Man Voyage II: New York’s Hudson Valley and CT Ale Trail

CatskillI recently contributed a write-up to The Oracular Beard about Man Voyage, an annual three day male bonding jaunt Jared and I embark on every August. The piece focused on the inaugural 2013 trip around the Delmarva peninsula and northern Maryland, in search of good food, craft beer and the settling of nerves as we both inched closer to fatherhood. Without even discussing its future, we knew Man Voyage would become a yearly affair, and I’m happy to report that 2014’s venture into New York’s Hudson Valley and down the Connecticut coastline was bigger and better yet.

 

The journey evolved a bit this year, with the addition of hiking, hard liquor and an Echo & Sway gig, but the spirit remained the same. For a full manifesto please read Man Voyage I: The Delmarva Peninsula.

 

We began by climbing I-81 into Northeastern PA (or NEPA if you want to sound cutesy) for a stop at Dante’s Deli in Childs, just outside of Honesdale. Their six pack has some good reviews on Beer Advocate and we were anxious to try some bottled brews by recent Carbondale startup 3 Guys and a Beer’d. Clever wordplay there. The selection wasn’t as abundant as BA suggested but we managed to score two of the 3 Guys beers and some singles from NY breweries we’d never tried. Not an hour into the trip and we’d already delved into the Combos supplied by Jared’s lovely wife so we weren’t hungry enough to order food but it sure smelled good, and the lady who ran the register was more than friendly and jumped at the chance to chat us up about 3 Guys brew, even telling us where we could get it locally on tap.

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A big change in the journey this year was a heavier use of back roads over major highways, inspired by Jared’s 35 mph cross country moped journey in 2010, and the lack of any interesting scenery during last year’s trek along a large stretch of I-80. This is Man Voyage after all, we’re not in a hurry – why shouldn’t we take the road less traveled and enjoy some of the fine scenery this country has to offer? And so we headed east via NY Route 6 into the boonies, where we stumbled upon a delightful second stop.

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We were ambling through Bethel, NY when Jared noticed a tie-dye colored sign for Catskill Distilling Company. Why was this place not listed on any of the Hudson Valley beer/wine/food trail guides I read through? We made a quick turnaround and found a gorgeous rustic tasting room, well stocked with seven liquors distilled on premise and a two-story picture window with a view of all the action. The gal behind the bar was quick to fill us in on their brief history, winning an award for best bourbon in a competition they didn’t enter, and created by a completely sober distiller who has more interest in breeding horses than he does hard liquor. Tastings varied between $2 and $4 per, save for the feature of the day (gin) which was free. Jared isn’t much of a hard liquor guy but left with two large bottles of gin. Just goes to show that when it’s made well, spirits can grow on even the most loyal of beer loyalists.

 

Turns out this weekend was the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, so we got to see several couples around town who’d dusted off the outfits they wore to the festival and were sporting them once again. They looked about as graceful as you’d imagine. And if you’ve ever wondered what Bethel Woods looks like where Woodstock was held, it’s just a field.

 

Java Love was just up the road in White Lake and though we were only three hours in on the first day, we needed to fuel up for our afternoon hike. The shop is situated on a steep hill overlooking White Lake, in a converted old house. There’s not much room inside but you walk in to the smell of fresh roasted coffee, which was quite tasty. Jared got the bottom of the pot and it didn’t quite fill his cup so the kindly, heavily tattooed barista offered to top if off with an espresso at no extra charge rather than make us wait for him to brew a whole batch.

 

Gaby’s Cafe in downtown Ellenville, NY has rave reviews on Tripadvisor, many calling it the best Mexican they’d ever had. An oversell if I ever read one, it certainly set the stakes high and unfortunately didn’t deliver. Not bad by any means, but I suddenly feel for everyone who’s never had better Mexican than this. I realize not everyone has the means or desire to travel to Mexico but I’ve had more authentic everywhere from Toronto (El Trompo) to South Dakota (Guadelejara’s), and even our local Rey Azteca (State College) beats the hell out of Gaby’s. The margarita was fantastic though, and the people watching from our outdoor seating was outstanding. Ellenville must be a major bus stop point for this area, as most every shop downtown advertised Greyhound tickets and the main drag was bustling with colorful characters.

 

A five mile hike after large plates of Mexican cuisine doesn’t sound like the greatest idea but hey, we were hiking in the woods… plenty of room if some sort of emergency should arise. The Mohonk Preserve in Grandier, NY has several miles of hiking trails, some even fit for us not so experienced trekkers who just want to enjoy a few hours in the great outdoors. The Undercliff/Overcliff carriage road hike on the West Trapps Trailhead is a five mile loop with fantastic views of the Hudson Valley below, and rock climbers above. We’re both fairly new at this whole trying-to-stay-in-shape-so-we-can-keep-up-with-our-rapidly-growing-kids thing, but we finished the loop feeling only slightly tired, and only a bit humbled after crossing paths with two 60+ gentleman on bikes who chuckled when we asked if we were at the halfway point. I guess retirement brings out your inner smartass.

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We rested up a bit at the evening’s digs, Highland NY’s Atlas Motor Lodge before heading out for a well deserved dinner and beers. The Motor Lodge was a fascinating combination of Eastern tranquility and crazy cat lady chic. The lobby and hallways were decorated with Buddhas, dragons, red and gold curtains, and had soothing Asian music coming through the entryway speakers, with the added charm of several resident felines roaming the property (insert token gag about cats in Chinese food here) being stuffed to the gills around the clock by a woman in a bathrobe, presumably the owner. Nonetheless, I like no-frills hotels. So long as they’re not overrun by bed bugs or other unexpected living things, a $40 pricetag is much better than paying for the name of a chain hotel with no personality, especially when you spend as little time in the room as we do. We essentially need a bed and a shower.

 

Mill House Brewing Company was a short drive from Highland across the Mid-Hudson bridge into beautiful downtown Poughkeepsie (it’s hard to convey sarcasm in text, so I’ll clarify: downtown Poughkeepsie is anything but beautiful). The bridge drops you right into the ghetto, where we nearly ran over an apparent drug deal going down in the middle of a cross street as we turned to find the brewery. Ahh, the comforts of home. A quick loop around and a few blocks back toward the bridge and we were welcomed by the glowing lights of the brewery sign from the second story patio where we asked to be seated outside.

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The food and beer at MHBC were pretty good. I’d even say our kielbasa with garlic pierogies and caraway sour cream was great, and oak-aged Scottish ale, black IPA, PK Pale and Velvet Panda stout on nitro were better than average. The terrace is nice, as is the dim lit brick and iron bar area where we enjoyed our last beer after rain chased us inside. And yet, something about the place just didn’t sit right. It didn’t feel… authentic? We both picked up a very unorganic vibe through the place, almost like they had no interest in opening a brewpub until it became the cool thing to do. I don’t like to use the word “snobs” but we can be picky bastards… maybe it’s just us. Either way it’s worth a food stop, and certainly the bright spot of downtown Poughkeepsie.

 

The next morning we grabbed a fantastic breakfast at the Walkway Cafe, a two block walk from the motel toward the river. Fresh, made-to-order omelettes and french toast while we sat outside to let the crisp morning air wake us a bit, then coffees to go on a short walk down the hill toward the Walkway Over the Hudson. We couldn’t have asked for a better way to spend the morning than a stroll across the river with miles of Hudson Valley views.

 

It’s a good feeling when the first stop of the day sets the bar high, and Two Roads Brewing practically shot it into the stratosphere. Similar to Harrisburg’s Appalacian Brewing, it’s a large warehouse on an industrial outskirt of Stratford, CT. The long tasting room is situated in the midst of their brewing and bottling operations, with glass picture windows all around so you watch everything happening from the bar. They have set tasting flights of four flagships and two seasonals, with a general rule that if it’s not too busy, they’ll pour whatever you want. We tried nearly everything in tasters while splitting a full pour of double IPA and there wasn’t a bad beer in the bunch. The Czech-style pilsner was especially tasty.

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Two Roads doesn’t do food but they have alternating food trucks parked out front on weekends, which sounded awesome but we were a few hours too early. The bartender offered us a binder of menus from local restaurants that offered delivery and we waited for what seemed an eternity for a few sandwiches from Gaetano’s, only to be greeted by a rather testy deli employee who demanded the brewery remove them from the binder because they don’t deliver. He then handed us our bag of sandwiches, which had “GAETANO’S DELI – CALL AHEAD FOR FREE DELIVERY” printed on the outside. The same logo was printed on the wrappers and napkins. Seems like an odd logo choice for a deli that doesn’t deliver. Maybe they’re not even called Gaetano’s and it’s all a ruse. The sandwiches were good though. (UPDATE: nearly six months later and I Googled the deli to find their website still advertising free delivery… weird).

 

We were getting ready to leave when one of the managers stopped us to compliment Jared on his beard. Before I could mock the public display of beard camaraderie he offered us an impromptu (and quite extensive) private tour of the brewery, and let us into the gift shop to buy beer and souveniers when it wasn’t scheduled to open for another few hours. I’ve long been saying the facial hair phenomenon has overstayed its welcome, but on this day, even I was grateful for Jared’s beard.

 

If Two Roads set the bar high for the day, Thimble Island Brewing Company brought it crashing down. A 40 minute ride up the congested Connecticut coast to Branford and hidden in a small and unassuming industrial complex, it has absolutely no brewery feel to it. Rather it feels like you’re drinking in your buddy’s basement bar: the decor is as random as I’ve ever seen, the walls adorned with everything from sports memorabilia and music posters to photos of “I Love Lucy” and beer-themed plaques worthy of a frat house. Plus a random 4-foot light up Darth Vader on the floor.

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Again I realize we can be picky bastards, but the decor wasn’t our only beef. You don’t offer tours on Fridays? Fair enough, but then who’s this group you’re bringing in to show the brewery tanks, talking to about your beer and offering samples from a special bottle of aged brew? Probably your friends, and that’s fine – perks of being chummy with the brewer, but maybe you shouldn’t do that in front of us regular people who drove five hours and included your establishment on our manly brewery tour. It was out of the way and practically a complete waste of time… practically. Their three offerings – amber ale, IPA and stout – were all very good, but their 97% rating on Beer Advocate is completely unwarranted.

 

We needed a pick-me-up after sitting in traffic to and from Thimble Island, and we were granted one by Coalhouse Pizza, also unassumingly located in a strip mall a few miles off of I-95 in Stamford. There are fewer combinations in life better than pizza and beer and Coalhouse does it exceptionally well. Check their menu for their unconventional pizza combinations and NY/CT-centric draft list and know I’m not exaggerating when I say the four hour drive from central PA would be worth it for a pie and a few pints. As if that’s not enough, the walls and tabletops are decorated with large-scale prints of R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jazz and Country and the sounds of good ol’ early Americana fill the place and spill out onto the patio.

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Jared had previously been to the Peekskill Brewery in NY and spent much of the day’s drive raving about their honey chipotle wings. We hadn’t eaten in almost 45 minutes, when we’d wolfed down nearly an entire pizza with a massive amount of toppings so we were due for some more grub. The room forms a U shape around the bar and everything is bare bones concrete and steel, making it one of the loudest pubs I’ve ever had a beer in. The noise was seriously deafening; I was struggling to converse with Jared sitting three feet away. We kept it light with an IPA and a honey saison, both good but nothing remarkable. He wasn’t kidding about the wings though. They alone were worth the stop, and maybe among the best wings I’ve ever had.

 

We ended the day’s festivities on a great note with Newburgh Brewing Company in Newburgh, NY. Another warehouse brewery, this one was a little more difficult to find with its back alley entrance and lack of neighborhood street lights. We made our way to the second floor and found a nice wide open space filled with German-style long beer tables, an assortment of arcade games and billiards and a long bar with 12 selections on tap, half of which were session beers. Saison, Hop Drop DIPA and Berliner Weisse were great but I was anxious to try the C.A.F.E. Sour. The acronym is Coffee Acquired From Ethiopia, and I’d read just days before we left that Thrillist named it one of the best and most unique beers in America. A sour beer infused with coffee sounded like a strange combination, but it’s worthy of the accolade.

CatskillEven the best brewpubs too often settle for lackluster live music, but Dan Stokes is anything but. He plays songs you know, but haven’t gotten sick of – we walked in to a Colin Hay tune and heard Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello, to name a few. I asked if he knew any Tom Waits, expecting to maybe hear “Ol’ 55” if anything. Instead he politely obliged with “Hold On”, “Heartattack and Vine” and “Drunk on the Moon.” All while wearing a kilt, no less. We relaxed to the songs of one of our favorite singers over a game of bumper pool, the rules of which we made up after Googling the actual rules proved them too hard to follow. Jared claims he won but I’m pretty sure I kicked his ass.

 

We retired to the New Windsor Motel, another no-frills joint stuck in the late 1980’s with floral pattern comforters and pink bathroom fixtures. Still, it was cheap and clean, with comfortable beds to collapse on and chat about our fantastic day marred only by the Thimble Island experience, and our tandem near heart attacks brought on by some asshole driving the wrong way on the bypass and nearly crashing into us. We ate our Coalhouse leftovers and drifted off to the sounds of traffic outside, wondering just how fashionably late we’d be for our brunch gig in the morning.

 

An Echo & Sway gig is a unique thing. We’re not the most refined duo; we don’t practice often due to families, jobs, other musical and creative ventures, and life in general. We’re often unrehearsed (and in this case, barely awake) but there’s a lot of heart and soul in what we do, and it’s always a good time. We were scheduled for noon at Sweet Pea’s Cafe in New Windsor, with a pre-show breakfast at 11:00. Though just a short drive from the motel, we were still fashionably late at 11:20. Thankfully they anticipated as much, posting a start time of Noon-ish on their Facebook while playfully ribbing us with the line “you know how musicians are.” I liked them already.

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The owners and staff at Sweet Pea’s were among the friendliest bunch we’ve encountered at any venue. They welcomed us with smiles and waited on us hand and foot, never letting our coffee get cold. We played to a sizeable crowd for two hours and then they packed us a lunch to go, which saved us when we got stuck in construction and starving around Matamoras for an hour. Everything was delicious and we couldn’t have asked for anything better. If you’re in the Hudson Valley, Sweet Pea’s is worth seeking out. They’ll treat you right.

 

Every day’s got to have a hiccup, and Saturday’s was worse than the Thimble Island debacle. We drove about 20 minutes out of our way to find Westtown Brew Works & Hop Farm, a relatively new startup. Their website advertised them as being open, with Saturday tasting hours from 11-6. There are also a number of photos of the property, growlers, people sipping beer out of tasters and a list of their current selections. Imagine our surprise when we climbed to the top of their long dirt driveway to find an unfinished barn and rather motley looking crew sitting around a card table smoking cigarettes. After a few minutes one of them trudged over looking like that creepy stoner uncle that shows up occasionally at family barbeques, and the conversation went something like this:

Us: “Are you open?”
Him: “Naw. Few weeks yet.”
Us: “Your website says you’re open.”
Him: “Yea, we should really change that.”
Us: “Do you have any beer we can sample while we’re here?
Kind of a long drive to get out here.”
Him: “Naw. Not open yet. Few weeks.”
Us: “What kinds of styles are you brewing?”
Him: “Few differn’t ones.”
Us: “Okay. Um, are local brewers gonna use your hops too?”
Him: “Yup.”
Us: “Uh, okay. Thanks.”
Him: “Yup. Few weeks.”

No exaggeration there. He had no interest in chatting about their farm or anything beer related, so why they started a hop farm is beyond me. I felt foolish, like maybe we should’ve called ahead but when it’s August and the website says TASTING ROOM OPEN SPRING 2014 in big, bold letters, we assumed that well, they were open. Maybe we caught them all in a game of strip poker, but he couldn’t have hustled us out of there faster, it was a very weird vibe. I began to fear Leatherface running out of the barn towards us, so we left promptly. A bigger waste of time than Friday; at least Thimble Island had beer to drink.

A long stretch of I-84 across PA brought us to our last stop of the day, and the best IPA of the trip at Wilkes-Barre’s Breaker Brewing Company. Breaker resides in an old schoolhouse atop a hill in a residential area, easy to bypass so be on the lookout for a big horse on rollerskates outside the door. The main bar area is a nicely lit room with hardwood floors, pub tables fashioned out of old church pews (a pew I don’t mind sitting in one bit), photos of the area’s coal mining heritage on the walls and a large chalkboard with the daily food and beer offerings on display. The attentive gal at the bar was quick to get us beer menus and chat about their unorthodox brews, like Blackberry Jalapeno ale, chocolate mint ale (ale, not stout or porter), and grapefruit ale. They’re fond of flavor experimentation and while I can’t say I’d enjoy a full pint of some of the aforementioned, they were worth sampling.

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The regular pale ale was quite thirst-quenching, but none of it mattered because the Mosaic Hop IPA became the only beer we cared about. Hell, it pretty much trumped every beer we’d had the previous few days. The citrusy hops punch you in the face in the very best way. I’m not great at deconstructing little nuances in beer flavor (it’s why I don’t write more reviews on Beer Advocate) but if you gave up beer for a solid month then took a sip of something like Yuengling Lager, for a moment it would be the best beer you ever tasted. Well, we’d been drinking delicious beer for three straight days and that’s what the Mosaic Hop IPA was, but it didn’t last a moment… long after the first sip, even after the growlers we brought home were empty, I’m still confident in saying it’s one of the top five best IPAs I’ve ever tasted.

Speaking of growlers, Breaker is the first brewery I’ve seen to offer a more fun alternative to recycling plastic milk jugs.  In our short time at the bar we saw several patrons forego the traditional glass vessel and opt instead to carry their beer home in empty Galliker’s containers.  With my son downing gallon after gallon of whole milk like there’s a shortage, I think I’ll be tossing some of the empty jugs in the trunk of my car before the next trip to Breaker.

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We returned home to my little boy running around the driveway waiting for us, and my loving wife’s homemade “Welcome Home Beer Bros” sign hanging in the window. We unpacked the car, divvied up our beer and souveniers and Jared headed home to his lovely family. Later that night when our little hurricane was asleep and my wife and I were catching up over a few pints of Mosaic Hop IPA on the couch, I thought about how important Man Voyage has become, and will continue to be. Some dudes bond over ball games, hunting, fishing, poker games, strip clubs… we take in the best food, drink and scenery this land has to offer, and I couldn’t be happier with our choice of hobby, or the sense of fellowship it brings. What’s better is that in about 20 years, we’ve got two more dudes to add to our annual jaunt, and share in the joy that Man Voyage brings. Actually, maybe we’ll bring them along in 16 years and make them drive.

 

If it’s any indication, I’ve got a UK tour this year as well, and I’m just as excited for the third installment of Man Voyage to come around. See you in August, eh?

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