Is Vermont becoming the Napa Valley of beer?


My brother Tyler and I have driven over 400 miles to Vermont to stand in line for beer. Despite our best efforts - dragging ourselves out of bed early after the previous day's marathon beer crawl - we are now standing numbers 18 and 19 in the queue of people shivering outside the Alchemist Brewery in Stowe on a cold November morning. Behind us we can see at least 40 more people, including a few we'd met touring breweries in Burlington the day before. In front of us is a bearded guy wearing a furry trapper hat who had sprinted from his car carrying a cooler. 

We'd arrived at the Alchemist at 9:45 a.m., but the parking lot was closed with a sign that read "Parking Lot Opens at 10 am . . . Please Do Not Arrive Early." An employee politely but firmly suggested we go get some coffee and come back in 15 minutes. When we returned at 10:02, we were the 10th car in line. "Do you think you should jump out and get in line?" I said.  

"Are you kidding me?" Tyler replied. "The brewery doesn't even open until 11!"  

Now as we wait, Tyler, who refuses to wear a winter hat, has made his displeasure known by muttering a string of obscenities.  

The bearded guy in front of us unfastens his earflaps and says, chuckling, "Haven't you guys ever stood in line for beer before?"  

"No," Tyler says. "Never."  

"They said there was a line around the parking lot the other day," says the earflap guy. He tells us he has driven up from the south shore of Massachusetts, about four hours away. This isn't his first time in line at the Alchemist. "So are you guys maxing out your purchases?"  

"What do you mean?" I ask.  

"You're only allowed to buy 10 four-packs of Heady and the others."  

By Heady, he means Heady Topper, the almost-mythic double India pale ale that the Alchemist brews. Heady Topper has scored a perfect 100 from BeerAdvocate, where readers have in years past rated it the top beer in the world (it's always in the top 10). Heady Topper is sold mostly in Vermont in limited production, delivered on specific days to be released at specific times in specific stores, where it sells out in minutes. Beer geeks know which days and times Heady is delivered to small-town general stores and routinely make six-, eight- or 10-hour drives to buy it.  

The day before, in Burlington, we'd seen a sign in the City Market co-op, a few aisles over from the kombucha on tap, that read:  

My brother, who is three years younger, is a big-time beer aficionado. The year before, he'd undertaken what he called his Big Year of Beer. Modeled after the competition of birders who vie to spot and identify the largest number of birds during a single year, Tyler set out to sip and record as many beers as he could. He ended up tasting 2,238 beers in a single year - yes, that's averaging more than six per day (these were tastes, though, not entire bottles, or else he would not have survived the year). I've written professionally about drinks for more than a decade, including for The Washington Post. So some people might consider me a kind of expert, or at least somewhat knowledgeable. That group of people does not include my brother, especially when it comes to beer.  

However, unlike a lot of beer geeks, Tyler refuses to stand in line. So he has never tasted Heady Topper or some of the other famed Vermont beers. We both share a deep ambivalence toward a certain kind of connoisseurship that apes wine snobbery with its tasting notes and buzzwords, the wine-ification of everything. I mean, I love wine - I just wrote a book about it, in fact - but I'm skeptical of bringing the whole wine-snob thing to topics like cheese, coffee, chocolate, whiskey, water. And, of course, beer.  

I'd planned this beer tour because I'd figured - and hoped - that Vermont, with its chill and natural vibe, would be the last place that the wine-ification of beer and its subsequent snobbery had taken hold. The University of Vermont is where I went to college, and I picture myself in those years wearing Birkenstocks and a Phish T-shirt. This area has always held a nostalgic place in my heart that's groovy, natural and true. But standing in line at the Alchemist, I worry that Vermont may be transforming into some kind of touristy, theme-park "Napa Valley of beer."  

"The line's bigger today because of Petit Mutant," says the earflap guy ahead of us in line. "They're releasing that today."  

Finally, an employee steps outside and addresses the crowd. "Today, we're offering PUH-teet Mooo-tahnt," he says, pronouncing "petit" in American English but "mutant" in a very pretentious French-ish accent. He tells us that Petit Mutant is a wild ale fermented with Brettanomyces yeast, as well as "about a pound and a half of cherries per bottle," and that "all the cherries are from Vermont." He also tells us we will be able to buy only one bottle per person.  

As we wind through the line, we get stickers that say "DB" with a red slash across it. "It means 'no douchebags,' " says our friend with the earflaps. "That's sort of their slogan." Indeed, a can of Heady Topper reads, "DON'T BE A D-BAG, RECYCLE THIS CAN!"  

We're given sample beers, and for about 18 minutes the line snakes along. These hazy, unfiltered IPAs are the prototypical Vermont- or New England-style IPA. My Focal Banger and Tyler's Heady Topper are higher-alcohol beers (7 and 8 percent alcohol by volume, respectively), which normally are not my style. But I really like Focal Banger, a total flavor bomb that's fruity, piney and super hoppy. I can't tell if Tyler likes the Heady Topper, but he finishes it. When we get to the cashier, he asks us what we'd like to buy. We order our two bottles of Petit Mutant and a few four-packs of the other beers. Tyler gets some IPA-scented lip balm. We fork over $90.  

In the parking lot, grown men are literally running to their cars to deposit their purchases and then running to get back in line to buy more.  

We see a couple that we'd met the day before at Zero Gravity Craft Brewery in Burlington. There's a boozy camaraderie that happens on the Vermont Beer Trail, so I say, "Glad to see you're not too hung over!"  

When we get into the car, I ask Tyler, "What did you think of the famous Heady Topper?"  

"It's a hazy, high-alcohol double IPA," he says. "It's fine, but I can't understand what all this fuss is about."  

"Well," I say. "Critics say it's the best beer in the world."  

He looks at me skeptically. "Who?" he asks. "Who judged it the best? That's what I want to know."  

The day before, Tyler and I made an epic tour of a half-dozen craft breweries and cideries in Burlington. The city on chilly Lake Champlain, with a population of just over 42,000, is bucolic Vermont's major metropolis. Burlington's breweries are only the tip of Vermont's craft-beer iceberg. The state has the highest number of breweries per capita, pumping out the most craft beer per capita in the United States, with annual sales of more than $100 million.  

Burlington has gentrified a little bit since my college days in the 1990s, when UVM was "Groovy UV." At that time, the city was run by the Progressive Party, and Bernie Sanders was in his first term in Congress. Sure, the pedestrian shopping area on Church Street Marketplace now has fancy boutiques that sell expensive Swedish backpacks, along with farm-to-table restaurants. But the street where you'll find Bernie's former campaign headquarters is still one of the most reliable places in America to see, say, a blue-eyed family in tie-dye (mom, dad, toddlers) sporting blond dreadlocks.  

What I've always found noteworthy about Burlington is that even though it's a very small city, it looms somehow larger because it exists as the center of its own northern universe - with its own locally famous artists, chefs, brands, newsmakers and celebrities. Just a few days after the Trump election victory, the top three news stories on Burlington's CBS affiliate WCAX were: a feel-good piece on a local mechanic giving snow tires to veterans in need; a report on the start of hunting season; an update on the investigation into a $19 million maple syrup heist.  

We began our beer crawl in the city's gentrifying South End, where more than a half-dozen breweries have sprouted in the past few years. But first we took an Uber a little farther south to visit Magic Hat, one of the pioneering breweries of the early craft beer movement - its apricot beer, No. 9, has become a bar staple. These days, though, most beer geeks cast aspersions on Magic Hat and insist the brewery isn't considered "craft" anymore because it's way too big. Yet Magic Hat still makes some tasty beers. I enjoyed the Vamplifier, a bitter red ale, and Wacko, with a tiny bit of beet juice, which made it pink. The bartender told us there were only four cases of Wacko: "People are going crazy over this, coming out of the woodwork."  

One fascinating aspect about visiting breweries is that you run into a lot of folks who brew their own beer at home, some of whom harbor dreams of becoming craft brewers themselves. At Magic Hat, we overheard a guy tell the bartender, "Yeah, I do a lot of experimental stuff. Like, I'm making this really cool zucchini beer."  

"Okay," Tyler muttered under his breath, with an eye roll. "Get out of here."  

We moved on to Switchback Brewing, where the various beers we tasted were differentiated by the type of hops (Simcoe, Mosaic or Citra hops) and whether they were "wet" or "dry." Around the bend at Queen City, the focus was on English styles, underscoring the city's beer diversity. I really liked the dark, drinkable porter style that's often neglected within the craft beer movement, a Yorkshire ESB (or extra special bitter) called Landlady.  

From Queen City, we moseyed across the street to my favorite brewery in Vermont, Zero Gravity. We saw several others at the bar who were just at Queen City, Instagramming and keeping track of their beers or using an app called Untappd. At Zero Gravity I loved what beer people call its "session beers" - lower-alcohol beers that are made for drinking, such as the Conehead IPA, the Touch of Drei saison and especially the Oyster Stout.  

Carleton Yoder - artisan cheesemaker from Middlebury whose Champlain Valley Creamery makes one of the best triple creams in the nation - works with, of course, a different kind of fermentation. But his sipping a beer at Zero Gravity illustrated a fundamental meetup of the state's food culture. "I'm here to borrow some yeast from these guys," he said.  

We moved on to Burlington's waterfront, where, as the sun began to set and a frigid breeze whipped across the lake, we settled in at the cozy Foam Brewers and sampled a barrel-aged sour, which the bartender told us was fermented with a citrus fruit called Buddha's hand.  

All around us at Foam were beer geeks we'd seen throughout the day: the couple from the Philadelphia suburbs who raved about a German bock at Zero Gravity called Chewbocka; the weird guy from Massachusetts who kept saying, "This Hefeweizen smells like bananas"; the guy who'd driven from Montreal, 95 miles north, just to fill up a half-dozen growlers then drive back. We ordered a plate full of great local cheeses, which had a few dried apricots garnishing it. My brother and I each ate one, and I said, "That's the only piece of fruit I've had all day."  

"No, it's not," he said. "We just had a sip of this, and it supposedly has Buddha's hand fruit in it."  

The next morning, after leaving the Alchemist, we head a few miles north from Stowe to Morrisville and Lost Nation Brewing, which sits on Lake Lamoille. We sit at the bar and order burgers along with smoked tofu and buffalo cauliflower to pair with our tasting flight - a perfect Vermont brewery meal.  

Lost Nation swims against the trend of big-alcohol, super-hoppy beers - what I would call the hot-sauce-ification of beer, with 8 or 9 percent alcohol, or higher, becoming the norm. With its lower-alcohol "sessionable" approach, Lost Nation makes beers you might enjoy drinking with food. For instance, its gose, a sour German-style brewed with sea salt and coriander, is a tart and refreshing pairing with wings or tofu. One of my favorite beers may be its Petit Ardennes, a spicy, fruity farmhouse ale that clocks in at around 4.2 percent abv, about what Bud Light is, but with about a hundred times more flavor.  

Tyler likes a smoky-tasting one in our flight called Pitch Black. "Let's just take a moment and admire the style here," he says. "This is the best smoked beer I've ever tasted. So many smoked beers taste like I'm at a bad bonfire."  

After lunch, we head about 45 minutes northeast, into the Northeast Kingdom. Since I'm captaining our vehicle, I have been judicious with my sips of beer in order to stay safely under the legal limit. This is a good thing, since the road beyond Greensboro, which winds past the famed cheesemaker Jasper Hill Farm, turns narrow and clay and gravel on the way to Hill Farmstead Brewery. When we feel lost, suddenly the parking lot emerges, with a taco stand, portable toilets and music playing while people are hanging out in the sun drinking beer. It looks like a mix between a Grateful Dead show and a tailgate for an NFL game, with a surrounding scenery that's absolutely gorgeous.  

Hill Farmstead is another legendary brewery, voted the best brewery in the world by RateBeer, the rival of BeerAdvocate. It's buzzing with people, many of them looking to fill growlers from the taps at the growler stations. There is a detailed Growler Policy posted: no large, German-style growlers; no metal growlers; no ceramic largemouth growlers; dark glass growlers only. There is a ticket dispenser where we a take a number: 370. We can see that they're on 333.  

It takes about 20 minutes to get to the front of the line. Hill Farmstead names its beers after ancestors of the founder, Shaun Hill. Edward is an American pale ale, Harlan is an American IPA, and Edith is a dark farmstead ale.  

Tyler orders a "vintage" beer, brewed in 2014 with local cherries and aged in wine barrels, called Flora Cherry. We wander outside to the deck, and as we sip, a short guy in a long coat with a trimmed beard stands next to us holding forth to his significantly taller girlfriend and another couple, all of them in their 20s. "So she had a 10 percent sour double bock, and I ordered a barley wine. And I was, like, so surprised. I mean, does anyone still make a barley wine?" Ha-ha-ha-ha, they all laugh. I hear plenty of wine snobs and cocktail snobs hold forth all the time. But rarely do I get a chance to hear a beer snob in his natural habitat, peacocking in full roar. Tyler and I edge closer to eavesdrop.  

"So how long have you guys been into beer?" asks the beer snob's friend.  

"Oh, at least since 2013, 2014. I mean, my dad was a beer drinker, but never anything good." Yuengling is his dad's favorite beer. "I mean, Yuengling is okayyy ... if there's nothing else in the fridge." Chuckles all around. "I mean, they use caramel malt, but at least you can drink it and not be repulsed." More chuckles.  

"You know the biggest myth about Guinness?" he asks his friends, rhetorically. "That it's black. It's not black. It's actually red." The other three nod their heads and say, ohhh. "It's true," the beer snob says. "Just hold it up to the light. It's mahogany. Plus, black beers don't usually have white heads. They have brown heads."  

When we return to Burlington, we ditch the car and make one last visit - a place called Burlington Beer Company, which we find in a random industrial park in a suburb called Williston. Here, we enjoy ridiculously experimental beers: one called Peasant Bread, a brown ale made with wild rice; one called Destroyed by Hippie Powers, a blue-hued IPA made with blue pea flowers; an IPA brewed with a special hops called Barbe Rouge and strawberries, called Peak Nostalgia.  

Peak nostalgia seems to be the theme inside the brewery, too. While you drink experimental beer, you can play old-time Nintendo video games like Donkey Kong and Tecmo Bowl, or board games like Jenga or Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.  

Tyler and I agree that Destroyed by Hippie Powers is one of the best beers we've drunk on our Vermont sojourn. It's the perfect ending to our trip. I love Vermont because underneath the pretty scenery and the mellowness, it's just weird enough. So every time we've found ourselves in danger of veering into the realm of the wine-ification of beer, we've encountered something just weird enough to keep that from happening.  

The autumn sun has now set on this Saturday evening, and before our second game of Donkey Kong, a line spontaneously forms in this experimental brewery in a suburban industrial park and within minutes winds out the door. Tyler surveys it all with a mix of fascination and mild contempt. "What is it with people in Vermont?" he says.  

---  

Wilson's next book, "Godforsaken Grapes," will be published in spring 2018 by Abrams Press. He is the series editor of "The Best American Travel Writing."  

--- 

 IF YOU GO  

Go on a daytime beer crawl in Burlington, Vermont's largest city. Start on foot in the South End Arts District, a once-industrial neighborhood that's home to several breweries, including Zero Gravity, Queen City and Switchback. End the tour along the Lake Champlain waterfront at Foam Brewers, or downtown at Manhattan Pizza & Pub, which has a huge selection of Vermont beers.  

If you get tired of suds, there's always beer's fermented cousin, cider. Citizen Cider, also in the South End Arts District, has a great diversity of cider styles on tap, as well as a good bar menu, in a lively pub atmosphere.  

Once you've wearied of bars and pubs, it's time for a nice meal. Hen of the Wood, Vermont's defining farm-to-table restaurant, has two locations: in downtown Burlington and Waterbury (close to Stowe, for after your wait in line at the Alchemist).


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