space is divided between the brewing tanks and a taproom, which includes several tables, an enormous game collection, and plenty of brochures to order delivery from local restaurants.

Outer Light has been extremely successful in the past few years. They built up a lot of excitement before the launch, and you'll always find a decent crowd at the taproom when it's open. Several local restaurants now carry their beer on tap, and they've started bottling the most popular varieties (the Lonesome Boatman red ale, SUBduction IPA, and Libation Propaganda Coffee Stout).

The bartender complimented me for my "dedication" in biking to the brewery despite the rain. It was a nice remark, although I think I told him that I hadn't really expected that I would be battling the elements. It was also kind of them to compliment a patron who arrived soaked in rain and sweat instead of asking them to vacate the premises in favor of visitors who looked less like a drowned rat.

I went with the Academy GPA, a German pale ale with a nice bite of hop to it. Outer Light often names its beers after local features, and this one was clearly a nod to the Coast Guard presence across the river.

I could have done without the rain (or the sudden leg cramp I got a few hours later, no doubt brought on by the fact that this was the first lengthy ride I'd done in ages). But it was a very pleasant route, one that coincidentally matched the length of a marathon. If you've got other recommendations for Groton sites to see, leave a comment!

Full ride: 26.2 miles
Just the Groton portion: 15.8 miles