Is Vermont becoming the Napa Valley of beer?

 In Uncategorized

 / Sept 7, 2017

My brother Tyler and I have driven over 400 miles to Vermont to stand in line for beer. Despite our best efforts — dragging ourselves out of bed early after the previous day’s marathon beer crawl — we are now standing numbers 18 and 19 in the queue of people shivering outside the Alchemist Brewery in Stowe, on a cold November morning. Behind us we can see at least 40 more people, including a few we’d met touring breweries in Burlington the day before. In front of us is a bearded guy wearing a furry trapper hat who had sprinted from his car carrying a cooler.

We’d arrived at the Alchemist at 9:45 a.m., but the parking lot was closed with a sign that read “Parking Lot Opens at 10 am … Please Do Not Arrive Early.” An employee politely but firmly suggested we go get some coffee and come back in 15 minutes. When we returned at 10:02, we were the 10th car in line. “Do you think you should jump out and get in line?” I said.

“Are you kidding me?” Tyler replied. “The brewery doesn’t even open until 11!”

Now as we wait, Tyler, who refuses to wear a winter hat, has made his displeasure known by muttering a string of obscenities.

The bearded guy in front of us unfastens his earflaps and says, chuckling, “Haven’t you guys ever stood in line for beer before?”

“No,” Tyler says. “Never.”

“They said there was a line around the parking lot the other day,” says the earflap guy. He tells us he has driven up from the south shore of Massachusetts, about four hours away. This isn’t his first time in line at the Alchemist. “So are you guys maxing out your purchases?”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“You’re only allowed to buy 10 four-packs of Heady and the others.”

By Heady, he means Heady Topper, the almost-mythic double India pale ale that the Alchemist brews. Heady Topper has scored a perfect 100 from BeerAdvocate, where readers have in years past rated it the top beer in the world (it’s always in the top 10). Heady Topper is sold mostly in Vermont in limited production, delivered on specific days to be released at specific times in specific stores, where it sells out in minutes. Beer geeks know which days and times Heady is delivered to small-town general stores and routinely make six-, eight- or 10-hour drives to buy it.

The day before, in Burlington, we’d seen a sign in the City Market co-op, a few aisles over from the kombucha on tap, that read:

Dear Customers,

After much consideration, and a reduction from the brewery in weekly deliveries, we are putting a two 4-pack per transaction limit on Heady Topper. We will continue releasing it at 2:00 pm on Tuesdays.

My brother, who is three years younger, is a big-time beer aficionado. The year before, he’d undertaken what he called his Big Year of Beer. Modeled after the competition of birders who vie to spot and identify the largest number of birds during a single year, Tyler set out to sip and record as many beers as he could. He ended up tasting 2,238 beers in a single year — yes, that’s averaging more than six per day (these were tastes, though, not entire bottles, or else he would not have survived the year). I’ve written professionally about drinks for more than a decade, including for The Washington Post. So some people might consider me a kind of expert, or at least somewhat knowledgeable. That group of people does not include my brother, especially when it comes to beer.

However, unlike a lot of beer geeks, Tyler refuses to stand in line. So he has never tasted Heady Topper or some of the other famed Vermont beers. We both share a deep ambivalence toward a certain kind of connoisseurship that apes wine snobbery with its tasting notes and buzzwords, the wine-ification of everything. I mean, I love wine — I just wrote a book about it, in fact — but I’m skeptical of bringing the whole wine-snob thing to topics like cheese, coffee, chocolate, whiskey, water. And, of course, beer.

I’d planned this beer tour because I’d figured — and hoped — that Vermont, with its chill and natural vibe, would be the last place that the wine-ification of beer and its subsequent snobbery had taken hold. The University of Vermont is where I went to college, and I picture myself in those years wearing Birkenstocks and a Phish T-shirt. This area has always held a nostalgic place in my heart that’s groovy, natural and true. But standing in line at the Alchemist, I worry that Vermont may be transforming into some kind of touristy, theme-park “Napa Valley of beer.”

“The line’s bigger today because of Petit Mutant,” says the earflap guy ahead of us in line. “They’re releasing that today.”


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