Monday, May 22, 2017

Bike and Brew: Fox Farm Brewery

Last year, I interviewed three people who were looking to bolster the somewhat anemic brewing scene in southeastern Connecticut. Each one was hoping to get their business off the ground by the end of year. Each one missed their target.

But over the weekend, one of these venues made its soft opening. After some careful renovations and some more recent tap takeovers, Fox Farm Brewery in Salem was officially open for business.

I was contemplating a bike ride on Sunday when my wife informed me of this development, having learned the news through Reddit. I immediately decided that another Bike and Brew was in order.

This marks the first time I've headed west from New London for a brewery trip. Until Fox Farm Brewery opened, there wasn't much in that direction. The last time I went west with a brewery destination in mind, I was trying to get to the 30 Mile Brewing Company in Old Saybrook and cut the trip short after struggling against scorching temperatures. The next closest breweries west of New London are Steady Habit Brewing Company in Haddam and Fat Orange Cat Brew Co. in Colchester. Those are both about three hours away by bike, not exactly a casual outing.

So it was nice to set out in a direction that didn't take me over the Gold Star Bridge's terrible bike route for a change. Instead, I took Vauxhall Street out of New London and into Waterford.

The denser urban area ends pretty much immediately after this sign. The town line is just beyond an overpass crossing I-95, with views north to the shopping areas that the highway has neatly sliced down the middle. Once you pass this, there's a single professional center and then nothing but residences.

Right after I moved to Connecticut, I heard a public service announcement on bicycling safety that bluntly stated, "Connecticut is not a good place to ride a bike." It's not strictly true; most drivers are actually pretty respectful of cyclists. But it can be a little scary trying to share the road on two-lane highways with nonexistent breakdown/bike lanes.

Vauxhall Street avoids one of these treacherous routes, since it bypasses a road which becomes absolutely clogged with drivers trying to reach the Crystal Mall and other retail locations. Instead, it loops around Lake Konomoc before intersecting with Route 85 in a quieter location. This part of Connecticut is full of relatively unknown parks and preserved spaces, so I was surprised to find an Audubon Society preserve not too far from the lake.

Up until this point, I hadn't been feeling particularly up to the task of this bike trip. Maybe I was a little undernourished after a late breakfast and no lunch, or maybe the hills were a little more than I expected. At any rate, the back roads had seemed much more arduous while the highway immediately seemed much speedier.

Soon after coming onto Route 85, you pass the Nature's Art Center and Dinosaur Place. This is something of a far-ranging tourist stop, encompassing such wares as jewelry and an antiques museum, but it's probably best known for the dinosaurs. Several life-sized thunder lizards are distributed throughout the place, including the mascot "Monty" (for the town of Montville where he resides).

Route 85 is almost a straight shot to Fox Farm Brewery, although it can be something of a challenge on a bike. Once the road crosses from Montville into Salem, the generous breakdown lane often shrinks to a white lane painted mere inches from the side of the road. There's also at least one section which is a rather relentless incline, though if you get past this you'll be rewarded with a steady downhill into one of Salem's central village areas.

The recently famous Salem rotary greets you not long before you get to the turnoff for Fox Farm Brewery. This used to be a dicey intersection before they decided to replace it with a dicey, overly complicated roundabout. I lingered here for a few minutes and heard maybe five car horns blaring, presumably as people confused with the concept of a rotary that requires you to choose a lane cut them off. It's apparently helped cut down on accidents, though.

A beer-conscious friend of mine has frequently checked in at 2 Brothers Pizza in Salem. This pizzaria is reportedly very knowledgeable of local craft brews, and was even mentioned by the Fox Farm Brewery owner when I did my interview. I was feeling a bit famished and contemplating whether to stop in for a bite to eat, but it was unfortunately closed on Sundays.

Before long, you get the turnoff for Music Vale Road. Then it's just a short distance to Fox Farm Brewery. The owners renovated a former dairy barn on the site, with about half the space dedicated to the brewing tanks and the rest given over to a taproom. There were also a few outdoor seating areas, although the outside crowd far exceeded the spaces available on such a beautiful sunny day.

Fox Farm Brewery has a few unique characteristics. For one thing, the tap handles are made of shovel handles. This was a result of a last minute creative impulse after the owners realized that the handles of the old shovel handles found in the barn could be put to new use. They even put out a call over social media not long before opening, asking if anyone could supplement their shovel supply.

The price list included the dollar amount for different sizes of growlers as well as full pours or half pours. The full pour glasses seemed a bit short of a full pint, while the half pour glasses usually went for three bucks. A sign at the counter warned that there was a limit of two full pours or four half pours per customer.

It was also interesting to see a certain regimentation at the brewery. Those interested in filling a growler were asked to take a number, and an LED display behind the counter added to the deli counter experience of waiting until your turn was up before you could get your beer. Similar to the limit on glasses, there was a growler limit of nine liters.

Word of a new brewery gets around quickly. Even though this was a soft opening, it was absolutely mobbed. There was some grumbling about the length of the lines, despite the fact that five or six people were manning the taps. But they were still able to keep people served fairly quickly.

For the opening weekend, Fox Farm Brewery was offering five beers: two American pale ales, an IPA, a pilsner, and a porter. There was also nitro coffee, but it was actual coffee from Ashlawn Farm Coffee instead of the nitro coffee stout I was hoping for. I went with the Hearthbound porter, which had a nice rich flavor, and enjoyed it in the upstairs seating/standing area which overlooks both the taproom and the brewing tanks.

I usually don't go for a second beer on these outings, but decided to max out my limit. When I joked about this while ordering one of the American pale ales, and the bartender replied that the limit isn't too strictly enforced.

Both of the American pale ales have the same ABV and name (Roam), but are prepared in different ways. One uses Nelson Sauvin hops which apparently give the beer a flavor similar to Sauvignon Blanc. I went with the other version, which uses Citra and Mosaic hops.

I took a brief stroll with this beer and found a makeshift hopyard at the silo. The strings only went about halfway up, but it was still a pretty neat sight.

I was hoping to find a tree to climb, because how often can you drink beer in a tree on a farm, but opted to settle down against a tree trunk instead. I finished the Roam while reading The Eternal Footman, the last book in James Morrow's trilogy on how the world reacts to the discovery of God's enormous corpse floating in the Atlantic Ocean.

For the route back, I took the more rural route recommended by Google Maps. The scenery was beautiful, although it could be challenging. In addition to some perpetual uphills, the side of the road was often deteriorating, full of random sand patches, or otherwise sketchy enough to force me more towards the middle of the lane on several occasions. Thankfully the traffic was very light.

Montville has a bizarre transportation layout. The major roads in town often do little more than nip through the corners, while the central villages are accessible by twisting minor routes. The return route passed through Oakdale, distinguished by a large shopping plaza which burned down in 2010 and has since been rebuilt. The pizza parlor and pet groomer and other shops which were once here have long since found other storefronts, and the new complex is oddly devoid of picture windows, so now it's apparently home to businesses like this net manufacturer.

Then it was back into the rural roads. Like, serious country roads. So country that I got the Bob Denver song stuck in my head.

So country that someone made a cinder block garage even uglier.

So country that I came across the other side of that Audubon Society bird sanctuary.

So country that it took me past the Waterford Country School.

Actually, this campus style school for at risk kids was one of the last landmarks before the route completed its circle back to Vauxhall Street. It was in the middle of yet another arduous hill, but not long after was the intersection for the way home.

Mileage total: 28.1 miles

Previous Bike and Brew Outings:
Outer Light Brewing Company
Beer'd Brewing Company

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