Into the Haze – Forty-eight hours in Vermont Part I

I’ve spent a considerable chunk of my spare time over the past year exploring the roots of historical beer styles ranging from pilsners to Flander’s Reds to Scottish Ales,  On returning to the US what better way to reintroduce my palate to home grown brewing than a trip to Vermont, a state that can take much of the credit for kicking off the hazy IPA trend.   Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years (or perhaps in Germany) you know that hazy IPAs have taken the world by storm.  Just about every taproom I’ve visited in the last six months is pouring some version of a hazy/NE IPA.  Industry giants that built their empires on lagers (Boston Beer Co.) or West Coast IPAs (Sierra Nevada) have embraced the haze.  The Great American Beer Festival has added three categories of hazy IPA to the competition. The phenomenon is not limited to North America either.  Hazy IPAs from can be found in all corners of Great Britain.

After attending a weeklong chemistry conference in New Hampshire, I dropped off my rental car in Boston and boarded a Megabus headed for Burlington.  Four hours later I emerged in this hip, outdoorsy, liberal enclave on the shores of Lake Champlain.  I was met by an old friend, Spencer Porter, who moved here a year ago.  For the next 48 hours Spencer was my personal guide to the beer, food and scenic landscapes of the Green Mountain State.

Hazy IPAs – A Condensed history

Although it has many branches, any attempt to chart the lineage of the hazy IPA style leads back to a single beer, The Alchemist’s Heady Topper.  John Kimmich opened the celebrated brewpub in Waterbury, Vermont back in 2003, but for the first 8 years the hazy, hoppy masterpiece that is Heady Topper was limited to draft only sales in the brewpub.  It developed a cult following, but the remote location and complete lack of packaging and distribution allowed it to fly under the radar in the early days.  An extreme white whale for those in the know, but most of us in flyover country were blissfully unaware of its existence.  It wasn’t until 2011 when The Alchemist started putting Heady into the now iconic silver tall boy cans that its popularity started to skyrocket.  It didn’t hurt that beer ratings sites like BeerAdvocate started to gain popularity around the same time.  I recall a trip to Vermont in 2014 when you had to study the Alchemist’s distribution pattern to be at the right grocery store, on the right day, at the right time to buy Heady Topper.  Even then the lines were often out the door.

Heady_Topper_line
The Friday afternoon queue for Heady Topper at the Hunger Mountain Co-Op, back in 2014.

If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the roots of the NE IPA go back even further, to Greg Noonan’s Vermont Pub and Brewery.  Kimmich got his start in the brewing industry working weekends at the Burlington brew pub in the 1990s.  Back in those days Noonan was one of the few brewers who didn’t mind sacrificing a little clarity for extra hop flavor and aroma [1].  Not only did Noonan give Kimmich his start in brewing, he allowed him to use his proprietary yeast strain VPB1188, better known as Conan.  Unlike the clean fermentation of the Chico yeast strain used for most American IPAs before the emergence of NE IPAs, Conan contributes fruity esters that harmonize with the aromas of the New World hops that are the centerpiece of the style.

The story of the NE IPA would not be complete without bringing Shaun Hill into the story.  Hill who was a customer at The Alchemist back in the brewpub days, opened his now legendary brewery on the family farm in 2010.  Not only did Hill Farmstead become the third brewery using the Conan yeast strain, Hill’s early beers like Edward (Pale Ale) and Abner (DIPA) featured a soft mouthfeel, low bitterness and a hazy appearance.  Within a couple of years Hill Farmstead developed such a devoted following that they were named the World’s best brewery by RateBeer.com in 2012, a feat they have since repeated five times.

Conan Yeast
A description of Conan at The Alchemist Visitor Center and Brewery in Stowe.  Conan is thought to have evolved from the yeast used by the Manchester (UK not NH) brewery Boddingtons.  Greg Noonan pictured in the lower right.

The Punk and the Godfather

After dropping my bags off at Spencer’s apartment, we make for downtown Burlington.  I have fond memories of the city from a 1997 visit, and over the past two decades it seems to have upped its game.  It’s chock-full of restaurants (farm to table is big in Vermont), bars, music venues, and a dozen breweries.  There’s a bustling pedestrian street and beautiful vistas of Lake Champlain. All of this in a city whose population doesn’t top 50,000 [2]

After taking a walk along the shoreline, where a two-day bluegrass music festival (Tumble Down) is taking place, we make our way to Foam Brewers, a relative newcomer to the Vermont craft beer scene (established 2016).  Foam occupies an old sushi restaurant not far from the Lake Champlain waterfront.  As we walk through the door, the smell of hops permeates the taproom to an extent that I’ve rarely experienced.  We’ve obviously come to the right place to start the journey. The exposed wood beams and ceiling suggest Vermont cabin; the blue LED lighting above the taps and under the bar remind me of an ice bar; the light fixtures and signage on the walls would not be out of place at a Phish concert [3].  It’s an eclectic mix of influences in line with the overall Burlington aesthetic. The tap list is dominated by hazy IPAs and DIPAs, with a few lower abv sours mixed in.  Many of the beer names have a music connection, including a pair of DIPAs named after 90’s indie bands, Pavement and Built to Spill.  I order a glass of the former and it does not disappoint, checking all the boxes on what you expect from a hazy DIPA—over the top fruity hop aroma, soft mouthfeel, high turbidity, and low bitterness.

Foam Brewers
The taproom at Foam.

From there we head uphill to the Vermont Pub and Brewery, the site where the seeds of the hazy IPA revolution were planted.  Overall the vibe is very much what you might expect from a 1990’s era brewpub.  Dark reddish-tinged wood interior, a small outdoor patio, a bar with two sides separated by a center wall, booths along the walls for those coming to dine, and a strong emphasis on British/Irish beer styles.  The tap list included a dry stout (Handsome Mick’s), an Irish red ale (Burly), an ESB (Dogbite), and an English mild (Millstone), side by side with a rather eclectic collection of non-British styles including a watermelon wheat, a Flander’s red (Tulach Leis) and a Belgian golden strong (Diablo de Oro). I think it’s fair to say that hazy IPAs are not the focus here.  We order a tasting flight of six beers, of which the Flander’s red is my favorite, appropriately tart, nice balsamic character without being too acetic.  Spencer is excited about the Diablo de Oro because it has a sharpness that is strangely reminiscent of Swiss cheese.  I find that to be a questionable attribute, but he argues it would be the ultimate beer to pair with a rueben.

We finish the night by heading to a BBQ restaurant called Bluebird.  At this point I should say that Spencer takes his food seriously, and this is one of his favorite restaurants in the city.  Given the relatively late hour my response when the dry rub smoked wings arrived is downright Pavlovian.  The wings are followed by a pile of slow cooked meats, and side dishes with strong southern comfort food leanings.  All of it is devoured with gusto.  The taplist is impressive as well with offerings from Hill Farmstead and Lawsons Finest Liquids.  They were also pouring the winner of a recent homebrew contest, which not surprisingly was a hazy DIPA. For the sake of investigative journalism I go with the homebrew winner.  Not quite in the same league as the big boys, but impressive for a scaled-up homebrew recipe.

Vermont Pub and Brewery
Vermont’s first brewpub celebrates it’s 30th anniversary this year.

Journey to the Northeast Kingdom

We awake on Saturday morning primed for a cross country pilgrimage to Hill Farmstead. Defying conventional business logic Shaun Hill sited his brewery on the family farm in a remote corner of Vermont known as the Northeast Kingdom.  The whimsical moniker refers to the three counties that occupy the rugged, sparsely populated northeast corner of the state, a region whose largest municipality (St. Johnsbury) has a population of 7,600.  The drive from Burlington takes nearly 2 hours, the last several miles of which are on unpaved roads.  As we traversed the green hills and small villages of northern Vermont several questions run through my mind.  Will there be a line out the door?  Could the beer possibly live up to my expectations? Will we get lost and be forced to wander the Northeast Kingdom in a series of happenstance encounters resembling a poorly written Wes Anderson movie?

Despite the lack of signs marking the way, we are able to find the brewery without too much difficulty.  All the same you might want to download the directions just to be on the safe side, because cell reception is far from guaranteed up there.  We arrive a few minutes past noon on a pleasant Saturday afternoon in late July.  The sky is filled with big fluffy white clouds on a sea of blue; the sun is streaming down on the verdant tree covered hills that surround the farm. Upon arrival the crowd is probably 60-70 people, but steadily grows as the afternoon progresses.  People are sitting outside enjoying the weather, young kids chase each other around the large grassy field in front of the brewery [4].   A food cart is serving what looks to be rather authentic Mexican tacos.

Hill Farmstead

Hill Farmstead employs a unique system for selling beer that employs no less than three lines. In the tap room there is one line to purchase glasses of beer for consumption on-site, and another for growler fills.  If you want to fill a growler you don’t have to wait in a physical line, but instead take a number and go up to the bar when your number is called.  Bottles and cans are sold in a separate building, which unsurprisingly features another line.  When we first arrive the draft beer line is a very manageable 5-6 minutes.  When it’s time for a refill the crowd has grown, the line extends all the way across the large taproom, and it is more like 20 minutes to get the second round.  The servers are happy to give you tasting samples when your turn comes up, which does help you navigate the not particularly descriptive ancestral naming system Shaun Hill employs for most of the beers, but on the down side it does tend to slow down the line.  The wait for purchasing bottles and cans for take away was somewhat shorter on the day we visited, roughly 10 minutes.

It confused me a little at first that the draft selections for growler fills were not identical to those for on-site consumption.  My guess is that the stronger beers, like DIPAs, are only available for growler fills, to keep people from getting too inebriated to navigate safely back to civilization. That seems like a reasonable policy given the remote location and ease with which these beers go down.  In a similar vein I noted a sign stating that on-site pours were limited to two rounds per customer.  How strictly that limit is enforced I cannot say.

As for the beer, it is exceptional.  I start with the simply named Citra IPA.  Two fingers pillowy, snow white head sit atop a shimmering golden beer, hazy to the point of being opaque.  The smell and taste are burst of juicy fruit flavors that lean toward tangerines and orange blossoms. There’s a reason why Citra is sometimes referred to as one of the cheater hops, and this beer is a master class on how to incorporate it into an IPA. The water and malts combine for a smooth, creamy mouthfeel that slides effortlessly across your tongue.  The bitterness is minimal, but somehow each sip ends clean, without lingering sweetness.  For my second round I stick to the single hop series and order a Nelson IPA.  It is a similar experience with the citrus fruits replaced by notes of white grapes and tropical fruits.  Above all else the soft, delicate mouthfeel of these beers is impressive.  One might argue that is Shaun Hill’s contribution to the NE IPA style.  Spencer opts for Walden, a sessionable hoppy pale ale, followed by a glass of Shirley Mae, a sessionable porter served on nitro with flavorful roastiness and a silky smooth mouthfeel.

The take away selection includes seven different farmhouse ales (Anna, Arthur, Dorothy, Clara, Florence, Brother Soigné, Sankt Hans), each sold in 750 mL bottles, and three varieties of hoppy ales (Walden, Citra IPA, Society and Solitude #10 DIPA) sold in cans.  Given the high demand the prices seem fair—$10 to $12 for a bottle, and $16 to $19 for a six-pack of 12 oz cans.  Constrained by the need to check luggage at the airport, I limited my purchase to a six pack of Citra IPA and two bottles of Dorothy, a dry-hopped farmhouse ale fermented with Brett.  It seems a small purchase for making such a long journey, but at least the zipper on my suitcase is still intact.

Hill Farmstead Beers
Enjoying a Shirley Mae and a Nelson IPA under the tent outside of the Hill Farmstead taproom.

Burgers and Brews in the Capitol

When Spencer realized that we were going to Northeast Kingdom he immediately started planning a stop in Montpelier to visit the Three Penny Taproom (the TPT for short) on the way home.  The TPT is widely known as one of the best beer bars in the Northeast, with a well curated taplist that spans a range of styles and draws heavily from local heavyweights.  If you are looking to try some Hill Farmstead offerings without a trek into the wilds of the Northeast Kingdom, this is one of your best options. However, that’s not what motivates Spencer to stop whenever he’s in the vicinity of Montpelier.  He feels the TPT serves the best burgers in the world, full stop.  Unlike the “tastes great/less filling” arguments of the 1970’s Miller Light commercials, where in retrospect it seems obvious that only the less filling claim is true, the TPT can truly claim to have both a kick ass tap list and amazing food.  Are the burgers really the best in the world?  Connoisseurs can debate that point, but I can tell you they pay attention to every detail, down to the freshly made condiments and the near perfect crispness of the shoestring fries [5].

While waiting in line at Hill Farmstead we struck up a conversation with a beer lover who had made the trip up from Connecticut. During our conversation he expressed the opinion that Prospect DIPA by Foley Brothers was the best IPA in Vermont, bar none.  When you get that kind of intelligence it only seems right to act on it, so after our late lunch/early dinner we head over to the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier.  Not only was this the place where Spencer waited in line on a Friday afternoon 4 years ago to score a case of Heady Topper, it is also where our new friend suggested we look.  Alas there was no Foley Brothers to be had, but unlike four years ago we did find Heady Topper in the cooler, and no line.

Three Penny Taproom

Drink from the Can

No mission to get to the roots of the NE IPA would be complete without a visit to The Alchemist.  The original taproom in Waterbury was destroyed in 2011 when floods caused by Hurricane Irene swamped the brewery.  Heady Topper might be nothing more than a historical artifact if John and Jen Kimmich hadn’t decided to build a second Waterbury location dedicated entirely to brewing and canning Heady Topper around the same time.  The first cans came off the line just two days after the brewpub was destroyed.  In 2016 they opened a state-of-the-art brewery and visitor center 10 miles north in Stowe.  These days Heady Topper is still made exclusively at the Waterbury location, while the rest of the Alchemist catalog is brewed at the Stowe location.  The Waterbury facility was never designed for visitors, which is why four years ago grocery stores were the only outlet for Heady, but the Stowe location, open for visitors, 11 am to 7 pm Tuesday through Saturday, offers a direct outlet for marauding hop heads.

The bright, shiny new Stowe brewery is more retail store than taproom.  They serve complimentary tasters, but there are no sales of beer for on-site consumption.  I’m starting to get the feeling that Vermonter’s are happy to have you visit, but more than a little nervous you might overstay your welcome.  They were serving two hop-forward beers on the day we visited, Focal Banger and Crusher DIPA.  I’d like to tell you more about them, but on a day of cross country brewery hopping a 3 oz sampler is lost in the noise.  There are selling 6-7 different styles of canned beer for take away, five beers I’ve never heard of, mostly IPAs of one kind or another, and Heady Topper.  Focal Banger is sold out.  Given the space restrictions of my suitcase it’s an easy decision, one 4 pack of Heady to go  While I’m at it I pick up a block of Cheddy Topper, a Vermont cheddar made by a local creamery using Heady Topper.  After all how can you pass up a product that combines multiple Vermont staples?  I’m happy to report that Cheddy Topper is indeed delicious, and makes for the ultimate beer-cheese pairing.

Alchemist Taster
A taster at The Alchemist and the associated beer trading cards.

Later back in comfy confines of my Columbus abode I give Heady Topper a more serious inspection. For the first several drinks I heed the advice of John Kimmich and drink straight from the can [6].  I’m not going to lie it tastes pretty damn good, but I can’t bring myself to get very far into the beer without decanting into a glass.  Despite Kimmich’s unusual logic about not disturbing the hop oils at the bottom of the can, it just doesn’t make sense to opt out of the visual and olfactory aspects of the experience.  I can’t help but speculate that back in the early days they were a little self-conscious about the haziness of the beer, and what better way to take that issue off the table than advising people to drink straight from the can.

The contrast between Heady Topper and Hill Farmstead’s Citra IPA is instructive.  Whereas the latter is all fruity and delicate, Heady has a pronounced dank, herbaceous aroma that hearkens back to hops that were more prevalent in the aughts when Heady was conceived.  That’s not to say there aren’t juicy tropical fruits underneath, but you have to concentrate a little to find them.  Heady is brewed with a proprietary blend of six hops, but Simcoe is rumored to be prominent.  The level of bitterness is also relative to the age and experiences of the drinker. It’s much less bitter than the IPAs that ruled the roost in 2011, but at the same time more bitter than HF Citra IPA or many other modern-day interpretations of the NE IPA style.  Of course, it’s human nature (or at least the American way) to take the attributes of Heady that set it apart from the American IPAs of the early 21st century—low bitterness, fruity hop aroma, hazy appearance—and accentuate them.  One has to wonder if Heady Topper has already become to hazy IPAs, what Pliny the Elder is to double IPAs.

The Alchemist is the end of the line for me on the haze trail, but not the end of my explorations of Vermont beers.  Keep an eye out for a follow up to this post where I go beyond the Green Mountain haze—lagers and kolschs, goses and ciders, shuffleboard and gourmet pizzas.

Alchemist Fermentation Tanks
The shiny fermentation tanks at the Stowe location of The Alchemist.

Endnotes

[1] As an aside Noonan is also credited with creating the first Black IPA, a style that has largely disappeared from the public consciousness, but experienced considerable popularity just a few years ago.

[2] Although the population of Burlington proper is only ~43,500, the metropolitan area has a population of ~109,000, close to 20% of Vermont’s population. Burlington has the distinction of being the smallest municipality in the USA to be the largest city in its state.

[3] The Foam taproom was designed by Russ Bennett, better known for designing stages for the likes of Phish and the Bonnaroo Music festival, and it shows.

[4] The backdrop at Hill Farmstead reminds me of Rockmill Brewery, also sited on a family farm, in the rolling hills west of Lancaster, Ohio.  One difference (aside from the hype differential) is that at Rockmill you can wander all around the property with a beer, while at Hill Farmstead you must stay within a relatively small space near the taproom.

[5] The ketchup is the only condiment at the Three Penny Taproom that’s not made in house. Apparently, they couldn’t keep up with demand.

[6] Instructions to drink from the can are printed on the necks of both Heady Topper and Focal Banger.  Nearly half of the beer description given on each can is devoted to the reasons behind this unconventional advice.

8 thoughts on “Into the Haze – Forty-eight hours in Vermont Part I

Add yours

  1. Perhaps your finest post to date – the descriptors had me salivating. Had a fine trip in that area a few years ago and fond memories. The beer scene has developed rapidly since too. Your writing is a good balance of analysis and passion whilst managing to convey a strong sense of place.

    1. I’m going to have to work harder to find places that you’ve not already visited. I am missing the pubs and cask ales of Britain so I’ll have to live vicariously through your blog for the time being.

      1. Only been to US twice so sure you will manage! I must include more beer notes then. Did a daft drive to John o’Groats (there is a brewery there) and Wick yesterday…..

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