"I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land: will never be purged away; but with Blood."
Whenever I have the pleasure of going to Free State Brewery in Lawrence, I'm always reminded of these images of John Brown that I've seen before at the state Capitol... and have a good chuckle to myself. He was such a fiery, intense guy (clearly). But what's so funny to me is the juxtaposition of the larger-than-life, violent figure you see here and the crowd of good times-loving neo-hippies that hang out in front of the restaurant. As if playing the role of extras in a nostalgic scene from a movie with an invisible cameraman, these bikers, hipsters and townies represent the very essence of Lawrence - diverse, easy going, friendly. Fittingly, so does Free State.
We were already "drunk" on the beautiful fall air and memories of our college days when my wife and I walked in a few Saturdays ago. We'd chosen to come back to town as a anniversary gift to ourselves and had enjoyed every minute of walking around campus and up and down Mass. I was actually glad there was a wait for tables (even during mid-afternoon, seemingly later than the typical lunch rush), because it gave us a chance to belly up to the bar and chug some of Free State's fantastic brew.
The Octoberfest (left) was sublime... rich and smooth. You can read a lot more about it by clicking BEER on their website, but they describe it as being very malty and I think that's what I liked so much about it. Not bitter, not too dark, not too light. I'd say you can really tell this stuff was crafted for the ultimate sense of beer-induced enjoyment and consuming in mass quantities at the famous German festival by the same name.
Equally delicious was the Oatmeal Stout (right). A deep amber brown and with a nice amount of carbonation (more than Boulevard's Dry Stout, which I also enjoy), I don't know a more PC way to say this, but you really feel like a man when you've got one of these pints in your hand.
On to the food: a great appetizer choice if you're ravenous, as we were, is the artichoke dip. Served with wedges of thick cut wheat bread with melted Parmesan cheese, it's incredibly filling. The dip is fluffy like whipped cream cheese (that's pretty much what it is) that has garlic and artichokes in it. No spinach in this app and I like it that way. Despite the generous serving of toast triangles, there's plenty of dip, allowing you to slather on as much as you want and enjoy each bite to the fullest.
With our food we also enjoyed the Wheat State Golden. Lighter than the previous two, it was crisp and refreshing, but also light on the hops, making it a great pairing with the variety of flavors in our meal.
As an homage to early dates in our fledgling relationship, we decided to order... we had to order... the Basil Ciabatta Sandwich. Yeah, everyone's got a sandwich like this on their menu - roasted red pepper, goat cheese and pesto on ciabatta. But it's better here. Exceptional. The red pepper is meaty and sweat with that earthy, charred flavor in the background. The cheese and pesto, too, add richness and girth to this vegetarian fistful of enjoyment. It's light enough to be rejuvenating but filling enough to satisfy. We split the sandwich and split a simple house salad and loved every bite.
The menu at Free State is huge, with lots of fantastic choices I'm dying to go back and try. Would have jumped all over the chicken and crawfish gumbo that was on special that day but we knew the artichoke dip was already going above and beyond the duty of "appetizing" so we held off. ...Which is good. Something for which to return.
Another reason to return: refilling our Growler! On the way out of the restaurant, we dropped an extra $10 on a 64 ounce jug of Octoberfest (available for only a short while in the fall). $10 and change the first time you purchase a growler (some beers may be a little pricier), and about $7 for refills, this little guy is a great way to take the libations home with you since Free State's bottling operation hasn't taken off yet (coming soon, though!).
It's hard to rate Free State with any amount of objectivity. Admittedly, I'm in love with it as much for the memories it brings me as for its food or beer. But I'm not pulling your leg when I say the food I've had there has been solid. Fresh, tasty recipes... I'm confident they wouldn't serve anything there they didn't truly feel was executed to a their high standards. And the beer is, without question, incredible. You'll see what I mean when distribution of the bottles starts up and you try it for yourself if you're not lucky enough to have it at the restaurant in Lawrence before then. Either way, write me a comment and let me know what you think, when you do.
Rating: two stars