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, complemented 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

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