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

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Beercation Part 1 - Lawson's Finest Liquids

If you’re a wine lover looking to go on a wine-focused vacation, you probably look at California. You could, of course, go to various spots in Europe. But if you want to stay in the U.S., California is probably top of mind before other states like Washington, Oregon, and New York. And with good reason. It’s fantastic, as DBNE experienced not long ago, and I yearn to soon again frolic in its bucolic rolling hills under the spell of rich zins, bold cabs, and leathery sangiovese.

But what about beer geeks? Where are we supposed to trek in our own country to visit world-class breweries in one geographic area? Where can we taste the most citric American IPAs, luscious porters, and complex barleywines all within driving distance? If you asked ten beer fans, I bet reaching a consensus wouldn’t be as easy as with wine lovers. Beer geeks may suggest California, Colorado, Michigan, or New England. Those all sound great. But DBNE can personally advocate for one of those (surprise, surprise).

Of course I’m talking about New England. But where exactly?

Picture a rainbow. A rainbow with an end. And that end is found – pot of gold and all – in the northern half of Vermont. With more breweries per capita than any other state, all of Vermont is worth mentioning, not just the north. Southern Vermont is home to Madison Brewing, Northshire Brewery, and McNeill’s Brewery (creators of a porter I adore), but the majority of Vermont breweries lie in central or northern territories.  

DBNE made a spring ski trip to the Stowe area. Due to weather, skiing ended abruptly and we suddenly had more time on our hands than anticipated to visit breweries. Not a terrible tradeoff.

Overall, the quality of beer we experienced was hardly short of amazing.

On the way to Stowe, we planned a stop in the town of Warren; a place tucked away in hillsides, practically hiding from the rest of civilization. Warren is home to a store named – you may want to sit down for this – “The Warren Store”. While we love poking in New England country stores, we stopped by The Warren Store for one purpose; score some of the acclaimed “Lawson’s Finest Liquids”. This beer is made by Sean Lawson near his home in Warren, but due to the tiny size of his operation the brewery does not offer tours or tastings. The only place to purchase Lawson’s beer is typically at The Warren Store, where Sean personally drops off bottles every Friday morning. One may also sometimes find Lawson’s beer at the Hunger Mountain Coop in Montpelier, and the Beverage Warehouse in Winooski VT, but The Warren Store is the shop most associated with the beer.

This is a quintessential New England country store with a potpourri of items for purchase; from cheese to clothes to beer to, well, potpourri itself. The store used to accept bottle reservations for Lawson’s beer, but as of recently no longer do. Your safest bet to ensure you get bottles for yourself is to get there as soon as possible on Friday or Saturday. You’re only allowed to purchase four bottles, and supposedly the store has no idea what beer Sean will drop off that week. 

As it's widely declared that all of Sean’s beers reach varying levels of greatness, I wasn't overly concerned with the exact beers he dropped off that weekend. Whatever it was, as long as there was some left, I'd buy it. 

Turned out the fresh batch delivered the day before was his Permagrin Rye Pale Ale, and about half of it was left. This is one of the two Lawson’s beers DBNE has previously tasted. (Last year at the American Craft Beer Festival in Boston, Lawson offered tastings of Permagrin and their Double Sunshine IPA. The latter was the highlight of the festival for us.) 

We bought three 22oz bottles of Permagrin ($7 each), and one bottle of another of Lawson’s beer that seemed left over from a previous shipment  the Oak Aged Fayston Maple Imperial Stout. This beer comes in a large wax-dipped bottle and robs you of $25. I’m sure that price tag has something to do with its slowness to leave the shelf, though there were only a few left. 

Our Fayston bottle is aging, but we did consume our Permagrins relatively fresh. Below are brief tasting notes:

Appearance: Foggy amber in color. Off-white head, one finger in size. 

Aroma: Earthy, layered grain profile showcases rye. A little caramel is present. The rye isn’t overpowering. The hops take an earthy route and offer grass notes in the background.

Taste: Fairly robust for a pale ale. Dry grains with sweet caramel notes prevail. Earthy hops provide balance and a little bitterness on the finish. If there was more of a citric hop presence this beer would elevate to an elite level.

Mouthfeel: Full bodied with a dry, short finish.

Overall: If Permagrin’s bottle didn’t promote the contents to have a nice blend of “generous” hops, I would have no complaints whatsoever with this beer. But while I was very pleased with it – loved the rye notes – I hoped its hop profile would be a bit more acidic. However, that may be unfair because I subconsciously compared it to Founders Red’s Rye PA; another rye pale ale that I consider to be perfection in a glass. Lawson’s comes close to the Founders offering. And while I would still choose the Founders version over Permagrin, the latter is still well made and worth your money.

Leaving The Warren Store, we pointed our GPS to the next brewery on our trip – The Alchemist Cannery in Waterbury. This brewery spends all its time and effort making just one beer as perfect as can be. Heady Topper is that beer and it owns Part 2 of our journey to be continued…

The Warren Store
284 Main Street
Warren, Vermont, 05674
Phone: (802) 496-3864

Open 7 days a week. 8:00am - 6:00pm