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.
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.
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.