HVT Stories
September 13, 2023


Beer fans used to chase delivery trucks around Burlington hoping to score a case drop of Heady Topper before it even had a chance to touch the shelves. Drinkers in Brooklyn would text each other when they found a Hill Farmstead tap handle. Travelers would stop in to the Prohibition Pig and marvel at the beers they could drink, all from one menu, before they continued their drive into the Mad River Valley where they hoped to find Lawson’s Finest at a legendary farmers market. 

The novelty of the hype-chasing experience may have worn off in the years that upwards of 10,000 breweries opened across the U.S., copying and pasting the most sought-after beer styles into every local brewery in the country like a McDonald’s menu. But in Vermont, one thing remains unique to the culture of beer there – its Vermontness. 

Perhaps more than any other state in the Union, Vermont producers seem to have a shared, if still somewhat varied, vision for what it means to be a cheesemaker, farmer, chef, and indeed brewer, among other things. The Vermontness of it all seems to both enable and burden a maker of things, the way tight-knit communities historically have always shared both demands and resources in exchange for “freedom and unity.”

Land Trusts create economic opportunity in places like Greensboro in exchange for preserving pristine farmland in the long-term. Institutions like Shelburne Farms host producers on market days from across the region. Generational wealth from businesses like Ben & Jerry’s, Burton Snowboards and Dealer.com spread investment and culture long after their acquisitions, often sparking start-ups in food, beverage, and hospitality as people exit one life and start another with a renewed sense of purpose and resources. Vermont is about as circular as an economy can get in the U.S. 

And while that doesn’t always make small producers rich – it certainly buoys those small, but critical artisanal ventures that define Vermont food and drink against the headwinds they might face elsewhere. 

This interdependence isn’t unique to Vermont beer – plenty of scenes have an underlying network of people and places that define it. But nowhere have I witnessed such a strong, intact, narrative thread. From Greg Noonan’s Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington came some of the industry’s most profound innovators such as John and Jen Kimmich, who became the co-founders of The Alchemist, making a worldwide phenomenon out of Heady Topper, its hazy, bitter, aromatic and bombastic IPA using the same yeast strain sourced by Noonan in the late 1980’s. Noonan deeply inspired Shaun Hill of Hill Farmstead who defined rustic pale ales and saisons in the U.S. for a generation of aspiring brewers who have often attempted to replicate his European-inspired sensory experiences and rarely succeeded. He even charged the way people talk about their beers, using the idiosyncratic language Hill brings to the craft that’s more akin to a philosophy textbook than a beer guide. 

This interdependence isn’t unique to Vermont beer – plenty of scenes have an underlying network of people and places that define it. But nowhere have I witnessed such a strong, intact, narrative thread.

Like Noonan’s pub before them, these brewers were the launching pad of some of the most successful and artful brewers of the latest generation, such as Matt Tarpey of the Veil in Richmond — a sort of hyper-styled and hype-driven riff on an artisanal brewery, and Dan Suarez of Suarez Family Brewery in the Hudson Valley – a more family-sized and minimal riff on the Farmstead experience. Both students and stewards of Vermont beer in their own way. 

A parallel track of brewers came up through Vermont’s well-traveled brands in Magic Hat, lead by entrepreneur Alan Newman, and Switchback founded by Bill Cherry and Jeff Neiblum – both of which combined a love of beer with an entrepreneurialism that pervades Vermont. The state continues to attract talent with financial incentives and a business environment that turns one successful business venture into another. That also means salaries for employees that enable them to support the food and drink producers in the state, where cheeses, wines, ciders, beer and more can fetch a premium other cities and states marvel at. 

Vermont is a brand that travels too. So much so that it’s become protected verbiage, not unlike Champagne or Parmesan, in the American market. In beer, that means brewers as far afield as California and London referring to their hazies as “Vermont IPA” the way previous generations refer to Belgian Saison or German Lager when they want to signal a tradition or technique they’re attempting to emulate and capitalize on. 

As much as Vermont beer has captured the spotlight for the last decade or more, the diversity of alcoholic beverages both pre-dates the state’s craft beer renaissance, and also stands atop its shoulders as it tries to connect with contemporary drinkers through wine and cider. 

Even further north than Hill Farmstead, up near the Quebec border, Eden Ciders makes some of the most exquisite orchard-based cider in the country. Eleanor Leger, a former software executive, has been making natural iced cider in the freezing temperatures of Northern Vermont – a process threatened by climate change as the winters warm – using the naturally occurring temperatures of the region to freeze and distill her fresh pressed apples into a bright, sweet-tart aperitif of sorts that’s as perfect after dinner as it is in the morning around a campfire. 

There’s no anxiety or sleepless nights wondering how you’re going to meet anyone else’s expectations other than your own. 

Eleanor’s still and sparkling ciders border on low-intervention or natural wines, and are drank throughout restaurants in the region in much the same way. This year she completed a merger with Shelburne Vineyard and their Iapetus wine portfolio, combining sales and tasting rooms for the modern drinker who increasingly explores across categories seeking new flavor and fermentation experiences. 

South of Burlington in Barnard, Fable Farm Fermentory makes ciders sought out by wine drinkers across the country – usually found in independent natty wine shops like Diversey Wine in Chicago. Their unique profile – funky, slightly acidic, hazy, and aromatic – is a draw for folks looking for something unabashedly farm-based. 

So much of what Vermont has to offer in terms of beer, wine, and cider comes together in various restaurants and bars in and around Burlington – who likewise serve seasonal vegetables and farm-raised proteins in a way that almost seems to take the farm-to-table movement for granted for travelers more used to seeing it celebrated as some recent innovation on urban restaurant menus elsewhere. Here it’s just a community-based supply chain where the places and people are known, and just as often at the table. 

What constitutes Vermontness in beer, wine, and cider can be hard to discern for an outsider – and I am one. But my upbringing in small towns in Pennsylvania and New York prepared me to recognize what might have been lost in those areas, and perhaps is renewing, but was, against all odds, preserved in Vermont. 

Ten years ago I pondered this same idea after visiting countless breweries in the state. And the thoughts ring true still today:

In Vermont, it seems the work you do, and the quality of the execution matters more than the scale you can produce it at, or how many people it can reach. You and the world don’t owe each other anything of particular importance. There’s no anxiety or sleepless nights wondering how you’re going to meet anyone else’s expectations other than your own. And in the end, trusting someone else to do the job right isn’t nearly as critical as trusting yourself to do it at all. 

American craft went through an important shift where artisans who have prioritized the brewing lifestyle, like so many in Vermont have, are working in the same space as those who have chosen the brewing business. There is plenty of room for both of them. But Americans are generally uneasy about a lack of ambition when it comes to business — anything worth making is worth making a million times over, so it goes. The curious upstarts that came to define Vermont’s scene didn’t seem to set out to own breweries as much as they’re attempting to carve out a role in their communities where they’re simply allowed to make beer for a living. Perhaps enabled by the larger economic success of the state, and partly by the closed system it protects to create a floor for its smallest operators. It’s a delicate ecosystem.