It’s no secret that I love beer in equal measure with the outdoors. As a result, I’ve long held the notion that fine brews go hand-in-hand with outdoor recreation, not only because many of us who enjoy being outside are connoisseurs of fine, small batch ales, but also because nothing pairs better with a long day wrecking our bodies under the high-country sun than a cold beer on a rusty tailgate. The only thing that’s even better, is going on a beercation.
A beercation, as my buddies and I are fond of calling it, is… wait for it… a beer vacation. As souls filled with wanderlust, we of course seek out new adventures outside the confines of Utah’s state line in places like Colorado, Arizona, Wyoming, Idaho, and any other back-of-beyond state that possess tall peaks, sculpted singletrack, or mythological ski terrain. Another fine quality of many states that encircle our tidy ole’ Utah, is the massive microbrew industry that is taking root faster than dandelions in my neglected front yard. Every damn time I put my mountain bike on the roof rack and hit the road, there’s dozens of new brew pubs at my destination that didn’t exist a few months ago. And thus is the curse: I have to stop in and sample the new beer, so despite any best-laid plans to ride some epic trail or climb the highest mountain, my itinerary magically seems to… evolve.
Take for example, the time my wife and I drove to Bend, Oregon. We had every intention to mountain bike through mystical ponderosa forests, paddle the Deschutes River, and maybe even climb at Smith Rock. But immediately upon hitting the first stoplight in town, we discovered the Bend Ale Trail. Like the name suggests, the trail is a challenge to drink at all nine breweries, each within stumbling distance, for bragging rights and a prize.
Next thing I know, I’m standing at the bar in 10 Barrel Brewing with a beer baby gestating in my stomach that periodically overturns like a tugboat in a tsunami. Our lovely outdoor vacation of hiking, kayaking and sightseeing, became a nonstop, foamy bang-gang of otherworldly pale ales, stouts, lagers, and some of the most delicious IPAs I’ve ever let pass over my tongue.
I should have felt guilty about drinking instead of playing outside, but after more than a decade of committed microbrew sampling, the Bend Ale Trail would clearly be an epic highlight to the trip. Plus, we drove to freaking Oregon from Utah, so how could we not go skipping down the Ale Trail with steins in hand?
Problem was, we had only two days in Bend. No worries, I thought. Our elementary-school calculations involving simple math numbers plugged into a beer-volume-to-weight ratio for the two of us equaled one beer at each establishment. Therefore, hell yea we could bang out nine breweries in two days, no problemo. But it seems drinking fine, handcrafted ale is just like eating potato chips – you can’t have just one.
We started at Cascade Lakes Brewing. There, as we sat in a cozy booth surrounded by walls of timber logs that screamed rural Oregon, I immediately broke our one-beer rule when, after quaffing a flight of samples they had on tap, I had to have a whole pint of the IPA then and there. It was delicious, and highlighted the problem with samples – if you swallow one that dances on your taste buds like Gene Kelly in a drizzle, then you’re going to order a full pint, no question.
Marching through breweries in rapid succession, we tilted back a plethora of pint glasses and quickly buzzed onto the next pub until we could hardly recall the last few we inhabited. A long diversion came by way of a tour through the granddaddy of Bend’s microbrew community, the Deschutes Brewing Company. There we drank many samples in the tap room before being escorted through cavernous rooms occupied by boiling tanks, wort chillers and fermenters. Our guide even opened up a freezer full of whole-leaf hops where we rubbed that wonderful, resinous flavor into the palm of our hands. With fresh hops in my pocket, we continued on, propping ourselves up at bar tables at the Old St. Francis School Pub, Bend Brewing, and the funky, neighborhood watering hole called Boneyard Brewing, where small-batch ales put exhausted, drunk smiles on our faces for the bike ride back to camp.
Come morning, we shook off the night’s consumption and decided to do at least one outdoorsy thing. Post-coffee, we rented a kayak and floated the Deschutes River where each wave and eddy was a reminder to our stomachs that too much beer, followed by outdoor activity are not good bedfellows. Back on dry ground, we sobered up on a hike to some waterfalls in the evergreen forests above town, then bee-lined it back for lunch where we could scratch another brewery off the list.
A blur of who-knows-how-many breweries later, we managed to stumble into our last one: Silver Moon Brewing. After a pint our bellies couldn’t possibly fit, our final stamp was procured. With Ale Trail cards covered in red ink, we hustled to the Visitor Center and received our well-deserved prize: a silicone pint glass and Eagle Scout-style patch proclaiming our achievement as if it were some epic accomplishment, like summiting Denali or winning a hot dog eating contest. The patch featured a backpack-clad, stick-figure hiker downing a beer that proclaimed we officially “Completed the Bend Ale Trail.”
As for the cumulative tally of beers consumed? We lost count. When tempted by the hop army of microbrews in Oregon, it was too easy to leave hiking shoes in the truck and just drink on a patio beneath the Northwest sky. Shamefully, yet awesomefully, we were beerward to brewpubs on the Oregon Trail, where our lovely outdoor vacation broke a leg, drowned crossing a river, and died of dysentery.
Yet in my brewski brain, our trip was a massive success; it was an exact replica of a stereotypical, woodsy trip filled with catalog-worthy outdoor recreation. Traversing the Bend Ale Trail was just like an ascent on a malty ridge en route to a foamy-head summit. We even wore Patagonia puffies the entire time.
Ever since the Bend beercation, the same scenario has repeated itself all over the west in places like Boulder, Jackson, Flagstaff, and Missoula. I’ve given up. The beercation has won. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m in the middle of planning a mountain bike trip to Sun Valley. But first, I must consult Google and check out the breweries in town.