A very eastern (Vermont) brew tour

22 Aug

In my years in Vermont, I’ve come to realize that brew touring really is the best way to see the state.

Oh, sure — you can go on skiing trips or bike tours or travel to all 251 towns in the state.

But why would you do any of those when you can instead make your meandering way to 19 or 20 unfailingly quaint locations that, in addition to their other attractions, can all offer samples of unique, (usually) delicious microbrews?

Ostensibly it’s about the beer, but it’s also about the thrill of driving through towns you’d never have thought to visit, stumbling upon garage brewing operations or wandering into old, dressed up inns that you, with your recent-college-graduate salary, could never actually afford to stay in. It’s happening upon breweries that, without your knowledge, have scheduled a huge barbecue festival on the day of your arrival. And it’s the random stopovers along the way, where you accidentally buy too many books or sample Crazy Russian whoopie pies or get the chance to wander through quaint downtown Woodstock while a polo-shirted police officer writes up an accident report for an unfortunate side mirror incident.

Not that I have personal experience with any of those, or anything.

It’s been two and a half years since I started working on completing the Vermont Brewery Challenge, and following a series of whirlwind summer trips yesterday, I’m almost done (with my first one, that is. Now I’m working on a second).

Since I began two and a half years ago, Vermont has lost a few breweries and gained more (with the addition of Fiddlehead Brewing Company we’ll be running up on 21 total). We’re holding our own on the national scale as well — Vermont has the highest number of breweries per capita of any state in the union. Yeah, that’s what I said, Oregon, Montana, Colorado and Maine. We win!

All competition aside, I do think that Vermont’s brewing culture comes part and parcel with our food culture, our do-it-yourself culture, our fierce independence.

It’s simple logic, really: Why buy something when you can do it yourself? It’s not always the cheapest option, and it requires more work than driving to the store and picking up a six-pack. But there’s more to it than that: it’s the sense of accomplishment, the pride of winning, the sheer rebellion against the societal pressure to entrust your every need to the things you’d find in a fluorescent-lit superstore.

And it’s the folks who make their own bacon and lard, the folks who grow wheat and make their own sunflower oil, the ones who garden and pickle and preserve, and those (including, well, me) who brew their own beer who are pushing against that pressure, who make Vermont a unique and ever-evolving place to be.

Less like this. (photo via Like_the_Grand_Canyon on Flickr)

On our most recent foray, we started out the afternoon by heading down to Long Trail Brewing Co. in Bridgewater Corners, Vt. Incidentally, Long Trail also owns Otter Creek Brewery, our friendly local brewery in Middlebury.

It seemed that the entire southern half of Vermont (and a good portion of the Mid-Atlantic) had migrated north to eat lunch and drink beer at Long Trail. Perhaps we should’ve known it would be an obvious choice for a rainy, rainy afternoon.

The sampler reminded me what a wide range of good beers Long Trail offers. The Blackbeary Wheat never fails to challenge my longstanding prejudice against light beers (though I do like a good hefeweizen). And it had been so long since I’d had the Long Trail Ale that it served as a pleasant reminder. The Double Bag was, as always, malty and excellent (though Triple Bag was advertised and not actually available) and the Harvest, a seasonal I’d never tried, was definitely a solid number.

Long Trail sampler

Yes, that's right. They serve their sampler in a muffin tin.

Luckily, by the time we left the sky had cleared and it was smooth sailing into Woodstock, where our trusty designated driver had a not-so-happy run-in with a stealthily opened car door. Ouch.

Then it was on to the Norwich Inn to partake of the offerings at Jasper Murdoch’s Ale House. Consensus: The Oh Be Joyful was very good, as was the Second Wind Oatmeal Stout. I had the Whistling Pig Red Ale, which was darker than I expected and tasted good, but was really nothing to write home about. But that’s just my opinion.

Then it was on to the Perfect Pear in Bradford. Turns out the beer offshoot of the restaurant has been renamed the Vermont Beer Company. Despite having an array of beers on tap, there was only one by them — the Saaz-All (“saaz”, according to better informed people than I, being a type of hop). It was light but flavorful, with a hint of coriander. I find, however, that I cannot agree with the Urbanspoon review found here. A stroganoff yeast flavor? I’m sorry, that is 1) not a beer term and 2) not a word I ever want associated with my beer.

For the record, the curry fries were also delightful, as were the crispy pork dumplings.

The long way back across the mountains (Bradford, as it turns out, is far away from Middlebury) was punctuated by driving rain, thunder, lightning and tornado warnings — but as you may have guessed, we made it back safely, alive and with three new stamps each on our beer passports.

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Growing

16 Jun

It’s been a while since I last updated this blog. Enough time for me to attend the Delaware wedding shower of two of my dearest friends, to cull nearly 100 books off of the bookshelves in my childhood home, to share a round of Jägerbombs (totally gross) with cousins I haven’t seen in years, and to crush my finger in a pullout couch and spend 5 hours in a hospital emergency room in Rochester, N.Y., falling lower and lower on the triage list as victims of Memorial Day festivities gone horribly wrong were rushed in.

But after a little more than a week gallivanting around the mid-Atlantic, I got back to Vermont in plenty of time to bottle my dunkelweizen and to watch the plants grow larger and larger:

Zucchini flowers

Tomato!

Of course, no garden story would be complete without a couple of mishaps along the way. We ran into an unexpected one while preparing our gravel-filled garden beds for the plants.

Beds. So comfy!

You see, to us, one cubic yard of MooDoo (which is made of composted…well, you can probably figure it out) seemed like it would be more than enough to fill two 4×16 beds. After all, we knew we were going to have to enlist the help of a friend with a truck, so we figured anything that would fill a pickup truck bed would also fill our garden beds.

But as it turns out, a pickup truckload of compost works out to very little, when all is said and done. And once we’d moved the dirt into the beds (in approximately seven wheelbarrow loads), there was that moment of truth where the quandary we were in dawned on us.

You see, we needed more dirt, and we figured we might kill the plants if we didn’t add in some non-nutrient dense material. The problem was that none of us has much experience with central Vermont farming, so we didn’t know where to get dirt.

Well, you might be saying, we should have just looked around us. Maybe taken some dirt from the backyard.

But if you’re saying that, you’ve probably never stuck a shovel into Addison County clay soils. Dense doesn’t even begin to describe it. And with the wet spring we’ve had, the root networks of the weeds go deep. Very deep. Two of us digging for an hour turned up about half a wheelbarrow load of root-riddled, clumpy clay.

So the next day, we did the next best thing and headed back to Agway, where it turned out there was a topsoil sale going on. Now, 10 bags for $12 is cheap, yes. Cheaper than we’d expected. But it wasn’t dirt cheap. It wasn’t what we wanted to pay.

That is, until we saw the broken bags piled onto shipping pallets at the front of the parking lot.

And if Agway wasn’t already one of the most awesome stores in Middlebury, it definitely earned that label as we stood outside, cutting a deal with the manager and then loading 12 broken bags of topsoil into Meghan’s Honda for a very, very sweet price.

“Tell all your friends about us,” he told us.

So, there you go. Now I’ve told you all.

We thanked him, paid up and were on our way back to the garden, where we began dumping soil into the garden. Only, we discovered that 12 more bags still wasn’t enough.

10 new, unbroken bags of topsoil later, we deemed the garden acceptably well-soiled and began the long process of planting: tomato and pepper seedlings, a cabbage plant, a slightly wilty green onion bunch, eggplant, and seeds for basil, sugar snap peas, snow peas, mesclun, spinach, swiss chard, beets.

Some were, without a doubt, late. After all, Vermont averages a 100-day growing season, and if you’re any kind of seasoned gardener you’re rushing to get seedlings started just as soon as there’s a hint of warmth in the air, nurturing tiny sprouts in egg cartons in a sunny corner of your kitchen.

But hey. We can’t lay claim to the title of “seasoned gardeners,” but if all goes well, and the weather stays dry, and September is warm, we’re going to have more tomatoes than we know what to do with. And honestly, I can’t think of many things in life that I value more than a good tomato.

Brew day

20 May

Here’s a promise: I’m going to stop complaining about the weather. Because even in a small town in rural Vermont, there are a million and one things to do when everything is sodden and wet.

Take this evening, when I took a walk to return the fiddle I borrowed from a neighbor down the street. I’m not the most observant person on the best of days, but even I noticed that everything — and I mean everything — is green right now. In fact, I wouldn’t have been surprised to come home and find the house covered in a thin film of green moss.

Or take the other day, when I hiked through ankle-deep water to the new rice paddy at Boundbrook Farm, where farmer and bread baker Erik Andrus and 100 students from Vergennes Union High School were busy pushing 20,000 yellow tufted seedlings into clay below the inch-deep water.

Planting the rice

Andrus expects the acre of rice to yield some 4,000 pounds of short-grain brown rice, and he won’t even have to do any weeding: 100 ducklings are nestled in a box in the barn, waiting to head out into the fields. There, they’ll eat the weeds but avoid the rice, and add fertilizer to the groundwater the plants are drawing from.

Needless to say, the high schoolers were over the moon about getting to play in the mud.

Or take last weekend, when I brewed my first batch of beer.

I’ve been saying I was going to throw my hat into the brewing ring for a few years now, more or less seriously. Recently, though, I kept meeting more and more people who brew and started figuring, hey, maybe Ricky was onto something way back in our college days.

Then there’s that do-it-yourself disease that people get when they come to Vermont. It’s like a checklist we all get handed once we cross the border into the state. Canning? Check. Pickling? Yes indeed. Knitting? Yup, I’m a knitting fiend. Breadmaking? Yeah. Gardening? Ayuh. Cheesemaking? Yes, with raw milk (it’s legal here, you know).

But brewing? That was a lingering empty spot on my checklist, right before “raise backyard chickens” and “build a log cabin in the woods.” Don’t worry. I’m working on those, more or less.

Malt, grains, yeast, hops.

And since, a couple weekends ago, I was in Burlington anyway to buy a fiddle, I figured I might as well make the trip doubly worthwhile. So off to Vermont Homebrew Supply I went. Half an hour and more than $100 (yikes!) later, I emerged from the store with malt, grains, hops, yeast, and all the equipment I’d need to brew my first beer.

It is (or it will be, I suppose) a dunkel weizen — like a hefeweizen but darker — and right now it’s sitting in the basement, bubbling happily away.

On Saturday, after a trip across town to borrow a pot large enough to boil 3 gallons of water from Jessie (and try some of her rhubarb pie with lard crust…goodness gracious! Heavenly!), I set to work unwrapping and unpacking my new supplies around 3:00.

I understand now that I had distorted expectations of the brewing process. Honestly, I’d assumed it was a lot harder, and that it would be a lot shorter. I did a whole lot of waiting for the pot to boil, and then to inch its way up to a boil again after my instructions directed me to take it off of the burner. Then there was some stirring of the “tea” (water with steeped grains), and some boiling of the hops, and then an utter failure at trying to cool the water down as quickly as possible (read: not quickly at all).

Boil, boil, toil and trouble.

Meanwhile, I was confounded by the bag of grains. Soak them and then toss them onto the compost heap? Heck no, I wasn’t going to waste perfectly good grains just because they’d gotten a little wet!

Turns out other people feel similarly, which is why they’ve devised recipes for spent grain bread. Turns out adding breadmaking to your agenda fills up more of that time while you’re waiting for the dang pot to boil again.

Around 11, sweaty and aching from lifting the pot, I stirred in the yeast.

They say the skilled homebrewer can whip up a batch of beer in 3 hours, give or take. At eight hours, I guess I’ve got a ways to go.

We're not going to talk about how much of this lovely spent-grain loaf I ate in one afternoon.

But I was finally done. So I popped the cap onto the large plastic bucket, which, like a good little homebrewer, I’d sanitized well beforehand.

Honestly, though (warning! tangential rant ahead), this whole sanitation aspect sucks. I know cleanliness was a huge step forward for public health and all, but come on. Do you really think George Washington used chlorine sanitizer crap of death when he brewed his beer? Um, no. And do you think his beer was awesome anyway? Um, yes.

It kind of makes me wish I lived in the days when it was totally acceptable to bathe once a year, when soap was considered kind of icky.

OK, not really.

So only time will tell whether or not I can get behind an art that requires so much cleanliness.

But considering the 50 bottles worth of liquid libations that await at the end of this fermentation process, my guess is that the answer will be a resounding yes.

And Vermont friends: I think you can guess what my contribution will be to every potluck and gathering this summer.

Let the record show that all 50 of these empty bottles originally held Vermont microbrews. Yep, we're that classy.

The maddening wait

19 May

Contrary to popular belief, we don’t go into hibernation mode all winter here in Vermont. True, we do sleep a lot more, and we don’t go out as much. But we’ve still got to eat.

By the time early spring rolls around, potatoes and onions and sweet potatoes have pretty much lost their excitement (but not parsnips. Those are still delicious).

This is the culinary malaise of early spring, when the weather has shown us some warm, sunny days but the first plants haven’t yet begun yielding delicate spring edibles.

Hey, cow!

It’s a maddening time — as California moves into its second growing season of the year, over here we spend a large portion of the springtime just waiting for the ground to dry and the last chance of frost to pass. And although there’s enough sun to give me a sunburn from a half-hour long run (I simply must break out that SPF 70), there are still very few fresh vegetables.

So instead, we’re holding our breath in anticipation of abundant greens and freshly harvested asparagus, of fresh tomatoes and strawberries and blueberries.

But finally, finally, the Middlebury Farmers’ Market is outside again. Yesterday, I managed to snag some new red kale, some radishes, and a small tub of Blue Ledge Farm maple chèvre. Which, by the way, is exceptional and highly dangerous, in that there’s a good chance you’ll finish the entire tub in one sitting.

Yum.

Or maybe that’s just me.

So for those who actually do have greenhouses, spring vegetables are actually happening.

For the rest of us, well, there’s a whole lot of waiting.

Unfortunately, after our glorious week of sun and warmth, the clouds came back and the rain started up, so of course the only solution was to bake bread and brew beer through the rain. But oh, hey! All of a sudden the trees were budding.

At least something's growing...

Trees, great. But with the unusual amounts of rain, area farmers are falling behind schedule. And looking ahead, it’s not looking like it’s going to improve much:

Bleak.

Oh, well. What do weather forecasts in Vermont really mean, anyway? We saw some sun today, so…score one for unpredictable weather, I guess.

Still waiting for the day when we can plant these puppies outside.

Baby basil!

Rain, rain, gone away (knock on wood)

11 May

I don’t know where you are, but up here in Vermont spring’s been pretty darned slow in coming.

This means that the floodwaters are up on Lake Champlain — three feet past flood stage, breaking the previous record (set in 1869) by a foot. Roads are closed, homes are flooded, and Federal Emergency Management folks are hanging around the hard-hit areas of the state, evaluating the damage.

And though Middlebury hasn’t been in any immediate danger of flooding, the rain has also meant that our chosen backyard plot has been mucky and not much good for tilling, and we’ve all forgotten a little bit about the whole gardening thing.

A note to the spring season: you exist in order to to bring people out of their winter hibernation. Torrential downpours just don’t cut it.

This weekend we got some nice weather (see, for example, this photograph taken at Abbey Pond. Ominous clouds, but no rain.)

Abbey Pond

Of course, the ground was still to wet to do anything.

Today after work, though, we got a quorum of those willing and able to head out to the garden and take a whack at making those raised beds look less like wooden frames atop the grass.

Tilling began at five, though I was (as usual) late leaving work and didn’t get there till nearly six.

But the great thing about the spring? The sun was slanting across the garden on its downward trajectory, but it was still most definitely out. The air was warm enough for t-shirts, and thanks to our expedition to Agway a few weeks ago (the one that ended with granola pancakes. Yeah, that was it.) we had the shovels and hoes to put everyone to work.

Tillage

After hacking away at the damp clay earth for the better part of three hours, we ended up with two bare, grassless indentations within our wood frames. Tufts of grass poked in all around, and the ground looked naked and forlorn. Around the beds were piles of torn up grass and sod pieces.

But hey, you’ve got to make a mess to grow a garden.

The sky was darkening by the time we deemed the beds ready for the next step: a layer of gravel, then a truckload of soil and compost to fill the empty space. Those will happen over the next few weeks, before Memorial Day.

On the phone with Senator Leahy today (yeah, we’re tight), he told me the cherry blossoms have come and gone in D.C. already. Weeks ago, he said.

For us, the trees are just beginning to show the faintest little buds. Saturday was the first farmers’ market in Middlebury, but we’ve still got a little while to go before the tables start to fill up with more than early greens.

It’s springtime in Vermont, all right, but Memorial Day weekend will mark the real beginning. That weekend (or shortly thereafter) we’ll put our seedlings into the ground, if we’re lucky, watch them start to grow. After that, all our efforts will come together — the plants we’ve been coaxing to life in our separate apartments and the seed packets we’ve been collecting.

If we’re lucky, they’ll become vegetables that will feed us through the summer and into the fall and winter. Even if we’re not, we’ll still have learned plenty about gardening.

I sort of suspect that this fortune, a result of the Chinese dinner that followed our tilling party, has something to do with what we will gain through these endeavors.

So cryptic

But honestly, I can’t make heads or tails of what it means, so I’m just going to go back to nursing the blisters on my hands and call it a night.

All in the preparation

22 Apr

They say it’s spring elsewhere, but I’ve got to say, I have yet to notice it. Case in point: this morning brought gray skies, cold wind and snow flurries.

On the plus side, the chives are growing!

On the garden front, though, we’re moving ahead slowly but surely. By which I mean, last weekend we assigned people to start seedlings, snagged some already-started seedlings from the fantastic Earth Day festival on the Middlebury town green on Sunday (American Flatbread slices, Co-op chocolate chip cookies, seeds and seedlings — heck yes!) and built two 4×16 foot raised beds.

A diller, a dollar.

But first, we had some shopping to do.

It just so happened that on Saturday afternoon, Agway was having a 10 percent off sale for everything in the store. We found shovels, rakes and hoes already deeply discounted — although we debated the wisdom of buying a $5 hoe, since, from what we hear, the more expensive ones perform better.

We also discovered my new all-time favorite garden tool, the diller (at left) — though we opted not to buy one, since its gardening function is somewhat unclear.

Immature jokes aside, we decided to err on the stingy side. After all, assuming this collective venture doesn’t go the route of a commune and we instead part ways after a given amount of time (as, let’s face it, 20-somethings often do), cheaper tools will make for fewer painful custodial decisions.

And after five years in Vermont, I picked out my first pair of Carhartt work pants. I call that a victory.

Surveillance: it's never been so cheerful!

Then we popped out to the greenhouse for hot dogs, popcorn and Monument Farms chocolate milk. Because, you know, nothing makes shopping better than free food.

Armed with contented bellies, garden tools, potting soil, and a newfound appreciation for pickup trucks (see below), we headed to the lumber store.

Funny, this trunk didn't seem so small on our way to the store.

Despite our overwhelming desire to see how four 16-foot planks would fit into the small, brave Honda (and to see how many traffic accidents we could cause as a result), we took the easier route. The kindly employee at R.K. Miles agreed drop the planks over the back fence, into the immediate vicinity of our garden plot.

What a nice guy.

Just a side question: once our garden begins to yield edible things, are we now supposed to drop vegetables back over the fence to repay the folks at the lumberyard for these lumber hijinx? What, exactly, are the moral and ethical codes surrounding unorthodox delivery of garden materials?

Once all was assembled, we got to work:

The echo of the hammer reverberated through the neighborhood, reminding us a little of hunting season come early and letting all the neighbors know where to go for free vegetables come midsummer.

I kid, I kid. The neighbors wouldn’t do that. And if my own prior gardening experiences (er…just one experience, I guess) are any indication, there won’t be too many vegetables, either.

I spent some time taking the obligatory photos of my new Carhartts, which I put to work immediately. Some might say I’m vain and materialistic, but I say I’ve just got a dang good pair of new pants.

While I was navel-gazing, some people were hard at work finishing the frame.

Then we built another.

Soon, after the ground dries out, we’ll till the ground and put down compost and start planting things — first, the frost-hardy seeds, then the more delicate things in late May. They’ll include lots of tomatoes and basil, as well as anything else we can fit in around that.

But we’d already put in several solid hours of manual labor, which, let’s face it, requires a whole different skill — and muscle — set from sitting on a chair in an office all day. Yep, it was definitely time for a late brunch at Steve’s Park Diner.

Granola pancakes, a.k.a. BRILLIANT

From the beginning

12 Apr

It was a sunny April evening when six of us gathered in the kitchen of an apartment near downtown Middlebury.

We came to eat and drink, to plot and scheme, and to launch an ambitious project: a backyard garden.

Not so ambitious, you say? Well, consider the inputs. We’re a group with little collective gardening experience between us, limited funds, and six jobs that subtract time and energy from the equation. It’s a bit daunting.

What we do have is eating experience, a little piece of land to use, Googling skills (for gardening advice, of course) and some serious evening-and-weekend elbow grease. And of course, the desire to make our own food.

Technically, it’s already spring here, but here we’re deep in the midst of what locals call mud season.

There may be mud, but spring has sprung!

As nothing has yet gone into, or come up from, the still-hard ground, the potluck offerings that evening were store-bought. Still, they were quite satisfying: a beet and apple salad with cheddar cheese, parsley and hazelnuts (it was a recipe from GQ, though none of us would have guessed it), and there was a flour-dusted whole-wheat calzone with mushrooms, mozzarella, tomato sauce, and there was brown rice and black beans with sweet potatoes, kale and chipotle. And chocolate mint cookies to top it all off.

A delicious potluck meal (taken with a crappy phone camera)

Afterward, the discussion turned to dirt, seeds, raised beds, rototilling. To what plants we would raise, and who would do the research. To the moment a few months from now when, if all went well, our potluck would feature homegrown vegetables. Tomatoes! Basil! Chives! Sugar snap peas! Swiss chard! Parsnips! Pumpkins! Squash! Fennel! Broccoli! Eggplant! Mint!

That moment, still far off, was coming closer and closer.

But first, we had to do our vegetable homework, build raised beds, and buy topsoil (you can throw a pot with the clay in the soil here, but you won’t get much edible vegetation out of it). So, armed with our assignments, a Google Group for communication, and the dream of a backyard garden, we set off home to prepare.