There was a time when, much like a band of Prohibition-era rum-runners, Kerrie and I would go to great lengths to smuggle New Belgium beers across the Wyoming/South Dakota border, treating any excess space in our vehicle as if it were a false bottom in a boat along the Rum Line, storing and protecting our precious cargo in case of criminal apprehension.
Of course, these were the days before New Belgium’s ubiquitous strangle-hold on the craft beer scene in South Dakota. Where finding Fat Tire on tap in a remote Wyoming bar was once a cause for celebration, it has now become “The Craft Beer Bars Keep On Tap,” seemingly outpacing craft brew leader Sam Adams around Sioux Falls. It was never really a matter of legality, either - simply another quirk in the battle for state distribution; another case of low production and high demand.
This isn’t a new thing, though. No greater expert than my own mother has told me of her beer smuggling. It was the same path - Wyoming to South Dakota - but her reason was that alcohol percentage laws kept certain beers out of this state, and her beer of choice was Coors. Imagine that today: smuggling Coors across state lines. COORS, people.
(True story: Coors was the most notorious of smuggled beers back in the 70s thanks to the movie Smokey and the Bandit, which made a renegade shipment of Coors beer its central plot point. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that Coors had landed in nationwide distribution. I was totally going to link to a clip, but none of the clips I could find were safe enough for a family newspaper column.)
Distributing beer is a complicated and costly process. Last summer, we listened as the owner of Grand Teton Brewing detailed the difficulty of entering new states, a process which seems to sap the fun out of opening a craft brewery. Between alcohol by volume (ABV) caps in certain states, labeling laws, cost of distribution versus viable consumption and simple distance, it’s a wonder any beer is sold outside of the city it’s brewed in.
For serious craft beer connoisseurs (hint: I’m not one of them), the struggle between accepting the local fare and traveling great distances to access different breweries is more a sign of boredom than a sign of desire. It’s the thrill of the hunt - the knowledge that there’s something out there that you probably haven’t tried. It’s the feeling of exclusivity - the “I’ve had this and you haven’t” mentality.
I find this tendency to be misplaced. Sure, I’ll forever long for Dogfish Head’s 90-Minute IPA, or even east coast swill Yuengling. But that’s energy better spent locally.
I’m not free from the shackles of distance-based desire, though. There ARE beers worth traveling for. Two of my favorite breweries are just over the border - Surly Brewing, which experiences such high demand they can barely distribute outside of Minneapolis/St. Paul, and Bell’s, which gets no closer than Sioux City. I often travel to Sioux City for client meetings, so I’m often put into the wonderful position of buying beer out of state just because I can.
And I do. Always. Without a doubt. I hit up Charlie’s Wine and Spirits and I grab one of the greatest IPAs ever to be created in the history of mankind - Bell’s Two Hearted Ale.
Bell’s Two Hearted Ale isn’t just tasty - it’s legendary. It was Zymergy’s pick for second best beer in the nation - behind only the mythical Pliny the Elder - and it routinely ranks on everyone’s favorite beer list.
I don’t blame them. I love it too. So much. I have an unofficial rule to only drink Minnesota beer when in Minnesota. But. If Two Hearted’s on tap, it’s in my belly. Sorry Minnesota - I occasionally cheat on you with Michigan.
Two Hearted takes the traditional IPA citrus tones and pushes them to the edge - depending on the context, Two Hearted can almost taste fruity, with an orange flavor that gingerly toes the line between brilliance and overkill. Its strength lies in that balance. You can take an IPA like Odell’s IPA, where the hops are crisp and clean - and you can take an IPA like, say, Summit’s Saga, which is earthy and resinous. But Two Hearted brings hop flavor with a smoothness that’s rarely accomplished with this amount of skill.
Two Hearted Ale is Bell’s flagship, and is clearly the pride of Michigan. That it’s so close - yet, as Hall and Oates sang, so far away - is maddening. But in that distance breeds a kind of desire - it could be argued that without the hour-long trip, I wouldn’t have the same appreciation of Two Hearted, much like Fat Tire has become too commonplace to my palate, and much like Coors’ cult status died once it reached nationwide distribution.
Absence, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe a 70-minute trip to Sioux City does the same. Until Bell’s takes the leap and begins distributing to South Dakota, we’ll never know. Don’t pass it up if you see it, though - it’s worth breaking out your false bottomed boats for.