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Long before he was an award-winning brewer with a devoted following of discerning craft-beer drinkers, Sean Lawson was an avid skier.
As a kid growing up in New Jersey, he and his family made trips to Belleayre and Windham, N.Y. During his college days at the University of Vermont, he was a Mad River guy. Later he ski-bummed in Colorado’s Summit County, washing dishes and filling bottles at the Breckenridge Brewery (“my first job in brewing”) and skiing at all the Front Range resorts. (“A-Basin was probably my favorite; it reminded me a little of Mad River.”) Today he lives a couple miles from the base of Sugarbush, though he mostly skis at Mad River, where he’s a shareholder and even part-time employee. He puts his UVM forestry degree to work leading weekend naturalist tours on and around the mountain. In his backyard hangs one of Mad River’s original wood-slatted single chairs. And while he’s got nothing against snowboarders, he shares the shareholders majority opinion that Mad River’s bumps are noticeably better for being skier-only.
Beer and skiing: They’ve always had a symbiotic relationship, as anyone who has ever enjoyed a cold beer after a day on the slopes knows. So no one would be surprised to learn that a lot of Vermont beer brewers, like Lawson, are enthusiastic skiers too, right?
What continually amazes people, though, is the explosive growth of the craft-brewing industry in Vermont—a boom that shows no signs of ever going bust.
“Yes, it’s astonishing,” says Jed Nelson, marketing director for Long Trail Brewing Co., which has been around since the beginning. Long Trail, headquartered in Bridgewater Corners, just minutes from the Killington Access Road, opened in 1989 and is now distributed in 15 states. The growth of Vermont’s brewing industry, while impressive, is merely consistent with the broader growth of craft brewing, Nelson says.
“What’s happening in Vermont reflects what’s going on nationally, where we’ve got about two new breweries opening every day. It’s not a big state, and in the past five years the industry has doubled in Vermont, but the same thing is going on nationally. Our growth is just on pace with what’s going on in other states.”
And yet the stats don’t reflect tiny little Vermont’s outsized footprint on the beer landscape—the growing mystique of its brewing scene. Long Trail, named for the hiking trail that traverses the state from top to bottom, has long enjoyed a national reputation. But the past decade has seen the emergence of other Vermont beers that have earned national and even international acclaim—beers made by celebrity brewers like John Kimmich (The Alchemist), Shaun Hill (Hill Farmstead), and Lawson (Lawson’s Finest). Their creations—especially Kimmich’s Heady Topper, brewed within sight of Stowe’s slopes—lure thirsty visitors to Vermont in droves. And a state long known for its fall foliage, maple syrup, and skiing is arguably just as famous now for its beer.
“The beer-cation is a real phenomenon in Vermont,” says Melissa Corbin, executive director of the Vermont Brewers Association.
According to the VBA, Vermont breweries recorded 1.6 million visitors in 2014, three-quarters of them originating from out of state. (Skier visits, by comparison, are typically around 4 million in an average snow year.) Also in 2014, Vermont brewers racked up total revenues of $199 million. By 2016, total revenues had almost doubled, to $377 million.
To put that in perspective, compare it with two other iconic Vermont industries. Maple sugaring reported about $320 million in sales in 2016, while skiers spent about $900 million, of which only $300 million was spent directly on-mountain.
Perhaps most striking is the sheer number of breweries in Vermont. “We have 51 VBA members, soon to be 53,” says Corbin. “That makes us No. 1 in the nation for breweries per capita.” (More than 11 breweries for every 100,000 Vermonters.) “And we brew more [craft] beer per adult over 21 than any other state.” (Almost 18 gallons each).
That’s big beer. “Yeah, it’s pretty nuts,” says Corbin. “I was just out in Colorado for the Great American Beer Festival. There were 19 state guilds pouring samples, and Vermont was the only state with a big line. We had people waiting 30 minutes for a taste, and it wasn’t even a full pour—just a couple of ounces.”
Not surprisingly, Burlington was the early epicenter of brewing in Vermont. Many a Vermont brewer owes a debt to the late Greg Noonan, whose Vermont Pub & Brewery still pours beers brewed at the corner of City Hall Park.
“He was so helpful to us all—so generous with his time and clearly an inspiration to everyone,” says Paul Hale, brewmaster and co-owner of Burlington’s Queen City Brewery.
When Noonan’s Pub & Brewery opened in 1989—Bernie was still mayor; Phish was still playing regular, cover-free dates at Nectar’s—it was said to be just the second brewpub in New England. Before he could go into business, Noonan, who also authored books on brewing that are still important resources for avid homebrewers, had to lobby the Vermont Legislature to change the laws that forbade the sale of beer brewed on premises. Many of today’s brewers, notably the Alchemist’s Kimmich, worked for and studied directly under Noonan, or with one of his many protégés.
Today the Burlington brew scene is more effervescent than ever. Hale’s brewery is directly across from Zero Gravity on trendy Pine Street (aka “Pint Street”). A few blocks north is Citizen Cider. Other famous Burlington brews include Switchback, Fiddlehead, and Magic Hat (the latter now part of the enormous North American Breweries conglomerate).
“We’ve really become a beer destination for tourists,” says Hale. “We see tours come through every weekend. They’ll hit Pine Street, maybe park here or over at Zero Gravity, then hit Switchback, maybe Citizen Cider.” (A few minutes later he’s momentarily distracted by what’s going on in his parking lot: “Wow, three vans with out-of-state plates just pulled up”).
Hale is the rare Burlington native, and a hockey player, not a skier. But he appreciates the close connection between skiing and brewing in Vermont, and he knows that a bad snow year is bad for beer sales.
“What was it, a couple years ago that we had that really crappy season? It affected the whole industry. I was talking to my distributor, and he said sales were down for everybody, from Budweiser on down. So yeah, we’re really dependent on each other. The quality of the skiing is an economic indicator for everything.”
The co-dependency cuts both ways, and Vermont’s ski areas have been enthusiastic in their embrace of the beer boom. Mini-brewfests abound on the resorts’ calendars all year round. Base-lodge bars typically have more taps flowing with local brews than conventional ones. Skiers at just about any of the Green Mountain State’s ski areas can enjoy a day on the slopes and then venture off-hill to visit nearby breweries, plenty of which are within a short drive.
Killington is a perfect example. “I’ll go out on a limb to say that we sell more beer than any other business in the state,” says events manager Jeff Alexander. And at the door of nearby Long Trail’s big tasting room, there’s a polite sign reminding winter visitors not to wear their ski boots.
A little farther north on beautiful Vermont 100, Sugarbush serves only Vermont craft beers in its bars and restaurants, including special selections of local cask-conditioned beerson Firkin Fridays. There’s an annual beer-pairings dinner at its on-mountain Allyn’s Lodge, where guests get to mingle with Lawson and sample a different Lawson’s Finest beer with each course. And Lawson is busy overseeing the construction of a new 30-barrel facility with tap room in Waitsfield; he hopes to be open by the summer of 2018.
From there, a beer pilgrim, still enjoying the scenery of Route 100, can make the short hop through Waterbury, where Prohibition Pig’s restaurant and brewery now occupies Kimmich’s former Alchemist premises, to Stowe, where the Alchemist opened a state-of-the-art facility just off the Mountain Road in 2016. Predictably, the new brewery attracts Heady-seekers in droves. According to the Stowe Reporter, nearby businesses have noticed an uptick in their own sales as a result of the Alchemist overflow effect—an especially welcome boost during the difficult shoulder seasons.
Also in Stowe, the Trapp Family Lodge opened its handsome, spacious Bierhall just a few months after the Alchemist’s opening. True to its Austrian heritage, the von Trapp Brewery specializes in German-style lagers, which stand out in the sea of craft-brewed ales. (Lagers, which take more time to ferment than ales, are relatively rare on the craftbeer scene. Hale’s Queen City also offers lagers, and Lawson says he’s looking forward to having the capacity at his new brewery to do the same).
Still farther north, it’s an easy and scenic half-hour’s drive from Lost Nation Brewing in Morrisville to Smugglers’ Notch resort, where skiers can enjoy a specialty brew called Prohibition Ale—a malty brown ale brewed by Long Trail. And way up at the top of the state, Jay Peak’s Tram Ale is another Long Trail collaboration—popular enough that it’s bottled and sold in stores.
Jay skiers can also stop in at Kingdom Brewing in Newport, where farmer/sugarer/tinkerer Brian Cook has been running a brewery and tap room on his farm since 2012, feeding the spent barley to his black angus cattle. Cook’s family once owned a Tucker Sno-Cats dealership, and he’s a distant cousin of Shaun Hill. Like Lawson, whose Maple Tripple won a World Beer Cup silver medal, he enjoys brewing with sap, using the produce of his own sugarbush. If that sounds experimental or innovative, it really isn’t: According to the Vermont Folklife Center, sugarers once commonly used the less-palatable tail-end of the season’s run to brew what was called sap beer, which would provide refreshment after a long hot day of haying or after the harvest was in.
Cook’s a skier (not an especially stylish one, he admits) and he’s an outgoing guy who loves a big beer. These days he’s making a new version of his Out of Bounds double IPA called Out of Bounds Asleep on the Lift. “The original was 8.3 percent alcohol and 86 IBUs. Then I decided to go way out of bounds and took it up to 12 percent and 120 IBUs.” (IBUs, or international bittering units, are a measure of a beer’s hoppiness.) “We only sell that in small growlers because we don’t want to hurt anybody. It’s really a triple, almost a quadruple IPA. It’s meant to be shared. You sure don’t want to pound that stuff.”
While Cook takes it to the extreme, big IPAs are hardly unusual among Vermont brews. The India Pale Ale is a style that originated in England in the early-mid 19th century. As the story goes (though now there’s some dispute) British brewers made extra strong and hoppy beers for export to troops and ex-pats in India because such brews could better survive the long trip around the horn of Africa, as hops and alcohol have preservative effects.
The IPA style survived pretty much unchanged for a century and a half, until American craft brewers and their customers made it the style of choice on the U.S. micro scene. Defying convention, California brewers made bigger (i.e., more alcoholic) and hoppier beers, and American beer lovers egged them on.
Now Vermont craft brewers have taken the American IPA to another level. Kimmich got it started with his Heady Topper, originally brewed in Waterbury and available only at the Alchemist. Heady defied convention: unpasteurized, unfiltered, highly alcoholic and intensely hoppy. Customers couldn’t get enough of it, and for a time demand vastly outstripped supply. Out-of-state aficionados made special trips to Vermont, buying up as much of the stuff as they could get, usually supplementing the purchases with other Vermont brews. Naturally, in such a small state, other brewers were inspired by Kimmich’s example—notably Lawson and Hill, former Alchemist patrons themselves—and the Vermont IPA took on a life of its own. Some experts even consider it a style unto itself.
“Yeah, it seems like there’s a lot of chatter about that lately,” says Lawson. “But I think now it’s the quote-unquote ‘New England IPA’ that’s been recognized, and the Vermont IPA falls into that. Anyway, I’m not sure I buy into it because we all do something a little different. So many of them are opaque and cloudy and soft. Mine might be hazy, but they’re not the opaque juice bombs that a lot of brewers are putting out.”
Meanwhile, there seems to be no end to the growth of the craft brewing scene in Vermont, and an IPA for every taste. Even as the landscape grows more crowded, success seems all but guaranteed for new breweries coming on line. No one, it seems, can name a brewery that has failed since the late, great Catamount—an early Vermont beer (1987-2000) that had great success but grew too quickly. And collaboration, rather than competition, seems to be the norm.
That, along with quality of life in the Green Mountain State, might be what explains the stunning growth and success of its beer scene, suggests Long Trail communications director Drew Vetere.
“There’s a lot of ingenuity, and there’s a communal aspect to the Vermont scene,” Vetere says. “Yes, there’s a lot of breweries, but everyone’s working together. You don’t see the cutthroat competition, the way it is in other states. Vermont’s a naturally beautiful place that attracts a kind of person, a free spirit who wants to live in and enjoy the outdoor lifestyle. It’s a little like skiing or snowboarding: You have your diehards, and they’re just kind of adjusting their lifestyle to fit around their passion. Not to mention the fact that who doesn’t want a beer after a great day out in the cold air enjoying nature?”
The Vermont Brewers Festival, held each July on Burlington’s waterfront starting in 1992, was once a victim of its own popularity. Then the Vermont Brewers Association wisely switched to a system of limited ticket sales, which fixed the problem of over-long waits for samples. That will be the format for the first-ever winter version of the event, scheduled for March 24 at Killington. There’ll be two sessions (noon–3 p.m. and 4–7 p.m.). Tickets ($42) are sold at vtbrewfest.com. Each session will be limited to 2,000 participants. Thirty brewers are expected to take part, some of them collaborating to produce beers especially for the event, says Vermont Brewers Association’s Melissa Corbin.The event will be held at the base of the K-1 Gondola.
Former longtime SKI Magazine editor, gear guru, and ultimate champion of Eastern skiing Joe Cutts put months of “research” into this story. We’re grateful for his dedication. Hiccup. Burp.