My Search for the Beast of the East – Hunting Double IPAs in Vermont

For hardcore hopheads it doesn’t get too much better than an imperial or double IPA (DIPA for short).  Vinnie Cilurzo, head honcho at Russian River Brewing, is credited with developing this style while he was brewing at the now defunct Blind Pig Brewing.  His initial motivation for gravitating toward über hoppy beers is interesting.  Consider the following Cilurzo quote taken from an article on the origin of double IPAs from Stan Hieronymous’ blog, Appellation Beer:

“Our equipment was pretty antique and crude, so I wanted to start out with something that was big and, frankly, could cover up any off flavors.”

The beers that Chilurzo brewed at Blind Pig eventually evolved into the granddaddy of them all, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder.  So in any list of the best DIPAs I’m more than happy to give Pliny one of the top spots.  Of course Russian River is not the only California brewery that makes enticing lupulin laden elixirs, truth be told there are too many good ones to list them all here.  If you pressed me I’d have to say my go-to California DIPA is Stone’s Enjoy By.  It’s got such an exquisite balance of floral and fruity hop character and the bitterness is dialed in just right for my palate.  Plus you can generally find it in stores throughout Ohio, and by design it is guaranteed to be fresh.

The hop harvest, courtesy of my friend Chris Mercherhill.

The hop harvest, courtesy of my friend Chris Mercherhill.

While it’s a no-brainer that California is home to a bevy of delicious DIPAs, what about beers brewed a little closer to home, which for the sake of discussion I will define as being in the eastern time zone.  That arbitrary dividing line would rule out DIPAs from the other western states as well as some excellent Midwest DIPAs, such as those from Three Floyds (Permanent Funeral, Dreadnaught, Artic Panzer Wolf), Toppling Goliath (King Sue, Sosus), and Surly (Abrasive). With apologies to Bell’s, Sixpoint, Maine Beer Co. and Dogfish Head, I’m going to make an argument that the two best places to look for DIPAs are Vermont and Ohio.   I’m sure this will cause many readers to cry foul, but I do have some accolades to support this claim.

Vermont – If you are not a regular visitor to the big beer rating sites you may be surprised to learn that beers from Vermont hold six of the top ten spots on both the BeerAdvocate and RateBeer lists of top DIPAs.  The Alchemist Brewery in Waterbury concentrates primarily on making one beer, Heady Topper, which happens to be the top rated beer across all styles on the BeerAdvocate.  An even smaller brewery, Lawson’s Finest Liquids in Warren, brews a beer called Double Sunshine that is also ranked in the top 10 on both sites.  If Double Sunshine is not available, Triple Sunshine or Sip of Sunshine appear to be excellent alternatives.  Finally we have the remote but highly acclaimed Hill Farmstead Brewery which manages to place a mind boggling six beers in the top 25 DIPAs on both beer rating sites including, Abner, Ephraim, Society and Solitude, Double Citra and Double Galaxy.

SipOfSunshine

Ohio – At the risk of sounding like a homer, I’m going to say that Ohio is producing some of the best DIPAs out there.  Fathead’s DIPA Hop JuJu took home the gold medal in the Imperial IPA category at the 2013 Great American Beer Festival.  (Editors Note: Another Ohio beer, Creeper by Columbus Brewing Co., won the Imperial IPA gold medal at the 2014 GABF.)  This past spring the Brewing News conducted a single elimination Imperial IPA tournament that included roughly 100 DIPAs from across the country.  The winners of each round were chosen by blind taste test, not fan voting.  Three of the four beers that advanced to the final four were from Ohio—Great Lake’s Chillwave, Fathead’s Hop JuJu, and The Brew Kettle’s El Lupulo Libre.  When the dust had cleared El Lupulo Libre defeated Hop JuJu for the crown.  Last but not least there is the jewel of the central Ohio beer scene, Columbus Brewing Company’s Bodhi.

Chillwave

In the remainder of this post I discuss my partially successful attempt to sample the best hoppy beers that Vermont has to offer.

Hunting the Wilds of Vermont for Hop Nirvana

As I mentioned in my last post on visiting Allagash Brewing I was recently at a conference in the middle of New Hampshire.  This conference is structured in the somewhat unconventional manner that no activities are planned between lunch and dinner.  This provides a 4-5 hour window every afternoon where ambitious attendees choose to pursue activities like hiking, canoeing, or disc golf, while the less adventurous tend to use this time for answering e-mail, napping, or making return visits to the ice cream station in the cafeteria.  The point is to have unstructured play time for scientists to interact and come up with brilliant ideas that might one day lead to advances like faster computers, solid-state refrigeration, better laundry detergents, or self-cleaning toilets.  I thought why not use this time to track down some of the world’s most sought after beers in the wilds of Vermont.

Vermont Breweries Map

Vermont is not such a big state so my initial thought was that it might be possible to visit Hill Farmstead, The Alchemist, and Lawson’s Finest Liquids all in one trip.  According to google maps (see above) a round trip journey from New London, NH to all three breweries would take approximately 5 hours and 30 minutes.  Once you add in time for buying and drinking beer this journey was definitely going to take more time than I had available.  On the other hand if you have the whole day for tracking down beer, and were able to start and end the trip in Vermont, the grand hop loop shown on the map above seems eminently doable.  There would even be time to indulge in some frozen dairy goodness at Ben and Jerry’s while in Waterbury to pick up your Heady Topper.

It sounds easy, but to quote Judas Priest’s Rob Halford, “you’ve got another thing coming.” Neither The Alchemist nor Lawson’s Finest sell beer at the brewery, nor are they open to visitors.  If you want to buy their beer you need to go to a retail outlet, and I don’t mean the local Kroger store.  There are six locations in Vermont that receive cases of Heady Topper on a weekly basis and three locations that receive Lawson’s beers period. To their credit both breweries tell you where their beers are sold and what days of the week the shipments arrive.  If you go to Vermont looking for beers from either brewery it’s critical that you do your homework in advance and show up at the right store on the right day.  Check the Alchemist and Lawson’s websites for full details.  It’s also important to come at the right time, but for that information you’ll need to check the website or contact the store where you plan to make your purchase.

Heady Topper Cans

Hill Farmstead is a different story.  They are open for visitors Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 5 pm.  I didn’t have enough time to make the drive up there, but even if I did the reports I’ve read online didn’t exactly entice me to make the pilgrimage to what might be America’s most hyped brewery.  Here is a quote from an Oregonian who visited the brewery in December as part of a two month cross country brewery tour (click here for pictures and full details of his trip):

Hill Farmstead Brewery, Greensboro, VT.  Under renovation but still pretty.  Great fun if you like unplowed, hilly roads and standing in line with a bunch of insufferable New York/Boston BeerAdvocate stereotypes for upwards of 2 hours.

Probably he was a bit harsh on the clientele that visit Hill Farmstead, but after further internet research a few consistent themes emerge.  (1) The location is remote, with the last 3-4 miles being a dirt road. (2) Expect to wait in a line to get your beer, typical waiting times range from 30 minutes to 2 hours. (3) You can buy a sampler of the beers available while waiting in line, but otherwise this is not a place for drinking beer on the premises.  (4) Although they may have 1-2 varieties in bottles, most of the beer is sold in growlers and there is a three growler limit per customer.  (5) The beer is consistently great across a variety of styles.  If I lived in or was vacationing in New England I can see myself heading up to Hill Farmstead, but unless you are a hard core beer geek it would be hard to justify a trip to the brewery.

Hill_Farmstead sign

The Three Penny Taproom

Given the limited window of time I had for hunting down beer in Vermont I decided to look for a place that carried a good selection of Vermont beers and hope they had something interesting on tap when I visited.  I recruited some friends from the conference and we headed for the Three Penny Taproom in the capital city, Montpelier.  I’m happy to report that we were not disappointed.  There was no wait and the food, the service, and most importantly the taplist were excellent.  The taplist is too long to repeat here (25 or so beers, click here for the current taplist), but highlighting the three Vermont breweries that have already been discussed, here is what they had to offer on the day we visited:

  • Hill Farmstead – What is Enlightenment (American Pale Ale)
  • Hill Farmstead – Everett (American Porter)
  • Hill Farmstead – Edward (American Pale Ale)
  • Hill Farmstead – George (American Brown Ale)
  • The Alchemist – Heady Topper (Double IPA in a can)
  • Lawson’s Finest/Vermont Pub and Brewery – Spruce Tip IPA (IPA)
  • Lawson’s Finest – Sip of Sunshine (Double IPA)

Amongst the five of us we managed to sample all of these beers plus a few others.  My first beer was the appropriately named Sip of Sunshine, which was a glorious floral, fruity, crisp, highly drinkable DIPA.  In my opinion it was the best beer of any listed above, including Heady Topper.  (Editor’s note: Sip of Sunshine is not marketed as a DIPA by Lawsons, but was labeled a DIPA at the Three Penny Taproom and is 8% abv just like Double Sunshine.)  I followed that with a glass of Everett, which was also quite good but I’d have to say comparable to Founder’s Porter. That’s pretty high praise because Founders Porter is the best porter I’ve yet tried (and winner of our Porter Blind Taste Test), but I’m not willing to say Everett is better, regardless of what the BeerAdvocate ratings say.  If you take umbrage with this statement I’m always willing to do a side by side blind taste test.  Just show up at my house with a growler of Everett and I’ll take care of the rest.

The Three Penny Taproom, inside awaits hop goodness.

The Three Penny Taproom, inside waits some of the finest beers the US has to offer.

Hunger Mountain Co-op

On the whole I would highly recommend visiting the Three Penny Taproom or a similar venue (e.g. the Prohibition Pig in Waterbury) to sample the best Vermont has to offer in one convenient location.  However, the one thing you can’t do there is get beer to take home.  So after finishing up we headed over to Hunger Mountain Co-op, which is also located in Montpelier and I believe is the only store that gets both Alchemist and Lawson’s beers.  The problem is that the shipments from both brewers arrive on Friday, but we were visiting on a Wednesday.  So while they had a good selection of beer there was no Heady Topper, no Lawson’s, and no Hill Farmstead.  Contenting myself with a six pack of Mass Rising from Jack’s Abby we headed back to New Hampshire.

Fortunately my co-workers Andrew and Spencer were driving back to Ohio on Friday so they made plans to visit the Hunger Mountain Co-Op again and try to score some Heady Topper.  It goes on sale at 3 pm every Friday at the Co-op (at least in late July, I would advise you to check their website to see the schedule when you visit), so they showed up at 2:30 pm and got in the line that had already started forming.  The limit is one case per person at a cost of $75, and apparently everyone in line buys a case.  As a general rule there is not enough Heady to satisfy demand so if you arrive too late the beer will run out before they get to your spot in the line.  The good news (for me) is that Andrew and Spencer were able to procure their allotment of Heady Topper and they were gracious enough to sell me some of their booty when they returned to Ohio (sadly there was no Lawson’s available that week).

The Friday afternoon queue for Heady Topper at the Hunger Mountain Co-Op.

The Friday afternoon queue for Heady Topper at the Hunger Mountain Co-Op.

Andrew and Spencer celebrate their successful HT hunt with new friends.

Summary

There is no question that brewers in Vermont are making some fantastic beers.  Heady Topper merits inclusion in discussions of the best DIPAs out there, but in my opinion Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine was even better and left me wanting more.  In the end I was not able to track down any acclaimed DIPAs from Hill Farmstead, so I can’t speak to those.  The take home lesson is that if you want to bring home any of these sought after beers you’ll need to plan your trip carefully.  I recommend finding a good pub that serves a wide selection of the hard to find beers on tap, then sit back and enjoy what the Green Mountain state has to offer.  Once you identify your favorites try to make plans to go to one of the special spots in the universe where you can buy that particular beer and take your place in line.  If you are still reading this post I’m willing to bet you’re the kind of person who could even convince yourself that such behavior is not abnormal.

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