Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Vermont Beer Tasting Project

Toasted caramel, resin, passion fruit…not the words that usually come to mind when I think of beer. They sound more applicable to wine to me. But I happen to be married to a craft brewed beer enthusiast who revels in the virtues of his beverage of choice, not unlike this guy from Beer Geek Nation.

Ok, Chris isn’t quite so effusive when he enjoys a beer. But this spring I thought it was about time for me to expand my appreciation of Vermont craft brews, so I asked Chris to embark on a beer tasting project with me and impart some of his hard-earned knowledge. He willingly agreed. After all, he’s been conducting research since he was introduced to craft brewed beer back in 1988, when his friend David Sousa sent him a mixed twelve pack from the West Coast as a Christmas present. After that, there was no looking back.

A little more history: early in our marriage Chris tried home brewing with our friend John Elder. This was long before all the fancy brewing equipment was available like it is today. All I remember from that phase is yards of rubber tubing and our stock pot taking over our bathtub, and the occasional dash outside to cool something off in the snow. Thankfully the phase didn’t last long since Chris discovered that, despite all their efforts, they couldn’t create a beer that tasted better than what they could purchase. It was also a time consuming hobby. And, since we live in a state that has more craft brewing per capita than any other (with the possible exception of Colorado), brewing their own beer didn’t make much sense.

We limited our tasting project mostly to India Pale Ales (IPAs), Chris’s preferred style. This beer originated in England as a result of needing a beer that could be transported to India on unrefrigerated ships. The English brewers took advantage of hops as a natural preservative and increased it as an ingredient, creating a distinctively dry, more bitter beer. In other styles of beer, such as stout, malt is more pronounced, giving the beer a sweeter flavor. Think of this as the first lesson in Beer Tasting 101 with Professor Klyza.

Over the course of the past few weeks we’ve tasted eight beers. The first was Trout River Brewing Company’s “Hoppin’Mad Trout,” which Chris describes as a “well-hopped pale ale,” but technically not an IPA.

On the IBU scale (which stands for International Bittering Units and is a measure of a beer’s bitterness), Hoppin’ Mad Trout ranks in the middle. It’s not as “hoppy” or dry as an IPA, but for those who like more of a balance between hops and malt, this beer would be a satisfying thirst-quencher. Deep golden in color, it’s also naturally unfiltered, which is a mark of excellence in Chris’s book and causes the beer to be cloudy and have a denser mouth feel. Unfiltered beer is more common on the West Coast than on the East, but the style is catching on here. “I like to be able to hold a beer up to the light and not see anything through it,” Chris says, demonstrating on me. This is easily done with a stout like Guiness, but more challenging with an IPA.

Next we moved on to Long Trail Brewing Company’s IPA, a favorite among Vermonters. It’s the beer you’re most likely to find in our fridge if you stopped by. 

Hoppier than the Trout River, it’s very dry and refreshing. It too is unfiltered and has a nice, creamy head. This brewery has been around for a while and was the first Vermont beer that I tasted way back when. I even have a hat hanging on a hook in our shed that one of Long Trail’s reps gave me years ago when Chris and I went to the Burlington Brew Fest (pre-kids). Chris claims that I talked the guy into giving me the hat, but I remember it a bit differently.

Progressing in terms of hoppiness, we next tasted The Alchemist Brewery’s “Heady Topper” (used in the Chicken Tenders batter at the Farmhouse, mentioned in my last post). 

The Alchemist holds a special place in our hearts, since we used to love stopping at their brewpub in Waterbury for dinner after hiking to the top of Mount Abraham. Sadly, the restaurant was destroyed in Hurricane Irene and will not reopen. But the brewery lives on and Heady Topper is in hot demand. Calling itself an American Double IPA, it contains more alcohol (8%) and more hops. Hops really dominate this beer and give it a tart, resinous complexity. It’s also the cloudiest and densest of all the beers we tasted and is both unfiltered and unpasteurized. The only craft brew of the bunch that comes in a can, it instructs the consumer to “Drink from the can” directly on the label. Serious hops aficionados stand warned that, when poured, the hops aroma escapes and is diminished. Chris was willing to sacrifice some hops aroma for the sake of this project.

The only organic beer in our tasting selection, Wolaver’s IPA is robust and more British in style than the other IPAs. Chris describes the British style as being more bitter, as opposed to the West Coast style which is more citrusy; Vermont beers lie somewhere in between the two. It all depends on the balance among the key ingredients of malt, hops, yeast, and water. Light amber in color and with a substantial head, this IPA has a social conscience and proclaims on its label: “Better Beer—Better World.”

I was surprised that Harpoon Brewery’s IPA was on the list since I think of it as a Massachusetts beer. I hadn’t realized that they expanded to VT in 2000 when Catamount Brewery went under. Harpoon’s IPA is the clearest beer we tasted, medium gold in color, and showing some nice champagne-like bubbles. The flavor is milder and the mouth feel less dense, appealing to those who find unfiltered beers overly filling. It’s probably the most mainstream of the bunch, so a good entrée to those who are new to the world of craft brewed beer. 

Magic Hat Brewing Company’s #9 calls itself a “not quite pale ale.” We’re not quite sure what this means, but it’s a nice option for those who like a fruity beer, given its pronounced apricot flavor. It’s bright golden in color and ideal for summer. Magic Hat has a team of very talented marketers and designers, and I get a kick out of their catchy names, such as Elder Betty and Circus Boy. Visiting their website is like a trip to Willy Wonka’s factory. They sponsor the wildly popular Mardi Gras Parade in Burlington every year and are one of the most popular Vermont beers among out-of-staters.

In marked contrast to Magic Hat’s aesthetic, Rock Art Brewery’s IPA is “inspired by the spirit of Kokopelli,” as stated on its label. The first time Chris and our friend and fellow beer enthusiast Steve Mylon stopped by this place, “they were brewing it out of a shed in their backyard,” Chris recalls. Another English style beer, it’s on the bitter side, with a dry finish. Topped with an ample head, it’s hazy amber in color and easily passes Chris’s “can’t see through it test.”

We saved the darkest beer for last—Otter Creek Brewing’s Black IPA. Thanks to its darkly roasted malt. it’s the color of coca cola, but denser. Although this beer is still considered hoppy, the bitterness is balanced with sweetness from the malt. The most unusual IPA of the bunch, the Black IPA is kind of like a cross between a Guiness and an IPA and has a cult following. In general, Chris likes Otter Creek’s beers, although he's more of a “hophead” (as am I, I’ve learned) and prefers a dryer IPA than this.

Otter Creek Brewing is located in Middlebury about fifteen minutes from our house. Back when they first opened in the early '90s, we took a tour of the brewery and met the owner, Lawrence Miller, a young Reed graduate with a talent for brewing and business. He’s now Vermont’s Secretary of Commerce and Community Development. I can’t say for sure that this would only happen in Vermont, but I wonder how many other states have a former craft brewmaster in a high government office. That sounds like a question for the professor to research.*

*Chris just alerted me that the current Governor of—you guessed it—Colorado started a very successful brewpub in Denver before becoming mayor of the city.

"Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head"


  1. We love IPA's. David favorite is one called Hopsecutioner by Terrapin Brewing Co in Athens GA. Tell Chris to look for it or better yet come see us in Atlanta and we'll have plenty on hand.

    1. I'll pass the recommendation on to Chris. We'd love to get down to Atlanta sometime. We have a new nephew down there who we haven't met yet and it would also be great to catch up with you guys!