CLEVELAND Beer usually conjures images of fraternity keggers, tailgate parties, and Homer Simpson loafing at Moe s Tavern.
But U.S. beer drinkers are becoming more sophisticated in their suds consumption, matching beer with food and experimenting with different varieties than those endlessly promoted on football Sunday TV commercials.
Some are willing to travel long distances to find them.
Although beer lacks a major destination such as Napa Valley, many beer aficionados are taking vacations that are more like extended beer runs, visiting the nation s many craft breweries, brewpubs, and beer festivals.
The Maumee Bay Brewing Company & Restaurant at 27 Broadway on the edge of downtown Toledo has attracted visitors from as far away as California, said Jim Favorite, director of operations.
Anybody who s a beer drinker who comes through Toledo, they always come here, Favorite added. The brewpub displays more than 7,000 pieces of beer memorabilia, offers tours of the brewery conducted by brewmaster Phil Pollick, and has at least eight specialty beers on tap at all times, he said. Among other things, patrons can order a sampler platter of six of the Maumee Bay Brewing Company beers in four-ounce glasses.
We don t have a Web site, but there are different Web sites for beer drinkers, and they post remarks. It s almost like a little fraternity, Favorite said.
Nearly every major city has a brewery these days. In Cleveland, the century-old mahogany bar at Great Lakes Brewing Co. has seen its clientele change over the years. Originally, hardworking locals bellied up like famed crime-fighter Eliot Ness, who frequented the place decades earlier when it was called the Market Street Exchange.
The locals still show up, but on weekends the parking lot is filled with out-of-state plates from as far away as Nevada and Florida. Beer drinkers come for a taste of the brewery s award-winning Dortmunder Gold, a crisp lager, and Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, named for the ore carrier that sank in Lake Superior in 1975 during a storm as dark as the chocolatey black brew.
If you go in and ask for a Bud Light, tour and tasting guide Chas Murray will offer you a glass of tap water.
We have good beer, really good beer, Murray said.
Great Lakes Brewing www.greatlakesbrewing.com, 2516 Market Ave., 216-771-4404 expects to produce 50,000 barrels this year and was ranked by the Boulder, Colo.-based Brewers Association as the 26th largest craft brewery defined as small and independent in the country.
The brewery has a restaurant where manager Pete Gerome will help customers pair beer with food. He recommends the rich, sugary Eliot Ness Amber Lager for fried foods and any dish with tomato sauce. The citrus-toned Holy Moses White Ale contrasts well with Thai cuisine.
The biggest thing when you re pairing things up if you have a bold beer, you need an equally bold dish to stand up to the flavors, Gerome said.
Mike McAllister of Dayton traveled to Great Lakes Brewing Co. for its limited release of Lake Erie Monster Double IPA. Such limited releases are a big draw for breweries, and customers were restricted to six 22-ounce bottles, which sold for $10 each.
McAllister is a converted wine drinker who gave up on vino because he couldn t afford the expensive varieties he enjoyed.
His beer travels have taken him to Michigan, Indiana, New York, and Illinois. He returned with 19 cases of beer from his latest seven-brewery trip, which included stops at Bell s Brewery www.bellsbeer.com, 355 East Kalamazoo, 269-382-2332 in Kalamazoo, Mich., and Flossmoor Station Brewery www.flossmoorstation.com, 1035 Sterling Ave., Flossmoor, Ill., 708-957-2739 outside Chicago. It should be enough beer to help keep his 500-bottle beer cellar stocked.
It turns out the beer crowd isn t all that different from the wine and cheese crowd, according to McAllister.
A lot of the people who are beer geeks are actually bigger snobs than the wine people just without the money, he said.
While visiting Cleveland, beer lovers are likely to stop at the Brew Kettle Taproom & Smokehouse www.thebrewkettle.com, 8377 Pearl Rd., 440-239-8788 which is only a short drive from Great Lakes Brewing.
Inconspicuously located in a strip mall in suburban Strongsville, the Brew Kettle was voted by ratebeer.com as the No. 1 brew pub in the country. Visitors can brew their own beer in the fermentation room or imbibe an impressive variety of craft beers on tap, including Celis Belgian white ale, a crisp, slightly floral brew, and New Holland Dragon s Milk, a bourbon barrel-aged ale with oak and vanilla tones.
Owner Chris McKim sees a lot of beer tourists pass through.
We had a couple guys pull in in a station wagon doing the low ride because they had so much beer in the back, McKim said. There s some passionate people. It s another hobby for them that isn t too expensive.
Beer appreciation is a transformation in progress. Beer is evolving from a working-class beverage guzzled out of a can to something that s judged, critiqued, and enjoyed with food by discriminating connoisseurs.
I feel like we re on the edge of a cultural shift people are starting to understand beer styles now and learning about variety and diversity, said Paul Gatza, director of the Brewers Association, which represents 983 U.S. breweries.
While many casual beer drinkers wouldn t know an India pale ale (characterized by hoppy bitterness and higher alcohol content) from a Belgian-style ale (a citrus-tinged, spicy taste), he s encouraged by the growing number of people visiting breweries and festivals.
We first started seeing the beginning of that in the mid- 90s when people started seeing brew pubs pop up all over the country, he said. Things started accelerating the last three years where people are traveling all over the country to go to beer festivals.
The largest of those festivals in terms of breweries represented is the Great American Beer Festival www.beertown.org/events/gabf at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver, which runs Oct. 11-13. About 41,000 gathered last year to try more than 1,600 beers on tap from about 380 breweries.
The competition is fierce as professional judges award gold, silver, and bronze medals to beers in a variety of categories.
Here are some other distinguished beer events and breweries:
EMPIRE STATE BREWING & MUSIC FEST: www.empirebrewfest.com. July 20 at Clinton Square in Syracuse, N.Y. Billed as a tasting event, rather than a drinking event, visitors receive a 4 -ounce glass that allows them to receive 2-ounce samples. About 300 styles of beer will be represented.
BREWERY OMMEGANG: www.ommegang.com. Visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, then toast the Babe at this Cooperstown, N.Y., brewery with a Belgian-style ale, which the makers call functional art.
DOGFISH HEAD CRAFT BREWERY: www.dogfish.com. Dogfish in Milton, Del., specializes in using unusual ingredients. Its Pangaea beer due out in October is brewed with ingredients from every continent, including crystallized ginger from Australia, water from Antarctica, and basmati rice from Asia.
OREGON BREWERS FESTIVAL: www.oregonbrewfest.com. July 26-29 at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park in Portland. Entry is free, and a $4 souvenir mug is required for consuming beer. Minors are welcome, if accompanied by a parent, and can taste complimentary handcrafted suds but only from the root beer garden.
ALESMITH BREWING CO.: www.alesmith.com. Located in the craft brewing hotbed of San Diego, all of AleSmith s employees are home brewers. They add coffee to their Speedway Stout (12 percent alcohol by volume) to give it a boost.
THREE FLOYDS BREWING Co.: www.threefloyds.com. Its fourth annual DarkLord Day in April drew thousands who came to the Munster, Ind., brewery for the one-day sale of DarkLord Russian Imperial Stout. They sold out the beer in four hours at $15 per 22 ounce bottle. Brewer Barnaby Struve says he doesn t know if the brewery will do it again next year out of fear they won t be able to accommodate the crowd. Visit any other day of the year to experience a true small-scale brewery it only employs five brewers and for its refreshing Gumballhead American wheat beer, available during the summer only.
BELL S BREWERY: www.bellsbeer.com. Formerly known as Kalamazoo Brewing Co., the Michigan brewery claims to be the oldest craft brewer east of Boulder. Founded by Larry Bell as a home-brewing supply shop, it first sold beer brewed from a 15-gallon soup kettle in 1985. Its Expedition Stout is available only in the fall and winter and earned high marks at ratebeer.com.
Blade staff writer Ann Weber contributed to this report.