With over 4,000 breweries and growing by the day, the United States is never a bad place to go for interesting craft beer. This past Summer I had the opportunity to visit breweries in Middlebury, Burlington, and Stowe and I was left thirsting for more. This post will touch on a handful of breweries in this self-proclaimed "weird" state and the wonderful beers that they produce.
Our journey starts in the town of Middlebury that is mostly known for the synonymous college. Besides the college, Middlebury is a sleepy little New England town that has a Tasting Trail that features beer, wine, cider, and spirits with Otter Creek and Drop-In Brewing, Lincoln Peak Vineyard, Woodchuck Cidery, and Stonecutter Spirits, Appalachian Gap Distillery, and Whistle Pig Distillery, respectively. I started my own trail at Otter Creek Brewing Co.
Otter Creek has been around since the 1990s, changing brewmasters here and there and doing fairly well, evidenced by the 2015 groundbreaking on a new 120 barrel brewhouse. They bottle and keg and feature three year-round beers (Backseat Berner American IPA, Over Easy Session Ale, and Couch Surfer Oatmeal Stout) as well as rotating Seasonals (Citra Mantra India Pils Lager, Fresh Slice White IPA, Kind Ryed American IPA, Overgrown American Pale Ale, and Russian Imperial Stout). At their brewery/visitor center/pub you can find some excellent sandwiches, tasting trays, swag, and a bar with the outline of the state of Vermont.
They also brew the brand "The Shed Brewery" which was a popular ski-resort brewery in Stowe, VT that was destroyed by a fire in 1994. They bottle four year-round beers under this name - Mountain Ale (English Strong Ale), IPA (American IPA), Profanity Ale (hoppy Brown Ale), and Nosedive (Vanilla Porter).
I found all of the beers at Otter Creek to be well-made and enjoyable with no particular beer that I absolutely had to buy a 12-pack of upon leaving. If I lived in the area though, I'd be making weekly trips for their "Hotlanta" sandwich and tasting flights.
Next, I went just down the road to Drop-In Brewing which is not only a production brewery and tasting room, but also home of the American Brewers Guild. Steve Parkes, the head brewer and lead instructor of the Guild makes a range of lagers and ales mostly inspired by his British roots but also by his extensive time brewing in the States. There's a nice little deli next door and they are open for "drop-in" tastings throughout the week, as well as growler fills and you can find them on tap at local bars and restaurants. His 15 barrel system puts out some nice beers such as the Heart of Lothian (Scottish 90 shilling ale), the Red Dwarf (Red Ale), and the most popular Sunshine and Hoppiness (crisp, clean hoppy Golden Ale). As a graduate of the Guild it holds a special place in my heart.....and belly.
After Middlebury, I went north about an hour or so along state roads until I came to arguably the capital of craft beer in Vermont - Burlington! On the way you can stop by Fiddlehead Brewing Company in Shelburne, but I didn't so I can't comment on it this time. Nestled on Lake Champlain and housing the University of Vermont (Go Catamounts!), Burlington is also the home of Magic Hat, Zero Gravity, Switchback, Vermont Pub & Brewery, Burlington Beer Co. and Queen City Brewery. Let's begin with the largest of them all......Magic Hat Brewing Company.
Magic Hat is probably the only Vermont brewery (if you don't include Harpoon, which I consider a Boston-based brewery) that has reached out across nearly all (if not all) of the United States. They fall into the category that some consider "once craft, now sell-out macro brewery" due to their 2010 acquisition by North American Breweries (NAB) - which has since been sold to a larger company in Cerveceria Costa Rica (CCR) in 2012.
As far as Burlington goes, the "Artifactory" is the largest and most commercialized breweries in town. There are free tours daily which basically consist of a walk-through exhibit, a short animated video about brewing, and then a canopy walk overlooking the premises. It all ends with free tastings at their bar which featured at least 10 different "elixirs" when I visited in July. They are pretty experimental with their beers so there is always something for everyone. They are mostly known for their "#9" beer which is described as "A sort of dry, crisp, refreshing, not quite pale ale, brewed with an English ale yeast and apricot essence". Definitely worth a trip. After Magic Hat I drove about 5-10 minutes down to Switchback Brewing Co.
Switchback Brewing Co was founded in 2002 and is mostly known for its flagship "Switchback Ale" which is a reddish-amber ale that doesn't easily fit into any established style guidelines - which is completely acceptable. All of their beers are naturally carbonated and unfiltered and they have a nice little tasting room (above) that was opened in 2014 - complete with tasting trays shaped like the state of Vermont. I really enjoyed their Export Stout and Citra Pils and their bottles remind me of old tonic bottles from the 19th century. Next, it was on to a more recent addition with the Zero Gravity Craft Brewery.
Zero gravity actually has two locations - a flat bread brewpub in the downtown Burlington area and an actual brewery and tasting room (with soft pretzels) on Pine Street. At press, they are offering nearly 20 different beers on tap between the two locations so obviously these guys are into variety. One of my favourite beers I had on the entire trip was their "Green State Lager" which seems to be very popular in the area, but I really enjoyed most of their beers that I tried. They are canning and kegging their products and both locations have some really catchy artwork.
I didn't make it to all of the breweries in Burlington, but there was one more place on my list that I absolutely had to see...
the Vermont Pub & Brewery which was founded by the late Greg Noonan, the author of multiple books on brewing - most notably Brewing Lager Beer. Since 1989 they have churned out some great beer, winning multiple medals at the Great American Beer Festival, and even training up John Kimmich who would go on to start the now-famous The Alchemist brewery in Waterbury, VT (coming up next). Over lunch I tried their "Baseball Beer" and their "ESB", both of which were quite nice. It's definitely a nice place to have lunch, with typical pub grub, outdoor seating, and a range of classic beer styles.
From Burlington, I drove east through Waterbury, the home of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream, on the way to the ski resort town of Stowe. It is there that you will find the new visitor's center for the Alchemist on your own personal pilgrimage to find the elusive "Heady Topper", "Focal Banger", and "Crusher" beers for purchase.
The Alchemist Brewery is actually in Waterbury, but it is closed to the public and they just opened this visitor center in the Summer of 2016 to brew more of their beers and to facilitate the direct distribution of their three beers to their devoted customers. The photo above gives you an idea of a Wednesday morning around 10:30am when they open at 11:00am.
If you visit you can expect to stand in a line for at least half-an-hour and upon entering you basically follow an amusement-park-esque line that takes you through the swag shop, the tasting bar, and then the cold beer pick-up. You aren't encouraged to hang out or look around; most people are just there to buy the per-person daily maximum of one case (either mixed or all of one style). It's kind of fun to watch the elated look on people's faces as they emerge triumphantly to the parking lot, hauling their stash with at least two other adults and loading all of their cases into the back of their Subarus.
As for the beer.....it's good. They clearly have set a goal for themselves to make extremely hoppy, yet drinkable beers and they are doing just that with the Heady Topper. Locals will tell you that they actually prefer either the Focal Banger or the Crusher but they are all in a similar range and you won't be unhappy with any of the beers that you try.....as long as you love hops. Interestingly enough, they prefer and encourage their customers to drink directly from the cans rather than pour into a glass. It definitely helps to hold in the aromas that they worked hard to include.
Moving on, I'd have to recommend staying at the Trapp Family Lodge for at least one night while in Stowe. It's a beautiful Alpine lodge established by the Von Trapps who were immortalised in the film "The Sound of Music". They've got authentically furnished rooms, Austrian buffet breakfast, and amazing views on their property. Recently, they have also added a nice not-so-little brewery on the premises...
Von Trapp Brewery specializes in classic German beer styles, and this brand-new facility is serving up some clean and authentic beers in kegs and cans. The brewers aren't German or Austrian, but they could've had me fooled. You can jump on a guided tour of the facility or stop into their restaurant for a sampling tray.
So that concluded my first trip to Vermont and I must emphasize "first" because I know that I will have to come back. There are too many breweries to visit in one go and probably the biggest name that you didn't see here was Hill Farmstead. You can't go wrong with beer in Vermont. Hopefully they will continue to "Keep It Weird".
-- Mr. Jackson