The guy I’m talking to has possibly the best job ever: Beer concierge is Matt Canning’s enviable title at the Hotel Vermont in Burlington. Today, I notice, he has got his baseball cap pulled down low and he’s nursing a coffee – maybe the result of some arduous research the night before. It’s a workplace hazard when your workplace is an impressive network of local breweries, restaurants and pubs nestled around Lake Champlain and the snow-dusted hillsides for kilometres in every direction.
The lobby behind us is a veritable collage of Vermontlandia. Staff in a casual uniform of plaid shirts and chinos are stoking the wood-burning fireplace. Next to the reception desk, there’s a rack of snowshoes that guests can borrow. In my rustic-lite room, the soap, glassware, felt fabrics and even the glazed mugs are all made in-state – and there’s a recycling bin for grounds at the floor’s communal coffee station. Opened in 2013, the property is the modern face of the Green Mountain State. They’ve been flannel-forward around here for a long time – well before the bearded-men-making-pickles trend of the last decade – but these days the local brand of lumberjack cool is looking a lot slicker. I mean, I’ve had my share of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, Cabot cheddar cheese and maple syrup over the years (and even, briefly, a Phish fan for a roommate); this place is clearly set on bringing a new consciousness to that crunchy-chic sensibility.
My friends and I are around for a couple of days, beginning in town and then heading out to the countryside for some cross-country skiing, with some food and drink along the way. “People are starting to refer to Burlington as a city instead of just a sleepy college town. The local food movement, the craft-beer boom and the evolution of the dining scene have brought a real metropolitan feel,” Canning tells me as I sip a case-in-point Fat Wash cocktail of local honey, egg white and Green Mountain Organic Sunshine Vodka infused with chamomile and clarified butter from a local creamery. Returning home to be front-desk manager after a decade in West Coast hospitality, he says he found that the scene had exploded. Part of his job these days is helping visitors track down a taste of Heady Topper from the Alchemist, one of the newer-wave cult breweries that fermented and cemented Vermont’s growing reputation as a craft-beer destination. A trippy, unfiltered double IPA, it’s full in body, mental on the hops and a not insignificant eight-percent alcohol by volume. There are only so many cans on the market and freshness is key – locals know the delivery days in the region. I love the stuff, but I can drink about one before hitting the floor. On this trip, I’m looking for flavour without fatigue, as I explain to Canning, because I like my beers plural.
We kick off our avant-ski adventures steps from the hotel. Hen of the Wood doesn’t need to bandy about the word “artisanal” – like a city that doesn’t have to market itself as “cosmopolitan” or “world-class,” it just is. While its first location, set in an 1806 grist mill in Waterbury, is more of a special-occasion restaurant, the newer Burlington counterpart is more accessible and urban (cue the New York design firm). Coming in from the chill, I find a dark room brimming with people under a massive ceiling of angled rafters, and a heated piece of slate atop the napkin at my place setting to wrap my fingers around: They do winter really well here. Our seats, in front of a fervent oyster shucker, give us a great view of the giant pioneer kitchen with blazing farmhouse hearth and garnishes ready to be spooned from ceramic mugs. The signature dish puts those namesake earthy mushrooms on toast with a poached egg and salty crisped bacon that was bred, born and brined to be paired with a glass of appley-crisp Unified Press from Citizen Cider. If I lived here, I’d have to eat like this every day.
It’s not just craft beer but hard stuff that’s hitting its stride, I learn the next afternoon (and it is after noon) when I meet Chris Howell from Vermont Farm Tours for a Cocktail Walk through Burlington’s historic downtown. Tall and blue-eyed, Howell has an almost Wikipedic knowledge of everything from the cheese-aging protocol at the Cellars at Jasper Hill to the best spots for juniper-picking. And as he casually unzips his fleece pullover to reveal a Winooski T-shirt, he strikes me as a local superhero. The guided stroll is a perfect mix of exercise and liquid gratification, showcasing local bounty in the off-season: premium spirits made from sap, honey, corn and even whey. (The motto seems to be: If you can eat it, you can distill it.) As we play follow-the-leader through Burlington’s back streets, filigreed Victorian mansions, the Church Street promenade and frosted Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks come into view around different corners. We pop into the well-groomed Bluebird Tavern, then catch the last of the sun through the leaded panes at Church & Main as bartenders work their skills. “Maple really is the gateway bitter,” someone slurs at the end of the outing, and I nod enthusiastically.
The next day, before heading for the hills, we cross the river for a bite and a brewski in neighbouring Winooski. It would be hard to squish more cuteness onto the short main street, flanked by red-brick warehouses above the rushing rapids that used to power the wool mills. (Paging John Irving: You might want to set a novel here.) The town’s reputation for quirkiness was cemented in the late 1970s when a plan emerged to cover it in a dome (determination to cut heating costs has inspired lesser madnesses). At Mule Bar – opened last year, it’s the warm and friendly watering hole every small town should have – a regular leans in to let me know that not long ago, there were For Rent signs everywhere. “For a long time, Winooski was the bastard stepchild of Burlington,” he muses. With lower rents attracting creative young entrepreneurs, now it’s more like Burlington’s Williamsburg. Nearby at Misery Loves Co., all wainscotting, whitewashing and historical maps, co-owner Laura Wade is doing the rounds with her toddler in her arms. She and her partner set up here, she says, because they wanted to be off the beaten path. I order a sandwich of plump and flaky fried chicken, blue cheese, celery and a daring dash of hot sauce that works the pleasure-pain receptors. The distinctive sweet and creamy Bayley Hazen Blue is a formidable weapon in a statewide conspiracy to stop anyone from finishing the sentence “I don’t really like blue cheese.” Which is good because, for all the kumbaya and kombucha around here, I wouldn’t risk insulting cheese in Vermont.
Setting out along Route 100 on a squinty white winter day, our first stop is Lost Nation Brewing. Situated in an industrial park in tiny Morrisville, it’s set right alongside the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail, old train tracks that are being converted into a four-season rec path (skis and snowmobiles in winter, bikes in summer), part of the rails-to-trails movement. Co-owner Allen Van Anda, a lanky guy in a plaid shirt, has my number. “We like to drink beer, and we all have families and we live in a rural area,” he says, explaining that the focus here is on low-alcohol beers – the kinds of brews perfected by generations of people accustomed to “skiing and drinking beer all day long.” He pulls a sample of a sunny Belgian-inspired Petit Ardennes, bright, flavourful and relatively stagger-free – almost an athletic-minded beverage.
I’m going “artisanal” on the recreation front, too. Cross-country may have been rebranded as Nordic skiing here, but unlike Scandinavia’s furniture and more recently its cuisine, it hasn’t reached peak cool. While the crowds at Stowe Mountain Resort head up Mount Mansfield on the quad, we take off down the road toward a chalet that must be pretty much unchanged since it was designed, I imagine, by a brigade of adorable gnomes in the 1970s: panelled in knotty pine, with a wood stove, a battered edge sharpener and bountiful bottles of Advil that I’m unashamedly happy to see. “We’re a bit overlooked here,” says the Cross-Country Ski Center’s ultra-fit director, Scott Dorwart, who greets us in shades and a compendium of black snow-sport brands. Overlooked maybe, but not forgotten: This is the snow-makingest state in the U.S., and these 45 kilometres of trails are impeccably groomed. That’s helpful to the two Quebecers I’m with – amazingly, it’s only their second time on skis, and although they start off a little wobbly, pretty soon we’re all gliding along the intermediate-level Burt Trail. Gathering confidence and speed, we round the hillsides in style. Sunlight flashes between the trees. Something cute rustles in the bush. Mostly there’s just the sound of our inhaling and exhaling the crisp air. We veer left on Cross Cut #1 (“It’s a bit of a screamer,” Dorwart warns) and come to a falling stop in a cartoony three-person pileup in front of a little bridge with a sign for the Trapp Family Lodge.
Downhill is a thrill, but it’s what you don’t see that makes cross-country so special: no bulky infrastructure, no lines, no hurry-up-and-wait. And best of all, it can actually get you places. With no fences between properties – these routes connect to the Catamount Trail, which now bisects the whole state – we can ski over to the Trapp Lager Brewery. Expanding from 2,000 to 50,000 barrels under the direction of JP Williams, another hearty, clear-eyed guy who tells me how much he loves coming to work in his ski pants (come warm weather, it’s all about the Frisbee golf), they’re banking on Austrian and German lagers being the next big thing. What Williams calls “good, cheap mountain beer” is serious stuff, as he explains: Lagers are aged 40 days, versus 12 for ales, and can’t mask imperfections with a lot of hops, fruit and spices. We stare into the valley while tasting the Dunkel, a dark lager that’s lighter than it looks. Munich malts bring toasty and roasty notes, and some chocolate fullness, but it’s not a bloater. In fact, I’m ready to hit the trails again. Vermont may not have pioneered the avant- or après-ski scene, but it may have just invented “entre-ski”.
01 Nestled at the base of Mount Mansfield, Stowe Mountain Lodge has family-friendly accommodations, a heated outdoor pool, and access to kilometres of cross-country trails… plus downhill amenities. (stowemountainlodge.com)
02 Raise your spirits with a Cocktail Walk led by sustainable-agriculture advocate Chris Howell of Vermont Farm Tours, full of insider culinary tips. (vermontfarmtours.com)
03 Among New England’s top restaurants, Hen of the Wood (in Burlington and in Waterbury) showcases high-quality, deep-rooted fare like nettle crepes with king trumpet mushrooms, homemade ricotta and butternut squash. (henofthewood.com)
04 A Winooski Sour at the quaint Misery Loves Co. blends rye, Bénédictine and lemon with a soothing egg-white consistency.(miserylovescovt.com)
05 Opened by California transplants, Plate is raising Stowe out of resort syndrome. The veggie burger is a trompe-l’oeil tartare, full of red beets, lentils, rice and wheatberries, on homemade challah buns. (platestowe.com)
06 No trip is complete without a taste of the Alchemist’s Heady Topper. Get it on tap at Waterbury’s Prohibition Pig, with a side of pimento cheese croquettes. (prohibitionpig.com)
At Burlington’s eco-chic Hotel Vermont, start your morning with yoga, followed by breakfast of egg-topped red-flannel hash (pictured) and a stop at the DIY Bloody Mary station (open season on pickles and pours).