…in a hotel room. I’m certain of it. And we’re too tired to drink it.
When I came to the States in 1999, American beer was constantly ridiculed as various forms of piss. Who’d have thought the tables would turn to the point that Belgians and Germans are coming to the US to learn how to make beer?
Four days in the North East with two aficionados as tour guides blew my mind. Think wine tasting with a hipster vibe. No shortage of beards, tattoos and piercings.
First stop, Three Penny Taproom in Montpelier, VT. Quaint downtown. It’s raining on and off like it will do for the entire trip. The trees are just starting to bud so they have a smoke ring of red just forming around their gray skeletons. It’ll look completely different in two weeks. We step into one of those comfortable local joints with whitewashed walls and a collection of signs, pictures and hunting trophies that feels authentically collected and curated. Not like one of those brand new joints where somebody had to go out and buy all this arbitrary stuff two weeks before opening to make it look like this.
At 8:30 on a Wednesday the crowd is thinning out, so we grab three open stools at the bar and introduce ourselves to Kevin. The bar has a classic comfortable wooden countertop with that delightful bevel for your elbows. I feel at home already.
The guys are intently studying the beer menu. The names are almost as much fun as the beers. I start my tour right with Lawson’s Finest Sip of Sunshine, a lupulin-laden tropical, juicy, hoppy, unfiltered, smooth double IPA that I’ve learnt is an excellent example of the North East IPA style vs. the bright hop riot typical of the West Coast IPAs. Grapefruit vs. lemon might get you half the idea.
The check ins begin. Untappd, is a Facebook for beer drinkers to keep track of and score all they’ve sampled (both my guides make it to 1,000 on this trip. I feel like a novice when I hit 100.) There are now over 5,000 registered craft breweries, so keeping track of the 50,000 plus brews is not a job for human memory.
While we tuck into some chorizo-stuffed grilled peppers, Jake spots a rare Sour Golden Ale from Backacre Beermakers. Kevin leans over the bar to tell us this is what those in the know are really excited about. This is beer that will change your mind about beer. It comes in a wine bottle, is poured into tasting glasses and then lovingly rested in wicker cradle to the sediment at the bottom is not disturbed. The nose is incredible, and the balanced sour is so refreshing after the IPA. A worthy competitor to champagne, far more scarce and way less expensive. At $22 for the bottle it feels like a bargain and it’s a most enjoyable companion to the TPT signature burger with the brilliant unexpected twist of peanut butter.
We climb back in the car, satiated, yet keen to get to Burlington before close. The Farmhouse Tap and Grill allegedly had a maple-inspired event but they’re on last call. The bartender recommends a local dive bar around the corner. Finnigan’s Pub definitely is. Amongst the skull stickers on the fridge is “Vermont as Fuck”. Here I get to try the phenomenal Heady Topper.
It comes in a silver can with intricate tattoo-like graphics and the all caps instructions around the rim “DON’T POUR THIS”. Apparently the amazing mix of smells and tastes will be damaged by the act of pouring into a glass. I sip contently, marveling that we landed barely 5 hours ago in Boston and I’m already having this much fun.
As we stagger out of the bar in the wee hours, we learn that pizza falls from the sky in VT. A man carrying boxes asks if we want any. Umm, hell yeah! We tear the slices apart like starving dogs who can’t believe their luck as we walk back to the hotel.
The days start pretty late. Most tasting rooms don’t open until 12. On holiday, I like to make room for the coming calories with some exercise before the decadence starts. After a little more shaky than usual yoga and a bracing run on the bike path alongside Lake Champlain with dog walkers and runners I’m ready for more.
Burlington Beer Co is not actually in Burlington. It’s in an industrial park about ten miles out of town. Of course, everything is desolate and deserted except for this parking lot. There’s not a lot of money in this game and there’s no need for a picturesque vineyard. The industrial vibe sits well with the hipster aesthetic.
Stepping inside is like entering something from Ken Kesey’s Electric Cool Aid Acid Test. Trippy music is blaring. The server is incredibly lean (not surprisingly, many of the brewers and their clientele are hardly svelte). He’s clad in black, with dark rimmed glasses and a beanie and a chest tattoo peeping out the top of his Henley shirt. The brewery’s graphics are incredible, line-drawings of wizards, deers and apparitions. The names and brews are even more creative.
We order tasters of all 12 on draft and get to sni
ffing, swilling and checking in. You Can’t Get Here From There (Key Lime & Kumquat), I See the Vision (Paw Paw & Dragonfruit) and the signature It’s Complicated Being A Wizard are standouts. The smokey and sweet mushroom tacos and were welcome and unexpectedly good sustenance.
House of Fermentology does not have a tasting room. Fortunately a few of their creations are on tap at Foam Brewers down by the lake, who are producing some outstanding drops as well. Like Clockwork is a knockout surprise. Rites of Spring is a tasty palate cleanser.
We score a last-minute cancellation and treat ourselves to some sophisticated farm-to-table fare at Hen of the Wood. The rabbit liver pate is a standout amongst beef tartare and heirloom carrot with homemade ricotta starters. We enjoy a four flight taste of bourbons and rye whiskeys another area of incredible artistry and innovation in the US. Enjoy them while they last, we’re drinking them faster than they can age them. Another excellent sour with our main course of pork loin and a delicious couple of desserts round out the meal.
The Growler Garage is a not so well thought out concept but we enjoy chatting with a few locals and helping them finish the antipasto plates from their office function. In search of more beer and apparently suffering from bottomless stomachs we find ourselves drinking more beers and devouring a superb mushroom and sausage pizza at American Flatbread. Time to stagger back to the hotel again.
Must be ready to roll by 10am. We’re going to the world’s best brewery today. There’s a palpable tension with sticking to the schedule because supplies are limited. After some more unsteady yoga and a much slower run, I check out and pile into the car for the nearly 2 hour drive to Hill Farmstead. It’s at the end of a long dirt road on top of a ridge. There’s still snow on the ground in patches. This feels more like a winery especially with a new tasting room commanding views of the surrounding country.
We arrive ten minutes before 12 and there’s already a line of cars and people assembling their coolers. You can’t buy these bottles online, so you have to be here to get this golden nectar. Sean Hill has been producing incredibly finely crafted Pale Ales, IPAs, sours and other exotic varieties and these patrons can’t get enough of it. First stop is the retail store to see what’s on sale today and what’s in limited supply. Then into the tasting room to get a number to get in line to fill bottles and start sampling to choose the two pours we will have today.
Liquor licensing in this country is a nonsensical patchwork of state regulations. Minnesota just allowed liquor stores to open on Sundays. In the Live Free or Die state of New Hampshire, you can only buy hard liquor from state run stores. In this tasting room, they don’t want you getting drunk and driving on those windy hill roads, so two pours is the limit and no pours are allowed of the stronger double IPAs. You can buy bottles to drink on site but they’re 60% more expensive than the takeaways. Signs everywhere advise you not to open the takeaways on site.
Part of the FOMO tension is driven by this scarcity and these crazy rules. There is an active trading market for these limited bottles and mules from all over the North East are here to pick up bottles. The guys have trouble relaxing as they wait for their number and decide how to allocate the precious slots in their luggage to the bottles they can take home. I just sample everything and wish my nose wasn’t blocked as I’m having trouble picking up the floral, spice and fruit notes of these beers. There is no bad beer here. The onsite list is reminiscent of a winery with a seemingly endless list of rare bottles. It can’t be long before the best breweries start to charge for samples, much like the wineries. There’s a constant struggle to keep this market for the everyman and somehow still cover the costs.
Unfortunately, being doubles, Abner and the Double Galaxy are not available for pours. So I settle down with the creamy dry Pale Ale Harlan, and the wonderful wheat saison, Florence. The sours are such a welcome pallet cleanser on this trip after all the bitterness of the hops. As we settle down and enjoy our pours and the initial opening wave thins out, we can feel calm descending. I’m struck by the mild irony of Frenchman filling a dozen bottles with American beer while his wife and kids patiently wait in a room and where the only food available is a selection of artisan cheeses.
It’s back to Waterbury to check in and visit The Alchemist’s new out of town tasting room. It looks like a punk winery, the crowd and the graphics on the merchandise and the building cement the vision. A black cap with a vibrant green line drawing of hops makes me realize that image has become a symbol of craft beer as iconic as the hemp leaf for cannabis.
At Alchemist they’re milking the success of Focal Banger and Heady Topper for all it’s worth. It’s all about cranking out these cans at scale. Locals are dropping in all the time to pick up their limited allocation. It’ll be interesting to see how long they can stay ahead of the fierce competition.
If I lived in Waterbury I would weigh at least twenty pounds more. The small downtown has three outstanding brewpubs and restaurants separated by about 20 paces. We hit Prohibition Pig (Pro Pig as the locals call it) for some beers and fine barbeque. I’m thrilled to find Hill Farmstead’s Double Galaxy on tap and it goes well with some dry rubbed wings, very tasty pimento poppers with chili jam, and a good brisket with duck fat fries.
Across the road is the Craft Beer Cellar. Just looking at the labels is entertaining. Boom Sauce, Consolation Prize and Steal This Can crack me up.
We head across the road to The Blackback Pub (try saying that fast after a few brews). Dave stops by our table to check in and gives us some recommendations including the surprising Rodenbach’s Fruitage (raspberries and elderberries, queue Monty Python’s Holy Grail) and lets us know which local brewers he’s excited about. Asking staff what they’re excited about is my pro trick contribution to this trip. The nachos with bacon, blue cheese, green onions and maple syrup are so good we go back for seconds.
We unsteadily cross back across the road to The Reservoir for yet more beers. And then we stumble back across that same road to Blackback for a final round. At this point I’ve clearly had way too much, somehow we’re eating yet more pizza and then ubering back to the hotel. Alchemist’s Crusher crushes me and I crush the can. Definitely time for bed.
You can’t live like this forever. Or even a week. I’m a mess the next morning. We’re right next door to Ben & Jerry’s Factory so Tom and I take the factory tour for a change of pace. Even on a cold rainy morning the humorous graphics and community programs give you the warm and fuzzies about this institution. A funny graphic video of their history, a guide that somehow bursts with authentic enthusiasm, and a generous sample of Milk and Cookies flavor have us back on track.
We’re heading back to Boston today. Following up on Dave’s recommendation we stop in at River Roost Brewing in White River Junction and yak it up with the guys behind the bar and Brandon the man behind Big Fatty’s BBQ across the lot. Big Fatty’s is awesome, with an incredible salad bar and world-class brisket, burnt ends and ribs. Terrific selection of beers on tap and in their bottle shop. It’s worth remembering the unplanned surprises are the so often the highlights of travel.
We’re all pretty tired by now so the conversation in the car is thinning out. We’re rather pleased to finally make it to Trillium Brewing’s Canton MA location. The lot is packed, there are cars parked everywhere. Clearly we are in the big city now. Inside is a noisy zoo, with opposite lines for tasting and purchases reminiscent of United Zone 1 and 2 boarding snaking across the floor and overlapping. Dogs on leash add to the chaos. Again a two pour purchase limit. We divide and conquer hitting both line. The beers are really, really good making all the waiting for beers and somewhere to sit worthwhile. Vicinity, Double Dry Hopped Congress, Double Dry Hopped Summer are a juicy, cloudy, tropical collection of goodness. A decent, perhaps bit too fruity, Raspberry Soak sour to finish. Sadly, we miss out on the Fort Point Pale Ale.
After checking in at our airport hotel and dropping off the rental car we Uber over to Night Shift Brewing in Everett. Winding through an urban wasteland we reach the industrial oasis of the brewery, and the ever-present BBQ food truck. There’s a line to get in the door! It’s a lively scene inside and we choose our beers carefully and scout for a table. Morph, Santilli and The 87 are winners here. Of course, I finish with another sour, the well-balanced Rickey Weisse.
With dying cell phone batteries (the scourge of the modern traveler) and flagging energy we catch an Uber back to the hotel. There’s an amusing conversation with the driver who has recently graduated from Corona to Stella Artois and has noticed a craft brewery near his home and his thinking he should give it a try. He can’t remember the name. It’s something like Brewery he says. That should narrow it down a bit we later chuckle.
Back at the hotel, it’s time to sort out what will fit and what has to be drunk that night. Right here, right now, fresh cans and bottles of what is unquestionably now the best beer in the world are ready for consumption. And we’re too tired to enjoy it all. It’s time for goodbyes and half formed ideas of the next trip. Richmond, VA anyone?