Connecting brewpubs and singletrack in Vermont.
By Ben Hewitt | Photographs by Chris Milliman
“The thing is,” says my friend Dirk Anderson, as we pause at the top of a long singletrack climb in Waterbury, Vermont, “you don’t remember what it was like in the ’70s. All you could get in the exotic beer section was Molson.”
Dirk is 10 years my senior, and for some reason believes this bestows him with a degree of experience and wisdom I can achieve only in my dreams. (For the record, I believe it merely makes him older, and I’m pretty sure it has something to do with his receding hairline.) But in this case, he’s right. In the ’70s, during which Dirk was bopping about in bell-bottoms and availing himself of the meager high-end beer offerings of the day, I was waddling around in diapers and suckling sippy cups. The quality—or lack thereof—of the era’s beer was not something I had to endure.
To which I can only say, life is far too short for mediocre beer. It’s also too short for mediocre mountain biking. These two truths help explain why we’d clambered out of our tents early on that late-August morning, rubbed the beer-y cobwebs from our eyes, and embarked on a long ride over some of the finest singletrack the state of Vermont has to offer. For if we didn’t ride early, we couldn’t start drinking early, a lesson that had been learned the hard way the day before, when we’d drunk early and ridden late. The result had been predictable.
So much beer, so little time, and all that. By 6:30 a.m., with the sun making its first tentative peek over the eastern horizon, we had the campfire roaring and coffee bubbling, and only a short time later we’d taken the first stabbing pedal strokes of the new day, nudging our front wheels onto a sliver of trail barely wider than this page. “The thing is,” Dirk says, as we began the long, technical climb to the height of the land, “back when I started mountain biking in the early ’80s, there was no such thing as singletrack. You probably don’t remember that, do you?”
Nope, I thought. I sure don’t. You poor old fart.
If it’s beginning to sound as if Dirk and I were embarked on just another boozy buddy trip, well, you’re partly right. But unlike most beer-and-bike road trips, this one had a focus, albeit a blurry one. That’s because over the past decade or so (recent enough that even I’ve observed it), Vermont has become a hub for craft brewers. The state now boasts 21 microbreweries, giving it the top brewery-per-capita ratio in the nation.
Why all the suds in this tiny state? “Vermont was fortunate to be the home of early craft brewers like Greg Noonan,” says Kurt Staudter, the executive director of the Vermont Brewers Association. Noonan, who died in 2009, was the founder of the Vermont Pub and Brewery in Burlington and a craft-brew pioneer. In addition to his willingness to share his encyclopedic knowledge of brewing, in the late ’80s he introduced a bill in the legislature that allowed brewpubs to exist in Vermont. This, according to Staudter, dovetailed perfectly with the “buy local” ethos that resonates throughout the state. “Vermonters have always had a commitment to supporting their neighbors. And that seems to extend to buying their neighbors’ beer,” he says.
Dirk and I began our quest on one of those glow-y summer mornings that feel like sweet justice for all the bullshit we Vermonters deal with: rain in January, black flies, and the inferiority complex that comes of living in the 45th smallest state in the union. (Hey, we’re way bigger than Rhode Island.) The sky was crystalline, the mosquitoes in seasonal retreat, and the temperature, at 10:22 a.m. was just hot enough to make it seem as if drinking beer before noon fell solidly within the boundaries of rational behavior. You know, hydration and all that.
So we beelined for Hill Farmstead Brewery, a little tucked-away venture operated out of Shaun Hill’s home along a bucolic gravel road outside the town of Greensboro. It’s one of those rare Vermont towns that manages to capitalize on an influx of moneyed second-home owners and hang onto its scruffy working-class identity. Part of this is simply because Greensboro’s not close to much of anything. Plus, people like Shaun Hill.
Hill is a direct descendent of one of Greensboro’s two founding families. He makes his home in a severely dilapidated farmhouse that was owned by his grandfather Edward. “The Hills are the only family left of the pioneers,” he says as we stand just outside the door to his one-room shop—large, stainless steel, fermenting kettles bubbling softly. “The Greens bailed a long time ago,” Hill says, “but I think Greensboro sounds better than Hillsboro, anyway.”
Hill stoked his brewing curiosity with a high school science project on fermentation (“I couldn’t exactly call it ‘making beer’”). Later he attended Haverford, a liberal arts college that espouses Quaker and Buddhist values. This set up a quintessential existential dilemma in poor young Hill that could only have been made more perfect had he developed a habit of chain smoking Gauloises. On his spiritual side he was following the Noble Eightfold Path, which is defined by eight Buddhist principles—none of which, sadly, advocate imbibing, producing, or disseminating alcohol.
But if there were anything Hill loved more than drinking beer, it was making beer and sharing it with others. He struggled. But only for a little while. “I pretty much decided there is no personal responsibility in the world anymore,” Hill says as he pours samples and swats at flies. “I mean, just because you’re producing meth doesn’t mean someone has to ruin their life with it.” I nod and look at my watch: 10:36 a.m. Bottoms up.
Hill’s produces a revolving variety of offerings, most of which lean toward hoppy, but without the overbearing bitterness that seems to follow the “extreme beer” movement. Hill’s beers are at once pronounced and subtle, a dichotomy he believes is sustainable primarily because of his attention to details that most brewers dismiss. “It all comes down to water. Do you know how many people don’t even test the pH of their water?” Coming from Hill’s mouth, it sounds like a crime equal to plotting a terrorist attack.
But after a moment’s reflection, he seems to realize that the absence of a pH test isn’t grounds for hanging. “My biggest fear is that my beer fascism is going to clash with the public and bring down the brewery,” he says. “What do you want to try next?”
Dirk and I retreat from Hill’s brewery with a pair of growlers and the dim recognition that we were scheduled to meet my friend Howie for a singletrack tour in Jeffersonville. This had seemed a spectacularly good idea just an hour prior, but with Dirk playing chauffeur, I’d laid into the samples pretty heavy. Riding a bicycle over the typically rock-and-root strewn terrain that is indicative of Vermont suddenly seemed ill-advised.
Still, by the time we’d erected our tents at a nearby campground and rolled down to Howie’s place, I was feeling downright perky. Which was a good thing, because the trail system that begins quite literally in Howie’s backyard is a fast and flowy thing, with lots of high amplitude sluicing through towering hardwood forests, punctuated by the occasional herd of scattering dairy cattle.
We rode a circuitous loop that took nearly two hours, before returning to Howie’s, where in short order we proceeded to decimate growler number one, a refreshing pale ale named after Hill’s grandfather, Edward.
“Damn, this is good beer,” Howie says, who possesses the orbital build of a man who knows from good beer.
“Sure is,” Dirk agrees. “You know, you’re probably too young to remember, but back in the ’70s…”
“…Dirk was wearing bell-bottoms, drinking Labatts, and trying to pick up chicks at Peter Frampton concerts,” I finished.
Dirk just raised his eyebrows and sipped from his beer. I had him, and he knew it.
The next day, in addition to our morning ride, Dirk and I were scheduled to meet with John Kimmich, the proprietor of the Alchemist, a brew house in Waterbury, less than a mile from the entrance to the network of trails that crisscross Perry Hill. The Alchemist opened in 2003, and has quickly gained fame among the region’s beer geeks, who often form lines around the sidewalk as they wait for the pub to open.
Fortunately, we were spared this fate. Kimmich had instructed us to arrive an hour prior to opening, so that he could give us a tour before the masses descended. But when we strolled into the bar, where Metallica’s Ride the Lightning greeted us in all its ’80s era speed metal glory, Kimmich seemed decidedly more interested in ensuring we never rose from our barstools again, as he set sample after sample before us.
Kimmich, a Pittsburgh native, moved to Vermont 16 years ago to learn everything Greg Noonan would teach him. “I packed all my shit in my car and came up here and just introduced myself.” To many, it would have been a rash move, but Kimmich was acting with the sort of certainty that can only be instilled by a higher power. Or perhaps by magic mushrooms: “The year before I’d come up to see Phish, and in the midst of my hallucinations I said ‘this is the place I want to be.’”
Kimmich was a quick study, and within a year was the head brewer at Vermont Pub and Brewery, where he honed his skills for years. In 2003, he opened the Alchemist. He has a strange mission statement: “I want to make my beer taste as much like kind bud as possible,” he says, placing yet another full glass before me. Then he catches himself. “Wait a second…” I was certain he was going to retract the comment, but instead he expanded on it. “Kind bud… that’ll just bring more hippies in here. Huh. I wonder if that’s even possible.”
I’m not really sure if Kimmich’s beers do taste of pot. But I like John Kimmich’s beers—a lot. Like Hill’s brews, they possess both a complexity and a subtlety that makes you want to keep sipping. And because Kimmich is not a slave to the current fashion of high- alcohol beers, long bouts of sampling (“sessioning” in beer drinker-speak) are entirely possible.
Of course, Shaun Hill and John Kimmich are not the only craft brewers adjacent to singletrack in the state. To visit them all would demand more time and more liver than I can spare. But they are indicative of a trend within a trend in Vermont’s brewery scene: Hyper-localized brewers that do not sell at retail outlets. Hill calls it “nano brewing,” Kimmich—predictably—doesn’t call it anything in particular. The Vermont Brewers Association’s Kurt Staudter points out that the potential for such small scale brewing is greater than ever. “Before prohibition, practically every community had its own brewery,” he says. “I think we’re headed there again.”
With our riding finished for the day, the bar at the Alchemist filling with the afternoon’s first customers, and the beer flowing as freely as the morning’s singletrack, Dirk and I settle in.
“Did you know,” I ask Dirk, “that before prohibition, practically every community had its own brewery?”
He shakes his head no.
“Of course not,” I continue. “That was before your time.”