Sunday, December 3, 2017

Bike and Brew: These Guys Brewing Company and Epicure Brewing

For the first time, we're heading north.

I don't even mean for the first time in this Bike and Brew series, although that's also true. Since I've started biking in the region, I've found plenty of interesting routes to the west and east of New London as well as a beautiful ride to the south after hopping a ferry. But I've never made a straight shot north from the city.

Why not?

That's why not.

This is a look at where I-95 passes through the northern part of New London and vomits out a bunch of frontage roads and off-ramps and such. There's not really an easy way to get through this whole mess on two wheels. But I wanted to pay a visit to two breweries in Norwich, so I would have to find a way.

At first, the route to the north is quite pleasant. A quick detour off the Old Norwich Road brings you to the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, a gorgeous building with plenty of rotating exhibits and free admission for New London residents. This is located a stone's throw from Connecticut College, one of three college campuses in the city.

Unfortunately, the former New London to Norwich road rather quickly merges with Route 32. This provides a straight shot up to the latter city, and it has a decent breakdown lane, but it also serves as something of an impromptu highway. It's two lanes with a speed limit of 55; people are more likely to cruise along at 70, right on each other's bumpers. I preferred to stay away from this type of traffic and meet up with Route 32 later.

That meant taking some back roads through the town of Montville and, well, it wasn't the most scenic of routes.

I mentioned Montville in my ride to the Fox Farm Brewery, noting how it's made up of a lot of little villages and no easy way to get from Point A to Point B within the town. That was the case here, as I wound up doglegging over several secluded roads and drifting westward as I pedaled my way north.

Montville has a fair amount of industrial sites. One road that served as a bit of a shortcut essentially carved its way through a massive scrapyard. The photo above is of Rand Whitney Containerboard, a factory which makes packaging materials.

I was a bit worried when the suggested route went over three roads with "hill" in their name. Lynch Hill Road did indeed prove a bit too steep for my leg muscles and limited gears, forcing me to walk for a bit. But Raymond Hill Road was flatter and offered this pleasant view of the emerging fall foliage.

Unfortunately, this area was also a dumping ground for passing rednecks, good ol' boys, frat bros, or what-have-you to toss out their Fireball nips and cans of crappy beer. I know, I shouldn't judge people for drinking the cheaper domestic stuff. But it can be a little hard when Coors and Bud and Busch cans contribute so much to roadside litter. Say what you will about hipster craft beer drinkers, but they're not going to pitch their growlers and mug club vessels out the side of a moving vehicle.

The hill on Fitch Hill Road worked in my favor, giving me an easy downhill coast back to an intersection with a quieter section of Route 32.

Ah, it seems the Combine have established one of their Citadels in Montville.

No, that's actually the Mohegan Sun resort casino, run by the Mohegan tribe. In plotting out this route, I considered it the last bad intersection I wanted to avoid before hopping onto Route 32. Once I was past the flow of motorized gamblers, it was a fairly short trip into Norwich.

Norwich and New London share a few similarities. They're both larger cities in the more rural environs of eastern Connecticut; Norwich is considerably bigger in area and population, with more than four times as much land area and about 13,000 more people than New London. They've both seen better days and are trying to revitalize their downtown areas. Both tend to be looked down on by their whiter, richer suburban neighbors. Both have made some steps toward bringing in some interesting attractions and making the city an interesting place to visit.

New London and Norwich also sometimes seem like they're fighting each other a bit. My wife, who had been living in one of Norwich's outlying villages when we first met, had a date with me in New London a few months after we met to check out its downtown food stroll. When she mentioned this to a friend, she was surprised that they gave her a dire warning about going to New London at night. She'd formerly lived in downtown Norwich and known it was fighting the misconception that it was a seedy and dangerous place, so she was surprised that Norwich folks would be casting the same aspersions on New London.

Maybe it has something to do with the two cities having the same goal of bringing more businesses and attractions to their downtown areas, so some people might think denigrating the other city will help their own. Or maybe it's because Norwich and New London have the oldest high school football rivalry in the United States. Or because New London is never going to let Norwich forget that Benedict Arnold is one of their native sons, and that he led the British in a raid that burned down New London during the Revolutionary War.

One of the big draws of Norwich is its architecture. There are a lot of attractive structures around downtown, including this giant brick and granite pile of a city hall. This was completed in 1873, back in the more industrial days of the city, and continues to be the most prominent building in downtown.

I extended my ride to circle around the outskirts of Norwich and visit a few notable sites in the city. Another good example of the impressive architecture in the city is Norwich Free Academy, a public high school serving Norwich and the surrounding area. It's a campus style museum, and an expansive art museum is included in the turreted Slater Building.

The suggested route to get to NFA took me past a small park I was unaware existed in Norwich. This shows up on the map as simply "Native American Monuments," and it's a small memorial set up on a former Mohegan burial ground. I didn't realize until later that there's a larger monument to the first Mohegan sachem, Uncas, located around the corner.

Norwich is also the home to Mohegan Park. This is a rather vast park for a small city, encompassing 360 acres with the recent addition of 85 more. There are several miles of trails through wooded areas, a pleasant pond, a pavilion, gazebo, playgrounds, the works.

The pond in the park also contributed to a major disaster, unfortunately. In 1963, the earthen pond holding back Spaulding Pond collapsed after a few days of steady rain. Millions of gallons of water rushed into downtown, killing five people. A small memorial at the dam commemorates the tragedy and lists the names of those who lost their lives.

From Mohegan Park, it's an easy downhill ride back into downtown Norwich. There are several examples of beautiful architecture here, but unfortunately many of these buildings are vacant or derelict. Main Street is fairly short and largely empty, aside from a few restaurants which have managed to carve a foothold. A Social Security office takes up quite a bit of space as well.

There's a massive abandoned textile mill in the downtown area within sight of City Hall. Across the street, four barber shops and hair salons are somehow surviving right next door to each other.

But from this area, you can also spot a building that's been converted into artists' apartments as well as a performance space called the Chestnut Street Playhouse. And you just need to turn around when standing in front of the old mill to see a miniature millennial district: two breweries and a co-working space called Foundry 66.

After chaining up my bike, I paid a visit to the first brewery. These Guys Brewing opened in 2015, replacing a bar that abruptly closed after the owners divorced. The brewery did a complete renovation of the interior, creating a beautiful rustic mixture of wood, brick, and copper. The owners say the spot has been used as a saloon since 1883, and they revel in the fact that it apparently saw no slowdown in business during Prohibition and kept going as a bootlegging venue.

These Guys might qualify more as a brewpub, in that they have an extensive food menu to go with their beers. It was around lunchtime when I stopped in, so I ordered a bowl of corn and clam chowder - my two favorite chowders together in one bowl, with slab bacon to boot! About halfway through I realized that a thick milky chowder might not be the best thing to go with a long bike ride, but thankfully it didn't end up producing any ill effects.

I wound up getting a flight of four beers from These Guys. I gave the best marks to the NarWitch, a tasty pumpkin brew with a high ABV. I also liked the flavor on the Thames River Red, complimented the balance of The 1942 (although it wasn't as hoppy as I expected for an IPA) and thought the White Anniversary Ale was a decent light beer with a nice crisp finish.

A brief walk down the street took me to Epicure Brewing. It's one of the newest breweries in Connecticut, opening in June as a collaboration of six owners. It's located within the old press room of the Norwich Bulletin which, like many newspapers these days, has outsourced its daily printing operations and moved to smaller quarters.

Epicure makes good use of the lofty space, bringing in large paintings and other artwork to decorate the walls. One of the most striking features is a charred homebrewing system suspended over the main entrance and bathed in fuchsia light. The tanks were pulled from the ruins of the home of head brewer Ken Thiffeault and his wife Kerrie after a lightning strike burned it down.

The brewery's logo and table are hexagon-shaped in recognition of the six-owner dynamic, and this dynamic seems to extend to the beer offerings as well. A pint goes for $6, and flights are particularly generous: six beers (served in a muffin tin) for $12. I didn't think it was a good idea to have a second flight before the ride home, so I went with a pint of Lightning Strikes Twice.

This oatmeal stout is named for the incident described above, since the Thiffeault's home has already been struck by lightning once before it was destroyed. It's a good solid dark beer, one I'd highly recommend to anyone who stops by Epicure.

For the return journey, I opted to take the straight shot back down Route 32. It was the fastest way home, and it seemed like the southern route would avoid the dangerous intersections a bicyclist would encounter going north.

As happens on these trips, unfortunately, I soon found myself fatigued by the rolling hills, opposing winds, and fairly full stomach. Route 32 also had some dicey spots. I was particularly annoyed to find that there was practically no shoulder in the area around Mohegan Sun; many of the casino's employees walk to work, so it seemed pretty unconscionable that the road layout there would make virtually no concessions to pedestrians or bicyclists.

Route 32 isn't the most scenic of roads. It's basically one long commercial corridor, jammed full of small business parks, retailers, restaurants, and strip malls. Thankfully, it usually had a pretty generous shoulder.

Just before I got back into New London, I remembered that there was one extremely dangerous intersection that I had forgotten about. An exit from I-395 directs traffic onto a two-lane portion of Route 32, which means that cars shoot into this merge at freeway speeds and don't slow down unless they hit a traffic light. Thankfully, there was enough room to check for oncoming traffic, get to the shoulder, and get off on a more sedate road for the last mile or so home.

Edging out the distance on the Beer'd Brewing Company trip by about half a mile, this proved to be my longest Bike and Brew yet.

Total mileage: 31.81 miles

Previous Bike and Brew Outings:
Outer Light Brewing Company
Beer'd Brewing Company
Fox Farm Brewery
Shelter Island Craft Brewery and Greenport Harbor Brewing Company
Barley Head Brewery

Friday, November 3, 2017

I Make Fun of State Quarters: Illinois

All right, Illinois, do your worst. What have you got? Is it the oh-so-original approach of combining the state motto with the state bird, and maybe adding the state bird if there's room? Is it a vista of Lake Michigan and the phrase, "We have waves, too, when it's not frozen"? Let's see it.

Words. Should have brought...a poet.

All right, it's not perfect. There's that awkward phrasing where they say they're the 21st state in the 21st century, but it looks more like "century" has been left over as a Mint typo. There's that weird little dribble at the bottom of the Illinois outline, as if the state is trying to claim a few beachheads in Kentucky.

But still, after scrutinizing quarters whose designs range from Deep South states celebrating Socialist icons to giant birds that will kill us all, it kind of floors you to see a quarter that condenses all of its key identities into an inch-wide piece of currency, and does it right.

What comes to mind when you think of Illinois? Odds are it's Chicago and Abraham Lincoln. The city is one of the most populous in the country, and Lincoln is widely considered one of the best Presidents, if not the best.

Chicago is, of course, represented by the Sears Tower. Yes, I know it's supposed to be the Willis Tower now. But for one thing, it was still the Sears Tower when this quarter debuted. Also, no one wants to call the iconic building by the name slapped onto it by an insurance broker that bought office space for a song during the Great Recession and picked up the naming rights for free. Chicagoans responded with a rousing, "Yeah sure, we'll call it that when the Cubbies win the friggin' World Series," and then kept calling it the Sears Tower anyway.

The Coleman Tower in New York keeps annoying the Willis Tower by demanding to know what it's talking about. (Source)

It's always a little annoying to see companies buy the naming rights for something because they think it will improve their brand. In some cases, it can lead to outright loathing of the company. Around the same time the Willis Group was picking up the naming rights for the Sears Tower, the new stadium for the New York Mets was being renamed from Shea Stadium to Citi Field, after Citigroup. It was subsequently nicknamed "Sorry We Screwed The Entire Economy But Still Got A Bailout" Ballpark.

To be fair, though, the Sears Tower name is an early example of this trend. There's also the fact that the retailer left the building way back in 1988, although it kept the naming rights for awhile. The Willis Group has since sold the skyscraper, but is shelling out $1 million a year for the right to retain the name and have everyone ignore it and call the building the Sears Tower. But a new name could come when the rights expire in 2025.

On to young strapping Abe Lincoln.

Honest Abe was born in Kentucky, but spent the formative years of his legal and political career in Illinois before he was elected President. And besides, Kentucky had probably already ceded any claim on a Lincoln quarter in favor of portraying a famous horsey race.

So this would be the third piece of currency to feature Lincoln, after the penny and the five dollar bill. I could have sworn that the update to the U.S. currency designs included upgrading the handsomeness of the presidents, but the only thing searches on this topic revealed was a disturbing amount of sites ranking the commanders-in-chief by hotness.

That said, the Lincoln on this quarter is pretty damn good looking. Kudos to the design for making him rather muscular, which is historically accurate considering that Lincoln the rail-splitter was incredibly strong. His feat of holding an axe at arm's length between a thumb and forefinger seems mundane until you try it at Home Depot and have to give up before a sales associate can even yell at you. He also wrestled for sport, and responded to a brawl at one political rally by giving an agitator who was about to attack a friend the old heave-ho.

Kudos also for the face not only being recognizable as Lincoln, but also as a Lincoln who is striding toward his future with an expression of complete badassery. He's like some kind of 19th century John McClane.

You know all those lame Chuck Norris jokes that have faded away as Chuck Norris closes in on 80? I think we can safely reassign them to Illinois State Quarter Lincoln. This guy sees the rabble-rousing of a bunch of slave-owning plantation masters in the South, and with a single look he says, "Bring it on."

So we've got two decent state symbols in a row. It's like two bars on the slot machine. Come on, one more and we get the jackpot!


All right, fine. This is actually a decent way to encapsulate another aspect of the Illinois identity. Illinois ranks right smack in the middle in the ranking of states by land area, and Chicago is the only city in the state with more than a million people. The rest of the state is crammed full of farms.

According to the Illinois Department of Agriculture, the state is the nation's top producer of pumpkins. It's also a leading producer of corn, pigs, and soybeans, with significant production of wheat and hay and...

You know, let's just cut it off there. Forgive me for not finding the Illinois sorghum crop as interesting as one of the world's tallest skyscrapers and Sexy Abe Lincoln.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Bike and Brew: Barley Head Brewery

I knew I was taking a few risks with this particular Bike and Brew.

The main concern was that my back tire had been having persistent flats, with each repair revealing a new puncture in the tube. There were three patches on it for this particular journey, but the tire had held air for a few days before I set out. Nevertheless, I was crossing my fingers that I wouldn't find myself marooned far from home in a touristy town that somehow doesn't have a bike shop.

I was also taking a new route into Mystic, and realized that Google Maps could potentially be sending me on an inaccessible route. The app's warning that bike routes are still in beta did little to assuage my worries. But more on that later.

My destination was the Barley Head Brewery, and once again that meant a trip across the horrid Gold Star Bridge. But instead of retracing the recommended route I took to get to Beer'd Brewing Company, I opted to do a bit more of a coastal route. So I've been over the bridge plenty of times, but this might be the first time I rode under it as well.

The bridge has a narrow bike route, but the token friendliness to cyclists ends pretty quickly. The sidewalk brings you to a neighborhood near Outer Light Brewing Company and rather unceremoniously dumps you into an off-ramp from I-95.

The streets are a little kinder after that point, at least until you get to Route 1. There's an option to avoid this road, by taking a longer route that swings past the Groton-New London Airport, but I decided to grit my teeth and hope for the best.

Route 1 has a ridiculously narrow shoulder, at least two lanes of traffic at any time, and far too many curb cuts for smoke shops and shopping plazas and all manner of consumerism. In short, plenty of opportunities to get sideswiped by an inattentive driver or cut off by a some jerk pulling halfway into the road before even looking while leaving McDonald's. It's not a nice road at all for bikers, but thankfully I managed to get to the quieter end of it unharmed.

One odd direction given to bicyclists heading south in this area is to take the Poquonnock Bridge boardwalk. I'm guessing there's been at least one hapless rider who has done so and been chewed out by some angry person who tells them it's a boardwalk, not a boardride.

I was not to be that rider. In fact, I was the only person on this rather lovely route. I slowed down to enjoy the views of the Poquonnock River and the odd rumble of my tires rolling over the boards.

After leaving the boardwalk, one option involved taking the G&S Trolley Trail toward my destination. This is a short rail trail, following a former Groton to Stonington trolley line and ending up near Haley Farm State Park. Instead, I continued to follow the outlined route to Bluff Point State Park.

Bluff Point is an absolutely beautiful state park. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection describes it as "the last remaining significant piece of undeveloped land along the Connecticut coastline." I guess that means the state has at least some insignificant undeveloped lands on the shore.

Coastal real estate has always been in high demand in Connecticut, and Bluff Point wasn't always undeveloped. There was a collection of shorefront cottages there until the Hurricane of 1938 obliterated them, and the peninsula was eventually given over to conservation. Bluff Point is nestled in between two other promontories: Groton Long Point, where million dollar houses are crammed together like sardines, and Mumford Cove, which I'll get to shortly.

It seems like there's always a pretty good crowd at Bluff Point. The state park has good boat access for canoes and kayaks, is popular with mountain bikers, and is a vigorous but not overwhelming walk to the namesake cliffs and a sweeping of Long Island Sound.

This is another place where the Google Maps instructions got a little wonky. Instead of sticking to the roads, it sent me along the unimproved trail that runs along the railroad track and connects Bluff Point with Haley Farm State Park. It was manageable for most of the way, but it does get a little rough. Once it hit a particularly rocky section, I decided it was better to walk the bike to avoid chancing yet another puncture.

And then it came time to see whether the first risk was going to pay off.

Hey, it did!

That's the newly installed security measure at Mumford Cove to separate the subdivision from us dirty plebs who want to quietly walk, run, or bike there. Granted, it's a private neighborhood, and they apparently had to scold people every now and then for parking at the cul-de-sac near this area to access the state parks. Some of the comments on this critical editorial suggest that the barrier was mainly an effort to deter the gangs of idiots who recklessly ride dirt bikes and ATVs. Not that there's anything to stop said idiot gangs from coming into Mumford Cove from its main road, easily bypassing this monstrosity of "No Trespassing" signs and warnings about security cameras.

Thankfully, I'd recently learned that some people in Mumford Cove are just as likely to be opposed to the gate. One even posted the passcode on a Facebook page for Haley Farm State Park, and some residents leave the gate open whenever they walk out to the trails.

The exit from Mumford Cove passes the road into Groton Long Point and crosses an inlet near Esker Point Beach, offering a nice view from a small bridge. From there, it was just a short ride to my first destination: the village of Noank.

Groton is sometimes criticized for its bureaucracy. The city is carved up into a number of distinct communities, some with their own governments and police departments. Noank occupies yet another Groton peninsula, although its services are all part of Groton proper. The area has a rich maritime history, having hosted shipbuilding enterprises and fishermen on the hunt for the village's namesake oyster. It's still a popular place for boaters, with plenty of marinas on the coast.

Today, Noank is a pleasant seaside retreat. It's not as well-known as Mystic, but the village has plenty of historic churches, a few shops, and some popular lobster shacks.

If you head down to the beach off Main Street, you'll spot this modest marker on a former store maintained by the Noank Historical Society. This commemorates the quick, secret wedding ceremony that married famous aviatrix Amelia Earhart to the publisher George P. Putnam. The marker is correct in that they got married in Noank, although not in this exact spot; the ceremony actually took place in Putnam's mother's house, which still stands as a private residence.

And then on into the soft underbelly of Mystic via Route 215, a different approach from what I took during the swing through the town on the way to the Beer'd Brewing Company. Although located a bit outside the main downtown area, the southern part of Mystic is packed with several popular restaurants. Barley Head Brewery is located here as well. But before I stopped in there, I locked up my bike and wandered off to visit the Mystic Sidewalk Art Festival.

The festival is billed as the "oldest of its kind in the Northeast," celebrating 70 years in 2017. Artists reserve booths throughout Mystic, offering paintings, sculptures, artisan's goods, and so on. Main Street gets a little crowded, since vendors are limited to the sidewalks, but a few side roads are completely shut off from traffic.

I'd been meaning to get to the Sidewalk Art Festival for several years, but for one reason or another hadn't been able to do so. I was happy to see that Carrie Jacobson was still coming to this event each year. We were co-workers at the hyperlocal news site Patch, back before it was bought out by one of those "efficiency expert" type of firms whose efficiency expertise boils down to, "Duh, people cost money, let's fire people and save money." Carrie is now a full-time artist, and you can follow her artwork, travels, and dog sightings at her blog "The Accidental Artist."

Before getting to the brewery, I wound up browsing the works of several artists, buying an amusing collection of watercolor Star Wars themed comics from Rhode Island artist Greg Stones and a copy of a Mystic postcard pictorial history co-authored by a friend of mine, and getting some lunch. The Barley Head Brewery wasn't too hard to find, although it was a bit tucked away. You access it by going down a short set of stairs off Water Street, making it seem like a bit of a Cheers-like venue.

The Barley Head Brewery had to get past a few hurdles before it opened up. The owner, Drew Rodgers, tried to open a brewery in Mystic way back in 2015 but was rejected by zoning officials. He also found that his preferred name had a copyright on it, and had to push back the opening day a little further due to the birth of his son.

The venue still seemed a little sparse, although there was comfortable bench seating along one wall. And my past experience with a hangout spot opening with accommodations that were a little sparse was Washington Street Coffee House, which debuted when its tables still smelled like sawdust but has become one of the most popular places in New London, so a modest start isn't really a disadvantage.

Although there are flights available, the brewery was unfortunately down to only one option for pours. I went with it, making my first introduction to Barley Head Brewery their "Saison Du Maison." It's a combination saison and IPA, and it manages to balance the two styles fairly well.

My bike was parked not too far away, and I was happy to find that the back tire still seemed firm. I then headed out for the return journey.

I headed out on Route 1, intending to eventually take a side road to link up with Route 184 and hop back on the Gold Star Bridge. I was soon defeated by this rather persistent hill, having to get off and walk for awhile.

But even after the road flattened out, the journey seemed a little more taxing than expected. I initially chalked it up to the effect of having a beer and meal before this ride, but eventually began to suspect the bike. By the time I got back onto the Gold Star Bridge, I was feeling the bumps in the road far more than I should have. I still managed to complete the journey home, at which point I checked to see just how much air the tire had lost.

Oh that's not good.

Yeah, that's not good at all.

I scheduled a trip to Wayfarer Bicycle, one of New London's bike shops, not too long after this. They informed me that three pieces of glass had managed to worm their way inside the tire at some point, and these were no doubt to blame for the recurring flats. They set me up with a new tube as well as a portable pump for emergencies, so hopefully I won't run into any problems on my next Bike and Brew.

Mileage total: 22.8 miles

Previous Bike and Brew outings:
Outer Light Brewing Company
Beer'd Brewing Company
Fox Farm Brewery
Shelter Island Craft Brewery and Greenport Harbor Brewing Company