We’re not in California Anymore: Free State Brewing

A recent article on Free State Brewing mentioned that owner Chuck Magerl studied Bay Area brewpubs before opening Free State Brewing. If you ask me, Bay Area brewers ought to put down their out of control hop monsters and pay attention to what Chuck’s doing. The beers seem to have a lot of respect for the grain, which should be too surprising from a brewery out in Kansas. Something else Free State Brewing is known for is sourcing from local merchants wherever possible. And that’s good for my brother-in-law Keith, who works for a Kansas City Mexican food supplier, and sells Mexican ingredients to Free State Brewing.

Free State Brewing is at the northern end of the Midwestern college town of Lawrence, Kansas in an old, narrow two-story building. When it opened in 1989, it was the first legal brewery to open in Kansas in 100 years. It’s a brewery that wears it’s local Civil War-era history heavy on its sleeve, with beers such as Emancipation Pale Ale, or the John Brown Ale, named after the militant abolitionist.

The fight between pro-slavery and anti-slavery activists as to whether Kansas would become a slave state or a free state was one of the early confrontations that triggered the Civil War. Popular vote would decide whether or not Kansas would become a free state. Large groups of both pro- and anti-slavery activists poured into Kansas to decide the outcome, which at times escalated into violent confrontations, and many of these battles were centered in and around Lawrence. Finally, on January 29, 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state, less than three months before the Battle of Fort Sumpter which began the Civil War.

(Tragic Prelude by Joh Steuart Curry, depicting the militant
John Brown, and inspired by the armed conflict over slavery in Kansas)

Keith and my sister Leigh visit often, and so with my girlfriend Linda and I in town to visit, we dropped by Free State Brewing on a cold, overcast fall Sunday. Let me just ask that if you ever go there, please order some tortilla chips, tortilla, or their custard-like tort with Mexican Ibarra chocolate to help my brother-in-law out. So what did we think about their beers?

John Brown Ale
Brown ales are not the most exciting style in the world, but this one crackles with rich, roasted malt and nutty flavors like a Civil War-era rifle. Has a little grainy mouth feel to it, but that was a plus to me. We’re in Kansas, it should be grainy. A really excellent brown ale.

Ad Astra Ale
From the Free State Brewing website, Ad Astra comes from the Kansas State Motto – Ad Astra per Aspera, Latin words meaning “To the Stars through Difficulties”. Free State blends Pale, Caramel, and Munich malts, balanced with Northern brewer and Fuggles hops. We found the resulting brew very crisp and fresh tasting, with some sweet fruity flavors.

Stormwatch IPA
Free State uses Amarillo hops and some dark roasted malts. I found it rather grassy, herbal, and astringent, and maybe it’s just me, but it tasted a lot like nearby Boulevard Brewing’s Single Wide

Blue Sky Rye
It’s excellent, unique session beers like this one that make finding places like Free State seeking out. Two types of rye are combined with English Pale Ale malt and dark crystal malt, with Styrian Golding and Crystal hops to balance it out. The subtle rye flavors really add dimension to this brew, and it has a wonderful honey like sweetness to go with all those great fresh malty flavors.

Beer Running Baltimore: Running Up Federal Hill and Mick O’Shea’s

Day two in Baltimore, and decide to run a different route. I head down towards the Inner Harbor as before, but once there, still proceed south to Federal Hill, which overlooks the Inner Harbor district. Hill running is a great way to get a hard work-out in the middle of a run. It’s also a great way to experience the land topology, as you actually feel the ups and downs of what you are running through. There’s a small municipal park at the top of the hill, with great views of the city. It turns out this location high up above the harbor with all the great scenery was used as a tactical military location during a difficult moment in our nation’s history, the Civil War.

The first casualties of the Civil War are believed to have occurred during the Baltimore Riot of 1861 on April 19. Union troops travelling through Baltimore on their way to Washington, DC needed to transfer to a different train to complete the trip, since no direct rail route through Baltimore to Washington, DC existed at the time. Mobs of secessionists and Southern sympathizers attempted to block the troops changing trains, which escalated as the mobs started throwing large rocks and objects. Finally, panicked Union soldiers opened fire. Twelve civilians and four Union soldiers died before the Union troops made it to their destination.

That night, Union troops under the cover of darkness lead by General Benjamin Butler quietly occupied the hill, and set up a cannon aimed at the heart of the city. The city of Baltimore had long been a city sympathetic to the Southern cause, and a city so close to Washington falling under Confederate control was a major Union concern. The occupation of Federal Hill was a Union success, as Baltimore remained in Union hands throughout the entire war. So the hill I ran up that morning played a small role holding this country together.

That night, I stopped in at Mick O’Shea’s, just a couple blocks from my hotel in downtown Baltimore. As you might expect from the name, it’s an Irish bar, with plenty of dark wood fixtures, Guinness signs, and brick and mortar walls. There’s a couple of TVs inside so patrons can follow the Orioles or Ravens. Trish, the bartender greets everyone walking through the door by their first name and pours their favorite drink in a single motion. I’ve never been there before, so tell her I’ll have a Yuengling lager.

I order a Yuengling (pronounced “Ying Ling”) not because it is the oldest brewery in the United States, but because it is a great lager. Sometimes, I hear beer geeks talk about getting into lagers. Why did they get out of them? To me, Yuengling lager is a study in simplicity, with a crisp caramel malt and earthy hop finish. That’s it. It isn’t a beer that requires nine different fruits and spices to describe, and that’s why I like it.

I had a few Yuenglings over that week at O’Shea’s. There’s really no neighborhood bar where I live, and so when on the road, I sometimes adopt one for a few days. You can easily beat O’Shea’s beer selection, but you can’t beat O’Shea’s as a place for people to get together. One night, I struck up a conversation with the person next to me and turns out, he was a Chicago Cubs fan just like me, and grew up in Holland, MI. I had actually been to Holland, MI for a collegiate cross-country race so we talked a little about the town, and what it was like for him to grow up there. One of the many great things about beer is that it brings strangers together.

Mick O’Shea’s had another tasty brew on tap called Resurrection by a local brewery called The Brewer’s Art. I enjoyed this smooth Belgian style beer with a cherry-like tartness, and wondered where it came from. I ask the bartender,”I’m from out of town. Can you tell me where The Brewer’s Art is located?”, figuring it is somewhere around Baltimore, but miles away.

To my surprise, she replies,”It’s a brewpub about eight blocks up the road, you ought to go sometime.”

Just eight blocks away? Looks like I need to check this place out.