My brother Tyler and I had 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 were 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 could see at least 40 more people. In front of us was 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 a.m. ... 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 waited, Tyler, who refuses to wear a winter hat, had made his displeasure known by muttering a string of obscenities.
The bearded guy in front of us unfastened his earflaps and said, chuckling, “Haven’t you guys ever stood in line for beer before?”
“No,” Tyler said. “Never.”
“They said there was a line around the parking lot the other day,” said the earflap guy. He told us he had driven up from the south shore of Massachusetts, about four hours away. This wasn’t his first time in line at the Alchemist. “So are you guys maxing out your purchases?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’re only allowed to buy 10 four-packs of Heady and the others.”
By Heady, he meant 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.
My brother 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 — 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, 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 had 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 coffee, chocolate, whiskey and, of course, beer.
I’d planned this 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. But standing in line at the Alchemist, I began to worry that the state may be transforming into some kind of touristy, theme-park “Napa Valley of beer.”
“The line’s bigger today because of Petit Mutant,” said the earflap guy ahead of us in line. “They’re releasing that today.”
Finally, an employee stepped outside and addressed the crowd. “Today, we’re offering PUH-teet Mooo-tahnt,” he said, pronouncing “petit” in American English but “mutant” in a very pretentious French-ish accent. He told 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 told us we will be able to buy only one bottle per person.
As we wound through the line, we were given sample beers, and for about 18 minutes the line snaked 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 liked Focal Banger, a total flavor bomb that’s fruity, piney and super hoppy. I couldn’t tell if Tyler liked the Heady Topper, but he finished it. When we got to the cashier, we ordered our two bottles of Petit Mutant and a few four-packs of the other beers. Tyler got some IPA-scented lip balm. We forked over $90.
In the parking lot, grown men were literally running to their cars to deposit their purchases, then running to get back in line to buy more.
When we got into the car, I asked Tyler, “What did you think of the famous Heady Topper?”
“It’s a hazy, high-alcohol double IPA,” he said. “It’s fine, but I can’t understand what all this fuss is about.”
Tastes of Burlington
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.
Burlington has gentrified a bit since the days when I attended college there 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.
We began our beer crawl at 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.
We moved on to the city’s gentrifying South End, where more than a half-dozen breweries have sprouted in the past few years. At Switchback Brewing, the various beers we tasted were differentiated by the type of hops (Simcoe, Mosaic or Citra) 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. From Queen City, we moseyed across the street to my favorite brewery in Vermont, Zero Gravity. Carleton Yoder — artisan cheesemaker from Middlebury whose Champlain Valley Creamery makes one of the best triple cream cheeses 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; 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 headed a few miles north from Stowe to Morrisville and Lost Nation Brewing, which sits on Lake Lamoille. We sat at the bar and ordered 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, 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 alcohol, about what Bud Light has, but with a hundred times more flavor.
Tyler liked a smoky-tasting one in our flight called Pitch Black.
‘Best brewery in the world’
After lunch, we headed about 45 minutes northeast, into the Northeast Kingdom. Since I was captaining our vehicle, I’d been judicious with my sips of beer in order to stay safely under the legal limit. This was a good thing, since the road beyond Greensboro turns narrow and gravel on the way to Hill Farmstead Brewery. When we felt lost, suddenly the parking lot emerged, with a taco stand, portable toilets and music playing while people were hanging out in the sun, drinking beer. It looked like a mix between a Grateful Dead show and a tailgate for an NFL game, with surrounding scenery that was absolutely gorgeous.
Hill Farmstead is another legendary brewery, voted the best brewery in the world by RateBeer, the rival of BeerAdvocate. It was buzzing with people, many of them looking to fill growlers from the taps at the growler stations. At the ticket dispenser, we took a number: 370. They were on 333.
It took about 20 minutes to get to the front of the line. With beers in hand, we wandered outside to the deck, and as we sipped, a short guy in a long coat with a trimmed beard stood 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. But rarely do I get a chance to hear a beer snob in his natural habitat, peacocking in full roar. Tyler and I edged 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.
When we return to Burlington, we ditch the car and make one last visit — a place called Burlington Beer Co., 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 strawberries, called Peak Nostalgia.
Peak nostalgia seems to be the theme inside the brewery, too. While you drink, 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 agreed that Destroyed by Hippie Powers is one of the best beers we drank 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 found ourselves in danger of veering into the realm of the wine-ification of beer, we encountered something just weird enough to keep that from happening.
The autumn sun set on this Saturday evening, and before our second game of Donkey Kong, a line spontaneously formed in this experimental brewery in a suburban industrial park and within minutes wound out the door. Tyler surveyed it all with a mix of fascination and mild contempt. “What is it with people in Vermont?” he said.