By Bobby Bush
We picked the worst of all days to visit Sophisticated Otter in Johnson City, Tennessee. My miscalculation regarding driving distance was an ominous start. Regardless of the map, those treacherous mountain roads between Boone, NC and Johnson City take a good hour to navigate. Arriving at the brewpub, housed in a circa 1910 railroad depot, at about noon, we slid up to the bar only to discover that last night, Saturday night, had been an extremely busy one at the Otter. So busy, in fact, that only two house brewed beers, out of typically five, remained for our consumption on Sunday.
Gazing over the airy, railroad-themed bar and restaurant area, we notice a few guest beers on tap. Harp, Samuel Adams kolsch and Guinness (which was also dry). The seasonal Raspberry Wheat tap blew foam when opened. So along with a delicious black bean dip appetizer, we tried Honey Blonde and Iron Rail Pale Ale. The former took a silver GABF medal in 1998 and proved to be well balanced, with enough bittering units to counteract the sweet red clover honey effect. The latter, brilliant copper in color, was smooth, reveling in flowery Cascade hops flavor followed by a bitter finish. Its hops rating was a hefty 51 IBU (international bittering units). We'll have to schedule another all-day trip to sample the Otter's other brews, which consist of Ashe Street Amber and One-Eyed Porter.
As previously mentioned, Sophisticated Otter, at the heart of this hectic college town (East Tennessee State University), occupies ground level of a three-story brick depot. A large back room holds additional diners and an outdoor patio graces the west side of the building. The second floor is comprised of offices and a private banquet room. Apartments fill the third level. In business since September 1997, the Otter's small, extract brewery is positioned in the front window where passersby can observe brewer Reed Tester hard at work. Four small fermenters and three conditioning tanks leave no floor space for serving tanks. Tester kegs beer for the bar (and obviously had not left the bar well-stock before departing the day before). One liter hinged-topped bottles are on display in a cooler for to-go sales only.
The menu features a tasty array of pasta, ribs, steak, fish and more. The beer- well, the two we drank -were good enough to warrant a return visit just to see what Sophisticated Otter can really do.
I'm more and more impressed with every visit to Cottonwood Brewery in Boone, NC. Brewer Don Richardson always has something interesting on tap. And Howard Street Grille always has delicious southwestern cuisine to quell the appetite. On our most recent stop, we found several Richardson creations particularly pleasing. His award-winning Low Down Nut Brown was available cask-conditioned, aping a warm, rich, chocolatey smoothie. Endo IPA was full of Cascade hops but left only a quick aftertaste. Nitrogenous Pale Ale, complete with frothy head, was deep golden, too cold but warmly hopped. And Belgian Abby, served in goblet portions, was deep ruby and just as sultry. A thin blanket of tan-colored foam lingered as I consumed the sweet, thick liquid beneath. A visit to Cottonwood is reason enough to head for the mountains.
And let's not forget another of my favorites. Good luck and fortune has placed me, several times this year, in Music City where Boscos Nashville Brewing Company awaits. Brewer Chuck Skypeck is another one of those creative guys. In addition to his multi-award-winning Bosco's Famous Flaming Stone Beer- in all its subtly sweet glory -there's plenty more. From his second floor brewery, Skypeck keeps the bar and dining room below well supplied with such wondrous treats as: Isle of Skye Scottish Ale, which contains a touch of vanilla along with seven malts and three hops additions; Ed's Porter, on cask it's a dark chocolate dream, smooth with no noticeable bitterness; Bosco's IPA, hopped thoroughly from aroma to the smile on my pursed lips; English Pale Ale, a tamer version of the IPA; and Wee Heavy, a seasonal, strong Scottish with a strong alcohol presence, berry-like body and Port aftertaste. For more mouth-watering detail, see www.citysearch.com/nas/boscos.
What are you waiting for: hit the highway. But don't drink and drive, please.
This article first appeared in Focus Magazine of Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush