Morning came. Without much discussion, we piled into a cab and drove to Church St. in Burlington at 9:30 AM. We walked through the farmers market only to find items that made me say, “of course they have that in Vermont.” For those not from New England or that have no connection to the Green Mountain state, Vermont is… unique. It is a serious locavore culture that cares about supporting Vermont businesses, farms, artists, and artisans. The people are very concerned with the local economy and how their lives impact the environment around them, and Vermonters especially care about what they put into their bodies. Their attention to local ingredients and health trends make the beer and food scene in Vermont one of the most creative, sustainable, and impressive in the country. We had locally raised goat sausage served on a rustic roll (with house made sauerkraut and mustard, of course) for breakfast and washed it down with a home brewed root beer. We sampled pickled fiddleheads and local honey. We took shots of a prebiotic herbal drink called “Fire Cider” while I watched a bearded man lock eyes with a beautiful hippie lady and wax poetic about “gut bacteria”
Of course that happened in Vermont.
We took the short walk from the farmers market to the shores of Lake Champlain to the 2014 Vermont Brewers Festival. For beer fans, this place was as good as it gets. I recognize that there are great breweries all across this country that are making amazing and creative brews every day (ie. Russian River and Three Floyds). However, as a New Englander I am biased. I don’t think there are many places around the world who are making better beer than we are in New England.
There were people from all over the country and a handful from other nations. They were men and women, hipsters and punks, hippies and metal heads, writers and cooks, teachers and bankers, doctors and lawyers. We were all there for one reason; beer.
The lists of brewers was too long to re-hash here in one post. We tried saisons, goses, gruits, kolsches, pale ales, and more IPA variations that I can count. The heavy hitters of the group were the Alchemist (Waterbury, VT), Lawson’s Finest Liquids (Warren, VT) and Hill Farmstead (Greensboro, VT). These three breweries are the epitome of what makes Vermont brewing a world-class operation. Each brewery was sampling the best of the best and the whole festival wanted a taste.
From the Alchemist was “The Crusher.” A hop-head’s wet dream, this American Double IPA is similar to their Heady Topper, but hoppier. Unlike most brewer’s attempts to create the hoppiest beer out there, the Alchemist created a perfect equilibrium of bittering hops, dry hops, and a malty backbone strong enough to balance out this phenomenal brew. I would recommend running out and trying some, but the odd’s are, you may never see this beer again.
Hill Farmstead was putting out their signature, Edward Pale Ale (named for brewer Shaun Hill’s grandfather) as well as a unique saison called “Arthur.” (named for Hill’s great uncle). This saison has a unique blend of European and American hops, their farmhouse yeast and water straight from the well on the farm in Greensboro. (The same well that Shaun Hill’s grandfather dug by hand.) Not only is this brew full of complex flavors and notes, it is full of a history of the land and the family that inspires Shaun to keep brewing world class beer every year. In fact, he was named the best brewer in the world by ratebeer.com.
Lawson’s Finest Liquids had my favorite beer at the festival, a Spruce Tip IPA. It was a collaboration with Lawson’s and Vermont Brew Pub (Burlington, VT). (The reason for the collaboration? Volume.) Lawson brews these world-class beers essentially from a garage on the left flank of Lincoln Mountain and pure production volume is always limited. This isn’t some supply and demand marketing ploy from Lawson, it is an attempt to keep making the best beer he can in small batches to ensure perfection in every bottle. The Spruce Tip IPA was the perfect beer for that moment. It had great citrusy floral and piney notes to the nose and a balanced bitter hoppiness with the distinct flavor of spruce. It tasted of the Vermont air I smelled on my drive. It was Vermont in a glass.
These brewers and these beers were like nothing I had seen before. Their goal wasn’t to up their production to increase cash flow. Their goal wasn’t worldwide brand or name recognition (although they found that too). Their goal, as artists (and thats what they are) was to make the greatest and most honest Vermont beers possible. They want to remain true to the authenticity of the ingredients (many of which grew from Vermont dirt) and the character of their brewery. Hill Farmstead operates on a family farm and only names its beers after family members or works of philosophy that have personal meaning to Shaun. The Alchemist has given great focus to not make hundreds of styles of beer to keep up with the changing trends and palates of the beer world. They spend their time on mastery and focusing on creating the best beer on earth. Beer is anything but just beer in Vermont. Beer is an artform, an homage to the landscape, the tradition and heritage of the provincial attitudes of Vermonters. You can try some great beer around the world, but something about what is happening in Vermont is unlike anything you will find.
Nick, Jen, Kevin and I left the Brewers Festival with a steady buzz and some serious sunburns. We walked up Church Street in Burlington and I heard someone shouting “That can’t be Conor! Can it?” I looked to the street and two of my closest friends piled out of their grey Subaru Outback. Enter Meredith and Jeremy.
I had worked with Meredith when I was teaching in Connecticut and became very close friends with her and her husband Jeremy over the years. They have been married for a handful of years now and have the most amazing ginger daughter on the planet, Tessa. Whether they knew it or not, Jeremy and Meredith have been mentors and role models for me. For as long as I have known them, I have turned to them for relationship, career and life advice.
Later that night, I sat with Nick, Jen, Kevin, Jeremy, and Meredith at a picnic table on the patio of a small pub in Burlington. I looked around the table and saw my family, old friends and new friends. With drinks in hand, we all talked. Talked about our lives, careers, relationships, and hopes. We were, for all intents and purposes, strangers from one another, but at that moment there was true connection and cohesion. I drove 293 miles from my apartment only to feel at home at a picnic table at a bar in Burlington.
Sunday. The Brewers Festival had ended and the haze of one too many was still in my head. I packed my bag and cooler once again. This time with Lawson’s, Fiddlehead and Heady Topper. I started on I-89 South and looked at the deep green woods of Vermont in my rearview and was reminded of Frost. “Her woods are lovely dark and deep. But I have promises to keep and miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.”
Come back tomorrow for Part 3: Closer to fine.