Beyond the Haze – Forty-eight hours in Vermont Part II

In a recent post I recapped my visit to Vermont’s most celebrated breweries—Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist.  It was a popular post, due in no small part to the current craze for hazy IPAs, but there’s more to the Vermont beer scene than aromatic hop oils and colloidal suspensions of polyphenols and yeast.  In this follow up I visit some lesser known Vermont breweries, focus on less popular styles. I’m sure it will be read by far fewer people, but there’s something to be said for a taproom where you can hang out and have a few beers, maybe even sit down in a chair if so inclined.

As part I ended in The Alchemist Visitor Center it seemed our mission was complete. Spencer and I had completed our itinerary, our stomachs were still full from our feast at the Three Penny Taproom, our lupulin thresholds had been surpassed.  It would have made a tidy ending to the story, but it was only 6 pm. We were facing the age old crisis that comes with afternoon drinking, retire early to a quiet night or continue on and accept the consequences of what might follow.  Experience has taught me that the former is usually the best choice, but for reasons I do not fully understand time and time again I ignore the empirical evidence and choose the latter.  It does make for a better story.

Bernie Weiss
Even when you look beyond the hops and haze, Vermont has its own approach to beer as exemplified by this progressive Berliner Weiss from Zero Gravity.

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Lagers 

Not long after leaving The Alcehmist we saw a sign pointing to the von Trapp Brewery and Bierhall. The next thing you know we were heading into the hills above Stowe in search of some clean, crisp lagers.  It turns out the brewery is owned by the same von Trapp family featured in the 1965 movie The Sound of Music.  After fleeing Austria they relocated to Vermont and opened a lodge and the country’s first cross country ski resort near Stowe.  After decades of pining for the Vienna lagers and pilsners of the old country, they opened small lager-focused brewery in 2010.  Six years later they went all in and built a spacious 150 seat bierhall and a large brewery, one that expanded their capacity from 2000 barrels annually to something closer to 50,000 barrels.

The bierhall is part ski lodge part Hoffbrauhaus.  It’s a big open space, with exposed wooden beams, high vaulted ceilings and walls filled with windows that look out to the surrounding hills.  After visiting Hill Farmstead and The Alchemist It was refreshing to visit a brewery where you could grab a seat at the U-shaped bar and try a few beers.  We ordered a tasting flight to get a sense of the catalog.  The pilsner, which won a silver medal at the 2013 GABF, was crisp, clean and tasty.  The Helles was a bit sweet for my liking, but the Octoberfest and Dunkel were both spot on.  All of the beers were lagers, but this being Vermont they were serving a hoppy Double India Pale Lager (8% abv with Amarillo and Simcoe).  I don’t have anything against a good IPL, but I’ve never really understood the point of going to the hard work of lagering to minimize fruity esters from the yeast and then dumping in a boatload of fruity American hops.

The food menu looked enticing, but we were still digesting food from our lupper at the Three Penny Taproom.  If you are looking to spend the day drinking hazy Vermont IPAs you could do worse than to throw in a hearty meal of Austrian meats and freshly baked pretzels at some point in the day.

After finishing our flight, we went up to the balcony to have a look at the brewing half of the facility.  The brewing facilities at von Trapp were the largest I saw on the trip, with plenty of room for expansion.  They’re obviously betting that Northeasterners have an unmet thirst for lagers.  I’m in no position to say whether that is a smart bet, but there’s no doubt its a less crowded segment of the market.

von Trapp bierhall
The von Trapp Brewery and Bierhall (photo courtesy of the Vermont Brewer’s Association)

Creemees and Shuffleboard

On leaving von Trapp we made our way back to Burlington.  Like the dramatic climax of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, we were racing against time to reach the shores of Lake Champlain for a few photos of the setting sun before evening gave way to night.  I’m happy to report we made it, and after snapping a few stills we took time to enjoy another Burlington specialty, the creemee.  For those not in the know, Vermonter’s refer to soft serve ice cream cones as creemees.  I normally think of soft serve as a mid-20th century invention on par with marshmallow spread and American cheese, but I have admit a Burlington creemee is a notch up from the standard fare.  Maybe it was the improbable pairing of a maple and raspberry swirl, or the magical ambiance of a summer sunset on a Saturday night in Burlington, or maybe the Vermont creemee is just creamier, richer than soft serve everywhere else.

After satisfying my sweet tooth Spencer suggested we check out Zero Gravity Brewing. Although Zero Gravity has been in operation since 2004, operating a brewpub in collaboration with American Flatbread (wood fired pizzas) in downtown Burlington, we visited their newer purpose built location on Pine Street.  I had no expectations when we arrived, but I thoroughly enjoyed the beer and ambiance. The menu spanned a range of styles, but a light, tart 4.2% gose was just what the doctor ordered note only to cleanse the sweetness of the creemee but to allow me to stay sensible on the fifth brewery stop of a long rambling Saturday.  The shuffleboard table was one of the longest I’ve seen and had a slight curvature to it that made it quite forgiving.  The service was friendly and the music was all bluegrass covers of well known pop/rock songs.  In fact the vibe was the best of anywhere I visited in Vermont, so much so that I couldn’t resist capping the day off with the sort of cask beer creation you only find in America—a double IPA with culinary herbs (basil, lemongrass) and hops (El Dorado? working from memory here) thrown in for good measure.

shuffleboard zero gravity_Spencer
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco, this ain’t no fooling around.  Spencer rolling pucks at Zero Gravity.

Searching for the Perfect Pizza and Beer Pairing

By the time Zero Gravity closed at 11 pm, we were spent, so we headed back to Spencer’s and crashed for the night.  My flight home didn’t leave until 5 pm, which gave me an opportunity to make something out of my Sunday.  We started with a leisurely morning hike to top of Mount Philo, Vermont’s oldest state park. A little exercise afforded us an excuse to eat more food, in this case some Folino’s wood fired pizza and beer from their neighbors at Fiddleheads Brewing Company in Shelburne.  The two businesses have a symbiotic relationship.  Folino’s doesn’t serve beer, but they have a BYOB policy and provide frosted glasses for your use.  Fiddleheads only sells beer to go, either cans or growlers that come in 32 oz ($7) or 64 oz ($12) sizes.  After putting in an order for pizza, you walk next door and grab a growler and you’re in for a treat.  You can even return the empty growler before you leave to get your deposit back.

As far as I can tell Fiddlehead’s is best known for IPAs and DIPAs. Both Second Fiddle and Mastermind are hazy DIPAs that get a lot of love in the online forums.  Although there was no line to speak of, there was a steady stream of haze bros stopping and walking out with as many cans of the aforementioned DIPAs as they could carry.  Still feeling in a contrarian mood we went for a small growler of the Drummer’s Brother dry-hopped Kölsch.  The beer was hazy, floral and fruity from extensive dry hopping, both features that would have raised a few eyebrows in Cologne, but only a hardcore traditionalist could resist this beer.  It was easy drinking, with a soft mouthfeel, and an enticing floral aroma, in short an excellent beer to pair with one of Folino’s wood fired pizzas.  On that front we also made an unconventional selection, opting for the special of the day, Peach en Regalia.  I didn’t go in looking for a pizza featuring fresh peaches, but how can you pass on the chance to try a Zappa themed pie?  Almost a month later my mouth still waters for that pairing.  I strongly recommend a Folino’s/Fiddleheads meal if you go to Burlington.

folinos peach pizza
Fiddlehead’s Kolsch and Folino’s Peach en Regalia pizza.

Citizen Cider

It seemed like everywhere I went in Vermont, I kept seeing Citizen Cider.  I only dabble in cider, but I appreciate cideries that try to do something interesting, so it seemed like a reasonable choice for the last stop of the trip.  They have a moderate size taproom in Burlington with a selection of dozen or more ciders.  Many of them are made with methods and/or ingredients familiar in the craft beer world.  Some were aged in bourbon barrels, others were dry hopped with southern hemisphere hops, there was a gose-inspired cider (I assume with salt and coriander), and one was infused with chamomile.  Some of these combinations worked better than others. I’m not convinced bourbon barrels and cider make good bed partners and Citizen’s version of this combination didn’t change my opinion. That’s not to say there weren’t some home runs among the two flights we tried.  The kriek-like Companion, made with apples and sour cherries, and Dirty Mayor, a sweet cider infused with a healthy dose of ginger, were the highlights for me.

Citizen Cider Flight

Closing Thoughts

The hazy IPAs get all the attention, but Vermont beer is much more than a one trick pony. If you make the trip up to Vermont be sure to take a break from hoarding cans of the hottest new DIPAs and spend a little time exploring the broader landscape of the Green Mountain State.  Have a Bernie Weiss and play some shuffleboard,  take time for a wood fired pizza made with local cheese, do some hiking and quench your thirst with some handcrafted German lagers.  I know I’m looking forward to my the next excuse to visit Spencer and see more of Vermont.

Sunset Lake Champlaign
Summer sunset on Lake Champlain.

 

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