I grew into beer in Vermont, drinking New England beers. One of my first real beer loves was Catamount Ale, which used to be brewed in White River Junction but is now defunct. Long Trail was emerging on the scene about the time I was leaving Vermont, and it was a good brew we really enjoyed, but it wasn’t Catamount. McNeill’s brewery was also starting production about the time we left. McNeill’s, formerly Three Dollar Dewey’s, was the bar that really turned my beer world around (and Ray originally brewed with Catamount before he began brewing his own) and opened my eyes to the big wonderful world of malt and hops. So I’ve always had a soft spot for New England brewers.
Fact is, though, they didn’t really hold up once I moved away and my beer horizons expanded. For instance, most of the beers I loved in Vermont really didn’t hold up once I started tasting those amazing west coast ales. I moved away in 1990 as the beer world was quickly expanding, and my awareness was also expanding (thanks in large part to the Saturday Night beer club at Cafe Brenda in Minneapolis where I worked for many years–the perfect way to relax after long busy nights at the restaurant). My love of Vermont beers became more nostalgic than anything (although nostalgia plays an important part in the beers we love). After I moved away, I did get back to Vermont pretty regularly through the 90s and it was always a pleasure, say, to revisit McNeill’s brewery or have a Long Trail but on the whole the New England beer scene seemed to be losing ground. Then I barely visited during the ’00s.
So it was interesting to be back in Vermont recently to both see what was happening in the scene in general, and to revisit some of my old favorite beers. I sensed a world divided. As I mentioned, Catamount is no more. Long Trail seems to be fluorishing, but the beers are pretty uninspired. Otter Creek, which was also emerging about the time I left, falls into the same camp–decent but uninspired beers. In fact, during my first week in Vermont, that was my sense of New England beer in general: Long Trail, Otter Creek, Smuttynose, Harpoon were all fairly disappointing. I went to the Vermont Pub in Burlington which opened about the time I left as well–it wasn’t great at that point but I thought I’d see where it had gone, and it had gone from mediocre to worse. I really thought the beer here was pretty bad and the ambience even worse. Flat Street Brewery in Brattleboro was really pretty bad. My visit to McNeill’s (which I blogged about earlier) was good, some of his beers were quite wonderful, some less so, but that quirky Brattleboro charm had kind of run off the place at least on that Friday night. I found a few newer local brewers, Rock Art, Trout River, Lake Placid, Shipyardbut the first beers I had from any of these places were mediocre as well.
After a fairly disappointing first week, though, things did get much better the second week. First, I spent a day in Montpelier and had some beers and lunch at the Threepenny Taproom. This place is a real find, and I really wish it had been there when I was at Vermont College (how life would have been different to hang out here instead of Julio’s or Charlie-O’s). A great draft list and an even better list and a small but creative daily menu. The staff knew their shit and were really pleasant. I had previously had a few Allagash beers from Maine, and they’d generally left me lukewarm, but I sampled their barrel-aged Curieux–holy crap that was good! This is also where I discovered Hill Farmstead, a small but really creative brewery doing some amazing work. I sampled two fabulous IPA’s. After Threepenny, I also found some of the better beers in some of the local portfolios. For instance, I found some very good Rock Art beers: Rock Art brews: their Vermonster is a really nice malty barleywine and their Belvidere and their ESB2 are both excellent imperials; Lake Placid’s Ubu is a solid English Strong Ale; Long Trail’s Double Bag is a much stronger IPA than their regular IPA. My last find in Vermont was Burlington’s Flat Bread/Zero Gravity brewery. I had lunch there my last day in Vermont and was really happy to end that way, a really good IPA, an even better Imperial, and a good belgian tripel.
My sense, then, is that in general New England breweries are a little behind other areas of the country, but there are some exciting things going on. It’s a little harder to find the gems here than other areas of the country, but they’re out there, and I’m looking forward to seeing what creative brewers like Hill Farmstead will end up doing. I think I need to go back, this time with MB in the summer so we can do some hiking, visit the old swimming holes, and do some serious beer research.