If you’ve been paying attention to American politics in the last year, you would have undoubtedly heard much about Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, currently running for US President. Understandably, he’s something of a hero in his home state – in recent weeks, they’ve even named a beer after him. Given how much Vermonters love their beer, this may just be one of the highest honours they can bestow. In fact, they claim their incredible range of craft breweries may just be the finest in the world. Last year, we headed to Burlington, Vermont to find out for ourselves just how fine their brews are…
So: Does Vermont, USA have the best beer in the world? It’s a claim that many North Easterners in the US made during my time in that part of the globe, and my trip to the 23rd Annual Vermont Brewers Festival last year at least proved one thing: they resolutely believe the claim and are wholly passionate about it. With four completely sold out “sessions” (each running four hours) over two days, the outdoor event has got to be one of the best attended seasonal beer tastings in the world; and as I arrived to the final of four tastings, the line to enter the venue – on the stunning Waterfront of Burlington – seemed to snake around for miles.
They all had a reason to be excited: almost 50 breweries were participating in the event, showing off a mix of their favourites, seasonal specials, hard-to-find gems and one-off batches brewed especially for the event. You could spot the latter simply by the size of the queues. And for the four hour session, the lines were consistently strong, as the favourites ran out of their most loved and anticipated varieties, while guests got more and more adventurous in trying something new.
But it wasn’t all about the drinks. A splattering of local food vendors and retail exhibitors were there to keep us fed, show off samples of their wares and provide the flavour of the region. Smoke & Cure may have been cooking the best bacon I’ve ever tasted. The Tipsy Pickle marinated their pickles in the likes of gin, whiskey and beer and the result was something incredible. And Benito’s Organic Hot Sauces made me wish I could bring a suitcase home full of nothing but their incredible selections (which naturally paired well with many of the beers on display).
Of the fresh food variety, I couldn’t get enough of the Wood Belly Pizza. Cooked to perfection in a woodfire oven, the slices ranged from $4 to $5 and saw vegetarian options alongside steak and bacon – but you didn’t need more than the plain cheese. The wholemeal dough was stunning – and in spite of (or perhaps thanks to) a raging hot oven, they could not have cooked these pizzas better. It really doesn’t get better than this.
Meanwhile, Island Homemade Ice Cream were giving Ben and Jerry’s – which began its life just a few minutes up the road – a run for their money with their cookie dough, among many other flavours. Our taste of the A-maize-ing Kettle Korn on entry, was sweetened goodness, while Ahli Baba’s Kabab Shop provided some healthier options with their falafel pita wrap (pictured below). Elsewhere were burgers, tacos and plates of BBQ’d meat that looked (and smelt) stunning.
With the curated food a winner, it should come as little surprise that the quality of beer on display was of a similarly high quality. This may be the best place in the world for beer, after all. As with any tasting event, especially when entering it blind, the trick is to follow the masses, using your drink vouchers wisely to get a taste of as many varieties – and as many rarities – as possible, in your 3oz (90mL) glass. For that, two breweries seemed to immediately jump out: Lawson’s Finest Liquids and Hill Farmstead, both of which came recommended from everyone we spoke to before attending and saw huge demand all weekend. Even on a relatively early arrival, many of their favourites – such as Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine IPA (8%) or Farmstead’s Dorothy (7%) – had already sold out. But their remaining beers proved to be the highlights of the festival all the same.
At Lawson’s, The Spruce Tip IPA (6.9%), which is brewed with red spruce tips, was my favourite drink at the festival – equalled only by Hill Farmstead’s Conduct of Life (5%), an American pale ale with Citra and Amarillo Hops – which I wrote down at the time as “perfectly cloudy and instantly refreshing”. Lawson’s Super Sessions #2 (4.8%) followed at a close second, with its blend of full malt, hops and Amarillo sending my taste buds flying.
But while these may have been the most recommended – and indeed the best that I tried during my session – the quality of beer here was phenomenally high across the board. Among the beers that stood out for me were Tributary Brewing‘s Belgian Wit (4.6%), one of the invited brewerys from out of State, with its subtle orange twist. There was the Limbo IPA from Long Trail – which sat at a high 7.6% but you would never have known it. Then there was Saranac‘s Hoppy Hour Hero, a full flavoured brew that sat at 9% (and you definitely knew it).
At Canadian guests Brassier du Monde, there was L’infusée (5.4% 20 IBU), a white beer brewed with berries, black tea, roobios, green tea and herbs, which made it a flavourful experience, while never being too overpowering – each element as subtle as the next. Then there was Burlington’s own Simple Roots – a local favourite – with its Citra and Amarillo (5.1%) – a fine blend of bitterness with fruity and sweet flavours. And rounding out my list is Harpoon Brewery‘s Take 5 IPA (4.3%), as well as Crop Brewery‘s Idletyme Douple IPA (8%) with big hop aromas and solid bitterness. Naturally, these choices only scrape the top of the barrel.
So much about what makes a great beer community is the passion of the drinkers. There’s something hard to ignore when thousands of people are lining up to taste a one off treat, unconcerned about the results, just curious to try something new. The Barrel Aged Surprise at Hop n Moose was one such example, which in my session was the Swamp Jack – a stout brewed in a Jack Daniel’s Barrel. It was a grower, giving off plenty of caramel undertones while being impressively unique, becoming tastier with every sip – and will be one of my most memorable drinks of the day…. and I’m not normally a stout drinker! If this is the level if quality that the brewery’s here have been adhering to, even on their one off brews, it’s no wonder people in the region are proud of their craft brewery culture.
What it comes down to is that the Burlington, Vermont (and surrounding) community trusts their brewers and are excited enough about it to tell the world: this is where the world’s best beer is. Whether or not that’s true is ultimately as irrelevant as it is relative to the person’s location. People in New Zealand may say the same about their burgeoning scene. So may those in Tasmania. Or in Portland. And though they can’t be all right for the purposes of argument, they can certainly think they’re right and that’s all that really matters.
In the end, that helps encourage the local scene, increase demand and the result, in theory, is a beer scene that will rival anywhere else in the world. And for that, Vermont sets the bar very, very high. With this event now in its 23rd year, it’s undoubtedly a consistency that other scenes have been striving for for years, whether they know it or not. Most have a lot of catching up to do, to say the very least. And though I may need some more time in the region to make a final judgement, the quality, consistency and variety of the beers I tasted in Vermont makes them, without question, among the best in the world. But THE best? That’s something only your taste buds can decide…
For the purposes of context it should be noted that the following breweries mentioned are located outside of the state of Vermont: Brassier du Monde, Saranac and Tributary Brewing.
Contact details of the Breweries mentioned:
Brassier du Monde (Hyacinthe, Quebec, Canada) – brasseursdumonde.com
Crop Brewery (Stowe, Vermont)
Harpoon Brewery (Windsor, Vermont) – harpoonbrewery.com
Hill Farmstead (Greensboro, Vermont) – hillfarmstead.com
Hop n Moose Brewing (Rutland, Vermont) – Official Website
Lawson’s Finest Liquids (Warren, Vermont) – lawsonsfinest.com
Long Trail Brewing Company (Bridgewater Corners, Vermont) – longtrail.com
Saranac (Utica, New York) – saranac.com
Simple Roots Brewing (Burlington, Vermont) – simplerootsbrewing.com
Tributary Brewing (Kittery, Maine) – tributarybrewingcompany.com
For more details about the Vermont Brewers Festival, which takes place July 15th and 16th this year in Burlington, head to their official website. Tickets go on sale on May 16th and they always sell out fast.
To get to Burlington (BTV), Air Canada offer a service from Australia via Vancouver and Chicago. Other airlines will take you via New York. But the best way to get to Burlington is via car or bus – taking in the beautiful surrounding States. We recommend driving down from the Canadian border, as it’s a short drive from Montreal – under two hours (not including the process of crossing the border from Canada into the US) – or about 5 and a half hours from New York City.
All photo by the author. The writer attended this event with the support of the Vermont Brewers Festival and Vermont Tourism. While in Burlington, the AU review stayed at the brand new Hilton Garden Inn (100 Main Street), a short walk from the festival grounds. Which is good, because you would *not* want to drive afterwards.