by Paul Deines
The girlfriend and I passed Columbus Day weekend in Northern Vermont. I’m a sucker for foliage, cheese, and breakfast meats drenched in high-quality syrup, and Vermont is a gladiatorial gauntlet of these things. It’s also an incubator for some of the best American ales being brewed today. Like Florence under the Medicis, only for hops.
Most folks will know the larger brewers: Magic Hat, Harpoon and Long Trail. Locals talk up the slightly smaller outfits like Rock Art and Lost Nation, and my friends hassled me to try a Switchback Ale (underwhelming) and a Fiddlehead IPA (bright and flavorful). Vermont is also the home of three hermitic guru brewers. Extremely limited distribution, rapturous reviews, and Salingerian isolation have made their beers among the most sought-after for the hophead class. I felt a little embarrassed speaking with beer purveyors in the area, asking about them. It’s clear the region is weekly beset by bearded hoards from New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, scouring for these bottles and growlers.
The most private of these rock-star Vermont brewers is probably Sean Lawson of Lawson’s Finest Liquids. He doesn’t give brewery tours (or even an address for said brewery), brews infinitesimally small batches and distributes to only three shops and 12 restaurants. Needless to say, I was S.O.L. finding a bottle on a holiday weekend, but I was able to snag two four-packs of his collaboration with Otter Creek Brewing: Double Dose IPA (check out my review on Beer Advocate).
Only slightly more accessible is Hill Farmstead Brewery, and only to
the extent that they open to visitors for bottle purchases and growler fills. Rate
Beer recently named Hill Farmstead the best brewery in the world. Located on
master brewer Shaun Hill’s family’s remote family farm, it was two hours from
our hotel, and everyone I talked to told me to expect a two-hour wait in line.
My darling Nicole can tolerate a lot of beer nerdery from me, but I decided
that losing an entire day to one brewer was too much.
At Burlington’s Farmhouse Tap & Grill, though, I enjoyed two Hill Farmstead brews with a meatloaf as succulent as foie gras. The first was Walden, brewed with Alchemist’s John Kimmich. A session blonde ale laden with fragrant hops, Walden’s simultaneously buttery rich and earthy bitter. Second was George Brown Ale, creamy, roasty and slightly bitter, warming your belly and filling in nicely for dessert. My glancing acquaintance with Hill Farmstead was sublime, and I can understand the devotion. Worth six hours to procure a couple growlers? Not so sure.
Lastly, there’s Heady Topper from the Alchemist Brewery, the top ranked beer on BeerAdvocate. Many brewers produce great beers: John Kimmich produced an obsession. Ever since Hurricane Irene destroyed its brewhouse, Alchemist has made only one beer continuously, this massively-hopped knife dance of a Double IPA contained in a pint can. The cannery churns out 180 barrels a week and it always sells out. So do the numerous official distributers in North and Central Vermont. Business Insider recently used the beer as a prime example of consumer behavior driven by fear of missing out. Kimmich has repeatedly explained to braying fans that he won’t expand if it means sacrificing quality or increasing the company’s environmental impact.
I’m heartened by this type of business philosophy. Kimmich, Lawson, Hill – they are artisans and entrepreneurs, but their dedication to social responsibility is a perfect corrective to (pardon the editorializing) jack-asses like “Papa John” Schnatter who loudly proclaim that no company – no matter how successful – can afford to consider the wellbeing of their employees and community. In opposition is the Vermont model – a million local geniuses producing great products for their communities and anyone willing to make the drive. And living comfortably doing it.
But enough prognostication: on to the beer!
Alchemist admonishes you to drink Heady Topper from the can, and I can see why. Crack the top, and a quaff of pine needle, passion fruit, and doughy malting smacks you in the face. Pour it in a snifter, and this bouquet begins to dissipate. So does the taste, a waltz of grass, grapefruit, and lemon flavors, held tenuously together with the malt and Alchemist’s proprietary yeast, Conan. Keeping it in the can contains the monster and also masks the appearance, which tends toward muddy and speckled with yeast sediment.
I know I write a lot about hop-heavy ales, and that is because pale ales are the standbys of modern craft brewing. They’re like comic book movies: plentiful, popular and profitable. And like comic book movies, many pale ales are lazy and dull, but some are invigorating and brash. Heady Topper is the Dark Knight in this regard, but the frothing rabidity of its acolytes is probably out of proportion. There are many astonishing IPAs out there, many of which are available near you. Don’t leave the children unattended trying to find Heady Topper.
That said, it’s a fine beer. Vermont seems to have nothing but fine beers, and it’s a goddamn wonderland to visit. This time of year it’s positively aflame with turning flora. There are fantastic museums and historic homes and national parks, and the people – least the ones I met – are genuinely charming. So, I’ll leave you with our view from the Stowe Mountain Lodge. That alone is a worthwhile reason to visit, along with the beer.