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 cafĂ© 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