Sunday, October 16, 2011

One For the Road: Vermont

I figured for the first installment of One For the Road, I shouldn't stray to far from home. So, I thought we'd travel to the land of covered bridges, maple syrup, winding dirt roads and cows—lots and lots of cows. Vermont is an unusual dichotomy of Rockwellian quaintness, and 21st-century progressiveness. Vermonters are salt-of-the-earth folk, (I'm talking about real Vermonters—not rich, New Jersey transplants or stoned, out-of-state UVM students.) with a small-town sensibility and a think globally, act locally approach to life. Known for it's skiing, mud-season, fall foliage, Subaru Outbacks, and the perennial, jam-band's jam-band—Phish; Vermont also happens to be quite a beery state. According to Beer Advocate, it boasts 21 craft-breweries and brewpubs—which is pretty amazing, because, at just under 626,000 people, Vermont is the second least populated state in the country. Places like The Brewery at Trapp Family Lodge, Madison Brewing Company, and Lawson's Finest Liquids, all call Vermont home.

From bottom to top: McNeill's, Long Trail,
Otter Creek/Wolaver's and Magic Hat.  
Heading east, on the meandering and billboard-less, Vermont Route 9, we travel through the southern towns of Bennington and Wilmington to Brattleboro and our first stop—McNeill's Brewery . Way back in 1992, owner and brewer Ray McNeill, opened his namesake brewery to critical claim, but it would be sixteen years before he would start bottling and distributing his beer. Nearly two decades after opening, the Brattleboro-based brewery now offers 16 brews—including Pullman's Porter, Dead Horse IPA and Dark Angel Stout. I went with a 22 ounce bomber of their Ruby Extra Amber Ale—a 5.7% American Amber Ale, packed with a lot of British character. Slightly cloudy, and copper-hued, the Ruby gives off an great fruity aroma, has a nice toasted malty flavor with a hint of pine and citrusy tartness. A whimsical label and homemade aura about this beer, gives McNeill's Ruby Amber a small-batch, home-brew, feel to it. You don't get that much in distributed brews, it's nice to see and taste.

Jumping on 91 North, one of only two interstate highways in the state, (not including that little 12 mile jog of I-93 between the New Hampshire Line and St. Johnsbury) we head upstate for just under an hour-and-a-half trip to the hamlet of Bridgewater Corners—home of Long Trail Brewing Company. With under 1,000 year-round residents, the town Bridgewater is the very definition of a rural, Vermont community. Long Trail Brewing Company —named for the nearly 300 mile hiking trail that runs the length of the state— started operating in 1989, out of the basement of the Bridgewater Woolen Mill, but would move to it's current location in 1995. It's flag ship beers, Long Trail Ale and Double Bag, are both Altbiers, but the Double Bag is brewed in the style of the stronger Sticke Alt. Longtrail produces a number of other styles, including their Traditional IPA—which happens to be one of my all-time favorite beers. The brewery has also taken on an environmental responsibility with their brewing, by developing their EcoBrew campaign. They've made a commitment to sustainable brewing efforts by installing a heat recovery system, reducing water usage, and becoming Vermont's largest company to participate in the Central Vermont Public Service's "Cow Power" renewable energy program—that's a cow poop-to-methane-to electricty program, don't ya know! All these efforts, and many more, garnered Long Trail the "2009 Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence," presented to them by then Vermont Governor Jim Douglas (R). In the wake of Hurricane Irene, in late August of this year, a number of Vermont breweries and brew pubs were badly damaged or in some cases destroyed. Long Trail Brewing Company—with a good bit of itself under water—opened it's doors for seven days and gave out ice and water, and served three meals a day to friends and neighbors in the Bridgewater area—as far as I can tell, that's the Vermont way.

Long Trail brewery, just after Irene.
All of this eco-friendly, small town brewing has afforded me the opportunity to try their most recent seasonal offering—Harvest, a 4.6% ABV American Brown Ale, brewed with Vermont maple syrup. A rich, caramel brown with an aroma of fresh-baked, brown bread. It's sweet, with a slight hazelnut quality—it think that may come from the maple syrup. The bitterness is restrained and its smooth mouthfeel and sweet malty backbone take center stage. Harvest is a little stronger than most session ales, but I might be convinced to have a few of these in a row!

All right, back on the road, this time were going to cut through the heart of the state. This area of Vermont is exactly what you think of when you think of Vermont, rolling hill, green pastures and little red barns. Heading west on U.S. Route 4, we skirt just south of the central section of the Green Mountains National Forest, and through towns like Killington, Mendon and Spurbury, before meeting the junction with U.S. Route 7, north of Rutland. From this point were northbound on Route 7, and on our way to Middlebury and Wolaver's Organic Ales and its sister brewery Otter Creek Brewing . The original brewery, Otter Creek, opened in 1991, introducing its popular Alt-style Copper Ale (There must be an inordinate number of Düsseldorfians, er, uh, Düsseldorfers, in Vermont.) The brewery began producing an all-organic line of ales, seven years later, called Wolaver's Certified Organic Ales. Initially, Wolaver's was a beer marketing company based out of Nevada City, California, but with the success of this new line, the WolaverWolaver's is to certified, organically grown and locally sourced Vermont ingredients. They use only Vermont water sources; Vermont grown wheat and oats; only certified organic, domestic-grown malt and hops; and its own proprietary, top-fermenting yeast strain.

For me, the one beer to have, when your talking about Wolaver's, is their Oatmeal Stout. It's 5.9% ABV and nearly black with a thin-ish tan head. This oatmeal stout is a mouthful. Roasty and slightly sweet with a wonderful dark caramel—almost burnt sugar flavor—and a great bittersweet chocolate edge. It's like a caramelized plum, dipped in molasses.

The last stop on our journey is just up Route 7, in South Burlington. Burlington, Vermont's largest city, is a mash-up of hippie-chic, small-city irreverence, college town cool and old-fashioned home town-ness—and it's brewery, Magic Hat Brewing Company , is no exception. Opened in 1994, Magic Hat was bought by North American Breweries of Rochester, NY, in 2010 making it the 8th largest craft brewery in the U.S. Eclectic ingredients like beets, chamomile and vanilla, give Magic Hat an air of alchemy. In keeping with those ideals, and with a nod to the supernatural, Magic Hat produces four year-round brews and four seasonals—hanging it's hat on (pun intended) the apricot-infused #9, as it's signature beer. For this go-around I went with one of the brewery's seasonals—Hex, Magic Hat's, 5.4%, take on a Märzen-esque Oktober—or as they refer to it as "Our"toberfest. I'll be honest, here, Magic Hat isn't my favorite brewery. To me, all they're beer tastes alike. They did a fair job, however, on Hex. Firstly, it smells great—malty and deep with great, roasted biscuit and caramel tone. It pours a light amber with a creamy head—full bodied and malty, although, I'd love to have seen something more with it. It's not the best of the style, but still pretty drinkable.

I've now tried four different beers from four different breweries, and I think I can sum up everything with four simple phrases—homespun; environmentally conscience; organically local; and eccentric. Each one of these breweries bring something unique to Vermont-made beer. What interesting to is that those four phrases do a pretty good job of describing the state of Vermont, as well. One of the questions I'm asking of One For the Road, on these digital road trips, is can beer embody a place? In the case of Vermont and it's beer, I gotta say... jeezum crow , you bet!


  1. Nice critiques.

    Of those mentioned, I had only had Magic Hat in bottles; as you say, 'Magic Hat isn't my favorite brewery'.

    But, you reviews inspires me to visit my older brother [only sib] who lives near the Mass. / New Hamps. border.

  2. Thanks! I'm trying to convince the wife we should do an couple of overnights in Brattleboro.

  3. No one has seems to have picked up on my hidden Super Troopers reference.

  4. Great little trip, and I second your summary of Vermont. A couple years back the wife and I did a long weekend trip that hit up The Alchemist, The Shed, Long Trail, Harpoon, and McNeill's (having done Magic Hat, American Flat Bread and Vermont Brew Pub a month or so before). A fun time to say the least.

  5. I just read somewhere that the Alchemist is closed, indefinitely, due to damage from Irene.

  6. Yes that is true, but they are rebuilding. Once Alchemist does rebuild I definitely recommend a visit. The Shed unfortunately is closing, though they are looking for a new location.