#ohiotour (monday).

We both had days off, and neither of us had to be back at any specific time, so the drive from Cincinnati to Pittsburgh was a leisurely one. We stopped at an outlet mall. We visited the Andersons store in Pickerington to check out their beer.

And, as I told you before, we ate pretty well.

In fact, our breakfast on Monday makes this whole post worthwhile. We spent Sunday night in Mason, which I had previously known as the town closest to Kings Island, the giant amusement park where I spent many teenaged days being amused. The town itself is a little odd; it’s the home of Procter and Gamble, and the tax revenue provided by the company has to be off the charts. City-maintained landscaping dotted every corner of every boulevard, and the strip malls — including the one where we were headed — were nicely tucked out of view.

Still, it wasn’t hard to find the Mason location of Blue Ash Chili, a 40-year-old local chain of chili parlors which specialize in Cincinnati’s local delicacy. Forgive me if I’ve explained this to you in person, but Cincinnati chili is different. The spices are Mediterranean and not Mexican; yes, that’s cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg and maybe even a little cocoa powder. The beef is finely chopped, so the chili has an almost-smooth consistency.

And it’s served over spaghetti. This is not negotiable.

The base is the three-way, which is usually chili, spaghetti and a mound of finely grated cheddar. Four-way? Add kidney beans. Five-way? Add onions. Oyster crackers aren’t a “way” in and of themselves, but they are practically required as well. Add some shakes of hot sauce, and you’re ready to go.

Mrs. Crappy thought it was a little too early in the morning for something that didn’t resemble breakfast; besides, she had had her heart set on a chili omelette since before we left for the trip.

Yeah, I know I posted this pic already. It was good enough to be worth it.

I have no such hang-ups, so 10:30 a.m. seemed like the perfect time for a five way and a side of fries. Mrs. Crappy’s breakfast looked delicious, but I made the right choice.

Here’s the funny thing. When I first looked at the menu online, I couldn’t help but notice that there were Food Network logos everywhere. This was thanks to a visit by Guy Fieri and his Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives show. I’ve always found Guy to be a little cheesy, but I’ve never had a huge problem with his show (unlike some friends of mine, who seem to react violently to the very mention of his name).

However.

Remember a few paragraphs ago when I said spaghetti was one of the things that makes Cincinnati chili Cincinnati chili? Seeing this on the menu made me snicker:

So let’s recap: Three-way. Four-way. Five-way.

And Guy’s Way? The Wrong-way.

#ohiotour (sunday).

Besides that night’s show in Cincinnati, I had one thing on my mind when we got up Sunday morning — breakfast.

And that’s when the day got weird.

Mrs. Crappy found a place in Fairlawn called the Sweet Pea Cafe that had a fabulous-looking breakfast menu and sparkling reviews on Urbanspoon and Yelp. I had taken a cursory glance at the menu the week before and hadn’t noticed the corn-and-bacon pancakes — please allow me to repeat that: CORN-AND-BACON-PANCAKES — and I was stoked when we placed our order. The wait certainly would be worth the payoff, right?

Waiting. And waiting. And waiting.

Um.

Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question. We arrived in time to spend about 45 minutes on breakfast before we headed southwest towards Cincy, and while I didn’t expect breakfast to hit our table Pamela’s fast, I also didn’t think waiting for our meal would eat up that entire 45 minutes. When we finally gave in, we were met with a shrug from the owner, who made us wait to ask him about the wait for our order.

No food. Indifferent owner. Sweet Pea Cafe outside of Akron? Avoid.

And while we gamely made do with our day-old Giant Eagle subs for breakfast, we got lost in Akron. We found the nastiest rest rooms we’ve seen for years in a gas station-Subway combo south of Columbus. We had to switch hotel rooms in Mason — our Cincy-area stop — because the bathroom in our first room hadn’t been cleaned. We encountered horrid traffic outside of Riverbend. We even had to move once we got parked because the kids who were directing traffic weren’t bothering to direct traffic.

But once we finally kicked back in the lot with a beer or two, the crap of the day started to melt away. It wasn’t as hot in Cincinnati has it had been at Blossom. We met an excellent dude from Louisville who works as a brewer for New Albanian in southern Indiana, who was happy to give us a taste of his excellent APA before we went inside.

And then there was the show.

I loved the set list from the start, but I have to admit that I was still feeling a little clenched from everything else that happened that day — so the band sort of snuck up on me a bit. I hadn’t heard a Punch You In The Eye before; I hadn’t seen a Twist in a couple years. But when Mound started up, I finally started paying attention. A smooth Jibboo, a Fee that Mrs. Crappy almost missed and Backwards — still my favorite song from Joy and one that’s turning into a monster live — wrapped up the first set, with a cool breeze and a stunning sunset to top it off.

The second set started with an indication that the band wasn’t fucking around: Carini. Bam. My first Tweezer, a Crosseyed that rivaled the one we saw at Star Lake in 2003, a Boogie On that might not have been in the ideal place in the set — I was awfully happy to hear it nonetheless — and the capper: a raging Julius into a perfect YEM. Encore? Loving Cup and a thunderous Tweezer Reprise.

Maybe with the exception of Steam, this show had a different feel than the one the night before — a little darker, a little more intense. Blossom was an explosion of energy; Riverbend was about plumbing the depths. Different shows, yes, but the band was near its best both nights.

We didn’t make the same mistake at Riverbend that we had at Blossom — this time, we found food in the lot before we left. Mrs. Crappy found a guy selling the ubiquitous veggie burritos: still warm, beans, zucchini, carrots, peppers, rice and cheese. It couldn’t possibly be more cliché; it also couldn’t have been any better at that moment.

We had a 30-minute drive from Riverbend back to the hotel, and we kept passing exits along Cincinnati’s outerbelt that teased with gleaming White Castle signs. I drove past them all, full, tired and happy.

#ohiotour (saturday).

We left with plenty of time on Saturday to make a stop at Vintage Estates to supplement the cases of Oberon and Route 113 that would get us through the weekend. Our hotel was just a 15-minute, back-road drive away from Blossom, which is still my favorite music venue anywhere. We scored a couple of nice lot shirts for each other (see mine, above; thanks, Mrs Crappy) and marched the 18 miles from the front lots inside in time to get water and beer for the first set.

One of the best things about the weekend was hanging out with Hilary, a friend from home I've known since we were in grade school, in both Cleveland and Cincinnati.

The start of the show was solid, if maybe a little unfocused. I loved the song selection — A Kill Devil Falls to match my new shirt, hearing Fuck Your Face was a treat (no, really), the Little Feat cover gave me — and all 19,000 of my closest friends — a good boost and I’ll never not be excited to hear an Antelope.

But we turned the corner at the start of the second set. Birds is kind of rare these days, and I hadn’t seen them play it before. We all roared through Possum and then, what? Seven Below? Nope, a new song (second time played?) called Steam, a dark, slow shuffle enveloped eight minutes of night before exploding into Piper, always a favorite of mine (even after its transition from a jamming song prior to the last hiatus to a rolling, tumbling energy kick these days).

Sally came up next; a great choice, but what caught my ear happened after the song dissolved, first into a song-based jam with Page riffing on harmonies and then into something a little more sinister: a 2004-style instrumental, shorter than but similar to the one that ended Scents and Subtle Sounds at Camden that year. This one was about six minutes but it felt the same, a chilling, downward spiral, creepy and exhilarating at the same time.

And just as the jam reached its full depth, Fish pops the intro for Hood (random guy, in my ear just then: “We can feel good about this.”), and we’re off, thanks to Mister Minor. But just a little bit into the final instrumental section of the song, there’s a sudden left turn, into Have Mercy — not the ZZ Top one, kids, but the Mighty Diamonds reggae song that Phish has occasionally covered since they got started. After that short respite, we veer back into Hood, which builds to the kind of climax you’d expect at the end of the second set.

Except that we started into Character Zero instead. They hit the first chorus, and Blossom is launched. Bedlam. We had worked our way up to the rail by that point, and got pelted with glowsticks in return, both during CZ and the encore, a luscious version of Slave.

We are happy, exhausted … and hungry. And that’s when we remembered that there’s a Donatos Pizza on the way back to the hotel. We had to wait only 15 minutes for the pizza, and we didn’t even bother taking it back into our room — we ate the whole thing while still sitting in Mrs. Crappy’s car in the parking lot. Sleep came pretty easily, and we had plenty of time for it before what promised to be a killer breakfast in the morning before set headed south to Cincinnati.

trifecta.

I have plenty to say about this weekend’s Ohio Tour, but I accidentally completed something on the way home today that I don’t think I’ve ever pulled off before: the Great Ohio Crap Food Trifecta.

This started early Sunday morning, as we returned to our hotel after the Saturday show at Blossom. Neither of us had much to eat during the day, and we were famished when the show let out around 11:30 Saturday night. To our delight, the Donatos Pizza near the hotel was still open when we drove by. That’s part one: a 12-inch pep and onion, scarfed down while still sitting in Mrs. Crappy’s car.

The next one came up Monday morning. Mrs. Crappy found a local chili parlor chain with a shop near our Cincinnati hotel; she was fired up about breakfast — usually a meal I never pass up — but at 10:3o this morning, I opted for a five-way chili instead. Part two: Cincinnati chili.

I had skipped over what became the final portion of the trifecta several times after the Riverbend show. It would have been easy to jump off I-275 and hit a White Castle drive-through on the way back to our hotel in Mason, but we were tired and not too hungry, having scored a couple of killer veggie burritos in the lot after the show. But as we passed through Columbus this afternoon, we decided to take a look at the beer selection at the Pickerington Anderson’s store, just in case we ever need to make a quick stop there. The beer selection was passable — the Dublin one blows it away, if you’re wondering — but as we pulled away from the store, I asked Mrs. Crappy to pull in the White Castle across the road. It didn’t really have anything to do with being hungry, but I felt like I really needed the two hamburgers I had anyway. Part three: White Castle.

No, not the smartest eating choices. But I had the chance, and I went for it. Just do me one favor, OK? Don’t tell my doctor.

I have plenty more to say about this weekend, including the shows, an odd Sunday, our visit to Blue Ash Chili and our non-breakfast a day earlier. I have to make a sensible dinner first…

tapped.

We arrived in Ohio around noon on Saturday, just about an hour before the start of the VIP session of the second-annual Big Tap In. This was my Christmas present from Mrs. Crappy, who had heard enough good things about last year’s festival that she thought we shouldn’t miss this one.

After a quick lunch and a few minutes to check into our hotel (which, thankfully, was right next the hall), we jumped in line for the first session, which featured special beers from nearly all of the 7,365,839 breweries set up for the show.

There were some spectacular beers throughout the day, but one of the best parts of the days was finding that about half of the city of Pittsburgh made the hour drive up for the show as well.

Friends? Check. Beer? Hooboy. Between the two sessions, we tried dozens, but there were a few that stood out: a cask of Great Lakes’ Nosfaratu; the bourbon-aged Ol’ Red Cease and Desist from Erie that the SIDT boys scored for their table during the VIP session; my first tastes of  two Ommegang beers, Gnomeagang and BPA; a luscious double ESB from Tall Grass Brewing in Kansas; and a firkin of The Poet from New Holland.

And there was this:

Yeah, I know. But it worked well: A swirl of coffee and chocolate up front and a subtle peanuty thread under the more prominent flavors. Wow.

When the second session ended, a pretty good number of the people walked the short distance from the hall to Vintage Estates, Boardman’s fabulous beer and wine shop which organizes the show. It didn’t take Mrs. Crappy and me long to score a table on the front patio, and from that point on we saw a steady stream of friends, flatbreads and yeah, more beer, including what probably turned out to be the best beer of the day.

Years ago, Sickpuppy picked up a gigantic bottle of Stone’s Double Bastard, and I’ve pestered him for as long as I’ve known him about finally cracking that sucker open. And with the fifth anniversary of the SIDT show coming up this month, the bottle made the trip to Boardman, where it chilled in VE’s cooler while the festival was going on .

It got passed around a bit.

Holy crap. My evening was turning a little fuzzy by the time I got a taste, but I’ll never forget it:  a syrup-like consistency and carbonation that had long ago been beaten into submission, flavors ranging from a woody backbone to rich fruits and although this bottle had several years to mellow, the alcohol’s heat still lingered in the background. A spectacular beer, and definitely worthy of the occasion.

We went back to VE late this morning, after Spoon Twitpic’ed one of the breakfast flatbreads, more than enough temptation for us to stop there one more time before making the longest hour-long drive ever back to Pittsburgh.

There will be video of some of this stuff over the next few days, but I’m still beat, so I’m going to sum it up: a day full of fabulous beer, friends old and new and enough food to keep us from dying. Congratulations to VE’s Phil and Sandy for pulling off a great festival and to Doug and Brad for the impending fifth anniversary of their show. And a special thanks to Mrs. Crappy, for having the forethought in December to get us to Boardman four months later.