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What Makes a Great Vermont Beer?

By TJ Driscoll
Edited by Kevin Wise

People from all around the world come to Vermont to try beer that you can only get in the green mountain state. Why travel so far just for Vermont beer? What makes it so special? I set out to try a bunch of local Vermont brews to find out what makes a really good beer (in the name of science, of course).

Along the way, I asked people from all over — including bars, breweries and brewpubs — what it is that makes Vermont beer so coveted. The general answer? The sense of community and appreciation for everything local — locally sourced ingredients, community involvement and just a warm feeling that everyone is one big family. For local brewers, this mentality shines through in the very beer that people come from miles away for.

Among the vast amount of breweries there are in Vermont, I stopped at seven, including a cidery. In addition to the five listed below- and mentioned in this post- I also visited Magic Hat Brewing Company and Burlington Beer Company:

 

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Zero Gravity Craft Beer.

 

At each place I stopped, I experienced that beer and community feeling everyone kept telling me about. I even met up with Dave West, a friend of The Buffalo Beer Biochemist, Kevin Wise, who was incredibly accommodating and gave us some great recommendations on places to eat and especially what to drink. Even though most places were busy (shocker), I got a chance to talk with a few amazing people about what makes Vermont beer so great. Everyone I spoke with was incredibly inviting and willing to enlighten me on the wonders that the Vermont brewing community has to offer.

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In your opinion, what makes Vermont beer so special?

Jordan: Citizen Cider

I think it’s a roots movement that’s happened slowly over the course of many years — the early 90’s trying things and its just kind of grown from there. I think Burlington especially in Vermont, is really community driven. So that whole idea of this under culture of beer brewing, has kinda brought people from all walks of life together.

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A flight of ciders at Citizen Cider.

 

Jordan goes on to say that the scene has been able to grow because the breweries help each other and want to strengthen the “Vermont brand name.” It seems that the creativity of the beer comes from all over. He said that Greg Noonan of Vermont Pub and Brewery helped to grow the scene dramatically and actually invented the Black IPA. The owner was going through a bad divorce with his wife and “wanted to brew a beer that was as dark and bitter as his wife.” It eventually led to popularity and growth of that style.

Sean: Switchback Brewing Company

Everybody is doing their own thing in Vermont, no one is following the status quo. It’s a lot about the creativity, the art of making the beer. I think that’s kind of the trend that’s all over the state of Vermont. Because there is all of that creativity and everyone is doing their own thing, you’re left with kind of a melting pot of all these different great breweries in Vermont.

 

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A list of what’s on tap at Switchback Brewing Company.

 

Sean really put an emphasis on the fact that it really is a community, especially in Burlington where you have so many different breweries in close proximity. You can come up and make it a day- or week-long trip, and visit so many different breweries without having to drive all over the place. “What makes a Vermont beer specifically, I think is just the art form of you know, doing your own craft beer, not worrying about what everybody else is doing, and putting your own little twist on it. It’s very much about the art and the craft of making beer.”

Addie: Fiddlehead Brewing

Well I think that what makes Vermont so special in particular, is this whole like artisanal scene that surrounds everything. Cheese, meat, vegetables, and beer too. There’s something to be said about this sort of small community. The whole farm to table movement was a huge thing, and I think that sort of started to translate over into beer. Part of what makes it so special is the localization of it. The fact that at Fiddlehead, you have to come in here in order to drink our beer.

There is a huge emphasis on the local craft of everything, and that everyone is part of one big community helping each other out and providing what they can for the scene. Addie says that “there’s a lot of emphasis and focus on the love of buy local, eat local, drink local.”

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What specific traits does a Vermont beer have?

Jordan: Citizen Cider

We talked about how there are a lot of hop-forward beers brewed in Vermont and that is what everyone looks for nowadays. “That’s how it’s kind of moved over the years. I think it’s slowly going to revert back to pale ales and traditional styles. I don’t think that attributing hops to the scene in Vermont is fair, I just think that is has kind of gone with the demand.”

Being in the cider scene, Jordan says that they talk about more of the sugar content and worry about how that will affect flavor, whereas other breweries tend to focus on really heavy hop additions and get in your face with hop aroma and flavor.

Sean: Switchback Brewing Company

“In the entire craft beer industry we have a hop craze, I think it’s no different in Vermont. I think IPAs are really big right now, so bitter is the flavor and theme.” Sean talked about how Switchback likes to stick to their recipes and not go crazy with overly hoppy or bitter beers. Regarding the overall flavor of beers, he says they typically tend to lean towards more of the fruity, floral aromas and flavors rather than the overly bitter hoppy aspects.

Addie: Fiddlehead Brewing

Addie and I talked about how people tend to gravitate towards the crazy hoppy IPAs. She talked about how hops are such a delicate crop. “Hops are amazing, there’s such a wide spectrum of flavors within the family of hops. There’s a lot you can do, there’s a lot you can play with — and because it is so flavorful, and you can do so much with it, I think that just hooks people.”

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TJ Driscoll conducts sensory evaluation at Zero Gravity.

 

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Why do most breweries choose to only distribute their beer locally?

Jordan: Citizen Cider

“It’s hard to make enough to convince a distributor to carry you. That it’s going to be profitable and to know that people outside of this market are going to go for it.” I got this a lot from people around the area, and it sort of stemmed from the fact that it is a tight-knit community and people like things that are locally produced. It also has a lot to do with the amount of breweries around and competing with each other as well.

Addie: Fiddlehead Brewing

“Right now it’s a capacity thing. About 95% of our capacity is dedicated to Fiddlehead IPA. I think part of a big push to distribute all over, you kind of sacrifice some of the consistency in the product.” Part of the culture of the scene is ensuring that you have a consistent, quality product to keep your customers happy. I learned that a lot of the breweries that are big names in Vermont really focus on making sure they have a consistent product all the time and that is what keeps people coming back for the beer.

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What is your favorite Vermont beer?

Jordan: Citizen Cider

“That’s tough. I think that every place has a great beer that they’re coming forward with. I’m still constantly surprised. I have been really liking what Hermit Thrush is doing. I’m a huge sour guy, and they’re putting out really unique funky sours.”

Sean: Switchback Brewing Company

“Besides Switchback? Favorite Switchback beer is definitely Dooley’s Belated Porter. It’s got really nice chocolatey notes with it. We only use one hop with it, Simcoe, for both bittering and aroma. But you get a lot of those really nice chocolatey notes towards the end specifically because we use a chocolate roasted malt. It’s just very very satisfying in almost a dessert kind of way. My favorite Vermont beer outside of Switchback would have to be Hill Farmstead Edward. It’s bitter but it doesn’t take away from the nice fruity aroma.”

Addie: Fiddlehead Brewing

“Fiddlehead IPA. For Sure. Hands down.” Of course you have to promote your own product! But on a serious note, it is quite the delicious beer.

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Fiddlehead Brewing, home of the popular beer “Second Fiddle.”

 

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What is your favorite non-Vermont beer?

Jordan: Citizen Cider

“It’s really tough, I’ve been wowed with a bunch of beers, I feel like I go for a different beer every time I go out because I want to see what’s changing in the community. I would say right now and anything from Lost Nation and Hermit Thrush.”

Addie: Fiddlehead Brewing

“Cold Smoke. It’s a scotch ale, made at the Kettlehouse brewery in Montana. It’s delicious. It’s my favorite non-Vermont beer.”

Sean: Switchback Brewing Company

“It always kind of changes. I would have to say that my favorite style is amber ales at the moment. I have really been interested in Maine Beer Co. If you see it on tap, or you see it in store, you’ve got to get it. My favorite one of their beers is Lunch. I’ve only had it once, and only been able to get it once.”

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The beer experience

What makes Vermont beer so special and coveted that people come from miles and miles away? The community hands down. If you want to make a beer that everyone wants, get involved with the community. Use local ingredients, give back local, eat and drink local. It really is a big family and everyone is willing to help each other out. Every time I walked into a brewery or a brewpub I felt as though they were welcoming me as a member of their family. As I walked through the surrounding community, I could feel that the local scene really had a huge influence on the culture.

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Flights and pretzels at Queen City Brewery.

 

The one thing I learned the most about is consistency. I believe this is the single most important thing in making delicious, popular beer that people will want to come back for time and time again. I know that every time I grab a can of Fiddlehead IPA, it’s going to quench my need for hops. The smell of Heady Topper will trigger the same senses every time you sip it. If you don’t have a consistently delicious product to start with, no one is going to want your beer in the first place.

As far as what the best Vermont beer is, you will just have to make that distinction on your own. In my opinion, these were some of my favorites, cheers!

 

TJ7

 

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This is an interview in a series of guest entries by students in the Practical Brewing class at Erie Community College. Students were asked to conduct an interview with a person of their choosing in the brewing industry.

TJ Driscoll is currently an intern at Rusty Nickel Brewing Company as part of his requirements for a state certification program in Brewing Sciences and Services at Erie Community College.

 

 

About Buffalo Beer Biochemist

Buffalo Beer Biochemist
Born and raised in Western New York. Ph.D. in Biochemistry. Professor of Microbiology and Chemistry. And lover of beer.

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2 comments

  1. It was greg noonan of vermont pub and brewery that created the black ipa… Not catamount

    And the name of the brewery is Hermit Thrush… Not herman

    Just wanted to correct those points.

    Great to meet you.

    Solid project.

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