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Beer Camp Across America

From the Open Water to the Open Road

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We were barely an hour outside of Yuma, Arizona, when the A/C cut off. The air temperature hovered somewhere between 108 and 110 and the steady stream of wind coming into the bus felt like a hand-dryer in a truck stop bathroom—hot, dry, and extremely heavy. Luckily, we had a bus full of cool brews and a professional team of drinkers, which made the stifling heat bearable. And we were just getting started.

It was a busy weekend: the kickoff to our cross-country Beer Camp Across America extravaganza, and spirits were running high. The opening festival celebrating beer in the Northwest was a home-game at our mother ship in Chico and a great start to the tour. Thousands of happy people and hundreds of great beers have a way of galvanizing the mood of the bus-bound group. And what a group it was: Ken and Brian Grossman; our head brewer Steve Dresler; Vinnie and Natalie Cilurzo from Russian River; Matt Brynildson from Firestone Walker; Joe Rowland and Doug Riley from the Asheville Brewers Alliance; Jamie Floyd from Ninkasi; Marty Compton from Bell’s; Wayne Wambles from Cigar City; Yuseff Cherney from Ballast Point and his wife Ingrid; and a few Sierra Nevada team members lucky enough to work “support.” We were riding the wave of good friends and beer as we rolled south.

The San Diego stop, at the Embarcadero Marina Park North, was a spectacular setting with great weather, a grand view of downtown buildings and a marina, and a cool breeze rolling in off of the Pacific to boot.

Beer festivals are fun, but they’re also a lot of work. The entire crew on the bus is festival veterans, so afterward, we were ready to move on to even more adventures. And adventure we did. Any trip to San Diego must involve the ocean, either at the beach or in the thick of it. Not ones for half-measures, we boarded a boat and set sail. Thankfully, the ride was more Love Boat than HMS Bounty and we enjoyed the cool salt air and fortifying drinks as we tooled around the harbor. Our founder Ken Grossman, though, had other ideas in mind. Not satiated with a placid dinner cruise, he hatched a plot along with Ballast Point’s Jack White and Yuseff Cherney to meet the unruly dawn on the search for fish.

By the time the rest of us shook off our beer-fueled sleep, Ken returned with four pounds of freshly cut Yellow Tail Tuna, swimming mere hours earlier. As we rolled on the Beer Camp bus east into the desert, Ken brandished a pocketknife, a Summerfest 12-pack of cans as cutting board, and treated the bus to fresh sashimi, road-trip style.

The more acclimated we become to air travel, the easier it is to forget just how large this country is. Traveling by bus reminds us that there is a lot of land here, and much of it is wild, open and unsettled. The Arizona desert brings that into focus quickly, and when the air conditioning goes, strange things begin to happen.

The temperature inside the bus began to climb, just as we began to climb in elevation. With windows open and sweltering air blasting through the bus, each of us settled into a sweaty sort of daze as the brown landscape folded away.

Free time, engineering minds, and inside temperatures hovering near triple digits can lead to dangerous plans. After a detour to the hardware store for a mysterious set of supplies, the back of the bus got quiet. A little too quiet.

Some of us have taken to calling the bus a mullet—business up front and party in the back. Those of us toward the bow were unaware of the deeds of those in back when suddenly a loud THUNK followed by maniacal laughter snapped everything into focus. Brian Grossman (Sierra Nevada), Bill Covaleski (Victory), Brynildson (Firestone Walker) and Doug Riley (Asheville Brewers Alliance) were hard at work building a cannon using random tools—some PVC pipe, a bicycle pump, air chucks and random fittings. And it worked! Well, this wasn’t an artillery piece, but rather a homemade T-shirt howitzer for lobbing cotton-poly payloads to fans at the future Beer Camp Across America festivals.

As the sun dipped, the bus soldiered on, uphill toward Flagstaff.

A word about the bus. This isn’t exactly a Greyhound; it’s more like a band’s tour coach without the option of sleep. Rumor has it that a certain clown-faced rap-rock band had it before us, which is both funny and unsettling at the same time. It’s well-stocked with snacks, board games, sound system and beer—lots of beer. Many of our brewing friends in support (or perhaps empathy) have donated to the cause. We’re deep with bottles, cans, and kegs of beer from nearly a dozen different brewers and we’re but a week in. Our friends at Ballast Point also contributed some of their excellent spirits, and the habanero bloody mary has replaced the traditional breakfast for many of us on the trip.

We arrived in Flagstaff on the wrong side of midnight and prepared for the painfully early call of 4:45 a.m. in the hotel lobby. Thankfully, the motivation not to miss a white water rafting trip into the Grand Canyon was enough to rouse the weary.

Bleary-eyed but excited, we set off to meet guides from the Hualapai Indian Tribe to brave the rapids of the Colorado River. After a breathtaking bus journey into the canyon—with a very thorough history of every rock along the way and a re-telling of the recent flash floods—we made it to our rafts. We hit 40 miles of river with dozens of rapids. The small boats bucked and bounced over the frothing water and we laughed, screamed and gripped tight as we barreled through the swells. A brief stop for a beautiful waterfall hike and we were back in for more choppy water. Along the way, the views of the canyon and the ridges high above humbled us all. The Grand Canyon is truly a special place and worthy of its reputation. After being there, Grand seems like a critical understatement, but “IncredibleAweInspiringFantasticDamnImpressive Canyon” is harder to fit into a tourist brochure.

We finished the tour and headed up a lower ridge and soon were ferried out of the canyon. From there we loaded into vans and headed back toward Flagstaff. Along the way we learned an interesting idiosyncrasy of our drivers. When asked about anything having to do with time, the answer, no matter the facts, is always 30 minutes. When will the van be here? 30 minutes. How far is the drive? About 30 minutes. Four 30-minutes later and we learned this is shorthand for “a while.” From now on, we’ve adopted the 30-minute rule as our basis of time keeping. How long is the drive from Flagstaff, Arizona, to Vail, Colorado? Twenty-four half-hours (or 12 hours by bus for the uninitiated.)

So far, this has been the trip of a lifetime. As we approach the halfway mark, there’s still much more to come. Moving from west to east, we’re exploring the country and tasting beers from our fellow brewers, learning just how great the American beer scene really is. We’ve got a long way yet to go, but we hear we’re in for a treat tonight in beer-savvy Denver, just a few short half-hours from now.