I went to the 2017 Vermont Brewers Festival to have fun and cash in all of my drink tickets, and I swear to Jesus dry-hopped Christ, I almost didn’t get to cash in all of my drink tickets.
It wasn’t for lack of trying, and it certainly wasn’t for lack of appealing choices. My near-failure to burn all 15 of the drink tickets given me upon entering the festival grounds boils down to what is best characterized as a comical over-abundance of choices, or at least it would’ve been funny if the vastness of this year’s selections wasn’t so daunting. Among the fest’s impressive coterie of stalwarts and comparative newcomers in the Green Mountain State’s grand fellowship of craft breweries: Alchemist, Lawson’s Finest Liquids, Fiddlehead, Frost Beer Works, Burlington Beer Company, Zero Gravity, River Roost, Idletyme, Foley Brothers, and 14th Star; these were joined by a cadre of out of state breweries from Night Shift to Lord Hobo, Allagash to Foundation.
If that doesn’t seem like a lot, consider that I’m flying off the seat of my memory pants instead of referring to either the Internet or the vendor guide handed out to festival goers; that would feel a lot like cheating. I prefer honesty, and if I’m being honest, the VT Brewers Festival experience is overwhelming; for a newcomer, for a veteran, for anyone. But it’s also eye-opening, both from an industry-level perspective and from a ground-level perspective. You can learn a lot about people just by paying attention to what they’re drinking, and so too you can learn a lot about breweries serving them by paying attention to what they have on tap. (I told a lie at the start of this piece. I went to the fest to have fun, yes, and I went to the fest to cash in drink tickets. But I also went to the fest to talk to other beer lovers, whether full-nerd or casual admirer.)
So what did the brewers have on tap? If you’re familiar with New England beer, you probably quite smugly, and correctly, guessed “hazy, fruity, beastly IPAs.” Just about everyone on-site had our regional take on the single most popular style of beer in the craft brewing world: Alchemist, to the surprise of exactly no one, brought Focal Banger and Heady Topper, while Lawson’s slung tasters of Sip o’ Sunshine as well as Hopzilla until they kicked their taps; Fiddlehead answered with Mastermind, and Frost with Lush and Plush. River Roost and Burlington Beer Company both brought an array of single IPAs that drink like doubles, and these, in case you’re curious, happened to rank among my favorites of the evening: River Roost’s Mo’rilla, a sharp pome bomb hopped generously with an amalgam of Mosaic and Amarillo hops – if the pear notes don’t get you, the lemony finish will – and Burlington Beer Company’s I See the Vision, a rotating IPA series brewed using an array of differing fruits, enhanced with lupulin powder. (I don’t recall how many varieties they had at their booth, but I was perfectly happy with papaya and yuzu.) They’re both exquisite, but more importantly they showcase our regional approach to IPAs as well as the state’s titans, Alchemist and Lawson’s.
Those two names alone make opening a brewery in Vermont a tad stressful. “You know right off the bat, everything’s going to be compared to them,” said River Roost’s owner and brewmaster Mark Babson, “especially if you’re doing similar styles. Yeah, it’s nerve-racking.” The good news, then, may well be that Alchemist brought their staples plus Beelzebub and Pappy’s Porter; they don’t feel much pressure to do anything other than what Alchemist does, hoping that that will be enough. (Let’s be blunt: When you make beer like Alchemist’s, that pretty much does the trick, but at festivals you can’t be blamed for wishing for more.) Lawson’s, by contrast, brought a bunch of drinks other than their standard hits, a’la their Rhubarb Basil Saison, and the Maple Nipple; they’ve made massive leaps from their early days of coming to the fest, when they only had three beers in bottles at the VIP tent only.
But funny enough, much as Lawson’s have typically used the fest as a chance to try out new things, they remain top dogs in their field because of their flagships. It’s easy to assume there’s pressure among breweries to conform to meet the expectations of the market and the demands of their patrons’ palates, but while IPAs were everywhere at the fest, they weren’t the only things worth getting pours of. In point of fact, sours, notably fruit-forward sours, like Night Shift’s Ever Weisse and 14th Star’s Squeeze the Day, were all over the place, and played a necessary role in keeping my taste buds safe from hop-overkill. (If you were at the fest and you didn’t try the 14th Star, you missed out; Squeeze the Day is the winning beer in their home brew challenge, and for that alone, drinking in its assertive citrus flavors was an essential component of my festival experience.) And for those with tastes that lean toward the roasty, plenty of stouts and porters were on hand, too, though none hit me like Foley Brothers’ Smoking Wheat. I tend to associate stouts with darker, colder times of the year, but this one felt appropriate even for a gorgeous summer evening – not too heavy, but with enough of that inner thermal quality to heat up your insides as day turned to night.
In this disjointed collection of styles, though, we come to the ultimate point of the Vermont Brewers Fest: It’s all about the beer, and bringing beer that people will try and love. “In the end,” Babson told me, “I make my own beer, make what I like, and hope everybody else enjoys it, too.” With so many different preferences to appease, and so many different styles for brewers to play around with, I can’t think of a better way to put it than that.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for The Playlist, Slant Magazine, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.