The last episode recording in Chicago before we relocate the TravelCommons studios, and our lives, down to Nashville. We close out our threads on in-flight mask mandates and hotel housekeeping, and critique an academic paper about the moral hazard of frequent flier elite status. I talk through the changes I’ll have to make when flying out of a non-hub airport. And then, as I’m making a list of the Chicago breweries I want to re-visit before leaving, I think through the characteristics that makes a taproom great. All this and more – click here to download the podcast file, go up to the Subscribe section in the top menu bar to subscribe on your favorite site, or listen right here by clicking on the arrow on the player.
Here is the transcript of TravelCommons podcast #187:
Since The Last Episode
- Intro music — Warmth by Makkina
- Coming to you, for the last time, from the TravelCommons studio in Chicago, Illinois because we’re packing everything up and moving the 500 miles down I-65 to Nashville at the end of June. After 25 years here, we decided we needed a change of scenery. So with all the packing and everything, I don’t see a June episode in the offing.
- Way back when I was doing heavy international travel — Chicago on Monday, Toronto on Tuesday, New York to London on Wednesday, Zurich on Thursday, getting back to Chicago at Friday midnight — what then seemed like necessary travel, but now, looking back on it, seems like stupid travel — people would ask me my favorite city. I thought about it a lot, but would always end up with the same answer — Chicago. And not just because it was my home; I was offering up that answer when we lived in Philadelphia. No, my explanation to the raised eyebrows that answer often generated was that Chicago was the right size — big enough to support a wide range of interesting stuff (sports, culture, restaurants, microbreweries), but not so big that you couldn’t get your arms around it, and with enough Midwest pragmatism, from people moving in from Indiana and Iowa and Minnesota and Wisconsin, to keep everything grounded, to keep it from getting too wacky. And to their “But what about the weather?” question I’d say “yes, it can be -10° in Chicago in January, but it can be +110° in Phoenix in August; most every place has 3 months of lousy weather (save for maybe San Diego) sometime during the year; different people choose the 3 months they can endure.”
- But over the past few years, I realized my answer about Chicago didn’t hold up any more — not about the weather, the winters still suck; it’s that the pragmatism seems to be gone, with violent crime — robberies, shootings, carjackings — and definitely not-pragmatic local government decisions filling the void. It has started to feel like a replay of the 1970’s, which were not a great time in Chicago. Now, I don’t think it’s permanent. It’s a pendulum. Just like the city came back from a bad stretch in the ‘70’s to be a great place in the mid/late ‘80’s. It’ll happen again; I just don’t want to hang around for the low point. And according to the half-dozen movers we talked to, we’re not the only ones.
- Bridge Music — Dive Deep (Loveshadow remix) by spinningmerkaba (c) copyright 2015 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/jlbrock44/50488 Ft: Loveshadow
- A quick public service announcement — the COVID Real ID extension expires in less than a year. According to the TSA, “Beginning May 3, 2023, every air traveler 18 years of age and older will need a REAL ID-compliant driver’s license or identification card… at airport security checkpoints for domestic air travel.” Back in episode #183 in January, I talked about getting a Real ID version of my Illinois driver’s license when I had to renew it. No additional cost and maybe 3 additional minutes of time. But if you can’t pick up a Real ID driver’s license before next May, you’ll have to remember to take along your passport or your Global Entry card.
- In the last episode, we walked through the abrupt end of the US CDC’s transportation mask mandate — on planes, buses, trains,…. That news cycle lasted right at about a week, the last entry being the CDC asking the Dept of Justice to appeal the federal judge’s ruling that struck down the mandate that they had extended for 2 weeks to May 3rd. On May 3rd, the CDC posted a press release reiterating their recommendation that everyone aged 2 and older wear masks on planes and trains, and in airports and stations — but nothing about the status of that appeal. I’m guessing that they decided to accept the facts on the ground and quietly forget about any appeal — which is probably the only real option they have.
- And then this week, adding to those facts on the ground, the European CDC has dropped their transportation mask mandate recommendations. The difference, though, is the European CDC’s recommendations are just that, recommendations. The enforceable rules are made by each country, and Spain and Italy, many of the countries hardest hit by the initial wave of COVID, have extended their mask mandates to mid-June.
- OK, I wasn’t going to say anything more about hotel housekeeping because even I’m bored with it, but then I ran across an article in the Wall Street Journal about how hotel housekeeping unions are pushing for a return to daily room service. Certainly a big part of the push is to drive more work, more hours for the union members. But also because rooms are dirtier and take longer to clean when they have gone a few days without service, especially with the current guest mix that’s still heavier with leisure travelers, who tend to have more people in the room than the road-warrior business traveler. As you’d guess, hotel owners disagree, but for changing reasons. Their arc of rationale has gone from the pre-pandemic “be green, save water, and we’ll give you an extra 500 points to skip housekeeping” to pandemic “we’re keeping everyone safe by staying out of your room” to the current “it’s your choice, and ‘labor shortage’”. OK, that’s it. I’m really not going to talk about room cleaning anymore.
- But I will talk about TSA checkpoint passenger volumes again. Back in September 2021, the last time I scraped the numbers off the TSA website, average daily passenger volumes were bouncing around 1.7 million, down 20% from the July summer peak of over 2 million and down 24% from pre-pandemic September 2019 numbers. Six months later, looking at the last month-and-a-half — April to mid-May — the average daily volume is 2.1 million and growing, and now just 10-12% off the April/May 2019 numbers. So if those TSA checkpoints and airplanes are feeling a bit more crowded, it’s because they are. Tough to remember back to my first post-lockdown flight in June 2020, when daily passenger volumes were 5-600,000 and the Southwest boarding agent said “There’s 40 of you on a plane with 175 seats. So everyone gets their own row.” I, in no way, want to go back to those times, but having a bit more plane space was nice.
- I get a lot of emails from public relations firms. I read the subject lines of all of them because every once in a rare while, there’s something that catches my eye, like the pitch that led to last episode’s interview about Daytona Beach airport trying to survive in the shadow of the behemoth that is Orlando Int’l. So when I read the subject line “Study Finds that Frequent-Flyer Programs Increase Cost of Business Travel” in my inbox a few weeks back, I just had to click through. The study, just published in the journal Marketing Science which I admit I don’t read as often as I should because I get tied up pouring through the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, is titled Reaching for Gold: Frequent-Flyer Status Incentives and Moral Hazard, written by professors from University of Michigan and Duke business schools. According to the press release, after “(analyzing) the transactional database of a leading U.S.-based airline’s frequent-flyer program (that) included the histories and point accumulations of 3.5 million frequent-flyer program members during the 2010 and 2011 point-earning cycles” their main insights were — “‘Points Members’ are More Likely to Choose Higher Fares When Not Paying for It” and “the closer frequent-flyer program members get to ‘elite status’ the more likely they are to choose an airline even when it may be more expensive than a competitor’s flight”. Hmm, that feels a bit “Dawn breaking over Marblehead”. How can you be researching frequent flier programs and act like you’ve never heard of (let alone done) a mileage run. Maybe the press release overly summarized the research and just isn’t communicating its subtlety. So I hit Google to find the actual paper. 29 pages of text and equations, and 15 pages of bibliography and data tables later — nope, the press release was pretty much it. If the moral hazard of business travelers using their employer’s money to pay for more expensive flights to make status is eliminated, the paper estimates that companies would save at least 7% of their travel costs. Looking at 2019 data, the average cost of a walk-up US domestic ticket — one booked less than a week in advance, so the typical road warrior ticket — is about $500. 7% is $35. I dunno, maybe some full-contact procurement guy will get excited about that $35 savings, but I don’t know any executive in his or her right mind is thinking to themselves “Oh yes, pissing off the people who are jamming themselves in to coach seats and spending nights away from their family for $35 a trip” is a great idea. Except at GM. I remember when frequent flier programs first came out, GM didn’t let their travelers keep the points from business trips, which led to all sorts of weird booking behavior. Until that policy died a quiet death a few years later. Kinda like this research — I’m sure these professors are nice, smart people; but they gotta get out of their offices a bit more.
- Bridge Music – Drops of H2O ( The Filtered Water Treatment ) by J.Lang (c) copyright 2012 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. http://dig.ccmixter.org/files/djlang59/37792 Ft: Airtone
Moving to a Non-Hub Airport
- One thing that kinda snuck up on me about our move to Nashville — it’ll be the first time in almost 40 years that I haven’t lived in an airport hub city: Chicago with American and United at ORD; San Francisco with their United hub; Dallas when I signed up for American’s Advantage program my first day of work; Philadelphia with US Air, though I avoided them as much as I could; Detroit with Northwest; and then back to Chicago, now a 3-hub town after Southwest took over MDW after the big expansion.
- Nashville was a hub in the late ‘80’s/early ‘90’s — well, a mini-hub, actually — when American was playing around with their network. They built mini-hubs in Nashville, Raleigh/Durham, and San Jose. The experiment lasted maybe 10 years but never really made any money. I think the only thing of American left in those airports are Admirals Clubs; in Nashville, they’re down to 9% of the passenger volume. Today, Nashville’s direct flight distribution looks like any non-hub airport — the top 4 destinations are Big 3 hubs — ATL, DEN, DFW, ORD — with the fifth being MCO, thanks to all that Mouseketeer traffic.
- The #1 travel tip on my and any other experienced traveler’s list is “fly non-stop” — much easier from a hub airport, of course, and then your frequent flier strategy just falls out from there. If you live in Atlanta, you’re doubling down on Delta’s SkyMiles; realistically, there’s not another option. Non-hub? It could be just as straight-forward — if your flight patterns take you primarily to one of those hub cities — Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco — then your choice too is made for you. But if you’re in sales or consulting — or maybe slouching toward retirement — and your flight patterns are a bit more scattershot, then you have to think — what’s my objective? — flying non-stop for the shortest flight times and lowest probability of disruption; making elite status because the perks make my travel easier; or is it building up points to help fund my vacations?
- Thinking about my consulting colleagues who flew out of non-hub airports every week, they were all about status. One guy I worked with lived in Ft Myers, Florida and was all in on Delta. Even when flying every week to projects in, say, Dallas or Chicago, he’d always skip the direct American flights and connect through Atlanta, killing the time from all those missed connections with drinks in Delta’s Sky Club — which was free with his Diamond Medallion status.
- My calculus is a little easier. One of the side benefits of flying a lot for over 35 years is that I stacked up enough mileage for lifetime mid-tier elite status on American and United. Not enough status to get into their clubs for free, but along with the usual early boarding and free bags, it’s gotten me free club entry to OneWorld and Star Alliance partners’ lounges — which is very valuable when trying to navigate the rabbit warrens that are FRA and LHR after north Atlantic turbulence has screwed up your in-flight sleep plans. If I didn’t already have these metal levels or I was in striking distance of a new level — say close to the 2 million I’d need to jump from United Premier Gold to lifetime Platinum — then I’d probably suck it up like my colleagues do, and get, say, the top tier United credit card with free club access for a place to sit out ORD, DEN, and IAH weather delays.
- Those lifetime statuses let me step off the elite hamster wheel, so I’m now looking at non-stop flights and earning miles. Out of Nashville, Southwest has the most non-stop flights, so I’ll probably be flying them a fair bit. But while Southwest’s Companion Pass perk — their “buy a ticket, get one free” top tier status is phenomenal, I can’t BOGO Southwest to Europe, so I need to be banking miles on one of the Big 3 so I can book on their OneWorld, Star Alliance, or SkyTeam partners — which is where travel credit cards come back into the picture. Back in episode #167 in September 2020, we talked about people replacing their mileage cards with cash-back cards since no one was flying. But that trend is reverting to the mean and credit card companies have big slugs of mileage to dole out after buying them cheap in 2020 when the airlines needed real cash real fast. So my non-hub strategy — fly direct when I can, leverage those hard-earned lifetime statuses when I can, and charge everything I can on a mileage-earning card — including any drinks I may need to see me through those missed connections.
- Bridge Music — Bored on Your Backside by Trifonic (c) copyright 2005 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Sampling Plus 1.0 license. http://ccmixter.org/files/trifonic/445
What Makes a Great Taproom?
- With a month left in Chicago, Irene and I have built a list of “Places to Hit Before Move” that’s some mix of greatest hits and places we’ve always wanted to go but have, for some reason or another, never gotten ‘round to. And then I have a separate list of Chicago taprooms I want to hit one more time — Goose Island, Revolution Brewing, Off Color, Solemn Oath, Marz, Dovetail, and Metropolitan Brewing. Which then got me thinking — why these and not other; what makes a good taproom for me?
- First thing to do is to open up Untappd, the beer social networking app that’s been my beer diary for over 11 years now. I’ve checked beer in at over 1,900 locations and the #1 location category is — a brewery taproom. I scrolled through the list on the app and jotted down the ones I thought “Yeah, I’d like to go back there.”
- Probably the smallest group is about unique brewery experiences; where I actually did the brewery tour and it was something more than just row after row of steel tanks. Cantillon in Brussels is everyone’s favorite; they send you off on your own guided with nothing but a paper brochure and tell you not to break anything. And then, after you’ve navigated coolships and barrel rooms, they pour you their amazing lambic beers. Or the original Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, CA where the tour guide tossed us just-filled IPA bottles he’d grabbed before they got to the packaging machine.
- But except for these few exceptions, my favorite places have a wide beer selection (something more than 5 taps of IPAs) and/or a cool space and/or the chance to chat with the brewer. Labietis’ original place in Riga, Latvia hit the first two square on the head: a diverse beer menu — a juniper beer inspired by Latvian folk songs, a wheat beer with meadowsweet, a lager with Latvian hops — that’s located in the back courtyard of what looked like, in the fall of 2019, a block of now slightly derelict early 20th Century manor houses. A little closer to home on my Chicago list, Metropolitan Brewing does nothing but German-style lagers which are a perfect fit for their taproom patio that looks out on the north branch of the Chicago River.
- Going to a brewery’s taproom is kinda like seeing a band in concert — I’m going to get a fuller picture of that band than I will just hearing their hit songs on the radio or a Spotify playlist. Hitting a good taproom can be similar — getting past the high-volume core beers to see what the brewer can really do. When we were in Santa Fe last month, I went out of my way to hit Rowley Farmhouse Ales because I really liked their range during our last visit in 2018. So of course I ordered the Teosinte, a funky, earthy, grassy sour made from Oaxacan green dent corn grown a couple hundred miles east, near the Texas-New Mexico border. It was an incredibly interesting beer. I wouldn’t buy a six-pack of it, but I was more than happy to have a glass of it.
- But probably the best time I have at taprooms is when I get to talk to the brewer. During one of my trips last year to Nashville, I found myself an hour south in Columbia, TN, which bills itself “Muletown.” I missed the 2021 “Mule Day” festival; it was canceled due to COVID. Instead, I wound my way through a light industrial neighborhood hard against some freight train tracks billed as Columbia’s Art District to find Bad Idea Brewing. There were two other folks sitting at the bar; the brewer was behind it, serving. And we just got talking — about the beer, about his brewery, about Columbia, about brewing in Columbia, about what kind of beer sells in Columbia. And through all that, taster glasses kept landing in front of me — “try this,” “what do you think of that?” he’d ask. What was going to be a quick side trip for a beer turned into a nice afternoon of conversation… and beer.
- I guess there’s one more thing that can make for a great taproom, or maybe more of a great taproom experience and that is — it took me to a part of a city that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone. I talked a bit about this in episode #174 when I talked with Rob Cheshire of the UK podcast This Week in Craft Beer about planning taproom visits. Navigating the maze of a Beijing hutong to find Great Leap Brewing, or exiting a Paris Metro stop in a North African neighborhood on my way to Deck & Donohue, or riding an e-scooter through a questionable neighborhood in northeast DC to Right Proper Brewing. These three were fine places with solid beers, but they’re more memorable for the trip to find them than for the places themselves.
- But you can’t always tell this from Google search. So if you go to the show notes on travelcommons.com you’ll find my list of “Yeah, I’d like to go back there” taprooms.
My Yeah, I’d like to go back there Taproom List
- Goose Island Taproom, 1800 W Fulton St — Yes, it’s now owned by AB InBev, but it was the original Chicago microbrewery in the late ’80’s and they created the whole barrel-aged stout category with Bourbon County Stout
- Revolution Brewing Brewery & Taproom, 3340 N Kedzie Ave— Great beers; wide range of styles; bring your own food
- Maplewood Brewery & Distillery, 2717 N Maplewood Ave (South of Diversey) — Small, neighborhood bar tucked up against the Kennedy Expressway
- Metropolitan Brewing, 3057 N Rockwell St — Been brewing German-style lagers since 2009; great patio seating that looks out over the north branch of the Chicago River
- Dovetail Brewery, 1800 W Belle Plaine Ave — German lagers and spontaneously fermented beers; the best taproom on the Ravenswood neighborhood’s “Malt Row”
- Off Color Brewing, 1460 N Kingsbury St — Great range of beer styles, all of which are well-done
- Solemn Oath Brewery, 1661 Quincy Ave #179, Naperville, IL — In a faaar west neighborhood of Chicago, one of the OG suburban breweries. Great beers and a great outdoor space, especially in the winter.
- A couple of South Side taprooms featured on the Chicago MDW Layover Taproom Tour video
- Elsewhere in the US
- Oxbow Blending & Bottling, 49 Washington Ave, Portland, ME — Great selection of farmhouse ales with an outpost of rtyuDuckfat serving up fries on the patio
- Allagash Brewing Company, 50 Industrial Way, Portland, ME — One of the OG Maine breweries; huge range of beers beyond Allagash White; nice outdoor space; two more taprooms across the street makes it a nice afternoon destination
- Other Half Brewing Domino Park, 34 River St, Brooklyn, NY — Great hazy IPAs; great views of Manhattan across the East River
- Right Proper Brewing Brookland Production House + Tasting Room, 920 Girard St NE, Washington, DC — A nice little taproom in a DC neighborhood that is way off the typical tourist track
- The Fermentorium Brewery and Tasting Room, 7481 WI-60 Trunk, Cedarburg, WI — Well done range of beers just outside of a scenic small Wisconsin town
- Drífa Brewing Company, 501 S Lake St, Marquette, MI — Great beer stop on the bike path along the shore of Lake Superior
- Bearded Iris Brewing, 101 Van Buren St, Nashville, TN — Original Germantown taproom with great hazy IPAs, pool tables and a nice patio
- Various Artists Brewing, 1011 Elm Hill Pike, Nashville, TN — Wide variety of beer styles; big patio; guest chefs working a big grill
- Fait la Force Brewing, 1414 3rd Ave S, Nashville, TN — An unassuming place tucked away in the Chestnut Hill neighborhood; comfortable space; great range of beer styles; had a great conversation with the brewer behind the bar
- Bad Idea Brewing Company, 307 W 11th St, Columbia, TN — Comfortable taproom with well-executed beers in Columbia’s Art District; another place I had a nice conversation with the brewer
- Rowley Farmhouse Ales, 1405 Maclovia St, Santa Fe, NM — Nice range of IPAs, saisons, and sours, and a solid green chile cheeseburger
- Lagunitas Brewing Company, 1280 N McDowell Blvd, Petaluma, CA — Yes, they’ve been bought out by Heineken, but the original brewery still has a bit of that old Cali anarchic feel
- Pueblo Vida Brewing Company, 115 E Broadway Blvd, Tucson, AZ — A little joint in downtown Tucson that executes great beers with a focus on local ingredients
- Eppig Brewing Waterfront Biergarten, 2817 Dickens St, San Diego, CA — It’s all about drinking good beers outside in the sunshine along the marina
- Outside the US
- London Beer Factory – Barrel Project, 80 Druid St, London SE1 2HQ — Great beers; very cool space in railway arch along London’s Bermondsey Beer Mile
- Brasserie Cantillon, Rue Gheude 56, 1070 Anderlecht, Belgium — Ground zero for spontaneously fermented lambic and gueuze beers; just follow the train of beer geeks to the door
- Mikkeller Baghaven, Refshalevej 169B, 1432 København — Lots of spontaneously fermented sour beer on a converted industrial island
- Fábrica Maravillas, C. de Valverde, 29, 28004 Madrid — Nice taproom tucked into Madrid’s Malasaña neighborhood serving good pale ales and IPAs
- Deck & Donohue, 1 Av. des Marronniers, 94380 Bonneuil-sur-Marne, France — Took me outside the usual Paris tourist circuit to a North African shopping street
- Labietis Brewpub, 2, Aristida Briāna iela 9a, Rīga, LV-1001, Latvia — Out-of-the-way taproom; interesting selection of beer styles, not just the usual IPAs, but herb beers, fruit beers, and meads; helpful bartenders do a good job of describing what’s on tap
- Closing music — Pictures of You by Evangeline
- OK, that’s it, that’s the end of TravelCommons podcast #187
- I hope you all enjoyed the show and I hope you decide to stay subscribed.
- As I said at the top of the show, there’s probably not going to be a June show, between packing up the Chicago studio and then unpacking it in Nashville. Good news, though — the sound quality in Nashville might get a step-function improvement. Just about every apt building Irene and I looked at had a music studio as one of the amenities. The sound proofing, the sound deadening, and maybe a better microphone should make things sound a bit better. Quite a ways from those first episodes, recording with the iRiver MP3 player’s built-in mic while standing in a shower stall. Oh my!
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