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On a recent road trip down the Mississippi a few years back, I was reacquainted with Budweiser.
This wasn't some attempt to immerse myself in the stock-car culture that surrounded me. It was just the only beer around. And while I was tempted to forgo beer altogether during the trip rather than turn to the king, I stuck it out, and found that doing so had one great benefit: It's 5 percent alcohol content showed me the virtues of foregoing 7 percent hop-bombs in lieu of something a little lighter. I could put one back at a roadhouse and continue on down the highway, confident I would be able to keep the car between the lines. Even on days there weren't places I needed to be, it was nice to be able to stave off the hot and humid air with cold beers all day and not find myself bed-pissing drunk by 5 p.m.
Over the weekend, I found myself on the road again - this time to Guemes Island just off Anacortes -- and again facing the probability that I would be drinking beer more or less constantly. So in search of the 5 percent beer I went.
Our first stop was Skagit River Brewery in Mount Vernon, whose beer board seem particularly skewed to the lower end of the ABV scale, including the lowest alcohol percentage I've ever seen posted at a microbrewery: The Del Rio Lager, clocking in at 3.5 percent.
Fresh off a mighty fight with northbound I-5 traffic, I ordered up a Del Rio fully expecting something akin to sex in a canoe (fucking close to water.)
What I got was a crisp beer that engaged my pallet with a strong taste of honey malt plus some pilsner, and a surprisingly hoppy finish. The honey puts the Del Rio at risk of being too sweet, but stayed within my bounds. Calling it a "true American lager," which echoes Budweiser's tag as "the great American lager, the brewers at Skagit River suggest that if light lagers are you preference, "then this one's for you." Laughs all around.
Paired with some happy-hour nachos, it was a fine fizz to suck down and forget that I-5 between Northgate and Marysville even exists.
Also from Skagit River, we filled up a growler of the Farm-to-Market ESB, a caramely beer reminiscent of Newcastle that clocks in at 5 percent by volume. This brew has taken a shellacking on the various beer boards online, with one commenter saying he poured the entire bottle into the sink upon smelling it. For my part, I don't know what all the fuss is about. Skagit River here has crafted a nicely rounded ale that, unlike Newcastle, keeps its malts in check.
En route to our undisclosed island destination, we stopped into the jam-packed tasting room at Anacortes Brewing (attached to the Rockfish Grill). Trying to catch a ferry, I rush ordered a growler of the honey cream ale from one bartender, then weaseled a taste of the cask IPA from another. All I can say is I filled up on the wrong beer.
Rounding out the trip was a stop at the La Conner Brewery. I started out with a pilsner that was too weak for my liking and belied some impurities at some point along the brewing process, then moved on to the brown ale, promoted by our waitress as the best beer on tap. I'd believe it was. While nothing to change your concept of beer, it was a capable beer - dark brown and smooth and quite sweet.
And, really, "capable" could probably be the operable word for most all the beers I tried in La Conner, Mount Vernon and Anacortes, be they light lagers or heavy IPAs.
None of the eight I tried are destinations upon themselves - nothing to leave home about. But there is a lot to be said about drinking the fresh stuff straight from the tap, and something about sipping what the locals are having that helps connect you to the place.
As with my Budweisers in the South, what I needed by beers in Skagit County to be was a reliable companion as I soaked up the scenery and people around me. That they did, and to boot I was (mostly) sober enough to remember.