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Side Dish: Things are hopping on the Vermont beer scene

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The price of hops may have skyrocketed, but Vermont's craft breweries seem to be weathering the storm, and even finding new reasons to celebrate.

Susan Evans, "Curator of Curiosities" at the Magic Hat Brewery, reports that the funky factory in South Burlington is about to double its production capacity. "We've had 30 percent growth each year for the last three years," she says. "There's been an increased demand for our beer, and we're meeting that demand . . . We're methodically expanding into new territories as well."

In keeping with that expansion theme, Magic Hat is moving its office staff of about 20 employees into the Maltex Building on Pine Street. Bet the folks at the Cheese Outlet-Fresh Market are pleased about that.

As far as the hop shortage is concerned, Evans isn't too worried. Magic Hat planned ahead by pre-purchasing "all of our hops for the next few years."

The crew at Otter Creek Brewery in Middlebury is flirting with the idea of growing the plant themselves. Owner Morgan Wolaver "has some land, and we're gonna put some in the ground," says Brewmaster Steve Parkes. The plants are "on their way from the Pacific Northwest."

The Vermont Agency of Agriculture aims to help, too. "They've written some grants to research how to grow and process" the plants, Parkes explains. "It requires a fair bit of expertise." Kind of like growing hops' less legal botanical cousin: marijuana.

However its experiment with homegrown hops goes, Otter Creek is already blazing new trails. Its organic Wolaver's brand has taken hold. Now Otter Creek is the first brewery to bring out an organic beer made entirely from products grown in the United States. (Most organic hops currently come from New Zealand.) The brew, called Wolaver's All-American Ale, is only available at the factory and on tap in New York City.

Meanwhile, the folks at Otter Creek Brewery are part of a group of brewers who want to see a change in state laws governing their industry: They want to make higher alcohol quaffs .

Right now, the state of Vermont reserves the term "beer" for beverages with less than 8 percent alcohol by volume. This means specialty European styles such as Belgian tripels don't qualify. Such high-octane brews can be sold at state liquor stores, but not at grocery stores and gas stations.

Brews with high alcohol content are plenty popular with Europeans and our neighbors to the north. But, according to Brewmaster Parkes, "We're not making them, because we have nowhere to sell them. A Vermont brewer made one, and it was embarrassing for them because they had to send people to New Hampshire to get it."

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