Words by Matt Canning, Photos by Dylan Griffin
I’m sure you’ve heard: Vermont has the most breweries per capita and boasts a long list of “Top Beers in the World,” including some of the most elusive and awe-inspiring “whales” like Heady Topper. But superlatives do not tell the whole story. Vermont has a long-standing beer culture built on a foundation of small craft breweries and a fundamental support of independent local business. When Greg Noonan opened The Vermont Pub and Brewery in 1988, it was only the second brewpub in the country. His book, Brewing Lager Beer, is a bible for many brewers, and his understudies, like John Kimmich of the Alchemist, are some of the most influential brewers in the country.
A new wave of Vermont beer is following a culinary tradition in the state by incorporating local ingredients, most notably malted barley. Malting barley is the process of germinating and drying the grain in a large kiln. Malted barley is the backbone of beer, the source of its color and flavor and of the fermentable sugar that turns to alcohol. The recently opened malt house at Nordic Farms in Charlotte, VT, is a partnership between Peterson Quality Malts and Hotel Vermont. Peterson Quality Malt focuses on providing Vermont’s breweries with fresh local grain to create a truly local product that ties into the state’s agricultural history. There has truly never been a better time to drink local beer in Vermont.
When visiting Vermont, it is hard to avoid local beer. Green Mountain brews dominate beer lists at local restaurants. Yet, Vermont’s best and most sought-after breweries are defined by small artisanal production with limited distribution. So, to experience these world-class beers, you must travel to and around Vermont—in some cases braving dirt road in far-flung corners of the state. Believe us, it’s worth the trip, and when you do make it, seek out the following 14 crucial Vermont beers.
1. The Alchemist, Heady Topper—American Double IPA
Heady Topper is the most iconic craft beer of this generation. Not because it has been named the best beer in the world (it has) but because it established the most popular style of craft beer in the most popular form of packaging. Heady was the original New England-style IPA, meaning hazy and unfiltered, high in ABV, and bursting with tropical fruit flavors with very low bitterness. The trend of packaging IPA in four-packs of 16-ounce cans, Heady started that too. Every corner of the craft beer world has a version of the New England IPA, and that all started here in Vermont.
2. Foam Brewers, Built to Spill—American Double IPA
Since opening in May 2016, Foam has sourced all of their base malt from Peterson Quality Malts to make some of the most sought-after New England-style IPA in the country. Their location on Burlington’s waterfront, with views of the Adirondack mountain range and breathtaking sunsets, is reason enough to visit, but their juicy IPAs will keep you coming back. Built to Spill is bursting with flavors of mango pineapple and orange creamsicle.
3. Zero Gravity Craft Brewery, Green State Lager—German-Style Pilsner
Not every beer requires contemplative assessments of hop aromas and yeasty undertones. Some are meant to be slugged down regardless of the time, temperature, or circumstance. Green State Lager is that beer. Considered Vermont’s lager, you can find this German-style pilsner everywhere, fulfilling the role, and then some, of the largescale macro lagers. Never change, Green State. We love you.
4. Hill Farmstead, Edward—American Pale Ale
Hill Farmstead, the small brewery that resides on Shaun Hill’s family’s land in the Northeast Kingdom, has won “Best Brewery in the World” six years running and seven of the past eight years, according to the Rate Beer Awards. The draw to Hill Farmstead is not one particular beer or the beauty of the landscape, but the breadth of beers they produce across a spectrum of styles. From top-rated New England-Style IPA, to lagers, barrel-aged stouts, and farmhouse ales. However, we consider Edward THE American Pale Ale and an absolute benchmark of the style. Hovering around 5% ABV, this beer has everything: tropical juiciness, slight bitterness, dry finish, perfect mouthfeel, and snappy carbonation. We love Edward so much at Hotel Vermont that it has its own specific serving glass.
5. Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Maple Tripple—Maple Strong Ale
This special “once-a-year beer” is brewed void of water. Instead, maple sap is used in its place. The Maple Tripple is boozy (12% ABV) with bold toffee notes, distinct maple undertones, and a slight balancing bitterness. Your yearly opportunity to purchase this beer is at the Lawson’s Finest Liquids Anniversary Celebration every April in Waitsfield, VT.
6. Backacre Beer Maker, Sour Golden Ale—Blended American Wild Ale
Perhaps no beer better represents the maturity of Vermont’s beer culture than this little-known, impossible-to-find wild ale. Backacre is a blendery, meaning they do not own a brew kettle. Instead, they buy finished wort (the sugary base liquid of beer) and allow it to inoculate with wild yeast and age in barrels. Once a year, they blend batches of one-, two-, and three-year barrels to create the American-style Gueze. It is bright, tart, and floral with distinctive notes of green apple. Hint, you must go to Hen of the Wood Burlington to find this beer north of Montpelier.
7. Switchback Brewing, Switchback Ale—Hoppy Amber Ale
Switchback has been brewing the same flagship ale in German-built copper brew kettles since 2002, which qualifies as eons in the craft beer world. They are an anchor of Burlington’s South End stretch of breweries. Don’t be fooled by this never-changing titan; it is a crucial Vermont beer.
8. Lost Nation, Gose—German-Style Wheat Ale with Sea Salt and Coriander
A unique style of beer that integrates sea salt and coriander as a counterbalance to the tart acidity from kettle souring. The salt encourages sip after sip, and so do we—Gose is as refreshing as it gets. Some people (*cough*) tend to sub Gose for water after a long bike ride.
9. Foley Brothers, Maple Brown—American Brown Ale
Foley Brothers are one of the original supporters of Peterson Quality Malts, using local grain when possible. Brown ales do not make headlines. The old-world style can taste simple compared to the flavor-packed IPAs, stouts, and wild ales. Foley Brothers produces this bold version of the style with the addition of Vermont maple syrup. It is undoubtedly the perfect pairing with a sharp, fatty piece of Cabot Clothbound Cheddar from the Jasper Hill Cellars.
10. River Roost Brewery, Mas Verde—American Double IPA
River Roost is a small brewery in the southern part of Vermont that specializes in, you guessed it, New England-style IPAs. These small-batch juice bombs are so deliciously soft and round they are worth seeking out. We will let you in on a secret: Juniper at Hotel Vermont is the only establishment in the northern part of the state to offer River Roost on draft.
11. Hired Hand Brewing Co., Cedar Post Bitter—English-Style Bitter
American craft beer is not synonymous with old-world beer. Often, the building blocks of traditional styles are lost in the search for new and exciting flavors. Hired Hand Brewing Co. have not forgotten those building blocks. Cedar Post Bitter highlights Peterson Quality Malts for a smooth and malty ale best enjoyed in a 16-ounce pour. All Hired Hand Brewing Co. beer is brewed with Peterson Quality Malt and local hops.
12. Fiddlehead, Mastermind—American Double IPA
Mastermind is a mosaic of southern-hemisphere hops that throw off a candied fruit sweetness (as opposed to the fresh juice flavors of IPAs produced with hops from the Pacific Northwest). An incredibly drinkable 8.5% beer that comes in 12-ounce cans, and occasionally on draft, at Hotel Vermont. As if you need any more of a reason to drink Mastermind, 25% of the sales go directly to the Children’s Hospital at The University of Vermont.
13. The Alchemist, Beelzebub—American Imperial Stout
The Alchemist has more than one trick. Prior to opening their two production breweries in 2011 and 2017, The Alchemist operated a brewpub in downtown Waterbury producing 18 draft offerings in a range of style. This American Imperial Stout features aggressive bitterness from the hops that beautifully balances the chocolate and roasted malts and dries out this jet-black beer. This is as complex and food friendly as there is in an 8.5% stout.
14. Hill Farmstead, Marie—Munich-Style Helles Lager
Truth is, we could produce a list of 14 Crucial Vermont Beers composed only of the Hill Farmstead Brewery lineup. It’s that good. Marie is all about balance and nuance, a perfect backbone of German malt with light bitterness. Composed with well water from the farm in Greensboro, there’s no need to cross the pond for this spot-on version of a Bavarian classic.
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