Haven’t you heard? Craft beer is all the rage these days.

Join Adrian Tierney-Jones as he leaves his local to explore the best brews on offer around the world.

Adrian Tierney-Jones

Adrian is an award-winning freelance journalist, author and speaker writing about beer, pubs, food and travel.  Books include Great British Pubs,  1001 Beers to Try Before You Die and the latest Britain’s Beer Revolution.

@ATJBeer
maltworms.blogspot.com

Published

October 23, 2014

‘Fancy a game of darts?’ It’s a perfectly reasonable request in an English pub, but I’m in a bar in Brattleboro, Vermont — McNeill’s, a bare-floored, austere space dimly lit by art-crafty light fittings. I decline, but the banter continues as I sip my pint of Warlord Imperial IPA. Brewed on the premises this powerfully hopped barnstormer of a beer is the colour of bruised gold and pulsates with an aroma reminiscent of ripe peaches that have sat in a bowl upon which the rays of the mid-afternoon sun have brushed and stroked with obsessive zeal. There’s an invigorating blast of bitterness on the palate, which continues to clang away on the finish. I like it.

Meanwhile, perhaps in honour of my visit, one of the locals croons a poignant folk song on the decline of the English pub. Another chap introduces himself. ‘Hi I’m Open Mike.’ He’s wearing a trilby, collarless shirt and tie. Punk meets hippy meets surf dude. I nod and give the beer the thumbs up. He flashes me the shaka sign. Meanwhile, the crooner at the bar stops and tells me that he once saw a catamount, the legendary mountain cougar. Definitely time for another beer: this time I plump for a glass of Dark Angel, a robust, impenetrably dark, roasty and coffee-like imperial porter. This evening is as good a start as any in my attempt to follow the Vermont craft beer trail.

The reds of Autumn in Vermont

I’d driven into town from Boston airport. It had been a jaunt of a journey. This was my second experience of Boston’s rush-hour traffic and it began as something of a white-knuckle ride, as the cobwebs of six hours in the air still clung to the brain. However, by surfing the fast-moving flyovers and curling about the roundabouts I avoided heading south towards New York and got on the right route, westward ho towards Vermont.

The names on the signposts off the main highway were like a roll call for the Home Counties, from when the phrase was not redolent of gin & tonic, golf clubs and Nigel Farage look-alikes (we’re talking 17th century refugees here). I spotted signs for Winchester, Chelmsford and Leominster; there was even a Reading, for heaven’s sake, which left me puzzled as to why any migrant in their right mind would want to remember Reading (maybe it was a more genial place several centuries ago?). After a three-hour drive, surrounded on both sides by rich verdant woodland and forest, from which I often caught the scent of a benevolent summer’s evening, I arrived in Brattleboro. I was ready for a beer.

There’s a restaurant, which is adjacent to the brewery and the clang of the bottling line accompanies the swirl of voices as visitors ooh and aah at the sight of brewing in progress.

The plan was simple. The American craft beer scene is one of the most vibrant in the world, a big canvas of brewing splattered with thousands of boldly coloured and flavoured beers. The unremarkably utilitarian beers of Budweiser, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Miller Lite might still come to mind for many when considering American beer, but the last 30 years plus has seen the spread of an American brewing revolution, which continues to grow. If you want hop-happy India Pale Ales (and their muscular cousins Double India Pale Ale), pitch-black note-perfect porters and stouts, elegant lagers of all kinds (bock, Pilsner, Helles, Marzen, you get the idea) and tart, quenching sours then do as I did: come to America, or Vermont to be specific. You have to start somewhere and the state is an intriguing mix of liberal tolerance and cussed independence and it has some excellent breweries.

Next morning I pass McNeill’s, shuttered and silent, seemingly confirmation that it only comes alive as the sun starts to sink. It’s time to move on and discover more evidence of craft beer in Vermont. Clapboard houses, some with rocking chairs on the porch, dot the road I take into the lush green countryside; there are flags everywhere, accompanied by signs selling smoked meats and maple syrup (not at the same time). Here is Long Trail Brewery, where brewing and beer is tourism. The brewery is in the middle of nowhere in a place called Bridgewater Corners, which means you need a designated driver or a bag to take some bottles away with you. There’s a restaurant, which is adjacent to the brewery and the clang of the bottling line accompanies the swirl of voices as visitors ooh and aah at the sight of brewing in progress. I order a bratwurst with a small glass of their Blackberry Wheat, which is low in alcohol and has a refreshing clean palate with hints of berry. It’s ok, but then I can still remember the taste of the previous night’s big hitters. Time to move on — I’ve got a couple of brewpubs in Burlington to hang out in and then there’s the Von Trappe brewery (yes the very same family) high in the hills near Stowe and not forgetting the cult brewery that is Hill Farmstead. Yes, I’m on the right trail.

Long Trail’s Double Bag is a double altbier features a ‘distinct malt presence’

As someone who writes about beer, travel and food and how they all intersect, my visit to Vermont was an essential way of studying the state’s beers in their own environment. For me, that applies for beer right across the world. Travel and discovery are the yin and yang of getting to know artisanal beer. Sure you can get hold of a bottle and sit at home and enjoy the flavour, marvel at the unfamiliarity of the branding, the shape of the bottle and — in the case of Belgium’s champagne-style gueuze — the pop of the cork when the bottle is opened. You can go on the Internet and join a forum or start a blog or tweet. Good luck, but I believe that in order to really get to know a country’s beers, its traditions, its heritage, its tastes and the people who drink it you need to book the room, plan the route and get in the car. As great wine has its terroir, great beer has its people and a place in the community, as drinking McNeill’s beers in the eponymous bar demonstrated.

To cap it all you can bathe in beer here, a blend of mineral water, hops, herbs and yeast, all filtered.

I have had other trips of discovery, like the time I drove to the small town of Chodová Planá in western Bohemia, about eight miles from the Bavarian border. The brewery here is Pivovar Chodovar and its beers are fresh and brisk in their frankness, while the food in the restaurant is a trencherman’s delight. To cap it all you can bathe in beer here, a blend of mineral water, hops, herbs and yeast, all filtered. You even get given a couple of cool glasses of the brewery’s delicate and refreshing lager whilst soaking.

Bath over it was time to visit the brewery. I learnt something that afternoon that no amount of drinking the beer back in Prague or taking it home from the airport shop would uncover. In the cold room, where the lagering tanks allowed beers to slumber, the brewer poured beer into a big metal jug and indicated that I drink from it. This was called Spezial, a 5% beer with a good malt-sweet character, floral hops and a light bitterness. I asked a couple of questions about the taxonomy of the beer (as you do). The brewer pointed in the direction of Bavaria and said that over there they would call this kind of beer a Marzen (it was autumn after all). This information, once I had really taken it in, set me off on a still maturing (or should that be lagering?) writing project to see how connected the beer cultures of Bohemia and Bavaria are.

The story of Thornbridge Brewery teaming up with Odell from the US

What about the UK? Can travel broaden the beer-orientated mind here as well? Of course it can. Go to Bakewell, buy a tart and then visit the shining stainless steel nirvana of Thornbridge Brewery or take the high road north of Aberdeen to Ellon where BrewDog’s post-modernist, busy-busy-busy brewery has its own just opened Dog Tap. However, for starters I would suggest wending your way to Unit 1, Weller Drive in the town of Finchampstead in Berkshire. It’s not the most inspiring address in the world, utilitarian and singular, suggestive of a place perhaps where stacks of stationery or boxes of ring-bind folders might be kept. However, drinkers wanting imaginative and inspirational beers have been known to set the sat-nav for the tap room of Unit 1 which is where Siren Brewery have been producing their fantastic beers since early 2013. And whether you want to take a taste of its American-style Pale Ale, which bursts with juicy citrusy sensuality, luxuriate in the Oatmeal Pale Ale or try any other beers from this much acclaimed brewery (Limoncello IPA anyone?), I would suggest taking a designated driver who is totally uninterested in beer, otherwise you’ll have one grumpy companion in the car afterwards.

IMAGE CREDITS:
Lead image
Leaves, Beer, Sunset
Long Trail Double Bag Bottles
Adrian Tierney-Jones Profile: Mike Kinsey