The night before we left Jackson we had the opportunity to see Robert Earl Keen, a storytelling hero of mine, perform live in concert at the Jackson Center for the Arts. Our time in the Tetons was amazing, but as Robert Earl sings, “the road goes on forever and the party never ends.”
We struck out early, going from gray mountains and green trees to red and brown buttes to beige rolling hills of the western plains.
Our first brewery stop was in Casper, Wy. at The Wonder Bar and Wyoming State Brewing Company. The bar has been “world famous” for decades, but has only been brewing for about eight years. According to their website, proprietor Al Swanson in 1942 allowed cowboys to ride up to the bar allowing them to buy a beer for both rider and mount.
While there were no equestrian customers when we stopped in, their three beers on tap were fit for any cowboy. They do not distribute except for at the Poor Boys Steakhouse and Parkway Place Hotel in Casper. What stood out to me was their Platte River Pale. It was neither as heavily hopped nor as strong as a traditional APA or IPA, but instead was lightly citrusy and smooth.
We continued northeast, stopping up in Spearfish, S.D. for Crow Peak Brewing Company. We were able to try some of their fine beers in their fine facility.
Vaulted ceilings made for a second-story outdoor deck and a large stone fireplace shaped like a growler. At the bar, locals drank out of beautiful ornate stone mugs, handmade by a local potter. When the artist passed away, the brewery retired the mugs, allowing them to stay at the bar for regular patrons.
Their Canyon Cream Ale was very nice, smooth, “light straw” color, crystal clear with pilsner malts and very light honey notes. The Spearbeer, my Dad’s favorite, was a good example of hop utilization. Its a light copper with Perle, Williamete and Cascade hops, giving it a slightly piney, flowery aroma and taste. My personal favorite was the Old Crowe Winter Ale, with strong toffee and caramel notes and 5.5 ABV.
Our next stop just down the road in Rapid City was South Dakota’s oldest brewpub, Firehouse Brewing Co. In an old Rapid City Fire Department station circa 1915, the building has seen a steakhouse and an English-style pub before its latest incarnation as a brewery. The inside still looks like a fire station, with firemen’s patches from all over the country adorning the walls. (Rumor has it that if you are a fireman and bring in a patch, you may get a free pint.)
We showed up for a late dinner, ordered a sampler of their beers and asked for brewer Mike Kilroy.
“Yeah, he just came down,” our bartender said, pointing to a man across the bar. “He thought y’all stood him up.”
came over and Mike sat down with us, chatting us up while we tried his creations. We talked yeast (he uses good ol’ 1056 yeast, the same stuff I use), homebrewing techniques (he homebrewed before taking over at Firehouse in December), over zealous hop-heads (“Don’t bring up that IBU thing with me”) and in general had a great time.
While talking, Mike sipped on the Smokin’ Betty, an ale with very low smoke, but nice character of an English bitter. Dad and I really took to the Brown Eyed Girl, a solid brown with just enough deep roasted notes that made it stand out.
After the sampler, Mike graciously offered to show us around the brewery.
“Let’s go up and try some beers,” Mike said, grabbing a tasting glass for each of us at the bar.
Firehouse is on a eight-barrel system, making all ales. Mike hopes for a lagering system in place later this year. He showed us that he’s basically using similar recipes that he did at home, just on a larger scale at the brewhouse. Firehouse only distributes in-house and at a couple local bars, but Mike still expanding, adding a new serving tank soon.
Mike also let us taste some of the brews-in-progress, including the Honey Badger German Dark (“Drink more than one…Honey Badger don’t care.”). It’s not done yet, but it has a really nice caramel with lots of honey, probably my favorite of the night. He also let us taste the Mail Order Bride IPA, with “unreal amount of hop” (18 pounds), and Blue Eyed Girl summer beer (clean finish, a little more honey) from the tanks.
At the end of the tour we sat at the bar, ordered dinner, and had a pint with Mike. A great way to end a long day of driving: sitting at the bar with new friends, enjoying a cool evening.
We head on across South Dakota and into Iowa tomorrow. If you have any brewery suggestions, let me know in the comments below. Cheers!