Vermont Beer Trip Prospectus
When I decided to start writing here, my plan was to focus exclusively on Boston breweries. I enjoy showing people around my town and talking about it, and I felt like there was a lot to explore. Thankfully, I was right. I am as excited now about what my city has been brewing as ever, and there are many beers, breweries and beer bars left to cover. But for my next couple posts I hope you will join me on a quick roadtrip to visit some breweries that have been getting just about every accolade in the world of beer. This will be my first visit to Vermont, and that presents a clear difference from most of my posts. Whereas I usually feel confident talking about Boston’s people and neighborhoods, this is something I know close to nothing about. I hope my posts will reflect this mix of expectation and outcome, knowledge and confusion, beginner and expert, so I am writing and introductory post to flush out what I hope to accomplish and experience.
Aside from “because it’s supposedly beautiful and hopefully cooler” and “because my girlfriend is obsessed with cheese”? In the past few years, Vermont has become as much of a beer destination as more traditional places such as Belgium or Germany and I can get there in approximately 3 hours of driving. It’s important that I make a distinction here. This isn’t the same as saying “because The Alchemist’s Heady Topper is currently the top beer and Hill Farmstead is the top brewery on Beeradvocate,” although the two are related. I strongly believe everyone is free to love and hate any beer – regardless of its ranking or who brewed it – and that going white-whale hunting is no way of enjoying beer. No one in the world is drinking Cantillon every night and that’s just a fact of life. Lately, if I am not drinking a beer I will be writing about or at least drinking “educationally,” I find my rotation growing smaller every week. At this point in my drinking career, I would be perfectly happy to drink nothing but Maine Beer Co.’s Peeper and Jack’s Abby’s Leisure Time Lager for the rest of the summer. But an integral part of being an authority on any one field is having some idea of what is out there, what other people are making, thinking, and tasting. Essentially, there’s just too much going on in Vermont beer right now and I need to form my own opinion on it.
What are my hopes?
I hope to be surprised. That’s my best-case scenario: That I will see something, or experience something or taste something that will surprise me, for better or worse. It would be a waste of my money and time if I went there and just reaffirmed views I have already formed based on limited exposure to these breweries. So let’s survey my (admittedly weak) Vermont beers resume and talk a little bit about the breweries.
They are a little unique because instead of developing a full beer lineup they’ve focused on making exclusively Heady Topper, a DIPA. This has always fascinated me because, as an Anthony Bourdain junkie, I have learned that if you are traveling and come across a stand that only makes one item you should absolutely stop in and try it. I’ve had Heady Topper and it is absolutely phenomenal, I don’t know what I could tell you about it. Is it “the best beer in the world”? I can’t answer that yet. All I can say is that I’ve had other beers that get that sort of praise and I found myself saying, with certainty that “there is no way this is the best beer in the world”. With Heady, I can certainly see why someone would say that. And here’s the kicker: Heady is one of those beers that simply must be consumed as fresh as possible, and the ones I’ve had were all in Boston. Since even mediocre beers get significantly better when you drink them at the brewery, I fully expect drinking Heady at the brewery will rock my world.
Lawson’s Finest Liquids
This is probably the Vermont-iest of the three. It’s just some guy brewing out of a shed in the middle of nowhere. You can’t visit it, see it, or even know where it is. In order to write about it, I plan on going to the Warren Store , which, from what I gathered, is a mix of a deli, clothing store and wine shop, in order to buy bottles, and looking for it on draft elsewhere. I am little nervous about this plan because most of Lawson’s accounts currently seem to be pouring their collaboration with Jack’s Abby, Smoked Maple Lager. This is a problem for me because I am not a huge fan of smoked beers and I can get that stuff in Boston. As a matter of fact, as soon as I heard about this collaboration I thought about writing about it, but after drinking it I changed my mind. Since I could not overcome my distaste for smoky beers I did not think it would be fair to either of those breweries for me to review it. So I hope I can get my hands on another one of Lawson’s maple-infused beers and one of their IPAs so I can judge them more fairly.
Well, this is the big one, huh? I have to say, I am a bit intimidated by Hill Farmstead and the prospect of having to write about them. I don’t know if it’s because so much has been written about it by people with decades of experience on me, or if it’s because of the way Shaun Hill is often portrayed in the media, but it just seems daunting. By all accounts, the place is beautiful and the beers are life-alteringly great. I’ve had some of their beers, and their collaboration with Mikkeller is currently my favorite beer to date, so at least I can echo the sentiment. So why the trepidation?
I fear that I may for once come off as a bit of a fan-boy to someone who’s passion runs so deep in his craft. In explaining the Hill Farmstead camp-outs, I have often used the phrase “the Woodstock of Beer,” and I think that accurately reflects my views not only on the importance of these events but on Hill’s status as a Brewer. But most of the time when he talks about his success and the lines of people waiting to fill their growlers, it seems that Hill tends to retreat from the celebrity status that most brewers gravitate towards. In those interviews, it’s clear that Hill’s main concern is brewing the beer he’s always wanted to brew and sometimes can’t understand the throngs of fans waiting for growler fills.
I worry that by being my own joyful, overly-excited, fan-boy self, I could come off as just another one of those beer geeks. I shot him an email trying to set-up an interview, fully expecting a no-answer or the “sorry we are too busy brewing” response I have gotten from other brewers, or worse, from “brand reps”. Instead, I kid you not, he answered within 5 minutes, in the most open and flexible way, proving that I really do need to go out there and experience all of this first hand.
I can’t decide if this is my favorite, or my least favorite part of the trip. On one hand, I am the kind of person who browses Eater and Chowhound daily for fun and procrastination, so I am very comfortable sifting through endless review threads. On the other, I usually have a nearly infinite amount of time to plan outings with, so if I decide there’s a place I really want to visit, I’ll just add to my mental queue and eventually I’ll get there. When traveling, I have a limited amount of time, money and stomach space to work with. Furthermore, I quickly learned that in Vermont, everything seems to be at least a thirty-minute drive from everything else. There’s also the added complication that, unsurprisingly, there’s not much in the way of public transportation up there, a luxury I’ve grown very accustomed to when visiting breweries and beer bars in Boston when I am the only driver. This means that I will only sample a very limited amount of beer at the breweries and I needed to find a hotel within walking distance of either a great beer bar or one of the breweries.
After a lot of planning and way too many open tabs on my Internet browser, I decided to make reservations at the Stowe Motel & Snowdrift. Why? Well, they were offering a pretty good discount, Stowe seems like one of the better walking areas in the state and it’s right by a Mexican restaurant, a pizza joint and a bistro, all with Alchemist and Hill Farmstead accounts (which is kind of ridiculous even to type). Neither of those usually has Lawson’s on tap, making my plans to write about them even sketchier. I plan on swinging by the Three Penny Tap Room because as far as I could find, they are one of the few with any Grassroots on tap and the rest of their draft list reads like a pipe dream. Sadly, the Prohibition Pig, one of the restaurants I really wanted to visit, does not seem to be in the cards for me this time around, but there’s always next time right?
If you are trying to replicate my strategy for finding restaurants in your next beer trip. I strongly advise you to use Yelp as a last resource. Since this is a beer trip, start with the beers. Beeradvocate is actually quite helpful listing all the beer attractions in a state or country, and seekabrew(thanks fellow PorchDrinker Cory Pelc) will show you which beers are not available in your state so you know what to look for at liquor stores. Once you have that part settled, check out the breweries’ websites, especially the “Find our Beer” section. Chances are they will have listings for where to find their beers on draft and where to buy bottles of it. Beware that this is by no means a guarantee that you will find the beer you are looking for, and if there’s one that you really obsessed with it might be worth calling ahead or checking the restaurant’s “current draft list” before leaving.
Hopefully you will end up with a couple restaurant options and then you can either decide based on what cuisine looks best (not recommended) or typing the name of the restaurant, the area it’s in and “chowhound”. Those guys are really serious about seeking out worthwhile places so if it’s good, it’s probably on there and you always have the option to create an account (free) and ask for recommendations. The more specific you are the better, do not be afraid to sound too picky. The worst thing you could do is use empty, meaningless words like “good” or “affordable”. I would only resort to Yelp if there’s a tie after you read through some Chowhound reviews.
Of course, as with my thoughts on breweries, I could be completely wrong and this strategy may backfire in countless ways. This is how I have done things in the past but it does not mean it will always work or that it’s the only way. Like I said before, I honestly enjoy planning and researching and reading about places I am about to visit but if you are more of a free spirit then just ignore all of this and wing it.
I am sorry this post got so long. I am just very excited about this opportunity and I hope you are too.