When I first started planning my beer odyssey, I was unsure of what to expect from Kansas. I know about Tallgrass because we drink a lot of it in the Twin Cities. In the research that I did, there were a couple here and there, but the main concentration of them happened to be in Wichita, with a couple of them set soon to open. This piqued my interest and I decided that rather than driving across the state in one day to get to Colorado, I would see what Wichita was all about. In the planning, I realized that I would only be able to stop through Manhattan and so it was more likely that I would be able to stop at their newly opened Tallgrass Taphouse instead of their brewery. There was also the insistent recommendation from a gentleman whom I met at Cinder Block that I had to stop at Blind Tiger in Topeka. With that, my course was set. I had a blueprint for the next leg of the journey.
My first stop on the drive through Kansas was Topeka in search of the Blind Tiger Brewing Co. Having never heard of this place before, I was excited to see what they had to offer. It was around 11:30, but there were a decent number of cars in the parking lot and I thought that was a good sign. I walked in and the place has a very comfy feel to it. There is a lot of really nice wood all around to give it almost a cabin or lodge feel. The island style bar is directly in the center of the bar area with tables towards the windows. There is an entire other dining room separated by a wall that houses an amazing mural depicting the history of beer throughout the ages. There were a myriad of taps all with a very iconic Bling Tiger tap handle. Up on one of the walls was a sign showing all their beers and which ones have taken home awards in either the World Beer Cup or GABF. To say this brewery has its fair share of hardware is like saying the Cubs have been a slightly subpar baseball team for the last hundred years; a severe understatement. Since I saw that most people were drinking and eating, I thought it would be a good idea to order some food as I tasted my way through their portfolio. I ordered some burnt ends and then proceeded to figure out my way around their beer offerings. Kristen, the bartender, was more than accommodating in helping me find what I needed. I ordered nine tasters of their craft beers and got to work tasting. The styles that I ordered ranged all the way from refreshing wheat beers to hoppy IPAs. I would have to say that my favorite ones were the Holy Grail Pale Ale, Tiger Paw Porter and the Tailwind Rye. When I ordered the Tailwind Rye, I was expecting a darker beer. What I got was something very similar to a pilsner. I have never had a beer that was so clear and crisp, but with a lot of the rye complexity.
As I was thinking and tasting the beers, John Dean, the brewmaster and owner of Blind Tiger, came over and chatted with me about some of the brewery’s history and what makes the craft beer so good. He has been the brewmaster for fifteen years and his passion is brewing quality craft beers that people can enjoy. He said that to get the Tailwind Rye so clear, they get a different kind of rye malt than most other breweries. They treat it in a way that clears out some of the haziness in the beer and keeps the beer clear, almost like a Pilsner. That day, they were brewing their Hefeweizen in the brewery downstairs. John is a font of brewing knowledge and we had a great conversation. John had to get back to work and I was back to drinking my delicious tasters of craft beer. Before I knew it, Scott, a local regular, was asking me about what I thought about the beer. I told him that I was genuinely pleased and a little surprised to find a place with craft beer this good in Topeka. Scott said that more and more, people are moving towards craft beer with flavor made by a person that they can talk to, as opposed to a huge gigantic corporation. Scott really likes being able to come to a place where they have good craft beer and you can sit down and chat with the brewmaster. Scott moved up to Topeka from Texas and likes the size of Topeka and the people there. I have to say that I agree with him. Blind Tiger Brewing Co. was a really nice find on my trip. The beer was great and the people were friendly and passionate about craft beer. It was getting to be that time and I had to get back on the road. It was on to Manhattan, KS, the home of Tallgrass!
Tallgrass Brewing has been a staple of mine for the last 3 or 4 years. Their beer is really interesting and they have a nice take on styles and flavor. They are doing very well for themselves as is evidenced by the new brewery expansion in Manhattan, KS. Because the brewery is still getting up and running, there was not a public tour when I was there. I did make it to the Tallgrass Taphouse in the heart of Manhattan and they have all of the Tallgrass craft beers, as well as 6 taphouse exclusive beers. The Tallgrass Taphouse is bright and open. The tanks sit behind glass and the interior is colorful and vibrant. The place was packed when I got there and I was lucky to grab a seat at the bar. The bar is very large and if you don’t want to sit outside, you can go up the stairs onto the rooftop. Being that the heat was still in the mid-90s, I elected to stay indoors to drink my beer. I ordered the taphouse exclusives consisting of a Bitter, Chocolate Porter, Saison, EPA and a DIPA. Since they were out of one of the six, the bartender threw on a Stone Russian Imperial Stout for no charge. As I set to drinking and taking notes, a gentleman by the name of Larry sat down next to me. He explained that he was here to check the place out for the first time and one of the owners of Tallgrass is a family friend. He was like a proud uncle as he marveled and ogled the shiny new surroundings. Larry asked me if I was from around town and I told him that I was from MN on a beercation. He thought that was incredible. It turns out that Larry lives in Omaha, one of the last legs of my trip and was nice enough to give me a lot of info on the town. He also said that he would be happy to bring me to a couple of his favorite craft beer haunts in Omaha. I love the fact that along with some really awesome beer, I am discovering incredibly friendly and welcoming people along the way. I snapped some pictures, finished my beer and Larry and I exchanged e-mails. It was time for me to mosey on to Wichita.
After the 2 hour drive, I checked in to my hotel and unloaded my gear. I was pretty tired and was leaning towards not going out tonight. I decided to get online to see if there were any breweries really close to where I was staying. To my surprise, there was a brewery that had just opened about 3 weeks ago that didn’t show up when I was planning my trip back in the spring. I checked it out on Google Maps and it was only about 7 minutes away. I decided that I would be able to go and check it out. I certainly am glad I did. This trip was planned with the intent of finding great craft beers and seeing new places. Meeting people has just been a bit of icing on the cake. However, I do believe that we are sometimes destined to be at a certain place at a certain time for a very specific reason.
I saw the glow of the lit gnome about a block ahead and pulled over to park. I got out, snapped a few pictures as the sun was setting and headed into The Hopping Gnome. The place was very bright as the front of the building is all windows. There is a tiny bar to the right and seating to the left that extends further back until it butts up against a wall separating the brewery from the tap room. There were only two seats in the whole place and I grabbed the one at the bar. I ordered tasters of the 3 craft beers that they had on tap and began taking my notes. As I was drinking, the couple to my right asked what I was doing. I told them that I was writing for a beer blog in MN and that I was on a beercation. This is where that part about destiny comes in. I had detected the female’s accent and it was definitely latina. The male was white and sounded like he was a local. As we introduced ourselves, it turns out that Robert grew up here and Carolina is from South America. When she said South America, I became instantly curious and hopeful.
You see, I was adopted from Medellin, Colombia when I was very young. I am 36 years old and since turning 30, I have had a growing desire to attempt to locate my birth mother and learn more about where I came from. It is something that is very scary and exciting all at the same time. When Carolina said South America, I was hoping that she might know something about Colombia, and maybe, in some magical twist of fate, even be from there. So, I asked where in South America she was from and she replied, “Armenia, Colombia.” My jaw almost hit the floor and I told her that I am adopted from Medellin. It turns out that Armenia is about four hours away from Medellin. Beer instantly became the furthest thing from my mind as our conversation turned to the circumstances of my adoption, what Colombia is really like and why I need to plan a trip to go down there. My soul swelled with excitement as I listened raptly to her explain the country where I was born. The interesting thing is that what she described was not what I grew up hearing. I always hear the tales of kidnappings, drug cartels, and how most of the people there were addicted to drugs and needed rehab assistance. I always believed that it was an incredibly dangerous place to travel. The fact of the matter is that Colombia has changed for the better. Carolina and Robert traveled there just last year and what they told me about made me think that a trip there was a very doable endeavor. I also learned that Carolina used to live in Minneapolis and works for Cargill. She has some friends in MN from Colombia and she said that she would connect me with them.
The 3 beers I had at Hopping Gnome were good, and the ESB being my favorite. They were out of the stout and I think that points to the fact that people in Wichita are really enjoying the beer at Hopping Gnome. The space is warm and inviting as was evidenced by the packed house and people playing games and conversing. However, the true highlight, and reason I will always remember this place was that it acted as a backdrop for a very serendipitous meeting. Carolina and Robert were so happy to meet someone from Colombia who also really liked beer. They invited me to their home for breakfast the next morning for an authentic Colombian meal. They assured me that they were not serial killers and we all chuckled. What are the chances that the two people I would meet at a brewery that I almost didn’t go to had so much to share with me about where I came from. The next morning came and I was giddy with excitement. They live in a very nice neighborhood and their house was immaculate. Robert, who works for a company that builds custom cabinetry and other furnishings had made their dining room table with his own two hands. Their open kitchen and floor plan looked out into the backyard onto a beautiful pool. Their two fur babies were very cuddly and adorable. As Carolina and Robert prepared the meal, the house filled with amazing aromas of garlic, onions and grilled steak. We talked and it felt as if we had been friends for years. As we ate, the conversation got easier and easier. We chatted about how Wichita is changing and how more and more craft breweries are opening up. We talked about why Colombia needs to be my next trip. The time flew by and before I knew it, three hours had passed. The food was spectacular and the conversation and hospitality was even better. We said our goodbyes and I felt like that was definitely not the last time our paths would be crossing. I told them that when the come to MN, they have to come over for a meal and more great conversation. They seemed amenable to that and makes me happy. It is crazy how the world works. We have had so many horrible things in the news, both in the US and beyond, but chance meetings of great people like this that really do restore my faith in humanity. Stay tuned for Part 2, where I talk about the other 3 breweries I visit in Wichita before heading to the great state of Colorado!