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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.

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.