Monday, September 16, 2013

Mountains, Beaches and Beer: Brief Visits to Vermont and Southern California

Modern Times Grand Opening

Click any photo to enlarge, or visit my Flickr page for higher-res shots.

Who invented the IPA? Well, apparently no one knows for sure, but I think it's safe to say: "some British guy." Okay, but who's defining the modern IPA? That answer might not have a conclusive answer either, as it probably depends on what kind of IPA you mean. Talk to most modern IPA lovers, though, and they'll point you toward two places: California, followed by Vermont. One has a lot of trees and barns and is very green. One has a lot of cars, people, beaches and legit Mexican food. Both have very good beer, of all sorts.

I was fortunate enough to visit both on back-to-back weekends recently, and while on the surface, these two places have very little in common with each other, they are both unrivaled in their love of hoppy beers. California set the goal posts years ago, but others have since run with it (I'm not good with sports metaphors, so work with me), and Vermont then sort of spiked the ball and did a little victory dance. So where are we now? San Diego has plenty of old guards, and Vermont has its scrappy upstarts, but the best and newest of breweries from both share a common vision of flavorful yet accessible beers.

Vermont
Any good trip to Vermont should include a visit to the Hunger Mountain Co-Op, in Montpelier, the state capital. As someone driving 5 hours from NY, it makes sense to hit Montpelier first, but maybe you'll be following a different route. I'll leave the timing up to you, but keep this in mind: the Co-Op, along with Beverage Warehouse in Winooski, might have some of the best selections of beer in the country right now. Bold statement, I know. Notice I'm not saying they have the biggest or broadest selection; that's definitely not true. But consider this: at these wonderful stores, you have the potential to find most of Vermont's own highly sought-after brews, in addition to some of the most coveted breweries from all over the country. Due to Black Magic, some sort of backwoods pagan worship, or whatever, many Vermont stores get distro of Crooked Stave, Jester King, Prarie Ales, LoverBeer, Fantome, Anchorage, Ale Apothecary, and probably others that I'm forgetting now. This is, again, in addition to the regular (but still extremely elusive, as I'm finding out) shipments of Heady Topper and Lawson's Finest Liquids. In addition, everything is very, very cheap. I spotted a number of California beers retailing for less than they sold for in California.



From Montpelier, head to Waterbury. You can visit The Alchemist cannery, but if you're there after Thursday, they will almost certainly already be sold out of Heady Topper already (though you may still be able to find some at the Cork Wine Bar & Market, across the street from the Prohibition Pig). If you miss out on Heady entirely, sure, go ahead and bury your tears under pints of ice cream from Ben & Jerry's HQ. But no matter what time of day it is, no matter how much frozen flavored milk you have just consumed, you must eat a meal at the Prohibition Pig, housed in the former location of the Alchemist brewpub. I don't want to resort to hyperbole, being a professional and all, but the burgers at the Pro Pig are to sandwiches what Heady Topper is to beer, and if you neglect to eat a meal there, you should probably just set yourself on fire as a beacon of failure warning others.

The Prohibition Pig's tap list is a thing of beauty, home to Heady Topper on-draft-always (pictured above), and usually quite a few Hill Farmstead offerings. Half pours are offered, so if you want to quickly and conveniently sample the best of Vermont beer, Pro Pig is a great place to take that liquid tour.



From there, you will probably want to drive to Hill Farmstead. Even half an hour before closing on a Friday, you will likely have to wait in a line. And that will be okay, because you will talk to many interesting people, and sample a number of interesting, hoppy draft beers for only $5, as you wait to fill your growlers (and perhaps snatch some bottles, if you've got good timing).

It's very lucky that Shaun Hill is as good of a brewer as he is, because he kind of has the most idyllic brewery location ever. The contradiction of an old family farm so removed from civilization being now crowded with anxious line-waiters is a little ironic, but it's simply a lovely place.



From Greensboro, we headed west, camping at Grand Isle State Park on Lake Champlain for the night and spending all of Saturday in Burlington. While I don't have the experience to give a full run-down of Burlington, it's a town well-worth spending a day in, with many great restaurants, bars and coffee shops. And shopping, if you're into that. Check out the Farmhouse Tap & Grill, which may rival the Prohibition Pig in its tap list (makes sense, as Pro Pig was opened by a former FT&G bar manager), and which offers exceptional food as well — the veggie burger, topped with kimchi, was unique and eye-opening.

While I didn't get to visit the brewery itself, Fiddlehead is another one to watch out for, and Vermont offers a number of exceptional ciders and meads in addition to beer. Pruner's Promise Honeycrisp Cider, in particular, is a worth tracking down. Into maple? Shockingly, they have that too, including some intriguing maple-liqueur concoctions. Really, if you're into food or drink of any kind, Vermont has something to blow you away. All the pretty green mountains help too.

California
San Diego is known to all by now for its hoppy beers — surely you've had IPAs from Stone, Green Flash, and Alesmith? But new-school breweries are bringing a lighter, more tropical shade to the style — appropriate as these tropical IPAs are to the beach environment, they actually aren't far from what you'll find out of Vermont-based breweries.



My trip to California was short, and split between San Diego and LA — a day and a half each. As the San Diego portion of the trip was tragically cut a bit short — and a few spots, like White Labs, were not open on Sundays — we didn't get to all the breweries in San Diego that I had hoped (my original agenda was wildly over-ambitious, anyway). Still, two I did visit were enough to make the trip a definite success: newcomers Modern Times and Societe.

Modern Times is saturated with mosiacs: a wall of comic books, a mural of Michael Jackson (the singer, not the beer writer) made out of Post-It notes, and a truly fantastic amber IPA called Blazing World that features Mosaic hops. A hodge-podge of internet silliness and geek-culture obsessiveness, Modern Times filters this charming stew of weirdness into beer that is, fortunately, super legit. Rather than allow the sense of fun to carry over into excess, the aesthetic is boiled down into raw retro simplicity with the brewery's tap-handles and forthcoming can designs. The beers themselves show an equal balance of frivolity and refinement, as the lineup includes an appealing, highly-drinkable mix of new-wave IPAs, 100% Brett experiments, and tropical twists on saisons and stouts.


Modern Times was one the most photogenic breweries I have visited in recent memory, so please excuse the disproportionate number of photographs. I am but a humble amateur photographer, and I can't help but snap Post-It monkeys when I find them.


The next day, it was on to Societe Brewing, in another part of San Diego that I didn't really understand, because holy crap there is so much driving involved to get anywhere in California.

Socitie was the total opposite of Modern Times in terms of aesthetics, but the two breweries still share similar brewing philosophies. On both menus, you will find an emphasis on flavorful-but-not-overwhelming hoppy beers, followed by dabbles into the farmhouse realm. Where Modern Times ventures into Brett beers and other more funky experiments, Societe sticks to classic Belgian interpretations.


Societe has already received a good bit of acclaim for "The Pupil," their signature IPA, and the beer lived up to expectations — a successful fusion of classic IPA dankness with new wave tropical fruit that hit a balance I don't find often outside a few special breweries. Societe's Deadwood-meets-Gangs of New York old timey aesthetic just spoke to the core of my being, and I love them for embracing the motif while brewing badass beer to match. (Now please name a beer "The Hooplehead," okay guys?)

It may be grasping at straws to draw a lesson from these two visits, but I don't think I am crazy to see a trend emerging in new (and some less-new) breweries across America. Regardless of location, aesthetic, or even the unifying mission behind their outfit, a new wave of breweries are offering beer that is highly accessible to anyone, yet winning huge acclaim from the super-geek crowd. Brewers are realizing that there is a new kind of balance, and it doesn't have to mean boring. Perhaps this is most easily observed in Craft Beer's Favorite Style™, the IPA, as new hop varieties allow for intense layering of flavor without tongue-crushing bitterness and newbies cowering in fear. You can do this on a farm, on a hill, in an industrial park. You can work with Brett without fear, and offer farmhouse ales in a dozen combinations. Make it well, make sure it's fresh, and offer up some personality to give drinkers a sense of what you're all about. Craft beer is personality — that's the only definition I've ever found that fits.

18 comments:

  1. I am super jealous of both your trips. Time to start accumulating airline miles...

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    1. Haha, yeah, traveling gets to be a bit crazy. I still have an upcoming trip to Colorado, and I'm worried I'm going to burn myself out.

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    2. Not to mention the hurt to my wallet, of course.

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  2. Great, now I'm hungry and thirsty. Glad you made it out this way to SD. Next time, stop by Alpine Beer Co. It's out of the way, but well worth it. I'll buy you a pint.

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    1. I had really hoped to stop by Alpine this trip. Really really. I love their beer, but due to our scheduling mishaps, there was sadly just no way to swing it. Next time for sure!

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    1. I didn't take any pictures there, apparently. Too busy eating pizza!

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  4. Im in a picture on your website!! Im famous!!

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    1. I've gotten a lot of emails from establishments asking if you would be available to model next to their comic book walls, and what your going rate is.

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  5. "Craft beer is personality " That is genius. If you just talk about the personality of beer the need for craft as a label is negated. Then beer is just boring, eccentric, aggressive, friendly or whatever.

    The whole writeup is good but also cruel for those of us on the other side of the world.

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    1. Thanks! I've been thinking about that vague definition for a while, and I really think it's the most intuitive. Sometime I mean to write a whole essay about it. I feel like most people can easily tell when something is a product, driven by branding, and when something is a project, driven by passion.

      Sorry! I think about moving to Vermont all the time, however impractical it would be, but I really am lucky to live even 5 hours away.

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    2. I think it also adds a soft size limit for craft beer as genuine personality is harder to keep as the process scales up. Personality would shift with time too, even if the recipe is essentially the same because it's often very much a product of a particular time. Imagine how people interpret the personality of Sierra Nevada Pale now compared with in the 80s! I'd love to see what you come up with in your essay.

      Ha! It's all good, I'm just jealous. I know what you mean though. It's almost worse to be closer because it's right there up the road. My brother and I are dreaming of a visit probably focussed on California and Vermont with some Oregon/Washington and Mass. thrown in so hopefully I'll get to them one day soon.

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    3. Oh man, yeah, the size limit opens up a whole other bag. I feel weird when people exclude big breweries from being craft just based on size, but a brewery obviously must change as they grow and evolve out of the small business model. Perhaps, there too, it's just another "gut feeling" determination: did the brewery successfully hold on to some ever-evolving personality, or did it become a collection of pasteurized brands locked into market niches? Hmmm hmm.

      Good luck with your trip, hope you can make it sooner or later! I have never been to Oregon or Washington, and those are definitely on my short list.

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    4. Good dialogue. I've seen a lot of people turn against Stone in the past couple of years, and it seems to relate to this. They have grown so fast, and they keep putting out so many different beers all the time. I wonder if while this attracts new fans, if this also has made some of the older ones feel as if it's just about the money now and not the passion of making craft beer.
      I'm still a big fan and think they have achieved such a great success largely in part to their personality and passion for brewing excellent beers.

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    5. Stone is a great example, actually. I've also seen many people turn against them, but I also know a number of more casual beer geeks who think they are the end-all-be-all of hoppy beers. I personally think Stone has done a great job of retaining their personality, and I have lots of respect for them. I can't say they've ever released a beer or done something to compromise their original vision. (I think the Enjoy By series is great for stressing the importance of freshness in hoppy beers, even if it's also a clever marketing angle). Plus, Greg is a great spokesperson for the company, and is very vocal and public about their brand and beer in general, which I think is a big help in keeping a brewery's identity intact as its grows.

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    6. There's a few different things going on here. I was originally thinking more of the personality of an individual beer or a roster of beers but breweries obviously have their own personality or worldview that shapes their beer. As the company grows bigger the gap between the owner-brewer-marketing people grows. You have the potential to lose the unity of vision that there is when the owner is the brewer and the marketer or at least when they're in constant contact. Rogue and Brewdog are ones where (at least to me) it feels like the marketing persona of the company is a long way away from the reality and even though the beer is generally of good quality, I find it harder to enjoy or even purchase.

      I've never had access to Stone beer but most of what I've heard about them has been extremely positive. I think what happens when a smaller brewery grows is that the people who loved and supported it earlier on begin to lose the sense of ownership they had when there were only a few flying the flag. "I was into them before they were famous" is both a conceit and a genuine feeling of loss.

      I think one of the strengths of the personality definition of craft is that it doesn't impose a hard limit on size as if that extra barrel a year completely changes a brewery. You don't have to write an organisation off because they've reached a certain size. Rather, it's a slow shift that happens as the concerns of industrial scale production and growth of the organisation beyond the detailed control of one or two people has an impact on the character of the beers they produce. It can happen at different rates in different breweries. Maybe the fast growth of Stone has allowed them to maintain what might have slipped away had the growth been slower. With less employee turnover (I'm guessing) and less time for their vision or philosophy to be diluted, they probably have more chance to continue to be the company they were when they were smaller.

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  6. You missed the Vermont Pub and Brewery! There would be no Alchemist, no Hill Farmstead, and no Fiddlehead (and probably no black IPA) without Greg Noonan and VPB. For shame!

    In all seriousness, it's a great but underappreciated brewpub. I strongly recommend that folks coming to Vermont to sample our beers should have a pint at the place that started it all 25 years ago.

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    1. I know, I know! A lack of time unfortunately also means some tough choices. It came down to picking between Farmhouse Tap and Grill or the Vermont Pub and Brewery for our dinner, and I've heard so many raves about the food and beer selection at FT&G that I decided to go with that and save the VPB for next trip.

      I wish every trip I took to Vermont lasted a solid four or five days! (And came with a free suitcase full of money).

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