“There will be fantastic food and it’s beautiful there.”
I think that’s how I convinced my girlfriend to join me on an otherwise beer-centric trip to Vermont. Predictably, the drive through Ontario was boring and long, but we were rewarded in spades upon arrival in Vermont. I even think she had a good time.
Fiddlehead and Folino’s
On Route 7 south of Burlington and about 5 minutes from the house we were staying at, Fiddlehead is certainly in a very convenient location. Doubly convenient is the wood-fired pizza place next door, Folino’s. When we arrived, the Fiddlehead tasting room was packed with patrons sampling beer and filling growlers. I grabbed a sample of Brett on the Dance Floor, a hoppy, Bretty thing with some hop flavour and tropical, funky flavours dancing on the tongue. Rather nice for my first taste of Vermont. Folino’s is BYOB, so most people in Fiddlehead’s tasting room were grabbing growlers to drink with pizza next door. The pizza at Folino’s is very good, fast, and reasonably priced. Ours had goat cheese, arugula and extremely flavourful yellow tomatoes over a black-blistered thin crust. We drank Citizen Cider. I’m not really a cider guy, especially not dry ciders so this was more of an it’s-not-you-it’s-me thing. This cidery also makes a dry-hopped cider which is a neat idea for those that like hops but can’t/don’t drink beer. Maybe cider drinkers like hops. I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t want to know. It’s a market I can do without. On the way out I sampled Fiddlehead’s IPA, which offered a very classic piney, citrusy, and very dank aroma and tons of hop flavour. I involuntarily muttered “God bless America” quietly to myself.
Hill Farmstead is Hard to Find but the Beer is Really Good
We headed out to Hill Farmstead, up in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, with high spirits and time to spare. A few missed turns less than 20 minutes from the brewery resulted in our arrival at 12:30pm versus the planned 11:30am. I swear it wasn’t my fault. Supposedly there is a sign for the brewery at the road we were supposed to turn onto, but not only was the brewery’s sign suspiciously missing, but also the road sign itself. This inconvenience was paired with an entirely unavailable GPS signal, of course. Eventually we found ourselves at a gas station where as a result of the onslaught of lost beer geeks, they had crafted their own map to navigate to the brewery. Thanks sincerely for that. The brewery is a fairly minimal space, decorated with the occasional barrel or Belgian beer signage. There are porta potties available while you wait to drop serious money on beer. It looks like they’re building a substantially larger outbuilding, one that might have washrooms and a place to sample their beers without waiting in line for two hours. Which is what happened – two hours and I had samples in hand.
Here’s the thing – the beer is fantastic. Walden is a session-strength (4%abv) ale with massive hop character, certainly leaning toward tangerine. It’s got decent body to balance the hops, resulting in a seriously crushable beer of which I’m very happy to have a 2L growler in my fridge. Following that was Everett. This is an utterly flawless beer, one which challenged my assumptions about porters: this one is complex and intense while remaining drinkable and moreish. Massive aroma of chocolate, graham cracker and coffee, with a silky-smooth taste yet a somehow crisp coffee-like finish. Society & Solitude #4 was a fantastic DIPA with massive tropical fruit, peach, orange, nose-in-the-hop-bag aroma and bright hop flavour, bitterness in check, and wonderful body that I’m beginning to think is a result of their yeast. Dude is very secretive about his yeast. That combination of Galaxy and Citra hops is magic. Double Citra tasted like the previous beer, but half as complex, probably because that’s likely exactly what it was. Overall, I was extremely impressed by the Hill Farmstead beers – they are as others have evangelized: crisp, focused, extraordinarily high-quality examples of their style with a hint of intrigue. I left with several armfuls of beers. Kudos to my eternally patient and gracious girlfriend for help with that. She even liked their beers. This is someone who cannot stand overly hoppy beer, but went back for a second sip of Society & Solitude. This was a big moment.
Heading back from Hill farmstead, we stopped at Cold Hollow cider mill and the Cabot store. I am amazed not only by the quality of the beer and landscape of Vermont, but also the food. Especially the cheese. We bought some cheese from the Trapp Family Lodge, supposedly a rather nice resort with its own brewery. If only it came wrapped in a paper package tied up with string. Prohibition Pig is a barbecue place with lots of vegetarian options and an excellent beer menu: varied selection, not an excessive number of taps. I drank Sip of Sunshine from Lawson’s Finest, having heard they’re on equal plane with Hill Farmstead and the Alchemist, and having seen ratings whose data support this assertion. It was good, better than any DIPA produced in recent memory in Ontario, but not as good as Heady Topper or the Hill DIPAs. I probably said this out loud and justifiably felt like an asshole. Other highlights include a seriously white winey Berliner Weisse from Long Trail (why isn’t mine this clean and crisp?!), and a delightfully citrus hop and yeast-forward farmhouse ale from Oxbow (full disclosure: not VT beer). Oh yeah, the food was really good too. I’m a little sick of fried-food-and-meat-heavy beer bar menus, but I’ll make allowance for fried pimento and nicely seasoned whole hog barbecue.
Attention Ontario Residents: Vermont is the Anti-Beer Store
Through the course of this trip, rage built within me directed toward the private, foreign-owned beer retail monopoly of my home province. They’ve gone far enough to campaign publicly on the radio against a growing movement to further privatize beer sales and allow independent businesses into the retail beer sales market. A read through their thinly-veiled campaign’s website is a hell of a laugh if you’ve spent any time whatsoever in pretty much any state south of the Canadian border. Or in several Canadian provinces for that matter.
In Vermont, gas stations and corner stores stock more than just macro lager, because a craft beer market exists – much like in Ontario. They stock macro lager, local beer, and far-flung craft beer as their market demands. A small gas station had a greater beer selection in terms of labels than a small to midsize LCBO, and far more selection in terms of beer styles than any Beer Store outlet. Gas stations and corner stores are even the most reliable place to find the best beer in the world (according to several metrics). In addition to great beer in unassuming places, specialized beer retailers exist, and stock essentially whatever they want, at reasonable prices. Even the chains.
Spending any time at all in Vermont is extremely frustrating if one begins to think about how broken and stifling the beer retail system is back home. This beer retail system limits the ability of our more creative and small craft brewers to access beer distribution because of the costs associated with selling beer through either retail monopoly. A creative, extremely high-quality, small-batch brewery like Lawson’s Finest Liquids simply could not exist in Ontario, which is maddening.
Where else can you get a gose at a crepe place? Lost Nation Gose was salty, tart, refreshing, with hints of lemon and coriander over Pilsner malt. Filling out the theme of dual-purpose pizzeria/brewery hybrids is American Flatbread/Zero Gravity Brewing. We didn’t try the pizza, but we sampled the hell out of the beer. Conehead has a beautiful orange, resin, sticky ripe citrus aroma with a good punch of hop and wheat flavor. The Celebration Saison had tons of interesting aromas going on, owing to the variety of spices in the brew. Hibiscus is a great saison bedfellow. I always forget that saisons can be spice-forward and it works sometimes. The knowledgeable and kind bartender also poured us a sample of Rookie’s Root Beer, which was seriously delicious despite the lack of alcohol. And face it, I’ve had too much beer up to this point anyway. The Farmhouse Tap & Grill has a great beer selection (Hill Farmstead, Lawson’s, etc. on tap) and an equally well-curated selection of Vermont cheeses. We were blown away by the Bayley Hazen Blue by Jasper Hill Farm. I drank Iduna Cru from the Wild Beer Co, a brewery in England I hadn’t heard of before. This was a big beer with complex aroma: Brett, apricot, orange marmalade, apple. It was slightly sweet and effervescent. Color me impressed.
And Even More Beer
Our final day in Vermont, among other things, I managed to score some Heady Topper. Having noticed cars camped suspiciously outside a liquor store on Shelburne’s delivery day, I figured it was worth a shot and sure enough, in the back of the cooler lay a few cases of Heady Topper. I grabbed a four-pack (as I had plenty of other worthy beers to bring back across the border), and headed to the register with my prize. Everyone in front and behind of me had a case of Heady in their arms. Hotter than hotcakes, that beer. It’s really good: the most obscenely aromatic, flavourful and drinkable DIPA imaginable, the essence of pith and zest and stone fruit and dank with a downright juicy flavour. You can get it at pretty much any restaurant that serves craft beer in Vermont, but buying cans at a store will present some trouble.
For our final meal in Vermont, we headed out to Bristol where there is the Bobcat Cafe & Brewery – a place where I was told there was good food and house-brewed beer. The menu, while all over the place in regard to cuisine/theme, was tasty and nicely presented. Bobcat had a wide selection of brews available on tap to sample. Their Kolsch was very interesting: extremely floral/perfumey from a dry hop with German hops (Saphir). Clean and balanced ales across the board here, well worth a visit. I closed out the night with an imperial stout float, as I couldn’t exactly deny it given the option. The drive back was beautiful as usual, and solemn, as we realized that we would be parting ways with Vermont and returning to the general ugliness of southern Ontario the next day. Thankfully I’ve got a couple cases of beer to ease the pain.
In short: I want to move to Vermont. Are there any breweries in Vermont looking for an ambitious microbiologist?