October 22, 2014

Getting into the spirit: Exploring Vermont’s booming beer and wine industry

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Vindal Blanc ice wine (pictured above) produce by Snow Farm Vineyards is just one of the many unique offerings being produced at local vineyards. (Observer photo by Snow Farm Vineyards)

Vindal Blanc ice wine (pictured above) produce by Snow Farm Vineyards is just one of the many unique offerings being produced at local vineyards. (Observer photo by Snow Farm Vineyards)

By Stephanie Choate
Observer staff
As Vermonter Kurt Staudter and his wife, Patricia, approached their 25th wedding anniversary several years ago, they embarked on what would become an eye-opening experience—visiting all of the state’s breweries.
“As we went from one brewery to the next, we were meeting these people who are just so insanely passionate about what they’re doing,” he said. “These people were just crazy happy. They loved doing what they were doing.”
Six years later, Staudter is the executive director of the Vermont Brewers Association.
The passion he described is one of the main reasons people in the industry say Vermonters should get out and meet the people in their backyards making some of the finest beers, wines and spirits around.
“There’s a lot to be said for tasting something right where it’s made with the person who’s made it,” said Chris Howell, who operates Vermont Farm Tours and takes locals and visitors to Vermont farms, cheesemakers, vineyards and more.
Rachel Carter, communications director with the Vermont Farm to Plate Initiative, said Vermont’s beer, wine, cider and spirit industry is booming, along with any form of agri-tourism that gets people onto farms and places where food and drink are made.
“It’s become a part of people’s experiences coming to Vermont,” Carter said. “It’s just so authentic, because it’s in someone’s barn or on someone’s field or in a repurposed building where some of the breweries have popped up.”
Carter said Vermont has at least 27 vineyards and wineries, 31 breweries, 9 cideries and 15 distilleries. With new ones opening so quickly, it’s hard to keep track.

VERMONT’S FINEST BEERS
Vermont has some of the top breweries in the nation, and several Vermont brewers have created international stirs.
“Vermont has become the Disneyland of beer,” said Staudter. “It’s become a mecca for great beer. We’ve got some of the top brewers in the world and we’re making some of the top beers on the planet. It’s an incredible time here in Vermont.”
The Alchemist’s Heady Topper—which often sells out in stores within hours—caps beer promoter Beer Advocate’s list of top beers, Lawson’s Finest Liquids’ Double Sunshine comes in at number 8 and Hill Farmstead’s Abner sits at number 14.
Staudter said it’s a bit of an ironic turnaround that Vermont has become known for its alcoholic beverages—100 or so years ago, it was one of the first states to embrace Prohibition. How times have changed.
“Vermont is steeped in beer culture,” said Chad Brodsky, who founded Burlington Brew Tours in 2009. “Craft beer has exploded. In 2012, 409 breweries opened their doors in the U.S. In greater Burlington alone, two new breweries are opening within the next six months… and we have some of the best breweries in the world in Vermont.”
Visiting breweries gives you a chance meet the people behind your favorite brews, see the brewing process and sample some tasty options.

Striking out on your own
For those who want to craft their own tour experience, the Vermont Brewers Association offers a tasting passport complete with a map of affiliated breweries in the state. Ask for the passport at any of the state’s breweries, and get started.
“(Brewers are) so generous with their time, and they’re working hard to wow you with every one of their beers,” Staudter said.
In the past five years, the passport has swelled from 16 breweries to 29, and last year 1,000 people completed the passport. Staudter said he frequently gets emails from people who have gotten hooked on the passport and plan their next vacations to Vermont around it. He recalled one video he received several years ago where a crew of guys hired a van and driver to take them to all of the state’s breweries (then 16) for a bachelor party.
“It was a circus by the time they finished,” he said.
Which brings him to a piece of oft-imparted sage advice.
“Do it responsibly,” he said. “It’s not a race, take as long as you like.”
For example, you can hit a handful of Vermont’s breweries right in Burlington—just make sure to bring a designated driver along.
The state’s largest brewery, Magic Hat Brewing Company in South Burlington, offers free guided or self-guided tours, plus free tastings at its “Artifactory.”
“We definitely have a unique look when you walk into the Artifactory,” said Dani Gleason, Magic Hat Retail Marketing Manager. “(Visiting) gives you insight into what goes behind the making of the beer. See how it’s all put together to get educated on what’s going into the beer…. It’s just a really cool, fun experience.”
Local favorite Switchback Brewing Company has a tasting room, and Zero Gravity Craft Brewery and Vermont Pub and Brewery are located within restaurants. Fiddlehead Brewing Company in Shelburne is conveniently located next to Folino’s Pizza, which is BYOB—though the wood-fired pizza makers do suggest on their website that you refrain from bringing Busch, Milwaukee’s Best or Natty Ice.
Burlington Beer Company recently opened in Williston.
Breweries farther south and east provide opportunities for day trips through the Vermont countryside, stopping at state parks and other local attractions along the way.
Many breweries have a taproom where you can get a tasty meal and a pint, plus take a growler or two home with you.
For more information on Vermont beer and the beer passport, visit www.vermontbrewers.com.

Getting a hand from the experts
Several companies have sprung up that will take you on a tour of local breweries and brewpubs—leaving the sampling to you and the driving to them.
Brodsky’s Burlington Beer Tours introduces residents and visitors to award-winning beers of all styles. Each tour includes a tasting and analysis of 15 beers, plus lunch. Brodsky and his crew will even pick you up at your home or hotel in Burlington or South Burlington.
“We wanted to provide a safe and fun way to explore the Vermont beer culture, covering everything in an all-inclusive trip where (guests) didn’t have to worry, just sit back and relax,” Brodsky said. “They drink and we drive.”
The Burlington tour hits Magic Hat, Switchback, Fiddlehead, Vermont Pub and Brewery and Three Needs Taproom—no longer a brewpub, but still a purveyor of a range of Vermont’s finest brews.
Brodsky said his tour attendees are split evenly between locals and out-of-staters.
“Everyone has an awesome time,” he said. “If you go to these places on your own, you aren’t getting the same experience.”
Burlington Brew Tour attendees, for example, can go into the downstairs brewery at Vermont Pub & Brewery, typically off-limits for the average pub-goer.
“You get a designated driver who is an expert in the brewing process and pairing food with beer, that enhances the tour,” he said. “We have a relationship with all these breweries, and we have VIP treatment at the places we go.”
Brodsky said the business has taken off, and he’s expanded into Boston and Portsmouth, N.H. He’s also introduced a Stowe area tour and is looking into a coach bus tour of some southern Vermont breweries. The company even holds monthly tours for singles looking to meet their beer-loving soul mate, called Brew Dates.
For more information, visit www.burlingtonbrewtours.com.
Based in the Okemo Valley, The Good Bus offers customizable brewery tours. In the Mad River Valley, Vermont Bed & Brew offers discount lodging and a full day of craft beer touring. Vermont Backroad Tours, based out of Wallingford, has trips for 10-30 beer lovers.

Joining the crowd
Beer festivals and events also give beer lovers a chance to sample some new Vermont beers.
Coming up on June 14, the Sugarbush Brew-Grass Festival celebrates local music while showcasing Vermont’s craft brewers. Learn more at www.sugarbush.com.
The annual and wildly popular Vermont Brewers Festival, which celebrates craft beer and the brewers that bring them to thirsty residents, brings some of the best Vermont and regional brewers together at the Burlington Waterfront. Annual brewfests are also held at several Vermont towns and resorts, including Mount Snow Resort, Okemo Resort, Killington Resort, Smugglers’ Notch Resort, Mad River Glen, Montpelier and more.

FOLLOWING VERMONT’S WINE TRAIL
For such a small, chilly state, Vermont has more than its share of wineries. Locals can visit close to 30 wineries and vineyards from DueNorth Vineyard in Franklin all the way south to Honora Winery & Vineyard in West Halifax.
Vermont’s wine industry is “growing, in a single word,” said Sara Granstrom, president of the Vermont Grape & Wine Council and co-owner of Lincoln Peak Vineyard.
“These grape varieties that survive winters are relatively new. Up to about 20 years ago, it wasn’t even possible to grow grapes in Vermont, and now we have so many varieties that are being planted, even in some not so cold regions, because people like the wine they’re making.”
Vermont’s cold climate supports several cold-hardy grape varietals, including berry- and plum-noted Frontenac, balanced LaCrescent, spicy Marquette, fruity St. Croix and more traditional Riesling.
The state’s plentiful apples, berries and other fruit also translate into delicious fruit wines, ciders and meads. The cold climate also means Vermont is one of the few areas to produce dessert ice wines, made from grapes frozen on the vine.
Vermont also has at least nine hard cider makers, plus six producers of ice cider.
“There is such a huge variety and there’s something for everyone out there,” she said. “It’s a fun treasure hunt to seek it out.”

Tasting on your own
Like the Vermont brewery passport, the Vermont Grape and Wine Council produces a Vermont Winery Passport that provides a map of its member wineries, as well as the location, contact information and hours of each.
Most wineries are open for tastings at least one day a week. Some of the larger wineries host events and tours. Granstrom recommended that people check websites or call wineries during the slow winter season to make sure they are open.
Clustered just south of Burlington are East Shore Vineyard, Shelburne Winery and Charlotte Village Winery. An easy drive to the north are Boyden Valley Winery in Cambridge, Sugarbush Vineyard in Colchester, Snow Farm Vineyard in South Hero and Hall Home Place Ice Cider in Isle La Motte.
The Capital Area Wine Trail also draws wine lovers. Fresh Tracks Farm Vineyard and Winery in Berlin, Grand View Winery in East Calais and North Branch Vineyards in Montpelier make for an easy loop. Just down the road in Groton is Artesano Meadery, which transforms Vermont honey into hand-crafted mead.
To download the Vermont Winery Passport and for more information, visit www.vermontgrapeandwinecouncil.com.

Help from the experts
Vermont Farm Tours offers a Vermont Vineyards tour, takings its customers on a scenic tasting tour to vineyards on the shores of Lake Champlain.
“My real interest and passion lies in connecting people with place through food and farm,” said Howell. “I think if you taste food with the person who made it on the soil it comes from, it creates a lasting memory and experience, something that benefits the guests and the producer.”
Vermont Farm Tour guests visit Shelburne Vineyard, Charlotte Village Winery and Lincoln Peak in New Haven, meeting vintners, tasting wine and cheese and sitting down to a three-course vineyard lunch.
“The wine tour folks are usually interested, and I would say pleasantly surprised, that Vermont can produce such good wine,” Howell said. “We’ve only been making wine commercially for, you know, 20 years…every year I do these tours, I get to taste better and better wine as the winemaker gets more and more adept with the varieties that they can grow in Vermont.”
Howell said he strives to help people experience each producer’s story, something people may not connect with during individual visits.
“I’m good friends with the producers and they’re going to show my guests a much better time,” he said. “I’m also good at helping the producer to convey their story and their passion, and really get in depth about the food and wines that we taste.”
The company also offers a monthly Burlington cocktail walk—where guests can visit three downtown Burlington restaurants for original cocktails made with Vermont spirits and bitters—as well as cheesemaking tours and workshops, a bike tour, farm tours and more.
Visit www.vermontfarmtours.com.
The Good Bus offers full-day winery tours with tastings at Neshobe Winery, Lincoln Peak Vineyard, Shelburne Vineyard and Charlotte Village Winery, plus lunch and snacks of local artisanal cheeses and fruit in transit.
For more information, visit www.thegoodbus.com.

Go with the crowd
Wine festivals are a great way to visit with vintners, sample wine and pick your favorites—plus taste delicious local food.
The Vermont Wine & Harvest Festival at Mount Snow, set this year for Sept. 19 through Sept. 21, offers a weekend of local food and wine. Friday kicks off with a preview tasting of wine and a village stroll and local soup competition, followed by two days of tastings, food, dinners, wine parties, breakfast and live entertainment.
“It’s set in a beautiful backdrop,” said Katie Nicgorski of the Mount Snow Area Chamber of Commerce, which organizes the event. “You get to take in the mountain views and it’s right at the time where the leaves are turning. It has that great Vermont feel.”
Between 15 and 20 Vermont wineries, distilleries and cider companies typically attend, along with nearly 40 specialty food and craft producers. Approximately 3,500 people turn out for the three-day event, Nicgorski said.
“Some people aren’t as familiar with Vermont wines in general, and it’s a great way to get exposed to something a little different,” Nicgorski said.
Local restaurants and inns also put together special wine pairing dinners.
The Vermont Cheese Festival at Shelburne Farms is a summertime gem for wine and cheese lovers. Though the event features more than 40 Vermont cheesemakers, it also hosts local wineries, breweries and distilleries, plus fine food samples, demos and seminars. Visit www.vtcheesefest.com.
Many vineyards also hold seasonal festivals and events that can be a great way to check out a vineyard with extra food and entertainment.
Distilleries making a mark
Locally made craft spirits have also expanded rapidly in the state.
The Distilled Spirits Council of Vermont, a cooperative, non-profit organization created to develop, promote and maintain the distilled spirits industry in Vermont, publishes a map and passport similar to those for beer and wine. It is available at any of the participating distilleries.
“Fifteen distilleries concocting a range of spirits from vodka and gin to rye whiskey and maple liqueurs are located throughout the state,” Carter said.

To learn more about Vermont distilleries, visit the Distilled Spirits Council of Vermont at www.distilledvermont.org.

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