Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Brewery Tour #18 & #19 - Night Shift Brewing and Idle Hands Craft Ales

If every rose has its thorn, then perhaps every thorn has its rose.

One thorn DBNE recently came across was an ugly industrial park in the ugly town of Everett, MA. That’s right, we're talking two layers of ugly here. But if you’re a beer lover that happens to be passing by Charlton Street in Everett, turn onto it.

Once you’re on Charlton St., ignore the immense, crumbling brick building in front of you with its windows blown out. Just bear left into the mess of unforgiving construction that makes you feel like you have no business being there. Disregard the sinking feeling that you're trespassing into guarded territory, and park your car anywhere alongside the chain-link fence where it feels like you’ll be instantly towed. Get out of our car and slowly walk down the foreboding narrow alley in-between the two buildings and look for a small, inconspicuous black and white sign of a hop cone that looks like an angry owl. If you feel like you’re in the wrong place, you’re in the right place. Got it?

Once inside your first door, walk down the dark and seemingly deserted hallway, straight past a couple of side doors and into a dimly lit garage of sorts. Walk around the cars, and you'll find yourself facing two doors. If you feel like you've gone far enough and this is all a cruel joke, fear not. Behind these two doors is your thorn’s rose – friendly people pouring tasty beer. 

The two doors in front of you are the entrances to two of Boston's newer nanobreweries. Night Shift Brewing, and Idle Hands Craft Ales, founded in 2011 and 2010, respectively. 

What's a nanobrewery? There’s still no confirmed definition, but as one might assume, it’s a very small brewery. Very, very small. Sometimes just a glorified homebrew set up that happens to sell their beer commercially. Some industry folk have casually defined nanobreweries as operations using no more than a 4 US barrel (470 L) brew system.

DBNE first walked through the left door, which puts you square into the tasting room for Night Shift Brewing. Inside were 3 men standing behind a bar, dishing out samples to a handful of people. 

Once you've made it this far inside, you realize the building you're in (which moments ago felt unwelcoming at best) seems like a communal manufacturing facility that probably leases raw individual spaces to small, start-up production companies of any kind. It's actually a smart space for a start-up brewery to get its feet wet in the industry. 

We were acknowledged immediately in the Night Shift tasting area and offered a full tasting of six beers on tap, going from light to dark.

Our tasting included “Trifecta,” a very agreeable Belgian-style pale; “Rose,” a saison brewed with rosemary, rosehips, honey, then aged on crushed pink peppercorns was a hit and made its way home with us;  A Berliner-Weisse style sour ale brewed with lemongrass and ginger, called “Somer Weisse,” tasted tart, bright, and refreshing, but it seemed better suited for warmer months (I envisioned drinking it with a strawberry chicken salad); “Taza Stout,” brewed with chicory root, ginger, and then aged on cacao nibs was a nice change of pace and also found its way home with us; "Fallen Apple," a golden ale brewed with fresh MA apple cider, cinnamon, nutmeg, coriander, allspice, then aged in rum and brandy barrels was a bit hit with us. Lastly, we finished up with “Viva Habanera,” a rye ale brewed with agave nectar and aged on habanero peppers. The pepper kick on the finish of this last beer was a surprise, and while interesting to experience, was a bit overwhelming on the palate.

The Night Shift tasting room is open every weeknight from 5:00 – 9:00 pm and Saturday afternoon 12:00 – 5:00 pm. Pre-filled bottles and growler fills are both available for sale.

Leaving the Night Shift tasting room, we popped into door #2 to visit Idle Hands. Similar to Night Shift, you immediately walk into a small tasting area with a bar. The tasting here included their flagship “Pandora” – a very agreeable Belgian inspired pale ale, “Rosemary for Remembrance"– a delightful ale made with sweet potato and rosemary, "Charlton Rouge” – their homage to a Flanders Red, and "Cognition" – a very sessionable Abbey style brown ale.

There were no duds in the Idle Hands lineup. All were enjoyable. We particularly loved the playful sour notes in Charlton Rouge which blended well with its brown sugar malts. Hence, we took a bottle home along with Pandora which offers layers of elegant flavor yet is deceptively simple to drink. If bottles of Rosemary for Remembrance were offered, and not just growlers of it, that would have made it home with us as well because it would've paired superbly with Thanksgiving dinner. 

Idle Hands is not open to the public as often as Night Shift, so be sure you visit these parts when both breweries are open. Hours for Idle Hands are Thursdays from 5:00 – 8:00 pm and Saturdays from 12 – 4:00 pm. Night Shift is always open during Idle Hands’ hours.

Despite the humor of locating the entrance to these breweries, we very much recommend a visit. Although I must admit, I can’t imagine the humanity of trying to locate the appropriate doors in a scary industrial site during dark weeknight hours in winter; not unless I want my family to see my face on the local news the next day with the word “MISSING” underneath it. For your first visit, stick with Saturday daytime hours and enjoy. 

Night Shift Brewing 
3 Charlton St
Everett, MA 02144
Open Monday – Friday 5:00 – 9:00 pm, and Saturdays from 12:00 – 5:00 pm

Idle Hands Craft Ales
3 Charlton St
Everett, MA 02144
Open Thursdays from 5:00 – 8:00 pm, and Saturdays from 12 – 4:00 pm

Monday, September 17, 2012

Ebenezer's Pub

Heard of Lovell, Maine? Me neither, until very recently.

After DBNE's recent trip there, I asked two Maine natives if they were familiar with the town. I received a one blank stare, a pair of shrugged shoulders, a head shake, and two utterances of, “nope”.

My wife and I (aka DBNE) ended up in Lovell when we recently visited North Conway NH, where we’d been multiple times before. But never before had we imagined that any part of Maine was relatively close by. A note from a fellow member of told me that Ebenezer’s Pub  rated the best beer bar in America more than once  was a doable twenty or so miles away.

I was vaguely aware of Ebenezer’s fame. I knew it was in Maine, but therefore figured it was a far drive from anywhere. So, I never bothered to know the town it lied in. 

What I knew about Ebenezer's was gleaned from an article or two, advertisements, and even videos of its basement

That’s right, the basement. 

It’s a dingy looking basement. Like yours and mine. But although Ebenezer’s basement doesn't look fancy, it in fact houses an impressive bounty of rare and hard-to-find beer not often seen. Much of the beers seen in the video hail from Europe, with many Belgian delights visible. It’s clear one does not come to Ebenezer’s to explore American craft beer.

The drive to, and through, the town of Lovell was almost worth the trip alone. A thick orange sunset saturated the quiet and quaint town that frankly seemed motionless. Before you knew it, we passed a tiny road that fed the parking lot to Ebenezer’s. (You'll pass it, too, if you've never been there.)

The pub sits right on a golf course. As we walked up to it, we weren’t immediately sure where to walk in. The door we entered put you immediately onto a patio dining area that felt as if you’re standing in a road-side shack that dishes out deep-fried seafood by the bucket load.

We eventually found our way to the bar area which was surprisingly small. I feel an establishment that puts significant thought into its beer selection should offer a substantial bar area relative to the restaurant’s total size. There were only five or six stools at the bar and two high-top tables nearby – one of which we luckily got. One cool aspect of the bar is that each tap handle is made of blown glass. 

There are 35 beers on draft here. None of them are pedestrian. The majority are obscure European imports that would excite even the geekiest beer nerds. Between my wife and I, we drank Omnipollo Mazarin, Pannepot Wild, Stillwater Existent, Old Engine Oil (not literally), Cuvee Angelique, and another sour ale we’ve somehow forgotten the name of.

One thing Ebenezer’s is known for is Black Albert. It’s a hefty, 13% ABV Russian Imperial Stout that’s brewed exclusively for them by De Struise in Belgium. It’s amazing the pub has this connection with such a world-class brewery. Black Albert is said to be terrific. Unfortunately, there was none left during our visit. But if you go, don’t hesitate to ask if there’s any in house.

In addition to draft offerings, there’s an extensive bottle selection offering treats from the cellar. Interestingly, however, the bottle list is not 100% complete. For instance, if you desire a specific lambic or gueuze from Drie Fonteinen or Cantillon, this requires a discussion with your server. As you’ll see the menu merely states “Cantillon – various offerings,” starting at something around $40 per bottle. Near this section of the bottle list, there’s a note stating that it may require extra time for your server to dig for your selection in the cellar. To be honest, I’d pay an extra $10 to dig for it myself down in that treasure trove of theirs.

As for the food, we ordered a myriad of protein and it was all satisfying. The chicken, cooked sous-vide, couldn’t have been more moist or tender. The blood sausage was fantastic, the steak tips savory, the knockwurst and brats also succulent.

Prices on food and beverage lean to the steep side at Ebenezer’s. Your tab can stay modest if you order a sandwich and domestic beer. But a more exciting entrée paired with two or three of their more intriguing beer offerings quickly adds up your damage report. As Ebenezer’s remote location gives the impression that you may not be back any time soon, you quickly feel it’s OK to splurge a bit.

Overall, if you’re a beer geek who finds him or herself within twenty five miles from Lovell, ME (this includes the distance from the congested town of North Conway, NH) Ebenezer’s is worth your time for at least one visit. If you really want a tour of the cellar, it’s said that you can request one in advance, time permitting on the owner’s behalf. If you go down there, do me a favor. Record it and post it to YouTube, because I’ve worn out the previous videos.

Ebenezer’s Pub
44 Allen Rd. Lovell, ME 04051

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Brewery Tour #17: Smuttynose Brewing

Have you tried the IPA, known as “Finest Kind,” from Smuttynose Brewing?

I have. But I feel like I haven’t.

It receives a substantial amount of accolades. And when I was recently reminded of that, I asked myself what I thought of it. I know I’ve had it more than once, but I said to myself, “I don’t know. Do I like it?” I suppose I never walked away with an impression.

Due to my perception of the Smuttynose brand being one of higher quality, I wanted to revisit Finest Kind again. So I decided to: 1) Purchase a six pack or order it the next time I see it at a restaurant, and 2) Visit Smuttynose Brewing in the hopes I could taste Finest Kind fresh – straight from source.

A couple of days later I found Finest Kind offered at a local restaurant. I immediately smelled it after pouring it into a glass and honestly hoped I got an old bottle because I didn’t notice much of an aroma. After tasting it, I hoped even more so that it was an old bottle because the wonderful hop presence described in its glowing reviews was hardly noticed. In the end I did chalk it up as being past its freshness date and became simultaneously relieved and irritated.

Relieved that there was a plausible excuse for its underwhelming aroma and flavor.

Irritated that I – yet again – just purchased an old IPA with hops that have long faded away.

I couldn’t locate a best-buy or bottled-on date anywhere on the bottle, so who knows how old it was. It may have been on there. But I’d like to vent for a moment and say that I’m fed up with hieroglyphic bottle dating using dark ink in incongruous places on dark bottles. Or no bottle dates at all. Fed. Up.

It was then I decided that a visit to the Smuttynose Brewery, in Portsmouth NH, was mandatory. There I could presumably taste the freshet Finest Kind IPA anywhere on earth. Luckily an invitation to a friend’s party nearby gave DBNE a good excuse to trek up to the Portsmouth area.

Founded by the same people who started the Northampton (MA) and Portsmouth Brewpubs, Smuttynose sits in a quiet suburban area of Portsmouth NH. The brewery itself looks to be in a noticeable process of decay. One might describe its physical state as ramshackle. But to the folks at Smuttynose, it’s home. And we were still eager to see inside.

Tours at Smuttynose occur Fridays at 5:30pm, and Saturdays at 11:00am and 1:00pm. Apparently they’re popular. So much so that the brewery has recently resorted to using an online reservation service. You’re required to reserve your spot on a tour, but don’t worry, it’s free and the process is quick and painless. 

We didn’t take more than 4 steps in the brewery door before we were asked to put on safety goggles.

Safety goggles? 

I half-hoped the reason for this was because beer has been known to sporadically spray with vigor from leaks in their fermenter tanks. Or maybe that impromptu hop pellet fights were not uncommon and a previous visitor caught some simcoe in the eye. Sounded fun. Realistically, I figured it was because the decrepit building could crumble any minute and these glasses were supposed to save me when the ceiling drops on my head. I couldn’t help but recall the Schwarzenegger-like “McBain” character in an episode of the Simpsons, where he falls into a pool of acid and screams – “The goggles - THEY DO NOTHING!”

Glasses on, we immediately saw the tasting area where people were already congregating and tasting beers before the tour started. I noticed a menu was posted that listed the beers available for sampling, and quickly hustled over to look for Finest Kind on the list.

No luck.

Is this a joke? Isn’t Finest Kind their most popular brew? How could it not be one the samples offered? I bet those fiends from the earlier tour drank it all! It seemed fresh Finest Kind was not in my cards for the foreseeable future.

I sighed. But before whining like a little girl that I’d never get fresh Smuttynose IPA, I got over it as I saw there were other treats available to taste.

Offered for samples were Old Brown Dog, Really Old brown Dog, Shoals Pale Ale, Robust Porter, Woodward Ale, and their Wheatwine.
I’m already quite familiar with Shoals Pale Ale and Old Brown Dog. Shoals is a classic that, ironically, is not so pale. Compared to many of your common or pedestrian pales, Shoals offers a bit more character in the malt and hop departments. Smuttynose claims Shoals is an interpretation of an English pale ale. It may be, but its hop notes seem a bit American in nature.

Old Brown Dog is one of the best brown ales on the market in New England. Its roasty malt backbone is accentuated with notes of caramel and fall spices. Earthy hops balance everything and even provide a little bitterness on the finish. I often forget its ABV sits at 6.7% because it drinks like something at 5.0%. It’s a comfy blanket of a beer – solid and flavorful without overwhelming you on any front.

Woodward Ale is made specifically for the Woodward Tavern at the Ames Hotel in Boston. A golden-colored brew that, contrary to Shoals, drinks more like your typical pale ale. It’s dry, crisp, and a bit lighter. Piney hops are noticeable and so is the bitterness. Not a bad brew.

“Really Old Brown Dog”, not to be confused with “Old Brown Dog” is a bigger, more alcoholic version of the latter. It’s part of Smuttynose’s Big Beer Series that you can only purchase in 22 oz bottles. While still referred to as a brown ale in its name, some consider it to drink more like an “old ale.” I wouldn’t disagree. With its 10.10% ABV, it gives the impression it has aged in vats to mature and build character. I find it delicious. Prominent notes of brown sugar, nuts, fermented dark fruits, wood, and toffee all mingle equally. It’s a bit sweet – almost
 too much so for my tastes, but it never crossed that line into cloying. Aging this beer wouldn’t be a bad idea. If you buy it, try getting 2. Drink one fresh while you age the other bottle in your cellar for a couple of years.

The Smuttynose Wheatwine is said to be a hybrid between a barleywine and a subtle American wheat ale. And that’s more or less what it tasted like. I don’t recall ever having a wheatwine, so I don’t have much to compare it to. But if you force me to picture the two aforementioned styles together, Smuttynose’s Wheatwine is ultimately what I would picture. The malts here are strong and sugary sweet. While some juicy hops, oak, and tart raisin are present, the malt bill is still the dominant force in this one. Not bad at all. But after tasting it I realized I had no reason to ever reach for another Wheatwine over a barleywine, except for curiosity sake (which is often the prevailing reason for my beer purchases anyway).

Lastly, the Robust Porter is no stranger to me. But if it is to you, change that. This beer tastes like a time capsule. Tastes like history. While double IPAs may be my favorite style of beer today, the porter style previously held that claim. And the quality inside a bottle of Smuttynose Robust Porter reminds me why that was. Charred grain, coffee, earth, bitter chocolate and a little hop bite are all seamlessly at play here. Robust indeed, but smooth and refined.

Tasting samples occurred at the beginning and end of the brewery tour. During the tour we learned Smuttynose has a new home to look forward to; a 14-acre farm in Hampton New Hampshire (architect-rendered drawing seen right). Glad to hear this. Their current facility really is quite packed. There’s very little space unoccupied by equipment, ingredients, or pallets of packaged beer waiting for shipment. You could tell our tour guide was excited about the move, too. He noted that they’re receiving way more orders, from new markets, that they could ever pretend to fulfill in their current space. The new facility (complete with a restaurant) will help Smuttynose grow and get more of their beers to other states. Those new states can expect some quality brews coming their way. And visitors will no longer have to feel that the Smuttynose brewhouse will collapse on top of them.

As we walked through the packaged beer area, I noticed the pallets upon pallets of Finest Kind waiting for shipment. I could only touch its plastic wrapping. I walked out of the brewery with no taste of super, uber-fresh Smuttynose Finest Kind IPA. So close, yet so far.

A couple weeks after our visit to Smuttynose, I found Finest Kind on the menu at an unsuspecting, fancy restaurant. I ordered it and was given the bottle along with a room-temperature glass (check plus). The bottle of Finest Kind was warm. I chuckled and knew many customers would hate this. I pictured our waiter grabbing the bottle out of the fridge, noticing how warm it was, and balking as he figured his customer (me) would complain that he just received warm beer. Lucky for our waiter, I’d rather my beer be warm than ice cold. It was my lucky day.

So how did it taste? Well, I noticed deliciously dank hops, grapefruit notes, and cereal-like malt grains all loud and clear.

Yeah, I remember now. I like Finest Kind. A lot.

Smuttynose Brewing Co. 
225 Heritage Ave 
Portsmouth NH 03801
603 - 436 - 4026 
Tours: Fridays at 5:30pm, and Saturdays at 11:00am and 1:00pm (online reservations required)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Beercation Part 6 (Bonus) – The Blackback Pub

There were no more brewery visits left on our Vermont Beercation, but we made one more stop that delighted us. A modest little bar, called the Blackback Pub in Waterbury VT, made a fitting end to our tour. Appropriately fitting because they serve highlights from breweries in the area, like Hill Farmstead and Lawson’s. Having drinks at the Blackback is like taking a victory lap back around to some of the breweries you just saw, all from the comfort of one barstool.

Oh, and Blackback isn’t just a pub. It’s also a flyshop. Of course! The owner is a fly fishing guide who sells – as I’m told – top quality flies for local streams as well as new Hardy rods and reels and classic bamboo fly rods.”

How quintessential Vermont is that? I know zero about bamboo fly rods, Hardy thingamajiggers, or fishing in general, so I’ll stick to the beer.

But the quirkiness doesn’t end there. While they’ve never had a full menu, and historically only served plates of local cheeses, or pizzas from a local bakery, they have started to serve up some pretty satisfying sushi every Tuesday through Friday. Random? Yes. Tasty? Surprisingly, yes! More on that later. 

The Blackback’s tap list is said to vary in size from maybe ten to twenty-five beers depending on the day. They don’t always carry twenty-five beers on tap because, as they put it, “sometimes there aren’t twenty-five beers available that are good enough.” You have to love the standard they set for themselves.

Many quality beer bars will state that they carry no “fizzy yellow stuff”, “filler”, or “swill”. And you know the mass-produced beers they’re referring to. However, Blackback goes a step further and claims to not only refrain from offering “filler,” but also no “garbage craft beer.” I love them more for that. Because let’s face it, some breweries get a free ride into our craft-loving hearts only because their operation is small. When we step back and look at what they’re making, we realize they’re merely riding the craft beer wave with a mediocre product. That product may still be something we want to support over a mass produced beer from a bullying conglomerate, but with so many options on the shelves today, mediocrity doesn’t deserve too many of our dollars.

During our visit, Blackback’s tap selection offered approximately twelve selections. You can tell each beer is hand selected with reason. I much prefer this approach from a beer bar, rather than throwing 100 taps at me with a mix of good, bad, and pedestrian offerings that sit too long.

Allow me to illustrate how divine Blackback’s tap list is. One of my absolute favorite beers is Double Trouble from Founders Brewing. It’s a seasonal beer only on shelves during a few months out of the year. So I can’t get it whenever I want it. I’ve seen it on tap maybe once in my life. Well, the fine folks at the Blackback had it on tap, and my eyes lit up. But I didn’t order it. Because the other tap offerings were even more attractive.

When I see multiple offerings on tap from Hill Farmstead and Lawson’s, knowing that I can’t find those back home (not even in bottles, let alone on tap), even a beer like Double Trouble has to take a back seat. Other beers you can generally depend on Blackback to have at any point in time include a quality Belgian sour, a couple choice German offerings, something from Mikkeller, perhaps a barleywine, a benchmark west coast ipa, you get the idea.

The Hill Farmstead offerings on tap during our visit included Edward (the best pale ale I’ve ever had), Harlan (their solid flagship IPA), and their Imperial Galaxy double IPA. Having never tried the latter, we got that and savored every drop. Unsurprisingly, it was an amazing brew that showcased the power of Galaxy hops wonderfully. It also proved that the IPAs coming out of Hill Farmstead consistently draw new lines in the sand.

On tap from Lawson’s Finest Liquids was Big Hapi India Black Ale and the Permagrin Rye Pale Ale. We already had Permagrin, so we tried Big Hapi. Earthy citric hops and roasty chocolate malts shined and mingled perfectly to make this a winner.  

So I mentioned sushi. Yes it’s worth mentioning again. Tuesdays through Fridays you can order surprisingly yummy sushi from a guy named Steve. Turns out, the Blackback (already a small place) was once half its current size. The newer half originally belonged to a sushi restaurant. Blackback bought out the sushi place but hired their chef to cook for bar patrons on weekdays. It seems the deal works out swimmingly for both parties.

The sushi, coupled with the excellent beers in hand, oddly made for a very tasty and fun meal. We would not for a second hesitate to have it again when back in the area.

The one unfortunate thing about the Blackback is their habit of serving short pours. I did see other patrons with full pint glasses of some beers, but anyone who ordered Hill Farmstead or Lawson’s did not have a full pour. It’s possible that beers higher in alcohol (i.e. double IPA such as Hill Farmstead Imperial Galaxy) are not served in full pours here, while the other beers are. This lead me to believe Vermont had a law regarding pour sizes for beverages above a certain alcohol level, but a quick web search turns up no mention of this. Perhaps Hill Farmstead and Lawson’s are simply too popular at the Blackback to allow for full pours. It’s a big gripe I had, but we looked past it to not let it undermine our evening. But if you go, be forewarned. Despite the short pour, everything else about the Blackback is loveable.

Side note: Directly across the street from the Blackback is Prohibition Pig; the new restaurant that inhabits the old location of the Alchemist – brewer of the mind-blowingly good "Heady Topper" double IPA. Prohibition Pig was not completely open yet during our visit, but I believe it is now. A premier beer list still lives there, so it’s worth checking out.

We say aur revoir to our Vermont beercation. If you haven’t been to the “Northeast Kingdom” of Vermont, start making plans. The fact that it’s out of the way just provides good reason to make an entire trip out of visiting its breweries. And one thing is for certain – we learned they’re too good to not ever visit again. And again...and...

Blackback Pub
1 Stowe St. (corner Of Stowe And Main)Waterbury, VT 05676
ph: (802) 505-5115

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Beercation Part 5 – Hill Farmstead Brewery

Our northern Vermont “beercation” nears its climactic end. On a leg of the tour that proved to be both trying and rewarding, we visited a very small brewery that many hardcore beer fans would not only declare tops in New England, but also rank as one of our country’s elite. The brewery’s called Hill Farmstead and DBNE was more than a little anxious to finally see it.

To be honest I was not aware of Hill Farmstead during the first few years that I became passionate about craft beer, because it’s not a name one sees casually in stores or at their neighborhood watering hole. Why? Because outside of a few bottles occasional showing up in a store in Montpelier VT, the only place to buy their beer is at the brewery. And trust me when I tell you this – you do not live near Hill Farmstead. Its locale defines the phrase “out of the way.”

Already deep in northern Vermont, DBNE left its temporary base in Waterbury to trek even deeper into Vermont’s “northeast kingdom”. Ninety minutes deeper in fact, up to Greensboro VT. We saw little else in Greensboro other than trees, and I don’t remember more than two cars passing by. As we motored down the highway in the middle of nowhere, there was a small dirt road off to the side that was hardly marked. I'd heard this was the sign that we were two miles from the brewery and that from here on we had to travel on dirt roads that were, at times, mud pits. They were. And our car still hasn’t forgiven us.

We arrived at the brewery only a few minutes after their scheduled opening time, and meandered confusingly around the almost abandoned-looking property searching for an entrance to their tasting room. After accidentally opening the door to the brewery’s back room, we eventually found our way to the correct door around the side of the building. Head brewer, Shaun Hill, was right inside the door, on Facebook. Who knew Facebook was known this far up in Vermont?

Shaun’s a humble-looking young guy. He’s just thirty-two years old, but has worked a number of years in breweries, both domestically and abroad at Nørrebro Bryghus in Denmark. His beer is praised and he has begun to acquire  minor celebrity status among hardcore beer geek circles. His personality conveys that he’s aware of how highly he’s spoken about. Yet, it seems he’s uncomfortable with it. We easily got the sense that he’s tired of media calling him for redundant profile stories, and would let out a big sigh if he had to explain the history of Hill Farmstead again. Instead, he motions to an article about his story posted on the wall that you can read. 

His initial timidness seems to be a natural reaction he has towards anyone who he meets for the first time. You can tell he wondered if we’re going to be one of the annoyingly chatty visitors who loiter for too long, one of the jerks who resell his beer for astronomical prices on eBay, or a genuine visitor simply interested in tasting his beers.

I guess we won his approval because in the end he became friendlier. To Shaun’s defense, he mentioned when we arrived that he had to handle the tasting room in addition to brewing today; as if the guy who typically handles tastings and bottle purchases called in sick. So in between pouring something for us to taste, he would run back and forth between kettles and tanks to add hops, move hoses, tweak equipment settings, etc. He was definitely busy, but encouraged us to shout out questions as he worked. And at one point, on top of a short ladder across the room, he had a bucket of Columbus hops in his hand and asked us in pure giddiness, “have you ever smelled raw Columbus hops before!?” We said no and he came down from his ladder and eagerly brought the bucket over to us so we sink our faces into it.

Many of Shaun’s beers are named after family members, and when I pointed to an old black and white photo of what looked like relatives, he smiled, stopped what he was doing, and happily explain who the people were in the picture.

Speaking of the beers, we tasted six. And they all live up to the hype.

First was “Edward,” which I had once before, and is easily the best pale ale I’ve ever had. Arguably, it has one leg in IPA land and blurs the lines between the two styles like no other. Its rustic full body and amazing hop profile trick you into thinking you’re drinking something bigger than just a 5.2% ABV pale ale.

Next was “Harlan.” Shaun’s most common IPA. Out of all of Shaun’s beers we’ve had, this is my least favorite, but it’s still very good and I would never turn it down. Looking almost like a Belgian Wit, it offers a pleasant, yet somewhat subdued, tropical aroma and flavor. This is an easy-drinking IPA at 6.0%ABV.

Not named after a relative, the next beer, called “Columbus,” is named for the one hop type it uses (typically beer is brewed with multiple hop varieties.) This was another pleasant IPA, though unlike Harlan, its flavor and aroma offer more earthy, spicy, and resiny notes.

Back to family-named homages, we then tasted “Abner,” a double IPA. One of my favorite styles, this version is a knockout. Big tropical notes dance over a dank hop undertone. And its earthy malt profile comes across a bit chewy. This one is beyond satisfying.

One of my other favorite styles is a Porter, and Shaun’s version, called “Everett,” is a homerun. It’s a robust Porter sitting at 7.5%, which is just shy of imperial level. So it’s most similar to something like Smuttynose’s Robust Porter. Everett could not be any smoother. It’s very full bodied. Thick even. But it drinks like silk. The flavor brings to mind Nutella, oats, nuts, and dark chocolate, but with a touch of acidic hop in the front of it all. Its alcohol is more hidden than Smuttynose’s version.

Lastly we tasted a wonderfully decadent black IPA called “Society and Solitude 2.” It blends pine and a little orange with heavily roasted coffee and charred unsweetened chocolate. Because of its full flavor and the 9.5% ABV, it’s more of a sipper.

We purchased a few bottles to take home. We wanted a bottle of everything, but Hill Farmstead is a cash-only establishment, and we only had $41 on us. We wound up with 750ml bottles of Edward and Abner, a smaller bottle of Everett, and pre-bottled, honey-infused saison called Anna that we didn’t get to try during our visit as it wasn’t on tap.

Just as we started to make our purchases and head out, other people started to pour into the room that, until that point, we had all to ourselves. I could see Shaun beginning to get mildly irritated from a couple of the questions a new visitor was asking, as if he was thinking to himself, “what do you mean what's the difference between the two beers...the answer’s right on the board in front of you!”

Just minutes after looking annoyed in the tasting room, Shaun gave us a cheerful wave as we drove away. And that perfectly sums up our interaction with him. He’s a genuinely nice guy who at times maybe feels victimized by the hype his skillful craft brings him, and annoyed at the same silly questions he always gets. At one moment he conveys a child-like friendliness, then another moment he struggles socially, or looks aggravated. But we don’t fault him for it. When he claims that he enjoyed the craft beer scene more a few years ago, I assume he’s indirectly referring in to the hype his beers have gained since that time, and wishes he didn’t have to always deal with it.

Normally, I wouldn’t talk so much of the brewer and inadvertently raise the pedestal that others put them on. I prefer to let the beers speak for themselves. But Shaun was just too interesting of a character during our visit to not talk about him here. 

Ultimately, while Hill Farmstead is a chore to get to, it’s absolutely worth visiting at least once to taste tremendous beers straight from the source. Heck, you have to visit it if you want to actually buy their beer. If you go, bring cash and a four-wheel drive vehicle. 

Side Note – there is one other business we were aware of in Greensboro before driving through “town”. Do you like cheese? Then familiarize yourself with Cellars at Jasper Hill. These skillful people produce the most delicious and complex cheese I’ve ever tasted. Named “Winnemere,” this cheese is washed in Hill Farmstead beer, wrapped in tree bark, and looks like the pasty glue you smeared all over your hands in 3rd grade art class. It is divine. 

Jasper Hill also takes a pedestrian cheddar from Cabot, wraps it in muslin, brushes it with lard, lovingly ages it for fourteen months, then hands it back to the folks at Cabot with  as I like to envision it  an unprompted “you’re welcome,” because it’s a million times better than its original state. I swear they use a magic wand somewhere in that process. Although we discovered that the Jasper Hill farm was very close to Hill Farmstead, we didn't see it. Turns out they don’t have a visitor’s center, anyway. I was upset at first but realized it was best to let Jasper Hill exist only as it does in my imagination – a Willy Wonka-like wonderland of cheese wheels and whistling elves who never stop smiling and often break into song.

Hill Farmstead Brewery
403 Hill Rd
Greensboro Bend, Vermont, 05842-8813
Ph: (802) 533-7450

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Beercation Part 4 - Rock Art Brewery

After our visit to the scenic Trapp Family Brewery, DBNE trekked up to Morrisville to visit Rock Art. If you go there, note their new address posted on their website because Google maps doesn't know it yet. If you type “Rock Art Brewery” into your GPS, it will send you to their old address. Luckily their new location is on the way to the old location so if your eyes are peeled enough (ours weren’t) you’ll see it on your left coming from the south.

Rock Art is a comfortable brewery to visit. It’s on a main road (as “main” as they come in this neck of the woods), with its own parking lot and a shiny new visitor’s center that runs as a store. Aside from bottles and growlers of their own beer, the store also sells a few Vermont food items (cheeses, dipping sauces and spreads in tiny-therefore-cute bottles), handmade wooden trinkets, and other Vermont-themed randomness completely unrelated to beer. You can even outfit your entire body with an array of Rock Art apparel like hats, shirts, jackets, and sweat pants. I didn’t look close enough but I wouldn’t be surprised to also find Rock Art boxer shorts there, too. I mean, what better piece of clothing is there to promote their barleywine called “Vermonster”?

We showed up for a 4pm tour that their website promoted. But when we arrived we were told there was no tour. Disappointing. If you plan to visit and are hoping for a tour, call ahead and ensure it’s really happening. Their website still advertises the 4pm tour but who knows if it’s true.

Luckily, tastings are always available. For $4 you get two-ounce tastes of four or five beers and a souvenir glass to take home. Now, we need another souvenir glass like we need another bill to pay. I’d rather just pay $1 for samples and let them keep the glass. But if you have room in your cabinet, this is a fine deal.

The tasting area is a full-size bar that makes the focal point of the room. We saddled up to it and tasted their Whitetail blonde ale, a mild barleywine called RidgeRunner, a stronger barleywine called Vermonster, their Pumpkin Stout, and American Red.

To be honest, Rock Art beers in general don’t often excite. The blonde, Pumpkin Stout, and American Red don’t’ stand out in their own respective crowd, and RidgeRunner – while tasty enough – has confused people. If you look at RidgeRunner as a unique Imperial Red of sorts, you may be happy. But if you’re looking for a typical barleywine, you may be disappointed. Rock Art claims Ridgrunner is a British barleywine, and it may or may not be to style. We’ve can’t recall tasting another “British barleywine” so we have little to compare it to. But ultimately, RidgeRunner is a tasty enough brew to purchase once.

Us Americans are used to bigger barleywines; ones with double-digit ABVs. And that’s the territory where Vermonster sits. At 10%ABV, Vermonster is the second-best beer DBNE has ever tasted from Rock Art. Despite a lack-luster appearance, its bold flavors conjure a mix of pine, candied dark fruits, orange zest, and tobacco. Compared to other barleywines, it doesn’t beat all of the competition, but it’s still one of Rock Art’s best and worth a purchase.

So if Vermonster is second-best, what’s #1? We say that spot belongs to the Double Smoked Porter. It was not offered at our tasting, but was purchased not long ago and it exceeded our expectations. It has a wonderful aroma of smoky grain, burning cedar, plus a little mocha and charcoal. The flavor is woodsy, slightly charred, with additional faint notes of dark chocolate and coffee beans. The more it warms up, the more smoke is noticed. If you see it, give it a shot, as it easily stands next to some of the best Baltic porters we’ve tried.

Rock Art may not be the crown jewel of breweries in northern VT. But they make honest beers with a couple highlights.  They’re a staple in the local beer scene and their generosity to lend materials has been noted by their fellow VT brewers nearby. Any beer tour in VT’s northeast kingdom is not complete without a stop at Rock Art. Just make sure you make room for another souvenir pint glass in your cabinet because you’re getting one whether you like it or not.

Rock Art Brewery
632 Laporte Rd/Rt 100
Morrisville, Vermont
Open 9:00am - 6:00pm Monday - Saturday ($4 tastings until 5:30pm)

Monday, May 7, 2012

Beercation Part 3 - The Trapp Family Brewery

Stop three of our tour brings us to a storybook place no beer fan or movie buff should pass up while in the Stowe area - The Trapp Family Lodge.

This lodge was founded in 1950 by the vocally talented Von Trapp family (also known as the “Trapp Family Singers”).  They originally fled Germany in 1942 after their home was confiscated by the Nazis. Years later, Maria von Trapp, the family’s mother, wrote a book called “The Story of the Trapp Family Singers” that was eventually adapted into a play. That play was later developed into a motion picture you may have heard of, called “The Sound of Music.”

While the movie was filmed in Europe and not Vermont, the Lodge’s grounds in Stowe make you believe that parts of the film could have been filmed there. We can pretend at least. It’s easy to. Because when you get out of your car atop the large hill that the Lodge is perched on and gaze out over treetops to mountains in the distance, you may find yourself saying “The hills are alive! …with the delicious aroma of malted barley and fermenting sugars.”

In the 1970’s, Joannes Von Trapp – the youngest child of the singing family – took over management of the Lodge. He eventually moved to British Columbia and then Montana, but later returned to manage the family business again. Then just about a decade ago, he had a novel idea. He wished to brew his own beer for the resort’s guests. The vision was to brew American versions of the native lagers he enjoyed during trips back to his ancestral home in the Austrian countryside.

I like the way this man thinks.

His dream became a reality in 2010. The Trapp Family Brewery opened in a small building known as the resort’s “DeliBakery,” which is detached from the lodge itself. The actual brewing happens on the bottom level while the café to enjoy beers and food is upstairs.

As you enter the building, you immediately walk into the deli where you can order sandwiches, small plates, baked goods, coffee, tea, and their homemade lager. I didn’t realize this until later, but customers can also walk right through the deli, past the adjoining dining area, and into a bar area with a handful of seats. It seemed you could saddle up and order beers and grub here as well.

The DeliBakery is simple, yet quaint in Austrian character. Its wooden tables, booths, and chairs look handmade with touches of traditional Austrian and Bavarian-styled carpentry. While the dining area is almost all wood, the bar room is contrasted by an all-glass wall that looks into a modern kitchen where cooks bake doughy European-style treats and tasty lunch grub.

Attached to the bar area is outdoor deck with seating that offers fine views. I couldn’t help but think that on a nice summer’s day the deck must be an enjoyable spot on which to kill time with a brew and sandwich. It was a bit too raw on the day DBNE visited to experience this, but it gives us enough reason alone to visit again in warmer months.

Time for adult beverages and chow.

We purchased our beer and food from the deli area and then sat ourselves at a booth in the bar room. Food was brought out to us from the kitchen within five or ten minutes.

There were four house lagers available to us and we tried them all. I’ll say right now that you can do no wrong ordering any of their beers. They’re all excellent and taste like traditional benchmark representations for their styles.

Their Dunkel Lager had the perfect level of caramel malt, breadiness, and earthy grain. It made me realize I hadn’t tasted something so on-point to style in a long time.

The Vienna Lager was properly brassy in appearance and offered the exact flavors one would expect from the Vienna style. Notes of cereal, toffee, and floral hops were in precise proportion. Another two thumbs up.

Their helles-style lager was surprisingly good. I expected this one to bore me as it’s hard to make a helles exciting. But for such a modest and light style of beer, theirs was as packed with flavor as one could hope for while still staying in helles territory. Its notes of honey, cracker, and grassy hops made this crisp and refreshing without tasting the least bit lame.

Lastly, and best of all, their schwarzbier called “Trostenbier” was superb. It ranks right up there with some of the best schwarzbiers and black lagers I’ve ever tasted. It offered big roasted grains with a touch of smoke and an undercurrent of unsweetened bakers cocoa. Faintly spicy hops provide just the right amount of bitterness. It’s clean and super drinkable.

These lagers are impressive. Are there more creative takes on these styles? Sure. Creativity now runs rampant in American craft brewing. But the Trapp Family Brewery showed me that the ability to nail a traditional take on these European styles is just as exciting. Refreshing, in fact. Their ingredients may have something to do with it. The brewery imports all their barley and whole-flower hops from Germany, where many of the beer styles they brew originated. (Side Note: An effort is underway to revive the cultivation of these particular hops and barley varietals in New England, with new strains adapted to the local climate.)

But is there something else at play that’s helping their lagers taste so accurate to their European roots?

Maybe this: The source of the water for Trapp lagers is an artesian well located near the brewery. It’s said that well water has chemical qualities similar to Austrian spring water, making it ideal for brewing European style lagers. I’ll believe it.

A quick note on food: The steak sandwich I had here was another reason our visit was so enjoyable. My sandwich was not your typical sloppy steak and cheese monstrosity from your local pizza joint. This was an easily digestible, artisanal steak sandwich, well-season, and topped with chimichurri sauce. I’d be happy to get it again.

After an absolutely pleasant experience at the Trapp Family Brewery, we’re eager to visit again. But for now, we continue our tour northward and stop in Morrisville VT. Here, we stepped into the Rock Art Brewery, which is our focus in Part IV to come. 

Trapp Family Brewery at the Trapp Family Lodge
700 Trapp Hill Road
Stowe, Vermont 05672

Monday, April 23, 2012

Beercation Part 2 - The Alchemist

Part II of our northern Vermont journey sees us heading straight for the town of Waterbury. Here, one can visit two amazing places within short walking distance. That’s the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream factory, and The Alchemist Cannery.

After a brief visit to Ben and Jerry’s to ingest creamy, fatty, deliciousness, we waddled into The Alchemist. The Alchemist used to be known as a loved brewpub, and it sat at a different location in town. Unfortunately, Hurricane Irene wasn’t kind to it. The storm blew through Waterbury and flooded many businesses, including The Alchemist, which could not re-open in its original state. (Note – The Alchemist’s original space is now open as another pub called Prohibition Pig, run by different people).

Thankfully, Jen and John Kimmch, owners of The Alchemist, previously began building a cannery at a location spared by Irene’s wrath. Perfect timing. The cannery opened days after Irene checked out of town.

The Alchemist cannery is a modest building located on a quiet side street off of a busy Rt 100. As you drive up to it, you’ll notice a tall, skinny, simple sign at first that simply says “brewery.” This is where John Kimmch does just one thing; brews his double IPA (DIPA) named Heady Topper.

The facility has a small tasting room and retail shop where one can buy Heady Topper in four-packs, though many people buy it by the case. This beer is extremely popular among beer geeks, and after I had my first taste of it just weeks before, I saw why. Heady Topper is not the most bitter or alcoholic DIPA (8% ABV), but it offers serious layers of citric hop goodness with astounding drinkability for the style.

It’s interesting – if you were on a white-sand Caribbean beach, a stronger beer style such as a DIPA is not typically the alcoholic drink you’d fancy, right? Heady Topper disrupts this idea. Its hop flavors remind me of tropical vacations with a touch of northern pine and raw tea leaves. If I could buy Heady Topper on the next tropical beach I lay on, you would have a hard time convincing me that life gets any better.

Heady Topper costs you $12.00 for a four pack of 16 oz. cans. Or, you can buy one can (if you’re lame) and pay $3.75.

That’s right, their beer comes in cans. Why? Cans are an often misunderstood vessel in the beer world. They’re associated with mass-produced, sub-par beer and craft brewers don’t often use them. But canned craft beer is becoming a trend, and many beer enthusiasts argue that it’s a more ideal way to package beer. Cans are said to better protect beer from sunlight (beer’s enemy), and don’t leak oxygen as easy as bottles.

“Our state-of-the-art canning line allows us to preserve and protect our beer against the impact of UV light and oxygen,” states The Alchemist. “Our cans are environmentally friendly. They take less energy to produce, ship, and recycle.”

One last element to Heady Topper’s personality that’s worth mentioning is the claim that’s written near the top of the can. The words “DRINK FROM THE CAN!” are written in bold, capital letters. This goes against what almost every beer geek practices and it causes debates.

Us geeks always pour our beers in glasses to appreciate a beer’s appearance. This allows the formation of head to occur which releases the beer’s aromatics. I’ve come to enjoy this element of beer consumption just as much as tasting it. So where does Heady Topper get off telling us to drink straight from the can without letting it decant and develop in a proper glass? I don’t know, but I love it. I drank it from the glass and I drank it from the can; when something tastes so supremely good, it doesn’t matter how you consume it. And after the debates subside, that’s something many beer fans can agree on.

After visiting The Alchemist cannery, and skiing on slush for two sun-drenched days, DBNE continued its brewery tour at a place that exhibits grandeur and Austrian charm - The Trapp Family Brewery. 

The Alchemist Cannery
35 Crossroad

Waterbury, VT 05676
Phone: (802) 244-7744