- Michael Tonn
When the leaves start to crisp, the mornings cool and tourists begin their annual leaf-peeping pilgrimage down Route 100, many Vermonters transform from sleek, summer humans into gnomish Shire clichés in flannel-lined Carhartts, knit socks and Johnson woolens. Suddenly we're picking apples and pressing cider in long-john layers and homespun sweaters. At day's end, we gaze westward, tethering ourselves to the season's final golden rays, clutching darkening harvest beers. From now until Thanksgiving, we sustain ourselves on these pleasures — and pumpkins galore.
Well, maybe. Actually living in Vermont means we can pick and choose which of these fantasies to embrace, and which to leave to the hicks and hippies.
Regarding those fall beers: Local brewers — and drinkers — seem to be tiring of the old formula. Bottle shops remain stocked with mass-market pumpkin beers about now, but you'd be hard-pressed to find an up-and-coming Vermont brewery that's released more than limited runs of a squashy new brew in the last two years.
As brewers resist the production-based "seasonal drift" that forces autumn beers onto the shelves in late summer, they're increasingly opting for styles grounded in tradition. And smaller breweries seem inclined to make whatever they want, regardless of the time of year. For hopheads who would rather turn into a pumpkin than drink one, fall 2015 is shaping up to be palate friendly, indeed.
With the inaugural Vermont Beer Week wrapping up this weekend, brewers have been pouring dozens of new brews that span light and bright to malty and black.
Find the seven picks below at Oktoberfest Vermont in Burlington, at SIPtemberfest in Fayston and at Beer Week events through Sunday, September 27 ... and onward into autumn.
The Sour Puss
Four-Star Single-Hop series, Hermit Thrush Brewery, Brattleboro
One of the fun things about living near any border is that "local" means "nearby," geographical distinctions notwithstanding. In Brattleboro, Hermit Thrush co-owner/brewmaster Christophe Gagné works just minutes from Four Star Farms in Northfield, Mass., which produces some of New England's finest homegrown hops.
This fall, Gagné honed in on three varieties — Magnum, Rakau (aka AlphAroma) and Teamaker — in three batches of single-hop sour beer. Each brew begins with pale or extra-pale ale malt, soured in the kettle and wet-hopped with whole cones of its featured botanical. The result? Three distinct, super-tart pale ales with rich, juicy hop flavors ranging from Magnum's pineapple and grapefruit to Rakau's ripe mango and passion fruit to Teamaker's fragrant jasmine, black tea and dried fruits.
The hyper-local hops also impart a certain terroir that reflects the character of the region and farm. "These hops taste totally different than from anywhere else," Gagné says. "Magnum is usually herby and spicy, but theirs has those tropical fruit aromas."
Sample the new sours at Hunger Mountain Co-op on Thursday, September 24, or on draft at bars and restaurants for the next month or so. Look for Rakau in cans at Winooski's Beverage Warehouse and Waterbury's Craft Beer Cellar.
The Summer Stowaway
π, Drop-In Brewing, Middlebury
After raiding friends' gardens earlier this summer, Drop-In brewmaster Steve Parkes and crew spent months test-batching a new beer flavored with strawberries and rhubarb.
Several brews later, they figured it out: Parkes fermented a base beer using half barley, half wheat and just a touch of hops, then aged it on the stewed fruit. He kegged it just in time for the Vermont Heritage Brew Festival at Shelburne Museum on Labor Day weekend.
The lightweight, barely wheaty brew opens with the scent of strawberries, which stay front and center throughout the sip and impart a tinge of sweetness. Rhubarb is a quiet undertone, bringing mild astringency and a clean, crisp finish.
It's an unexpected brew from Parkes, who is known for brewing balanced, traditional beers. But lately the career brewer has broken that mold.
In July Parkes poured a wacky Key-lime-pie beer at Vermont Brewers Festival, and folks filed into queues for a sip. "I guess we're enjoying a newfound frivolity in what we're doing," he says. "It's nice to do something totally silly."
Get it at SIPtemberfest this weekend, or at Killington Brewfest from October 3 to 5. The beer is also on tap at Drop-In — until it's gone.
The Buxom Blonde
Juxtaposition blonde stout, Burlington Beer, Williston
What happens when you give a blonde chocolate and coffee, then treat her like a stout? You get a fiddly little brew that defies its own appearance, posing as a light brew while packing dark java flavor.
In Juxtaposition, Burlington Beer founder and head brewer Joe Lemnah added Blue Bandana cocoa nibs and barrel-aged coffee from Brio Coffeeworks and Burlington Coffee Crafters to a light pilsner malt for a cloudy, straw-colored sipper that rings in at a sessionable 5.4 percent ABV.
Though the hybrid first appeared last February, Lemnah has brewed it sparingly: once for Vermont Brewers Festival in July and now for Beer Week.
On Wednesday, September 23, Lemnah will pour a micro-batch fermented with peanut butter (Juxtaposition Gone Nuts) at a Burlington Beer tap takeover at the Farmhouse Tap & Grill. The nutty version will be on tap at the brewery until it's gone; look for the original in cans this November.
The Smash Hit
Brewers have been making single-hop beers for some time now. But as rich, resin-y new cones such as Citra, Mosaic and Simcoe crept into the mainstream in recent years, brewers have been keen to explore them in beers that often mimic a front-man-heavy rock-and-roll band. The hops are in the limelight, while the nameless grains — which form the beer's structural backbone — hum backup vocals.
At Long Trail, brewmaster Dave Hartmann is as excited about the new botanicals as the next guy. But he also wanted to explore malts. This month, Long Trail launched a new series dubbed "SMaSH" (Single Malt and Single Hop), where Hartmann and team produce a few hundred barrels of beer matching one hop with one malt.
The first in the series — a hoppy, caramel-rich brew made with a round pilsner malt, ale yeast and Galaxy hops — is big in malty mouthfeel and denser than many beers in its class, with a quiet, honeyed sweetness. Then there are the hops, all bright citrus and tropical fruits in a beer that pays homage to the youthful star and the backing band.
Intrigued? Cans and kegs of the stuff dropped on Monday, so it's around. When that's gone, keep an eye out for SMaSH #2 — a pale ale with Maris Otter malt and Mosaic hops — scheduled for December.
I've always been fond of Crop's Idletyme IPA. The beer blends complex flavors — fruit and herbs, citrus and malt — and packs a boozy kick without numbing your tongue. Like most of brewmaster Will Gilson's creations, it's more of an exercise in balance and restraint than a full-frontal sensory assault.
Gilson introduced the double version, brewed on pale ale malts with Eureka and Equinox hops earlier this summer, but availability was sporadic until recently. Golden amber in color, Doubletyme is denser and cloudier than the original — Idletyme's nice, older sibling, let's say — with pleasant, grapefruit-y hops and subtle florals on the nose.
The sip is all citrus and juice with a mild, bitter bite. As it warms, tropical fruits dominate, with a hint of bubblegum. Overall, Doubletyme is a gentle DIPA, smooth and agreeable, the kind of beer you'll want to cozy up to and get to know better. Just be careful: It's a full 8 percent ABV.
The Party Animal
This weekend, Burlington hosts more than 30 local, regional and international brewers at its inaugural Oktoberfest Vermont celebration in Waterfront Park. Most of them are bringing a Märzen-style (aka Oktoberfest) lager.
The style was traditionally brewed in Munich in spring, conditioned in caves and drunk through summer's end. Stein-wielding Bavarians would finish it off during their marathon fall festival, which ends the first week of October.
Switchback brewed the style for the first time a year ago. Malty but crisp, with a direct hop character and clean finish, it was the ale-focused brewery's first lager and, with it, co-owner/brewmaster Bill Cherry threw a total ringer. The beer was so popular that Cherry kept it in production for months. Now, after a warm-weather hiatus, it's back and widely available. Will its sophomore season last all winter?
The Winter Warmer
- Hannah Palmer Egan
Named for Burlington's fetid Barge Canal, Queen City head brewer Paul Hale's oatmeal extra stout funnels a veritable cereal bowl of oats, flaked barley, and Scottish and English malts into every sip. It's a heady amalgamation of grains and sweetness.
Barge Canal pours straight black with an amber head and with a roast-y malt aroma that transforms from sweet grains to toffee/coffee on the tongue, with just a bit of dark java-cherry fruit. Though not as coating as Guinness, it's a thick, creamy, mouth-filling sipper with small-bubbled effervescence to cut through the murk.
It's available at the brewery, on draft at local bars and restaurants, and — since Queen City started shipping retail bottles this summer — perhaps on the shelf at your favorite filling station, along with Hale's stellar Oktoberfest lager and a rotating cast of other brews.