The Brews Travelers (a.k.a. Michael Roberts and Brandon Wurtz) stand at the Texas state border during their 365-day beer road trip. (Courtesy photo)
Just before I moved to Dallas in May, I stopped at a brewery near my parents’ home in southern Illinois. Scratch Brewing, in Ava, Ill., makes their beer from locally-foraged ingredients and is a rural stop for folks looking for interesting, off-the-wall beers.
There, at the bar, were two bearded men in hoodies who looked like they’d been on the road for a while. Turns out they were Michael Roberts and Brandon Wurtz, the Brews Travelers from Dallas who spent 2014 driving around the country in a silver Honda Odyssey named Homer.
They blogged throughout the trip at brewstravelers365.com and logged every beer on Untappd. Last week, they finished their adventure back here in Texas just in time to ring in the new year.
Brandon and Michael still have a lot of writing left to do, but we caught up with the pair this week to debrief after their year on the road.
DMN: First off let’s get the stats. How many beers? How many breweries? Miles covered? States visited? Etc.
Michael Roberts: We sampled 7,124 beers during the year (19.5 beers per day) and visited 789 breweries, we interviewed brewers at 365 of those. The minivan we drove gained 40,007 miles from driving through all 48 lower US states as well as 3 Canadian provinces and Mexico.
Brandon Wurtz: In order to get an overall idea for what a brewery was producing and keep things safe, we typically shared taster flights and would only get a pint if we were going to spend several hours at a location. We visited all 48 continental states as well as short trips through Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia, Canada and to Tijuana, Mexico.
What made you set off? Did you have any goals at the beginning?
MR: A strong love for the craft beer community combined with wanderlust gave us enough drive to plan this trip and leave our corporate jobs in search of adventure. Everything was up in the air at the beginning, so thoughts of filming the trip, doing podcasts, and more ideas were tossed around, but settled on three goals:
Visit, interview, and profile 365 breweries in 365 days
Go to at least three breweries in each of the lower 48 states
Use social media and our website to promote all things craft beer
BW: Speaking to my decision to go along, my acceptance of the idea was nearly instant. I had been wanting to have a life adventure such as this for many years. I feel that traveling does much more to teach one about the world than any book ever could.
I went straight from high school to college to graduate school, spending much of my life learning about the world through books and never having much money to go on a trip of my own choosing. Following the departure from my grad school program, I thought seriously about backpacking Europe or joining the Peace Corps, but opted for the more responsible decision of joining the workforce. After a few years of working I had saved up a fair amount of money and found myself increasingly disillusioned with that world.
Michael’s proposition was well timed as I was finally in a financial position to do the traveling that I had wished to do for many years. I liked that the trip was going towards a particular goal — of attempting to bring attention to the craft beer community that we had really grown to appreciate as it grew and developed in Dallas-Fort Worth.
We had been home brewing for a while and started volunteering at Deep Ellum Brewing Co. on their opening weekend, continuing to be involved by helping out at other local breweries and beer festivals and attending new beer releases and tap takeovers at the new craft beer bars that sprouted up all over the area.
I saw the obvious economic benefits, how a brewery could serve as a centerpiece to revitalizing a neighborhood. Most importantly, I witnessed the sense of community that developed and observed how a simple beverage could knock down boundaries and bring people of various backgrounds together as friends.
That really motivated me to experience this phenomenon all over the country. It starts with beer but, truly, it’s about the people.
Did you meet those goals?
MR: Of course! We also added an extra 424 bonus stops.
BW: We successfully visited and interviewed 365 breweries, at least three in each of the continental states. Regarding the traveling itself, I think those goals were met. I learned a lot about myself and gained a new appreciation for the country overall and the astonishing kindness and support of strangers.
There is still much work to be done as far as the goal of supporting the craft beer community. We have posted over a third of the profiles for the breweries we interviewed but have much more content to compile and share over the coming months.
That said, we have already met several people who told us they took small trips to visit some of the breweries we shared or were inspired to go on an adventure in the future. I consider that a success.
What did you get out of the year on the road? Lessons learned?
MR: There are so many lessons I learned about myself, my country and American craft beer that I don’t know where to begin. The main takeaway from this year would probably be to encourage others to take action in order to achieve their dreams. This trip could have easily been something I just wanted to do, but instead it is something I actually did and will never regret.
BW: Overall, I gained a once in a lifetime experience — an opportunity to explore our beautiful country and meet its people — and, yeah, to sample tons of beers and glean some insight into the growing beer industry. I will own up to being quite introverted at times prior to this trip, jaded and cynical towards the world around me.
We experienced an overwhelming amount of kindness from strangers this year. People who offered us a place to stay, unsolicited, after just minutes of conversation. People with so much trust that they left us keys to their home so that we did not have to get up and leave as they shuttled off for work. People who offered to put us in contact with their friends and family throughout the country. People who just offered up their time for a friendly conversation.
It was truly eye opening. The gratitude we share for the support of our family and friends back home as well as those new friends we made along the way cannot be overstated. I think what I learned most from this venture is to not write people off, to open myself up, and to not waste an opportunity to make a new friend. You never know what could happen if you don’t put yourself out there and just continue to sit by yourself in silence.
I heard you’ll be doing a post later on some of the more memorable brews, but what was the most unique beer you tried on the trip?
MR: After 7,124 beers there truly wouldn’t be a way to answer this with an absolute answer, but here are three unique beers that come to mind:
Dock Street Brewing’s Walker (PA) — a pale American stout brewed with roasted goat brains and organic cranberries. That’s right, goat brains.
Breakside Brewery’s Birra Minestra (OR) — an experimental beer made with Sungold tomatoes, wild plums, and Genovese basil. It was quite refreshing, delicious, and memorable.
Scratch Brewing’s Maple Sap Mumm (IL) — a tart dark ale with lavender, basil, pineapple sage, mint, and elderflower. Oh, and did I mention it is brewed entirely with maple sap, no water?
BW: I agree with Michael’s choices. It’s really tough to answer questions of favorites, there were just too many excellent beers of dozens and dozens of different styles. Why pick just one? Thankfully you asked about a unique beer and without question the most unique ingredient all year was found in Dock Street Brewing Company’s Walker – a pale American stout made with organic cranberries and roasted goat brains. We enjoyed trying that beer while we explored Philadelphia on Michael’s birthday.
There were plenty more unique beers made with non-traditional ingredients ranging through a large variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices, and salts. One of the things I truly appreciate about the small independent breweries is their creativity and willingness to push the boundaries of beer.
Was there a particular style that seemed to really do well (or not so well) brewery to brewery?
MR: Every single brewery had a unique way of doing things and no single style was done well or not so well as a whole, it just depended on how the brewery decided to take on the style in their own way.
BW: I can’t think of any one particular style that every brewery executed well or poorly. After trying so many different beers there was a large variety of quality overall and I learned to identify the flavors that I personally prefer in each style.
One thing that Michael and I both noticed in our choices was a tendency towards session beers — not just in ABV, but also in flavor profile. When you are sampling as much as we were you tend to get palate fatigue from big barrel aged beers, sours, and IPAs and truly come to appreciate a tasty kolsch, ESB, or pilsner. Not to say that I wasn’t still excited about trying those IPAs when we got out to the West Coast at the end of the year.
Any memorable brewery moments that stand out?
MR: Honestly no, but that’s just because there were so many stand out moments!
BW: There are too many great memories that I can’t whittle it down to just a few. What truly stands out to me was the openness of the industry as a whole. These breweries did not have to let us in and take important time out of their busy days to show us around and share their story. But, they did. 365 breweries in each of the 48 states worked with our tight schedule and showed a great amount of openness, kindness and support for our mission. For that we are truly thankful.
What’s the key to a brew tour like this? How’d you pull it off?
MR: We didn’t sit around talking about how we wanted to do it or wished we could do it or if it would be possible to do when we retired, we just started planning as soon as the idea came up and made it happen. The key to making it through the year was to never drink in excess; drinking lots of water and maintaining a steady pace tasting samples was key.
BW: In all honesty, stubbornness. I was completely exhausted from traveling about six months in to the trip — I just wanted to have a kitchen to make some home cooked meals and a bed — but I had already told everyone about the overall goal and had no intention of calling it quits.
That is not to say that I wasn’t still having a great time. I very much enjoyed visiting all of the new breweries, making new friends along the way, and seeing beautiful new areas of the country.
Regarding the drinking side, water, water, water, moderation in consumption and time. We each had to hold the other accountable and ensure we kept our heads down and focused on the trip as a whole. Being responsible was the number one priority. The last thing we wanted to do was put anyone’s life in danger or tarnish the industry of which it was our goal to promote.
Did the beers/breweries start to blend together at some point? How’d you keep track of everything?
MR: For me, the breweries never blended together and still don’t. They each stand out in my mind as a unique entity. Not going to lie, though, it was hard for me to remember which beers I had at each brewery. Luckily they’re all logged on Untappd.
BW: I still have a pretty clear picture of each of the breweries we visited and what they had to offer overall. We documented each of the official visits with interviews and pictures and also took pictures at each of the bonus stops.
We kept track of all of the beers on the Untappd app but did not review any of them. This seems to have frustrated quite a few people but it was never our intention to be beer critics, telling people what they should and shouldn’t drink. There are plenty of beer critics out there and review sites for people who want to base their decisions off of subjective opinions.
Our goal is to support the breweries by sharing their story and hopefully people will be intrigued enough to explore them on their own.
I know you did a bunch of bonus stops above and beyond your scheduled 365 breweries. How’d you select those?
MR: It was actually pretty complicated. In order to get the 365 scheduled interviews as planned, we divided the country up into the 48 states we would be visiting and assigned a number of interviews we would need to get based on the size of the state and the breweries within it. We tried our best to keep the 365 interviews spread out in each state so that one area did not get more or less attention than another.
For example, in California we knew we needed to visit and interview 21 breweries and anything above that would be a bonus stop. Rather than interviewing 21 breweries in San Diego and only bonus stops in the rest of the state, we divided the 21 up as evenly as possible throughout the state based on the number of breweries in each area, then did our best in each area to represent the full gambit of breweries — big, small, old and new.
After that it really just depended on who we were able to get in touch with. Just because a brewery was a “bonus stop” on our tour does not mean in any way that we viewed or enjoyed them less than the ones we interviewed.
BW: This was not part of the plan when we set off in January but we quickly found ourselves missing out on great breweries because it didn’t fit into the limiting 365 mold. It was all by word of mouth and recommendation. We took suggestions through our social media and email as well as spoke with people everywhere we went and picked their brains as to where they had been and what they felt was worth exploring. We did our best to visit those that were suggested but sometimes there were just too many and we certainly missed a lot due to hours of operation and location conflicts.
A lot has been said about the state of craft beer in the U.S., but you guys seem most qualified after seeing so much of the scene all over the country. What are your observations?
MR: We will be working on posting up our observations over the coming weeks, but for now just know that we don’t see an end to the growth of the industry any time soon.
BW: I certainly don’t feel I’m nearly as qualified as those who have worked in or written about this industry for years, even decades, but I can share a few thoughts. I observed passionate people making great beer in each of the states we visited.
In my opinion, passion is the key to this industry. Brewery employees put in long hours day in and day out and they certainly don’t do it for the money. I expect to see continued growth in the industry as a whole as the younger generation continues to be turned on to full flavored, hand crafted beers made by people who care.
I have yet to meet an ex-craft beer drinker. There may be some shaking out of the breweries putting out sub-par product or who have poor business models, however, I do not expect to see the bursting bubble that many talk about. When you look at the continued growth in already bustling craft beer communities like Portland, Chicago or San Diego, you see that a large variety of businesses can be supported and maintained.
I expect to see continued improvement in the laws that hinder these small businesses but it will be an uphill battle as much money is placed on the table by those who would like to maintain the status quo. This industry is about the community and you see that in the sense of collaboration — of brewers with experience who constantly help out the new guys and girls trying to get their breweries started. With zero hesitation I can say there is absolutely no other industry like it.
What’s next? A world tour?
MR: No clue, still trying to figure that out. Resting for now. In a bed. Under a guaranteed roof.
BW: I am broke so the next mission is getting a job while I enjoy catching up with family and friends. Additionally, there is a ton more work to be done in getting our website up to date with all of the information and stories we gathered this year. I would love to continue traveling and explore the storied breweries of Europe, but I don’t see anything quite like this year happening again.
Vacations in the future will be at a bit more leisurely pace. The goals of our trip kept us moving constantly and we didn’t really have the option to fully experience any area of the country. At the very least, I now have an idea of the places in the U.S. that I would like to visit in the future and explore more completely.
For more information and to see a full map of Michael and Brandon’s tour, visit brewstravelers365.com.
Charles Scudder is a homebrewer and editor of the Allen-Frisco-McKinney section of neighborsgo. Follow him on Twitter at @cscudder.