Central and Eastern Washington Beer Tour

When people describe a location as being nowhere, they usually mean it in a negative way. The term nowhere is most often used as a descriptor in a tale of misfortune. “Our car broke down in the middle of nowhere.” The truth is, nowhere can be an awfully nice place. There is something soothing about being somewhere that isn’t anywhere. Usually the only problem I have with nowhere is that it can be a difficult place to find good beer. Even that isn’t much of a problem when you live in one of the best beer regions on earth.

With all of this in mind, we left Seattle on a Thursday morning headed for nowhere. That is to say, we pointed the Washington Beer Cruiser east and motored our way over Snoqualmie Pass, headed for the drier side of the mountains. The adventure would take us to one of our favorite breweries, an amazing winery, and one of the most remote breweries in Washington. Along the way, we stumbled upon a surprisingly good beer bar where you would least expect it—the middle of nowhere.

First Stop: Iron Horse Brewing (Ellensburg, WA)

Located just 100 miles east of Seattle and just 1.5 miles off of Interstate 90, Iron Horse Brewing is a great pit stop for eastbound beer cruisers: it is a great place to stretch your legs and fill some growlers. They have a small but comfortable tasting room and, of course, very good beer. Enjoy a set of samples, tip a pint, or fill a growler.

When we arrived, Natalia greeted us. While the boys were busy with the business of making beer, Natalia was kind enough to fill our growlers and engage us in some conversation about what’s going on at Iron Horse these days. We recognized that the grain silo out back was a new addition. Natalia told us that it came from Yakima, where it served Bert Grant dutifully for many years.

We thanked Natalia for her kindness and settled the bill. We had many miles to drive before we could enjoy the freshly filled growlers. While we love Iron Horse Brewing and Ellensburg, it is far from nowhere.

Second Stop: Cave B Estate Winery (George)

Yes, this is a tale of beer adventure. Yes, we did stop at a winery. The Cave B Estate Winery is located a stone’s throw from the Gorge Amphitheater. In fact, old-timers might remember that when the venue was new, it was part of a winery. Without going into the boring historic details, this is the winery that originally built the amphitheater back in the 1980s. Again, skipping the details, these are some of the oldest vines in the state.

Like the Gorge Amphitheater, Cave B Estate Winery is spectacular. The view is amazing and so is the wine. The grounds are beautifully landscaped and maintained. You will find plenty of picnicking opportunities. If you are not prepared, they sell sandwiches and snacks in the tasting room. We practiced great restraint and left the tasting room with only three bottles of wine.

The Cave B winery and tasting room is part of the larger SageCliff destination resort, which also features a spa, restaurant, event space, and hotel. The 30-room boutique hotel–the Cave B Inn at SageCliffe—is simply the best place to stay when attending a concert at the Gorge. Park the car, check into your room, take a short stroll through the vineyards to the show, wake up the next morning and maybe you’ll get to sit next to a rock star at breakfast. On concert nights, the hotel is completely booked months in advance. The waiting list is always impossibly long. Get on it early.

Base Camp: Sun Lakes State Park Resort (Coulee City)

This is one of Washington’s best kept secrets. Sun Lakes-Dry Falls State Park is a 4,000-acre park at the foot of Dry Falls. This is a geologic wonderland: Dry Falls is one of the great geological wonders of North America. Sun Lakes refers to a series of pristine lakes scattered across the floor of a coulee. Surrounded by towering basalt cliffs, Sun Lakes is a hidden oasis for fun and relaxation. Water sports, golfing, fishing, hiking, biking, putt-putt, paddle boats, and more.

Within the confines of the State Park you will find the Sun Lakes Park Resort, where a private company operates a modest resort that focuses on affordable fun for people of all ages. It is particularly well-equipped for families and large groups. The affordable lodging options include RV hookups, rustic cabins, slightly less-rustic mobile homes, and a few more-luxurious duplexes. There is also a State Park campground if you feel like sleeping on the ground.

We opted for a rustic cabin, as we have many times before. The cabin includes all of your bedding, a very basic kitchen, and a bathroom with shower. Bring your own kitchen and dining utensils. Don’t forget the coffee maker.

The Road to Rocky Coulee Brewing (Odessa)

After a relaxing round of golf at Sun Lakes on Friday morning, we headed south to Soap Lake where we were surprised to find Van’s Coffee and More. Conveniently located in the middle of nowhere, you will find a surprisingly hip coffee shop, café, bar, wine shop, furniture store, karaoke lounge, and tanning salon all wrapped up into one convenient little business.

Van’s had a few beers on tap. Although their selection of craft beer might not impress highfalutin city folk, they did in fact have a selection which surprised me. My experience has been that in towns like Soap Lake (pop. 800) and Coulee City (pop. 600) it is rare to find craft beer on tap at all. We marveled at the beer selection, grabbed a couple sandwiches to go, and got back on the road.

It was not exactly a Chamber of Commerce day in Soap Lake. The weather was threatening. We headed east on Highway 28, chased by a vicious storm. Around us we could see nothing in all directions, save for the fields of young wheat and the occasional power pole delivering electrical current to nowhere. Behind us, the sky wasn’t merely ominous; it was biblical—bible-black and falling. Ahead of us, the vast blue sky was dotted with flat-bottomed and billowing white stratocumulus clouds floating like puffs of whipped cream on a glass tabletop.

It seemed that the hand of a gray-bearded Charlton Heston had reached down from heaven—propelling the Washington Beer Cruiser down the road like a child’s toy, keeping us just ahead of the storm. With radio reception failing and very few static-free options, we began to sing Road to Nowhere by the Talking Heads. I’m not kidding.

Click the image once to see a larger version. Click again to see an even larger version.

“I’m feelin’ okay this morning, and you know, we’re on a road to paradise. Here we go. Here we go.”

It was awesome.

Impossibly cute

Forty-something miles east of Soap Lake lies the town of Odessa (pop. 1,000). To us, it was just a name on a map. We had no idea what to expect. Several miles from town, we could see towering gray grain warehouses in the distance. As we neared town, we realized that the storm had changed direction behind us. It decided to give up the chase, knowing it could not keep up with the mighty hand of Charlton Heston.

In a very Americana sort of way, Odessa is perfect. It is impossibly cute. You will notice the disproportionately large number of churches, some of which have been repurposed or seem nearly abandoned. Adorable old homes with manicured yards and shining flag poles line the streets. Main Street looks like something out of a Frank Capra movie in Technicolor. The grocery store is Denny’s Thrift. The drug store is Odessa Drugs. Seemingly uncorrupted and pristine, Odessa is perfect.

You will not stumble across the brewery, I promise. Even with the address, you will have to ask a stranger for directions. The woman we asked, apologized as she gave us rather vague directions (all we needed) and offered to call her husband who apparently would have been able to give us much more precise instructions to navigate the three or four blocks to the brewery. People are nice in Odessa.

The town’s Germanic heritage is unmistakable. On Main Street we passed businesses like Voise Sausage by Schumacher and Das Kraut Haus. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, eighty percent of the immigrants who settled in Odessa were German.

German roots, firmly planted in Washington soil

Tom Schafer’s great grandfather was one of those German immigrants. A lifelong resident of Odessa, he is proud to tell us that he still has the original deed to the farm, signed by President Teddy Roosevelt. Tom is right to be proud. In America few people have such a strong bond to the land. Tom and his family are a part of this place, not merely residents. They still work the farm his family homesteaded more than 100 years ago. They also operate Rocky Coulee Brewing.

The Rocky Coulee Brewing Company has a 15 barrel brew house and produces close to 500 barrels per year. They do very little distribution. You can find it at a few spots around the tri-county area (Grant, Adams and Lincoln counties), and in a few locations in the Spokane area. Every Friday, from 2:00 until 10:00, you are welcome to stop by the brewery’s tap room to enjoy a pint or pick up beer to go. Beyond that, you’re out of luck.

Tom Schafer is a farmer turned brewer. I guess his Germanic blood got the better of him. He apologized for the brew house being a mess. It wasn’t. He told us about his distribution chain, which amounts to little more than an agreement with Odom Distributing to get his beer to Spokane. His tasting room includes a few barstools, a couple of tables, and a patio seating area. Like the town of Odessa itself, Rocky Coulee Brewing serves the larger farming community that surrounds it.

Right now, Rocky Coulee has little interest in distribution beyond what they’re already doing. Tom told us that one of his sons has taken an interest in the brewery. “Maybe he’ll have more interest in that stuff. For now, we do a lot of the events around here,” he says as he points to a poster near the door. “Like the combine demolition derby next week, we’ve got a dozen kegs going out for that.”

Aint that America

Yes, you heard me right. The annual Washington Combine Demolition Derby, which takes place 30 miles south in Lind, WA, proudly pours beer from Rocky Coulee Brewing. Apparently it is a famous event, covered by ESPN and Playboy. So we are told.

I can’t really explain it, but the thought of locally-produced craft beer—brewed by a local farmer—being poured at a combine demolition derby somehow makes me insanely proud to be an American.

Tom’s beers are solid. He embraceds his local audience, addressing them on terms they can understand. For instance, his lightest offering is a Golden Ale called Wuss. Although he called it a wuss beer, I thought it is pretty good. When we were there, the Rocky Coulee lineup included: Wuss Golden Ale, Fireweed Honey Blonde, Dunkel, Brown Ale, Creamed Copper, and Amber. As any good brewer is wont to do when entertaining guests, he disappeared into the brewhouse and returned with something not on the list—I believe he called it red ale. Next to the Fireweed Honey Blonde, the red was probably my favorite.

We enjoyed a long conversation with Tom. We talked about brewing and the politics of beer. Truth is we actually talked surprisingly little about beer. Among other things, we talked about the history of the town and its changing demographics, the nature of the modern farming industry, the way Wal-Mart (though many miles away in Moses Lake) has impacted local businesses, and the combine demolition derby. In other words, we talked about America.

We sampled all of his beers and picked up two six packs of the Fireweed Honey Blonde Ale to take with us. If you bring growlers, bring your own lids. We learned this the hard way. No worries, they sell the Fireweed Honey Blonde in 12 oz. bottles.

We thought that our trip east on Highway 28 from Soap Lake to Odessa was the road to nowhere. We were wrong. From Odessa, we headed north on Highway 21 towards the town of Wilbur, and then west on Highway 2 to Coulee City, taking the long way back to Sun Lakes where our friends were waiting.

During the 36 mile stretch of Highway 21 from Odessa to Wilbur, we saw two other cars. It was 5:00 on a Friday afternoon. Rush hour, I suppose.

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