Tuesday, December 25, 2012

NCBBBQ Tour Stop #9 & #10 : Greater Charlotte

Date : September 2nd 2009

Lexington BBQ #1
Carolina Beer Company
Kannapolis Intimidators
Charlotte Knights

Attendees: Me

So this is it.  The end of the road.  And well, I kind of messed it up.  Basically the only way I could manage to visit the last two teams, the Kannapolis Intimidators and the Charlotte Knights, in this same year would be to go to the both on the same night.  In reality this didn't turn out to be true, since Charlotte made the playoffs, but I didn't know this time.  Given that choice made, to drive 45 minutes between games, you had to know that this night would not be the perfect end and well...

OK It started out great.  I hit one of the classic "Western" North Carolina BBQ joints, Lexington BBQ #1. 
Always busy, and it lives up to the hype.  The BBQ is very very good, not the best, but very very good. The sides are exactly as they should be. It's a mecca and frankly you should go. Not much else to say. 
After this it was ALL down hill.

I tried to stop at the Carolina Beer Company but uh oh - they had recently closed their tasting room.  How about that? And it wasn't like I could have known because they updated their web presence about once every couple of months or so.  Turns out this was a prelude to the slow death of the brewing company, one that had at one time been a true brewery and kind of morphed into a bottling company of really blah beers.  Eventually in 2011 they would sell their brands to Foothills Brewery (you may remember them from my Winston-Salem trip) and they've used their skill to make them into some nice brews. Anyway I've gotten off the subject.  Here's a pic of a water tower of the placeI couldn't get into.

Then it was off to the races so to speak.  First to Kannapolis. 
Buy a ticket.  Watch an inning. Over to Charlotte.
Buy a ticket watch a few innings then back to Kannapolis for the last few innings there.

The stadiums? Both pretty standard cookie cutter stuff.  The Charlotte one is interesting because it's really in South Carolina a few miles south of Charlotte and built in the middle of like 40 empty acres so in theory it could be expanded real easy for a major league team.
Now thanks to some terrible attendance numbers they are going to build a stadium closer to downtown. Good theory.  Kannapolis is your standard fare except for one terrible dark secret.

You see, before they were the Kannapolis Intimidators they were the the Piedmont Boll-Weevils.  That's a great name, right? Much better than Kannapolis selling out to the Dale Earnhardt family. That'r right a baseball team named for a NASCAR driver.  North Carolina, right? But that's not the part that sticks in my craw.  You gotta get your money from somewhere.  The thing that bothers me is changing the name killed the greatest team slogan I've ever heard. Here you go

The Piedmont Boll Weevils.  They're Un-Boll-Weevable!

That's FANTASTIC.  If you don't think so, I don't want to know you. The fact that isn't officially used any more is a travesty and frankly will always put the Intimidators on the bottom of my minor league list.

Any way.  Last out!
Shake hands!
And it's over.  It was a hell of a fun summer.

NCBBBQ Tour Stop #8 : Hickory

Date : August 21st, 2009

Carolina Bar-B-Q
Olde Hickory Tap Room
Hickory Crawdads

Attendees : Me, Matt Cabe, Lindsey

Hickory NC is kind of the bridge city between the Mountains and the more urbanized part of the Piedmont (Winston-Salem and east). Surprisingly despite being arguably the center of the area it didn't have either a famous BBQ place or a decent brewery (that I knew of... more on that in a minute) at the time.  So the plan was to hit up Catawba Valley Brewing in Morganton and Carolina Bar-B-Q in Statesville, then a game in Hickory. Thing is Catawba Valley brewing has limited hours for visiting and Driving Harper did not agree with what Planning Harper thought.  Catawba was scrapped and instead I went to a "little brewpub" in downtown Hickory. 

First up though was the BBQ. This fairly nondescript place surrounded by a parking lot was possibly the best BBQ I had during my trip.

Most NC BBQ either doesn't have any smoked and browned skin (called "outside brown") or has a limited amount.  Even those that really appreciate that good part can't have that much because there's a lot more inside of a pig than outside.  So a lot of it comes down to the raw flavor of the cue and frankly this one was great.  With the touch of the brown and a flavorful sauce it made for some of the best eating of the summer. The slaw was very good as well.  Not over chopped, so there was still a bit of fresh flavor to it.  Of course nothing is perfect and the hushpuppies were the big ball type that aren't my favorite, but this is a place that I've aimed to hit whenever I have the chance (though given that I don't ever have a reason to go to Stateville the chances are few and far between).
From there I went to Hickory and stopped at the Olde Hickory Tap Room. I knew little about this place as their beer was not available around where I'm from and they wouldn't start bottling until the end of that year. So it was a pleasant surprise to stop in and find a couple of well brewed beers in house. Now it's all over the place and deservedly so.

After a couple of highlights like that it would be tough for the game to keep up the high and what do you know, it didn't.  It's a ballpark in a parking lot with your standard beers and minor league hijinks.
It's a pretty nice place for an A-ball team but it is kind of sanitized with not a lot of local flavor, quirks, or small-time charm.  Still - you get a dog and a brew and baseball for cheap so it can't be that bad.
All in all a nice little penultimate trip.

NCBBBQ Tour Stop #7 : Asheville

Date: August 15th, 16th 2009

Barley's Taproom
Asheville Tourists Baseball
Wedge Brewery
Bridges BBQ (Shelby)

Attendees : Me, Allison, Matt Cabe, Lindsey

It was my birthday! And what better for a birthday present than a trip to the Asheville area for some beer, baseball and bbq?  (Spoiler answer: Nothing)

We actually hit Bridges (in Shelby, NC) on the way down to my wife's family.  (Technically Red Bridges Barbecue Lodge, as there is also an Alston Bridges nearby. Locals fight. I've never been to Alston's so I don't have a dog in this fight) Admittedly we didn't eat this on the spot, where the long wood-fired smokers cook the pig in the back for the kind of 50s diner-ish type store in the front.  However, even a about an hour later I liked this bbq. Particularly the long skinny hushpuppies are how I prefer them. So I'd imagine I'd really like it fresh and hot.

Later in the week it was off to Asheville. If you know nothing about the NC beer scene, Asheville is basically its mecca. It was true in 2009, it's truer now. Even with a solid scene in the Triangle and a burgeoning one in Charlotte, with the impending arrivals of east coast brewing operations for Oskar Blues, Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium well, there's no real threat toAsheville's throne.

For this leg of the trip we didn't have much time for brewery tours so we hit up one brew pub and one bar where I knew I could get a good selection of Western NC brews that might not make it over to my neck of the woods. The bar, Barley's, isn't the "have to go to" bar in Asheville but I like it for that aforementioned local selection. It's also more food friendly than other local bars and I needed something to eat. I got a couple local beers (don't ask me to remember - it's been 3 years - I'm sure it was good)
Then over to my favorite brewery in all of Asheville, Wedge.  Love it.  Love sitting outside and sort of watching the river but really just looking out over a parking lot and other people with a river in the background.

I can't explain why it's so nice but it is. A Golem (my favorite of their beers) and a half hour to sit and enjoy it and I'm a happy man.

We then met up with my friend Matt and his wife Lindsey for a game in Asheville.  One of the gems of the minor leagues, the stadium is a reasonable walk from downtown (though you'd probably want to drive as it's straight uphill back) and nestled into a mountain side.

The whole place is surrounded by the mountain including a good deal of the concourse carved out of the rock and painted with various Asheville and minor league baseball related items.   Here is the old logo which is so much better than the new one it hurts. Ouch.

It's a fine place to watch a game and usually even mid-summer Asheville is relatively cool.  Of course we hit Asheville on the hottest day of that year and sweated through a fairly uninteresting game.  Even then though the concourse had its cool spots being carved out of the rock.  Really there is precious little to complain about drinking beer and watching baseball in a place like Asheville.

NCBBBQ Tour Stop #6 : Burlington

Date: Fri August 7th, 2009

Red Oak Brewery
Hursey's BBQ

Burlington Royals
Attendees: Harper, Joey and Brian

Ah Burlington, the underrated forgotten city between the Triangle and the "Triad" (come on - the Triad? - I've been here 15 years and I'm still not buying it)  Ok I don't really know for sure it's underrated, it's not like I've spent a lot of time there but I've always been a fan of hitting up games in Burlington.  It's the cheap, low-level, sparsely attended games that I really equate with minor league baseball. 

Let's start it off with some beer.  Red Oak is one of the elder statesmen of the NC brewing scene .  It's quite different from most other breweries. First off they strictly adhere to those Jerry Reinsdorf brewing rules so there are no funny ingredients or flavors.  Just hops, grain, water (and yeast) In the end they only make three types of beer and they are uber protective of these. If you are wondering why you've never seen them, in part it's because they don't allow it to be shipped if it can't be refrigerated along the way.  Also the place is SUPER clean.  Like eat off the floor clean.  Honestly it's kind of weird - but let's face it, you'd rather it be super clean wouldn't you?

Is it THAT good? Well some people swear by it but I don't go that far. It is good though so you should try it. And if you go to the tour they'll give you ice cream beer floats (an acquired taste I'll admit.)

After that it was off to Burlington's BBQ place of choice, Hurseys.  It's been years but I don't remember anything specific about it so it must have been at least ok. Pretty standard plate from the looks of it.
Then we go off to one of my favorite places to watch a game in North Carolina. Formerly the Burlington Indians (lovingly called the B-Tribe by all), a few years ago it fell under the Royals farm system and changed accordingly (lovingly called the B-Court by... well me).Is there anything really special about it? No, not specifically anything you can pick out.  But it's minor league baseball in a nutshell.  It's a park a little outside of downtown that looks like it could be a fancy high school place. It's a place where you can pay like $10 and sit in the front row and get pics like you were on the field.

It's a place where you get to see a load of people drive down from Minnesota to see their local hometown boy pitch in a game. (Don't expect to see him in the majors soon)  Where the talent is more likely to be selling cars in two years than selling tickets to a major league game (Though Wil Myers did have a few at bats for the B-Court that year.  Did I see him?  I'll have to look through my notes)
And it's the home of one of my favorite mascots Bingo.  Why is Bingo one of my favorite mascots?  Because he does the base race right.  Look, we've seen these mascots move.  They are clearly fast enough to beat any little kid around the bases. This makes a mockery of these races UNLESS you play it like Bingo. You see Bingo is just so dumb he doesn't know how to run the bases. He goes the wrong way. He gets distracted by things. He goes out into the outfield. He loses not because all of a sudden he's super slow, but because he's always super dumb. It just makes far more sense to me and therefore is a lot more enjoyable. Fist bump to you Bingo.
They did have other things that helped elevate it.  A inflatable jousting area (I lost, if I remember correctly), microbrews from Natty Greene's in Greensboro, but that's juts icing. There's no other way to say it then to say that this is minor league baseball to me.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

NCBBBQ Tour Stop #5 : Eastern NC

Date: Jun 26th 2009

The Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery
The Skylight Inn
Kinston Indians

Attendees: Harper, Bobby, Joey

It's a shame really. When it comes to NC BBQ the classic divide is East v West, but unfortunately there isn't much going on baseball or beer (or let's be honest - anything else) wise east of Raleigh. Part of me worries that the style is going to come across as underrepresented. The other part of me says, "It's your own fault Eastern NC. Get some damn breweries and baseball teams going!"

I think I agree with the other part.

The only team that lies East of the Raleigh suburbs is the Kinston Indians. Kinston though, has no breweries (or more precisely had no breweries then. Mother Earth will demand a revist) nor any iconic BBQ places to visit. That meant heading on a little bit of a tour, hitting Farmville first for the brewery, then over to Ayden for the BBQ, then finally to Kinston for the baseball. Map it - this is quite a bit of driving. Especially with someone who doesn't have a great sense of direction (in my head all roads are on a grid pattern - I can follow maps very well though). So considering this was going to be quite the little jaunt, I had my reservations. Could the triumverate of beer, baseball, and BBQ be good enough to overcome hours in the car?

Ah the beautiful Duck-Rabbit brewery. As I've said before - nondescript warehouse breweries are common place, but Duck-Rabbit takes the cake in the "Is this it?" category. It's a large shed in the corner of a small town. This is "Aim for depression and keep on till morning".

Despite the locale, this brewery in NC has been around for a while now brewing exclusively dark beers and doing a damn good job of it. I love dark beers and Duck-Rabbit is my go to brewery for dark beers. The brewery doesn't officially offer tours but if you make a call or email and if they're around when you're in town, they'll offer up a little look around. Totally sweet, right?

Here's our private tour in action

This was really interesting because everything is in this big room - storage, brewing vessels, bottling, and the packs ready to go. Really appreciated the tour.

Sadly we had to go - but the next stop was also a nice one. A genuine classic North Carolina BBQ local, the Skylight Inn in Ayden.

Not quite sure it's the "Bar-B-Q" Capital of the world (nor that Ayden is as far east as their primitive map would have you believe)

Your choices are limited to sandwichs and trays. Cornbread and slaw on the side. No chicken. No fancy sides. Just Eastern NC BBQ heaped in a pile. Notice also in the bottom left of the pic the cash money. How just like the old days is this place? No cash registers. Just a pile of cash. A pile of cash next to a pile of meat. That's a beautiful sight.

I order the tray. If you don't notice - I always go tray over sandwich, why lose some delicious pork flavor to some non-descript bread? Nope, what I need is a side of slaw and some cornbread. The BBQ, as you would expect - was fantastic. Splashed heavily in some spicy vinegar based sauce, I kind of wish I had some now. Love the Eastern style. The other sides, not so good. The coleslaw, while tasting fine was chopped super fine. It was almost a coleslaw sorbet. A little off putting. The cornbread was flat and dense, not how I like it. Of course these are the sides, the complements, the Titos and Ringos. They can tweak the enjoyment of the meal but not determine it. The main course was great.

There was time for a little stop before the game, so we hit up a beer store in Ayden called Cinderine's. It was fantastic. An amazing selection of beer, friendly staff, fridges with cold bottles to purchase, and a couple local beers on tap. There were a few tables so you could sit down and enjoy. This was the equivalent of finding a Picasso in the middle of a corn field. I cannot speak highly enough about this place. I am legitimately angry it is so far away.

When the owner heard we were off to the Kinston Indians game - he even gave us free tickets. If you are ever withing an hour of this place, stop by. Get some beer. Patronize in a good way.

Time for baseball and the Kinston Indians (and their ridiculously racist logo) have a very nice little stadium a little drive from the downtown. If you've been to one relatively new minor league park, you've been to this one, but that's meant to be a complement as it hits all the notes it should. Nothing really special to talk about but like an umpire sometimes you know the best work done is work that goes unnoticed.

After great BBQ and two great beer experiences perhaps it was too much to expect a great baseball experience too. Perhaps it would have been too much for my tiny mind to comprehend. I think I needed the everyday minor league game to bring me back down from that cloud.

The trek was long and a bit tiring but there can be no doubt about it, it was totally worth it. Eastern NC delivered in a big way.

Friday, August 28, 2009

NCBBBQ Tour Stop #4 : Greensboro

Date: May 30th 2009

Natty Greene's Pub and Brewing Company
Stamey's BBQ
Greensboro Grasshoppers

Attendees: Harper, Allison, Joey, Caroline, Marshburn, Dan

Stop #4 : Greensboro, NC. Greensboro is a decent sized city in the heart of Carolina that has a reputation of being... well... boring. Boring starts with a "B" though and here at NCBBBQ Tour we love things that start with "B". Besides, how boring can a city be that has baseball, BBQ, and beer?

Well probably pretty dull unless you're a fat sports-crazed drunk, but hey I'm not moving here, I'm just passing through.

We started with the BBQ and usually this is an easy win. Like I've said before I'm not a picky man and Stamey's is a NC tradition. Yet ominously the Greensboro natives that I know proclaimed that they would, and I quote, "rather lick the dirt where an out of business Greensboro BBQ place once stood" than eat at Stamey's. I think I read the same thing in Zagat's guide to Greensboro. Would this be the first BBQ failure of the tour?

The first thing you notice is the structure and design of the place. The restaurants in the BBQ world tend to be holes in the wall or have "same as 30 years ago" styling. Stamey's has more of a standard country restaurant styling, like a BBQ Cracker Barrel\l.

Here's the BBQ. How was it? Well I wouldn't rather tongue topsoil but it wasn't very good. The flavor was bland, probably the blandest I can remember having, and the chop was too fine. Usually the sauce will be a savior at this point but the sauce was merely ok, not this BBQs personal Jesus. For the sides - personally I liked the coleslaw and the hushpuppies, but those in attendance had mixed reviews. That'll happen with red slaw - which can have an odd taste - though this one was far less pronounced with ketchup flavor than others I've had. The hushpuppies were more salty than sweet. Most people like the sweeter hushpuppies. They had milkshakes which enticed some of our party but again another failure.

Not that any of this was bad purr-say, I'd certainly eat it if it was placed in front of me for dinner. But when you've had great BBQ after great BBQ, this mediocre "get you by" BBQ really stands out for what it is.

Ok well strike one. What about some beer to get the taste of pedestrian Q out of the mouth? It was off the Greensboro's hometown brewpub Natty Greene's (named after revolutionary hero Nathaniel Greene). A nice, large two-story place downtown much like Foothills brewery's place in Winston-Salem (though I'm pretty sure this came first for those that care about these things)

The beer? Redeemingly good. This is actually the second time I've been to the place and I've been looking for a reason to come back. Here's my "Wildflower Witbier". I believe I followed it up with "Bayonet ESB" and "Elm Street IPA" but don't quote me on that.

The absolute best part of the Greensboro tour is that the Grasshopper stadium is downtown, and not "20 blocks away" downtown or "one and a half miles away" downtown but right there. You drink good beer and then walk 10 minutes to the ballpark? That's gotta be ideal. Way to come back strong Greensboro.

Fortune almost turned on our intrepid tourists at this point. I don't go into attending a minor league game thinking i need to get my tickets early. Even at the very popular Durham Bulls games you can always find a seat (albeit baking in the outfield sun but still they're there). Dab nabbit though if Greensboro didn't sell out. They announced to the crowd that only lawn seats would be available and we had to rush to get those. Still the seats weren't all that bad for being in the outfiled and I guess I needed to have the "cheap seats" at least once this tour.

I really liked this stadium and it's attempts at making the game fun for all had the right twists to it: See the Neese's"sausage" race and the signs for Greensboro's congressman and their "other congressman" (ok that's not the team's idea but I still like it.) They also had Natty Greene's beer on tap all over the place. And again, blessed with just a gorgeous night for a game.

Despite the rocky start, Greensboro came back strong. For the completiists, eat at Stamey's. For others just the beer and baseball, will do you right.

NCBBBQ Tour Stop #3 (sort of) : Durham

Tyler's Taproom
Backyard BBQ Pit
Durham Bulls

Attendees: Harper, Bobby (baseball), Dave (beer), Paul (beer), Newport (beer)

I live in Durham. I've been to all these places a couple dozen times, so when Bobby got called away during the game for a work emergency I just scrapped it and went to Tyler's and drank. All three are worth your while - the Bulls being the best of the 3, having probabaly the best beer/food selection of any minor league park I've ever been to. Here are some pictures of the Bulls stadium.

I'll cover the other two later in more detail, along with Durham's local brewery Triangle Brewery, but it would be disingenuous to talk about it in this post, and you don't want me to be disingenuous do you? Of course not. You want me to be totally ingenuous. So ingenuous I will be. Or something.