Four for the Road

There's nothing more American than a long stretch of highway (or a winding stretch of dirt), a full tank of gas—and nowhere to be until work on Monday. Whether you're looking for luxurious hot springs, Technicolor waterfalls, small-town beer tastings, or some down-and-dirty four-wheelin', we've got the perfect trip for you.

May 2010

2. Taste Test

Our mission is simple: two days, three breweries, and as many different beers as we can sample.

The route: Denver to Aspen
The distance: 400-mile round-trip Driving time: 8 hours

We rocket out of town, hurtling westward, fleeing the city's dwindling days of dirty, melting slush for the crisp sunshine of the mountains. It's early afternoon, but beer is already on our minds, a much-needed salve for the overfilled workweeks that my fiancée, Jennie, and I had been tackling for months. Because it's a Friday and the sky is clear, I-70 is traffic-free—for once—and we rip over to Glenwood Springs in no time. As we pull into town, we find our way to Glenwood Canyon Brewing Company, a beer joint tucked inside the lower level of the Hotel Denver, just steps from the Colorado River.

Inside, we find a table and order the brewery's sampler, four ounces each of the brewery's eight beers. It's afternoon, but the place is already hopping, proving my theory that every legit mountain town yearns for a decent brewery. The suds at Glenwood are solid, and if afternoons lasted all day, I would put back more than a few of the Red Mountain ESBs (mild and creamy) and No Name Nut Brown Ales (like a home-brewed Newcastle). If you like tart fruit beers, the Grizzly Creek Raspberry Wheat will light up your taste buds. "It pushes you up against the wall and slaps you around with raspberries!" says my pucker-faced lady friend. Indeed.

Splitting a sampler is perfect since I'm driving, and, after departing Glenwood, we cruise down Highway 82 to Aspen, ending up at the Hotel Lenado, a quaint 19-room hotel just a couple of blocks from the center of downtown. We check in, eye the wood stove in the corner of the room—we'll fire up that bad boy later—and head over to Aspen Brewing Company, nestled just down the hill. Here, a walk is in order—the brewpub is only a few blocks away from downtown—because the beers pack an alcohol-soaked punch.

Pushing open the brewery's door, we're greeted by an enormous and overly friendly Bernese mountain dog. After a quick head pat, we grab seats at the bar and glance up at the evening's offerings. Our bartender, Brad Veltman, a guy in his mid-20s rocking a pinstriped Aspen Brewing Company baseball hat, turns out to be the owner. He apologizes that his full lineup of beers isn't available—they're struggling to brew enough beer to keep Aspen satiated. I dig into a half-pint of the Conundrum Red, a bright, fine red ale, and then switch to try a seasonal stout, a dark, sweet, chocolaty beer that's as thick as motor oil. Jennie, tired of sampling, cuts to the chase and goes straight for a pint of her favorite flavor: India Pale Ale. Aspen's version, dubbed the Independence Pass Ale (yep, IPA), is a strong, balanced ale overflowing with hops—the epitome of an Americanized IPA. It's delicious, the best new beer either of us has tried in a long time.

It's barely 5 p.m., but the crowd starts to filter in, and soon the small space is packed; people grab spots at the long tables or stand wherever they can find room. A steady flow of folks comes in with empty growlers, offering them to the bartender like they are receiving holy wine at church. People willing to pay for a half-gallon of fresh draft beer (instead of getting the cheap stuff at the convenience store) is a good sign for any brewery, and after a few pints I grab a growler and join them.

Full growler in hand, we stop off for a late dinner at New York Pizza—a locals' joint above the Billabong outfit at the corner of Mill Street and Hyman Avenue—for huge slices of New York-style pizza. Appetite quashed, we steal back to the Lenado, take a dip in the hot tub, light up the wood stove, and easily fall into a deep sleep.

When I wake up, I flick on the TV for the weather, which looks ugly for our return trip. Attempting to avoid the ski traffic insanity on the east side of the Divide, we zip out of town, stopping just off Highway 82 at a Carbondale shopping plaza for breakfast sandwiches and coffee at the Upper Crust Bakery. Soon enough we're in Frisco, eating lunch at Backcountry Brewery. The bright barroom, with an open ceiling and views of the Frisco Bay Marina, seems to be the best place to sit, and we order the sampler tray, an array of seven different seven-ounce pours. Backcountry has an impressive lineup of brews—every one was a rock-solid choice—but the straw-colored Ptarmigan Pilsner and the English-style Telemark IPA stand out as clear winners.

After finishing our tasters and lunch (the chicken fingers hit the spot), we cruise through Eisenhower Tunnel, only to find cars backed up for miles. For once, I don't really mind—I have a half-gallon growler of Independence Pass Ale to look forward to when I get home, and there's nothing quite like drinking a draft beer in your own backyard. —Patrick Doyle