During our eight-hour southbound trek to God’s Country, we found ourselves a little antsy. To break up the drive We ventured to Sun King Spirits in Carmel, Indiana, just outside of Indianapolis.
Nestled somewhere in the Arts & Design District, the freshly constructed building reflected all the other new construction going on around it – the patchwork feel of an old city neighborhood. The façade of something I can only equate to the passing background of a Flintstones cartoon action sequence.
We got coffee from Indie Coffee Roasters and I will say for certain they have the craft down. A perfect pit stop for single origin cups of magic.
Strolling in to Against the Grain in Louisville, Kentucky, I had the feeling that I was about to be transcended to some sort of hyper-spiritual state. By the time we departed, the invisible hand had placed Against the Grain somewhere on my top ten list. The smokehouse brewpub is actually located in the Louisville Slugger Field ballpark. All the artwork reminds me of mid-90s MTV and Nickelodeon cartoons, which, by the way, I hold in very high regard. Crude animation bordering on the rudimentary. I liked Beavis & Butthead, and Ren & Stimpy, though they sometimes pushed so far, as a child it sent me to gag reflex territory. Not unlike some of the Against the Grain art (i.e.; The Brown Note).
Gnight Ryder – the imperial black ale interred in red wine barrels, the vegan chili, and the peanut butter and grape jelly variant bottles of 2018 Bo & Luke that I picked up, all coalesced in to what I would personally illustrate as a divine event.
Exposed brick and photo booth aside, what I found the most endearing was the smoke beer. I had a smoked Rauchbier called Mac Fannybaw that utilized a Munich malt base with peat-smoked grains from Scotland. Campfire notes abounded gracefully. The addition of Alderwood smoked salt lent a crisp breeze that I can only imagine exists while sporting a kilt, relaxing on a cryptid hunting vessel on the Scottish Loch of Ness.
We pilgrimaged until arriving in Nashville around 11 pm, heading straight to Mellow Mushroom where my friend tends bar. We hung out with him while he worked and closed down it down at 1. Our Airbnb was on a small farm plot, somewhere in south-west Nashville. There was a chicken coop. One day we saw a jarring flock of huge black birds – winged demons of which I must describe as vultures, gathered around a large carcass of a…something. I could see its entire rib cage – white bone picked clean. My best guess, and my highest-reaching hope as well as fairest assumption, is that it was not a human being. That was some straight up Tennessee shit, man. I’ve never seen some shit like that before.
For brunch we went to Husk in the Rutledge Hill neighborhood. Lard. The dressing on my salad was lard and coffee grounds. Everything on the menu is cooked in lard and it’s the happiest establishment in the Buckle of the Bible Belt, and I venture to assume, on earth as well. As I sat with my deviled eggs with pickled okra and trout roe, my black coffee from Crema, and my New England IPA from Southern Grist, I took in the décor, housed in an historic, late 19th century home. It truly felt like a dining room. There was a wall of firewood, specifically used to heat the wood-burning oven. The food there is completely indigenous to the region: “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door.” I found Husk my perfect introduction to true southern cooking and it will probably always be my standard. Heirloom seed-saving, in-house pickling, and yielding to whatever local wild-eyed farmers, those true interlocutors between nature and society, deem available at any given season.
In terms of Nashville coffee, Barista Parlor owns the market as far as I’m concerned. My last trip down I visited Golden Sound. This time in a contrast from the mild rain and cloudy skies, we witnessed the warmth and ardor of the East Nashville location.
This, the original location, sprawled about in capacious form, lies in a defunct Music City automobile repair shop. The ghosts of those blue collar mechanics of yore might be spinning in their graves now, but really, who cares. The large garage doors crank open to reveal a back patio area when the weather is nice. Crafted meticulously, the pour-over brew, Chemex drip, and cold brew vacuum siphonry arouse euphoria-inducing aroma within the laboratory of glass tubing. Race cars, rocket ships and boat anchors adorn the sanctuary, and physical music such as AC/DC and Black Sabbath, plucked from the in-house record shelves fills the room from the vintage turntable, transmitted through stereophonic speakers located in every corner of the facility.
After our obligatory stop at the picturesque Germantown brewery, Bearded Iris, for a few landmark hazy IPAs, we landed back in Lockeland Springs in East Nashville at Lockeland Table Community Kitchen & Bar. Chimichurri empanadas, red Thai curry steamed mussels, meatballs, and some sort of tiny sloppy joes. We did not discriminate on the varying background ethnicity of the food that night.
We hit up the 12 South neighborhood before we took off the next morning. Walking among the homes of Belmont-Hillsboro until arriving at Five Daughters Bakery. After a brunch at Flip Side we began our journey back to Illinois to check out Scratch Brewing in Ava. Eighty miles north of St. Louis, Ava is a deeply Southern Illinois town. According to Wikipedia, she represents just over one square mile in area. Notably, Andy High is from there. You might know him as third basemen for the 1922 Brooklyn Robbins, and kid brother to Charlie High, starting outfielder for the 1920 Philadelphia Athletics. Those two gentlemen represent the only other thing on Wikipedia about Ava, Illinois.
The winding, back country roads to Scratch Brewing were icy, with mounds of snow plowed up on either side. We made our way through the frigid billowy-white bunny hills of nuclear winter, following multiple, hand-painted signs to the quarter of frosted trees.
On the edge of a prairie, enveloped by a seventy-five-acre wooded area, and down a frozen foot path we found the little farmhouse brewery. Indoors it was fireplace-warm, and we were greeted by the woman working the wooden tap handles near an antique cash register. (Crap. Cash only). One elderly couple who took it upon themselves to brave the winter roads.
What is unique about Scratch is that they try to use ingredients for their beers and food that are grown on premise and managed by farmers who work for the brewery. Every year they learn more and more about how to brew true farmhouse beer with what is growing around them. Mint, sage, sassafras, blackberries, bee balm, roots, clovers, sunflowers. I immediately went for the Marzen and then the doppelbock, which was brewed with hickory and wild cherry bark from the woods surrounding the brewery and fermented in a puncheon, if you can believe that. We had a flight of different farmhouse ale and Berliner Weiss as well as a wood-fired pesto pizza and white, wheat and rye sourdough hearth loaves served with harissa, this really spicy concoction made with lemon, fermented peppers, and garlic.
Scratch’s single tree series is remarkable. The beers in the series are brewed only with ingredients from one single species of tree within the local ecological system. They use sap from the tree instead of water to brew with. They utilize different types of leaves, bark, and wood from branches. The unique local Southern Illinois microflora for fermentation, maintenance of mineral-rich soil, and a natural, on-site water profile help Scratch to operate almost entirely within the parameter of its own mechanism for operation and materials. It’s pretty awe-inspiring.
Right as we closed out, only assuming we had seen the peak of human existence, we were modestly asked if we would be interested to see the pinnacle of all things enchanted.
They have a separate building called the Serpent Room. It stands adjacent to the brewpub and the lights were off for the night. We did not even know it was there. We followed the bartender to the Serpent Room. When she flicked on the lights, a visual orchestra manifested itself before our eyes. Local artist Brett Douglas Hunter was given complete and total free reign to create, and what he masterminded, from floor to ceiling, is nothing less than a wonderous cacophony of color and nuance. Pee Wee’s Playhouse with more beer and less sexual innuendo.
The Serpent Room is truly staggering. Garage door windows peer outdoors toward the farm’s hop bines and a goat pen. A massive tongue protrudes from a giant wall-face to integrate art with functionality, as it becomes an actual table top. Sculptures and wooden snakes of every shade and tone are given freedom to dance as people drink and converse.
Bellies full of farmhouse goodness, we made our way back on to the permafrost flatland tundra to head home through sub-zero temperatures. Assuming we had a three-hour trip back to Chicago was a mistake. A quick look at Google maps as soon as my signal returned post-farm revealed a five-hour haul. Work would come early the next morning but the fuzzy knowing warmth of Scratch Brewing would linger welcomingly for quite some time. Podcasts queued up for the stretch we began our toboggin home.
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