Why does so much great beer come from small states? Case in point: Vermont, population 608,827. Vermont ranks number one in breweries per capita, and its residents spend almost one-fifth of their beer money on in-state products. It couldn’t be easier to find micros, either; there are specially priced 12-packs in gas station beer coolers and fresh growlers in grocery stores.
Vermont’s brewers offer a variety of reasons for their product’s local appeal. According to Laura Gates, co-owner of the Trout River Brewing Co., “People here are very supportive of Vermont products. And when times are tough, we have to rely on one another.”
The state’s way of life also plays a part. Matt Nadeau, who returned to his native state to start Rock Art Brewery, observed, “People in Vermont like the finer things, like good food and wine. They’re here to enjoy the quality of life.” Bill Cherry, owner of Switchback Brewing Co., the state’s newest, explains, “Vermonters are open to crafts people of all kinds. They also like the idea of a sole-proprietorship business.”
I recently met these brewing entrepreneurs and some of their colleagues at the Vermont Brewers’ Festival in Burlington. The event, billed as the East’s longest-running outdoor festival, showcases the products of Vermont craft brewers along with those of handpicked breweries from adjoining states. The two-day extravaganza drew more than 3,000 to Waterfront Park on the shores of Lake Champlain, where sunny skies and the Adirondack Mountains provided a fitting backdrop.
After the tasting session, many festivalgoers made the short trek to Burlington’s best-known beer venue, The Vermont Pub and Brewery (144 College Street). This establishment overlooking the town square was a labor of love for brew master Greg Noonan and his wife, Nancy. Before serving their first pint, they spent three years lobbying state lawmakers to make brewpubs legal.
Because few people then knew what a brewpub was, the Noonans decided to call their establishment a “pub and brewery.” Building the brewery itself proved yet another adventure. Since off-the-shelf brewing systems weren’t available, Greg relied on his Yankee ingenuity, cobbling one together out of such items as a maple sap boiler, a cattle feeder, and an ice cream-making vessel.
The Vermont Pub and Brewery caters to everyone from middle-aged couples having a quiet meal in the Gay Nineties-style dining room to University of Vermont students pursuing higher zymurgical education on the patio. But it’s the beer selection that puts this pub at the head of the class. The menu includes the award-winning Vermont Smoked Porter; Spuyten Duyvil, a sour Belgian ale (the menu promises “you won’t like it!”); and a Scottish “wee heavy.” And there’s always a cask selection on hand.
Other Brewpubs Abound
Brewpubs dot the state, from The Shed Restaurant and Brewery in the northern ski resort of Stowe, to McNeill’s Brewery in the far southeastern town of Brattleboro. Vermont also boasts four breweries that have broken into the “regional” category. The most unusual, by far, is the Magic Hat Brewery (5 Bartlett Bay Road, South Burlington). The retail room of its “artifactory” has the ambience of a Grateful Dead concert—the gift shop offers tie-dyed shirts and psychedelic art. Television sets, sofas, and various kitsch left over from Sixties college dorms round out the decor.
Magic Hat’s look and feel reflects founder Alan Newman’s long, strange trip as a New Age businessman. Even its name is part of that legend; Newman once observed it would take “magic out of a hat” for his venture to succeed. The beers’ names are just as quirky—year-round selections include Fat Angel and Blind Faith, British-inspired ales that play fast and loose with style guidelines, and an American pale ale simply called #9. But what really earns Magic Hat its renown is unusual seasonals (Vanilla Porter, anyone?) and “one-offs,” including one brewed to celebrate Senator James Jeffords’s decision to bolt the Republican Party and sit as an independent.
The charming college town of Middlebury, a half hour south of Burlington, is the home of Otter Creek Brewing (793 Exchange Street). Like many brewery owners, founder Larry Miller was lured to Vermont by its cultural amenities and unhurried way of life. Smitten by an altbier he’d enjoyed as a college student in Oregon, Miller brewed his own version, Copper Ale, which has become Otter Creek’s flagship beer. The year-round ale selection also includes a dry-hopped pale ale and the toasty-flavored Stovepipe Porter.
Prospering in a Changing Economy
Despite their success, Vermont’s brewers have not escaped the retrenchment and consolidation that have shaken the industry. But a changing economy turned out to be good news for Otter Creek. For several years, this community-minded brewery had been producing organic ales under contract with the California-based Wolaver family. Last year, the Wolavers acquired Otter Creek, consolidating production of Wolaver ales in Middlebury. Best of all, the company not only kept producing the Otter Creek line but added a European-style lager, which debuted this summer.
Farther south, amid the antique shops and bed-and-breakfasts, is one of Vermont’s great beer success stories, the Long Trail Brewing Co. (U.S. 4 and State Route 100-A, Bridgewater Corners). The brewery, named for a hiking trail that meanders through the Green Mountains, began as a two-man operation in the basement of an old sawmill. Growing demand forced the owners to move their operations to a visitor’s center, complete with a North Woods-themed pub and huge outdoor deck overlooking the Ottauquechee River.
Long Trail’s objective was to brew fresh local alternatives to imported ales, leaving pilsner-style beer to the biggies. Its first product, Long Trail Ale, like Otter Creek Copper Ale, was an altbier. For a time, the brewery followed a Düsseldorf, Germany, brewpub tradition, offering the potent Double Bag Strong Ale as a steckbier, or “secret beer,” for select customers. Today, it’s available at retail. Other offerings include a perfectly hopped India pale ale; Tom O’Brien’s Stout; and Pollinator, a “fun beer” made with a touch of honey.
Farther south still is the site of an ashes-to-glory drama involving another Vermont regional. During the frothy Nineties, the owners of Catamount Brewing Co. (336 Ruth Carney Drive, Windsor), the state’s first micro, decided to construct a new, expanded, brewing facility. Unfortunately, the economic winds started blowing the wrong way; Catamount was forced to declare bankruptcy, and its assets wound up in the hands of lenders. Enter Boston-based Harpoon Brewing Co., which was looking to boost production of its India pale ale and German-style beers.
Recognizing the brand’s local appeal, Harpoon continues to turn out Catamount’s pale ale and porter, and it has added Eight Lives, an ale celebrating Catamount’s survival of its brush with death. Visitors to the brewery can enjoy a deli sandwich and a pint of Harpoon or Catamount ale while taking in the mountain scenery in the outdoor beer garden. And every July, the brewery hosts the New England Barbecue Championships, a weekend event featuring live music, the work of master barbecue chefs, and, of course, beer.
What about the future of Vermont beer? Thanks to the state’s demanding but appreciative customers, it looks bright. As Trout River Brewing’s Dan Gates puts it, “Competition raises the bar for small brewers. They don’t have the money for a big marketing campaign, so their product has to market itself.” In other words, success breeds success.