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The State of Beer is The State of Vermont
by Patrick Morris and Stephen Morris
In May of 1978 the Great Beer Trek left from the South Shore of Boston and headed out to discover America through its beers. The first stop, for fuel and directions, was Dan & Whit's in Norwich, Vermont.
This store is the Green Mountain antidote for Wal-Mart. If they don't have it, you don't need it. The store exudes community, its bulletin board bursting with local events and its shelves laden with the essentials for life in the North Country. Nothing seems cheap or plastic; everything seems made in the USA.
But this isn't about Wal-Mart, America, or Dan & Whit's. It's about beer and about time. The Dan & Whit's of 2008 hasn't changed visibly since the 1978 version. (Probably some of the same merchandise on the shelves.) The beer cooler, however, tells a different story. A revolution has taken place, and the beer drinker has won!
In 1978 the cooler was packed with Bud, Miller, and Schlitz–fizzy, yellow, lager clones that for decades defined American beer. Today the cooler is packed with a rainbow coalition of glorious, exotic delights, many brewed here in Vermont.
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There's an unfiltered raspberry hefeweizen ("hefe" meaning "yeast" and "weizen" meaning "wheat"), from the Harpoon Brewery just three exits south on I-91. There are offerings from more distant Vermont breweries such as Magic Hat, Rock Art, and Long Trail. There are steam beers, organic beers, imports, even Cerveza Cacao, part of an Otter Creek's series that emulates classic world beer styles.
The freshest beer in Norwich, however, does not come from Dan & Whit's. That honor belongs to the Jasper Murdock Tavern in the Norwich Inn, 100 feet to the west and home to Vermont's smallest commercial brewery. There were no breweries in Vermont in 1978.
So what is a beer trek? A beer trek happen when travelers experience the local culture by sampling the local fermented malt beverages. This pastime dates back to 17th century Germany when "beer riding" was popular. A young noble would load a barrel of beer into a wagon and take off to a distant duchy where he would share his liquid refreshment with the locals who, in turn, would refill the barrel before sending him on his way.
My own sudsy beer ride followed a stint in London where I became enamored of the culture of public houses (pubs) and brewed my first batches of home brew. Returning home, the beer traditions seemed as pale and anemic as "lite" beer. Moreover, my new hobby of home brewing was a felony, a vestigial law from Prohibition. I undertook "The Great Beer Trek" to discover why the land of the free and brave was also home to the dullest beer scene on the planet.
Eventually, The Great Beer Trek became a book of the same name. Vermont became my home, and I thought my beer riding days were behind me. Long story, short–several months ago, my son Patrick, 25, a business analyst for a magazine publisher in New York City (and enthusiastic beer drinker) declared that the time was ripe for a new trek, and that he was equal to the task. Would I help him get started?
"Good luck," I said with equal parts pride and disbelief. "It's a different beer world out there." Since 1978 America has gone from the worst place to drink beer to the world's most exciting beer landscape. Think Tuscany, with hops. It didn't take much arm twisting for me to agree to accompany Patrick on a shakedown cruise of local beer trekking. "After that," I told him, halfway believing myself, "you're on your own."
The Trek of '08 (pronounced "ought-eight") begins on the first of three quintessential spring days. Several miles up the Mountain Road in Stowe we visit our first brewery. The Shed is a brew pub that makes and sells its beers on the premises (although you can buy a one gallon "growler" to bring home). We order lunch and a sampler, a selection of four-once samples served on a ski tip. The Shed is a perfect example of a "fraternal" (our term) brew pub where beer reigns supreme. The smell of malt when you enter hits you like a wet kiss. Bumper stickers are plastered exuberantly, as well as the obligatory mounted deer head with dangling cigarette, sunglasses, and scarf. A painting of a lumpy nude is identified by an att ached Vermont license plate as "Kate." Maybe she's the wet kisser. The Shed seems like great fun on a Friday night, but this is ten or so hours too early. The springtime sun is high, and we have more breweries to visit.
It's about a twenty minute ride to our next stop at the Rock Art Brewery in Morrisville. By contrast, in 1978 the next stop after Vermont was the F.X. Matt Brewery in Utica, New York, about a six hour drive.
Rock Art was first brewed in Matt and Renee Nadeau's basement in Johnson, but the original inspiration can be traced to Desolation Canyon in Colorado. It has now graduated to a spacious, modern facility in an industrial building in Morrisville. Brewer Dave Capasso is sailing the ship solo, today. He yells amiably that he'll be with us shortly, but he's busy running a batch through a new filter.
The brewery's logo is Kokopelli, the humpbacked flute player of the ancient Hopi Indians whose image is etched in rock art (get it, Rock Art?) in numerous locations in the desert southwest. The use of this image is slightly surprising, but not jarring, for a brewery tucked away near the railroad tracks in Morrisville.
Rock Art brews five basic ales, plus a bevy of seasonals. Their lead product is Ridge Runner Ale, according to their literature "a mild barley wine. Strong, dark and smooth, hold onto your hat 'cause you'll lose your feet on this one." Not for us, however, the brewery is not equipped for offering tastings, even to beer trekkers.
Dave responds enthusiastically to the idea of a new beer trek. "There's still so much about beer that people don't know, such as the importance of keeping your draft lines clean, and what a contract beer is (a brand brewed by contract for another brewer), and about shelf life, and about the importance of balance in beer flavor." His enthusiasm builds and we almost think he might want to come with us. Stranger things have happened.
Next stop is The Alchemist in downtown Waterbury. This is a new generation brew pub, where beer is part of an overall experience. The food does not trace its origins to the English pub, but the eclecticism of American nouveau. The clientele are not skiers looking to connect, but the youngish (but not too young) people who are making downtown Waterbury a happening place. The graphics and decor are tastefully sophisticated. The background music, in contrast to the blaring roadhouse rock of The Shed, is jazz.
The Alchemist offers seven brews, each described with its % ABV (alcohol by volume) and its IBU rating (International Bittering Units, a measure of hoppiness). They range from Grote Bruin, a Belgian-style brown ale that gets its flavor from The Alchemist's house strain of Belgian yeast and a delicate blend of spices to a cask conditioned (naturally carbonated), dry-hopped ale that is hand-pulled from the basement brewery. A fresh cask is put out each Friday and served until it is gone.
John Kimmich, the brewer, comes into the room wearing rubber boots and looking entirely at home. Moments later, we're seated at a table, a glass of Holy Cow IPA (India Pale Ale) before us. For the record, this is made with 6 different malts and varieties of hops. For the record it has an IBU of 85, meaning ten fold the bitterness of a Bud. You can chew on this beer.
I open with, "So, what's your story, John?" That's all it takes. He tells us about sharing a stolen Genny Cream Ale (funny how we always remember the brand of our first beer) with his brothers and sisters. The story accelerates quickly, taking us through college when he brews his first batch, his arrival in Burlington to offer himself unconditionally as a brewing apprentice, to the day he wandered into a defunct restaurant in Waterbury and realized he had found the home for his long-planned brew pub. John becomes more animated with each sip, not from the alcohol but the froth of the true (beer) believer.
He drags us into his lair, the bowels of The Alchemist, once a filthy cellar now transformed into a spotless seven barrel brewery. There he "forces" us to sample new brews fresh from the tanks. His new hefeweizen (check???), not yet ready for upstairs consumption, is redolent of cherries and accented by three strains of Belgian yeast. Yeast, he explains, is what gives life to beer. Pasteurized beers (think Budweiser and Miller) are sparklingly clear and have a long shelf life, but contain no living yeast. John is passionate about minimizing the distance between his tanks and the beer drinker's mouth.
John rinses our glasses with a pressurized hose and draws off a second sample of a Double IPA that he is preparing for the GABF (Great American Beer Festival) held annually in Colorado. It's strong (8% ABV) and teems with life. This is light years beyond anything either of us have tasted.
"I love hops," says John after an impressive soliloquy on the importance of live beer. He rolls up his sleeve to reveal jaw-dropping tattoo of a sinuous, green hop vine that winds up to his shoulder and parts beyond. "I really love hops!"
Day 2 is a Saturday. No brewers will be around, so our plan is to do quick stops at four breweries. We make the ceremonial visit to Dan & Whit's, then walk the fifty steps to Vermont's smallest brewery at the Norwich Inn, home of Jasper Murdock's Alehouse. This compact taproom is overloaded with good humor and tasteful touches, from the iron beer taps to the brass plaque reading "Our beer is rotten good."
We order six ounce tasters, served in elegant, curved glasses. I try the Whistling Pig Red Ale. Patrick orders a specialty brew called Oh Be Joyful fashioned after a style brewed by Union Troops in the Civil War. Both are rotten good. We intended to slip in and out anonymously, but a large man wearing suspenders, stoking a barbecue, and shadowed by two lumpy labs (one black, one yellow) catches our glance:
"Gotta be the brewmaster," I say, recognizing a kindred soul.
In 1993 Tim Wilson, inspired by the pubs of the British Isles, began producing English-style ales in 5 gallon glass carboys. Now he has expanded to a four barrel (a barrel is 31 gallons) brewhouse, and produces about 220 barrels a year. Official statistics are not kept, but this is one of the smallest breweries in the nation.
Tim talks us through the nuances of beer and barbecue while hanging out with his dogs, Porter and Barley. We leave with the sense of a man doing exactly what he wants to do in life.
The Trek of '08 experiences a brief letdown in Windsor. The Harpoon Brewery is clean, bright, and, in our opinion, trying too hard to be popular. We're are pacing ourselves, so split a sampler of the beers, and drink a toast to Catamount. Once the flag bearer of the beer revolution in Vermont, Catamount expanded just as the micro-brewing business hit a trough. By the Millennium they were out of business. Now a remote outpost of a Boston brewery, Harpoon's beer is unarguably first rate, maybe better. But we can't get past lamenting that Vermont's Catamount is, once again, extinct.
We take the back roads to Bridgewater Corners and Long Trail, another of Vermont's regional breweries that has brewed good beers, built a loyal customer base, and opened a tourist-friendly facility on the banks of the Ottauquechee River. Only 26 hours into a beer trek and we are pleasantly jaded. Every stop has featured well-crafted, exotic brews. We get a table out on the deck. The flowing water... the budding trees ... a pint of Blackbeary Wheat beer ... a beer trek with my son ... another pinch-me moment.
Monday morning we cross two mountains to the Otter Creek Brewing Company in Middlebury. Morgan Wolaver is carving his niche in the beer and business worlds by making his brews as sustainable as possible. This means that decisions are guided by what is good for the beer, but also what is good for the environment.
For Wolaver, a marine biologist by training, this means organic beer, create with as much renewable energy, local sourcing, recycling, and re-use as possible. Achieving true sustainability, admits Wolaver, is a challenge, because there is no local source of organic barley or hops. He cites small, but meaningful, progress as he nudges the market in the right direction. 40% of the wheat for their Wit Beer came from Vermont this year. Fossil fuels at the brewery have been replaced with biodiesel.
Anheuser Busch recently released two experimental organic beers. The self-proclaimed "king of beers" did not risk putting its trademark name on the label. Morgan Wolaver chuckles. He's proud to put his name on his beer.
Time is flying. The Trek of '08 heads north to Burlington. We find Greg Noonan on the patio of his Vermont Pub and Brewery, overlooking City Park. Greg has earned his way into the Vermont brewers Hall of Fame (Hall of Foam?) several times over. He is the author of the classic Brewing Lager Beers. Moreover, he was instrumental in making the legislative changes that allowed brew pubs to exist in Vermont; he mentored brewers such as John of The Alchemist and Glenn Walter of the nearby Three Needs; and he has served Burlingtonians with fresh, innovative, occasionally off-the-wall beers for almost twenty years. He has also connected the Trek of '08 with the Beer Nutz.
"They're waiting," he says.
"They" are the Los Angeles-based cast and crew for Beer Nutz, a television show for and about passionate beer lovers. This is another bit of Beer Trek magic. We contacted Greg about visiting at about the same time he was contacted by the Beer Nutz producer. Greg told him about our Trek, and suddenly we're being wired for sound. We're gonna be on TV!
Beer Nutz is like The View for guys. The two hosts, Eric and Curt lob out questions, then wisecrack and snicker while the camera rolls. There are no lines, no script, and no big egos. Plus, we get to sample Greg's Maple Ale. The experience is slightly humiliating, but great fun.
After a raucous session the Beer Nutz crew is heading Magic Hat-ward and ask us to come along. While they go to set up, we squeeze in a visit to the Zero Gravity Brewery of the Burlington Hearth, an outlet for American Flatbread.
This is more than beer and pizza. This establishment combines the sophistication of The Alchemist with the Wolaver's mantra of local, organic, and fresh. Partners Rob Downey and Paul Saylor are young, energetic, and articulate, but also blessed (or afflicted, depending on your perspective) with an obsession with the life that emerges when water is mixed with malt, hops, and yeast.
The last of the lunch crowd is lingering out on the patio, so we sit at one of the long wooden tables purposely designed to promote interaction among strangers.
"The early brew pubs were all about the beer," says Rob, "This is a more complex intermingling of food, beer, and people. That's why there are no televisions in here. We want people to relate to each other, to be a community. It's very intentional." Downey and Saylor even raised start-up capital from future customers in return for discounts and other benefits. The result is an extended family of loyal owners.
Saylor cut his brewing teeth at Catamount and already has a successful brew pub (The Bobcat Café in Bristol) on his resume. He compares his approach to brewing to the way good musicians approach jazz. As proof he offers a sample of his Trippel, a golden brew that traces its origins to the monasteries of Belgium. Trippel is strong in terms of its alcohol content, but with a delicate flavor profile that makes it an ideal food accompaniment. What took the monks centuries to perfect has taken Paul and Rob only a few.
The Trippel is a showstopper–clean, crisp, and unmistakably alive, a beer that imprints itself simultaneously at the back of your throat and the front of the brain. We would love to sample more, but as TV stars, we have obligations.
Alan Newman, founder of Magic Hat is the king of outrageous. Many regard him as a marketing genius, but his philosophy is supremely simple: "I was born in 1946, right at the bubble of the Baby Boom. If I like an idea there are enough people like me to create a market. It just so happens that what appeals to me is often 180 degrees opposite to conventional wisdom." (No, Alan, there are not a lot of people like you.)
You see his philosophy in the names of the brews. No IPAs, porters, or stouts, instead you choose from #9, Fat Angel, and Circus Boy. "If people like what's in the bottle," says Newman, "They'll be back."
Magic Hat relies heavily on events such the unlikely Mardi Gras parade on Burlington's Church Street marketplace. Newman leads the parade, dressed in a bizarre costume that strives each year for a new height of absurdity. The company tap room and brewery tour is a demented Halloween Party, the polar opposite of Harpoon. The only commonality is great beer.
The Beer Nutz have never experienced a brewery or a brewer like this. We beer trekkers happily go along for the riotous ride. We finally run out of time. Jet Blue calls. The camera records our mock tearful good-bye to our fellow Beer Nutz. Just as we wave our finals, Newman says "Hey, Patrick. Want a growler for the plane?" Beneath the flash and dementia of Magic Hat beats the traditional heart of a brewer. Relationships, Newman knows, have to be as good as the beer.
Patrick selects an unnamed brew #376, not yet on the market. Later this night, when he opens it at his less-than-luxury Brooklyn apartment, he can take solace in being the only person in New York City sipping Magic Hat #376.
Then, like that, The Trek of '06, our Green Mountain beer trek, is over. (Apologies to the outlying brewers such as McNeil's (Brattleboro) and Trout River (Lyndonville) located outside our whirlwind itinerary.)
The next morning I open a plaintive email from Patrick, now ensconced in his spreadsheets and cubical: "Work is just like the Beer Trek ... minus the interesting people and beer and stimulation and fresh air and self-respect and cameras and hope and Vermont."
My leg of the trek is theoretically over, and the rest is up to Patrick. But I dunno ... I think the kid might need some help.
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