Vermont's craft breweries: 'We have more than we deserve'

Steve Parks, head of the American Brewers Guild School in Middlebury, Vermont, in the tasting room of his Drop In Brewery Company.

The fact that more than a thousand micro-breweries are in the process of opening around the country tells us these are boom times for craft brewers. And when it comes to supporting micro-breweries, Vermont is leading the league.

Sit and share a cold one with self-confessed beer geek Damon Nazarenko at the Zero Gravity brewery in Burlington, and he'll tell you there’s a lot of hoppy beer with high alcohol content in the Green Mountain State. He can drive 20 miles in any direction from his home in Bristol, Vermont and hit a world-class brewery.

“People from all over are the country are hearing about these spots that were sort of sacred and sort of in the know in Vermont and now a lot of people are coming from out of state to get their beer,” says Nazarenko, who's an IT professional and home-brewer himself.

A lot of the “flatlanders” are making the trek to a micro-brewery called the Alchemist in Waterbury, VT, which makes a double IPA called Heady Topper. The brew is only available in cans for environmental reasons. This is Vermont, after all. 

“We do everything we can to ensure that you have this beautiful hop experience when you open that can,” says head brewer John Kimmich, who limits customers to one case each.

Heady Topper is canned Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. The beer sells out every Friday afternoon, so if you arrive at the brewery on the weekend, you can taste it but won’t be able to bring any home. Fans of the hoppy brew with an 8 percent alcohol content have been known to travel from as far away as Florida and North Carolina to score a case. Heady Topper is currently rated the number one beer in America at BeerAdvocate.com, a website with thousands of beer lovers who rate their favorite brews, often while barside. Another brewery, Hill Farmstead in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom, produces four beers on the website’s top 50 list.

Steve Parks, a fixture on the micro-brewery scene and the head of the American Brewers Guild School in Middlebury, Vermont, thinks that some of the Hill Farmstead beers are the best on the planet. Customers who make the trek to the brewery often have to wait an hour or more and are limited to three 2-liter growlers.

“I think we’re past the days of bread that doesn’t taste like bread, of coffee that doesn’t taste like coffee. And beer is just another one of those,” says Parks whose Drop In Brewery in Middlebury also has a tasting room. “This is part of a sea change in our culture.”

That sea change is evident in Vermont, where the number of microbreweries has doubled in the last five years. There are now 32 craft breweries here and several more are being planned, including a small brewery in Williston that is using a “community supported brewery” model to sell beer.

Vermont has more craft breweries per capita than any other state in the nation. That prompts Kurt Staudter, executive director of the Vermont Brewers Association, to joke, “We have more than we deserve.”

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